his book is about leadership—specifically, the leadership of an artistic enterprise: the play director in today’s theatre. Although there is a brief discussion of doing musical theatre and opera in Appendix 1
, the concentration throughout the basic text is on work with plays as the oldest (2,500 years) continuing form of live theatre in Western culture. When you are a director, on some days you might think of yourself as a football coach, managing a team and calling in plays from the sidelines; on other days, you might see yourself as a conductor of an orchestra, emphasizing and blending the sounds made by the violins, horns, and drums in front of you. But most of the time, you will see yourself as a leader
(not a dictator) of multiple craftsmen, all with individual skills who are open to the energy of new ideas.
As you look at the table of contents you should note that the process of directing set out here has two major approaches: First, Chapters 1
and Chapters 30
are all about the mechanics
of bringing a play alive on a stage. Second, Chapters 23
are about refining those mechanics
through the study of style in the playscript and in production so as to individualize your own approaches and make both the play and the production work on the stage. Some inexperienced directors find the prospect of working with style in production so attractive that they plunge right in without mastering the mechanics. Don’t let this happen to you: Don’t run before you can walk. Making a play’s production your own thing
can wait on an explicit understanding of the mechanics; merely reading through the text is not sufficient. That is why each section of the mechanics has its exercises. Do them seriously, and they will move you from a general approach in a play’s production to specific ways to illuminate and individualize it.
Although this book is about the process of directing, it is also intended for playwrights, actors, and designers, for it is their work that the audience sees and hears. The director may give them the circumstances to express their fullest, most creative talent, and the director may help shape what they create, but unless these individuals know about and work as active collaborators toward the goals set by a director for a particular production, they will merely be carrying out mechanical projects. The over-arching goal is always synthesis, and by working together under the director-coordinator, these members of the truly collaborative group will find it.
This text is also written for those directors who make productions at the high school level. After all, there is no part-way point in this study of directing—that is, less for the beginners, more for the others. Directing is directing: You either know how to do it or you
don’t. Once you learn something of the whole process, you will see how it can be applied at all levels of production—beginner, intermediate, advanced, and even professional. What you bring to it from your previous study of dramatic literature, your basic courses in design, your acting classes, and doing plays in production has already called extensively on your imagination. With directing you are about to embark on one of the theatre’s most specific and demanding areas of study. Yet the intention throughout the text is not that of selling a system
—that is, a specific and correct way of doing things; rather, the goal is to provide an intense look at the structure
of plays, of acting and actor-ownership, and all the other crafts that make a produced play. When you understand the whole, you can devise your own individual, creative approach. This study about directing, then, is a format for discovering the process, not a rule book to be followed. Once you perceive directing as an enlightened form of leadership of others in the creative process, you will be liberated to undertake your own creative ways and not be tied up in a too limited way of doing your job.
The Director’s Job
You will also note as you proceed in this study that directors have four drives that guide all their work: a vision of the play that can dominate all the aspects of production from acting to staging; a comprehensive knowledge of the dynamics of plays—their rises and falls, their louds and softs, their slow beats and their fast ones; skills in communication that can help actors and designers give their most creative attention to a play; and a very strong desire to entertain audiences by exciting their minds, their hearts, and their spirits.
It is precisely because the director has so much power in the theatre that so much is expected in return. The curious paradox is that, like the playwright, the director is not actually seen on the stage but only through the actors and the physical staging provided by the designers. In contrast, symphony and opera conductors, and even football coaches, have a physical presence. They visibly run the performance, with the obvious capability of directly affecting coordination, rhythm, and mood. But the director’s work can be measured fully only through the reaction of an audience when they experience the work of the actors and designers. The director is a communicator whose primary work is done through actors and designers who then transmit ideas and energies to the audience.
The director’s job, then, is to be a communicator of the highest order. The director may have very strong feelings about a playscript, but feelings, though they will help, will not define the would-be director’s directing capabilities. Because the transfer of ideas must be made through the minds and feelings of others, the challenge for a director lies in the talent for touching the wellspring of feeling in others with what the director so vividly imagines and feels.
This challenge is the director’s paradox. All artists operate within some balance of their subjective-objective selves, but it is the subjective that customarily dominates. The director is an exception, for most of the work is done on the conscious side of the scale. Herbert Blau in The Impossible Theatre
, a stimulating and soul-searching study of the director’s function, contends that “the director must be a brain.” This statement does not mean that the director works only in a coldly objective, intellectual way. What it does mean is that directors must trust their feelings to react primitively and vigorously to what they help make on the stage
. As a kind of practicing critic in the theatre, the director must constantly bring what he or she feels and thinks to the surface
so that it can be communicated readily to others. The director must perceive, evaluate, make a diagnosis, and devise
remedies. The director’s effectiveness in all these actions will lie precisely in finding this objective-subjective balance. To accomplish this balance, the learning director must become aware of the structures of plays, the prevailing theories and the training processes of acting, the physical use of the stage, and the visual and aural capabilities of design, for at the base, the director is the total designer of a production, someone who matches concrete form with imagined ideas.
As all artists must, the director must first be an adventurous spirit eager to find new paths and be capable of “soaring” on the level of the dramatic poet. (Even plays of everyday reality have a poetic dimension which contains their poetic vision or essential truth.) Too often, the director is regarded as only an interpreter of the creative works of others; yet if the director cannot reach some of the same heights as those achieved by the poet he or she is attempting to reveal on the stage, the directorial function is not fulfilled. The stage is a flying machine that must be manipulated with the greatest skill. By knowing the capabilities of theatre as an art form, the director will know which way freedom lies and thus be able to lead others to it. Flight-in-restriction is the goal.
You must never forget that the director’s leading purpose is to entertain—but this can mean dozens of things. Here’s the paradox, though: A good director does not make “entertainment” the primary goal, for it is how the director entertains that matters. Perhaps better terms than the word entertain are to captivate an audience by getting their involuntary attention, or to turn them on with their capacities for empathy and involvement. This is the sort of attention audiences give despite themselves. It is what you as a director do to members of an audience that makes them sit on the edge of their seats.
Because of the direction taken in much of film and television today, we seem obsessed with violence as entertainment in itself. What makes good plays, however, is not how people are killed, but why. A shootout with the evil ones destroyed and the virtuous surviving, as we often see in popular “entertainments,” tells us relatively little. Remember, good plays— and there are many more that are bad than good—are made of different stuff. You will discover early on how easy it is to entertain superficially, but how difficult it is to make good theatre.
Learning directing, as with any craft, is a process of personal discovery—doing basic things over and over until they become second nature. How long the learning process will take is a matter of your capability in perceiving concepts, in getting the message in a very personal way in a process of self-discovery. The artist in you will do the rest. The old saying “Life is short and art is long” is true only because artists have been challenged greatly by the demands of their jobs, and then have gone beyond themselves in making art that survives. If you want to be a director—the artistic leader of others in the theatre—you must learn it all.
Did you notice how theatre
is spelled here? Back in the nineteenth century, dictionary-maker Noah Webster dumped the word into a general category of words like “center” and gave it an -er
ending, the ending most U.S. publishers have used ever since. But despite this, those who make theatre, especially in New York, have retained the old spelling because of all its special meanings and historical attachments. Theatre
is a term
that connotes heritage, traditions, conventions, public and private communications, mirror images—both visual and aural—great ideas, memorable characters, perceptive sentiments, live audiences, live actors, and much more. Which spelling do you think you will use?
2. How does live theatre, then, differ from the electronic media of television and motion pictures beyond the simple fact that it is live? Is there something to be had in theatre that can’t be gotten elsewhere?
3. Compare the experience of a theatre performance with that of a religious ceremony. Can you envision the stage director as a “maker of ceremonies” rather than the customary designation of “coordinator” of entertainment? Explain your answer.
4. Why can a director be described as a ritualist who makes rituals?
5. Why is live theatre more of a “belonging” experience than watching television or a movie?
6. Is theatre a social institution? How so? Are there other such social institutions you could compare it to? How is theatre like and not like a library in a community?
7. Why do you want to direct plays? Make a list of the reasons why and share it with your teacher and others in the class. Discuss these reasons with your group.
The playscript is the director’s primary tool. If you don’t know what it is in all of its parts, you will be lost. Treating it with respect is knowing your job at its most fundamental.
Do you know how to read a play? Most people don’t, but go at it by reading the words, as in any other kind of reading, and being caught up in the “story.” A director, however, reads a play in a quite different way, paying attention to all the starts and stops, the gaps, the silences, and the bare minimum of description. Furthermore, the director is aware that it is all dramatic action. As a director, all of this sparks your imagination, and what is eventually done by the acting and the design begins to emerge in the mind. The makers of these special stories were called playwrights with the understanding that a play is made, just as other craftsmen make ships (shipwright) or wheels (wheelwright). The product of the playwright or dramatist, to be sure, is not nearly so concrete, for he or she is a conscious dreammaker, as Shakespeare says, who can, with the appropriate use of basic tools, stir up minds and create imaginative flights in others—the audience.
The unique characteristic of the playwright’s making, the thing that differentiates it from other writing, is that the playwright’s “dream-flight,” the improvisation that takes shape within the writer’s mind, has to take into account not only vocal and visual instruments (the actors) but also the place where the audience gathers to hear and watch the story—the theatre or stage. The playwright is a rare artist because what is put down on paper is not writing in the usual sense—that is, writing intended for reading in solitude by one person at a time—but is the making of a thing that involves live actors and objects set out in a specific way for seeing and hearing by a group meeting together in an act of sharing. What the playmaker lea...