Guest Directors: “You are enough”

Paris Benjamin and Michael Taylor Gray, guest directors

If you’ve been keeping up with Stetson University’s Theatre Department, you’ve likely heard about two recent visitors, guest directors Paris Benjamin and Michael Taylor Gray.

The Plays

Both Benjamin and Gray are professional actors based in Los Angeles, and this month they will each be directing a one act as part of Stetson Theatre’s Sticking it to the Man: Three Plays that Pushed Back. The show will include a third one act directed by Stetson professor Dr. Ken McCoy.

All three are protest plays that deliver a message. Dr. McCoy noted with a small grin, “I think some people will be made angry.” He explained, “I think theatre should provoke.” With each play delving into societal issues that have historically and modernly raised debate, the audience won’t leave be leaving with what Gray described as “a beige reaction”.

To clarify, Benjamin said the goal was not to “vilify society”. Rather, the plays prompt the audience to “examine in a deeply honest, sincere way” how we treat each other.

What the Guest Directors are Teaching

I asked the directors if there was a specific skill that they were trying to hone or perfect in their students. Benjamin and Gray both jumped on explaining that they are more concerned with a message.

“They’re enough,” Benjamin said. “You, you as you are—you’re enough. I don’t every want to hear ‘sorry’.” To encourage this mentality, she keeps a ‘Sorry’ jar in the theatre during practices. A dollar goes in every time a student stops themselves to apologize. The kind of atmosphere this mentality cultivates encourages students to trust their own abilities. Benjamin added that, “Everything that comes out of you is right because it’s organic. This is how you build confidence.”

Gray concurred, saying he wants students to “leave their bag of tricks at home.”

“You’re not here to get our approval, or here to impress us,” Gray explained. He wants students to allow a character to “come from within them”, not to “put a costume over it”. With the hard-hitting themes of Dutchman (Gray’s one act), it’s not a far stretch for students to relate to their characters. Though the play was written in the 1970s, the message of the script is still highly relevant.

A New Experience

Stetson University has two professors that direct, Dr. McCoy and Dr. Schmitt. This helps build strong student-professor relationships, but it can also limit the interactions of theatre majors and minors. The great advantage of visiting guest directors is the chance for students to work with someone new.

Dr. McCoy notes the joy seeing the students he knows work with another director. “I know them a certain way,” he said, but now “I know them better.”

Reflecting on his own experiences in graduate and undergraduate school, Gray saw a distinct value in working with guest directors. Bringing in “people who were actively working in their craft” and infusing them in the learning environment of a university’s theatre gives students a look into the world on the “outside”.

In the Words of a Student

Jodi Cothron is a student at Stetson University who has been learning from both Benjamin and Gray. She has referred to the work as “an amazing experience” through which she can “take in all the expertise they bring to the table”. Jodi commended the directors from Stetson’s Theatre department for what she has previously been able to learn, but added that “You kind of get into a pattern when working with the same directors”—”adapt[ing] to their directing style” and learning “what to expect from show to show”.

The experience of working with guest directors has brought new ideas to the table. In Jodi’s words, it has “both challenged me and enlightened me, and I feel like I’ve learned so much in such a short time.”

More information about the theatre’s upcoming shows can be found here.

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