Over the years, I have written many articles that offer advice to performers. Whether it's audition pieces, college choices or just ways to be more sought-after. And while it's certainly great to have a much advice out there for performers, I realize there are a lot of areas where directors, designers and even theatre groups could improve as well.
So starting with those whose job it is to translate the playwright's vision to the stage, let's discuss five ways directors can do a better job. While much of this is directed to those who direct at a local or education level, some of it may be relevant in professional circles as well.
1. Select Different, Obscure or New Material
Sometimes the best exercise to stretch the directing muscles is to look at directing material that challenges you. Whether it's a different style you're used to or a rarely produced show or even a world premiere, taking on projects like these force us as directors to think outside the box.
I see too many directors who develop reputations as one-trick ponies with their show selection. From Rodgers & Hammerstein to Arthur Miller to even more avant-garde material, too many directors seem to settle to do only these types of shows.
So to break from this, force yourself to do something completely different, even if it's a genre or type of show you've never done before. For a period of time, I directed farce after farce after farce. I desperately wanted to try something else, so I started reading more character driven dramas, darker comedies and even collections of one-act plays. This search led to me directing a production of Steven Dietz' "Private Eyes", which was both the most challenging and most creatively rewarding directing experiences of my career. I also had stayed away from directing children for the longest time but chose to direct Carol Burnett's "Hollywood Arms" last year, so that I could have that experience.
If you're feeling like you're doing the same thing over and over again, force yourself to look at different types of material, Lord knows there is plenty of it out there. It may be uncharted territory for you but trust your experience and training and you never know what path it may lead down.
2. Be More Diverse & Inclusive with Casting
One major gripe many actors seem to have about certain directors, is that they always cast the same people in their shows. While I think that this complaint gets thrown around too quickly and easily, in some cases, it's true.
I've seen many local directors who have cast the same exact people as their leads in every show they do. Or they cast the same small group of performers and rotate them within certain roles.
While I certainly agree that the best audition should get the role, I also believe not every actor is right for every role. When it comes to casting your shows, your reputation should always be that of someone who is inclusive and diverse. It should be as someone who provides opportunities for all rather than the constant few.
Of course this depends on your audition pool. As a director, I can only select a cast from those who show up. However, if I am a director who constantly casts the same people as my leads, I should expect that turnout is going to be low. On the other hand, if I'm known as being inclusive, I'll have a much bigger talent pool to choose from.
So try to look for new talent in the room and look to cast performers of color in roles that don't require a certain race. Not only will it help your image as a director but also possibly lead to a more positive rehearsal process. From experience, working with actors who know they've been given an opportunity rather than those who expect it, always makes a production better.
3. Be Organized
I look at organization like a game of golf - no one will ever be perfect at it. While you may think you have tremendous organization skills, there is always room for improvement.
Let's be honest, nothing can bring down a production quicker than a director who either doesn't know what they're doing or isn't prepared for the tasks ahead. As a director, you have to be on top of everything. From understanding the script to the rehearsal period to the design choices, you have to know what you want and how it's going to be executed. If a director isn't organized to handle all of these discussions, elements stall and the production suffers. Sounds like an obvious thing to avoid right? You'd be surprised.
I'm not going to cast stones here either. There have been times where I've let my plans get muddled or priorities become mixed. You may be concerned with one area so much, that you don't know you're not giving the attention to others that you should. This is where you have to utilize the resources and team you have around you.
First and foremost, make sure you have the very best stage manager you can. In many cases, they are the ones that can keep you on track and keep you in line. I often like to work with SM's who I know I can trust to not only take care of their own duties but also tell me when I'm not doing my part as well.
Also, set up a firm production schedule that you know you can meet. Don't be ambitious with it, if you can't meet the demands of a certain time frame, don't risk it. Schedule meetings, goals and thresholds that you are comfortable with and will ensure the production will get off the ground successfully.
Productions should never fail, but they should never fail because of the director's lack of organization. It takes a lot of responsibility to direct a production and a lot rides on our shoulders. But this is what we signed up for and we should be prepared for the sake of everyone else involved.
4. Take On Different Roles
Just as with any profession, it's always a good idea to get a refresher or re-education. It sharpens the mind, opens the door for more creativity and increases experience. This is why so many companies send their employees to conferences and other professional development activities.
It the world of theatre, it can be more challenging to find "professional development". However one way we can do that, is by taking on different roles within productions. It's always a good idea to see how the other half lives. So, if you are able, work as a designer, stage manager or even audition and perform in a show.
If I want to become a better director, sometimes that means working with other directors and more importantly, being directed by them. Seeing someone else's rehearsal process, organization and communication skills can inspire what do to with my own productions or what to avoid. The same goes for other areas of a production. Knowing the ropes of a stage manager, set designer or even the running crew will not only give me a better understanding of what those roles need from a director but also more appreciative of their efforts.
It also will help every show you direct in the future. If I have experience in designing a set, or costumes or calling cues, then I can work with those individuals to ensure elements I want in my own shows, can actually occur.
5. Learn to Give a Little
We all (hopefully) learn from a very young age, that you can't always get what you want. So why is it that so many directors seem to forget this? We may want certain costumes or props or scenic elements in our shows. We may want the actors to move and say lines in certain ways. But we cannot expect that what we want, will always happen. We have to instead, know that with directing a show, comes compromise and collaboration.
It starts by listening to your actors, being open to suggestions. The best rehearsal processes are open where ideas can flow between both you and those on stage. Having a vision is fine, but knowing that different and better ideas can come from your actors, will only lead to a more worthwhile rehearsal period. The same could be said with your approach when working with your crew. You may want certain effects or elements in your production, but if those just aren't possible, be open to discussing different plans or methods to pull off what you're looking for.
Again, you would think this would be obvious but I've seen my fair share of stubborn directors who take the philosophy of "it's my way or the highway." It's those directors who I will never want to work with again.
In closing, it can be hard sometimes to admit that you need to improve in certain areas. But the more we, as directors, are open to suggestions to better our methods, it will only lead to better productions.
Photo: MFA director Kristan Clippard works with the cast of SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER. The University of Iowa