Directing is Painting

Garland Wright grew up in Mid­land, Texas, where, in addition to stints such as “one of those grotesque child actors playing Hansel in the sixth grade,”[1] he developed a serious fas­cination with marionettes. He and a few friends developed their skills, did public shows and regularly appeared with the local symphony orchestra.[2]  In describing these experiences, Wright observed that “writing plays and building scenery and doing lights and music was always part of my youth, but oddly enough I always thought I was going to be a painter, because painting the puppets’ heads and the scenery was what I liked best to do. So I went to Southern Methodist University to study painting.”[3]  About half-way through his stint as a student painter, however, he made what would be a life-altering realization.

I was studying studio art [at] college—it was actually my ma­jor—and I went through this series of paintings I was doing. And it was autumn, and they started off with skies and trees—I was doing landscapes and large expansive views. And then, some­what later, I found I was doing a series of paintings which were chairs in my apartment and later, like, chairs in other peoples’ homes and chairs in the art studio, and sometime later I found that I was painting a painting of the rug that the easel was on. And I panicked. In the most visceral way, almost like an anxiety seizure. I panicked and said, “if I continue painting, I will soon paint the easel itself and then I will paint the brush I am paint­ing with and I will have gone so far away, I will have become so lon-. . . uh. . . alone in this activity that I don’t think I’ll be able to recover.” And it’s at that moment that I realized, though I knew I was an artist of some kind, that I needed interaction of some kind. So I pursued the theater.[4]

This pursuit of interaction as part of the artistic process eventu­ally led him to discover that, for him, “painting” and “directing” did not have to be mutually exclusive. “[Directing] is painting with people. One is sculpting the background and foreground and making pictures, but the picture becomes more interesting when it has sound and emotional weight and interaction. So I’m not sure I ever really made the transfer. I still think of it the way I thought about painting, but the materials are more variable and therefore more surprising. And probably I’m just better at it than I was at painting.”[5]

[1] Wright, quoted in Bennetts, “Director’s Odyssey,” 21.
[2] Vaughan, “Guthrie ‘Candide,’” C1.
[3] Wright, quoted in Bennetts, “Director’s Odyssey,” 21.
[4] Wright, The Best of Portrait, Interview.
[5] Wright, quoted in Bennetts, “Director’s Odyssey,” 21.

The Misanthrope in Minnesota

Caroline Lagerfeldt (Celimene) in The Misanthrope (Guthrie Theater,1987.) © Joe Giannetti/ Guthrie Theater, 1987.
Caroline Lagerfeldt (Celimene) in The Misanthrope
(Guthrie Theater,1987.)
© Joe Giannetti/ Guthrie Theater, 1987.

The political winds had changed by 1987, as the ambiance emanating from President Reagan’s administration had shifted from a Panglossian euphoria to what Garland perceived as a darker tone of obfuscation and intrigue at the highest levels of the new aristocracy, and re-firing his interest in The Misanthrope.  Moliere’s dark comedy opened the Guthrie’s 1987-88 season, under Wright’s direction. . . .

While maintaining that Alceste, the title character, “contains the meaning of the play,” Garland was intrigued by Celimene’s function as “the source of the play’s problem, . . . the center of the play in that Alceste has to make his decisions based on this neurotic obsession he has with her.”[10] He also was intent, however, on laying open her performative facade to reveal the frail human, struggling even as she is being watched and feeling the burden of constantly keeping up appearances. This he achieved most clearly in one brief but jarringly effective moment, succinctly described by critic David Hawley, “Celimene makes her first entrance like a radiant goddess, float­ing through the massive doors of her palace-sized house in a pure-white dress and a broad-brimmed hat topped with pink roses. Within minutes, however, she strips off the finery, revealing fragile, pale limbs, her close-cropped hair matted, her face slightly streaked with rouge.”[11]

The effect of seeing Celimene (played by Caroline Lagerfelt) standing, Sinead O’Connor-like, in undergarments and shaved head before Alceste was a chilling reminder of the empty theatrical game that Celimene was indentured to, but could not resist. Moreover it height­ened the palpable sense of both the intoxicating and deeply disturbing effects of the collision of power, sexuality and social politics in the play and the production. I recall in that moment feeling one of those rare sensations one experiences in the theater: that suddenly and powerfully all the air had been drawn out of the flouncy, billowy ambience of the scene, replaced by a blunt mug-shot to be viewed under an unforgiving white light.[12]

Celimene was also the central figure in the staging of the closing tableau of the performance, a final moment that was as powerful as it was enigmatic in its commentary about the cost of one’s adoption of a false self. Working from Wright’s view, communicated repeatedly in rehearsal, that “the crowds murder Celimene this evening”[13] she, left alone on stage, began by slowly picking up red roses she had scattered about the stage earlier. Her arms finally full of flowers and wearing a blazing red dress, she moved slowly, deliberately, across the black-lacquer-and-gold setting into a bright­ening pool of white light downstage center, as deafening music built to a crescendo. As the music reached a climax, the actress made a tentative bow that played as part curtsey, part supplication. Suddenly, rocks smashed through the upstage window unit, angry shouting and the singing of La Marseillaise were heard, and the lights snapped out, leaving the audience for a moment in black silence to ponder Celimene’s gruesome fate.[14]  Mike Steele called it a “theatrically beautiful, unexpectedly chilling finale.”[15]  David Hawley wondered, “And how will Celimene fare? In one dazzling moment of silent acting, Lagerfelt leaves that question hanging.”[16]

For my own part, I can only add that if the “stripping down” scene had taken the air out of the theater, this last had put its metaphori­cal hand over nose and mouth among most of the audience, allowing no breath to stir in the darkness for several seconds.

[10] Wright, quoted in Bartow, Director’s Voice, 334.
[11] Hawley, “Misanthrope,” B10.
[12] Wright, Misanthrope.
[13] Misanthrope promptbook, 4-2.
[14] Wright, Misanthrope.
[15] Steele, “Rich ‘Misanthrope,’” C1.
[16] Hawley, “Misanthrope,” B10.


The third thing we need to do to have a real theater experience is perhaps the most crucial: Banish any fear we have of imagination. What do I mean by this? Well let me try to go about explaining it by a circuitous route.

Theater artists and teachers very often talk of the stage as a truth­ful place and we tend to use this word “truth” a lot when we talk of our work—to act a moment truthfully, honestly. But I think that is somewhat misleading and in a sense robs the stage of the very thing that gives it a certain power: its falseness. One of the cruel paradoxes in the theater is that we lie in order to tell the truth. We wear costumes, our palaces are plywood and paint, our lights are brighter than true moonlight but not as bright as real sunlight. . . . And the events in the theater are characterized by intention. We don’t live our real lives with intention. Things just happen to us. And we don’t necessarily know why. In the theater we know why, or assume we do. We talk ad nauseam in rehearsal about why things happen. The actor playing Richard III is carrying around a conscious knowledge of what his mother has done to him—how she withdrew her love from him at birth because of his deformity. And now he’s going to do a lot of bad things to people because of it. The real Richard III didn’t know any of this, and he wasn’t going to sit around five hundred years waiting for Freud to be born. He just got on with his life, and he killed some people to do it. And though our behavior on the stage seems real, truthful, it is not. It is choreographed in strange dances and it reconstructs the very structure of time in order to add meaning to what, in life, seems meaningless. It is selec­tive in a way that life never is. We have all been at theatrical performances where real life suddenly intrudes: a glass is broken unintentionally, or a line is flubbed. The theater’s falseness is punctured by reality and we see how odd, almost surreal real life looks in this strange context—as when, at Disney World, a real bird lands on the ear of the plastic hippopotamus.

And though there seems to be a dishonesty in this, it is the source of the simplest instinct which we all share—and that is play. We even call them “plays.” Play is the exact accurate description of the event if it works properly. . . . This playfulness, I contend, is a product of the imagination, and if we fear making the imaginative leap that a play requires, we are hin­dered in our ability to experience it. And it can be frightening, this thing called imagining. Very powerful.

We have only to watch a child pretend that the cardboard box is an armored tank, and that the clods of dirt which he throws are can­non fire to see the mysterious power that this pretending has. Pretending, knowing reality but ignoring it through imagination, is the simple unify­ing possibility in the theater. That is the fundamental thing being shared by both actor and audience: the huge, vast landscape of the imagination. We must not underestimate this. It won’t work without it. When some people speak of the theater as a dying art—something incidentally I have never done—they may be describing a failure of the imagination. And that would be tragic, not only for the theater but for our lives (Wright, “Keynote,” 1-9.)