Friday, October 12, 2007

A Friday Lesson from William Ball

William Ball is one of my heroes.

From Wikipedia:

William Ball (29 April 193130 July 1991) was a stage director and founder of the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT).

He was awarded the Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award in 1959 for his production of Chekhov's Ivanov and was nominated for a Tony Award in 1965 for his production of Molière's Tartuffe, starring Michael O'Sullivan and Rene Auberjonois. He was also a noted director of operas.

Ball founded the American Conservatory Theatre in Pittsburgh in 1965. This was a company of up to 30 full-time paid actors who studied all disciplines of the theatre arts during the day and performed at night. Ball had a falling out with ACT's financial benefactors in Pittsburgh and took the company on the road. His 1966 productions of Albee's Tiny Alice, Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, and others at the Stanford University Summer Festival led a group of financiers to offer his company a home in San Francisco, which had recently lost The Actor's Workshop to New York's Lincoln Center.

In its first season, Ball's ACT produced twenty-seven full length plays in two theatres over the course of seven months. Some actors would do one role in the early part of a play at the Geary Theatre then run two blocks up the hill to the Marines Memorial to appear in the last part of another. Ball's 1972 production of Cyrano de Bergerac and his 1976 production of The Taming of the Shrew were televised nationally on PBS. In 1979, ACT received the Tony Award for excellence in regional theatre.

Ball was often provocative. His interpretation of Albee's Tiny Alice brought threat of a lawsuit from the playwright, who tried to withhold the performance rights only to discover that they had never been granted in the first place. Some observers thought that Ball's operatic production (with an added aside condemning the Vietnam war) may have solved some problems inherent in the text.

Ball was the author of the 1984 book, A Sense of Direction: Some Observations on the Art of Directing.

William Ball left ACT in 1986 under a cloud of suspicious financial transactions. He appeared in a forgettable Hollywood B-movie, Suburban Commando, and committed suicide in Los Angeles in 1991.

I'm going to start sharing excerpts from A Sense of Direction. If you're a director and haven't read this book ... get thee to a bookstore or immediately. It's GreyZelda's Bible and Chris and I swear by it. All directing scenarios are different and you gotta be able to adjust in the moment with your actors, crew and production, but it's an amazing centering tool to touch upon if you're looking for a little guidance.

William Ball on Art:

"The most important characteristic of a work of art is unity ... If it lacks unity, it does not qualify as a work of art. Unity means harmony among the component parts; and the greater the harmony among the component parts, the greater the unity and the greater the art. ...

The second characteristic of a work of art is that it reveals Universe. Show business does not have to reveal Universe. It is not required and not expected. Night club entertainment is not expected to reveal Universe. Vaudeville is not expected to reveal Universe. Theatre or drama is expected to reveal Universe.

A third thing that art does is awaken the Spirit. Commerce is not expected to awaken Spirit and neither is show business. By awakening the Spirit, we mean that somewhere during the course of the performance, the spectator experiences "The Great Aha!" A light goes on within him and the self is illuminated, awakened, enlightened, elevated, and changed. Usually the moment of awakening is very short, and it is an unconscious moment. One is sometimes aware that it took place after it has happened, but while it is happening, one is unaware.

There is something else that the work of art in the theatre is expected to have that show business and television entertainment are not necessarily expected tot have. That has to do with the revelation of the beauty of humankind. That beauty, concealed somewhere within the drama, takes many forms, and the revelation takes many forms, but one may witness and share the author's vision - his admiration, awe, and wonder at the beauty - through a work of art. When it is not art, it lacks a sense of beauty of humankind. These are generalizations, but I do want to separate the discussion of art from show business and entertainment so that no one is misled."

People in the blog world go round and round on the subject of what makes good theatre and what audiences are looking for. I certainly think William Ball had a major clue and while I love reading the active thinking and conversations of my peers, sometimes I like to just switch of the computer, sit in silence and read the book that always seems to get me through most of my questions. Then, I switch that computer back on, read what my friends and fellow theatre creators have to say, and it reaffirms what I've just read most of the time.



Simon said...

Thank you for that link, I'm truly honoured that it's through the word "good". Trippy galaxy this blogoshpere, that I came to your site through a link on an article about William Ball. I'm right in the middle of A Sense of Direction right now, for the first time, in preparation for a new play of mine that I'm about to start directing, and I couldn't agree more, it's unbelievably inspiring, just wonderful. I quite literally read the first page and was hooked. I had no idea that he ended up committing suicide (also trippy as I just came out of a performance of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis, and am duly messed up by it). Consider your feed subscribed to, and your blog linked...

GreyZelda Land said...

The blogosphere is, indeed, trippy.

Thanks for subscribing and linking, Simon. You wrote a great article that I hope people get a little taste of.

Be well,

Tony said...

When I read A Sense of Direction a while ago I remember being thoroughly bored with it. Maybe I should pick it back up and reread it this week.

GreyZelda Land said...

Every director is different and responds to teachers differently ... Ball makes a ton of sense to me - his thoughts are fascinating and helpful.

Give it a try ... but, to quote Lavar Burton ... don't take my word for it.

Decide for yourself.



Anonymous said...

other than on wikipaedia, i haven't been able to find anywhere that ball committed suicide. it's likely apocryphal.

Patricia Bolster said...

The Chicago Tribune listed Ball's death as suicide. Tragic: genius burns, and is hard to live with. I am showing my Sophomore honors students ACTs Cyrano de Bergerac, after having shown them ACTs Taming of the Shrew. The kids are so involved. I wish there was some way to tell Marsha Mason, Peter Donat, Marc Singer & Fredi Olster how, even after all these years, their work resonates so hugely.