The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

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FEB 2023 Issue

On Theater and Theurgy: A Les Waters Compendium Illuminates the Director’s Craft

Emily Cass McDonnell in <em>The Thin Place</em> by Lucas Hnath, directed by Les Waters, at Playwrights Horizons. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Emily Cass McDonnell in The Thin Place by Lucas Hnath, directed by Les Waters, at Playwrights Horizons. Photo: Joan Marcus.

It’s not exactly that Les Waters is embarrassed to have a book written about him.

Maybe the director writhes, just a little, at reading each superlative in Scott T. Cummings’s compendium The Theatre of Les Waters: More Like the Weather (now in bookstores, from Routledge). The legendary theatermaker is, after all, English.

“A true collaborator,” writes stage manager Amanda Spooner in one essay. “A visionary.”

“Serious about the work, and incredibly fun,” says arts administrator Jennifer Bielstein. “Always generous and respectful.”

“Whatever Les creates will be brilliantly conceived and singular,” writes actress Quincy Tyler Bernstine. “I just don’t know how he does it.”

To be bashful or dismissive about such (well-deserved) praise would be, for Waters, just too obvious. Too rote.

But nor is Waters, a king of experimental theater who recently graced Broadway with his extraordinary production of Lucas Hnath’s Dana H., about to let a book about his work become, itself, obvious or rote.

So, interspersed between illuminating essays by Waters’s collaborators come his own idiosyncratic contributions. They include a to-do list from 2007, notable hallucinations, memories from favorite productions, and ten films that directors might watch. (He says ten, but ends up at eighteen.)

Many are, you will notice, lists. As Waters notes early on, he loves lists. He explains why in a section entitled “I love lists.”

“Lists come easy because they are both factual and fragmented,” writes Waters. “They are about the past and the future… I think of a list as revelatory. A coded message from an unknown person.”

That theme of duality—of a thing being two things, and that idea of a feeling somewhere between, both precisely this and exactly that, yet somehow also neither, living in a space all its own—crops up a lot in Waters’s contributions. That is characteristic of his work as a director. A Waters show is precise yet indefinable: in service of the text, yet also identifiable with his own singular vision—a thing between things, all of its own.

How do you describe directing? In short: you cannot. The finest theater captures something ineffable so, naturally, good directing is much the same. Knowing this, Waters has insisted, as Cummings explains in his introduction, that this book not attempt to be some kind of guide to great theater direction.

“Les had zero interest in channeling the wisdom of his experience into some kind of orthodoxy about how to direct,” explains Cummings, a professor of theater at Boston College. “He even hesitated to discuss his productions with a specificity that might come off as pretentious or conceited.”

Cummings’s excellent collection instead builds, through a balance of Waters’s own off-beat reports and his collaborators’ more traditional recollections, a gradual picture of the man and his worldview.

In essays from a wide variety of fellow theater workers—playwright Sarah Ruhl, designer David Zinn, and actress Maria Dizzia among them—a few themes crop up repeatedly. Waters prepares intensely but does not focus on research. He runs a rehearsal room with unusual quiet, his guiding hand almost imperceptible. He is a family man, intensely devoted to his frequent collaborator and wife, designer Annie Smart, and their children. And he is a true collaborator, willing to be wrong in the room in service of the best idea.

From a working class background in Lincolnshire, Waters found his way to the Royal Court, part of the Joint Stock wave mentored by Max Stafford-Clark. Here Waters found a dream collaborator in Caryl Churchill. His production of Churchill’s Fen transferred to New York and was a hit. Waters stayed and has worked in the US ever since, eventually running Actors Theatre of Louisville for six years.

Much of this background on his early life and breakout as an artist comes into full view only in the latter section of Much Like the Weather—the more traditional order of things, again, eschewed. Waters himself does not detail his eventual break from the Court at all, leaving that strained history to Rob Ritchie, the Court’s then Literary Manager, to fill in on his behalf.

Ritchie’s contribution is among the book’s finest because of its blunt truthfulness and lack of sentiment—no coincidence that Ritchie is, like the man himself, a Brit. The book’s American contributors are more effusive with their praise, and the most laudatory essays tend to echo each other. By the end it feels like certain key Waters traits—his careful listening, his imperceptible guiding hand—have been praised a hundred times over.

Yet mostly, Cummings strikes a successful balance between Waters’s own “stems” (as he dubs them) and his collaborators’ extended thoughts. Together they form an assured picture of a brilliant artist. And towards the end Waters even allows himself, however reluctantly, some reflection on his childhood, and on his occasionally strained, always loving relationship with his parents, reflections both candid and very moving.

Probably the book’s finest achievement, though, is conjuring in text what a Waters production feels like. Waters himself at one point laments the transience of theater, the lack of any record outside of a few photos. There are lots of photos here, beautiful photos, and certainly they help. But even just in text, this is a book which places you firmly inside the world Waters builds: whether the batshit chaos of Charles Mee’s Glory of the World, the hallucinatory beauty of Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice, or the dreamlike purgatory of Anne Washburn’s 10 Out of 12.

Finally, the book acts as an unintentional last record of something lost. Waters chronicles his work curating the Humana Festival of New American Plays, helped in this by Bielstein, who ran it with him and writes of their work together. Actors Theatre confirmed in 2022 that the festival, which helped launch Hnath, Will Eno, and Hansol Jung, among others, will not return in its pre-lockdown form.

The festival’s future is a complex topic, and Waters notes the mammoth challenges he faced in presenting it. But it is also clear that Waters views it as among his proudest achievements. At a moment when new play work feels constantly imperiled, as developmental bastions like Humana keep disappearing, one cannot help but wonder in reading these sections if Waters had the last roller coaster ticket before Disneyland burned down.


Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre, Culturebot, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2023

All Issues