My First Time Directing!

If there’s one thing Yale isn’t short on, it’s opportunities: whether you go out looking for and applying to them, stumble on them accidentally, or they find their way to you, if you want to be, you’ll be booked and busy. And though it doesn’t happen all the time, it’s nice when the bag chases you for once!

One such example? This past month, I received an email from one of my past Theater Studies professors (very kind, very observant, I learned so much from her as an actor, and she even made our class vegetable soup once during her office hours when we came to discuss The Cherry Orchard and look at photography books from 19th/20th century Russia) asking me if I’d be interested in directing a new play for Yale Playwrights Festival.

(A playwrights festival? What’s going on there?) 

In a a few words: a lot, in the best possible way! Every December since 2003, Yale students have submitted rough drafts of new plays that they’ve been working on, readers within the Theater Studies department have selected roughly five of them for entry into the festival, and then those plays (after being paired with two playwriting mentors, one teaching at Yale and one outside of Yale) have gotten staged readings during one weekend in February! And even though each play is always limited to just four hours of rehearsal over the course of a week, the performances always come together and are thrilling to be a part of (and watch)! I’ve been part of the YPF before as an actor, have submitted playwriting samples for it as a writer, but had never been involved as a director — until this semester. I was delighted that my professor thought of me, and of course said yes, but I wasn’t wholly confident at first — someone was trusting me with their script (their hard work! their child! creatively speaking!), and I hadn’t had much experience at all with directing productions on campus. But I loved the writing in the play I was paired with, really vibed with the playwright, and felt reassured by the fact that my professor thought of me — so I dove into my first-ever directing experience with a ton of excitement!

Perhaps like Big Bird is in this picture, I was a bit worried about directing for the first time. I’d never done it before, and was uncertain about how I felt about being responsible for steering the ship of the play. I wanted to honor the work the playwright had put in. But then I remembered all the great directors that I’d worked with before, and all of their techniques, and pieced together an approach from all the ways that they’d directed me as an actor. Once I did that, the whole process became so much more about discovery and seeing things cooking in scenes than about wondering if I was the right fit. Lots of skills are transferable! Trust yourself!

Any new experience may seem a bit like this in your mind’s eye. But, I’ve learned, if you come to the incidence of any new experience with a spirit of generosity, it’s not nearly that overwhelming! Throughout the rehearsal process, I found myself having so much fun that my role felt a lot less internally intimidating, and in turn, I think I became a better theatermaker for it!

The play in question was called THIS IS NICE — a lively and tender comedy about a family’s Christmas dinner in a Chinese restaurant that morphs into a kind of coming-out party. After reading through the script (which had the kind of jokes that drew out big guffaws, and also those little squirrel-like chuckles that sound like sksksksksk), casting the play, and finding some spaces on campus to meet in, we started rehearsal — two two-hour chunks on two different days filled with readings, re-readings, short improv exercises, and lots of vocal warm-ups and acting exercises! A lot of directing, I learned, is a) observation and b) finding varying ways to mold the action developing in front of you into the shape of the action you envisioned in your mind — and by Friday evening, it all came together! When the staged reading went up in Yale’s Off-Broadway Theater, I thought to myself, well, this is nice, isn’t it?

Where our first rehearsal for THIS IS NICE happened!

Pictured: me, typing away my silly little notes about scenework on my silly little laptop.

It all worked out in the end, I learned a ton about directing, and also got to help the playwright hear her play out loud, too!

Of course, none of this would’ve happened if I’d listened to my most uncertain side and said no from the jump — and at a stage in life where it seems like everyone is only doing things they know how to do really well, and at a place where you might be a bit self-conscious to branch out beyond what you usually do, there’s so many benefits to be had (and to bestow!) by choosing to do something that asks you to build upon what you already know as you go!