STARTING A DIRECTING CAREER... AT AGE FIVE
by Meredith Bean McMath
Uh, oh. Need a guy doll for Meg? No problem! I grabbed my brother's G.I. Joe. Yes, yes, he was shorter than Meg, but Joe had way better pecs than Ken.
I also had another skill that made me the hit of the neighborhood: I was the only one who could do guy voices for the male dolls. Quite a skill for a five-year old.
Fast forward to my excruciatingly boring years at an all-girl Catholic elementary school. While there, my best friend and I created what we called, "The Story”. Used mostly as a device to daydream about boys, she and I would trade off telling "The Story” - an uncomplicated tale of two fabulously well-dressed, jet-setting female spies who traveled the world on the arms of their "James Bondian" boyfriends. One day I paused the story line to pass it off to her – as we always had - but instead, she said, "No, Meredith. You keep telling it. You're the real story teller."
That was an important day.
My big break came when our school offered our 4th grade class a chance to produce its own talent show. I immediately sat down and wrote a play, then cast my fellow classmates, directed my friends through rehearsals, and brought it to the stage. But it was a disaster…. and it was all my fault. Classic rookie error! I’d cast myself in the lead role. Figuring I’d written the lines, I was certain I’d remember them. Yeah. No.
From that I learned I had a lot to learn. But I also learned that I really, really liked directing human beings. They had their own voices, could make their own character choices, and the bendable arms and legs were a definite plus.
As I grew older, I developed another passion: history. Figuring a History Major would give me a better chance at a normal income, I chose to gain a BA in History at the College of William and Mary. After graduating, I began work at a small museum that was once a tavern. When the staff was asked to create public programming, naturally I wrote a play about tavern life and asked my college friends to join me. Best casting decision I ever made? Asking a tall redhead named Chuck McMath to play the Stage Coach Driver. He said yes. And a year later, I said yes. Did I mention I'm really good at casting?
When Chuck and I moved to Loudoun County, Virginia, I began creating living history programs for area museums, preservation organizations, schools and libraries. Through our son’s preschool class, I met Laurie Farnsworth - the most amazing seamstress I've ever had the pleasure to know. Laurie and her friend, Dolly Stevens, had just formed a theatre company: The Growing Stage. Would I like to help with costuming? Indeed I would.
While working with The Growing Stage, I spent a lot of time observing Dolly Steven's brilliant directing techniques. Dolly is a graduate of Shenandoah University's Drama Department - and was the first student to receive a degree in Musical Theatre (something the University is famous for, now). Dolly turned and hired Tom Sweitzer - another Shenandoah U grad - to direct one of her shows, and I watched Tom's brilliant directing process. Then Tim Jon — a Loudoun County Radio DJ who'd spent eighteen years of his life as a professional actor — started producing Shakespeare in the area, and I watched his brilliant process.
I appreciated every minute of my unofficial internships. Each director had a unique directing style, were uniquely gifted, and generous with their time and talents. And each changed the lives of everyone with whom they worked.
In the meantime, I'd continued to write plays. There was one play I was particularly happy with: it was based on true stories from the pages of Loudoun County Civil War history. Had no idea what would happen to it, but I knew it was time to try it on the stage… as long as I stayed out of the cast.
And then Dolly Stevens took a chance on me and decided to produce and direct my Civil War play, All for the Union (then known as The Waterford Girls). Dolly had been the first Musical Theatre graduate from Shenandoah Conservatory and the instructor of my first adult acting class. From Dolly I learned things about commanding space on the stage, effective blocking, and an entire goodie bag worth of acting techniques. One day during rehearsals for my play, Dolly watched a young actress who kept crying during an emotional monologue. She stopped her and said, "Listen. If you cry, the audience doesn't have to… and they won't. But if you almost cry, the audience will cry for you, and then you have them." Dolly was dead right, and I've used that technique ever since.
Then there's Tom Sweitzer - another theatre force. From watching Tom, I learned how to layer and build rehearsals — how to take into account where each actor is in the development of their character and give an actor one step at a time to work on (rather than ask for everything at once). Tom had been working on a musical based on his childhood in Altoona, PA. I was thrilled when he asked me write the book using his concept and outline. When we began rehearsal for Porches, I remember speaking to him about a particular actor, asking him why he wasn't pushing this person more. Tom said, "He's not ready. I'll bring that to him when he's ready." And he was spot on. That blew me away.
And from Tim Jon I learned how to approach Shakespearean text. I have a thing for the Bard — been in love with his work since 5th grade, when my best friends and I acted out the scene with Juliet, Lady Capulet and Nurse. I was Nurse. Our teacher, Mrs. Romito, taught us how to interpret the text, and endeared her to us forever by explaining all the dirty jokes (Years later I learned Mrs. Romito had been a professional actor. Did not surprise me at all, and I am so thankful she took the time to share her talents with us).
Fast forward: Through Tim Jon’s company, NOT JUST SHAKESPEARE, we learned the professional actor's approach to Shakespearean text... and I learned several more of the Bard's dirty jokes.
From Tim I also learned actors' preparation and the efficacy of improvisation. For instance, when actors over-focus on remembering their lines or stage movement, improv is a great way to shake them loose.
Tim has a deep respect for an actor's process, and he excels in teaching actors how to build three-dimensional characters. His use of improv has encouraged me to experiment over the years, and that's been a gift. Around this time, I was taking Master Improvisation Classes with Tom Sweitzer, so, together, these two have had a huge influence on how I use improv while directing.
It was crucial the actress caught the gist of this life and death situation — otherwise the audience couldn’t see the British soldier's tension. They'd only see the young woman's face.
But there was no tension in the room at all.
So I stopped rehearsal and asked the British soldier to act out what would happen if those Minuteman actually found him hiding behind the door. Okay. Granted there was no real knife, but they got into a serious brawl that ended with a Minuteman disconnecting an British soldier's thoughts from his actions.
And the actress got it. She played the tension from there on out - and she was brilliant, and the scene began to glow. Improv saved the day once more.
* Arms and the Highlander is my Colonial Adaptation of G.B. Shaw's Arms and the Man.