ACT Theatre welcomes the first of two Thomas S. Kenan Directing Fellowship recipients this year. As an emerging director gaining practical knowledge and experience, Samip Raval will be in residence at ACT until February, under the guidance of John Langs, and will direct Rajiv Joseph’s play, Guards at the Taj.
With this fellowship, Raval is particularly enjoying the opportunity to work with Langs. “I worked with John Langs during my final year at University of North Carolina School of the Arts and knew that I wanted to continue working with him,” Raval said. “After working around the country for a few years, I wanted to return to the core values I learned in school and I knew I could find that with the way John approaches a script in the rehearsal room.”
But Raval’s interest in directing didn’t begin in a rehearsal room. “I think theater happens everywhere, even where there aren’t stages or lights, or even audiences sometimes,” he said. “It’s happening inside of homes, coffee shops, classrooms, workplaces, playgrounds, or anywhere you can find people. So what’s interesting to me is bringing to the stage some of these interactions that are happening in these various environments and adapting them into the dramatic form.”
From these initial observations, Raval has strived to become well-rounded in the dramatic arts. “Since I began my training, I have gotten to act, direct, write, and teach in the field,” Raval said. “Each of these experiences has taught me a different side of the craft, and you have to be fully immersed in those experiences to extract such specific teachings. I continue to dance between these various roles of the theater because it deepens my practice and understanding of the art form.”
Over the years, Raval has taken many of the teachings of others to heart. “I once had a mentor tell me, ‘You’re a lucky director if you’re the dumbest one in the room,’” Raval quoted. That mentor went on to tell Raval: “’When you have a group of people you can trust and fail with, it makes it so much easier to throw paint at the wall and not worry about what it looks like. It gives you a chance to see the raw form of an idea before you go in and shape it.’”
Raval has since approached a number of collaborations from this perspective. “There are only 24 hours in a day and there’s so much art to create,” he said. “How can I manage my time in a way where I’m best serving the craft? It’s a great question to ask and an even greater challenge to take on.”
Part of his process is to continue to ask questions of his own work. “I think it’s very easy to have ideas, but the more distinguished test is how loyal are you to your artistic impulse?” he said. “How far can you separate your ego from the work?”
This is a challenge that Raval has been wrestling with for years. “I think great writers and directors are so eager to scrap away early ideas in order to find the real core of a story,” Ravel said. “I find myself learning to detach from the early impulse and continue asking endless questions until I hit a very specific nerve in the body.”
That’s when the surprises can arise. “It’s important to stay alert, to not get complacent,” Raval said. “A work of art is a living and breathing thing. It’s always changing and so you have to be ready to change with it. You’ve got to love this challenge.”
Raval also likes to take this questioning mode into the classroom when he teaches. “I don’t know if I have a teaching philosophy, but what I hope to achieve in a classroom is, how can I knock my students off their feet?” he said. “How can I set them up for surprise so they actually forget they have to learn, but rather feel the need to crave and be hungry for learning?”
These references to physical sensations, such as hunger, are not accidental for Raval. “I hope to exercise the students physically and mentally, reinforcing the belief that you need both to bring about your best work,” he said. “My most personal and specific goal is for them to come to the understanding that they are the writers of their own stories, not a character in an already written journey.”
To deploy this free will and agency, Raval urges his students and the actors under his direction to remain alert. “It comes back to not staying awake, not letting yourself get complacent,” he said. “If students can embrace that work is fun, then I think they can become free from the restraints of fear.”
Raval expects this to be true for him during his ACT fellowship, as well. “I thought it was a great chance for me to really apply what I’ve been learning over the years,” Raval said. “And of course it’s invaluable having the guidance of John and the ACT staff.”
‘Guards at the Taj’ runs from January 27 to February 4 at ACTLab, 700 Union Street, Seattle. For more information, visit www.acttheatre.org/Tickets/OnStage/GuardsattheTaj.