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 do?
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. (800) WHARTON www.whartoncenter.com