What Does A Theatre Director Do?
A theatre director is in charge of the creative vision of a theatre production. Their goal is to bring out the best performance from the actors and tell the story of the play in a compelling way. They also oversee creative choices on stage such as costume, design, lighting and sound—although these decisions are made in conjunction with the other creatives involved. Theatre, at its very best, is a collaborative process and a theatre director will put together a great team to support their vision.
Updated 7 September, 2021.
Finding A Project
At different levels of the industry, directors may have more or less power with which to find and finance their own projects. A director may be hired directly by a professional theatre company, or pitch a project to either a company or producer that they want to work on bringing to the stage. Most will direct work by existing writers—plays proven to have an audience, or something by an author such as Shakespeare whose work is in the public domain—although some directors do work with writers to develop new work. Some also prefer to write or create their own.
A Director’s Creative Vision
“Creative vision” is one of those terms that can elicit an eye-roll amongst creatives. In truth, it’s vital to the work of a successful director. Without some kind of thematic and stylistic unity, an otherwise excellent play can become a disastrous production: messy, confusing, over-wrought. It’s the director’s responsibility to develop and maintain a creative vision, to ensure that all involved are heading in the same direction. This includes the audience, who need strong, clear storytelling lest they lose interest and cease to care.
Often, this process of the director determining their creative vision begins long before there is a stage, or rehearsal room, or even actors. And as the production comes together, it’s their job to ensure that this vision is not compromised. Budgetary restrictions, creative differences, low morale—these are all threats to a director’s vision, and obstacles they must navigate. The director also sets the emotional temperature and creative climate of the rehearsal room. As the head of the production, they lead by example how cast and creatives conduct themselves. If they behave unprofessionally, or show indifference, it can affect the mood and performance of the entire company.
Building A Team
Depending on a director’s process, a director will either cast their play or assemble their creative team first. The creative team will consist of the stage manager (who runs all technical and logistical aspects of a production), designer (who may oversee set and costume, or work in a team), lighting designer and sound designer. Other, auxiliary roles may be filled depending on the scale of the project, such as a videographer or a dramaturg. Directors always have final say over the creative aspects of a production, but will work to the advisement of the experts in each discipline. If a director finds an affinity for a particular creative, they may engage them in multiple projects over a number of years. In some cases, their cumulative output may not be considered ‘complete’ without one or the other!
Arguably the most important part/s of a director’s team are the actors they choose to cast. Most theatre directors take their time when casting, as choosing the wrong actor for a role can be disastrous. Unlike a film or television job, theatre roles require months of preparation: learning lines, blocking, developing a rapport with the rest of the cast. Actors in theatre are not easily replaced—meaning a director’s first choice is usually their only shot at getting it right. This long lead-in process of rehearsal also means directors will consider what an actor is like to work with on a personal level as well. Bad behaviour is seldom tolerated or ignored in the microcosm of a theatre production.
If actors are comfortable, and right for their roles, the director’s work can be more collaborative and less didactic. Directors look for actors who will accompany them on the creative journey of exploring and interrogating the play. When auditioning for theatre, it is always a good idea to have an opinion on the script to discuss with the director. Chances are they’ll be jumping at the chance to discuss it.
Unless the play in question is being devised in the rehearsal room, most rehearsal periods start with a thorough read through of the script, sometimes referred to as a “table read”. The director will guide this process and may ask the actors to bring a certain energy to it. Some directors spend a lot of time around a table, working through the script, whereas some like to get up on the floor as soon as possible.
Table reads inevitably transition into the process of analysing the script and breaking down the individual scenes. This part of the process is director-dependent, but most do their best to analyse the entire text as closely as possible with the cast. Actors locate the playable specifics, units of action/beats, character objectives and obstacles. Once work begins on the rehearsal room floor, it’s often more focused and unified for having been through this scrutiny. During this time, the creative vision of the director may be challenged, or even changed entirely. A good director knows when to defend an idea not yet solid in their team’s mind. A great director knows when they should admit fault or ignorance and work with their team to find the best solution.
Directors work with actors to ‘block’ the play, which is a term used in theatre for working out where everybody stands and how they move. Some directors are very prescriptive—working from their own notes, or from the stage directions written by the playwright—while others tend to work off the actors’ impulses in the rehearsal room. Either way, blocking is an important part of the directing process. The goal is to make blocking as natural as possible so that it doesn’t look rehearsed. And directors may change blocking if what they’ve initially planned proves ineffective, or a greater understanding of the text found later in the rehearsal process
Once the play is blocked and the scenes are beginning to take shape, it’s time to start doing runs. Runs of the play, help actors get the flow of the piece and allow the director to see where the issues are. Earlier runs are usually called “stumble throughs” because they can be a pretty messy, stop-start affair. However, messiness is all part of the process. It’s not unusual for runs of a play to feel as though they’ve started far too early. However, this is often when they are the most helpful.
Runs get the creative team into gear: they turn a series of disparate scenes into a complete story. Actors start to find their characters’ arcs and super-objectives as their journeys piece together. A director will use runs to take the play’s temperature and make necessary changes that strengthen the work. Sometimes, they simply function as a way of rallying actors and letting them glimpse at all they’ve been working for. At the end of the rehearsal period, runs become a way of energising the company. It allows the actors to recapture the initial spark: that love for the project that brought them together!
“Tech week” is the period a show spends in the theatre before previews. During tech week, all of the technical aspects of the production are installed and tested: set design, lighting and sound. For directors, it’s an insanely busy period that requires their attention being split across multiple departments. However, it’s also an exciting part of the process, as it’s the time when much of their creative vision comes to life. Directors oversee all creatives and ensure that their efforts align in telling the story of the play. This extends to their own work as well, in areas such as blocking. At times, blocking may be incompatible with the performance space, or clash with aspects of the design. When this occurs, directors need to fix this with the actors to ensure they can do their jobs safely and properly. Tech week is seldom thought of as a time for creativity; it’s certainly when the team is at their most exhausted. That being said, tech week is where some of the most interesting, important choices are made. These choices can make or break an entire production.
When audiences first see the show in previews, the director will lurk in the back row and take copious notes. They will pass these along to the actors, stage manager and creative team to make necessary adjustments to the performance. The length of a preview period differs wildly. Large-scale musicals and theatre productions may spend weeks in previews, whereas independent theatres might be lucky to budget three. A good director will use the preview period to either fix or elevate the show. They’ll take cues from the audience as to what works, what doesn’t, what’s funny, what’s too slow, etc. It is not uncommon for shows to emerge from previews wildly different to how they played going in.
Opening Night And Performance
And finally, we arrive at opening night. Here, the director can step back and bask in the praise (or not) of their months—sometimes years—of effort. Once the play is up and running, it is, again, director-dependant on how they proceed with their involvement. Some like to be present for the entire run of the show and give light-to-heavy notes along the way. Other directors believe that once the show has an audience, it is officially the job of their cast and crew to play well and maintain the desired level of quality in performance. Most directors sit somewhere in the middle: they float in and out, occasionally offering feedback if they feel it’s warranted. To any would-be directors reading: too many notes can kill a good performance, and make worse a terrible one.
So what does a theatre director do? As it turns out, quite a lot! They have an immense pressure placed upon them; often, it is the names of their cast in the reviews when things go well … and their own if the play goes poorly. They have to make countless decisions, balance egos and budgets alike and plan every move of a play’s production months in advance. But the creative control they enjoy is unparalleled, as is the opportunity to shape and tell stories on stage with a singular flair. The list of a theatre director’s jobs and responsibilities is a long one. But there’s nothing else in the industry quite like it.
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