Spotlight: Melissa Hillman, Director


In the absence of a director spotlight last week, we have two this week! Here’s the second…

Meet Melissa Hillman

Hometown: Grew up in Fremont, CA; now live in Albany, CA

Artistic Director at Impact Theatre in Berkeley, CA

1.     What attracted you to directing?

I started out as an opera singer in college. Our opera program was underfunded, so I had the opportunity to direct early on– they passed a couple of projects to me basically just because I asked. What drove me to do it was seeing these vital, passionate, violent, sexy, gorgeous works being performed as if they were museum pieces rather than stories about people. I wanted a chance to see what these pieces would be like imbued with emotional reality. So my first directing projects were operas.

2.     Did you receive academic and/or practical training in directing? And how has (not) having this formal education/training shaped your directing career?

Shortly after I started directing operas in the music department, I started taking theatre classes, including directing. I had the honor and privilege of studying with an amazingly gifted professor, Edgardo de la Cruz, whose approach to directing (and the theatre in general) opened my eyes to the possibilities of the art form. He was one of a kind, but at that time at Cal State East Bay, there were several gifted teachers– Ric Prindle was another one for acting and directing, as well as Rhoda Kaufman for lit and history. It was a magical time in that department. Edgardo died several years ago; Ric is retired. Rhoda is still teaching there. The program has been reworked to focus on musical theatre now. We used to do Shakespeare and Beckett and a student production of Arrabal in one quarter back in those days– LOL. I was impossibly lucky to have been a part of it. When I went to grad school, I studied both directing and academics. The program was focused on the scholar/director, which was perfect for me. I studied with some inspirational people there as well, especially Tony Taccone, the Artistic Director of Berkeley Rep, who was one of our directing teachers. So I have a PhD but we had a lot of practical training and experience as well. The training helped me find my voice as a director. Excellent professors have a way of making you look at your choices and your approach with fresh eyes, really examine them. It was invaluable.

3.     Which director (or other theatre artist) (dead or alive) has had the greatest impact on you?

Edgardo de la Cruz– no question.

4.     In your personal library, what is the most indispensable text on the craft of directing? Or, alternately, have books/practical guides proven unhelpful?

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you can learn from a book. Edgardo wrote a book that I only find minimally helpful. I’ve read a lot of books, and they’re interesting and some are even inspirational, but they don’t have tons of practical application, despite that fact that they all think they do. The script and the actors and the designers are much more important than any directing text, and that mix is a game-changer each and every time, if you’re paying attention. I think directing texts are helpful in providing ideas for approaches to material and to artists, but they don’t provide the approaches themselves. That has to be fluid and in the moment if you’re going to make it work. I get a lot more practical material from seeing the work of other directors than reading about it.

5.     Defend/Describe the importance of ‘the director’ in contemporary theatre.  (Has the director’s place/status changed in the time you have been directing?)

Theatre is a very complex art form. There are many, many aspects to coordinate. Someone has to be the storyteller. That doesn’t mean that the director should refuse all input or never collaborate– far from it. But someone needs to ensure that the many different elements maintain artistic cohesion. Usually the storytelling is an unfocused, sloppy mess when no one is holding the reins, in my experience. Even when the piece is “collaboratively developed,” when it’s solid, focused, tight, it’s been my experience that someone has inhabited a position of artistic leadership and is directing the coherence, even if that person isn’t titled. I know people will argue with me about this, and if they can be successful with 10 different cooks, then I hand it to them. I have yet to see it work well in narrative-based theatre, particularly narrative-based theatre with any kind of tech. I’m not saying that it can’t happen, just that I haven’t seen it.

6.     How would you characterize/describe your own directing style?

I set up a game board and invite other people to come play with me. Then we make stories about people in as honest a way as we can.

7.     In A Director Prepares, Anne Bogart expounds on the meaning of the word ‘rehearsal’ in various languages, ie. French = repetition; German = investigation; Japanese ; practice.  If you had to substitute another noun for ‘rehearsal,’ what would that word be? Why?

I don’t see anything wrong with “rehearsal.” What you do there is so much more important than what you call it.

8. To block or not to block, that is the question. Do you block before rehearsals begin, in the midst of rehearsals, or not at all, and why?

I have certain moments that I have blocked out to a T– anchor moments– and other times I give them a vague traffic pattern to start out with and see what happens. The anchor moments speak to the heart of what the play is about.

We have a very idiosyncratic space– a tiny, two-sided thrust with a weight-bearing, visibility-fucking pole to one side– so a certain amount of blocking throughout is required just to deal with sightlines.

9.     What quirks, habits, rituals, etc. (if any) inform your directing process?

I just like to tell stories about people. I don’t make a fuss about it.

10.     What style/type of work do you find most compelling to direct?  If you have an area of specialization, what are the unique challenges/needs of directing this kind of work?

I like Shakespeare. A LOT. It’s for the same reasons I originally started directing opera. There’s no reason whatsoever Shakespeare should be formal or stuffy, no reason whatsoever to have actors posing and declaiming, or take up three rehearsals with scansion. Ugh. These stories are alive; these characters are alive. He gives you SO MUCH to work with and people shove it all aside in favor of staging these boring, static museum pieces.

I’m also a huge fan of new plays. I love world premieres. I also love 2nd and 3rd productions, mostly because they’re so hard for playwrights to get, and one of the main reasons my company exists is to support new plays by emerging playwrights. Bringing a new work to life is a thrill.

11.  What is your fondest directing experience/memory?

Probably the group of 10 from a local homeless shelter, several of whom didn’t even speak English, who came to see Hamlet about 6 years ago. I didn’t know how they were going to react, to be honest– the shelter director made the reservations. He said he thought it would be a good experience for them. It was a pay-what-you-wish night. As it turned out, they were riveted throughout the show– like, literally on the edges of their seats. When Gertrude drank the poison, they gasped audibly– they didn’t know the story; they didn’t know she was going to die. They had us sign their programs afterwards. The next day, when I came into the theatre, there was a thank you note waiting for me, written on the back of a random flyer they had taken down from a pole outside. I carry it in my purse to this day.

12.  What is the most challenging work you have directed to date? Why?

They’re all challenging for their own reasons. Romeo & Juliet was a bear because the theatre was undergoing seismic retrofitting during the rehearsal process and through some of the performances, so we’d come in to do a performance and discover the balcony set piece was broken, or a prop had been stolen, or some of the audience seating had been ruined with plaster or solder or grease. They ruined 5 seats in all over the course of a few weeks, one by one. It was a nightmare. At the final dress of Othello, the night before preview, my Cassio told me that he wasn’t going to be at 2 weeks of performances because he had taken a higher-profile gig with another company. That actor is now working in New York. Name provided upon request– LOL.

But as far as artistically challenging, that’s much more about the director than about the work. They’re all easy and they’re all challenging artistically, just in different ways for different people.

13.  What advice would you give to a young or aspiring director?

See every play you possibly can. You learn as much– probably even more– from seeing bad work as you do from seeing great work. You can’t reproduce someone else’s genius, but you can easily avoid reproducing someone else’s shitty decisions.

14.  What is your current directing project?

Next season at Impact I’m directing Of Dice and Men, by Cameron McNary, and Titus Andronicus. I’m super-excited about both.


Thanks, Melissa!

  • April 28, 2011
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