Directing Part III: So Many Balls in the Air

Dee Dee O'Connor

  • OnStage Washington State Columnist

Nothing can prepare you for doing something quite like doing it, and so it is with directing. Back when I decided I wanted to try my hand at it, I worked hard towards the goal. I talked to other directors, read about it, stage managed shows, and shadowed other directors as an assistant director. My two goals were to do a credible job of it and enjoy the process. I lined up the best crew I could find, complete with a mentor as my assistant director. I read the play many times, studied it, intellectualized it, and did my production analysis. I knew my characters and had a vision. On top of all that, I had unlimited enthusiasm, good organizational skills, and enough confidence to go through with it. My technical experience in lighting and set building would be an asset. I knew that it would be a huge learning experience but I am also a quick study on anything I am passionate about. 

One of the great things about community theatre is that it provides opportunities for people like me who have discovered the love for “making theatre” later in life. It’s a learn-as-you-go process, however, and there have been times when I feel the lack of more formalized training. The same is true with directing. You see, as prepared as I was going into the process, there have been things that have caught me by surprise. As I wrote in my previous article on blocking, that was much harder than I expected…although admittedly it got easier as I went along. But no sooner were my blocking rehearsals over then I had to focus on the acting, scene changes, costumes, set issues, props, lighting, and sound.

Even with an awesome crew to back me up, being the director means I’m ultimately responsible for all those things. About a week ago, in the midst of a rehearsal, my stage manager asked me about a costume change between scenes. I had this deer-in-the-headlights moment and I thought, You mean, in addition to paying attention to the blocking, the acting, and mentally making notes about set pieces and props, I have to think about costume changes too? Laughing at myself, I pushed that whiney thought aside. Of course, I had to think about that; I have to think about EVERYTHING! But I realized then what it meant to keep all those balls in the air and how dropping just one could adversely affect the play. 

The most slippery ball that I juggle is effectively communicating with my actors. I have no problem intellectually explaining what I want, but getting to the emotional heart is much trickier. You see, I’m not an actor. There are some who believe that directors should have some acting experience and there are those who say, it’s not necessarily required. I would say that being an actor probably makes directing easier if nothing else. Not that this was a surprise in and of itself but perhaps, it was a bit more of an issue than I expected…like blocking. (Note to self: get ye to an audition.) Thankfully, I have a great mentor who is aware when I’m struggling and uses those moments to teach. I will be forever grateful to her and to my talented, supportive cast who understands that this is a learning process for me and yet grants me the attention and respect they would a more experienced director. 

In case I’ve led you to believe otherwise, I really do enjoy the juggling act that is directing. It takes a sort of fearless, can-do attitude that I find very satisfying. Sure, I have moments of anxiety where I worry that I’m not giving my cast and crew all that they need and yet, I believe that because I have those moments, I’ll be a better director for them.

Photo: Elizabeth Holzman and cast in rehearsal for "Mr. Burns, a post-electric play" at Capital Stage Company. (Photo by Barry Wisdom)