You’re certain theatre is the industry for you. However, you suffer from debilitating stage fright, ladders give you vertigo, and the very thought of being trapped in a dark booth scares the bejeezus out of you (in that special “bring an extra change of pants” kind of way). Well there’s good news…what better than these attributes to put you in charge?
We all know that theatre directors…wait, what the heck do directors do? They show up, cast that talented aspiring actor, tell people where to stand, and steal hors d’oeuvres at opening night, right?
This is, in fact, exactly what directors do, plus or minus years of training and hard work. Theatre directors are professional dilettantes. (If you don’t know what a dilettante is, act as if you do and this will be your first lesson in the profession.) As a director, you may not be required to actually do anything on stage, but you’d better be able to tell other people how to do it. So if you’re the kind of brain who can ace a book report without ever reading the book, you’re in the right place.
Now, in an industry as unstable and under-funded as theatre (we’re really selling it, eh?), there is a need for extraordinary leaders. Perhaps you are among those inspirational men and women who can articulate how Shakespeare’s words are just as relevant as today’s rap gangstas, or how world hunger could be ended if only the words of Sophocles reached the dung huts of impoverished peoples.
The wonderful thing about theatre is that it’s an incredibly collaborative art form where diverse talents come together. The terrible thing is…have you erased your last group project from your brain? Like childbirth, art-making is a horrible, painful experience that is far too quickly forgotten when the bundle of joy called opening night is cooing and making adorable faces at you. It causes you to lose your mind and do it again, perhaps even make a career out of it.
The real poop is that to be a director, you have to become extraordinary at getting people to do things you want. Even when those things involve playing half of a horse. The wrong half.
Ninety percent of a director’s work is dealing with people.
First, before a director ever starts directing, they’ll seek freelance work. This is a polite way of saying they’ll identify producers and find one hundred and one ways to stick their nose up a producer’s you-know-what. (This is where creativity comes in.)
Next, they work with these producers (nonprofit theatres, commercial producers, investors, rich old ladies who smell like moth balls) to hire a team of designers and stage managers.
This is followed by casting, which primarily involves coming up with different ways to say, “You’re terrible.” These may include: “Thanks so much,” “That’s all I need for today,” and, “My Aunt Marge, the one with the wart on her nose, would make a more attractive Juliet than you.”
Then the director will work with these actors and designers, whom they can no longer remember why they hired, to make a play. With the designers, the director will coerce them into creating the director’s original vision whilst simultaneously making them believe they came up with it themselves. With the actors, they’ll give them blocking (yes, producers pay people to tell other people where to stand) whilst deciding the most diplomatic way to express, “Helen, when you pick your nose as Juliet stabs herself… that is probably the wrong choice.”
Suddenly, a week before opening, the stage manager explains technical rehearsals have arrived and these will be “10 to 12” hour days. Also known as purgatory.
Next come previews, a week of sharing the director’s far-from-done production with snoring audiences (we mean actually asleep, as the average theatergoer is ninety-four years old), while producers hover nervously suggesting that if only Helen could be convinced to get liposuction in the next seven days, the production would be saved.
Miraculously, opening night happens and the director has brought their Tupperware to thieve away those hors d’oeuvres, convincing themselves that their job is done. But they know all too well that their iPhone will ring somewhere around three weeks from now, and they’ll be asked to perform damage control. For example, “No, you cannot curl your own wig, Helen. I don’t care how much your left tendril bothers you, that’s the way it was designed, and it’s my vision that the Nurse has a tendril on her left ear lobe.”
The other ten percent of the job involves actually reading the play and finding a special way of doing it, also called the director’s “voice.” Because there’s nothing worse than a director who walks in and says, “Just feel it out.” Because their collaborators will feel like ripping off their arm just to have something to throw at them.
To be a director, you’ll need to become acquainted with this so-called voice. This is a director’s calling card. It’s needed to convince philanthropists that guinea pigs everywhere are dying and you are the one to bring their plight to the stage. Or maybe you just feel really strongly about Arthur Miller.
Nobody comes out of the womb able convince a roomful of investors they should be in charge. (Unless you’re Lena Dunham and have your own hit HBO series at the age of 25.) If you’re not a theatrical wunderkind, theatre school is a great way to hone those “fake it ‘til you make it” skills.
Perhaps you’ve researched the schools you want to go to. Perhaps your parents will even let you go to these schools. A deep pool of knowledge and experience will set you apart from the score of other directing hopefuls. Find a program where you’ll be exposed to varied aspects of theatre, from naked trapeze artists (yes, please) to the theatrical traditions of Malaysian banshee cannibals (don’t ask). Investigate schools that will support your vision that no theatergoer could possibly experience sixteenth-century Scotland without the stench of live animals on the theatre school’s already-mildewy basement stage. And if at all possible, find a program where you don’t major in I.O.U., because that credit card debt doesn’t buy ramen.
After four years of “becoming your inner Australian sheepdog” and vocal exercises that under normal circumstances would have you committed, you’ll want to move to a city that actually hires theatre directors, namely New York City. And by New York City, we mean an apartment in deep Brooklyn.
To begin your career, you’ll want to look the part. The good news is that your wardrobe will be simple and can be purchased on the cheap at any Goodwill or Salvation Army, because it went out of style in 1984. The stage director’s uniform consists of black denim pants and a black turtleneck. If you insist on adding a dash of color, do this with an oversized scarf. If you cannot find one large enough at Goodwill, the blanket store is an excellent option. Because you’ll be broke, you’ll want to learn what “second-acting” is. This is where you sneak into the second act of a Broadway show. Make sure you remove your colorful hipster scarf before attempting this, because you’ll want to hide from the ushers. Good thing they’re eighty and asleep by act two.
Start drinking coffee, as this will get you through the long mornings at your day job as a coffee barista helping others get through the long mornings at their day jobs.
Next, start assistant directing. One of the nice things about being part of an industry that is so hard to succeed in is that the directors who have succeeded recognize your struggles and want to pass down their knowledge in the form of making you get coffee, walking their poodle, and shining their Tony.
When you’ve gained some knowledge and are ready to start directing plays on your own, the best way to move forward is to hang out with other artists whose careers are also in the toilet. This may seem counter-intuitive, but if you make friends with them, as their projects make them famous you will get pulled onto those projects because of social pressure. Or pity.
One of the best ways to network is to attend opening nights. If an envelope is opening, you should be there. Wear a black turtleneck and everyone will think you’re too famous for fashion.
Actors are excellent artists to make friends with because you will need them to work for free. They will eagerly be your friend because they think you will pay them.
It’s also a good idea to become friends with lighting designers and theatre technicians, because they’ll do things like hang lights and stand on ladders. Your aversion to doing these things led to your decision to become a director in the first place.
Eventually, when you’ve done enough networking, you’ll want to search for an agent or manager. The difference between the two is that an agent will take ten percent for putting up with your clients. A manager will take fifteen percent: ten percent for putting up with your clients and five percent for putting up with you.
Now you’re directing plays, have an A-list manager, and are hot stuff. Congratulations! You’re the next Julie Taymor, bringing Lion King-style magic to thousands. It’s often said, “You can’t make a living in the theatre, but you can make a killing; and you can make a life.” When theatre is at its best, it is the most extraordinary collaborative success. And when it fails, it’s your fault.