This is an academic paper, written for Catherine Doherty’s Directing I class at SUNY New Paltz.
What does a play start with? Does it start with an evaluation of the performance space? Should it start with budgets inked in? Or does it start with a concept? It’s simple; without a concept, even an extremely bare bones one, there is no show. You can’t do a show about absolutely nothing at all. Sure, there are shows about the concept of nothingness but you need something. Someone sitting on stage eating a turkey club for fifteen minutes is an idea. Albeit, maybe not a very good one, but an idea all the same. Concepts like these come from the production’s director.
While there are many leaders on a theatrical project, the directors charge is the show’s design and execution of concept. They must wear several different hats in their time in a show’s production. A director must be able to talk to producers and artistic directors articulately. They also have to clearly convey their ideas and intentions to designers and actors, who need to adjust based off the director’s notes. If the director can not concisely express themselves, there can be confusion on the project. If their notes are not clear, a director must also be able to explain themselves in many different ways. They must also be able to serve as a literary critic, accepting the text as it is and working from there. One of the directors most difficult jobs is trusting the text. A director has to identify many basic elements of a play, such as its structure and genre. Identifying these early allows for guidelines to be followed. Play tropes found through genre are good jumping off points and can be molded to fit individual concepts. A director is also, among other things, a sculptor, a choreographer, and a choral conductor. It is their job to make sure the piece flows smoothly visually and orally. Sculpting moments of clear tensions and playing with volume and soundscape can help shape a story.
A director’s job starts with an analysis of the text. It’s their job to understand the structure of the play and assign a function to their production. Now, this could be a variety (or combination) of different things: to entertain, to educate, to provoke, to engage, and so on. A good place to start with a concept is the dramatic center: two opposing forces whose conflict drives the plot forward. Examples of each force must be present in the text. These should be playable action words so they can actually be portrayed. This concept must also include an idea for an execution of the text. Will the show be kept in its original context? Will Romeo and Juliet be a space opera in a NASA training camp? Should Death of a Salesman take place underwater? While adding in concept flair for aesthetics sake can and certainly is a valid option, shows that alter origin with a purpose tend to work better. If you want to place your show underwater, what does that add to the conflict? Does it reflect characters emotional states? Is it a social commentary? In making definitive choices, it all comes down to what is most effective in conveying intentions. Design choices should bolster the concept idea and serve the story telling.
A director has many tricks and tools in their wheelhouse to assist in sculpting a production. the first and most important is the text itself. All answers can be found in the text. It’s up to the reader’s interpretation; the director just provides a unified interpretation. To assist in the actual direction and physical execution, the director has many more conceptual tools. There is the idea of the human condition: the universal experiences relevant to any person who’s walked the earth. This can help a director realize the parts of a script their entire audience will be able to relate with, regardless of background. The overarching ideas are often good ones to emphasis and play with. The Aristotelian Elements of Design and the Principles of Design should also be employed in every aspect of the theatre: lighting, costuming, set design, etc. The Aristotelian Elements focus on the text, analyzing things such as plot, character, theme, language use, action, and rhythm. These are all modes of sculpting a play. The Principles, however, focus more on the visuals, emphasizing space, line, form, mass, color, and texture. These add to to flow of the movement and design of the show. A balance and harmony must be created from all these elements. Shows where one really shines through makes the others seem lacking. A visual balance can be created on stage by marking actor movement and using vacuums and masses created to the shows advantage. An emotional balance is a bit more difficult to strike. It requires a understanding of realistic human reaction to catalysts. The director can then create an ebb and flow of emotions that takes the audience on a ride. In their box of tools, a director must have a certain set of qualities as well. they must be patience but firm. Being concise in language and intent eases the process. A director must also be able to manage a room and be able to work with a variety of different personalities. A director is an option giver and a decision maker.
One of the directors many jobs is to allow for creativity but provide structure and clarity in their concept and be the final word on decisions. This is often affectionately referred to as being the ‘benevolent dictator’ in the process. It is important to provide clear direction in the beginning to lay foundations. Once bases are set, then the process can play a bit. Allowing room for character and actor relationship growth is extremely important as it deepens the story and encourages the actors to engage with the material as much as they can. New moments of discovery should be nurtured and discussed. It is then up to the director to guide the actor from there. Questions must be embraced as they show people are thinking critically about the text and the process. Collaboration is an inherent part of theater and a director must be willing to listen to other peoples input and be able to sift through what is relevant to their vision and what simply lies with others personal aesthetics.
There are many things that you can only learn by getting hands on experience in directing in a rehearsal room. Talking theories and concepts all day will do you no good. When looking at a directors work, you can see influences of artists that they enjoy. This tasteful borrowing of ideas and executions from other directors and productions is something that’s common in the theatre world, it’s just ‘paying an homage’. When directing, you’ll be faced with many challenges. People will ask questions you don’t know the answer to and that’s okay. However, it is the directors job to then find out and follow through in their next meeting. It is hard to understand until you’re in the room working how many things you need to keep in your mind at once. Design elements might conflict with limitations of the space. Actors need a firm hand to keep them on track. Audience sight lines need to be addressed. And this is all before you delve into the text. You have to keep in mind how decisions will read given later character choices, if a characters actions are motivated given their circumstances, and more. This is a skill that simply requires practice and delegation, understanding the importance of certain things over others. Finally, it’s probably most important to foster a safe environment, not only physically but emotionally as well. Actors need to feel safe to delve deep into the text. It needs to be an environment that fosters learning and cooperation. The director must work as diligently as possible to make sure people feel valid, heard, and respected.
A director’s job is never done. It can be extremely frustrating, trying to go down every path a play can take you. Coming in with a guide plan allows for structure, which is a necessity in any rehearsal process. However, amazing work can happen in between the scenes and a director must incorporate that as well. New ideas come late in the process and constraints on time and budget can always put stress on a project. A director must be able to juggle all these with a clear head. The show must go up eventually. It is the director’s ultimate job to realize when to put the brush down, step back, and admire their work.