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My Life as a Theatre Director, part 1

by Lauren E. Nichols

I did not always want to be a theater director.

Those who have known me in the past couple of decades may find that surprising. But it’s true. My aspiration as a girl was to be a writer because I was too shy to perform. I wrote my first play in fifth grade, but wasn’t able to produce it. I wrote modern adaptations of Jesus’ parables for my 6th grade religion class, and produced a play with one of my best friends when I was in 8th grade. 

Eventually I got over my shyness and auditioned for plays in high school. [Fun fact:  Fort Wayne Youtheatre gave me most of my on-stage experience. I was in three of the first four plays that Harvey Cocks directed when he took over as their Executive Director.] After that, whether I wanted to be a playwright or an actress was kind of a toss-up. All I knew was that I didn’t ever want to be “in charge”.

I Will, Harvey’s first show at Youtheatre, October 1978. I’m the one in the blond wig with my eyes closed.

All that changed in 2004 when I invited our dear friend Harvey Cocks to direct You Can’t Take it With You. afO was twelve years old, and I had written a number of short scripts (and a couple of longish ones) for us to produce. Mounting published full-length plays was still a relatively new venture for us back then, and Harvey had directed me in one of the first (I Remember Mama) the previous season. Now, however, he politely declined. Nothing daunted, I asked, “Well…would you play Grandpa for us?” (I knew he had played the role before, and it would be a casting coup if he played it again for our company.)  “Yes, of course,” he quickly replied, “…if you direct it.”

Gulp. I was trapped. 

Directing a sketch is one thing. Directing a large cast in a three-act comedy is something totally different. But to my surprise–though not to Harvey’s, he assured me–I immediately loved it. I loved the problem-solving aspects of blocking in a tight space with eight people onstage. I loved discovering “business” for an actor which made a scene even funnier. I also quickly learned that I could create a collaborative environment where everyone felt comfortable trying out their own ideas…we are SO much cleverer together than any one of us is separately!

At 42 years old, I found myself more at home with being the “buck stops here” person, deciding what worked and what did not. But I didn’t have to think of everything. God has consistently and graciously brought me brilliantly funny, intelligent, generous actors and designers who share their creativity wholeheartedly. 

Ultimately–ironically–I did not get to see this first production that I directed. Our dear executive director, Sharon Henderson, lost her dad two weeks before we opened. I took over her relatively small role as Reba, the cook. I tagged a long-time afO member, Ron Stauss, to be my eyes and ears when I was offstage. And everything went well, I guess. But I found for the first time that I would have preferred to be watching the play rather than looking out at the audience.

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