Remote Control Directing and Lessons in Ensemble-Based Theatre

By Alyssa Hughlett

I will cut straight to the point: this was my first, and will be my last, attempt to direct a show from afar (remotely). Has it been worthwhile for everyone involved? I would venture to say yes, but we are not done developing yet. Has this been a valuable lesson for UpLift and for me? Yes. Will I agree to do this again in the future? Nope.

Going into this, I knew that there was no substitute for being physically in the rehearsal room, so I was careful about setting expectations that I could not meet regarding my role as a “remote control director.” What I expected was that I would be able to make decisions by having the advantage of seeing the whole. In the end: I fooled myself.

Before you begin to pity me, just know that I write this with both a humble heart and a smile on my face. After all, I do this because I want to (of course, that want is filled with a deep yearning accompanied by a sense of purpose and perspective). The truth is that when actually faced with the real work of manifesting an entire production and play from afar, the curtain was lifted from my eyes and I realized that what I have been doing is NOT, in fact, directing. What I’ve been doing these past four months on this project is more akin to facilitating, or being a creative consultant, but not directing. As a director, one can facilitate or act as a guide, and not just as an authority that issues dictums or decisions. But, what I am trying to say is that the agreements we made about my role in this process put me in the physical reality of being something other than a director. I also believe that we all thought we liked the idea of having a director, but in our heart of hearts we did not wish to give over to the reality of what that meant.

I extend my deep gratitude and pleasure to the community that came to our Circus Center works-in-progress showing and offered us their poetic voice and critical eyes. This was a huge service to us and we thank you for it all. The feedback has entered into our creative process in various ways and degrees. Following the showing, we agreed that as the director I would process the feedback, both written, as well as what came up in discussion. Then, based on this feedback, I would present a final structure and proposal along with a plan to have the show finalized by the first week of May. Naturally, this is an immense agreement, and looking back on things I am not sure why I did not spot the seemingly obvious flaws. As I sorted, processed, and meditated on the feedback, and then held valuable discussions with other company members about how to move forward, I eventually found myself essentially playwriting. We needed to take all of the work and make cuts, create context, frame it, and bring it together, and this called for specific decisions to made. 

So there I was crafting the play at my desk in Blue Lake, 210 miles away from the Bay Area. The major conflict would be asking the actors to go from finding the play “organically” to satisfying this framework or proposal even if it seemed awkward or not justified in their perception at first or second try. I have worked as an actor several times for a director in a process where you push through and follow the direction as best as you can, whether or not you are completely complicit. In some ways I liked this way of working—in most ways I did not. Ultimately, what I was asking, was for my three actors—who are my ensemble mates—to sacrifice something of their egos, in order to follow (as best as they could) my proposal. But remember, we had agreed on this to an extent, otherwise I would not have set about it. The big issue was that I could not physically be in the room to direct or help them navigate out of the mud should it get a little muddy.  And that is how I came to fool myself.

In the first rehearsal, I laid out the game plan for how we were moving forward. I wanted everyone to be clear that I had thought this through, so I stated the specifics of how we would work and I stated that this would require being okay with things being awkward at times. My hope was that they could push through the stuff that seemed to be coming out of nowhere in order to eventually understand the context that I was framing. I brought this game plan forward only with the desire to serve the whole in the best way I knew how. I was problem solving. Creative problem solving albeit, but nonetheless, every action that I was taking both in my work on the “script” and with rehearsals, was to solve the problem of time. This may be the first time I have felt this way in a creative endeavor and truth be told, I am both proud and conflicted about that. Why be conflicted about being a problem solver? Problem solving is usually a great skill to have and use, but in the case of making ‘Art’ (or something of beauty), problem solving can be deleterious to that end. Argue with me about this, I invite you, I dare you, I welcome you, too. I am not sending the problem solver in me into exile, but a week later, I noticed the ensemble was feeling unmotivated, strange, and something was not jiving. When we unpacked the problem, it was clear that this was not the way to sustainably move forward in our work. We also made the decision not to open the show at the end of April so that the ensemble could meet on better terms to rehearse. So, I have made the decision to retire the theory (at least for myself) that the work we do can be done via members Skyping in and participating in rehearsals as an outside eye or otherwise. It was very much worth the trials and testing, and we learned a great deal from it. I will, however, lay this one to rest with much relief.

The deal is, we have been adapting, recycling, and reusing work for the past two years. The beautiful thing is that we are turning a new page entirely with Jerome Yorke leading a project that is to begin at the end of July. While adapting “Terra Incognita” into a three-woman piece will certainly require new work, original ideas, and a new framework, I do not believe it is able to be anything other than a pure ensemble-devised piece; the ensemble is unwilling to give one person ultimate creative power. Of course, this might be different if  Arianne Mnouchkine, Julie Taymor, or any other notable director were to approach us and say “I want to direct this piece!” Then we would be quite willing to say “Yes, here it is. Do with it what you will!” I say this, because the aforementioned directors have a known aesthetic, process, and credibility that is exciting to bow down to. I am not self-deprecating, but merely honest, when I say that I do not have this authority within the ensemble. Neither is it my prerogative to act as such at this time, or in this specific project. We all are emerging together, developing together, building something together through this adaptation—and that makes it an ensemble work. When I reflect on this process, it may have been more worthwhile of my time to act as a kind of playwright/dramaturg if I wanted to participate in the creative evolution of the piece. This is a lesson well-learned.

So we postponed opening in May and rehearsals still continue. I have shifted my role as director to creative consultant and outside eye. This adaptation in many ways is really a vehicle for so many other lessons that we are learning as a company. I am continually grateful for the grace and bond that I have with all of the members of UpLift. My energy and attention in the next couple months will be focused on bringing our newest ensemble member out of my womb and into the world, and I could not have asked for better company or family. In early June, my partner, Steve, and I are going to become parents. Many predict that it will just fly out of me and start doing cartwheels. Whatever it does, it will be the most sacred of creative endeavors that I will possibly ever undertake in this life.