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  • Creating a Life on Stage: A Director’s Approach to Working with Actors
  • Steve Knight
Creating a Life on Stage: A Director’s Approach to Working with Actors. By Marshall W. Mason. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2007; pp. ix + 252. $19.95 paper.

Marshall Mason's new book on the craft of directing, Creating a Life on Stage, will not break any new ground. It will not spawn tomes of criticism or discount previous approaches. Mason seeks neither revolution nor revision; he is not trying to reinvent the wheel. Rather, he revives the style of memoir-cum-manual, compacting an impressive body of work into an elegant volume. Ignoring the more instructional approaches of Stuart Vaughn and Francis Hodge, Mason follows in the steps of Harold Clurman, William Ball, and Michael Bloom by first describing his approach meticulously, then interspersing the text with anecdotes from storied productions in American theatre.

Although sometimes overlooked by scholars chronicling contemporary American theatre, Mason's extensive theatrical experience merits attention and study. According to Arthur Bartow in The Director's Voice, Mason's The Rue Garden (1962) was the first Off-Off Broadway play to be reviewed in the Village Voice. Additionally, he was a member of the Actor's Studio, a founder of the Circle Repertory Theatre, and a lifelong collaborator with Lanford Wilson, which resulted in plays such as The Fifth of July, Talley's Folly, and The Hot l Baltimore. For all of his efforts, Mason has been rewarded with five Tony nominations for best director, five Obie-winning productions, and the Mr. Abbott Award for lifetime directorial achievement. On the strength of this distinguished career, it is apparent that Mason would have valuable advice to share with others directing in the theatre. This desire to pass on to others lessons learned is the impetus behind Creating a Life on Stage.

To frame his study, Mason issues a series of mandates that all good directors must fulfill:

  1. 1. Generate an original, inspired conception.

  2. 2. Communicate your ideas clearly.

  3. 3. Use an approach that is suited to your personality.

  4. 4. Prepare thoroughly.

  5. 5. Schedule the available time to achieve your goals.

  6. 6. Collaborate to achieve group creativity.

  7. 7. Establish a stimulating rehearsal atmosphere.

  8. 8. Make your directions as specific as possible. (9)

Some might argue that there is nothing in this list of suggestions that many others haven't already espoused (see, for example, Dean and Carra's Fundamentals of Play Directing). Why read a book that's already been written? The devil, it seems, is in the details. Mason teaches us about directing not by telling us how to direct, but by telling us how he has directed. Although his dictums may at first glance appear redundant, the text teems with stories of real-time theatre problems and their solutions, moving beyond mere instruction into applicable anecdote.

Mason's discussion of his typical rehearsal schedule, for example, yields tremendous insights. He reviews how, in his own practice, instead of cumulatively stringing moments together, he takes each beat (approximately fifty in his full-length example) and devotes an entire rehearsal session (three hours) to its exploration. Mason leads the company, with their lines fully memorized at the outset, collaboratively to discover the nuances of the text in a manner that utilizes actor impulses as the sole starting point. Although at times he must suggest moves and ideas, the actors in large part determine the direction and content of each rehearsal. Mason contends that in using this approach he engages both actors' creativity and personal responsibility in the role and the production. As a director whose reputation lies in the ensemble ideal, his sheer will in the pursuit of actor–director collaboration offers valuable clues to his achievements over the years. In so doing, he presents a model that other directors would do well to emulate.

Owing to his proclivity and emphasis on research in rehearsal, Mason's accounts of improvisations and nontextual exercises abound with fervor and detail. From stock Spolin routines (the mirror) to intriguing connective sessions (a baby exercise in which actors who must play lovers explore each other's bodies as children), the note-taking reader might compile...


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pp. 171-172
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