To tell the truth, I knew we were in trouble long before opening night. Were I an animal sacrifice sort of guy—or if 2004 an animal sacrifice sort of time—I may have carved up some poor Manhattan rooftop pigeon and thrown its guts on the ground in hopes of preventing disaster. Perhaps this could have averted the second preview, which broke the show’s spirit like an egg on a kitchen floor. But I slew no birds, and by the time I powered up my computer to write a last-ditch inspirational e-mail, it was too late. We were, to put it delicately, fucked.
I’d fought for years to direct First You’re Born. It was a dream project, and it wasn’t supposed to end like it did. But then, no one ever expects to fail.
In the summer of 2001, I had rocketed out of my college’s theater program and into an apartment in New York, my head filled with the surefire belief that if I worked hard enough, I could join the ranks of the rare few who direct theater full time for a living. I had been directing since I was sixteen years old. I knew I was talented. It felt like destiny. But after a few months of scrapping, the best I could do was a $75-a-week internship—a toehold in a theatrical landscape hobbled by the dot-com bust and the post-September 11 recession.
Hope came in the form of a script. Some fellow Vassar alums had become interested in an odd Danish romantic comedy called First You’re Born and wanted me to direct a reading. I didn’t care for the play at first, but during rehearsals I found myself falling in love.
Like the great offbeat comedies by John Guare and Nicky Silver that I’d read obsessively in high school and college, First You’re Born explores themes of alienation, isolation, heartbreak and depression with an oddball sense of humor and whimsy. It starts with a man dumping his girlfriend for no reason and builds to a slamming door farce complete with knife chase. The play is about people caught (in the play’s formulation) in the threads of the past, and the new love that helps them escape.
The reading was a hit. Every joke landed. The sadness was heightened by the comedy, the comedy by the sadness. The whimsy felt earned instead of cute. The breakneck pace left the audience feeling the energy of farce even though the actors stayed rooted behind music stands. The company decided to push forward with a production, but they couldn’t get the rights. First You’re Born was supposed to be the stateside coming out party for Line Knutzon, the play’s Danish author. Unwilling to let a gang of kids sully the play, Knutzon’s agent stopped returning our calls.
In retrospect, the agent was probably right.
It took almost two years. In the end, we secured the rights almost by accident. Someone met someone who knew the translators. Two phone calls later, the rights were ours.
By then our fervor for the play was borderline religious. The show suddenly had a large budget. Then it had a group of designers who were all a decade older than us and had MFAs. Then it had the Peter J. Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, an elegantly appointed, wood-lined womb of a space that formed a sharp contrast from the fourth-floor walkups and unfinished basements where I had previously staged shows. The Danish Consulate got wind of the project and sent me to Copenhagen to meet the playwright.
First You’re Born was becoming a big deal. A big enough deal, I thought, to push my career forward, a big enough deal to help me get—and please understand the wince with which I use this word—“discovered.” I was going to scale the walls of the industry. As long as I didn’t screw it up.
To minimize risks, I cast friends. One of the actors, whom I’ll just call A., took me out to lunch to ask if she could play the female lead, Bimsy. Of all the lost souls in First You’re Born, Bimsy is the most uprooted.
“I just feel,” she told me, stabbing a fork into a salad and smiling ruefully, “that I am Bimsy on some level, you know?”
A. had never done comedy. She wanted to give it a shot. The previous time we worked together had been very intense—we were both in pretty heavy-duty therapy at the time and our rehearsal discussions tended to cross into strange, intimate territories—but it had been fruitful. She had an enormous talent.
“Sure,” I said, “let’s give it a shot.”
We struggled to find our Axel—the lead, the one who leaves Bimsy on their anniversary in the play’s first scene. We needed someone charming enough that the audience would understand he was lost, rather than a bad person. We needed an actor who understood and could preserve the delicate tone of the play. Twee—the peculiar mix of melancholy and whimsy—is very, very hard to get right.
G. was a minor film and voiceover actor I had worked with in a short-play festival. When I ran into him on the street outside my subway stop, I realized that he would be perfect for Axel. He was funny and charming. He was inventive and charismatic. He did a mean Christopher Walken. I floated the idea by him and said I’d send him a script.
Did I notice, as we sat in his brownstone playing Halo and talking about the play, that all of his funny stories involved getting one over on asshole directors?
Did I think that, given we were friends, I would be the exception?
* * *
André Bishop, the artistic director of Lincoln Center, once told me that no one knows what directors do; they think that “if the set changes aren’t boring and people talk fast enough, the show is well directed.” The job of “director” as an independent entity is less than two hundred years old. It’s so young, we know who the first one was: Georg II, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. Many people think the job of the director is to stage the show, and while that’s part of it, I also know a few directors who never give explicit blocking notes to actors. The best way I’ve come up with to describe what I spent the ages of sixteen to thirty doing: The director is responsible for creating, leading and guiding the process that results in the play the audience sees. Directors work primarily through the creativity of others, inspiring, guiding and contributing ideas of their own along the way. Directing often comes down to two things: leading and making decisions. Through these two jobs, the staging, the design and the moment-to-moment work is developed and set. Good directors tend to be both decisive and egoless.
Of all their responsibilities, few are more delicate than the setting of tone—on the stage and in the rehearsal room. First You’re Born is a light comedy about depressed, lonely people. It’s this particular contrast that makes the play work. The play is like figure skating on a lake where the ice is just barely thick enough to protect all involved from the frigid waters below. The design for the show reflected this. The three apartments where the bulk of the show takes place were rendered as three isolated candy-colored islands, each smaller than the last and pitched at an angle, creating a cartoonish forced perspective. The sound design pulled equally from sad-bastard music and the cartoon jazz of Raymond Scott. The lights used deep saturated colors and shafts of shadow.
Our first read-through was fast, thrilling, moving and true. Afterwards, we looked around the table, grinning with joy over what we were creating. As rehearsals progressed, several of the actors—particularly A.—felt they needed to explore the darker subtexts of the piece. Soon, an odd dynamic developed in the room. I was staging comedic scenes that were being performed as drama. The opening scene—where G.’s Axel breaks up with A.’s Bimsy—began with the two of them sitting on a park bench with party hats and Champagne glasses staring straight ahead, Axel looking terrified and Bimsy rapturous, birds screeching all around them. Bimsy tries to kiss him as he ducks and weaves from her attentions. Finally, he takes her hand, looks into her eyes, and abruptly dumps her. The mix is supposed to be two parts sex farce to one part emotional devastation, but G. and A. were increasingly playing it like Ibsen.
I didn’t say anything. A director must know when to listen and when to be firm. I was directing with a very light touch, dealing with conflict by pretending it wasn’t there. The tone was wrong, but the ensemble was coalescing, and my bet was that if I gave the actors space, they would eventually remember that the play was a comedy. I could have come down harder on them, I could have imposed my will—but the last thing I wanted was to alienate my friends.
It was only once we were in the theater coordinating the technical elements in the handful of days before we opened that I realized the ice was cracking underneath me.
When we moved into the theater, the staff surprised us with rules about when we could and couldn’t access the space. Short on crew, I had to cancel rehearsals to hang curtains and go on Ikea runs. We pushed tech back by two days. When we finally ran through the show in the theater, my notepad filled up with hopeful phrases like “oh fuck,” and “what in God’s name am I going to do?” Half the cast performed the show as comedy, the other half as tragedy.
Afterwards, I sat with the cast and talked about subtext. They should be proud of the work that they had done, I told them. Now that they had extracted all these nuggets of sadness that were at the play’s core, it was time to bury them again. Subtext, after all, is sub for a reason. Once you know it’s there, you can rest secure in your knowledge of its existence, and just go for it.
“We have to remember,” I said, “that this is a comedy. We have to recapture that energy of reading the play around a table for the first time, laughing together, marveling at what we can do. You understand these characters. You know them. Now you have to just do the play. Act on the line, not between the lines. ”
Everyone nodded their heads and we broke for the night. G. approached me. He wasn’t comfortable with the first scene, the break-up scene. I had just finished telling them that for the play to work, it was essential to get this scene right—to be funny and sad and true and odd in equal measure.
“Would you mind if A. and I got together and worked through the scene on the set?” G. asked.
“Well, that would depend. If you’re just going to meet to go over your lines, sure, we can find you some time in the space. But if you’re going to be, you know, working on the scene as actors then I should be there.”
“Oh, I just meant run lines. Blocking. That sort of thing.”
The next day at six p.m. I crept into the space and watched G. and A. work on the first scene. They weren’t running lines. They definitely weren’t going over blocking. The staging they did was new, and nothing like what we had developed. It also included a dramatic increase in the amount of kissing in the scene. Which was, let’s not forget, a breakup scene. A breakup scene that had to be funny and establish the tone of the whole play. A breakup scene that was now a long, slow, turgid make-out scene where people also happened to break up. And cry. A lot.
When they finished, G. looked at me as if this was exactly what we had agreed to, as if they had nailed it.
“So,” he asked with a disarming, matter-of-fact calm, “what do you think?”
I told myself that getting angry wasn’t going to get me anywhere. “I don’t think it works.”
“Well, look, I know you were really attached to that opening image, but—”
“I’m more concerned about tone. We just talked about how the play is too ponderous and dark. This scene is now darker. And ponderous-er.”
“But it’s truer,” A. said. “I feel really connected to G. now, to Axel. I need that connection to get through the play.”
“My concern is connecting the play to the audience, rather than the two of you,” I said. “After this point, you and G. have no lines with each other until the second to last page of the show.”
We went around like this for about fifteen minutes. I remained civil throughout, and they refused to do the scene any other way.
G. and A. had discovered the terrifying secret of theater, and now, unwittingly, they were teaching it to me. Directorial authority is built on air. We pretend that this authority is real and absolute, but it isn’t. It’s agreed upon and only maintained by the consent of the governed. At this point, G. and A. couldn’t be fired and the show couldn’t be cancelled. First You’re Born had no understudies. The company had spent thirty thousand dollars on the show. G. and A. held all the power.
We agreed to a compromise. We would try their version out in front of the audience for the first few previews. If it seemed like it wasn’t working, they would change it back.
I left the theater, went into a bathroom and paced. Then I punched the wall of a stall as hard as I could, took three deep breaths, and went back to work.
* * *
First preview wasn’t good. Thanks to the cancelled rehearsals, the actors were still adjusting to the space. The laughter was seldom, the applause at the end polite. But nothing could have prepared us for preview number two. Unlike the first preview, the performance went smoothly from a technical perspective, which made it only more obvious how the production’s tonal confusion had made the play insufferable, a whiny cartoon of despair filled with sub-Wes Anderson quirk. The audience started talking during the scenes. And then leaving during the blackouts. And then leaving whenever they felt like it. I could hear the thwack of the seats as audience members stood up. By the end, the remaining people in the house were laughing, but out of anger. One person, three rows ahead of me, said, “This is really terrible,” at a volume loud enough to be heard on stage. The only person who seemed to like First You’re Born was a woman sitting directly in front of me, who, after talking through the whole show, asked for the playwright’s contact info because only she (the audience member) understood the truth about the play. The characters were all actually squirrels, she told me. The play, she revealed, was a giant allegory for deforestation.
Afterwards, the designers and I sat around a table in the back of the house, talking through how to fix the show. T., the set designer, said, “It just seems so dark right now. It’s a whimsical play filled with ridiculous people. We should all be laughing the whole time.”
I looked up at him. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell them all week.”
“Then why did you change the first scene to be darker?”
“I didn’t,” I told him. And then I explained the whole thing. The designers looked at me with what I realize now was pity. I was young and green and my leads didn’t respect me. They told me we had to change the first scene back, and they would back me up. The producers agreed. We spent the rest of the night tweaking the set changes to shave off as much time as possible, encouraging a breakneck momentum that we all hoped would force the darkness back into the basement where it belonged.
That night, I fired off an e-mail to the cast, explaining at length how much work remained to get the tone right, and how much faith I had in their extraordinary abilities. In tomorrow’s rehearsal, I wrote, we’d be revisiting the first scene. The e-mail was a small masterpiece, I thought. A we’ll fight them on the beaches for the indie theater age.
Ten minutes after I sent it, G. wrote me, CCing the entire cast: I think, Isaac, that you are overreacting to one bad night.
I sent off another e-mail, this time to the producers. We agreed: A. and G. would change the scene or we would fire them. I would take over G.’s part, which I knew by heart, and they would contact an actor to start learning A.’s role.
The next day, as the actors got ready in the dressing rooms, I went around and gave them notes from the night before. I was swift, all-business, authoritative. This, my tone said, was the end of the discussion.
“So. Guys,” I said. “We’ve done it a couple of times in front of an audience, and I think it’s clear that it’s not working. The designers agree with me. So do the producers. Tonight, we’re going to go back to doing scene one the old way.”
“Back?” A. asked, recoiling, her face dark red, the tendons on her neck thick cords of fury. “You can never tell an actor to go back.”
G. looked at me, calm and bespectacled, like we were arguing in a seminar over whether or not Billy Budd is homoerotic. A. was on the brink of tears, furious and lost.
I could feel the heat from the dressing room mirror’s lights on my back. Here it was. The moment. I had it worked out in my head in advance: You will do the scene the original way or you will not do the play. I will cancel tonight and tomorrow’s performances and we will rehearse new people in your roles.
I stopped myself. How much support did I actually have in the cast? I didn’t know. It would have been unethical to talk to other cast members about my difficulties with the leads. (I would learn, a year later, that the rest of the cast was fed up with G. and A. and thought they were being ridiculous.) What would people think of me if I took over the role? What would they say behind my back?
“If you don’t want to move back,” I said to A., “how do you propose we move forward?”
We negotiated for the next ten minutes. We finally agreed that we would use their version of the scene as a starting place, and try to pull it back towards a more comedic tone. We spent the next hour working on the scene. I cut some of the kissing and inserted some of the old staging back in. The designers looked on, shaking their heads.
The new staging did nothing to save the tone, which continued getting ponderouser and ponderouser, kissier and kissier. In my less charitable moments during the show’s run, I began to wonder if the scene had, in fact, been restaged and reinterpreted simply to allow more opportunities for first-base action.
After opening night, the set designer gave me a hug. “You have to know,” he said, “there’s some really great work in there. Work that’s yours.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“It’s just one show. Next time will be different.”
I couldn’t tell him that it wasn’t just one show. It was my dream show. And it wasn’t just the show that was the problem. I had worked with my friends, and because of this I didn’t lead them. I followed them, giving G. and A. what they told me they needed and in the process ignoring the show’s needs. I did bad work. My bad work was invisible—the show was well-staged and designed to within an inch of its life—but deadly. And my bad work cost me both my dream show and the friendships it was built on, because I couldn’t forgive G. and A. for what they had done.
Three weeks later, the show closed. I endured congratulations after congratulations from my peers, even though we all knew that congratulations in a theatrical setting means, “I hated it!” On closing night, G. chased me down outside the theater while I sucked down a Camel Light. He extended his hand. “Look,” he said, leaning down to speak softly in my ear, “I know we had our differences. But I meant no disrespect. I would like to work with you again, and I hope we can still be friends.”
I stepped back. I could see on his face, from the way he looked down and from the rehearsed, mechanical sound of the words that what he wanted was for me to tell him it was O.K.—no harm, no foul—so he didn’t have to feel like the bad guy. He could be the hero, the one who did the necessary and difficult work to fix a floundering show whose problems his director couldn’t see. No matter what I did, we’d never work together, speak to, or see each other ever again.
In the stage version of this moment, one of two things would’ve happened. Either I would’ve said something pithy and walked off into the Manhattan night—cue long light fade timed to sad song—or we would learn that this moment began some sort of long reconciliation, one that ended in a scarred but real friendship, and maybe another collaboration, years down the line, perhaps recited in dual monologues in spotlights, the rest of the actors frozen around us.
Life isn’t theater. For this, we should be grateful, even when life—and by extension, ourselves—lets us down.
I dropped my cigarette and put it out with my shoe, bearing down on the lit end with my toe. I wanted to tell him he wouldn’t get off that easy. I wanted to tell him the only thing that stood between him and getting fired had been me, and that I had made a mistake. I wanted to tell him to fuck off, that I hoped we never saw each other again, that I pitied the next person to work with him.
But I also wanted to be liked. And his hand held out the promise, no matter how false, that one day I could be.
I reached out my hand and took his.
“Sure,” I said. “Yes.”