Letter To A Young Director

Dear Erica Schmidt,

You don’t know me, but I wanted to tell you how very gifted you are and, if I may, offer a little advice. Let me say, firstly, that any young director at the start of their career who can stage As You Like It as wittily as you and the recent Debbie Does Dallas is absolutely the director for me.

All shows are the same show in the impure essentials. What was within your terrific Debbie -fun, speed, discipline, sex, identity problems-is found within the double and triple identities, the comedy and farce of sexual roles, the heaven and hell of love, of your As you Like It at the Public. I see you also designed the costumes for the Shakespeare and adapted Debbie from the hallowed original movie. How great to be intoxicated by the possibilities of all forms of theater. Keep going, whatever you do. We’re on your side.

The big surprise of your Debbie Does Dallas for me was that you actually turned it into the world’s first production of a saucy Mother Courage . I wrote at the time that you had unearthed an exemplary Brechtian morality tale of opportunism and survival on the body-strewn battlefield of the American sex wars. People thought I was joking. I was. And I wasn’t. My point is that where another director might easily have been camp or cheap, you made it fun by secretly taking it seriously.

To use only six actors in As You Like It is delightfully nuts, of course. (And dangerous.) But then, the core of the play is all about illusion and role-playing. Once again, I admired the assurance and comic timing of the troupe-the discipline and glue you brought to the knockabout scenes. Did you know, by the way, that in the all-male As You Like It directed by Clifford Williams in the 1960’s, the young Anthony Hopkins played Audrey, the country girl? There you are! As you like it; as it pleases you. Whatever!

I learned two astonishing things from your production. It’s possible for an actor to do a back flip into his own hat-and live ! And, as if that weren’t miracle enough, a hat-or even an apple-can conjure a character from thin air, provided we allow “imaginary forces to work,” as someone named Shakespeare once advised.

My own mentor is Peter Brook, and his mentor is Shakespeare. No matter what kind of show Mr. Brook has directed over the years-highbrow or lowbrow, Broadway or the Mahabharata -sooner or later, Mr. Brook always returns to his Shakespearean touchstone. You have something in common with him: call it an apparent theater of naïveté. For in your As You Like It , the hat held up onstage conjures the illusion of the man who wears it, while the apple thrown from one actor to another is enough to create the character who eats it. As Rosalind says to us in her Epilogue, “My way is to conjure you.”

It’s a surprising Epilogue, and Rosalind is actually surprised to be giving it. In this play about free will and some melancholy, the implied message in Shakespeare’s teasing, joyful afterthought is that now that everything’s been resolved, the romances worked out, the couplings made, it’s time for us all to go home and fuck our brains out.

I know why you trimmed the text, but what happened to the songs? (“Come hither, come hither, come hither.”) Shakespeare’s lyrics can be as suggestive as Cole Porter’s, and sad as death. Gotta have the songs. To my regret, a lyrical As You Like It was mostly absent. It could be due to your originally staging the production outdoors. Broad comedy plays well in the open; lyricism likes a roof. You’re still playing outdoors at the Public, in a sense. You’re in a forest. (The Forest of Arden!) But when it comes to Shakespeare’s poetry and all the fears that confront the inexperienced performer, remember the golden rule: Let the line color the actor, never the other way round.

I read in the Playbill that you recently worked as Sir Peter Hall’s assistant director on Troilus and Cressida . Have you recovered? Years ago, I was his assistant director at the National in England and must say I was mostly bored off my head. Never be an assistant! Direct instead, as you know. I learned that I don’t have the patience to be a director. But the time with Peter Hall in the womb of the rehearsal room was immensely valuable. With the script before him on a lectern, marking out the rhythm and beat of a line like a conductor, he’s a supreme example of a British director who still believes passionately in the word -in the power and beauty of Shakespeare’s language.

A thought about those eunuchs in a whorehouse, the critics. Try not to treat critics as the enemy. It’s a paranoid waste of time. The ones I read are mostly dead. G.B. Shaw’s essays perk me up, although I often find I disagree with them. I agree with Ken Tynan almost too much; Jan Kott is still an essential guide. Hazlitt’s On Actors and Acting is masterly. If you haven’t yet read the renowned Hazlitt essay, it will give you an even more perverse, unshakable love for a life in the theater. I return quite frequently to reading Jean Genet’s Reflections on the Theatre as an essential reminder of the enormous care and detail that ought to go into staging a play. Genet’s gracious notes to Roger Blin during the months of rehearsal in Paris of his epic The Screens are a timeless model. (Blin was also Beckett’s principal director.) Genet, the famous renegade dramatist, writes to him at one point:

“At first no one knows anything. The actors have little knowledge, but the man who is teaching them must know nothing and learn everything, about himself and his art, as he teaches them. It will be a discovery for them but also for him.”

Try not to please audiences too much. Better to challenge them instead. They need guidance, too, or they will lead you by the nose. Yet the in-house theater critic is the audience. Watch the audience during your shows.

Success is good. Lots of money, also, and land, and country houses. Try to travel. Theater people never seem to go anywhere. They don’t even go to the theater. If Broadway success comes your way, grab it, and go on making your own theater. Avoid Broadway-itis at all cost. Broadway-itis is currently killing the work of too many directors masquerading as independent artists.

“The right to fail” is a credo only an Englishman could invent. For only the English know how to fail well. It was George Devine’s proud, daring credo when he founded the Royal Court Theatre as its artistic director, and it amounts to an un-American activity. Mundane success and the box-office bottom line aren’t really the point.

One day, when Beckett was watching an actor struggling during a rehearsal of one of his plays, he was heard to advise him gently, “Try to fail better.”

All artists worth a dime fail. The only test is how close they can get to the summit of their imagination.

There’s only good work, yes? Even for its own sake, even in a city where conventional success in the theater is worshipped, in the end there’s only good and fine work. Because you believe in it, because you have no choice.

But I didn’t intend to go on like this. I embrace your talent and welcome you to the theater with open arms.

Best wishes,

John Heilpern Letter To A Young Director