How to Direct a Play

How to Direct a Play

Congratulations you are about to direct a play! In this lens you’ll discover all the basic steps you’ll need to explore to have a successful play or musical. This article isn’t going to focus on artistic theory or advanced acting techniques, we’re going to talk directing basics. The topics in this article are relevant and applicable to anyone needing to know how to jump in and make their show a success!

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Who can direct a play?

Anyone who has the heart of a coach can be a successful director. Directing is about looking for strengths and weaknesses in actors and techies and empower them to push the limits of their abilities to create great art as a team. Sound complicated? It’s not–theatre is meant to be fun and expressive, and I guarantee you’ll learn a lot about yourself and your cast throughout the process. So let’s begin!

Reading

From the moment you decide to direct a show until the curtain opens, you should read your play. Read it when you’re sad, read it when you’re happy, read it when you’re mad, read it in the rain, on a train, with a fox in a box. Read it. Then read it again.

I had an English teacher that used to say “The first time you hear a poem (or story) you listen to it. The second time you hear a poem, you hear it”. That stands true. You’ll discover new things as you read the play multiple times.

Directing Styles

Now, I believe there are directors with different styles. Some directors love to dig in and discover the story and the characters and the motivations and the relationships and really focus on the literary art of the play. Other directors are more fascinated with the technical aspects, figuring out blocking, organizing the rehearsal schedule and working with the team. Neither is right or wrong, but it is helpful to decide which of these you are early on.

Production Concepts

I believe in production concepts. They can help your entire team get on the same page conceptually. What is a production concept, you ask. A production concept is a “theme”, “idea” or “picture” that you use to give a “feel” to your play. You could say “glitter snowglobe” or “dank basement of gloom” or whatever it is that you think sums up the “vision” that you have of the show. This is the main theme that you’ll use to describe your play to your production crew.

Use terms that invoke feelings, mood, and even visual pictures. This will help the members of your team understand your concept, as some people are wired more literal, some more visual, and some emotional. Your concept can be very short or up to a full sentence long. Try not to make it longer, you want to be sure your staff has room in the concept to contribute their own creativity to the production.

Building a Team

Choose crew members and designers you can work with. If you have the luxury of getting to choose, pick people that have a good attitute, work well as a part of a team and mesh with you and others. The best designer in the world is no fun to work with if they don’t enjoy the give and take of the production process. A stage manager who’s organized but mean as a snake will cause you more headaches in the long run when none of the actors can get along with them. Choose people you can work with.

Entire books have been published on the art of casting a show. I really believe the MOST important things you do as a director are all done in the audition process. Here are a list of tips to make sure your casting is a hit!

  1. Welcome those who come to audition. Auditioning is hard to do. These people are going to fill out paperwork and then get up with a lot of people they may not know and potentially embarass themselves. Please do not ever forget how hard this can be (especially if you’ve never been on stage before). Welcome them, make them feel as though they are in a safe environment to be creative.
  2. Give an introduction, spell out expectations. Sometimes an executive director or other person may do this for you. Before anyone gets up and auditions, the potential cast members should be told about the show, the process, the rehearsal schedule, the amount of days that are allowed or not allowed to be missed (and what to do if they have conflicts), and general theatre house rules.
  3. When asking people to warm up, read, or do an activity on stage, look for those who take direction well. This is really the most important thing. You can get people to tone it down (usually) a lot easier than you can pull out more energy from them. Look for people who are being kind to others and respectful of the theatre rules during audition, those who listen well and respond quickly.
  4. Cast for talent before looks. Cast for talent before age. Cast for attitude before talent if necessary. Some may disagree but this is one rule I’ve never broken as a director and I have not regretted that decision once.

Be Descriptive, Not Prescriptive

When I say “be descriptive, not prescriptive” I mean that you need to intentionally leave room in your production for your designers to design and create. Begin meeting with your designers by calling a collective meeting where you discuss the production concept. Avoid using photos at this time to relay your vision–you may lock them in to a visual picture that stifles their creativity. Then set up additional follow up meetings with them individually to discuss their ideas, brainstorm and allow them to ask questions.

A prescriptive director gives their crew the impression that they feel they are not only a fantastic director, but also a great set designer, costumer and lighting designer! Directors who give very specific details of what they want the designs to be without giving a designer the ability to create is stealing that designers opportunity to contribute and also appearing patronizing.

Note: You may be directing a show in a high school or community theatre setting where you do not use “designers”. Your theatre may rent pre-made set pieces or budget may limit you to whatever you can find. Don’t let that hinder you! Still allow your volunteers to create to the extent which they can, they may discover talents they didn’t know they had! Contribution equals ownership, and ownership is the magical element that makes your production shine!

Making Changes

If you choose to edit the text (for content or length), please be aware that there may be copywright issues. If your play is in the public domain you can cut sections if necessary. Some plays require arrangements to be made with the author. If you do not follow these guidelines set up through your publisher, you could be subject to insane fines. Do your research.

If you do alter the text, do so before the first rehearsal. If you choose to develop your own blocking, black out those parts of the script before they are distributed to the cast. No one wants to get an idea in their mind that’s changed, and no one wants to feel like “their” line was cut.

Read Through

The first read through is an exciting time. Set up a large circle of chairs and have your cast read through the play, with the stage manager reading the stage notes. Don’t stop to explain anything and encourage your actors to just read. Don’t act, don’t develop your character, don’t even guess what your character is like. Just read through the play.

Note: This is a GREAT time to take measurements for your show. Ask your costume managers to come to this rehearsal and respectfully pull folks out to get measured while the read through takes place. If you do french cuts (I’ll explain this later), this may be one of the last times your cast is all together in one place. If you need help knowing how to take measurements, check out my Etsy Product “Printable Theatre Costume Measurement Form”.  It comes with complete directions on how to properly take measurements.

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Directing Actors

  1. Describe, don’t prescribe. This applies to actors as well. Coach your actors. Challenge them to move past their weaknesses, bring out their strengths. Never jump on stage and say “do it like this”. This characterization needs to be their own.
  2. Avoid the power-crazy director syndrome. People respond well to coaching. A good leader serves those they lead. Your job as the director is to make everyone in the show look like they’re doing a great job. No one should leave the theatre thinking “what a great director”.
  3. Theatre should be fun. Don’t yell, don’t get angry, never embarass anyone. Don’t reward “drama” with your attention or concern. Foster feelings of comraderie in the show.
  4. Respect people’s time. Start on time. Don’t go back and review for those who choose to show up late. They can ask the stage manager for an update. PLEASE don’t take an hour for notes at the end of the night. Most of the little things you come up with were coincidental and will be different the next night anyway. Choose the main items and review those. If you have a lead-heavy show, have those leads stay to discuss notes instead of the entire cast.
  5. My only acting coach tip: when in doubt ask your actor what their character wants. The familiar saying “what’s your motivation” really does ring true. If you don’t know much about acting theory, this one question will start you on a path to discuss characterization with your actors in any situation.

The Best Overview of Directing – Great for those who are new to directing

I’ve had this book on my shelf for 15 years. It overviews all the basics of directing a show from start to finish. A must for new directors.

Organizing your show rehearsal in “French Cuts” is my preferred method of organizing rehearsals. Growing up doing community theatre, this is a way to schedule people for rehearsal times only for specific scenes that they’re involved in and is very respectful of their time. Certainly, the more common way is to break the show into sections and start at the beginning and spend a certain amount of time on each section until you’re done. This works for a lot of people (especially those who learn linearly, or are detail oriented).

With a French Cut system you will make a chart that lists each scene or section of a scene out and mark which actors are in that scene. Then you look for all the scenes that involve the same people and work those scenes all on one night (or for three or four consecutive nights). You continue through your show and add folks in as necessary–chorus members or crowd scene extras. Some actors will get nervous that they don’t know what the flow of the show is until the last couple of weeks when you begin running in order. Others love that their time is used well when they are called for a rehearsal.

Another thing you can avoid with this system is the common mistake of running out of time or focus when you get towards the end of the show. If you start at the beginning and run in to memorization issues or blocking issues, you could get in a time crunch and under-rehearse the last scenes. Rehearsal management is paramount. Whatever system you do, plan well.

The Best Book on Scheduling Rehearsals – Everything you need to know

My absolute favorite nuts-and-bolts directing book. No fluff, just everything you need to know about scheduling and running effective rehearsals.

“Blocking” refers to the directions you give to the actors about where to go on the stage, and when, and how. If this is your first play, I highly recommend you do a lot of your blocking work at home before rehearsals begin. You can use your kitchen table and condiments or salt and pepper shakers to get a visual if needed. If you have a show with a lot of quick changes (any of the Tuna shows, Beehive or Noises Off) blocking ahead of time is a MUST.

Give your actors directions and make sure they write them down. You don’t want to waste time arguing about whether you told them to cross upstage or downstage.

I would recommend to anyone directing amateur theatre to begin blocking after the first read through. Amateur actors really benefit from connecting movement to words. I think that it helps those who learn kinesthetically to memorize the lines and those that learn literally to memorize their blocking.

You will have a series of final rehearsals that include working rehearsals (or “run throughs”) and dress rehearsals (in costume and/or make up). These rehearsals are undoubtedly for your actors’ benefit but most importantly they are for your production CREW. These champions of the theatre (can you tell I have a design background?) work behind the scenes for WEEKS or months and this is their only time with all the pieces together to work out the kinks.

Value your crews. They are working with expensive materials to build physical elements for your show. They do need to be present for the final rehearsals to see how everything is coming together and they have only days to make any changes needed. As a costume designer I remember coming away from the first dress rehearsal with over 150 notes of things that needed to be changed, altered, fixed, etc. Light cues require timing as do sound cues. Allow your techies to be involved in the notes sessions so they can work out their issues and ask questions.

Tech run is a final rehearsal just for techies. Please schedule one. Let your actors know this is not for them! They will run a cue to cue, get timings right, make notes on lights that need to be focused and so on. You may skip pages and pages of text, you just want to do cue 4 someone enters–lights up, lights down–skip four pages, next cue. This is gruelling for actors to go through at the end stage of rehearsing. Especially if you work with amateur theatre, give your tech crews the benefit of a tech run.

Visit your cast backstage before the show. Congratulate them on their rehearsal process and the team they’ve created, and the magic they are about to create with an audience. Then leave on an upbeat note (no notes!) and leave to watch the show. Your job is done. Finished. You’re not watching to take notes anymore, you’re not watching to see what else you could do, or how they could change something. Just enjoy the work they do and visit other nights to encourage and uplift your cast and crew. Let everyone just relax and have a great run.

Encourage everyone to not do anything weird or different the last night if you hear talk of it. Your audience members all deserve the best quality show and won’t understand some sort of joke or prank that the cast thinks is funny.

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