Thinking About White House History - From a Director's Viewpoint

Certainly, the dirctor of a play must see history differently! We wanted to know if this is true. 

Enter Chris Daileader, one of the directors of our Pickle Pea Walks. We were able to catch Chris between his many acting and directing commitments and get his thoughts about this. Here is part of our conversation with "our" very talented Chris --- 

Question from PPW: You are both an actor and a director. Which do you prefer doing? Which has your heart and soul?

Answer from Chris: I very much enjoy directing, but acting is in my soul.  The preparation work for an actor, at least for my process, is actually very similar to a director’s — but with a much more narrow scope. Actors dig an inch wide but a mile deep; you learn EVERYTHING about your one character. As a director you sort of do that for the whole play and the whole story and all the dynamics and how everything has to flow.  You spend a lot more time digging, but you have so much more ground to cover so you don’t dig as deep.

There are similarities, but the act of putting all that work away, trusting it, and just letting yourself live earnestly in the moment of performance is a sort of tightrope walk that makes acting an irresistible drive for me.

PPW: A Pickle Pea Walk is so different from a stage production. Is it harder or easier to direct?

Chris: Well, it’s very different because you are essentially training your actor for a guided improvisation. Onstage you always have the script and the other actors feed you exactly what you need to feel and say what you need to when you need to. On a walk like this the audience is right there with you, they ask questions, they may ask you about something from scene 5 when you’re at the very beginning! 

As a director, this makes you focus much more on the character than the dynamics of the story because no two walks will ever be exactly the same. As long as the actors really know Quentin, Liz, and John then they can play and live and roll with the punches even if the walk goes WAY off script!

PPW: What was the first play you ever saw?

Chris: I used to go up to see theater in New York with my grandfather all the time, and I know the first show I ever saw was either The Lion King, A Christmas Carol, or Cats. I’m fuzzy on which was first, but I was exposed to theater at a very young age and fell in love.

PPW: What was the first play you acted in? How old were you? What part did you play? 

Chris: Oy...Oklahoma. I was some bit part cowboy in the chorus. It was back in high school and honestly I only auditioned because a few friends of mine did as well. I got talked into it; I’d never done anything creative before, really. I’d never acted before but I had a great singing voice so I got cast the first time I ever auditioned for something.

I’m sure I was terrible.

PPW: What’s the most fun about being a director?

Chris: Well, honestly, part of it is the control! As an actor you are a tool at times; you are subject to the decisions of the director and designers and even the choices of your scene partners. You’re a leaf in the wind.

While directing is still a collaborative process, it feels a bit more like being the wind.  

PPW: With Pickle Pea Walks you often play John Ousley, the first White House gardener. What can you tell us about Mr. Ousley? You seem to really know this man! Who is he? 

Chris: John is a fascinating character, but we have so little written by him preserved! So much of his personality is something created by the actor. But I like to think of the kind of man who would leave his family in Ireland and, within a year, parlay his gardening talents into a position at the White House! His passion for his niche, gardening, must have guided everything in his life. People with focus like that in their lives tend to be very whimsical, always mining their life for inspiration.

My Ousley is a tempestuous man, whose moods swing wildly as he thinks back on his time at the White House. He saw a LOT in a crazy time for our country. I bet he had some strong opinions!

PPW: When you direct another actor in the part of John Ousley are you directing as someone looking at Mr. Ousley or are you sharing information from Mr. Ousley himself?

Chris: A director always has to see things as a third party, and objective observer with no prior knowledge of the piece they are directing. That way you make sure the story and character are developing in a way that the audience will receive and respond to. You have to assume the audience comes in knowing nothing of the subject matter, and you have to make sure the actor guides them on the right path.

PPW: Does being an actor help or confuse your directing?

Chris: Oh it definitely helps. You need a common vocabulary with the actors you direct. Having been trained as an actor gives me the tools I need to guide the actors towards what we want the final product to be. I know what they’re looking for from me as a director, and it helps me to say just the right thing to tweak the performance in the right direction.

PPW: What’s the most interesting thing about working with Pickle Pea Walks?

Chris: The characters! Quentin, Liz, and John are such fascinating people! Diving into their lives is always a treat.