Thank you, Mr. Clurman

Harold Clurman, member of the Group Theatre

By Mark W. Travis

For over forty years I’ve had a love/hate relationship with the world of the director. I love the fact that there is always so much to learn and that every day there are new discoveries, new techniques revealed, and new books and DVDs detailing the work of other directors. And I hate the fact that there is so much to learn, that I can never catch up, I can never learn it all, never read it all, never try it all. There is a part of me that wants it all to end, that wants to say, “Now I’m done. There is no more learning to do.”

It’s 1963. I’ve just turned twenty and I’ve given myself a great gift – a new book to read. A book on directing. It’s my first book on directing, ominously called, “On Directing” by Harold Clurman. I have no idea who Harold Clurman is but I read on the flap that he is a member of the Group Theatre along with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, and Elia Kazan. I know nothing about the Group Theatre but I do know about Elia Kazan.

Two weeks later and I am totally immersed in the book. I think Harold Clurman is like a car mechanic. You know, one of those guys who can take a car apart, break it down into all its essential parts, gears, pistons and wheels and then put it back together. And once it’s back together it runs better that it did before. He’s one of those guys. Amazing.

He’s teaching me how to break apart a script, sort of like a car. He’s showing me how to look for the essential parts we can’t see. He’s given them names like objectives, obstacles, intentions, actions, activities, risks, stakes, and expectations. He says that if you can’t find them when you attempt to put it back together, or put it on the stage, it’s not going to work. It won’t run. It won’t be the vehicle you thought it was when you first read it. It will have slipped away from you.

Not to worry. Mr. Clurman promises an approach, a methodology, a technique that can help bring these mysterious and illusive parts out of hiding and into the light.

I follow his instructions to the T, excited as each step reveals another possibility, another option, another potential piece of the puzzle. Moment by moment, on the ‘back page’ I write the objectives for each character. I identify the obstacles. I do my best to ascertain each character’s intentions and the meaning and purpose to every action. I infuse each character with risks that will raise the stakes. I write it all down, in detail, line by line. Scene by scene. I feel a rush of excitement that tells me I am now being a director. I can imagine, with great delight, how thrilled my actors will be when I share all of my discoveries with them.

For the first time I understand the job of the director. All I have to do is dissemble the play, separate all of its parts, discover, imagine or design the elusive hidden parts, write it all down in my script and then just share it with the actors. That’s it. That’s the way it’s done. Bless you, Mr. Clurman.

I’m down to the last scene in the play. My director’s script is bulging with pages and pages of notes, observations, and discoveries. Suddenly there’s panic, a deep searing panic. How am I going to share all of these insights and discoveries with my actors? It took me weeks just to write it all. I’m paralyzed.

Then an epiphany. Maybe I should finish reading Mr. Clurman’s book. I had gotten so excited about the techniques of breaking down every scene that I stopped reading and plowed into the script.

I grab the book. I continue reading and Mr. Clurman says, “When you go into rehearsals do NOT take your director’s workbook with you. Leave it at home. Take a clean, fresh script that has no notes, nothing on the back pages. Take a clean, unmarked script and trust that what you need will come to you.”

Are you kidding me? Trust that what I need will come to me?!

Do you realize how much work I’ve done, the hours I’ve put in, the discoveries I’ve made, the pages I’ve filled? Do you really think any of that is going to ‘come to me’ when I need it? No way! I need my workbook! Stupid Harold Clurman. What does he know?

That was 1963. I was so pissed that I went ahead and finished my workbook. And just to prove Harold Clurman wrong, I took my beautiful workbook to my first rehearsal, proudly displaying it to the actors and everyone in attendance. “Nice.” “Interesting.” “Impressive” was the response I got. See? I knew they’d be impressed.

I discovered that a script is not a car. I discovered that the gears and pistons and wheels of a script are flexible, malleable, and the hidden parts will show up differently every day. A car is a machine and it will respond to your demands in a predictable way. A script is a living, breathing organism. By the end of that first day I found myself lugging my unused and unusable workbook home. I stuck it in a box and hid that box deep in a closet, never to be opened again. I hated that Mr. Clurman was right. And I hated it when everything I needed seemed to be coming to me after all.

It’s 1980 and I’m sitting in the Director’s Workshop at the Actors Studio in New York City. I am there by the special invitation of the instructor, Harold Clurman. We’re in the main rehearsal room where the gods of the Actors Studio, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Clifford Odets worked. We’re in the very room where my idol, my hero, Elia Kazan, taught and directed.

We’re discussing the language of the actor. I’ve only had a few brief private conversations with Mr. Clurman and it’s time to impress him with what I know. I raise my hand.

“Yes, Mark?”

“Mr. Clurman, I was reading in your book, On Directing, about the many different ways that actors are trained and how they prepare their characters with different techniques, so now I can see how important it is to learn how to talk to each actor differently according to their background, history, experiences and training.”

I’m waiting for a response. He seems to be waiting for me to say something more. Or ask a question. I have nothing to say. He takes a step closer to me. “Is there a question you wanted to ask, Mark, or did you just want to impress everyone in the room that you’d read my book?”

The silence around me is deafening. I quickly blurt out, “No, no question. I just was hoping that you could teach us more about how we should approach different actors and how we should adjust our work according to their training…” and my question peters out and slumps away into the silence of the room.

Mr. Clurman takes a patient breath. “There are no rules. There are no restrictions. There are no specific guidelines. There is only honest, genuine human behavior and human interaction. Never plan how to work with an actor. Forget their training, experience or background and preparation. And forget yours as well. Engage with them openly, honestly, authentically. Trust your instincts. They will tell you what to do. Don’t prepare. Trust that what you need will come to you.”

It’s 3:00 AM and I’m limping home from the weekly Actors Studio marathon. The city streets are quiet, punctuated by car tires squeaking through the newly fallen snow. I’m passing a brightly lit bookstore, new releases proudly displayed in the window. I stop for a moment to collect my thoughts. Oh no. Oh no. There is the window … a new book on directing … a new book called “On Directing by Elia Kazan.” And I get this sinking feeling in my heart that I am going to have to start all over again.

Mark W. Travis

July 19, 2017

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