Directing a play is applied criticism (which is to say applied reading); the ballistics to the pure physics of literary theory. I feel qualified to say this (and what is qualification other than a feeling turned into a LinkedIn profile) because for the past two years, I operated, simultaneously, as an English graduate student, and as a playwright-director in New York City.
My ‘applied versus theoretical physics’ metaphor took some time to arrive at. It is the fruit of perhaps two years of feeling that I was a stranger in two worlds and at home in none. I still feel that way, by and large, but having graduated with my Master’s, I feel clearer in regards to my own muddle. For instance, one of my own insecurities as a graduate student, was the way I talked in the seminar room: where I tended to be broad, holistic, metaphorical, personal, casual; on one hand eminently over-abstract and on the other, uncomfortably too solipsistic and personal. I could speak Theory and I could speak Myself, but I rarely could hit the carefully cultivated middle-ground where I heard and noticed my more experienced peers aiming. This tendency, this way of speaking, however, worked much better (communicated more and more clearly) in the rehearsal room, when I was speaking either as director or playwright. Fast, ad-hoc, highly metaphorical reflective rhetoric is, from what I’ve observed, what actors want and indeed, need; actors who are not interested in the granular details of scholarly debate; actors who must digest quickly. A director needs to be able to grasp a Theory and then ground it in something personal and concrete very quickly; or she loses her audience. Direction must be offered in 30 second to 1 minute bursts; line readings cannot go on to the length of seminar papers — it must be pre-digested; encapsulated.
If this sounds disparaging to the graduate school/seminar mode of thinking and communicating, it is not. What I found, or think I found, was that my seminar training, however difficult and at times embarrassing (for me) was the best possible training for my creative work as a theater artist. Having to write and speak at length, dialectically, with other dedicated thinker-scholars, makes those 30 second directorial encapsulations (the applied physics) more rigorous, deep, and interesting.
The sports metaphor for this is cross-training: learn to run up the steep hills, and fight running up and down a basketball court is not so difficult; resistance in one activity builds strength for another.
Editor’s Note: we’re looking for more contributions reflecting on the coursework of the 2015-2016 academic year, as well as posts that explore the relationship between creative work and graduate study. Please contact us with your ideas or share them in the comments below.