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Director gives insight into what it takes to stage a play

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What a great time at the theater! Weeks later I’m still on a high after seeing the revival of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff?”, Edward Albee’s masterwork, at the Booth Theatre, its limited run now ended. A production of the acclaimed Chicago-based Steppenwolf Theatre Company, the cast was led by Tracy Letts and Amy Morton as George and Martha, complemented by Carrie Coon and Madison Dirks as Honey and Nick. All brilliant — I’ve seldom, if ever, seen any better.

But perhaps major credit should go to director Pam MacKinnon whose vision of the play made its three hours riveting. MacKinnon recently won awards for her direction of “Clybourne Park,” and is an alumna of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab and the Drama League. Although the average theatergoer can appreciate the quality of a play and the actors who perform it, the crucial contribution of the director may often go unnoticed.

With this in mind, I asked one of my top directors for The Outrageous Fortune Company to offer some guidance as to what a good director does. Rodney Hakim has credits as stand-up comic, actor, writer, producer, acting coach and Shakespeare expert. I know him best as the director of “Frozen,” by Bryony Lavery, and “Shining City,” by Conor McPherson, two very challenging dramas both successfully realized.

Rodney has been pretty much inactive in showbiz in recent years – marriage and the birth of a daughter will do that. He grew up in Richmond Hill and Kew Gardens, now lives on Long Island, and works in midtown Manhattan in the family Oriental rug business.

“My focus with directing has been a combination of script analysis, improvisation, experimentation, and character work with the actors,” said Hakim. “I like to dive headlong into the text, to understand the specific world of the play, to determine what the characters are saying and doing, what is said and not said. I spend a lot of time with the actors discussing who the characters are, how they relate to each other and the reasons they do what they do.

“Although I have my own ideas as to what a play should look and sound like, I enjoy a collaborative process with the actors as we try out different ideas and choices, soliciting different opinions and insights. My goal is to capture the reality of each moment of the play as fully as possible.”

Hakim admits to being “notorious for lengthy rehearsals, for giving extensive notes to the actors throughout the run of the play and for painstaking attention to detail.” Nonetheless, he says the actors enjoy working with him, since he tends to coax strong performances out of them.

“One of my favorite bits of advice to actors,” said Hakim, “is from a fantastic book, ‘Audition,’ by Michael Shurtleff, in which he talks about finding the love between the characters, even when they seem to dislike one another.”

So next time you see a play, don’t just wonder how the actors learned all their lines. There’s a lot more to it than that. And although Hakim didn’t mention it, casting the right actors best suited for the available roles is crucial.

Mark your calendar for March 27 – it’s World Theatre Day, initiated in 1961. Find out about it at www.world-theatre-day.org. In the words of British actress Judi Dench, “every day should be considered a theater day, as we have a responsibility to continue the tradition to entertain, to educate and to enlighten our audiences.”

Contact Ron Hellman at RBH24@Columbia.edu.

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