How to Become an Theater Director

In the theatre world, there are those who seem driven to direct. It often starts at university after having acted in a few productions or perhaps from a pre-requisite directing class. Once bitten by the bug, it is hard to deny the desire to be in charge of the whole enterprise, from where to place the actors to how to incorporate the placement of various effects so as to best convey a playwright’s intention. It is also immensely gratifying to help hone an actor’s performance so that it is as organic and wholly impactful as is possible.

Directors, as the name implies, are usually given the control and authority to allow their vision of great written works to come to life. They often get to choose the plays, the actors and the various creative designers. Directors are not only an integral part of the theatrical creative process, but are often seen as being in the driver’s seat. The director’s many responsibilities include interpreting the chosen script for production, casting actors, working and overseeing all the designers, planning the rehearsals (no small task), and, of course, guiding the actors in their rehearsal work. Directors get to intimately know the characters in the play, collecting as much detail as they can about the various physical and psychological traits of each. This information (and interpretation) is utilized in both the casting process and during the rehearsal process with the chosen actors.

The director’s vision is first fed by his or her detailed analysis of the script to be staged. After quite a few re-readings of the script, the director will begin to develop his or her vision of the playwright’s intention. This is what creates the core of the interpretation, and every director’s vision is different, which is part of the reason why this craft can be so immensely gratifying. This essence of what the play is about and what its message might be is what shapes a director’s take on every aspect of production. A production of a particular play can vary dramatically (no pun intended) from one staging to another.

Directors and actors work together to flesh out the characters being portrayed. Together they explore the characters’ lines so as to develop a profound understanding of motivations and relationships, bringing to life the interpreted subtext of the play. The director goes on to work in rehearsals to incorporate the actors’ performances with the overall production, making smooth the transitions between scenes, ensuring proper rhythm and pacing are achieved and that all the design and technical aspects are successfully integrated into the entirety of the final production.

Once the play opens to the public, the work of the director is usually complete. At this point, a stage manager takes over to ensure that the whole production runs smoothly, and as the director intends, until the final curtain.

Keep in mind that the job itself is not nearly as simple as it may appear and, with the exception of a top-rung professional director opening a major production on Broadway or the West End, not nearly as glamorous nor lucrative as one might hope…

Take a look at this infographic to get an overview of the industry.

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

Edward Einhorn

Untitled Theater Company #61

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  • Edward Einhorn
  • New York, NY
  • 20
  • Untitled Theater Company #61
  • @edwardeinhorn

I received a writing degree from Johns Hopkins and then, right after college, I started my own theater company, Untitled Theater Company #61, and have been running it ever since. I also freelance as a director and work consistently in most of the well known downtown theaters such as La MaMa, HERE, The New Ohio, 3LD Art + Technology Center, and St. Ann’s Warehouse.

There really is no typically average workday for me. Sometimes I write grants all day and then I’m off to rehearse all evening. Often you can find me in the theater all day supervising set construction and talking design or whatever might need my attention. You can also find me frequently at one theater event or another networking. Today, for example, I am on a 6am train to Washington DC for a day that promises to be full of events relating to The Velvet Revolution, the subject of my current opera/theater piece. I am blessed to be doing what I love. It is extraordinarily fulfilling, but it can also be exhausting at times. There is always more to do. And, quite frankly, the pay is terrible. I could be making much more money in almost any other career, but I would not be as fulfilled.

Advice

Be prepared for various roles
The modern director is almost never purely a director. To some extent, lesser or greater, the modern theater director is also a producer and coordinator. The creative aspects are a reward for the grind of grant writing, coordinating logistics, and the never-ending pursuit of future work. If it is no one else’s job, by default, it is yours. College theater is better funded and with better resources than the majority of professional theater. In college you have a built in system of support- Don’t expect to see that again for many years. You have to choose: Do you want to take the path of starting your own theater company or do you want to work from the inside, as part of existing institutions. Having your own theater company allows more freedom, but it comes with a lot of extra work and responsibility. I started my own theater company with the thought that I would transition to institutions. That is not impossible, but it is certainly rare. In the end, I decided that my personality worked best as a sort of entrepreneur, putting together and promoting my own program. Also, I am drawn to the downtown independent theater movement, and in that world almost every director has his or her own small theater company.

Find YOUR program
Good theater programs can be inspiring creatively, but as a practical matter I would examine how many students go on to work professionally. Like many professions, connections are very important. You need to find a program that speaks to you as developing oneself as an artist is exactly what you should be doing. But also look at the practical side. Keep in mind that education does not end at college. Continue to take classes for the same reason: Artistic development and networking. Before you consider grad school, ponder whether the debt will be worth it. If you want to teach, it may be. And if you can attend one of the top 3-4 programs, it may be even more so. But lesser programs may not be the answer.

Getting your foot in the door
First, internships are valuable, if you can manage the time. Pick one that works in the place you might want to live in an area of the theater you would want to work in. Like education, it’s about learning and it’s about networking. Also do learn about technology! It is a good way to get a foot in the door in modern theater. Right now people who know how to program and work video have a major advantage when it comes to paying work.

Scott Kolod

STAR Repertory Theatre

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I started on Broadway in New York as a child actor and eventually received my bachelor’s degree at Indiana University and doctorate degree at University of San Diego. Having started at an early age, I have acted in hundreds of musicals and, as an adult, have also produced hundreds of musicals too. As a director I have helmed just about 100 musicals and have also wrote, produced and directed 3 musicals of my own, including having authored all the music and lyrics. I am vice-president of Arts Off Broadway; creative and vice-president of Broadway Theater Arts Academy and am in a similar leadership position with Plays In The Park. Presently my time and creative energy is wholly absorbed as the chief operating officer of STAR Repertory Theatre. I am also honored as a recipient of many industry and community awards for contributions to theater.I guess if I had to come up with few high points they would be my love of working with kids, actually acting in shows (so much fun), and designing sets. Of course, I have great passion for directing.

Advice

You wont always get a yes
From the standpoint of being an actor, I wish I would have understood as a kid how lucky I was to be performing on Broadway, while also understanding how things can (and will) change. It was a challenge being faced with a reality of not being sought after enough in my later years so as to enjoy that kind of success as an adult as well. As a Director, (this sounds obvious, but it was not to me), I wish I would have known that you cannot please everyone and that it’s OK to say ‘NO’. I believe it is essential that you be super-organized and be prepared ahead of time, well before auditions begin. Again, I want to emphasize that you cannot please everybody, but don’t let that stop you from continuing to try. Make sure to assistant direct a few times with someone you respect before you even direct a show by yourself.

Getting your foot in the door
Go to any theater company, anywhere, (look them up on the internet), and tell them you are willing to help them out in any capacity. They always need helpers!!! As you get to know the people, let them know that you would like to be an assistant director, if the opportunity ever comes up. If you do a good job, you will get more assignments. Be willing to work for free until you build up a large enough
body of work.

Matt Ritchey

Theater & Film Director

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I was interesting in acting and writing in school and took a lot of extracurricular theatre classes from elementary through high school. I went to NYU to be an actor, but was put into Playwright’s Horizon’s Theatre School, which taught every aspect of theatre including directing, dramaturgy, lighting, etc. This opened me up to whole new world. On a summer break in college, I created an acting class in my hometown for high school and college kids where I taught scene study and, ultimately, Shakespeare scenes. (My directing style is very similar to my teaching style) I got a job as an intern at St. Paul’s School’s Advanced Studies Program in Concord, New Hampshire, assistant teaching and co-directing a Shakespeare class and two plays. After moving to Los Angeles, I continued teaching and directing scene work as one of the resident Shakespeare instructors at Theatre West and MMPR Talent Group. I wrote two short films and decided to “wing it” and just get some friends to shoot and act in them. I never entered them into contests, but I’m still pretty happy with them, considering that I had only a vague idea what I was doing!I’ve worked with Mark Travis, a famous director and directing teacher, both as an actor in some shows and helping him to teach his film directing technique. Not only was this fun, but I got to take a brilliant in-depth directing class for free! I started a web series with my pal Mike called Matt and Mike’s Movie Mangle which I co-wrote, directed, acted in, and edited – this was important because it not only gave me the opportunity to work whenever I wanted to, but the idea of creating your own opportunities rather than waiting for a job became prominent for me. I directed and produced a play I wrote called Nevermore in Hollywood in 2011. It was the first truly major production I’d created from scratch and I’m happy to say that almost every night of the six week run was sold out. I directed a few short plays for festivals around Los Angeles, specifically some at the Eclectic Theatre in NoHo. I was fortunate to be in the right place/right time to meet someone at a birthday party who needed a director for the premiere of their Star Trek spoof theatre show. I was interviewed, hit it off great with the company, and was given the gig which went up at the Complex Theatre. Since then I’ve had three shows go up there and had one of the producers call me in to re-direct some things. (It’s good to be on a producer’s radar!) And I recently shot my first major short film, Homeschool Reunion which will be making festival rounds next year. It was a real culmination of everything I’ve learned up to this point in my career!

Advice

Be a team player
Respect everyone. You’ll sometimes be working with a LOT of people and all of them will want to do their job so that it looks, sounds, or feels right. Be supportive, collaborative, and if you have differences, don’t make it dramatic. Drama goes ON the stage, not behind it. (By the way, contrary to some stories, being a likable, fun, and understanding person will actually get you more jobs than being a screaming tyrant with a vision.) MAKE A SCHEDULE EARLY!!! Cast and crew always have different schedules, want different times off, can’t be here for this rehearsal, need to leave early for this…. Get everyone’s conflicts and create a schedule EARLY so there are fewer problems during the rehearsals. (FEWER, not none. There will always be issues.) Take acting classes. Take lighting classes. Work on somebody else’s show as a Stage Manager. Build sets for another show. The director’s job is to take all of these things (and more!) and bring them together into one entertaining whole. The more you understand about everything, the easier it will be to communicate with people from different departments.

On getting a formal education
I come from the school of ‘get a formal education first’ and I certainly believe that it has helped me in many, many ways… But some of the most important things I’ve learned about acting and directing have been on the job or in smaller settings. I would certainly recommend getting SOME training – it’s a hard career and having as much knowledge as possible is HUGELY helpful, especially if it’s down to you and someone with less knowledge or training. But that training doesn’t have to be a four-year college. Extension programs, local classes, those kinds of things are great to start off with and see how you feel about the work and give you some opportunities without causing you to go broke.

Take some extra classes and get started
First, as I mentioned earlier, I recommend taking at least one class, certainly if this is something brand new to you, even just a seminar or a talk. Or, heck, if you saw a show and you really liked it, get in touch with the director and see if you can buy them a coffee and talk for an hour! (I don’t necessarily recommend trying to do this with directors named “Steven Spielberg” or “Danny Boyle.” But then again, why not? More power to you!) Next, the old Nike phrase: “Just Do It.” Find a play/write a play and put it up somewhere. It doesn’t even have to be at a theatre – Direct something in your house and either invite people or film it. Start small – don’t think in terms of needing to know everything, just work with actors on how to bring a story alive. Everything starts there.

Professional organizations he recommends
The Theatre Director’s Guild is the SDC – Society of Directors and Choreographers. Also good to know about is Actor’s Equity, the actors’ union that will have many rules to follow for when you cast your show. Similar to that would be the screen versions of these Unions – The Director’s Guild of America and the Screen Actor’s Guild (now known as SAG-AFTRA). These are not necessarily where I would suggest going first, however. My experience has been that you need to create a body of work first, as nine times out of ten none of these unions will help you find work, especially if your credits are not stellar. Rather than these kids of unions to start off, I suggest doing research and legwork. I have no problem with unions and they’re great when you’ve reached a certain point. But to get there, do some door to door work at your local small theaters-See if community centers would be interested in doing a show, see if you can get involved working with after-school classes and the like.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Theater Director?


Many careers in the arts don’t necessarily require one to obtain an advanced degree, however in the theater arts play direction is one area of focus in which a formal education would be most helpful. The following are a few of some notable schools for theatre and, particularly, for aspiring stage directors:

  • The Conservatory of Theatre Arts in the School of the Arts at Purchase College of New York gives its students an intensive and comprehensive training program in theatre for a limited number of students seeking to pursue a career. This school is known for drawing in top-flight faculty from the ranks of professional theatre.
  • The Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama is the oldest theatre conservatory and the first to offer degrees in drama in America. Founded in 1914, the school combines established practice with innovation, technological advancement and hands-on-training across all disciplines including a highly respected program for directors.
  • Yale School of Drama is a graduate professional conservatory for theatre training in every discipline of the art form, including a focus on direction and dramaturgy. Considered one of the top theatre arts schools in the country, Yale gives its students a great boost toward achieving the goal of working professionally.
  • Emerson College’s Department of Performing Arts is home to a vibrant community of working artists who will help students in developing their creative talents toward a fulfilling career in the theatre. Emerson’s Department of Performing Arts surrounds and supports its students with the very best in professors, visiting artists and staff, with objective of molding them into professional artists
  • Bennington College in Vermont offers students a broad range of courses within the larger drama discipline, including directing, with classes often coming together to create and put on staged collaborative work. This collaboration is said to be essential to the study of drama at Bennington.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

Getting into this business in any capacity can be a painful and arduous endeavor. The catch 22 is that you can’t work the craft of being director without actually doing it. Of course nobody will hire you unless you already have some kind of proven track record. This is why being a self-starter is essential to any person aspiring to become a director. Also, an education at a top-flight university can be very helpful (more on that later.)

The other challenge is the inherent group effort of any theatrical production. It’s not just you, the director, being responsible for the effort. The director needs to attract, inspire and make productive a myriad of support personnel, including actors, lighting and scene designers, costume designers, sound and music providers, etc.

This endeavor is not limited to your creative prowess with actors in the rehearsal room for it extends to being an able and crafty entrepreneur. A director needs to effectively lead a disparate group of professionals around him or her but he or she also must be a master at gathering financial support from often very skeptical and reluctant sources.

Like any of the careers in the arts, it can take some years for a director to become a viable professional in the business. Without great stamina, persistence and a continued sense of optimism, you are likely better off looking elsewhere for your career path.

In addition to a formal education, an aspiring theater director needs to have the drive and desire to be a voracious reader of plays, novels and even screenplays. He or she should devour historical non-fiction, biographies and diaries of interesting characters so as to be fully prepared for the inevitable searching questions the actors will ask during the rehearsal period.

Obviously a theater director should also be an avid attendee of the theatre. All kinds of theatre should be seen- professional and amateur, good and bad. One often learns more by attending a down and dirty production in some black box location than at a fully professional and polished production on a proscenium stage. Seeing the world and experiencing different cultures is also very valuable. It is greatly beneficial to experience theatre as it is practiced in its many traditions and styles around the globe.

Playwrights are considered the main force and source of theatrical creativity. Meet them if you can and certainly read their work. Offer to assist them in developing their scripts by setting up staged readings with actors. In the end, the more you network with playwrights the more likely you might be invited to direct a play they wrote. Of course, (this goes almost without saying), meet actors! Without actors, playwrights and directors are adrift and have no way to bring a vision or story to life. Take acting classes too. A director must genuinely appreciate the process that actors go through in order to be more effective. As already hinted, if you are not working as much as you would like, start your own theater company. Work on raising some money, putting together a group of like-minded artists and then stage shows!

It is also always helpful to work in other areas of the theatre. A good director understands how all the other departments work. Work temporarily on a stage crew or in the lighting department for example. The more general knowledge you acquire the better you will be as a director.