The Director has the ultimate responsibility for the artistic elements of any production, directly controlling the actors and indirectly controlling all the other aspects of the show, through the respective members of the production team. It would be useful if any director had some experience in all areas of play production, but in amateur productions that is a utopian ideal.
Selecting A Play
A lot of thought has to be devoted to making the right choice of production. The main factors to consider are the available talent and the potential audience. Whilst many suggestions of ideal plays will be offered, a director has to be convinced that the play is right choice. In any event you will need to read a play thoroughly before even considering short-listing it. You can obtain catalogues from the major play agents with précis of their scripts to help you make your selection.
Consider the number of characters in the play. If you have a large number of actors a play with more characters may be appreciated to give as many as possible a chance to act. However this will make it more complex to direct and keep track of what each person is doing.
Many directors feel more comfortable directing specific types of play; comedy, drama, farce or another style. Hopefully reading several styles of play will help a director visualise the possible problems and benefits. Some drama groups only perform specific types of play or alternate between dramatic and comedy productions, so your audience may be expecting a murder mystery and be disappointed if you offer them a farce.
Directing a comedy or farce isn't funny... it's as much hard work as a thriller or serious play. Just because the cast and crew are falling about laughing at rehearsal does not mean your audience will too. You have to be just as careful and patient whatever genre of play you are tackling.
You can not rely on directing a play that you have seen elsewhere, at least until you have read it. However much you enjoyed the production, it may have been because the director managed to gloss over an imperfection in the script, that may have escaped your notice. Take into account current tastes and trends, what you enjoyed a few years ago may not have the same significance today.
Do not expect to change the script to make the play fit your facilities and performers. Usually a male or female actor can be used for a supporting role (like a bar tender or waiter/waitress) who does not have any bearing on the overall plot, and change "he" for "she", etc, where needed. You can change stage directions, costumes and the staging, but not the spoken words in the script. Sometimes a playwright will make a specific requirement in the script; you must comply with this requirement or choose another script. You can approach the agents for permission to make specific changes, but it may take some time for the agent, publisher or author to make a decision.
In amateur theatre details like selecting the venue and production dates are often dealt with by the committee of the society, unless the director has a special reason for performing in a specific location. Usually you will expect to perform in a theatre, town hall, drama studio or a similar performance space that is likely to have at least some of the essential facilities you will need for a play. Some more adventurous directors may have other ideas, like performing in an unusual location not usually associated with theatre, or even outside. You have to remember that if you plan to perform somewhere not equipped for theatre use it will undoubtedly involve a lot of additional planning and effort to arrange things like the staging, seating, changing rooms and an adequate power supply for the lights!
Cast and Crew
Once the play is chosen the director has the initial responsibility for selecting a cast and stage crew from the volunteers and conscripts available. Auditions often take the form of a reading part of the play, to give prospective actors an idea of the story, followed by individuals reading selected parts of the play that will give the director an idea of how they will perform.
Amateur groups often have members who regularly carry out some of the backstage duties, as some of the technical aspects tend to require a bit of more specialist expertise. However this makes it easier for the director, who can rely on these individuals to be competent backstage. The director will need to confer with all the backstage people to co-ordinate their activities.
Rehearsals will usually take place in the evenings but not necessarily on the stage that will be used for the performances, so with the assistance of the set designer and stage manger, the director needs to make sure the cast know where the entrances are and where significant features like furniture will be. Hopefully you will be able to mark the floor with electrical tape to indicate walls and other features and use chairs and tables to represent furniture.
- Example of a typical box or composite set
As an aid to deciding who needs to be at a rehearsal and make it easier to schedule rehearsals if certain people are likely to be unavailable on particular nights, plot a chart showing when each member of cast is need on stage.
- Example of a Cast Rehearsal Chart
Many amateur groups fall into the trap of spreading rehearsals over too long a period of time, sometimes up to three months. It may seem that you need the time to rehearse but the extended period gives the cast a false sense of security. They feel they have plenty of time to learn lines, so spend weeks rehearsing with their script in one hand whilst fumbling with props in the other hand. It is almost impossible to act and learn stage moves without first having learnt the script!
The inflection and timing of each line of dialogue is important, as too is the facial expression and physical reaction of each member of the cast to their counterparts.
As rehearsals progress the backstage departments will start to make an impression on the production. Hopefully some of the set will be available to give the actors a feeling for the space they will be working in. Props and costumes will also help, even if these are only temporary items, until the actual finished versions are available. The directors' responsibility only ends at the dress rehearsals, when the stage manager will run the production as if it were a performance.
Back on stage the director will have to concentrate on making the stage directions in the script feasible on the stage at their disposal. Some scripts will have very few stage directions, so it becomes the directors job to decide who stands, sits, moves when and where. At the same time making sure that the actors can be seen, heard and understood. In fact anything the cast do on stage relies on the directors' ability to move and position them, known as blocking, to give the required effect.
- More about Blocking
Grouping of actors will also help project their character and relationship with other cast members. For example, keeping one member of the cast isolated from the others will give the impression of their remoteness or detachment from the others.
- Examples of Grouping
Working with Props
One of the most difficult tasks to achieve on stage is handling objects. Something as simple as pouring a cup of tea becomes complicated and problematic. The properties people need to make sure that the tea pot and cups are carefully arranged, in the same layout every time, so that the actor can apparently effortlessly pick up the tea pot and pour, whilst remembering dialogue and showing interest in their fellow actors. Even simple everyday tasks can be surprisingly tricky in a stage environment.
It is almost always essential that actors use their upstage hand (i.e. the hand that is furthest away from the audience) if they are making a gesture or picking something up. If they use their downstage hand they stand a good chance of becoming hidden behind their hand or the item, as it is nearer the audience and therefore larger in perspective terms.
copyright Leigh Graham 1997-2010.