Lorne Buchman’s ‘Make to Know’ shows the way that we work

Lorne Buchman later in his artistic and academic careers went on to take a doctorate in theater at Stanford and to chair the Theater Department at Cal.

But as every Nobel-winning poet has to scribble a first line, every director has to stage his first scene. And as an undergrad at the University of Toronto for whom the play was the thing but who’d discovered he wasn’t really an actor, the time came when Buchman discovered that his favorite literature professor, Francis “Martineau also taught a course in directing for the  theater, and he had a very specific approach to that course. There was no theoretical preparation. His attitude was simply this: If you want to direct, jump in and direct something. It’s the only way to learn it, to know it, and to understand what questions to ask as you go more fully into the art. It was perfect for me and for the way I learn. It was a make-to-know pedagogy.”

But as Buchman writes in his new book “Make to Know: From Spaces of Uncertainty to Creative Discovery,” published this month, “I had no idea what I was doing. I did cast the play, and I scheduled the first rehearsal. I had no clue, however, what I was going to do in that rehearsal. I didn’t know how to prepare. I read books. Talked to friends. But it all seemed mysterious to me.

“I walked into the space and almost immediately experienced a kind  of transformation. I cannot explain it entirely except to say that some thing of necessity descended upon me when I began that session. We  read text out loud. We talked about character. We got up and moved around.”

Directing that scene from a Chekhov farce, Buchman immediately found his avocation. And it was only by actually doing it — not imagining directing, not talking about directing, but, rather, directing — that he found his craft.

Some are fortunate to discover this fact of life early on; others learn in a hard school.

It is a story wonderfully told over and over in “Make to Know,” and it is the reason Buchman has found so much success in so many fields. His happen to be artistic and academic — now the longtime president of ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, he has also been president of a Jungian institute in the Bay Area, and of the California College of Arts and Crafts, schools you might think are far from the theater in their purpose. But the lessons are the same for us all in every human endeavor. For it is also the reason that creative people are comfortable talking to other creatives in whatever field. Here, the medium is not the message — the fact of being a fellow maker is.

Reading this book is like finding a volume of self-help by someone who actually knows how to write, and Buchman plucks apt quotes from others who know how to as well: “Instead of summoning the goddess mystically to speak through oneself, one must work hard to prepare for inspiration. As Isabel Allende put it: ‘Show up, show up, show up, and after a while the muse shows up, too.’ Or, in the words of Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘All makers must leave room for the acts of the spirit. But they have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.’”

For spirits to move us, we have first to be grounded. As Buchman directed that scene from Chekhov’s “The Boor,” he struggled with its ending: “The harder I tried, the worse it got. But then another surprise. I had a dream … in which Charlie Chaplin appeared to me. I dreamed that the ending of the play needed  to take on the quality of a silent movie.” He woke up, cut the last few pages of text, and had a violinist express the play’s ending, wordlessly. He made it, he knew. It worked.

Larry Wilson is on the Southern California News Group editorial board. lwilson@scng.com.