He's directed opera singers. He's directed playwrights acting in their own shows. He's even directed puppets.
But in the end, said Prof. Michael Waller, "it doesn't matter what form it takes: you need to boil it down to a very simple story. It's basically about conflict between human beings. You can get artistic once you've figured that out. But establishing the story is the first job of the director."
Prof. Waller, theatre professor and chair of Grenfell's theatre program, said his scholarship is "about reflecting humanity back on itself.
"Which isn't to say that you always need to show exact real life. You want to be able to show an organized version of human behaviour so the audience can look at it from a different perspective – you can see universal truths more easily if you are distanced from it. You're not immersed in the situation – you're able to view it from a distance."
Prof. Waller's most recent projects include working with Grenfell theatre alumna Meghan Greeley on two of her recently written plays: "Kingdom" and "Hunger." Ms. Greeley had roles in both plays.
"That was a challenge – separating the actor from the writer – because Meghan was in the show," he said, adding that another challenge was the fact that it was a brand new script. He said more often than not, when working on the first production of a show, the director is also the dramturg, helping to shape the script and provide background and context for the story.
And then, there's puppetry.
"Don't get me started on working with puppets!" he laughed. "It's interesting though – what I found directing puppets versus directing humans is there's no point in talking to the human who's operating the puppet. You need to give the notes to the puppet. And the puppet should respond."
But perhaps the biggest challenges Prof. Waller has faced as a director have come in opera halls.
"Opera is fascinating," he said. "Opera, when it is done well, is as good as any art form that there is."
He said the great thing about opera is it combines so many art forms all at once: professionals in the business have to act, sing and move, all while watching the conductor.
"And they have to deal with incredibly complicated time signatures that are always changing – basically they're doing advanced trigonometry in their head as they're singing, and they have to keep their eye on the conductor at all times and look like human beings as they are, producing these amazing sounds," he said.
Meanwhile, he said, the director is telling them to "jump up and down while they're singing these notes or to spin around and do cartwheels; it's even a challenge for them to act like they're actually in love with this other character and they have to look at them while every molecule of their body wants to make them plant themselves at centre stage and stare at the conductor. It's an amazing set of challenges."
Before coming to campus, Prof. Waller worked with opera singers at the Banff Centre for the Arts for seven years.
"Most people that direct opera – that's all they do," said Prof. Waller, who also directed Opera on the Avalon's "Turn of the Screw" in St. John's. "I'm really lucky that I've been able to direct theatre and opera. It's a real privilege to have had the chance to do both."
Bottom line: Variety is the spice, and challenge, of directing. Whether puppets, actors or opera singers, "in terms in what I've directed over the years, there really isn't a lot they have in common with each other. And every actor is different. Some actors work very visually, some deal with words much more effectively, some actors want to be supported and helped along every step of the way, others want to be left alone and work it out for themselves. Everybody's different."
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Throughout the semester we will highlight some of the interesting research taking place at Grenfell Campus. The articles will appear here and will be compiled on the research webpage.
Article prepared by Pamela Gill