Notes on Directing (160 pp., $19.95) by Frank Hauser and Russell Reich is a slender, handsomely-designed volume issued under the hitherto unknown imprint of RCR Creative Press of New York. It's a simple, plain-language vade mecum that purports to do for stage and film directors what Sun Tzu's Art of War has long done for military leaders and soldiers.
Hauser and Reich have assembled 130 paragraphs that range from pronouncements on the nature of professionalism to tips for avoiding awkward dust-ups during rehearsals. The authors are erudite but never pretentious; their shared point of view is supremely humane; their prose has a lucidity, even elegance, that is unknown among contemporary American how-to books.
Hauser is an English stage director who enjoyed his longest run, from 1956 to 1973, as director of productions at the Oxford Playhouse. He has also spent a good deal of time in New York, where he directed (among other things) the 1967 Broadway production of Aleksei Arbuzov's The Promise, featuring Eileen Atkins, Ian McKellen, and Ian McShane. Over many years spent as a drama teacher, Hauser has developed a 12-page outline of directorial wisdom, which he hands out to his students. Reich is an American who studied with Hauser at the British/American Drama Academy in London in the late 1980s. After returning to the United States, where he pursued an MFA in directing at Columbia and served as artistic associate at Circle Rep, Reich proposed to Hauser that they expand the 12-page handout and issue it as Notes on Directing.
Hauser and Reich aren't agitating for any particular method, aesthetic, or philosophy of directing here. They promote professional integrity, courtesy, preparedness, clarity, and honesty. At times, they sound as much like Emily Post as Stanislavsky or Strasberg. Hauser and Reich urge directors to address actors and technicians with respect, never to browbeat or embarrass them. They recommend that directors avoid displays of temperament. They advocate respect, even reverence, for what playwrights have written.
They also warn against production "concepts" that require "omitting passages which don't fit, altering emphases for the sake of novelty, or twisting the writer's overt intention in order to bring out some hypothetical Inner Meaning." A play's production should not be primarily "about" the director, the authors caution: "Lighten up. Nobody dies if things go wrong; millions of dollars are not lost (you should be so lucky to have the chance). Children do not starve as a result of a bad rehearsal, performance, or review. Be passionate, sure, but know when not to take yourself too seriously."
Notes on Directing is more provocative than it is deep, and a number of Hauser and Reich's statements are more witty than probing. But the authors' levity and their apparent inability to be didactic are refreshing in a work that's essentially a textbook. Take, for instance, paragraph Number 110, captioned with the imperative, "Consider if you're missing a costume moment." That paragraph, in its entirety, reads: "Costume designer Patton Campbell once said that every play should have at least one costume moment. I don't know if this is true and have only vague ideas about what it really means, but it can't hurt to look for one."
Libraries and bookshops are full of tomes on stage and film direction, but none are quite like Notes on Directing. Hauser and Reich aren't theoreticians; they're not aiming to create a systematics of direction. The book is a checklist -- practical, yes, but designed to spur reflection. At some points, it amounts to a compilation of maxims and near-koans intended for directors -- whether fledgling or seasoned -- to savor. It's as much a code of conduct as it is a primer. Indeed, with just a little exaggeration, one could say that Notes on Directing has more in common with the Boy Scout Oath, Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer, and the Book of Proverbs than it does with any previous volumes for directors.
Beyond its utility, Hauser and Reich's book -- like Harold Clurman's vivid, chatty On Directing (1972) -- could be interesting to anyone who wants to understand the ins and outs of a theatrical production from first reading to opening night. The difficulty, of course, is enticing those less obvious readers to look at, let alone acquire, a volume with a title that sounds so highly specialized.
The promotional materials for Notes on Directing compare Hauser and Reich's work to the peerless Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. Strunk, like Hauser, was the author of a student manual that circulated among his students; in that case, it was a style sheet on English composition. White, who had been Strunk's pupil at Cornell, plumped up the style sheet for mass distribution by Macmillan in 1959 and the result, commonly referred to as "Strunk & White," became a publishing phenomenon as well as a standard guide for American writers and students. If the authors of Notes on Directing consciously fashioned their little book after The Elements of Style, they chose a superlative model. Whether "Hauser & Reich" will become a commonplace like "Strunk & White," only time can tell.
Notes on Directing has been heralded by a clutch of advance blurbs from distinguished theater professionals: Edward Albee, Dame Judi Dench, Sir Richard Eyre, Rosemary Harris, and Sir Ian McKellen. With the right kind of promotion, testimonials like these might entice the wider audience this book deserves. Critics, for instance, might be convinced to consult Notes on Directing and even to keep it handy on their shelves. Hauser and Reich, in their conclusion, quote David Ives's sublime wisecrack about critics: "Ultimately one has to pity these poor souls who know every secret of writing, directing, designing, producing, and acting but are stuck in those miserable day jobs writing reviews. Will somebody help them please?" Hauser and Reich have thrown those pitiable slobs a lifeline in the form of a book that permits the critic, or any other reader, to view the world through a director's eyes.
[For more information on Notes on Directing, click here to visit the publication's website.]