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