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Getting Started in Theater

The theater is a time-honored tradition going back to prehistoric times, where acting and dance kept people entertained around campfires on long winter nights. Today, velvet seats, dramatic curtains, lighting, costumes, brilliant writing, and excellent actors all help bring beautiful productions to life. But arguably, no one has so much say over the nature and merit of a production as the director.

Your career as a theater director will likely begin in high school or college. These relatively low-stakes productions (even though it may not feel that way at the time!) help you learn the basics of the trade and give you a taste of what it’s like to be a professional director. From helping actors best express the meaning of a phrase or gesture and placing them in the right position, to ensuring they drill appropriately, the director’s job is vital to every production.

So what exactly does a director do? Well, a lot of things. They typically get to choose the plays (though sometimes that honor may go to an owner or supporter of the theater). They are often directly involved in casting and have a say in how the set is designed and what costumes are used. They also interpret the scripts, deciding, for instance, whether to put a modern or antiquated spin on a Shakespeare piece or how best to interpret a play by an up-and-coming playwright that has no established brand or approach.

They also plan the rehearsals, which can be challenging, especially if the actors are not full-time, but have other jobs or commitments to work around. Lastly, and most importantly, they help the actors realize the play’s intention and spirit, which hopefully (through skilled directing) is transmitted to the audience during live performances.

Learning the craft can be difficult, especially since you’re unlikely to be granted many opportunities to do so until you’ve proven yourself. But don’t be discouraged; the trick lies in practicing your craft and learning from those who will not only impart the skills you need but open doors for you to the rest of your career.

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Improve Your Skills and Become an Expert

Aspiring directors approach a career in this field from many different directions. Some start out gaining experience in school productions or in community theater as crew members, playwrights or actors.  Some will assist during productions as an assistant director to gain experience and contacts in the world of theater. And, although a degree is not necessary, it doesn’t hurt, and can actually help advance a budding director’s technical knowledge, skills, and self-assurance. In fact, preference is sometimes given to applicants who have production and theater experience gained in school. Some employers will also look more closely at applicants who have studied or gained experience in performance theory, theatrical audio, acting, lighting, and design, outside of their degree through internships.

A bachelor’s degree in fine arts or theater provides preparation for further study in theater, but also allows students (usually in their second year) to focus on a concentration, such as directing, playwriting, design, and theater and performance studies.   Besides classes in theater and production, students also learn punctuality, work ethic, how to work in a team environment, and how to deal with the pressure and stress that comes with a career in theater direction, among other vital attributes.  Graduates of a bachelor’s program can find work in television, motion picture studios, theater, and more. Some students may wish to get certified or licensed to teach acting in high schools. Most programs feature coursework in stage production, film, theater history, acting and even music.

Master’s of fine arts programs typically begin with theater production work which allows students to direct a classical play, and offers opportunities for internships with community theater companies. Coursework builds on what was learned in a bachelor’s of fine arts program and includes courses in drama theory, history, literature, and criticism, among others.

It’s time to take that knowledge and transform it into an actual skillset that will land you the job of your dreams. Know, from the outset, that this is a difficult prospect. As stated above, the role of director is a highly coveted one, and you are unlikely to simply walk into it. Instead, you will need to prove your abilities, likely over and over again, before you can safely call directing your lifelong career.

Start by going to the theater. See as many shows as you can, and don’t bother being overly critical; you can learn just as much from a poorly executed performance as you can from one that was brilliantly well done. If ever you have an opportunity to watch a show, take it, always putting yourself in the role of director and asking what you would have done differently. You can augment this practice by reading plays, as well, which gives you a slightly different angle. 

While it might seem difficult, do your best to reach out and meet playwrights and other directors. You can ask to go backstage after a show, for instance. Smaller theaters will likely grant you your request if you are polite. If you can swing a press pass by blogging or writing for a local newspaper, that will heighten your chances considerably. Reach out to playwrights via press contacts or by emailing them directly.

Become known by forming a company of your own or working as an assistant for someone who is already established in the industry. Don’t make the mistake of insisting on being paid; those who refuse to apprentice for free may bar themselves from otherwise fantastic opportunities. Luckily, rehearsals are often in the evenings to work around the schedules of actors. If you can’t get a gig as a director’s assistant, take any other role you can find: lighting, set design or even acting. Any role will give you perspective, which will come in very handy once you do land your dream job.

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Create Demand for Your Services

You might think theater direction is all about the art, but the truth is, there’s a lot of pavement-pounding and hand-shaking involved. If you want to impress the people who matter in your field – actors, playwrights, boosters, other theater directors – you’re going to have to spend a lot of time telling people about your dreams and proving you have the chops to handle the role of director.

Early in your career, you’ll likely need to spend a lot of time collaborating. Forge relationships with other creatives – for instance, budding playwrights who might be willing to give a new director a chance, or small theater companies looking for shows. Over time, you’ll work your way up to the more impressive roles.

As your reputation grows and you’re finding it easier to get work, take the necessary steps to ensure a steady and streamlined workflow. Many directors (and creatives in general) get in trouble when their success outgrows their organizational abilities, but you can avoid this fate by hiring a stage manager or a secretary, and keeping all your to-dos and contacts all in one place. It’s a good idea to hire other professionals as well, such as designers, costumers, and casting directors. While you may be able to oversee all of this at first, your shows will be better and richer if you can delegate. Do so, and you will earn a rightful reputation as a director who understands the heart and soul of theater.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, (BLS) employment for directors is projected to grow nine percent between 2014 and 2024, which is faster than average for all career fields. This positive growth stems from a surge in the motion picture and video industry brought about by strong demand from the public (both foreign and domestic) for more movies and television shows.  The median wage for a professional theater director was just over $68,000 in 2015.  Of course, wages vary greatly depending on your level of education, experience, industry, and geographic location.

Similar occupations include actors, writers and authors, playwrights, multimedia artists and animators, film and video editors, dancers and choreographers, and art directors.

Get to Know Our Experts

Edward Einhorn

  • Title:
    American playwright
  • Company:
    Untitled Theater Company #61
  • Where:
    New York, NY
  • Experience:
    20 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Aristic Director / Founder
  • Company:
    STAR Repertory Theatre
  • Where:
    San Diego, CA
  • Experience:
    50 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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

  • Title:
    Theater & Film Director
  • Company:
    Independent
  • Where:
    Los Angeles, CA
  • Experience:
    13 years in the industry
  • Quick Look Bio

    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.

    Theater Director Infographic