The revelatory production of Tennessee Williams’ 1944 play The Glass Menagerie closed last week on Broadway. It was directed by John Tiffany, who had won a 2012 Tony Award for his direction of the musical Once. Tiffany’s creative brilliance is exceptional. What distinguishes his productions, though, is something more elusive. I have been thinking lately about how he embodies many concepts of Adaptive Leadership in his directing style and how that may be the critical difference.
I met John in the fall of 2011. His production of Black Watch, a theater piece based on interviews with Scottish soldiers who served in Iraq, was receiving international acclaim. He had been awarded a fellowship at Radcliffe and was in Cambridge on leave from his position as Associate Director of New Work at the National Theater of Scotland. He was interested in investigating how our native speech patterns change with time and circumstance.
Over lunch at Cafe Algiers in Harvard Square, John talked about growing up in Yorkshire, changing his accent in theater school, and adding a bit of Scottish when he was at work. He told me about the books he was reading and the neuro-scientists he was meeting at Harvard. His delight in new ideas was infectious. I introduced him to the concept of “code switching” — how we unconsciously alter our speech patterns to match our immediate situations. I told him of my Home Dialect Project, a unit of dialect and accent study that brings our graduate student actors back to their earliest speech influences. This meeting began a year long collaboration, which culminated in a production with those students.
I Speak Therefore I Am was my first opportunity to observe John in action. Many theater directors view themselves as the auteur, taking full responsibility for creating every moment of a production. John’s process was very different. During the fall and winter, he asked the student cohort to study the dialects of their parents and grandparents. He also asked them to write scenes and monologues on any aspect of communication. By making the actors take responsibility for the script, he functioned as a collaborator, not an authority figure, doing what the Adaptive Leadership model calls “giving the work back.” This approach generated huge creative energy.
When rehearsals began in earnest in the spring, John introduced a warm-up based on the work of Ros Steen, then the National Theater of Scotland’s voice director. The warm-up demanded real contact, first with eyes, then voices, then bodies. John participated fully every time. He modeled the behavior that he was asking of his actors. He became a part of the process. In the Adaptive Leadership framework, the person who is leading is not separate from the system they are working to change. The leader is “part of the mess.” For example, if a CEO wishes to effect change within an organization, she must be willing to change herself. John put himself on the line. The actors were willing to risk more because he was taking a risk with them.
As rehearsals progressed, I watched how John gathered ideas. He didn’t stick to the unspoken hierarchy embedded in a traditional theater production. Anyone could contribute (actors, dramaturgs, designers, stage management, voice coach) even if the idea wasn’t necessarily in his or her specific area of expertise. One might imagine this becoming chaos, but because making a great production was always the focus, it simply created a fertile open field. He listened to ideas even from outliers, as laid out in Adaptive Leadership, and kept the work at the center.
The second John Tiffany production I coached was the developmental workshop of the musical Once, which went on to win eight Tony Awards. What struck me most this time was the trust that John gave to each of his team members. Many directors feel threatened by giving autonomy to their creative support. In this rehearsal process, John gave generous time to music, dialects, and choreography rehearsals without needing to be an authoritative overseer. By trusting his team, he got the very best of their expertise. This parallels the Adaptive Leadership notion of giving people agency to do their own work, rather than thinking of leadership as telling people how to do what they already know.
My third Tiffany production was The Glass Menagerie at the A.R.T. The first two had been developmental projects; this was an American classic. How would he be in this situation, I wondered, where the text is set and the actors are established stars? Again, the tenor of the rehearsal room was one of open collaboration. Rehearsals began every day with a physical warm-up led by Celia Keenan-Bolger, a Broadway musical performer who was playing the damaged and vulnerable Laura. How wonderful to see Cherry Jones, Zachary Quinto and Brian J. Smith in various yoga poses every morning as they prepared themselves to enter Williams’ painful story.
John worked with patience and delicacy. Because he stayed in tune every moment with exactly what the actors needed, they never felt pressured to perform in an untruthful manner. Conversations were exploratory. He honored their concerns and respected their creative processes. As a result, the work that emerged was unique, deep and personal. We saw none of the ego games that often flare up when stars of this caliber are asked to reveal their hearts in such close proximity. No one wanted to miss a moment of watching rehearsal as the layers of each iconic character became more complex and heartbreaking.
The development of the specific dialect patterns mirrored this same slow process. One might assume that all the characters in a Tennessee Williams’ play speak in an identical Southern manner and that I, as dialect coach, could offer a single template to the actors. This was not at all the case. Cherry Jones’ grandmother lived near where her character, Amanda Wingfield, fictionally grew up. Cherry easily acquired a local Southern aristocratic sound for her role. Brian J. Smith, who played the gentleman caller, is from Texas, and needed to add a more Midwestern flavor for a St. Louis dialect. Zach, Tom Wingfield, could sound less Southern or more, depending on his alliances in the play. And Celia’s Laura could sound like her mother Amanda, or perhaps in an effort to fit in, more like her St. Louis schoolmates. John remained patient throughout this exploration, letting me partner with the actors to experiment with versions of their speech patterns, reject aspects, try something new, reject again, until the dialects that emerged were both personal and precise.
John was using the Adaptive Leadership skill called “pacing the work.” I have never seen a stage director do this as elegantly. He kept the heat high enough in the rehearsal room so that every day brought a new challenge. But he never let it get so high that the actors had a crisis of confidence. Making sure that people are ready for the next step is a necessary component of exercising leadership. The biggest mistakes in leadership occur when events explode beyond repair because too much has happened too quickly or when the incentive to change passes because the pressure has dropped too low.
I hope that John Tiffany wins a Tony Award this June for his direction of The Glass Menagerie. It was an extraordinary experience to be in the rehearsal room with him. I watched him exercise leadership in a way that I’ve never seen before in the theater. I may not get to work with him again in this context, but what I have learned from him is indelible: be curious, be collaborative, trust your partners, model the behavior you are asking for, listen to the divergent voices, and pace the work. The special quality of John’s shows is due in part, I’m sure, to his intuitive use of these Adaptive Leadership concepts; he creates an environment that brings out the best in people, makes them eager to contribute, and gives them real ownership of the outcome.