What's the Role of the Director?

It was only around the start of the 20th century that the function of the person who presents the play arose as a separate position.

Why is a director needed in the theater? Or more precisely: What exactly does he, the director, do? The role of director is an outcome of the institutionalization of the art of the theater, just as the role of conductor is a result of the institutionalization of the work of performing music.

In the distant past, the playwright would see to it that his play was performed. He would decided who would act in it and how, and where the actors would stand on the stage. Later this was done by the troupe managers, who functioned as the managers of the performance and were usually the leading actors. In the Elizabethan era this role had a title: master of play.

It was only around the start of the 20th century that the function of the person who presents the play arose as a separate position. Thanks to particularly talented creative people it took on mysterious dimensions; thanks to creative people with particularly large egos, it sometimes took on monstrous dimensions.

In 1971 I saw on the stage of the National Theatre in England, which was still pretty much in diapers (the famed English National Theatre was only founded in 1963), at the Old Vic Theatre, Spanish playwright Fernando Arrabal's "The Emperor and the Architect of Assyria." The director was the Wunderkind and enfant terrible of the time, Victor Garcia (1935-1982) from Argentina.

Anthony Hopkins and Jim Dale wore shabby loincloths, the lighting booms went up and down, counter-tenors strolled among the audience with sheet music and candles in their hands and sang madrigals. I didn't understand a single word and it was a mesmerizing theatrical experience. Eventually I read in the memoirs of Kenneth Tynan - the National's theatrical advisor - that Laurence Olivier, the director of the theater, wanted to ask the maestro something about the play. Garcia held the text between two fingers, as though it were a dirty rag, and said: "Sir Laurence. I detest literature. I abominate the theater. I have a horror of culture. I am only interested in magic!"

Later in the conversation Garcia, who specialized in making unreasonable demands, asked for an opening to be cut in the roof of the theater so that the audience, and the actors, would be able to see the night sky through it. Olivier looked at the ceiling, he looked at Garcia and he answered him along the lines of: "My dear Maestro, the Germans did not succeed in destroying the roof of this hall, nor shall you."

A few years later the same play was put on at the Habimah National Theater, in Hebrew. Arrabal, who was born in Spain in 1932, is apparently the most performed playwright in the world. And in the 1960s and 1970s he enjoyed great success in Israel as he did abroad. The Haparsa Theater, one of the first theatrical frameworks where Gedaliah Besser worked as an actor, put on his plays "Fando and Lis" and "Picnic on the Battlefield." Arrabal's "The Car Cemetery," directed by Edna Shavit, was the last play at the Ohel Theater before it was closed.

"The Architect and the Emperor of Abyssinia" at Habimah, in Hebrew, was directed by the artistic director of the theater in the 1970, David Levin. Shlomo Bar-Shavit and Nissim Azikri played the two roles, but to the best of my recollection they were apparently not naked or in ragged loincloths. There were no counter-tenors but on the stage, in the Meskin Hall, stood a crane (or was it perhaps a forklift?) that went up and down. I still didn't understand a thing but the theatrical experience was, for some reason, more meager.

Several years later Victor Garcia was invited to direct at Habimah. This was a play by Federico Garcia Lorca, because the temperament seemed suitable. I must admit that I do not remember the production, even though I am certain that I saw it. However I clearly remember the stories about how at night, after the rehearsals, while skipping in the fountain between Habimah and Heichal Hatarbut, he would fan rebellion among the theater's actors and urge them to destroy the large hall to its very foundations so that it would be possible to see the sky from the auditorium. It seems to me that now, during the renovation of the building, Victor Garcia is dropping down from heaven for a visit and at his back is the wrathful face of Olivier's ghost.

Garcia was an extreme case of directorial ego, and only sometimes did his works justify his caprices. Basically, the work of directing is the creative artist's journey with the play and a wealth of creative colleagues - a translator, a designer, a musician, a lighting director - to create a new, unique, one-time work of art in a language that has already been tried yet comes together each time anew.

Sometimes a director's greatness is in that his presence is not felt. Sometimes the greatness of a production is in that his touch is felt at every moment. Sometimes his work has to be that of a skilled artisan, who provides a service (in effect, to the actors). There is no single recipe. But there are many ways to fail, and few ways to succeed. Most of them demand a readiness to dare, not to give in to the obvious and above all - at least in my opinion - to be humble. To know that apparently it is impossible without a director, but the director is not everything, even though he, of course, is responsible for everything.