Directors on Directing: Lee Lewis on directing, racial profiling, and death (part 2 of 3)

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LEE LEWIS

Photo credit: Brett Boardman for Out The Front.

If you missed part one, you can find it here.

The hardest thing for me is actually contact with normal people – what a regular existence is.
 

If you had to analyze yourself as a character and had to give yourself maybe three givens, what would they be?

The given of me is that I don’t have a lot of money and my theatre started with not a lot of money, so throwing money at a solution is deeply dissatisfying to me. I know that it’s possible but I like work to be cleverer than that, and I think there’s a joy in the audience where it’s solved with clever and not with money.

The other given is that I know no other life. I’ve been in theatre since I was three. I had one glimpse of normal life when I had a job when I first moved back to the States. I had six months where I worked in a brokerage firm in New York. It’s the only time I’ve ever been a regular human, where I haven’t had a theatre project, and even toward the end of that I did. And then I was going to drama school anyway. The hardest thing for me is actually contact with normal people – what a regular existence is. I have to imagine it because I don’t live it. Which is why I take the train a lot. To see the rhythm of regular people as opposed to theatre people  

And then the other given is I’ve nearly died a couple of times so that doesn’t worry me.

Okay. What?

About eight years ago it turns out I have a health condition that means if I get some sort of major impact, say something fell on my head in tech, like a light, I would probably bleed to death before I got to the hospital. My life is dependent on very low-impact stuff. Weirdly, it was a little bit of a medical mystery. And so there’s that.

Then it turns out I just had another one in November. I was on holiday and it turns out this blood condition interacts with jellyfish toxin, so I was quadriplegic for two days and then I was fine. So my given is a precarious relationship to the idea of being alive. [Laughs]

 
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"You only get to do so many shows in your life, which ones do you do and why?"

 

But that’s still relatively new for you.

Yeah, that’s pretty new. The difference is, at eight years I’m starting to talk about it. Cause five years ago I didn’t talk about it at all.

Does it affect your work in a way that you’ve noticed?

It makes the work much more precious to me. Every one that I do – it’s all a bonus. Everything from eight years ago, since then has been a bonus. I am conscious of that thing of, You only get to do so many shows in your life, which ones do you do and why? And they don’t all have to be for the same reason, and they don’t all have to be a personal passion, but know why. Cause you don’t get to do that many.

 
I love the train smash where the audience thinks it’s broken and the actor’s allowed to realize the impossibility and then do it anyway.
 

I’m curious, is there a particular clever solution that you’re really proud of?

It’s probably not so much a clever solution, but I love getting away with something. Like, I love the loophole. I think it was it was Robert Wilson who said to me, Probably about one in twenty, and I found that really useful. You’ll only really love about one in twenty [shows], or in a particular show on one in twenty of the performances everything will work right. That’s a good average. Everything is not going to go right every night. One in twenty will be as close to the right version as you’re gonna get.

There are probably only three plays that I really loved, and one of them was Twelfth Night [by] Bell Shakespeare. I did it with seven people, which is a kind of ridiculous number. It was this lovely impossible doubling that all came unstuck when Sir Toby had to [sword] fight with Sebastian and it was the same actor playing both. The conceit [in this production] was: a group of non-actors are doing this play to seek comfort in the dark. So they had nothing right to make it with. They had none of the right people.

So my Sir Toby was actually this skinny-ass rangy little fella, this total Australian redneck bloke kind of thing. But not a Sir Toby, just a drunkard. So he’s playing both [parts], right, and there’s this moment when he realises that he’s got to fight himself. And the audience just goes, The play’s broken!, and then he… fights himself. And he fought by being in and out of a particular jacket. Like twisting around and getting into the jacket and the sword would switch around, and it was awesome. I love getting away with that. I love the train smash where the audience thinks it’s broken and the actor’s allowed to realize the impossibility and then do it anyway. I love that. It’s my favourite thing.

I can’t use it very often, but I used it again in Literati last year where the the dad had to play the boyfriend as well and in the same scene, and that was fun. I had this revolve and I just had this thought that the revolve would help me do it and I didn’t really know why, because I hadn’t really worked with revolves very much. And it worked! And the audience still loved the impossibility and they loved the actor for taking on the impossibility too. It’s a really lovely circuit that sets up at that point, where they just love the actor for being willing to take on the impossible and have a crack. And I love that give. That’s my favorite thing. If I can get that moment of absolute give between actor and audience and the reality of the fiction.

 
Sometimes I just get pictures in my head and I know it’ll work, but I don’t know how it’ll work.
 

Who did the choreography belong to?

Both times it’s been kind of like, Yeah I’ve kind of got this idea… We’ll work on it together to see what the logic of it is. Bringing a choreographer in doesn’t necessarily work, because it’s got to be the actor feeling like they are inventing it, and that they’re finding solutions. And then, if they own the solution, then they defend it to the nth degree because it’s theirs – it’s their idea. As opposed to, Am I doing it right? They know if they are, because they invented it.

But it usually comes from a picture in my head of, I’m pretty sure this will work, let’s try this and then you sort of build on what they do. You kind of go, Here’s a hat – I think it’s just twisting the hat around as you walk in different directions, let’s see where you go with that and they start and then you build it. Because they’re making it, they trust it. If they are trying to match what they think I’m trying to get to, it doesn’t work. It’s like cooking something. You’ve got the ingredients, but actually they’ve gotta make it.

And usually there’s a person looking at me going, How’s this work? Literati was really funny because the actor looked at me and said, So we’re at the scene now, what’s your idea?, so I said, Put the hat on and just start walking. And because I don’t come in on day one with, This is how the play is going to work, by the time I’m getting to those moments, people are pretty much used to making up stuff. But they always want there to be, Oh, what’s your great idea for this? And I’m like, No no no, there isn’t one. And there’s enough of an idea to start. Sometimes I just get pictures in my head and I know it’ll work, but I don’t know how it’ll work. I haven’t worked it all out, you know. I just kinda know that there’s a way for that moment to happen.

 
If you want to move at speed then you’ve gotta be able to work in a hierarchy.
 

You’re a nice director, I just want to say that. It’s not every director that says, I’m going to come to your vocabulary.  

Maybe it comes from being an actor, I don’t know. There are times when you feel like you’re in it, as opposed to working for someone. Working with as opposed to working for. I think there is a layer of hierarchy that is necessary for trust at certain points, but it’s a bit wonky. Sometimes people need the hierarchy to trust that things are going to happen, then other times they actually need it to be a much bigger playing field in order to feel like they’re deeply invested, that they are making it. And I think you need to be able to morph backwards and forwards at different times with different people so the thing can actually happen. If there were a straightforward way of doing it, I would do it. I’m filled with admiration for those people that have their functional way of working, and they just cut through it. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to see other directors work and go Wow, okay, I’ll steal a little bit of thatfrom a particular moment, you know. I think the bigger the projects get, and the faster you have to do them, the more you have to be the leading figure. If you want to move at speed then you’ve gotta be able to work in a hierarchy.

 
Don’t assume that the value system that you have when you’re moving slow is the value system that you have when you’re moving fast.
 

[What are] two complementary fields or concepts that have had great impact for you that other people may not see as related?

There were some studies done to do with racial profiling I think out of Harvard, maybe going back to 2008, about the speed at which people make assumptions. It’s to do with police decisions and shooting people and not shooting people, so pretty blunt. Exercise and speed of choice, and revealing the pattern of racial discrimination in pretty much everyone. And that’s always fascinating to me: don’t assume that the value system that you have when you’re moving slow is the value system that you have when you’re moving fast. That impact of speed on identity. Deep identity is really interesting to me.

Sometimes, again when you’re building a story, it depends on the pressure and being willing to acknowledge that the complete opposite to your value system can be the choice. Sometimes. It depends on how fast the decision has to be made and the pressure on the person making it, to the point that they would not own that. That person would think, I would never do that and then you end up doing the very opposite of what you thought you would do.

How do you uncover that behavior?

Well I think just by acknowledging that it happens. I’ve found out those studies are really interesting to me because you can sit down at your own computer and, essentially, the person is reaching for something… do you shoot, do you not shoot? It was a really basic thing, you could do it for yourself. You look at your percentages and you go, Wow, I shot more black people than white people… In my slow value system I would never own that. I like to think of myself in a particular way. The actual evidence said that I did something else when I had only two seconds to choose. So that thing of how we judge other people – be really careful, because actually in that same situation you may well do exactly the same thing. Don’t assume you’d make the choice that you have when there’s no pressure.

 
You’ve got to give yourself permission to make choices that don’t make sense to you.
 

So how do you apply that?

 

How do you build a psychology for a character that doesn’t make sense to you? You’ve gotta find reasons for it. People behave sometimes opposite to how they believe they behave, and you’ve got to find the rational way to explain that to people so that they give themselves the right as performers to not have completely consistent psychologies. Often you’re dealing with very imperfect writing of psychologies. People are reaching into more psychologies, less understood ones. How do you make sense of it? How do you construct something that is not just an extension of your kinda average understanding? And you’ve got to give yourself permission to make choices that don’t make sense to you.

I’m also very interested in talking to anyone who’s high-end in their field about that instinct place. That place where people are very good at something and they make decisions that are instinct-based, not data-based. Eight years ago I had a brilliant doctor. He’s the only reason I’m alive. He made a diagnostic choice and prescribed me a particular drug that he was not supposed to, because according to the dataset I didn’t fall in the category whereby he was allowed to prescribe this particular thing. Essentially he just overrode the whole thing and, because he’s quite an old school diagnostic genius, they gave me the stuff [and] I responded really well. There are a instinctive leaps that people make in any field, which is not the result of study – there’s something else in there. There are Michael Jordans in every field, so when you get the chance to actually talk to them it’s a creative conversation, it’s not an informational conversation. It’s really interesting though, not many people get to that level in their field where they can be creative.

 
 

The next section of the interview will focus on the makeshift beauty of the Australian theatre and its allergic reaction to training and elitism. You can find it here.