Novel Thoughts: A conversation with author Susan Beth Lehman

Trevor Hogg chats with Susan Beth Lehman about the creative relationship between theatre and cinema as well as her book Directors: From Stage to Screen and Back Again

“I was born in New York City, but raised in Texas and moved to L.A. when I was a teenager,” states Susan Beth Lehman who experienced some cultural confusion.  “I started acting at the Alley Theater in Houston when I was 12.   I have a BA in Theatre and an MFA in Acting, both from UCLA.  But LA is a company town, so crossing over to film is very natural.  After moving to the Philadelphia area some years ago, I started teaching in academia.”  A cinematic adaptation of a Steven King story has left a lasting impression on the Assistant Professor of TV and Film at DeSales University.  “The end of The Shawshank Redemption [1994] is one of the most emotionally and visually complete moments in film and is something that you could never recreate on stage.”  At a young age Lehman became aware of Moscow Art Theatre Director Konstantin Stanislavsky who wrote the influential An Actor Prepares in 1936.    “I was an actress at 12, so some of my earliest studies were of Stanislavsky.  It was primer reading by acting class in college.  There are many elements that brought him and the world to embrace realism toward the end of the 19th century.  Monarchs had fallen.  There was stronger public education and the industrial revolution building a middle class.  Playwrights were exploring new theories of complex human motivation with Freud’s theories.  Plays weren’t just about rich people anymore.  Everyone’s problems were now fair game for dramatic exploration.”

Prominent directors have been able to move successfully between theatre and cinema such as Sidney Lumet (Network), Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa), Mike Nichols (The Graduate), Stephen Daldry (The Reader), and Sam Mendes (American Beauty).  “In L.A. it’s natural,” states Susan Beth Lehman.  “My teachers lived in both worlds, too.  I was also very lucky in that from an early age I was privileged to work with excellent teachers. When I was a young actor, Elia Kazan [On the Waterfront] and the Actors’ Studio had already firmly set a standard for all of us.”  The theatre plays a fundamental role in developing big screen talent.  “I think that is easily proven out by the work of our great film artists.  Most of our top actors still have their roots in the theatre.  Directors can get really smart or lucky with casting, but they often miss a step if they just study the moving image.”  The creative relationship between cinema and the stage led Lehman to publish Directors: From Stage to Screen and Back Again.  “When I came to DeSales I realized that most of my students had no dramatic literature background or understanding how important a theatre education was to creating great stories on film; they just wanted to play with the toys.” The publication features 12 conversations with the likes of Paul Aaron (A Different Story), Judy Chaikin (Girls in the Band), Neil LaBute (Lakeview Terrace), Rob Marshall (Memoirs of a Geisha), Matt Shakman (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Jerry Zaks (My Big Fat Greek Wedding).  “The book is very close to the original purpose.  When editing the interviews, I was surprised by how much my students enjoyed reading about the directors’ backgrounds and how they entered film.  So, I included more than I initially imagined.”

“The biggest obstacle was always getting to the directors to schedule an interview [which involved] lots of letter writing and contact making,” reveals Susan Beth Lehman.  “I drew on past associations.  Several directors were immediately receptive, but the book doesn’t have one because we couldn’t work out the schedule and a couple because I couldn’t get through ‘their people.’”  The profiled figures were carefully selected.  “I wanted directors that had very rich histories and are still active in theatre.  I love that one of the biggest sitcom and romantic comedy directors, was a major innovator in Experiment Theater early in his career.  That someone like Matt Shakman behind a show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia [FX, 2005 to present] also helms some of the most prestigious theatre in Los Angeles.  Each director has been successful in a varied form of film making, from the revival of the film musical to documentary film, to directing for video games.  There are Oscar, Emmy and Tony winners, yet after hundreds and hundreds of projects, they are still eager to explore new stories.”  As for the biggest discovery while conducting the research and interviews for the book, the native of New York City says, “I think the readers will understand how important character and story structure is to every form of film and every single project.”  Lehman believes, “Film schools are relatively new to academia, and technology makes beginning filmmaking accessible to so many people.  It’s easy to skip the steps that lead to passionate and enveloping story telling.  I don’t want to see films that are technically successful, but emotionally empty.”

When asked what are the essential elements required to become a successful director in theatre and film, Susan Beth Lehman replies, “Curiosity.  I agree with Matt Shakman, learn everything and hire better people.”  A prevailing topic in Directors: From Stage to Screen and Back Again is that theatre teaches how to communicate with actors while film provides a technical understanding.  “You can work with people who will translate your visual ideas, but you must understand the character and story.  You need to learn the language of the actor. There are so many things these directors say that bring home the point.  Paul Aaron stressing that a director that wants 30 takes doesn’t know what they want.  I say you’re just looking to get lucky.   I tell my students that the director is the writer of the action.  Not having dialogue does not mean not having story to tell.”  The relationship between theatre and movies continues to evolve.   “One should not replace the other.  But, film is so accessible people can forget the magnificent energy of live theatre.  Since the early part of the 20th century theatre directors and designers such as Bertolt Brecht [To Whom Does the World Belong?] have been incorporating film into productions.  But theatre is still magic and film is a magical craft.” Lehman notes, “There are film directors that want to go back to the roots of story telling, but it seems to work best when theatre works as a building block.  There is an absolute respect of the writer in theatre that doesn’t apply in film.  It is hard for many film people to let go of that.  But, I like the way Neil LaBute puts it.  ‘If a guy stays in the house it’s a play.   If he takes a drive it’s a movie.’”  Stage play productions can survive the digital age of moviemaking.  “As long as children have imaginations, theatre will not die.  All you need is an actor, an audience and a place to play.  As wonderful as film is, as Paul Aaron says, people don’t rise to their feet applauding at the end of a film.”

Many thanks to Susan Beth Lehman for taking the time for this interview.

To learn more about Directors: From Stage to Screen and Back Again visit the website for Intellect Books.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.