We were sitting in traffic on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, heading uptown in the van belonging to the theatre company I was working for at the time. I was driving, with the producer in the passenger seat. We were at a standstill, between Penn Station and the main branch of the post office, which is a spectacular building, with great Roman columns and an impressive set of steps leading up to the entrances. It was a beautiful spring day. The sun was shining, and people were seated on those steps, enjoying the pleasant afternoon.
The producer of the theatre company was an elderly lady named Sunna. She looked out the window at those people and said, “I wish I had nothing to do all day but sit on the steps.”
It was spoken with a mixture of wistfulness and rue, and I cracked up laughing.
“What? I do.”
I didn’t doubt her. Sunna was in her seventies, and was still actively running the theatre company she had founded decades earlier. She’d had a former life as a housewife, then a writer, before becoming the producer and artistic director of a national theatre company. Mostly, she produced tours around the country, with occasional performances in other countries. The shows were geared for either children or young adults, and always had a moral perspective. Sunna was most passionate about using arts in education to improve the lives of young people.
One play dealt with bullying. Another with using poetry to get in touch with emotions. The one I worked on for six years (first as an actor and then as a director,) was about drug prevention.
So Sunna could easily have retired and spent her remaining years sitting on the steps, soaking up the sunshine. I understood that perfectly well. Instead, she felt it was her mission in life to help others in any way that she can, and for her, that way was through theatre. It meant dealing with daily hassles, at a time in life when she could have chosen to take it easy. To let someone else handle whatever.
I admired Sunna, and was grateful to her for the opportunities she gave me. She was the first person to hire me as a director. For some reason, she felt I could do the job, and since I would be directing a show that had been going out on tour every spring and every fall for years, it was a good way to learn about directing. I would merely be applying direction that already existed to a new cast. Excellent training ground.
Besides, Sunna was always just over my shoulder, making sure I got it right. That was not the annoyance one might imagine. It was a great help, freeing me from being held responsible myself, which meant I was not afraid to make mistakes. She could also be counted on for providing me with a shortcut. A lesson here or there that I might have struggled to figure out on my own.
“It took me years to be able to throw those away.”
Sunna was referring to the large stack of headshots in the “No” pile. We had just finished holding our first round of auditions. Sitting on the table in front of us were three large piles. The first was the “Yes” pile. These were the actors we wanted to see at the callbacks.
The second was the “Maybe” pile. These actors we would keep in mind in case any of our first choices could not make the callback, or were otherwise ruled out.
Then there was the largest stack. The “No” pile. Most of the headshots in this pile were of reasonably talented actors who were just not right for the roles we were casting, and this was why it was so hard for Sunna to throw them in the trash. She felt bad for them, and felt guilty about tossing someone’s resume, someone’s representation of themselves, into the garbage bin.
I knew exactly what she was saying, and realized this was a lesson she was teaching me.
“Sunna, watch this.”
I picked up the stack of headshots in the “No” pile and threw them in the trash. It was not an easy thing to do, but I understood why it must be done, and how important it was to understand that.
Then there was the time she had written several drafts of a letter she would never deliver to an actor she was thinking of firing. She’d asked my opinion about this line or that line, and then she would scratch out her original wording and replace it with something more diplomatic.
This actor she was planning to fire, I liked very much. He was a good actor, and I liked him as a person, too. He was smart and funny, and we got along well. However, I could see why Sunna was thinking of replacing him. Her reasons were valid from a certain perspective, and the fact that she was spending so much effort in drafting this letter showed that she was conflicted over the decision.
She wanted to get the wording right, in the letter, not so she could hand it to him, covered in scratched out re-written lines, but so that she could read it to him. Not off the paper, but from memory. The paper was her script.
When she called him into the room, she asked me to sit in on the brief meeting. From his reaction, it was immediately clear that she had made the right move. I was surprised by the level of his animosity towards her, and felt that he had been using his friendly relationship with me as a cover.
The lesson was clear. If there is a problem actor in the cast, replace him. Do it right away, before that problem spreads through the company, as it surely will.
“Don’t allow an actor to countermand your authority.”
One of the funniest lessons for me, and one of the hardest to agree with, came on a day when we were loading equipment from the van into the studio, for our tech rehearsal. Heavy stuff. Lights. Sound board. Large trunks and wooden cubes and rolls of cable.
“No, no, what are you doing? Put that down. Don’t let anyone see you carry that.”
Naturally, I was helping to unload the van. The cast included five male and two female actors, plus the TD, who was also male. Everyone was chipping in, and it seemed the logical thing for me to help carry the equipment up to where it needed to be. More hands saves time, right?
Nope. According to Sunna, I was supposed to let them all do the heavy lifting. If they saw me rolling up my sleeves like a common day laborer, they would lose respect for me as the director!
Everything inside of me felt the exact opposite, that they would see that I was not above pitching in, that I understood the importance of teamwork. There was also a bit of male ego involved. On some level, I probably wanted to prove that I could lift heavy things and carry them up the stairs as well as the bigger guys.
Although I laughed at first, I did as she said, and we sat at the table and pretended to be discussing something important. Looking back on that now, I guess I have to admit that I can see her point. Sunna was right.