One has directed 48 stage productions and seven feature films (including American Beauty and the James Bond smash hit Skyfall), collecting 34 awards.

The other became music director of the L.A. Philharmonic when he was 28 years old, and over the past decade has become one of the most famous conductors in the world, renowned for the "energy he brings to live performance."

And while stage and film director Sam Mendes and Gustavo Dudamel may travel in different artistic circles, they have one thing in common: They work hard at being effective leaders. 

That's because while Mendes and Dudamel take their directing responsibilities seriously, both realize that their success depends on the people--musicians, actors, technicians, etc--they lead.

"Much to his (director's) union's chagrin, Mendes refuses to benefit from the hard-fought battle for 'possessory credit'--you won't find 'A Film by Sam Mendes' in the credits for any of his movies," writes John Lahr in a profile in The New Yorker. A film, Mendes said, "is written by someone else, shot by someone else. It's not all me. It's because of me."

What are the elements that make Mendes and Dudamel effective? Here are 5 key components to their art of leadership:


In a New York Times article on Dudamel, Brian Phillips describes a rehearsal he observed, where the conductors and his orchestra, along with the chorus of the London Symphony, were "about to tackle one of the purest expressions of the ideas he finds most stirring--the final moment of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the 'Ode to Joy.'"  

Again and again, Dudamel signaled the orchestra to stop. "We have to get out of the routine of the music," he said, "and bring the feeling back." 

We have to believe in the text. "Freude, freude," he sang--joy, joy! "We have to end by embracing each other."


As Phillips writes, "The way Dudamel looks at it, he's not a ruler; he's more like an ally of the players. He is on hand to offer his thoughts, help them sound their best. Cooperation gets better results. Musicians, he thinks, are like everyone else. Music is supposed to feel good. Doesn't everyone do their best when they feel good?"

Lahr notes that Mendes is known for creating a "safe room" for rehearsals. He quotes Produce Scott Rudin, who said about Mendes that "People are free to have a bad idea. Frequently, the bad idea illuminates where the great idea is. Sam makes the room embracing, warm. He's very open about what he perceives to be his own mistakes. If he doesn't know something, he's entirely comfortable asking the questions. That makes people feel incredibly well protected."

Mendes was an expert cricket player when he was young; in fact, he was his school team's captain. The game taught him "how to get the best out of a disparate group of people. I learned how to issue instructions, to be respectful and at the same time clear. It gave me the confidence to exert authority, and that was a massive thing."

Phillips writes about the challenge of putting "across (an) understanding of a musical work to the group of musicians whose performance of it will usher it into existence? Musicians who work with Dudamel tend to say that what sets him apart from other conductors isn't anything grand or obvious; it's an accumulation of small moments. How he speaks to them. How he listens to them."


In The New Yorker piece, Lahr explains how Mendes works hard to connect with his actors. "I will find out what the actors need," said Mendes. "My language to each of them has to suit their brain. Each actor is different. On a film set you have to be next to them all, touching them on the shoulder, saying, I'm with you. I know exactly how you're working. Now try this or that."


Dudamel believes in collaboration, but he also knows when it's time to provide his advice. At the Beethoven rehearsal, he asks orchestra members to pay close attention to the singers: "(Listening) is so important here," Dudamel explained. "It's not about not playing--I'm not telling you not to play. But if you aren't willing to do this kind of listening-playing, then you'll never be able to do this. We'll never have the space of the--the magic of that uniqueness. It's about finding the way to be in the service of this"--he tapped the score--"and how it asks us to create that for the singers. So please."

Mendes said, "I think I labored for a long time under the pressure of trying to prove to everyone that I was fair and democratic." But in 1989, he sat in on rehearsals of the iconic theatrical director Peter Stein. As Lahr writes, Stein would walk up to actors and speak the lines and make the gestures alongside them. Sometimes he would stand behind him and lift their arms in the postures he wanted. "What was amazing is they just carried on. It didn't break their concentration. It's much more dictatorial than I would ever attempt, but it did teach me not to be afraid of it. Sometimes what you need is to be prescriptive."

One more thing: Both Mendes and Dudamel are very good at what they do. Lahr quotes Ethan Hawke, who appeared in the plays "The Cherry Orchard" and "The Winter's Tale" under Mendes's direction: "He thinks like an athlete. Sam knows how to move the ball. When the ball is moving well, good things happen." 

Published on: Dec 7, 2018
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