What I Have Learned from Directing Plays

When I started as a teacher, part of the reason I got hired was because of my background in theater.  Aside from needing an English teacher, Ashland had an opening for a drama coach. Sure, I had performance experience; I had been on stage since I was 14, but there was one small detail I left out of the interview.  I had never directed a play in my life.  Never.  Not even in college; the closest I had come was directing some student scenes, but honestly, in school, I only studied acting.  I didn’t take any classes in technical theater, lighting, set design, directing, and here I was, about to hold auditions.  My sister gave me great advice. “Fake it ‘till you make it.”

Oddly enough, that first play, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was to this day, one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had.  Back then, I was 22 years old, and my cast members were mainly 17 and some 18 year olds.

 (Guess which one is the student?)

I was closer in age to these kids than I was to my co-workers.  We took it to state and won awards; it was a success.  It was great fun, but more importantly, I learned a ton.  I had a crash course in lighting design, set construction (although six boxes isn’t much of a set) and the dangers of letting the cast have too much power.  Now, I work more with adults than kids, but I still learn boatloads from every play I direct.  I learn things about theater, psychology, ego, and ultimately myself.  After directing over 30 plays in the past 20 years, this is some of what I have learned…

1. Always get good people to be your “crew chiefs.”  Delegate to them, trust them, stay out of their way, and then ride their coat tails for all they’re worth!  Take all of the credit for their hard work.   After all, it was your vision, right?

2. It is easy to work with people who have little or no experience on stage.  They have an energy and enthusiasm that is infectious.  With little or no ego, they take direction well, and learn fast.  They often are the ones who shine the most on opening night.  They are like puppies; they love the attention, they are full of joy, and their breath is often quite pleasant.

3. It is easy to work with people who have had lots and lots of experience on stage.  They are professional, they can take a note (a.k.a. doing what the director says) and they know their craft.  Their ego is strong enough to take criticism, even if they don’t agree with it.  They don’t have to shine on opening night, because they glow throughout the run.  However, their breath often smells of cigarettes, coffee, whiskey and if you’re lucky a cough drop.

4. It can be very difficult to work with people who have only appeared on stage a few times.  This isn’t true for all, but sadly true for some.  These people only have enough knowledge to be a danger to themselves and to the cast.  They often don’t take notes, because after that successful run as the butler in the community theater production of The Importance of Being Earnest they now know all they need!  Often, they’ll even go one further, giving other cast members notes. (This is really frowned upon in the theater world, trust me.)  These are the actors who will usually drive the costumer nuts with ridiculous requests…

These buttons are a black/black; my suit is more blue/black”

and also eat up a lot of time with the director asking exactly “how” to deliver those three lines of dialogue:

“When my character says ‘Hello’ I’m thinking she is more angry than inquisitive.  I’ve done some internal background work, and my character has had a horrid morning.  I would like to discuss it at length later, but for right now, I really think I need to have more anger here. ‘HELLO!!!’”

They try too hard to shine on opening night.  Their breath smells horrid because they “don’t eat before a show…”   Unfortunately, I was this kind of actress for a very long time.   I’m lucky I never directed myself.  I mean that.  (Also, currently I am lucky enough to be working with a crackerjack team who always have nice breath and take notes very well.)

5. Always kiss up to your costumer.  Often, he or she doesn’t get paid the same as the set designer, but puts in as many hours.

Also, the eyes of the audience will go to the set for the first five minutes of a show, but those same eyes will stay on the costumes for the entire night.

Good costumers make your actors look good, or in some cases, not so good. They often live on cookies and coffee.  Make sure they get plenty.

6. Be appreciative, but clear with your set builders.  At least in my case, I have been walked over too many times and have had to put up with something I didn’t intend.  (For the record, the past few plays I have directed, I have been very happy with the set.)  Also, this next rule is absolute and will never change.  No matter who he is, what he says, or what he promises, the paint on the set will be wet for opening.  Period.  Live with it, accept it, roll your eyes and move on.

7. Never, ever, ever underestimate the importance of a good lighting design (please to revisit lesson #1.)

It can make an ugly set look like a Buckingham Palace, and make a dingy, uninspired costume look like an Oscar gown.  That being said, work closely with your lighting people.  If you leave them alone, your show will undoubtedly look really, super-arty and cool, but often, it will be too dark and your actors will be bumping into things and each other.  Nothing says “pro” like an actor waving his arms in front of his body as to avoid running into anything. (You could always pass it off as an interesting directorial choice…)

8. Make the cast acknowledge the crew, and thank them often. They don’t get the glory.  They live in the dark shadows of “backstage” and frequently talk smack about the snottier folks in the cast, so be wary.  Also, they all seem to be a bit dark and emo, and therefore, capable of messing with the actors or directors in deceitful and wily ways.  Of course, they will have covered their tracks so well, they escape blame.  That prop that fell apart?  The light that blew?  That nail that ripped the costume?  Just saying…

9. Watch out for cast crushes, especially when directing high school kids.  Although it isn’t necessarily the director’s business, it can soon become the director’s problem.  (For the non-actors out there, when actors play characters in love, it is way too easy, and in fact, all too common to develop a crush on your opposite leading man or lady.)  This is one more advantage to working with actors who have a lot of stage experience, because they’ve “been there, done that.”  Otherwise you have love-sick nonsense backstage that can alienate or disgust the rest of the cast.  Also, it can mess with the acting.  How on earth are you supposed to hate that woman on stage when you have her lipstick all over your face?  (Again, it was an interesting directorial choice.)

10. Never, ever, ever give up on a show.  That is a cardinal sin, and unfortunately, I committed it a few times in my past.  It was before I knew any better, and shame on me for it.  It is never too late to give a note, or try to clean up a scene.  Don’t ever throw in the towel on a show.  Even on the last matinée, a director should be vigilant.  Don’t ever let an actor “phone it in.”

11. Directors will be hated at some point in the rehearsal process.  Like the wet paint on opening night, it is inevitable. Undoubtedly, someone will not like a note, or the crew will feel slighted, no matter how many Snickers you buy them. The cast and crew will talk some shit about you.  That’s the unfortunate side of leadership.  The good news is that it is usually forgotten the minute a standing ovation happens.  Always serve the play rather than the actors.  It may make the journey more challenging, but the goal will be far greater for it.

12.  Every cast becomes a family, and every cast is special.  By the time the curtain goes up, you will love everyone involved in the show very much, in spite of the smack-talk.  You will also miss them terribly once the play is over.  You may, for a week or two, consider bringing it back and doing it again, but don’t.  You never really recapture the magic; it just prolongs the agony, like pulling a band-aid off slowly.  The good news is that the blues you encounter after a show closes will fade in time.  And after all, there’s always another show.

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5 Comments

Filed under Humor, Theater, Uncategorized

5 responses to “What I Have Learned from Directing Plays

  1. William Siebecker

    Words of wisdom…….oh and those shoes look really great Liz!

  2. For the record, the current Oklahoma cast has been a dream to work with, and no one has ever complained about a button color…Oh, and Bill Siebecker is really, really funny. (Seriously funny…)

  3. Josie Woodworth-Turner

    Daughter I love your smartness and knowledge in dealing with folks! love you, mom

  4. Geoff

    I very frequently (in fact almost always) have my paint dry before the curtain goes up.

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