In the spring of 2016 I assistant directed the Luther College Visual and Performing Arts production of The Illusion by Pierre Corneille and Tony Kushner. As the assistant director, I helped to come up with the staging of the show and direct the actors in their roles. Additionally, I was solely in charge of the direction of the penultimate scene of the show, meaning that I handled the blocking and direction of that scene from the beginning. This experience enabled me to develop my sense of spectacle and to hone my ability to adapt my work to the style of my collaborators.
In the scene I directed, the tone of the show shifts from farcical to dramatic as the protagonist finally has to face the fatal consequences of cheating on his wife with the prince’s wife. This is the scene where everything goes wrong, so I wanted it to feel sinister and not quite right. The idea was that by the climax of the scene no one but the protagonist was surprised by his death. To accomplish that, I designed the blocking to echo moments in earlier scenes when things were happier with different outcomes. For example, in one of the first scenes the protagonist gets down on one knee to declare his love to the character who later becomes his wife, and she leans down to kiss him. In the scene I directed, he again knelt to convince her of his sincerity and she leaned towards him, but this time she pushed him away.
Directing that scene presented some interesting challenges, the most obvious being the need to direct the scene in my own way without creating something that was noticeably different from the rest of the show. The primary way I accomplished this way by using the techniques favored by the director throughout the process, namely clowning tactics like red nose and gestures. That way even though I was directing my own interpretation of the scene, the methods I was using to do it were consistent with the rest of the show. I also dealt with this challenge by consciously echoing the blocking the director used in earlier scenes and twisting it to suit the new scene.
The second major challenge was that the layout of the theater meant that the blocking had to be designed to ensure that the actors ended the scene in a very specific place so that they would be hidden behind the red curtain that would drop. To make sure that they ended up in the right place, I planned the blocking by starting at the end of the scene with the positions I knew they needed to get to and working backwards to the beginning of the scene. To keep the scene from looking cramped towards the end, I kept the character that would be exiting the scene before the curtain fell further away from the spot where the others were gathering.
The third challenge of that scene was subtler, and was one I did not actually solve until shortly before the show opened. One of the characters appeared to leave the scene and reenter later, but the script included no direction to that effect. She simply did not have lines during a conversation that clearly did not include her in any way and then suddenly had lines again at the very end of the scene. The question was, what was she doing in the middle? Initially, I had the actress try hiding from the other two characters throughout the scene, as if she did not want to get involved in their fighting but could not quite bring herself to leave altogether. That kind of worked, but was clearly awkward and gave the actress quite a bit of difficulty. When dress rehearsals started and I saw the scene on stage with the trees she was supposed to be hiding behind, I knew I had to come up with something else. There was no real reason for her character to stay, and it looked intensely awkward to have her hanging around upstage. At that point, the question became, “why does she come back?” Finally I realized that the solution was the character that entered the scene just before the end of the scene, who has been hunting for one of the others. If I assumed that she ran into him off stage, he could force her back into the scene by making her lead him to the others. All of the actors much preferred that version, and it was ultimately much more effective on stage.