The Author Is Dead

Director Andrea Humez (right) leads a talkback session at Theatre@First. 

by Andrea Humez

“The author is dead,” I joke to the actors, acknowledging the playwright who is, in fact, sitting in the room with us.  “So you’ll have to make your own interpretation of the text.”

More than most authors, playwrights have to make peace with the fact that once they’ve written a piece, other people will interpret it in their own ways. Plays are written to be performed, and putting on a play inherently involves layers of interpretation: by the director, by the various actors, by the designers (in the case of a fully-staged production), as well as by the audience.

Usually, when I direct, I try to balance between encouraging the actors to make their own interpretations of the text and asking them to go along with mine.  This process is founded on the assumption that we don’t know exactly what the playwright’s intention was, and in some sense, we don’t care, because interpreting the text is part of our job.  There is no one “right” answer.  I take this approach even when the playwright is available for consultation and involved in the production, as was the case when I directed Burning earlier this year.

However, FirstWorks is different from simply involving the playwright in the production process.  The goal of these workshops is to help playwrights polish their scripts, and so the focus is not simply on interpreting the text and putting on a performance, but equally, on giving the playwright feedback and helping them to see the script from the performers’ and audience’s perspective.  At the same time, director and performers get to peek inside the writing process and understand the thinking behind the text we see on the page. 

Although I’ve been talking about “actors,” “directors” and “playwrights,” most people in theatre have experience with multiple roles; for example, this week I directed a rehearsal for this show and acted in a rehearsal for another show.  Although some playwrights have little experience with the production process, many are actors themselves and can use that perspective to inform their writing.  Still, for any given show, we tend to immerse in our given role and view it through that perspective.  FirstWorks workshops are an opportunity for us to explicitly bring these perspectives into dialogue with each other, and to deepen our understanding of the collaborative process that is live theatre.

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