Disagreement is a natural part of any collaborative creative process. With most theatrical productions, the creative team works toward a director’s vision for the play. As such, the buck stops with the director when creative disagreements arise.
The August: Osage County that opened last night for a three-night run at the Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts comes to the stage by way of a rather unorthodox process. Two directors are running this show, Deborah and Delia Taylor, the mother/daughter at the helm of the school’s “Creating a Role” workshop.
“Creating a Role” offers beginning actors a fairly old-fashioned introduction to theater: experience. The class casts students in a play, guides them through the rehearsal process, and puts on a performance that’s open to the public. And the plays they produce aren’t the stuff of high-school productions; they’re often challenging, meaty works.
August: Osage County is an epic drama about a family ravaged by addiction and incest. It earned Tracy Letts a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2008, and the Broadway production won that year’s Tony for Best Play. At its center is Violet Weston, a matriarch with a strained, occasionally violent relationship with each of her daughters. This is tough emotional territory even for the most seasoned stage performers.
Yet the emotional warfare on stage in August: Osage County stands in stark contrast to the warm, cooperative atmosphere of the Taylor-run rehearsal hall. Delia Taylor, an actor and director who’s worked at WSC Avant Bard and Theater J, came up with the idea of team-teaching. When Delia was approached to coach a Shakespeare class at the Lab, she proposed a co-teaching arrangement with her mother, Deborah, a retired English literature teacher with a specialty in Shakespeare. Soon thereafter, the pair got to work on their first collaboration, Othello. Delia started out handling staging while Deb oversaw guiding students through script analysis.
With time, the Taylors’ roles became more fluid. When I stopped by for a recent rehearsal, Delia was keeping an eye on staging while Deb followed the script, feeding the actors lines when necessary. When the cast finished running through Act 3, both directors began offering feedback, and the cast did, too. The result was a free-flowing conversation that addressed everything from furniture placement to how to play Violet’s exact degree of withdrawal from prescription drugs.
Deborah and Delia credit their ability to co-direct without any “serious power struggles” to a tendency to share opinions and artistic taste. In the rehearsal I saw, only two creative disagreements arose—-and in one instance, Delia stepped aside and granted Deborah veto power.
Situations like that might say more about Deborah and Delia Taylor as co-teachers than as directors. The aim of the class and production is to develop an actor’s instincts, rather than to see a vision brought to life on stage. It’s an approach that one of the veteran actors in class knows not to take for granted. “For those that go on in their acting careers, this friendly, family-like bonding will not always be their experience,” says Dane Galloway, a student and member of Actor’s Equity Association whom the union granted special permission to perform the role of Charlie Aiken in August: Osage County. “But this project is a wonderful memory and a good start to the ‘business.'”
The play runs at to Saturday May 18 at Theatre Lab, 733 8th St. NW. (202) 824-0449.