Guest Blog: In Appreciation of Thomas Kail
June 22, 2018
In early 2016, reading that Hamilton was a truly revolutionary, paradigm shift in theater, I knew my actor/director daughter had to see it. So we wrangled tickets, seeing the adventure as mutual birthday presents. I knew it would be an important night. But it proved to be a life-altering one, for me as a writer, and gifting Megan deep inspiration and validation of her own artistic philosophies. One of her many talents as a director is coaxing actors into a remarkably symbiotic ensemble. Her recent direction for Next Stop Theatre of 45 Plays for 45 Presidents—which pushes 5 actors to encapsulate the essence of 45 presidencies in quick-change, 2-minute vignettes—displayed much of the same abilities she describes below to handle complexity and to tie together a string of disparate pieces into a beautifully coherent staging. The production was a tour-de-force of satire, whimsy, tragedy, pity, and irony because of the quick repartee and cohesive dynamic she and the talented, collaborative cast created together. So Megan is the perfect person to describe to you the particular talent and approach of Hamilton’s director, Tommy Kail.
Many theatre directors hold to the “auteur” school of thought—in which the director so controls the action and acting of a production that he or she is essentially the author and primary artist dominating the story unfolding on stage. Others see the director as more of a team-member, guiding the story in a collaborative way, absorbing and then incorporating creative input from the actors, designers, and playwright.
The weekend I saw Hamilton I witnessed the difference between the two approaches, in spades.
I saw the almost-original Hamilton cast (with all the original members except Jonathan Groff) with Mom, on one of our theatre-weekend visits to NYC. It was the second show we attended on that trip. The first was a re-adaptation of a classic play, with such an aggressive “auteur” directing style that it made it almost impossible for an extremely well written script and an incredibly talented cast to have any real emotional impact on the audience. While there were many intriguing and beautiful moments, it was an eminently frustrating experience. I spent the entire show thinking, “Dude…it’s not all about you.”
The next day I saw Hamilton, which was, among many other things, an utterly exquisite example of the team-work style of directing (that I personally lean towards myself, but that’s beside the point).Lin-Manuel Miranda and the rest of the cast have received an extraordinary amount of deserved praise, press, and attention. But despite winning a Tony for Direction, Thomas Kail, the yin to Lin’s yang, has gotten kind of lost in the shuffle. Because, honestly, that kind of director seeks to create visually stunning, opinion-shifting, and emotionally uplifting experiences without leaving fingerprints all over the production. No one leaves an astounding show like Hamilton, saying “Wow, that was really well directed.”
Because that’s not the point. To succeed in being that kind of director is to be free of ego and to be selfless. It is utterly in service to the story, the characters, and the rest of the team—the cast, musicians, and other production artists.
But let me just take a minute to say, folks, Hamilton is exceptionally well directed. Several articles about Kail have pointed to his “democratic” nature. That he sees himself as part of a team, needing to be a leader when necessary, but truly relying on the artistic collaboration of everyone else in the room to create a vibrant amalgamation. His directing largesse and the production’s esprit-de-corps is obvious when you see Hamilton. The show is deceptive in that it seems so remarkably simple as it’s performed. And yet if you watch a little more analytically, you will realize it only seems that way because every aspect of it is infused with artistic generosity and cohesion—and a lot of sweat, thought, and hard work.
The best moment in Hamilton I can think of to illustrate how hard Kail clearly works, his attention to detail, and his spirit of teamwork is the show-stopping “Satisfied,” in which a scene is literally re-wound and shown from a different perspective. The scene plays out backwards, and forwards. It stops, speeds up, slows down as Angelica’s emotions reverberate throughout the room. Directing something that complicated to look so effortless is…insanely difficult. I have spent hours working out relatively straightforward transitions. That sequence must have taken days—if not weeks—of careful, meticulous work, of Kail systematically trying out different blocking of the actors on stage to see what worked, what the actors felt comfortable and authentic doing, what held together visually and thematically. It was clearly created by a collective rather than solo vision of what that scene should be and could accomplish in the arc of the play.
I would argue that’s a lot harder than a director walking into a room and telling everyone to do exactly what he or she has devised alone, in a vacuum.
Oh, and that “Satisfied” sequence is done on a double turntable.
My personal mantras as a director are very similar to Kail’s. For example, he is quoted as saying “My job was not to have the best idea in the room at any time but to identify the best idea.” The task of a director, therefore, is not to be the smartest person in the room or even the best artist in the room—but to listen to all ideas and then guide the chaos of a group’s artistic process to a clear, euphoric finale that everyone has ownership of. This is especially true when developing a new work from idea to an actual piece of writing, and then from page to stage. I’ve compared an ideal directing experience to eating at a really good buffet—dozens of options are spread out in front of me based on the talent in the room, and my job is to assemble the best, most complementary and palatable, most eye-opening and intellectually/emotionally satisfying combination of those ideas.
As a young—and female—director, I’ve gotten a lot of pressure over the years to be more of an “auteur.” That I won’t be taken seriously if I’m not the biggest presence in the room. That my job is to come up with all the ideas and then enforce them. That sort of thing. And when I try to explain that I got into directing because I like telling stories—and that the combined genius of a rehearsal room will create something better than anything I could ever come up with on my own—some people nod and agree, but some people have sneered.
To see perhaps the most important piece of theater created in decades directed in a style that so closely reflected my own—by someone only a few years older than me—meant more to me than I can ever truly articulate. And make no mistake—Lin is a genius. I think comparisons between him and Shakespeare are completely warranted. But Tommy Kail guided his work to an extraordinary height—take a listen to some of the original drafts of songs from Hamilton if you don’t believe me.
In the hands of a less talented or more egotistical director, Lin’s glorious story could have either been lost or been a mess of astonishing but potentially disconnected songs. So let’s raise a glass to Tommy!
Megan Behm is a director based in Washington DC with a focus on re-imaginings of classical plays and new play development. Directing credits include: To Tell My Story (Helen Hayes nomination for best original adaptation) and Switch with The Welders; 45 Plays for 45 Presidents (NextStop Theatre); Cymbeline (Virginia Shakespeare Festival); Safe as Houses (Pinky Swear Productions); The Comedy of Errors (Lean & Hungry Theater); The Campsite Rule (The Washington Rogues); Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven, Minus You, and Edward Cullen Ruined My Mother’s Love Life (The Source Festival); Election Day, All The World’s a Stage, and To Light Village We Go! (Young Playwright’s Theater); According to Shakespeare (InterAct Story Theatre) and A Very Pagan Christmas (Klecksography, Rorschach Theatre). Assistant Directing Credits include: Kiss (Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company); Bad Dog (Olney Theatre Center); Othello (Folger Theatre); Passion Play and How We Got On (Forum Theatre); and Journey to the West (Constellation Theatre Company). Training: College of William & Mary, LAMDA, Studio Theater Conservatory. www.megan-behm.com @mmbehm