That "Vision" Thing

Skip Maloney

 It'd be nice if everyone involved in any given theatrical production,  particularly at the  community level, were on the same page. Easier said than done, actually, for while the director might have a vision of what he or she hopes to accomplish, it's not usually clear at the outset whether that vision is shared by everybody else.

Does the set designer understand what the director wants? Does the lighting designer understand that a director wants to use light, as opposed to just lighting the stage?  Do the performers understand where the play's core resides, and how each and every member of the cast has a function within that core's context.  I was once in a production of  Morning's at Seven by Paul Osborn, and didn't realize until we'd performed before an audience, that the play was basically a comedy.  So much of what we were saying and doing was related to a handful of individual and familial tragedies, large and small, that we failed, at first, to find the humor in any of it.

This  'same page' scenario can get a bit tricky, because oftentimes, the varied participants, from production staff to performers, can bring things to a production that a director might not have foreseen as he/she prepared to do the work. A particular performer, for example, might find humor in a role that the director had not considered.

There are a few obvious circumstances where these intricate detail considerations are not likely to come into play. A production of The Odd Couple, for example, might not have to dwell a lot on a director's vision, unless of course said director wanted to do something like set the action in a space station orbiting Planet Earth, in which case, he or she better have a good 'vision' speech in his or her pocket.

What's brought this to mind is an awareness of how most productions come together. A director is chosen, audition dates are set, carried out and rehearsals are scheduled. First comes a read-through, then blocking, then refinement of said blocking, followed by director notes on individual performances regarding movement, motivation, and perhaps, some of that 'vision' talk. Production staff is usually in consultation with the director behind the scenes to work out any of the production's technical issues, but it's rare, in my experience, for a director to engage in any lengthy discussion with a cast about the 'vision' thing. Most performers will grasp the nature of a given character without benefit of a vision speech from the director, especially in the more obvious production circumstances, like the Odd Couple. Felix and Oscar are humorous characters, supported by funny lines and a comedic plot. Period, end of story. There are nuances regarding movement, comic timing and (for lack of a better word) heart, to be sure, but those kinds of issues can be addressed in a fine tuning process, rather than any lengthy discussion about vision.

With something like Death of a Salesman, though, you're dealing with a whole different kind of theatrical animal; one whose core is not as readily understood or manifested in a production. If a director doesn't grab the reins of Salesman quickly, he or she is likely to find themselves with a cast intent on the creation of a tedious two hours with the most depressing set of characters on the planet. Salesman's reputation as one of the finest pieces of 20th century dramatic literature was not built on its ability to depress the hell out of people who've seen it. It continues to be produced because directors, staff and performers find something (or don't) in the development of the production that elevates its words and scenery above the sadness, anxiety and depression that its characters articulate. Toward, arguably, something remotely hopeful, something that works in tight consort with Linda Loman's defining assertion that "attention must be paid." A successful production of this play might not have you leaving the auditorium whistling a happy tune, but you should, at minimum, walk away understanding what Linda means by that.

Why, a director might want to ask a cast and staff, is the death of a salesman important? Why should an audience care, or more importantly, how do we produce this in a way that will make them care? What about the play makes the two hours before that death significant? And how do you accentuate that importance and significance in a way that doesn't  show the dramatic hand too early?

To that end, producers of the 1949 production reportedly wanted to take Death out of the title. Their stated concern was that audiences wouldn't flock to a show with that noun in the title.

The answer is complicated because, of course, Death of a Salesman is about more than just the words of its characters and their emerging, inter-connected plot lines. It is, too, about the overlapping time frames in which these characters interact and the various plot lines emerge. The past and present occur virtually simultaneously in Salesman. The distinction between illusion and reality is blurred. Jo Mielziner's original Tony Award-winning set design facilitated this magnificently. Miller hoped to create this temporal fluidity through use of a basically bare stage with minimal amounts of furniture. Mielziner, presumably following a pre-production conversation about the 'vision thing,' suggested a way to respect Miller's vision, while adding a few design-detail flourishes that enhanced the distinctions between the play's reality and illusion, while adding visual elements that supported the stage reality of the stories. The sons' bedroom and the hotel room in Boston come to mind; things that according to published reports of the way the original Salesman actually came together, Miller hadn't thought of initially.

The performers, on the other hand, don't get off that easily. They're left with the more difficult task of travelling, literally, from reality to illusion, while maintaining the essence of a recognizably human character. Can't make Willy too much of a space cadet, wandering around the stage looking as though he's forgotten where his keys are. I would argue that the closest an audience ever gets to the real Willy Loman is when they watch him move between one stage reality and another. Because in those different realities, the Willy we tend to see is the full-out deluded and occasionally charming Willy Loman, trying to make the best of a cascading series of bad situations.

Another remarkable beauty of this play is that interpretations of these dramatic elements within the structure of the play are as varied as the groups that stage it. There is, thankfully, no one way to mold a theatrical presentation to successfully, every time, grab an audience by the coat-tails and move them, emotionally, into a space that you've designed. To excite them with the power of good theater. So. . . results may vary.

What's important, whatever the vision may be, is that everybody be on the same page. You want to stage The Odd Couple on a space station? Fine, but get everybody on-board.

"You see," you say, "the space station of the future is going to function like any other large community. It'll have its sports writers like Oscar, its OCD male adults, like Felix, and they'll be living somewhere on that station. Gotta be divorce in the future, right? And we set it up so that doors 'swoosh' open and they're all wearing these skin-tight space suits."

You needn't over-think things every time. There are some plays which reveal their power readily. Given a reasonably adequate consolidation between production staff and cast, there's often not a reason to delve too deeply into the meaning of it all, the vision thing. There are, too, degrees involved. While there might, for example, be a rationale for discussing the rapid-fire nature of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum's comedy, you wouldn't necessarily want to dig too deeply into any of the characters' underlying psychology. You wouldn't get far, anyway.

Man of La Mancha, on the other hand . . . its more thoughtful nature, in comparison to Forum's amusing antics, speaks to the need for a little pep talk on how the whole production fits together to deliver a particularly moving message. You could probably mount an amusing production of Forum, by accident. An effective, moving production of Man of La Mancha the same way? Unlikely.

Are we on the same page now?


Photo: Gustavus Adolphus College