March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Michigan State University director Ann Folino White discusses her techniques of working with actors and the importance of dramaturgy


It’s the largest cast she has ever directed. However, Ann
Folino White is confident that her cast of 40 actors and musicians in “The
Grapes of Wrath” is ready for an audience. It certainly helps that her period
of expertise is performance during the Great Depression. From new script reader
for the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago to actor to dramaturge and director at
Michigan State University, Folino White has extensive experience on and off the
stage. Folino White spoke this week about the challenges of directing a
show like “The Grapes of Wrath” at the collegiate level, the skills she teaches
her students, and how her actor training and scholarly passion inform her
directing style.

How is directing a
collegiate theatrical production unique?

AFW: When I direct a show at the university, I am working
with new (and advanced) undergraduate students, design and acting graduate
students, and my fellow faculty, who are professionals in the field. With that combination
of people and skill levels, I try to treat all of them as collaborators. I try
to model professionalism. We run our rehearsals and performances with the
standards of (Actors’) Equity and professional companies so that our students
get used to those standards of practice. We do a lot of peer mentoring.

At the same time, we instruct students on what the standards
of practice are. One thing that I really try to do is emphasize to students that
they need to take ownership for their artistry. By that I mean they need to make
choices. Then my job both as the director and as the educator is to tell them
why a particular choice works and why it doesn’t. I’m trying to give them
independence and gentle guidance toward that independence.

Do you tailor your
direction to different skill levels?

AFW: Actors
process and work in all different ways. Sometimes it’s just based on who they
are and sometimes it’s based on skill level. I expect the same standard of
excellence from all of them. At the same time, I work to tailor my vocabulary.
Directors need to have an incredible, flexible vocabulary. For some actors,
metaphors work; for some actors, making them stand up against a wall or laying
on a floor, or whatever. Certain things work for certain actors and as a
director, you need to get to know your actors well enough to learn what kind of
vocabulary works for them.

How do you think your
experience as an actor informed your style of direction? Do you think it is
necessary to have experience as an actor first before becoming a director?

AFW: I don’t know if it’s necessary, but it has deeply impacted
my directing style. I direct through physical action. I cannot sit down to
direct. I move through the blocking with the actors. I like to make them work
with physical touch and focus on proximities of bodies in space. Because for me,
the way in which images and meaning is made on the stage is through the way in
which the bodies are interacting and responding to one another. I leave much of
the emotional work to the actor. ‘OK, so he’s sad. Fine. Or he’s upset about
something. How does that manifest on his body? Is he a yeller? Is he a brooder?
Does he pace? What kind of effect does it have on the body?’

What does a dramaturge

AFW: It depends on the director that you’re working with.
They have all sorts of jobs. They often are readers of new plays. But when
they’re working on a particular production, they are both the director’s
primary researcher and the director’s critical audience. For “The Grapes of
Wrath,” my dramaturge researched the pronunciations of certain cities, she
mapped the route of Route 66, researched terms that actors might be unfamiliar
with — anything that will help research-wise to realize that world to give you more informed actors and designers. A dramaturge
also serves as that critical audience in the way in which he or she will
suggest to the director if what they have staged actually reads to an audience,
or if it’s in line with the structure of the play, in line with the genre of
the play.

How has your past
experience as a dramaturge influenced your directing style?

AFW: I work through that text like crazy, which is me being
a dramaturge and a scholar of theater. I work very closely with, not only the
content of a play, but its structure (the dramaturgical structure, the material
world it’s trying to create). And I keep bringing the actors back to the text
again and again.

As a dramaturge, have
you ever found historical inaccuracies in a script? Do they matter? If not,
what does?

AFW: I think in part it depends on the content of the
play. If historical accuracy or
reality matter, that’s one thing. Most often that is not a major issue, but it’s
about an issue of clarity, I guess, of vision. Anne Bogart, famous theater
director, I may be misquoting her, but she talks about how the only thing that
matters in a play is the consistency of the world that you’ve created. That
world can have any rules. You can have a world like “Peter Pan” where there’s
fairies and little boys that never grow up, as long as those rules of the world
are respected throughout. So, you can live in a place with zero gravity, you
can live in the Dust Bowl where you have a car — such as we do in “The Grapes
of Wrath” — that never moves as we make this journey across the country. But as
long as we stay consistent in the rules that that world has, the world can be
made up any way we wish.

How do you deal with “difficult
to direct” actors?

AFW: I work very hard to model collaboration. I say, “There
is nothing wrong with saying ‘I am good at what I do.’ However, there is
something wrong if you can’t admit that you don’t know what you’re doing.” I
tell them, I’m a really good director. I’m a good teacher because I value it.
But if you ask me a question and I don’t know the answer to it, the worst thing
I can do is pretend like I did (know). And the best thing I can do is tell you,
“I don’t know, but I’ll work hard to find out,” or “let’s work on it
together.”’ I think that kind of attitude helps the actors, it breaks down that
wall of insecurity that comes off as arrogance or that comes off as un-directable
or unwilling to take a note.

Is there one lesson
that you’ve taken from someone you admire?

AFW: The one thing that does stick with me is from my graduate
work. The chair of my dissertation, the head of the program that I was in,
demanded excellence. Her criticism was always about making the work better. It
was honest and it was straightforward. She would work as hard for you as you
worked for yourself. I think that kind of dedication and investment in students
is one thing that I value that she taught me.

Michigan State University Department of Theatre
'The Grapes of Wrath'
MSU Auditorium, 113 Auditorium, East Lansing.
8 p.m. Friday, April 8, and Saturday, April 9; 2 p.m. Saturday, April 9, and Sunday, April 10.
$15 adults, $10 students, $13 seniors.