Playbuilding: Director vs. Dictator

My husband said it freaked him out.

“It” is the cover of Playbuilding, a guide for group creation of plays with young people, by Errol Bray. The book was published in 1991 and yes, the cover is odd and somewhat disturbing. It features a photograph of a young boy wearing nothing but a garment reminiscent of a diaper. His image is blurry because he is falling through the air, arms spread wide. Two people hold onto his legs as he falls and a group of others hold the edges of a blanket, stretched below him. It appears as if the group is going to catch the boy in the blanket, but, as my husband pointed out, they don’t seem all that alert. Besides, the blanket looks flimsy. From the picture, we can tell that the boy is falling. But we’re left to wonder, how did he land?

It might not be a high quality image, but the photo on the cover of this book beautifully encapsulates the feeling a director often has in the middle of any production’s rehearsal process. Will this play stick the landing or fall flat on its face? This is even more the case with playbuilt shows.

Bray defines “playbuilding” as the “creative process of assembling a dramatic performance or presentation from the building blocks of drama and theatre, through improvisation, discussion, and rehearsal” (1). Essentially, it’s a group of people creating their own show. As a teaching artist, I have directed young people in several playbuilding projects. It’s rewarding work and it’s hard. Very hard. Even if the group is developing their piece from a specific prompt, such as “What is family?” the sky is virtually the limit. Knowing where to start can be daunting.

Bray urges playbuilders to first pick what type of play they want to create and use that as a guide for selecting which material will then fit into the show. He outlines four types of plays: theme plays (on a general topic), story plays (where the plot is the main thread), character plays (examines specific characters), and setting plays (explores a specific location) (5). I’ve worked with each of these play types, some more successfully than others. Upon reflection, I realize that the type of show we were trying to build wasn’t always completely clear. And when the type of show was fuzzy, that led to having an equally fuzzy end goal. Without a very clear goal, a goal that grows more defined and specific as the play takes shape, it’s difficult to determine which ideas the group will explore and which ones will be tossed. Soon everyone gets tangled in the thicket of ideas.

It’s the director’s job to help keep things on track.

The trick is not to be too controlling in the process. The final product must belong to the group of creators and not the director. Throughout the book, Bray continually reminds the director of playbuilt shows to establish boundaries and to protect the group from over-direction. In his chapter on structuring the playbuilt show, he outlines the development of the director’s relationship to the group in the following steps: initiator, leader, encourager, approver, expert, critic at all times, equal creator, teacher of skills, director, outsider. He says, “The ideal director structure is that of gradually rubbing yourself out of the project” (52).

Easier said than done. Looking back, I can see that the most frustrating rehearsals that I have been a part of felt stagnant or chaotic because of a lack of clarity. I often attributed the frustration to the group not being clear on what it was they really wanted to say or accomplish in their final piece. This was true to an extent, but really the problem was deeper than that. I wasn’t clear enough about my role as the director. Too often, ideas for the play would spin wildly out of control and suddenly, smack dab in the middle of the rehearsal process, I and any co-directors I was working with, would have to step in and exert some “I’m the expert” force to try to salvage a decent product out of the mess. And suddenly, no matter what I tried to say or do after that, the play became mine. Not the group’s.

I’ve come to realize that I had things backwards. I was so concerned about preserving the group’s creative freedom that I gave them too much leeway and not enough structured support at the critical beginning stages of the playbuilding process. I started out with too much emphasis on being an encourager and not enough on being a leader. By starting with too much freedom, I set my students up to fail or at least to flail.  If only I had been clearer about choosing the type of show, establishing goals, and outlining my role at the beginning, perhaps I could have avoided becoming any semblance of a dictator in the end. Although, to be fair, I occasionally worked with particularly obstinate groups of young people who, no matter how hands off I tried to be, thought that any guidance meant that I was threatening their creative control of the play. Even so, being clearer from the outset could have helped.

This is not to say that I have never successfully guided a group of young playmakers in creating their own show. I’ve helped many groups create something that they are proud of. I just see the opportunity to improve. I want to grow and deepen my understanding of what really works in the vulnerable beauty of the creative process. Reading this book has me itching to direct another playbuilt show. Maybe next time, I will be able to follow Bray’s steps for the director’s involvement. I probably won’t. At least not perfectly. But guiding young people in making a play of their own creation is an adventure worth stumbling through over and over again. I hope that, with every stumbling success story, I will get closer to achieving clarity in the process and in my ever-adapting role as a director. After all, even directors fall flat on their faces sometimes.

SOURCE MATERIAL: Bray, Errol. Playbuilding. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1991. Print.
Bray Playbuilding



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