A Director Prepares - About my process: Chapter 1 - Preproduction

C. Austin Hill

  • OnStage Ohio Columnist

One of my favorite things about writing for OnStage is that we have a very broad array of readers that includes actors, designers, designers, and lifelong theatre-lovers.  While I am sure that there are many directors amongst our readership, I also recognize that for many there is a certain mysticism to the art of theatrical direction.  In the interest of helping to demystify things a bit, I thought I’d chronicle my own process as I prepare for upcoming projects.  I don’t mean to imply that mine is the only, or even the best, way to approach directing—indeed there are as many styles of director as there are directors—but I wanted to shed some light on the work that goes into directing a piece of theatre for those that might otherwise not know what we do behind the scenes.  I also hope this is helpful for experienced directors that might be looking for a few new tools for their toolboxes, or confirmation that what they are already doing is solid.

Perhaps it’s best if I start with a word about my credentials.  Recently, in the comments on one of my columns, I was accused of being “just an academic,” with an implication that I was unaware of the realities of life in the trenches.  While it’s true that I AM an academic, with a PhD in Theatre History, I also have a wealth of experience in those very trenches.  Since 2008, I have directed over 30 productions, with 11 different companies including community theatres, academic companies, and LORT theatres.  My upcoming productions—those that I’ll be chronicling here—will be numbers 34 and 35, and add two more producing companies to my list.  In addition, for 4 years I served as the Artistic Director for a successful small company in Columbus, Ohio producing and directing shows that won accolades and awards.  So while I am certainly an academic, I am not “just an academic” (whatever in the world that means…).

My readers might recall that I have recently moved back to Ohio following three years as the Director of the Theatre Program at a small university in Tennessee.  This move into a new academic position brings exciting new opportunities—not the least of which the chance to work with new actors, new designers, new music directors, and new companies.  Part of my job includes directing for the university’s season, but I think it’s important to work outside of the institution as well.  I was very lucky as I was quickly introduced to a number of people working in a very lively and very welcoming theatre community, and subsequently offered the chance to direct for the Youngstown Playhouse—a 91 year old community theatre that produces excellent work.  I was also lucky because that project was slotted to begin immediately following my production for Youngstown State University—AND both of these productions open in the spring.  The upshot is that I get plenty of lead time to prepare. 

Opening in February, I’m working on an 81 year old piece of political satire (with music) by German playwright Ernst Toller.  I was excited about the piece the second I heard the title NO MORE PEACE! And more so when I learned the premise—Napoleon makes a bet with St. Francis (atop Mount Olympus, of course) that man is inherently warlike, and sets in motion a plan to prove it by provoking a peaceful  (fictional) Balkan country into a war with an unknown neighbor.  This is right up my alley—it’s weird, it’s political, it is non-realistic, and it is hyper relevant.  The other piece I’m working on, opening in May, is HAIRSPRAY.  I’m an odd academic in that I ADORE musical theatre, and this one in particular—with its questions about race and gender and whose lives seem to matter to whom—is absolutely perfect at this socio-political moment.  So away I go…

Prepping two shows at the same time is hard.  I am working with very different pieces with very different needs.  With HAIRSPRAY, I have a few things going for me—I have lots of time before I have to have a concept in place, I know the show very well (in all of its versions, including the original John Waters film), and my set designer and choreographer will be my wife, with whom I’ve collaborated many times.  So I am able to put that one on the back burner a bit—we’ve re-read the script, and talked through some early ideas for the visual world of the production, and now I can let my team begin to think through the show from those early seeds.  We’re doing research into Baltimore architecture (formstone, and general shapes), dance in the early 60’s, and thinking hard about the many theses in the show and how to best bring them to our audience.

My process on NO MORE PEACE! is a bit more involved immediately.  I am working with a team of designers and collaborators whom I am just getting to know.  At this point, we don’t have a good working shorthand, so I’m going to need to be much more specific much earlier in the game.  I have some time before we begin production meetings in earnest, but this is a script that I have only recently read, and don’t thoroughly understand yet. So for the time being, it’s all about research, research, research.   It’s a complicated text, translated to English from German (which I don’t read in any way that would help me), and it has a very limited production history.  

Then there’s the music—I have most of the sheet music in the text (though not all) but I am struggling to find reference recordings at all, and those that I’m finding are far from the overall tone I would want for a production in 2016 Ohio.  I’m reading up on Ernst Toller—who has a FASCINATING biography—and about the moment in which this play was written—in 1935-6 Germany—to make sure I’m getting the politics right, and to try to make sure I’m finding all of the points of resonance with our current political world.  I’m reading about Balkan countries, about their folk festivals (the play opens at one), about their traditional music (will THAT help me find the right tone for the music in the play?).  I’m reading the Bible, as all of the characters in the fictional country of Dunkelstein have Biblical names—a choice that was undoubtedly intentional, so I’d better understand exactly why each character carries its name. 

I’m reading the text repeatedly, each time taking notes of my questions AS I READ, and noting if and when they get answered.  Right now, my primary focus is context.  Later it’ll be on dramatic action (how we get from one point to another), and on broad conceptual matters like costumes, scenic needs, and lighting, all of which will be fleshed out by my collaborators.  I am my own sound designer on this piece, as I am on much of what I direct, and because I tend to think in terms of rhythms and beats I’ve already begun gathering an inspirational playlist (did you know there’s a genre of music called “Gypsy punk” that includes updated conceptions of Balkan folk music?).

Directing is about so much more than blocking.  Before I begin my 6 weeks of rehearsal time (and I’m lucky to have that much), I will do months of preparation, thinking, research, and analysis.  I’ll check in again ere long and tell you more!