Ten Things I Learned About Theatre Directing
(courtesy of The Young Artists Festival 2017 at The Other Room)
I was jubilant when I discovered that my application to take part in the third Young Artists’ Festival at The Other Room Theatre in Cardiff had been successful; my delight only slightly mitigated by the knowledge that I would be a generation older than the vast majority of the other participants.
Still, as a theatre director, I am barely embryonic. Thus the week-long Festival, which comprises talks and masterclasses from a number of theatre professionals, and culminates in a three-night run of five brand new ten-minute plays, was always going to be an invaluable learning experience.
As an occasional playwright, I have shared rehearsal rooms with a number of illustrious directors; as a reviewer, I have experienced the work of many more; and it has always been clear that the precise nature of the director’s input varies from production to production. It stood to reason that being tasked with directing a brand new play from a well-known playwright, as well as a rehearsed reading from a newer writer, would provide me with fresh insights into the role.
Inevitably, across the week, I made notes on what I learned about the director’s craft/art:
1. A good script does most of the work.
I was assigned a new play by multi-award-winning Matthew Bulgo: The Language Of Violence, a piece about the business of war. Four meaty roles, a clear narrative, an eternally relevant theme and relishable dialogue replete with grim humour – you’d surely have to be an idiot to mess it up.
2. It helps if everyone really wants to be in the room.
The beauty of the Young Artists Festival is that it takes place in one of the most exciting venues in Britain; a theatre which has built up a fearsome reputation for the quality of its productions over a very few years. Thus, people are keen to be involved (and to pay the requisite fee) and in the rehearsal room, there is a positive atmosphere and a unanimity of purpose. Especially since a new play has to be up on its feet, in front of an audience, on Thursday evening, the actors only having been handed the script on Tuesday.
3. The director knows everything, even when he/she doesn’t.
One of many gems gleaned from a directorial masterclass with The Other Room’s co-founder and outgoing Artistic Director Kate Wasserberg – essentially a brain-picking session – was that the director has to embrace the role of ultimate authority, and be an expert on everything from lighting and costume to geo-politics and quantum physics (depending on the subject of the play).
4. It’s important to be open to suggestions.
Even when one has come to the difficult realisation that one knows everything, it is vital to be able to accept advice from those with greater experience – the Other Room team (incoming Artistic Director Dan Jones, Associate AD Ben Atterbury and Executive Director Bizzy Day) all provided valuable tips, as did my cast; and all of them were helpful – even those which weren’t entirely taken on board.
5. There’s more than one way of getting things right.
At every point during a production, creative choices will be made – some will be disastrous, many won’t be. Any text of value will be able to stand any number of interpretations. Thus, the script which we were assigned for the rehearsed reading, Bull Shade Skank by Gareth Ford-Elliot, was a monologue, which was shared out amongst the cast, each of them playing iterations of the dope-dealing protagonist.
6. Actors know how to talk to other actors about acting.
As a non-performer, I was loath to give “acting” notes to my cast at moments where I felt the tone of the dialogue wasn’t quite coming across. Fortunately, however, the mood in the room was such that all of my actors (Grant Cawley, Tia Benvenuti, Toby Burchell, Deborah Newton Williams) felt free to make suggestions to one another, with no offence given or taken. This is perhaps my most valuable takeaway from the week.
7. The most important person on any production is the stage manager.
The most talented cast, the most perceptive script, the most adventurous set design – it’s all for nothing if it can’t be seen or heard. I’m painfully aware, as a theatre critic, of seldom crediting the stage manager, who is responsible for overseeing light and sound; SM for the festival, Rachel Hendry, simply by doing her job with no-nonsense efficiency, subtly let sunlight in on magic.
8. Pick the right mood music.
I’m not ashamed to admit that prior to the week, I did a “how to be a theatre director” web search. One handy hint I discovered was to find a piece of music which sums up the feel of the production and have it playing either in the rehearsal room or in one’s head. The obvious choice for Matthew’s piece was Jimi Hendrix’s legendary blitzkrieg-esque interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner” from the Woodstock Festival. For technical reasons, we were ultimately unable to use it during the performance itself, but its constant looping in my mind was a great help when it came to maintaining concentration.
9. If it’s not fun, don’t bother.
Apparently, there are directors who delight in being dictatorial, and work best in an atmosphere of creative conflict. As someone who tends to avoid confrontation, I find this idea horrifying. But, as Kate Wasserberg suggested, being anything other than oneself in the rehearsal room is a recipe for failure; I hope I maintained an enjoyable atmosphere.
10. I’d quite like to have another go.
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