7 tips to remember before directing your first play

Professional, nonprofessional, educational, recreational. Doesn’t matter. Directing is not easy. The director is the leader, the visionary, and the person that gets blamed if the final product is garbage (ways to recognize if your show is garbage: 1) people leave at intermission, 2) your dramatic high point gets laughs, 3) it’s described as “cute” or “nice”, 4) your audience tells you it sucks, 5) your mother tells you it sucks, and worst of all 6) your audience has no opinion). Focus and preparation are key. Talent doesn’t hurt.

But remember, all of this preparation and work goes into producing a show that will be performed in front of an audience (size doesn’t matter – an audience is an audience). Give your audience credit. Allow them to do some work, use their imaginations, and think a little. Don’t give it all away. Some of the most important lessons that I’ve learned are listed here – my 7 tips to remember before directing your first play.  And if you stick them, it should be a smooth ride. Good luck.

1)      Casting is 90% of everything.
The right people, in the right roles, will eliminate most of the artistic problems. Look for features in your actors that embody the characters they will play. Do not cast to type – that’s lazy and will lead to shallow performances – but find parallels between the actor and the character. You’re taking this person and basically commissioning him or her to give birth to a brand new human being. Your cast needs to feel as passionately about their individual characters as you do about the entire play. And it’s the director’s job to guide them all through the journey.

2)      Know the script better than you know yourself.
This is your world now. You need to eat, drink, breathe, and sleep the script. When one of your actors (or crew members, or patrons, or your mom) asks you any questions about the play, you need to know the answer. What does this word mean? Why does this happen? What was the playwright’s frame of mind when he wrote this? Should I blah blah blah? Anything. Obsess over the script. Have the answers. Research the historical time period. Know the story like it’s your own life. Know the characters better than you know your closest relatives.

3)      If you don’t have a solid vision right away, no one else will, either.
You’re telling a story. Know the who, what, when, where, and why. But most importantly, know how you’re going to tell it. (Also, see #2)

4)      Consider a rehearsal as a laboratory: hypothesize, experiment, repeat.
Rehearsals are the bubbles where the real magic happens. Rehearsal is where characters are built, relationships are formed, and the stage turns from elevated wooden plank into a living, breathing universe. This is the place to take risks and try everything. Encourage the actors to push themselves and explore the characters and themselves. Tell them to go as far as they feel comfortable going, and that you’ll bring them back if they stray. Respect, comfort, and a creative atmosphere will make rehearsals the most difficult, yet most rewarding of experiences.

5)      There is no “I” in “theater”. There is no “I” in “team”. This is not a coincidence.
Theater is collaboration (even Shakespeare did it). Be easy to work with, listen to everyone, and give praise when it’s deserved. If you want an actor or other member of your team to try something different or go in a different direction, approach the issue with respect. Yes, you’re the leader, but if your team doesn’t respect you, or worse, hates your rotten guts, the show will suffer. You have surrounded yourself with creative, intelligent people – rely on them to help you out. If they share in your vision and they feel motivated to perform and create, they are your best resources – and their age doesn’t matter.

6)      Get off book as quickly as possible. It won’t be pretty.
No matter how experienced your actors are, the first rehearsal off script is scary (and could border on disastrous). Encourage (demand) your actors to begin memorizing their lines immediately upon receiving their scripts. You can’t build character if your actors are still reading. They’re distracted because they’re reading; internalize the character, then build upon it.

7)      Mind the budget.
Sets, costumes, performance royalties, printing costs, theater rentals, rehearsal space, equipment rentals, and other, unforeseen costs. It may be someone else’s responsibility to deal with the money, but your artistic choices need to fit into the budget. This is harder than you may think.

Photo above by Amy Coonan

So we want to write a play: Early lessons from a first-time future playwright

Photo from the super-secret planning meeting.

I’ve written before about the group of young writers and performers that I produce and direct called Paradoja Studios (paradojastudios.com). We’ve created and produced three completely original stage productions, entirely voluntarily, and for a budget of about 75 cents. The previous shows have been a combination of sketch comedy, sketch drama, and short films. As we’ve worked on each show they’ve become more cohesive, thematically, even if they’ve consisted of stand-alone pieces. The brain trust of the group decided that the next logical step is to write a full length play, using inspiration from past material.

The only problem with that? This group has never written a play before – either together or individually. The experience is in writing short pieces – not a full length. So we had a meeting: me, Mike (one of the co-creators and main writer; hear an interview with him here), and four other members, to try and hash things out. This is a work in progress, of course. Playwriting is new to us. So here are some steps that we’ve taken to lay the early groundwork.

To get off the ground, the first thing we had to do was think of a story. A play without a good story (beginning, middle, end, climax, resolution, etc.) isn’t much of a play at all. We weren’t starting from scratch, so we had some idea of the elements that we wanted to include.
Once we had the basic idea of a story – using characters, conflicts, and goals that we’ve already created – we started to look at the characters first and tried to think of ways to stretch out their stories. How do they connect? How do they affect each other? What are their goals?  Well, of course, once we were firm in our protagonist and one or two other main supporting characters, the story started to shift from our original idea.

Now, suddenly, we have multiple story lines, some conflicts, a climactic moment (a turning point for the character), and a great resolution (at least we think so). The only things we don’t have are dialogue, action, stage directions, scenes, acts, a finalized story…
Small things like that.

And if I told you that the length (two hours running time) wasn’t intimidating, I’d be lying.
Regardless of what we have left to do, we still accomplished one of the most important steps of any creative endeavor – starting.

Lessons learned from this first brainstorming workshop:
1. A play needs a solid story that goes somewhere. And don’t forget the importance of a beginning, middle, and end – the story needs a path.
2. A play needs a central character (or characters), with depth and emotion (they are humans, after all), and good supporting characters that affect and influence the protagonist – positively or negatively – and that take the journey with the central character(s).
3. There has to be at least one major central conflict (and many smaller conflicts) – without it, there is no motivation, no catalyst for action, and no resolution. Thus, the journey needn’t happen.

This project is still in the very early stages, but having a basic idea is better than no idea.
I’ll keep you updated as this process continues.

Have you written a play before? Share your experiences and advice with us (we’re all ears…).