Gentle Conductor





Calm and focused even with the play he authored on the line, director Dwight Watson stays grounded in what he sees as his deeper vocation.

He sits alone near the back of the theater, one leg draped casually over the chair in front of him. Nothing more to do but watch his creations come to life, nothing more but to enjoy the moment while it lasts.

The house lights are still on and the sophomore, rookie stage manager paces in the light booth, whispering directions into the headsets of black-clothed stagehands.

A theater veteran laughs easily in the green room with the sprite-like middle school student.

Wringing his hands, the nervous Bolivian freshman stands behind the curtain and waits for his cue.

The house lights fade to black. Silence fills the theater.

As the spotlight shines on the upstage piano bench, the Bolivian moves out from behind the curtain. But it’s a humble piano tuner who finally steps forward into the light.

Step One: Work It

“Dwight [Watson’s casts always call him by his first name], we have a small problem.”

Just two weeks before opening night, Dwight Watson turned from his conversation and smiled. As a director of student theater for more than 20 years, Watson is accustomed to patient problem solving.

“I have a powder puff game until 7:00 so I won’t be here until 7:30, is that going to be a problem?”

“Just be here when you can,” Watson calmly replied.

“If I were him, I’d be a little more uptight about it,” said Christina Holmstrom, a Crawfordsville High School junior. “He’s just so laid back.”

Stage manager Luke Elliott said the same thing of Watson. Tuttle Middle-Schooler Alexandra Hudson did, too.

Call Watson a kind of anti Teddy Roosevelt—speak softly and spare the big stick.

“It’s a process,” Watson said of creating theater. “I have a game plan. I don’t necessarily think that the way you always get things accomplished is with a stick.”

With a production like The Newton Project, however, “laid back” isn’t what you’d expect Watson to be.

For three years, Watson has been involved in every step of the creative process, from developing the characters and writing their monologues to casting and directing actors for the roles.

Each piece was written with the young actor in mind, to be used as audition pieces for the “Big ‘A’ Audition,” as Watson calls it. Tradition-ally, theater auditions consist of a cold read of the script and a prepared scene or monologue chosen by the actor prior to the audition. Watson’s monologues are intended to offer the “bang” needed to win over a director.

“It’s my hope, and this is yet to be tested, that these are character ideas that have some dimension,” Watson said. He tried to shape the characters “in such a way that actors would want to perform them.”

But writing for young actors requires being in tune with youth culture, insight Watson says he lacks. The inspiration for the 22 different characters, then, came from experiences with which Watson was familiar: the Wabash theater and his family. Watson summoned up experiences with his two sons, Matthew and Evan, and his wife, Jamie, from whom he drew inspiration for many of his female characters.

But Watson’s collaboration doesn’t stop after he lays down his pen. Throughout rehearsals, Watson watched and waited for inspiration to strike again.

“Laid back? Yeah, I guess I do lay back and wait and see what is there, see what they [the actors] can bring to a rehearsal,” Watson said. For the actors, that philosophy makes all the difference.

Chris Laguna, a theater major who played both a parolee looking to serve his term doing community theater and a frustrated college student in The Newton Project, said Watson’s unselfishness helps actors get involved with the creative process.

“He hasn’t been treating the play like it’s his baby,” Laguna said. Having worked with Watson before, Laguna was the first to check out a script of The Newton Project.

“I love working with Dwight,” he said.

But Watson does not limit creative input to stage veterans and theater majors. Even the youngest member of the cast, 13-year-old Alexandra Hudson, said Watson gave her the freedom to develop her own character.

“Dwight’s cool with most things,” she said. “He doesn’t mandate what a character has to be.”

But when guidance is needed, Watson is ready to offer.

Step Two: Perfect It

“It’s Vietnam, Vietnam,” Watson repeated with a smile. It was one night before opening night, and Watson was helping an actor perfect his humble piano tuner.

“Bvee-ET-nam,” the young Bolivian said. The cast filled the room with laughter. Reynaldo Pacheco blushed and repeated, “Bvee-ET-nam.”

Though unpolished, Pacheco, a freshman from La Paz, Bolivia, isn’t exactly a first-time actor. He has been acting since age 15 and spent two years working with the Philharmonic of La Paz, performing musicals.

In Spanish, French, and English.

“It’s hard,” Pacheco said of performing in English, his least comfortable language. “You know that feeling when you’re in a swimming pool you don’t know where the edge is. It’s like that. It’s weird.”

Pacheco said finding the right pronunciations and rhythms in another language is like trying to find a musical melody, which would make Watson his gentle conductor.

“Dwight gives you a lot of confidence,” Pacheco said. “But he can be very soft.”

That struggle—the struggle to own one’s character—keeps Watson coming back to student theater time and again.

“I think of myself as an educator,” Watson said. “And, as a teacher of theater, I think of myself as one who desires to understand all facets of the process.”

Watson said students are likely to respond to his directing philosophy because there is a mutual educational exchange.

“Students are generally very honest about what works and what doesn’t,” Watson said.

“That honesty is key to the creative process.”

Step Three: Give It

“I have yet to see everyone show up on time,” said the stage manager. By opening night, Elliott’s sea of notes had become more turbulent than ever, with calls, cues, and prop notes washing over his desk. Admitting this first shot at stage-managing had been “a learning experience,” Elliott has already made plans to manage the next Wabash performance.

“There’s so much going on behind the scenes—it’s fantastic!” Elliott said.

Actors strode confidently up and down the hall, mumbling lines to themselves. Some found solace in music; others stretched in the experimental theater.

Holmstrom, who delivers the first monologue, had the confidence of a starting quarterback.

“I am ready,” she said through cherry-red stage lipstick. “I am so ready.”

The presence of a live audience completely alters the pace of a performance. Reaction time, laughter, contemplation, and the awesome presence of standing before hundreds of people are new concepts for much of the young cast.

But, if there was any trace of butterflies, any lack of confidence, it was well hidden.

Asked what he was thinking just minutes before curtain, Laguna could only say, “I’m thinking about putting this damn makeup on.”

Hudson was a little nervous, but only because she has to jump rope flawlessly—her character is an expert.

Pacheco sat quietly in the green room, practicing pronunciations with cast members.

“Vietnam.” “Crocodile.”

Watson offered final words of encouragement to the cast.

“You own the show,” he said. “You own the characters and now it’s time to hand that to the audience, to deliver it with confidence.”

Step Four: End It

As the piano tuner delivers the evening’s last monologue, Watson can only smile, sitting up high in the raked house, as calm and laid-back as ever.

In four days, it will all be over—four performances and then the illusion will fade to reality. The characters will reappear, the stage will be disassembled, and only the audience’s memory will live on.

“To some people in the arts, that transitory quality is very frustrating,” Watson says.

Shakespeare once wrote, “These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air … We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

Watson would agree.

“We don’t build in stone,” he says. “We’re not leaving it out there for history; it happens and it’s gone, just like life.”

Adam Christensen is a senior English major and the winner of Indiana Collegiate Press Association’s 2002 Brook Baker Collegiate Journalist of the Year Award.