Directors Session with Michael Patrick Thornton

Don’t have a lot of time, so here’s the skinny: Did a Director’s Session at Vagabond a few months ago, and I’ve been meaning to write about it ever since. The guest director was Michael Patrick Thornton, Artistic Director of the Gift Theatre — a person I haven’t stopped hearing about since I got to Chicago (and even before). I was excited for this one.


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Big Takeaway:

Every choice you make as an actor, director or playwright comes down to “why would this character do this? Why would I write about it? Why would I perform it?” If you can answer that question in a deeply meaningful way — meaningful just for you — you gain loads of inspiration on who, what, where, when and how the action in question should be taken, if at all.

If you start up at the other end, asking yourself “how should I say this line?” or “how should I block this scene?” or “where should I set this play?” without first answering the “why,” everything loses momentum.

Inertia in Theatre

“Any room you perform in will lose heat until it is undesirable,” he said “and the only way to keep life and heat in the room is to pour your own love and passion into the other character: care deeply about them, whether in a good or bad way.” That’s a heavy paraphrase, but it gets at the first point: doing your best work will require personal investment, because the energy that drives creation and performance is generated in the starforge of your own soul. It also has a very specific application for writers, actors and directors: if a scene feels lopsided or bland, it’s probably because one of the characters (or actors) believes there is a significant power differential — either “I can’t lose here” or “I can’t win here.” If the other person can’t destroy you or save you, the scene will stall.

“But sometimes there is a power differential,” you say. Yeah. That’s true. But it seems to me that in any interaction worth writing about, each person believes they have something very important on the line. If a God is talking to an ant, there’s a reason. The God’s afraid that ant will or won’t do something or be something. The God needs that ant to change somehow, and for whatever reason, that change is very important to them. Otherwise why would a God talk to an ant? A king who wants his dinner ready in five minutes may fight just as hard as a servant who can’t make it that fast and stands to lose his life.

That’s why we must bring our own sense of what is meaningful to the work: we must find the space where the character’s “why” overlaps the most strongly with our own. This is why acting should be physically exhausting. Because the actor’s body, her struggles, his hopes, their attention and love are the fuel that keep the fires of tension burning.