Directing live theater can be thrilling, creative and an incredible way to grow your directing skills overall. But of course, it comes with its own challenges. Not every theater is run the same. Ultimately the venue has control over a lot of things that will define your experience and determine how much you can accomplish. What do you do when you’re pushing as hard as you can, and keep hitting a wall?
While for the purposes of this article, I’m talking specifically about my experiences directing live theater, there are more translatable concepts than not. Unfortunately, in whatever medium you’re directing, you’re bound to run into collaborators who make progress more difficult than desired.
Make sure roles are clearly defined. Especially in live theater, (and perhaps indie film), people are generally wearing a lot of hats. This means the potential for roles to get blurry is high. When roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined, action items fall through the cracks. Having multiple conversations with all parties concerned (and getting it in writing) can help mitigate this. Don’t assume other parties will “be professional.” Define professionalism clearly and comprehensively before you sign a contract and follow up with production meetings.
Of course, sometimes this just isn’t possible. Or you thought you had defined roles and responsibilities but the venue isn’t honoring their end. In this case, all you can really do is make sure your communication is clear. CC the entire venue production team on important emails. Many times, internal communication (or lack thereof) is the culprit when things don’t get done.
Confirm everything via email and require confirmations in return. If nothing else, at least you have a written trail to look back on.
Keep a level head. Remember, you’re the one who sets the tone for rehearsals. If you let your frustrations leak into your work in the room, your actors will pick up on it. If you bring tension and a lack of faith into the room, that will be the vibe of rehearsals and actors will lose trust in the process and leadership. It’s an exercise in compartmentalization for sure, but the more you can keep production battles outside the rehearsal room the better.
This includes tech! Tech week is always stressful, and the experience of being trapped in tech while the directors, designers and producers are sniping back and forth is practically coded in actors’ DNA from generational trauma. Do whatever you need to do–get up early for yoga and meditation, bring snacks, take breaks and just find a way to be zen about it. You can be assertive and stand up for yourself without devolving into snippy arguments.
Pick your battles. At the end of the day, you can push as hard as you can and there will still be things outside your control. Fight the battles that are important–the ones that protect cast and crew safety and equity, the ones that affect the heart of the project’s integrity. And accept that you’ll have to let some ideas go. Even as a director, you’re still part of a collaborative team, and the only person you can control is yourself.
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