10 Tips for a Successful Student Directing Process

  • Abby Lass

Directing as a student is an incredible opportunity. Whether you’re working on a fully-staged production or a smaller cabaret or workshop, almost nothing compares to the challenge and fulfillment that comes from creating a vision and then carrying it out with a team of your peers.

It can be a deeply meaningful and exciting experience, but all too often student directors encounter frustrating processes and disappointing final products. So, before you start your directorial journey, take a look at these ten keys to successful directing as a student.

Define success early. A “successful” production looks different to different people. For some, creating a meaningful performance that spurs conversation is the ultimate goal; for others, fostering a community and a supportive learning environment is the true prerogative. Before you start this process, ask yourself what it is that you want to accomplish with this experience and this production. Your answers to these questions will prove to others that you have thought deeply about this opportunity and will help guide you throughout the process. By setting clear parameters on your definition of success, you will also be able to better focus your efforts on the things that matter and diminish your stress over things that don’t. Below are some questions to get you started:

Concerning the piece itself:

  • Why is it important for your community to see this piece now?

  • What issues or topics in this piece are most important to you?

  • What is the fundamental message that you want to communicate with this piece?

Concerning the process:

  • How much of an emphasis do you want to put on learning and artistic growth?

  • How important is fostering a community to you?

  • What sort of rehearsal environment do you want to create?

Concerning yourself:

  • What sort of collaborator do you want to be?

  • What traits do you think are most essential to your idea of an effective director?

  • What are you hoping to have learned by the end of this process?

Manage your expectations. If you’re a student director, chances are that you’re working with other young actors and designers in an educational setting. You should absolutely dream big when it comes to your vision but do so with a clear understanding of the constraints inherent in your team and program. Your school may not have the budget to build an elaborate set or construct completely new costumes. Members of your cast and crew may be new to their roles, and will also be trying to balance their commitments to you with their academic and familial obligations. Internalize this reality early and be willing to adjust your expectations accordingly. Doing so will help you avoid getting frustrated by limitations and thereby free up your mental energy to look for creative solutions. Throughout the process, return to your previously determined definition of success. Remind yourself what really matters and breathe through the things you can’t change.

Pick your cast and crew conscientiously. The people you choose to work with will have a larger impact than almost any other decision you make throughout this process. It’s absolutely reasonable to seek out people who are experienced and talented but make sure that you’re also mindful of other attributes-- for example, their ability to collaborate, their willingness to compromise and take direction, and their sense of personal accountability. These factors may not seem as immediately relevant as someone’s ability to sew or hit a high C, but they will fundamentally impact the way your show is put together. Be honest with yourself when examining people’s working styles and don’t try to force a collaboration that will not be pleasant or productive for either of you-- the show will suffer for it, no matter how talented and experienced you both may be. Build on the inherent strengths of the team you create and be mindful of your weaknesses, setting aside resources early to ensure that those weaknesses don’t become crises. All of this will help you create an impressive product without having a miserable experience.

Create a vision and find effective ways to communicate it.  Understanding the fundamental elements of a piece and knowing how you want to explore them isn’t enough to create a successful show-- you need to be able to communicate your vision to your team in a way that is both clear and motivating. If someone on your team is having difficulty understanding what it is you’re looking for, take ownership of their confusion and adjust the way you are conveying the information. Some people respond best to verbal specifics, others to visual representations. Creating a Youtube playlist or Pinterest board can be useful ways to explain the essential aspects of your vision. Additionally, you’ll want to keep in mind that communication is a two-way street, which means that you’ll also want to listen effectively to the ideas coming from your cast and crew. These concepts may not align with your vision and may not make it into the final product, but it is important that your team feels like they are being heard and that their ideas have value; one of the worst things that can happen to a production is that the cast and crew don’t feel comfortable asking questions or contributing their ideas. No matter how strong your initial vision may be, the contributions of others are what is going to put your show over the top. Integrate ideas where it makes sense, and always thank your team for bringing these new thoughts to your attention.

Set boundaries with your cast and crew. Whether it happens on purpose or by coincidence, student directors will often end up with people on their show who they know in other contexts. Maybe they’re your lab partner, or your sibling’s ex, or your best friend. While it can be tempting to work with people you already know, be sure that you are setting clear, professional boundaries inside and outside of the rehearsal room. Some basic guidelines: don’t make unfair promises to friends; don’t share information with people who don’t need to know it; don’t speak poorly about cast and crew members to other people working on the show. If a particular cast or crew member is making it difficult for you to maintain these boundaries, consider having a private conversation with them and explaining how these transgressions might reflect poorly on you both. It’s also worth keeping in mind where you want your relationship to be with this person once the show is over-- however frustrating conflicts may be in the rehearsal room, you don’t want to jeopardize an important friendship in the name of one production. At the end of the day, a good baseline is simply to treat everyone equally. You can be warm and friendly and even silly with your cast and crew, but a casual observer should not be able to tell which actor is your best friend and which you’ve never worked with before. As a director, you are in a position of power; honor that authority and make sure that everyone feels valued and wanted.

Treat directing like the privilege that it is. Directing, particularly as a student, is a unique opportunity. There are plenty of young people-- and older people, too-- who would love to be in your shoes. Acknowledge how lucky you are to be in this position and act in a way that reminds people why you are worthy of it. Show up to rehearsals prepared and use everyone’s time effectively. Be responsive and helpful when your cast and crew have questions or need assistance. Arrive at every meeting and rehearsal on time and help clean up after it’s over. Own your mistakes and thank people for entrusting you with their concerns-- their willingness to speak up will create a more enjoyable process. You as the director will determine not only the course of the show; you will establish the culture of the process. People will follow your example, so make sure it’s a positive one.

Know what is within your jurisdiction and what is not. Even the best rehearsal process will have its share of problems. When these issues arise-- or ideally, even before they do so-- lay out a plan with your team to determine what is the best way to address them. If an actor is consistently late to rehearsal, is it better for you to have a conversation with them, or should they be sitting down with your stage manager? If a member of build crew spills paint on the props, do you need to get involved, or can the appropriate parties handle it without you? The desire to control everything you possibly can is understandable, but your sanity as a director will depend on your ability to let go and trust your team to do their jobs. It can be daunting, but your team will do a better job on their own if they feel trusted and supported, instead of micro-managed. If someone on your team is genuinely not carrying their weight or causing a larger concern, don’t be afraid to call in the show’s producers-- whether they are students or adults. This course of action may feel like a defeat, but it can also be an efficient way to nip issues in the bud. The most positive productions arise when teams feel that they have the resources and trust necessary to succeed-- make a point to find a balance of leading and supporting that is both effective and sustainable.

Uplift others. Though we don’t often like to admit it, we are largely the product of teachers’ and mentors’ support and reassurance. Nobody gets anywhere alone, and chances are that your ability to put on this show stems directly from other’s investment in both you and the project itself. Honor the energy and faith that has been put in you and share that light and warmth with others. Take the time to compliment the people you’re working with, acknowledge their growth, and thank them for the hard work they have put in. Demonstrate your respect and appreciation for your team not only with words but with actions like giving reasonable breaks and providing whatever moral support they may need. A budding student director may be a part of your cast and crew-- be sure to show them the same support you were given.

Seek out feedback. This can be intimidating, but it’s essential if you truly want to improve as a director. Throughout the process, check-in with your cast and crew and see if there is something you could be doing to make their lives easier. Whether the responses they give are quick-fixes or larger shifts, make a point to actively implement their comments into your work. This will not only allow you to become a stronger director but will motivate your team, since they will feel heard and appreciated as a result of your adjustments.

Be proud. Directing is hard. No matter how much time or money or support you have, you will undoubtedly have moments of frustration as you are forced to compromise your vision. As a result, it can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling disappointed by the product you end up creating. While you can absolutely use this process as a learning experience and take note of what you will do differently next time, make sure that you also take a moment to celebrate all of this production’s successes. Force yourself to focus on the positives, both in discussion with others and when reflecting by yourself. If you want, you can even make a list to refer back to later. You can include anything about the process that you are proud of-- moments during rehearsals and performances, decisions you support in hindsight, artistic choices you made with your team. Engaging in this practice will help you build on your successes in future productions, as well as reminding you that you just achieved something that few people will ever do.

Directing as a student can be an intimidating process, but it can also be one of the most rewarding experiences you have in school. If you pace yourself, set reasonable expectations, and foster a supportive, collaborative environment, you’re sure to create an amazing production-- and have a great time making it happen.