By Leia Squillace
Unlike in most professions, tears can be an indicator of a job well done for a director. Crafting the conditions to produce an actor’s cathartic sob or an audience member’s empathetic weep requires finesse. Theatre is a space that readily invites sorrow, joy, and awe to manifest in crying.
As Larissa, the actress I’d been working with for over two years, walked away from me with tears in her eyes, I crumpled. Our collaboration had been filled with plenty of tears, but this time felt foreboding. Together we had developed a solo show that chronicled one woman’s adolescent sexual development and discovery, centered around the moment it is warped by sexual assault. The story was based on Larissa’s real experiences and incorporated many elements from my life, as well. Naturally, the work of representing these traumatic events was prone to strike nerves, conjure difficult memories, and force long‑denied realizations and catharsis. Her tears on this day, however, were of a different variety.
An hour earlier, Larissa embarked on a herculean performance of the solo show, which she named “I Killed the Cow.” While the play could potentially be retraumatizing, by this point, she had performed it over fifteen times. The repetition had trained her to act the story genuinely without having to summon the same level of emotional stamina.
That night, however, presented an unforeseen challenge: a disruptive patron. A man, clearly provoked by the play, picked up on its interactive style and took it upon himself to insert his own commentary into the performance. Although I am an outspoken advocate for dismantling elitist notions of “theatre etiquette” that reprimand those who do not adhere to the “sit-silently-with-hands-in-lap” style of watching a play, I do believe in an expectation of mutual respect. This patron’s unwarranted comments during scenes in which Larissa described her assault were disrespectful.
Yet the content of his commentary was far from hostile. It was inquisitive, incredulous even. He was clearly disturbed by the events being described, and struggled to make sense of them. Despite the prevalence of such events, no one should be asked to easily digest a story of assault. I believe this wholeheartedly, and even decided to hang a trigger warning sign outside the theatre door to try to prevent situations like this one. Nonetheless, each sudden outburst left his lips like a shot, and Larissa was left to deflect or dodge them on her own.
I sat in the back of the house, paralyzed. This performance was self‑produced, so I was the closest thing to house staff in the theatre. If someone was going to intervene, it would have to be me. With each interjection, I watched Larissa pull farther away from the performance I knew she was capable of giving.
Early in the process we discussed the challenges of solo performance, and the insecurities that come with it. Holding the audience’s attention is a concern for any storyteller. That burden becomes even heavier when the tools with which you captivate an audience come at an emotional cost to you.
When we began working together, I implored her to trust me. I reassured her that it was my job to see the show as an audience would see it. I would be honest with her if I felt that her performance was not truly captivating or communicating what we intended. Most importantly, I promised that she would never be asked to relive her past trauma on stage.
As I watched Larissa struggle to make sense of this audience member’s interruptions, I knew I had failed to do my job.
Balancing one’s responsibility to audiences and collaborators is trying in the best of circumstances. As a director, you are uniquely situated to accommodate the performers’ needs to create their best work, and to advocate for what the audience will require to get the most out of the show. If these interests ever come into conflict, it is the director’s responsibility to reconcile the differences or prioritize one need over another. When directing a solo show, this rift can be even more straining.
Solo performers and directors develop a distinct bond unmatched by productions with larger casts. An artistic relationship akin to codependency forms when there is only one other person to turn to. For me, this relationship has proven consistently fruitful. Without other cast members for Larissa to turn to or a stage manager for me to consult, we instinctually lean on each other for reasons beyond the traditional scope of responsibilities. These conditions alchemized our actor‑director relationship into a creative partnership that now lives on beyond the show itself.
As with any couple, when the two parties reach a certain level of mutual trust, they begin to let their guards down. There is less need to be vigilant about your own protection because you know your partner is watching out for your wellbeing, as you watch out for theirs. For a director and performer of a solo show, such caretaking can involve adjusting to each other’s workstyles and ideal rehearsal schedules, as well as handing personal experiences over to your collaborator, and trusting them to creatively represent them with dignity.
The traditional responsibilities of a director do not stop in the face of this deepened relationship and responsibility. When done right, a director’s job is to ensure that the audience will not only understand and enjoy the play, but take meaning from it, and feel supported in doing so. The burden of responsibility to safeguard the audience’s mental and emotional safety is highly contested at present. I would argue that extreme duress prevents an audience from taking any greater meaning, moral, or interest in debating the show’s ideas after the curtain falls. As such, I believe that the audience’s wellbeing is just as much a part of the director’s job as ensuring that the storytelling is clear.
Reluctant to admonish this patron for responding honestly, albeit rudely, to the difficult content presented on stage, I left Larissa to fend for herself. She was forced to balance the challenge of representing the story sincerely with adjusting to unpredictable interruptions alone on stage. Meanwhile, I shrank at my inability to provide the patron the support he needed or to shield her from what assuredly felt like harassment.
Larissa and I reunited later that evening at an underground hotel bar whose hazy golden light fixtures exploded out of black walls. I approached her with trepidation and a written apology in hand. I had let her down – abandoned her – and needed to apologize for my inability to do either halves of my job sufficiently.
After graciously accepting my apology, to my surprise, she had something to tell me as well. She told me that at the end of the show, she looked out into the audience and noticed that the disruptive audience member was crying. “Maybe he needed to be there more than we knew,” she said. Maybe being allowed to stay in the theatre was exactly what he needed. Maybe his tears meant something had gone right. I cannot predict what everyone will need at all times. I cannot perfectly balance all of my responsibilities every step of the way. As Larissa and I sorted through our respective experiences that night, she trustingly expressed that she had expected more support than I had offered her in this case. She helped me plan strategies for any possible future situation. The reciprocity and trust attainable in a solo performer/director relationship have made me a better collaborator, director, and friend. To me, the unanticipated depth of this relationship feels worthy of a tear or two.
Photo: courtesy of the production
LEIA SQUILLACE is a director, devised theatre artist, and arts engagement administrator. She believes that access to artistic conversation and creative expression is a human right and that being an artist by profession comes with social responsibility. Leia has developed new plays such as “GOOD KIDS” (Naomi Iizuka), “THE TRAIN” (Irene L. Pynn), and the Kennedy Center National Undergraduate Playwriting Award winner, “FAIR” (Karly Thomas). Most recently, Leia co‑developed a one‑woman show, “I KILLED THE COW,” which is currently touring nationally. She is passionate about exploring alternate applications of theatre for sexual education and gendered violence prevention.