Page to Stage — The Director’s Craft

–by Kyle Moore

Sitting in an audience at the American Repertory Theatre for a production of “Waiting for Godot” many years ago, there was a point in the play when Jessica Kubzansky started to wonder where it said in the script that the actors were to gallop around the stage on all fours.  When she read the text and realized that Beckett had never written that direction – that it had all sprung from the interpretive imagination of director Andre Belgrader – she began to realize what a director in the theatre really does.

Since witnessing that eye-opening production, Jessica herself has gone on to become one of Los Angeles’ most sought-after, innovative, and highly praised theatre directors.  Her steady gig is as co-artistic director of the Theatre @ Boston Court, a beautifully appointed  performance space in Pasadena.  And although she now directs in mainstream Equity houses around the country, her loyalty remains steadfastly aligned with the kind of theatre that can only be done in the open-minded, artistically challenging environment that the Theatre @ Boston Court fosters.

Jessica says that her mother suspected she would grow up to be a director when she started having other children fold her blanket for her in nursery school.  Her first entry into the theatre, though, was as a playwright, pursuing her undergraduate degree at Johns Hopkins and at Harvard.  Her director’s instincts began to flicker to life while the class was staging scenes from their works-in-progress.  Jessica found herself thinking, “Oh, if that actor just waited three more beats before he crossed over to the window, that would be so much better!”

Doors began to open for her when she was invited to direct one of her own plays at “a scrappy little theatre” in Austin, Texas.  Chucking the one and only full-time, paying job with benefits she’s ever had, (Much to her parents’ dismay, she laughs) she traveled to Austin, and soon afterwards found herself directing other plays around town as well.  After working steadily in Austin and other cities, she obeyed her instincts to pursue further training and attended grad school at Cal Arts.  Although she’d originally intended to head to Chicago or New York after graduating, she quickly realized that those cities weren’t as inviting as Los Angeles; she’d already started getting jobs from the faculty at Cal Arts, so she made her home here and has been directing award-winning productions ever since.

“What attracts me to a script most often is good language.  I love poetry for the theatre.  And what attracts me to any script is the profundity of the humanity, which can come in many, many guises.  But then again, sometimes it’s just something that makes me laugh.”

Working her way through a script at an initial reading, a concept of what that play is trying to say and what it means to her begins to take shape in her mind.  Sometimes the message can be delivered with the central unifying theme of a color.  In John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves,” which she directed at West Coast Ensemble, she found that blue was “a color of attainment.”  Based on that, she had every surface on the set of Guare’s play about the drab life of a failed composer painted a dull rust color, with his dreams exemplified by blue leaves dangling just out of reach outside an open window.

The second most essential element in her creative process is the designers and actors who help her serve the central message of a play.  “I don’t necessarily show up with a vision of what the set looks like,” says Jessica.  “I need the kind of designer who can say, ‘Ooohh, I have a great idea!’”  The same goes when it comes to rehearsing with her actors.  “I’d like to think that I’m the kind of director who is open to other people’s ideas being better than mine.  I have one brain in the room, and there may be ten others in there as well.  So if an actor is bringing something brilliant into the room that I didn’t anticipate, why inhibit that?”

Directing, she says, “Uses every single bit of me.  It uses my mind, and my heart, and my childlike wonder, and my people skills, and my ability to understand humanity on some very basic level, and my love of language.  There is no piece of me that it doesn’t require.  So I find directing an incredibly satisfying thing to do.”  When pressed, though, she might confess that the rehearsal process is her favorite part of being a director.  “There are things that happen in rehearsals that no audience is ever going to see.  Sometimes those moments don’t serve the play so they can’t stay in, but they are genius, and that is the most thrilling joy.”

No artistic endeavor is complete, however, without its audience, and that’s where Jessica reaps the fruits of her labor.  Remaining anonymous so as to investigate whether or not her message has hit its mark is not always possible at her own theatre, but in other theatres where she works she’s been known to employ somewhat surreptitious methods.  She’s asked friends to forego giving her flowers on opening night so she can mingle in the lobby during intermission and after a show, and she’ll even listen in on conversations in the ladies’ room to hear what people are saying.  And during a performance, she says, “I know they’re getting it if we have that brilliant silence of listening, or if there’s appreciative laughter, or that sort of stunned silence that occurs immediately after the curtain falls.”  After a production of “Heartbreak House” at the Colony Theatre, she saw a woman in the audience with tears streaming down her face, and she thought, “Okay, I could stop now, and it would be okay.”  But even she has been occasionally surprised by what she’s wrought.  “I’ve had friends who’ve told me that they went out and made a baby after I did a play, and I thought, ‘Wow, theatre made somebody make a baby??  That’s amazing!!”

 

The Theatre @ Boston Court is located at 70 North Mentor Street in Pasadena.  Jessica’s next production will be the world premiere of Laura Schellhardt’s “Courting Vampires,” which begins previews April 30th and opens May 9th.  For information, go to www.bostoncourt.com or call 626-683-6883

 

About Peter Finlayson

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Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and footlight.click. While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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