How to Direct a Play | A Guide to Directing your First Play
how to direct a play

How to Direct a Play

Written by on | Directing How To

Directing is a great way to stay creatively inspired, and learn a lot about acting at the same time. It can be a daunting endeavour at first, but very rewarding. It allows a lot of insights into the craft as a whole, and even if it is not a path you want to pursue full time, it is something every actor should try at least once to better understand where the actor fits into a production as a whole.

Although your experiences acting, training and reading scripts will have taught you a lot about theatre, it’s a totally different skill set.

So if directing has always peaked your curiosity, but you don’t know where to start, read on.

MACRO not MICRO

The most important difference between directing and acting is where your focus lays. As an actor, your job is to understand and effectively portray your character. As a director however, your job is to understand and effectively portray the story as a whole.

You may find incredible moments, and bring wonderful work out of your actors, but if it isn’t serving the story, you haven’t done your job.

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What are you trying to show? What are you trying to say? What do you want the audience to be left with? Always come back to these questions.

A common mistake for first time directors is making a meal out of too many moments. This can push drama into melodrama and comedy into caricature, or it can leave the audience asking themselves “why did I sit through that?”

Make sure you understand what you want the audience to witness and build the play to a clear climax to achieve this vision. You don’t have to have all the answers at the start of rehearsals, as things may shift and change, but always work towards this.

HONOUR THE SCRIPT

As with acting, all the information you need to know is in the script. That’s where the story is, and thats where all the information is. Trust that everything is in there, and work to bring the truth out in the situation that has been presented. Fighting against this is a losing battle, so don’t impose an interpretation that isn’t the words on the page, as you are destined to fail.

reading play

Be thorough with your investigation of the script. Investigate the arch of each scene, each act, and the play as a whole. Then investigate each character and their arch. Identify the protagonist and antagonist, as each script will have one, and honour this relationship. Find out everything that is said about each character and make sure the audience hears all necessary information.

Weave these elements of the script together and you have the foundations of a great play.

STAY AHEAD OF THE AUDIENCE

David Mamet said “My greatest fear is that the audience will beat me to the punch line”. Even though he is talking about comedy in this instance, the same sentiment can be applied to drama. As soon as the audience can predict where the story will go, you may as well finish the show there.

David Mamet directing

You always want the audience to be wondering what is going to happen next. Part of this battle is making sure the audience is invested in the characters so that they care what happens next, but the other part is not treating the audience like idiots. Trust their intelligence and don’t end game the drama. Foreshadowing is a great device but if it’s overplayed, we give away the ending before we get there.

Think back to movies, TV shows or plays you have scene where you as the audience member have beaten the story to the conclusion. Remember how quickly you disengaged after this? Avoid that!

WORKING WITH ACTORS

So you’ve investigated the script and the story, you’ve identified all the important information, and you have a vision for the production. Now you have to work with some actors. Or as you may come to know them as: walking meat props.

As they are lucid, unpredictable individuals, full of their own ideas, working with actors can be the most frustrating part of the directing process, but if you have a good working relationship with them, they can also be the most invaluable and inspiring members of the team.

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The most important thing is respect. If you treat the actors with respect you will get respect in return. The director is the expert on the story, but the actor is the expert on their character, so encourage discussion and be open to their ideas about their character. Collaboration creates fantastic work, so do not deny actors their opinion, and if you are open to their ideas, they will be open to yours. Spend time in rehearsal playing and sharing ideas, so you can reach the end result together, rather than forcing your interpretation on them without exploring what may be insightful interpretations.

The other thing to keep in mind is that rehearsing is a process. You will not get the performance you want on opening night in the first rehearsal. Don’t expect it. Be patient, be kind and add detail into actors performances overtime.

TEAM LEADER

Everyone involved in a production needs to feel like a member of a team, all working towards a same end goal. Everyone has their role, and needs to feel like their contribution is being acknowledged and appreciated.

The director is the creative leader of the team, so act like one. Communicate efficiently with your design team, and have conversations, rather than making demands. Be open to ideas, but also be clear with what you want. As with actors, if you are receptive to ideas, not only will you often receive options you hadn’t considered, you will also guarantee your team is open to your ideas in return. If everyone trusts you and your vision, and feels they have a creative voice, you will have a cohesive team that is excited and inspired to deliver for the same end goal.

It should go without saying, but lead by example. If you are always late to rehearsals or unprepared, you can expect your team to follow your lead. You need to get your team over the line, so keep morale up, and be supportive and encouraging. Back your own ideas and don’t apologise for experimenting and exploring options.

Be a monarch, not a tyrant. You do have final say, but work with your team and you will have a much more enjoyable time, and so will everyone else.

how to direct a play

About the Author

StageMilk Team

is made up of young professional actors and writers from around the world. This team includes Andrew Hearle, Luke McMahon, Kyle Billings, Jim Harwood and many more. We all work together to contribute useful articles and resources for actors at all stages in their careers.

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