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3.4: A Process for Directing

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  • Although the directing process may widely vary depending on the material and the director’s approach, most directors cover the same bases. The steps in the process, as described next, usually overlap to some degree. For example, the wise director is continuously analyzing the play in response to discoveries made throughout the process.

    Analyzing and Interpreting the Play

    While the director is ultimately responsible for the interpretation taken by the production, all of the collaborators we are discussing must engage in a close analysis of the script. In order to engage and utilize the creative powers of the design team, many directors involve them in the early stages of interpretation. Therefore, the earliest design meetings comprise a dialogue about the play. The discussion of the text led by the director must include practical questions. What are the given circumstances in this play? What is the play’s central action? What is the main conflict? Which character is the play’s protagonist and what is he or she fighting for? The director must lead a detailed analysis of the play’s structure, the characters in the play, the plays language, and the play's themes. What do we want the audience to go away feeling? What do we want them to go away thinking about? What does the play mean?

    The discussion must also cover the plays genre, mood, and style. What is the world of this play? Is it primarily comic, tragic, dark, or light? Is it primarily realistic, or not? How do the characters fit in this world? This in-depth critical inquiry into the play leads the process into the next steps. Without a firm grasp on the play and a clearly defined creative vision, it will be difficult for the director and his or her team to maintain a steady course.

    The Production Concept

    The exploration of these questions leads the director to an interpretation, vision, or concept. The concept is often articulated in terms of an overriding metaphor. It can be articulated in the form of a verbal phrase (“a chess game” for Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton), a painting or picture (Munch’s “The Scream” for Marisol by Jose Rivera), or even a physical object (an early typewriter for Machinal by Sophie Treadwell). Concept metaphors can be augmented by verbal descriptions of the world of the play, by a picture or series of pictures, by sounds and music, or by a combination of these elements. However the concept is expressed, it needs to be vivid, motivating, and clear enough to put the whole team on the same page. The concept statement should also communicate the director’s approach along the faithful-translator-auteur continuum, and determine such questions as the time and place of the action.

    Working with Designers

    Next, armed with the production concept, the designers explore the fundamental questions that will help the team develop the visual, aural, and spatial world of the play. These questions are based on the fundamental elements of design —color, texture, line, shape, mass, and rhythm. The members of the team also discuss practical and technical considerations—how many doors are needed, whether the radio needs to work, or how much movement the costumes allow. At each subsequent meeting, these artists present their written or visualized ideas to the director and to the other designers. The designs for the production thus develop as a give and take among the whole creative group.


    Good casting is vital to the production’s success and will make the director’s job in rehearsal smooth and productive. Conversely, mistakes in casting can irretrievably harm a show. Therefore, it is imperative that the director have a firm grasp of the characters’ personalities, their physical characteristics, and how they interrelate. The director should have a strong image of the characters but also remain open to what the actors who audition have to offer.

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    These are examples of headshots, representative photos that actors give to casting agents and directors. A résumé listing Is attached to the back showing acting experience and special skills.

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    The audition process unfolds in a number of ways, depending on the production and the type of theatre. In many instances such as theatre festivals and academic theatre, actors are sought by a number of directors for a number of different plays. This process might start with an open call, often referred to as a “cattle call.” This is a session in which actors present a prepared monologue or possibly a portion of a song in the ease of auditions for musicals. From this pool, directors will choose whom to consider further and will invite them to read for particular roles. Auditions of this nature are referred to as callbacks, where actors perform cold readings from the script, named so because it is unlikely the actor has seen the text prior to auditioning. This is an opportunity to hear and see the actors read together. Because the actors must complement each other, this is also an occasion to experiment with different combinations of actors. Often in professional theatre, there are closed calls, where specific actors are invited to read because they are already known to the director, or because they have been sent by a casting director. Casting directors, working with directly with actors or through actors’ agents, can be useful in trimming the pool of potential performers down to those who will work best for the parts.

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    The specifies of the rehearsal process and schedule may differ from director to director. They may also differ from production to production depending on the particular demands of the material and the length of the rehearsal period. The essential elements, however, are common to most productions. Although the order and duration of each element may differ, smart directors understand that, like design, rehearsal is a collaborative process.

    Usually a first east meeting is designed to introduce the actors to each other, to the production staff, and to the script. Presentations by the designers are often a preview of the scenery, costumes, lights, and sound. This is an excellent opportunity to share the production concept with the actors and have a first reading aloud of the script. Additional early rehearsals may be devoted to closely exploring the text, a part of the process known as table work. During this process, actors read their parts aloud, stopping frequently to discuss elements including the meaning of words and lines, poetic and literary devices the playwright has employed, the characters’ objectives, and the play’s dominant themes. This allows the entire east to arrive at the meaning of the play together in order to better communicate it to the audience.

    Before the actors can start rehearsing the play on its feet, it is necessary to have developed a ground plan. This is a two-dimensional bird’s-eye view of the set with the entrances and exits, furniture, and all of the acting areas mapped out. The acting space can then be taped out well in advance of the completion of the set so that the team has the geography of the space in which to rehearse.

    Armed with a fundamental understanding of the play, the production concept, and the ground plan, the actors get on their feet and begin the most time-consuming and intensive phase of the rehearsal process, scene work, exploring the play in smaller units. Using their own processes, the performers collaborate to find the acting values that will most effectively communicate the play’s action. The director’s role in this process is both crucial and sensitive: to confidently lead the actors toward his or her interpretation of the action but at the same time allow the actors to pursue their own creativity. This can be a difficult balance. The collaborative director serves as facilitator and coach, questioning the actors to make choices about given circumstances, relationships, and the wants and needs of the characters. The actors are led to the emotional qualities and line readings that will best communicate character, thought, and action to the audience. Forcing results too early can stifle the actors’ creative powers but in the end, the director is the editor who decides which choices are right for the production and which must be discarded.

    While guiding the acting values, the director also manipulates space by creating stage pictures, bodies artfully arranged on the playing space to communicate ideas. These pictures are created through blocking (or staging), a term for the movement and placement of the actors on the stage. This is a powerful tool and is the only element entirely under the director’s control. Blocking may come from the play’s stage directions or may be deduced from the dialogue. It can be completely planned by the director, but more often it is developed in collaboration between the actors and the director. Depending on the material, blocking can be realistic or nonrealistic. It must, however, be motivated and believable.

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    Director James Lapine speaks with the east of his play Amour during rehearsal at the Music Box Theatre on Broadway, 2003. Photo ® Mark Peterson/Corbis.

    The third element the director shapes is time. He or she does so by exerting influence over the pace and rhythm of the scenes. In the theatre, pacing refers not merely to tempo —how fast or slow the action is moving—but to variations in tempo. A performance that plays at the same speed throughout, even if that speed is fast, will ultimately become tedious and will muddy the story. The director needs to decide which moments need to move quickly, and which need to move more slowly. For example, an early expository scene in which the audience is provided with backstory may need to play slowly enough to be absorbed and understood. On the other hand, a climactic action scene may well move at roaring speed.

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    In order for directors to tell actors where to move on stage In rehearsals, they must have a shared map to work from. A director might tell an actor originally standing "up left" to cross to “right center," pause, and then end up “down center." In order to make the process easier, blocking Is given from the actor's perspective.

    Working small units of the play is essential, but it is also essential to get a sense of the whole. Therefore, a director will periodically schedule a run-through. Typically the first of these rehearsals will take place as soon as the blocking is roughed in and the actors are off-book (free from holding the script, though they may call for lines from the stage manager). This first run-through is commonly known as a stumble-through because it is almost always very rough. We may then return to scene work with run-throughs planned regularly until technical rehearsals, the period in which all of the technical elements —lights, sound, scene changes —are introduced and integrated. Before the show opens for an audience, dress rehearsals run the show in full costume with all of the technical elements as though the audience is present.

    The major professional theatres may then offer previews. These are performances before audiences with discounted tickets, before the official opening of the show. By custom, critics refrain from reviewing during this period, which may last several weeks. Previews give the director, playwright, and, in the case of musicals, the lyricist and composer, the opportunity to fine-tune the show with the benefit of audience response.

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    Color-blind casting is different from nontraditional casting in that it overlooks race entirely as a consideration in easting. Intended to open new opportunities for nonwhite actors, it relies on the suggestive nature of theatre, sometimes at the expense of the playwright's intentions, historical accuraey, or biological reality. Supporters say it rewards talent and makes audiences focus on the story. Detractors find it jarring and say it harms the suspension of disbelief. This photo of the Trinity Repertory Company's 2010 production of A Christmas Carol depicts a multiracial Cratehit family observed by an elevated Ebenezer Scrooge. Photo by Mark Turek, www.markturekphotography.eom.

    During the entire process, from the first design meetings through to opening night, the directors closest partner is the stage manager. This person is responsible for running all activities backstage, for maintaining the prompt book (a copy of the script marked up with all of the blocking, acting notes, and light and sound cues), and for facilitating communication among the entire production team. Once the show opens, the director’s job is done and the stage manager takes control, running the show each evening and ensuring that throughout the run, the production continues the way it was directed.

    The stage director employs a unique and complex set of skills. The most important is leadership. The director must be coach and cheerleader, but also must be prepared to make tough decisions. He must be an excellent communicator, know enough about each of the designers’ processes to communicate in their language, and know the acting process inside and out. He must also be an expert in theatre history and dramatic analysis. The director shoulders a huge responsibility for the success of his teammates and the experience of the audience.

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