I’m en route from New York to West Palm Beach, Florida, where I’ll start rehearsing Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production of Satchmo at the Waldorf at noon today.
Not only is Satchmo my first play, but this is my debut as a professional stage director. While Barry Shabaka Henley, the star of the show, appeared in the Chicago debut of Satchmo earlier this season, every other aspect of Palm Beach Dramaworks’ version is brand-new. I’m working with a talented team of designers who will be giving the West Palm Beach production its own distinctive look and sound, and I’m also hoping to bring to the table some fresh ideas of my own.
It wasn’t my idea to direct Satchmo—Bill Hayes and Sue Ellen Beryl, the company’s producing artistic director and managing director, suggested it to me—but it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I’ve been fascinated by the process of directing ever since 2011, when I staged a workshop production of the first half of the play at Rollins College’s Winter Park Institute, which is where I’d written the first draft of Satchmo the preceding year. (I posted some tentative axioms about stage directing while rehearsing that staging. It will be interesting to see whether they hold up this time around.) I figured I’d never get a better chance to see what I could do with the finished play, so I said yes to Bill and Sue Ellen without much hesitation, and since then the production has rarely been far from my mind.
This is the eleventh full-scale staging of Satchmo, which was previously mounted in Orlando, Lenox, New Haven, Philadelphia, Beverly Hills, Chicago, San Francisco, Portsmouth, Colorado Springs, and off Broadway. I have big shoes to fill: Jeremy Abram, Rus Blackwell, Gordon Edelstein, and Charles Newell directed the play before me, and though I wasn’t able to see Abram’s staging, the others were exceedingly, even intimidatingly impressive. Be that as it may, I’ll do all I can do to make my version of Satchmo worthy of its predecessors.
How did I prepare for this improbable adventure? Mostly by watching Rus, Gordon, and Charlie rehearse Satchmo, then asking them questions about what they did and why they did it. But I also read three books about stage directing that I found helpful: Alan Ayckbourn’s The Crafty Art of Playmaking, William Ball’s A Sense of Direction, and Frank Hauser’s Notes on Directing. Ayckbourn’s book was of particular interest because he usually directs the first productions of his own plays (and amazingly well, too). Like those plays, The Crafty Art of Playmaking is funny, straightforward, shrewd, and realistic, and it contains a wholly characteristic piece of advice that I am already doing my very best to take to heart:
Directing for me is largely the art of responding to the needs of others. Or, as my own personal mentor Stephen Joseph put it when I first started my career, directing is about creating an atmosphere in which others can create.
The celebrated director Tyrone Guthrie put it another way: Directing is about filling everyone with the desire to come back at ten o’clock tomorrow morning. Same thing, really.
I should add that I don’t think of this production as “my Satchmo.” It is, like all theatrical productions, a collaboration, and I make no claim that it will somehow be “more right” than its predecessors merely because it happens to have been directed by the playwright. To me it feels more like I’m staging a play written by a stranger, albeit one whose script I happen to know unusually well. My goal is to do as well by the play as I possibly can, and to help my colleagues give of their best. It’s not about me: it’s about us.
However things turn out, I’m thrilled to be embarking on this wholly unexpected undertaking. Stage directors rarely make their debuts at the age of sixty, just as playwrights rarely make their debuts at the age of fifty-five. I expect to work hard and have fun, and I hope that those of you who see the show will have fun along with me.
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Satchmo at the Waldorf opens on May 13 and runs through June 12. For more information or to order tickets, go here.