How to Become a Theater Director

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Photo Source: Caitlin Watkins

There’s a saying in theater: “Everybody wants to be a director.” Though it’s unclear where exactly this came from, it may have something to do with the illusion that directors spend all day standing in front of the stage or rehearsal room screaming things. If you want to be a director for this reason, you should probably exit out of this guide right now, because directing is not for you. Sure, most directors will admit to having raised their voices contentiously before (OK, perhaps a few times), but directing is about so, so much more than simply controlling others.

Here in the Backstage Guide for How to Become a Theater Director, you’ll find explanations as to what the director actually does on the daily—from the developmental period, to rehearsals, through opening and beyond—as well as where to begin, how to begin, and everything that comes after.

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What does a theater director actually do?

In short, everything. The theater director is the visionary for a production, which is why it so often is called “their” show—because in someone else’s hands, the same material would be something else entirely. We’ll delve much deeper into the director’s tangible duties in the “day-to-day” section, but in the general sense the director helms the production from the onset, through rehearsals, and eventually to the final product. They work closely with the creative team, the technical and design teams, and of course with the actors to make the ideas in their head a reality.

As acclaimed director Kimberly Senior, who helmed Broadway’s “Disgraced,” explains, “I get to take things that were previously in one dimension and put them into three dimensions using my imagination and intellect and people skills.”

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Do I need to go to school to learn how to become a theater director?

Deciding to pursue a higher degree of education, in this or any other field, is entirely personal. As with other fields, no degree in existence guarantees jobs or success. So, how do you know if you need to go to school to become a theater director? The simple answer is, no you do not need to go to school. However, it certainly could help.

If you do decide to go to school, the most viable route to theater director will be a theater major in general. Most bachelor’s degrees will allow for a concentration to be chosen, so when researching schools, look at the many that have direction as a concentration. The other major benefit of going to school is that while there you will almost definitely have opportunities to actually direct, and that is the education that is non-negotiable.

“Do your research,” says Backstage Expert JV Mercanti, as to school selection. “Find a directing program (undergraduate or graduate) where the focus is practical, not just theoretical. For a taste of what directing really entails, Katie Mitchell’s book ‘The Director’s Craft: A Handbook for the Theatre’ is the most practical handbook I’ve read.”

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How do I get started?

As just about every creative person in any field will tell you, you start by starting. If you do have the opportunity to go to school, try your best to direct or associate direct there. And if you don’t go to school, pursue community theater options in your area, or even any nonunion professional productions or companies.

Also, this can’t be said enough: Reach out to the directors you admire. They may not respond—but then again, maybe they will. And if you happen to develop a professional rapport with a working director, they could hire you to be their associate director, which is one of the most effective routes to the directing big leagues. “You must gravitate to the most talented people you know and find some way to get close to them—to work with them, to observe them, to be around them,” Tony-winning director Jack O’Brien tells Backstage. “That’s the finishing school of directing: when you get around people you admire, whose aesthetic matches your own.”

Most important to remember about getting started is that directing is directing, no matter the scale. If no one is hiring you, round up a group of your creative friends and stage a reading of a play, even if it’s in your living room. “I’ve never seen this career as something vertical,” Senior adds. “I’m just as thrilled to work in a basement as I am on Broadway.”

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Who else is on the theater director’s team?

Obviously, the theater director works closely with the actors. But they also helm the entire creative team, every member of which is integral to executing their vision for the production. The primary players are as follows:

  • Playwright: It goes without saying how important the playwright is to a piece of theater, considering they’re the one who wrote the thing. Oftentimes playwrights and directors collaborate with each other on more than one piece; other times, a director is chosen specifically for a given play based on their aesthetic. Either way, the playwright is entrusting the director with their work, and relies on them to interpret it effectively.
  • Book writer: As the playwright is to plays, the book writer is to musicals. They map out the story, write the spoken dialogue, and are essentially the supplier of what the show is actually trying to say and do. Unlike in plays, though, there is almost always the added component of a separate composer for musicals, which brings us to…
  • Composer: The lines can be blurred in musicals. For example, sometimes the composer just writes the music, and the book writer handles lyrics. Other times, one person handles the score all the way through. It is extremely rare—though not unheard of—that one person will write both the book and score (yes, Lin-Manuel Miranda did it for “Hamilton”). No matter what, it is a deeply collaborative relationship between the makers of the material and the director as interpreter of the material.
  • Choreographer: Choreography will generally be more present in musicals than plays (though many plays certainly have it). Regardless, the choreographer and director have to be on the same page for a show, as there’s a fine line between where direction ends and choreography begins. For that reason, it’s not surprising that many directors also double as the choreographer themselves. Many directors and choreographers will become partners of sorts, because a shared language is so valuable in theater. As Tony-winning director Christopher Ashley explains of his long-time choreographer Kelly Devine, “We have built up so much trust that we talk really intensively about the story and the moments before we start, but I really believe when she goes and takes the cast or the ensemble into another room, what she comes out with will be better than what I had imagined.”
  • Stage manager: This is the person who will be on the ground—literally—there to keep the director and the production anchored to reality. The stage manager “will be your second pair of eyeballs, [and] catch all the little things you might overlook or forget when reworking a scene,” says Tim Hedgepeth, co-founder and artistic director of Allegro Stage Company in Texas.
  • Actors: Last but not least, the actor. Communication between the actor and director can sometimes be fraught, as both teams are putting forth something so personal. Try to remember that actors are artists not athletes, and cannot always take instruction without internalization. Communicate, of course, but do so directly and without unnecessary harshness. “A good director understands that the actor needs time to process, try things even if they’re not working, and passionately debate the meaning of a scene if necessary,” says Greg Braun, an actor and Backstage Expert.

 

Who are some well-known theater directors?

There are so many wonderful theater directors who have come to represent the literally countless different ways a show can be helmed—and luckily for you, Backstage has already written about many of them extensively. The two categories of well-known directors are those who are pushing the form forward and working today and those in history who defined it.

For the former, check out the Backstage Guide to the 29 Broadway Power Players Actors Should Know. It includes: Michael Arden, Rachel Chavkin, Sam Gold, Michael Greif, Thomas Kail, Anne Kaufman, Tina Landau, Lila Neugebauer, Harold “Hal” Prince, Leigh Silverman, and Rebecca Taichman.  

For the latter, read up on The 26 Legendary Broadway Composers, Playwrights + Directors Every Actor Should Know, in which you’ll find breakdowns of Bob Fosse, Ivo van Hove, Elia Kazan, Diane Paulus, Harold “Hal” Prince (the only director to make both lists!), Lee Strasberg, Julie Taymor, and George C. Wolfe.

What does a theater director’s day-to-day look like?

How a director will spend the work day depends entirely on where in the production process a given piece is—as well as whether the director is even working on a show at a given time. (As you know, this is an industry where constant work is far from the standard.)

The daily workload also depends greatly on the point at which the director is brought onto the production. For example, if a writer recruits a director during early developmental stages, it’s not unlikely that they will at the very least be consulting on the actual writing of the material. Perhaps they aren’t in the room with the playwright/book writer/composer every day, but checking in and keeping up is to be expected.

The director, more so than anyone else, usually bears most responsibility in the hiring process and rounding out the off-stage team. That means all designers and technical roles (lighting, sound, sets, etc.) will be hired if not directly by the director, then with their blessing. Also in regards to hiring, the director will have a prominent say in casting; it makes all the sense in the world, as the director dictates the story, while actors will be the ones to tell it. Casting, however, is usually a more democratic process than the hiring of other creative positions; the writers will likely have equal involvement.

Once everyone has been hired and rehearsals begin for a production, it’s basically all hands on deck for the director until the thing is up and running (and even thereafter). The director will be there for every rehearsal, every preview performance. They will also be in charge of “notes” at the start of every day, which refers to what they noted the night prior during a preview performance. For professional shows, changes occur (sometimes major ones) until the show is “frozen,” meaning it is set in stone and will not change from that point forward. That usually happens just a few days before officially opening, which means the director may have to re-stage major moments over and over again.

Finally, the show opens and the director can loosen their grasp a bit—unless they want to be heavily involved in understudy put in rehearsals or new cast members joining a long-running production. As you hopefully have figured out by now, this job is for those who deeply love it, and no one else.

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Should I know about other roles in theater?

A director, arguably more than any other person at any level of the production, would benefit from understanding everybody’s role. If the stage is your canvas, every other facet of the production is the various paints, oils, pencils, charcoals, and other materials with which you will fill the piece in. Not only will a breadth of knowledge about every facet of a production help make your job easier, but it will inevitably expand your understanding of what you can actually do with a production. If you know how a lighting designer actually does their job, for example, perhaps you’ll see an opportunity for how to light a particular scene, which you would have had no idea otherwise existed.

Also, just to drive this home once more, you’re not going to achieve the feat of “becoming a theater director” overnight. In fact, you’re probably not going to do it in a single year. If you are serious about doing this with your life, you need to be in it for the very long haul, and your journey will be a slow one. Use the at times painstaking slowness to gather as much information about your craft as you can.

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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