A Brief Guide to Directing at Little Theatre

Choosing Your Play

Choosing a play for your first production can be a difficult task. Should it be a comedy, a drama, or (as many scripts describe themselves) a play. Each choice presents it’s own particular set of problems but you should not let this put you off as there is nothing more satisfying than watching an audience enjoy your triumph at the end of much hard work.

The best place to start looking for scripts is Play Bureau and Playmarket. It is a good idea to ask for several plays of the type you are looking for and reading each one thoroughly to make sure you know what you are reading is for you. When you have made your choice it should be presented to the theatre committee for approval. It is also a good idea to choose a second play in case there are difficulties in casting your first choice.

It should be remembered that there is a cost for this service and it will be paid by Little Theatre but it is important not to hang on to any scripts that you do not wish to produce. Please return them as soon as possible.

Budgeting

Before you start your production the committee will issue you with a suggested budget. The budget will itemise certain amounts for different areas such as publicity, set building, costume etc. You are at liberty, however, to take allotted money from one area and add it to another. For instance you may not need the $2000 which may be allotted to advertising and want to take $500 of that and add it to you costume budget. However you should try to stay within the total budget if at all possible.

Requirements Of The Play

Understanding the requirements of producing a Play. This may seem an obvious statement to make but there is much to think about having selected a play. Do you understand what the author is trying to say? If not you must do some research to find out.

Likewise if there are any elements within the play that you do not understand (for example words of foreign language or some Cockney rhyming slang) then make sure that you know the answers to any questions before you commence auditions.

There is nothing more embarrassing than being asked a question about the script at an audition and having to tell the questioner that you do not know the answer. If it requires speaking in French, say, then learn not only the pronunciation but what the phrase means in English. There is no such thing as too much research when planning a production.

You must also have some idea of how you might stage the production. Many scripts have a plan for staging at the back of the book but this should be used only as a guide. You may have your own ideas completely different from that of the setting shown in the script.

Auditioning

Depending on the complexity of your play you will need from eight to eleven weeks of rehearsal time. Your auditions therefore should be held three to four weeks ahead of your first planned rehearsal. This gives you some time to shop around for actors if you can’t successfully cast the play straight away. It may be necessary to revert to your backup play if things are too difficult at audition time.

An audition notice should be written stating your requirements insofar as the cast is concerned. Each character can be itemised stating age, gender, whether an accent will be required and any special needs you have. State clearly where and when the audition will be held and whether the audition will be an open audition (everybody comes at once and audition together) or closed auditions (each auditioner given a specific time to turn up). The former one is preferred by me as it gives you a chance to set everyone at their case and they, don’t get the feeling that they are alone in their tribulations. On the audition notice and in the advert prepared for the newspapers indicate where an interested party can get hold of a script for perusal purposes.

When each script is handed out you must keep a note of who it has gone to, their address and phone number for when you want to get the script back. This is most important. It can be a nervous time for the people auditioning and you should do your best to put them at their case.
Welcome everyone, tell them your name and perhaps make a joke about you yourself being the nervous one (maybe not such a joke after all). Also tell them about your vision of the play and how you expect things to progress.

You may not need every actor for every rehearsal so have a printed schedule for rehearsals that sets out when you want each character in the early stages of rehearsal.

Have your production secretary prepare audition forms for each auditioner to fill out stating name, phone number and email address, what part or parts they are auditioning for and whether they are prepared to help with the play if they are not offered a part.

There are many ways of running an audition. Generally speaking you will have the actors reading off against each other using the script and you will need to determine from this who you are going to ask to perform for you in your play. There is more to selecting a cast than just taking the good readers. You will need to see if any of the characters spark when working together. If they do then this is a good indication of who you should choose.

Also be aware that several good actors who I have worked with in over twenty years of acting and directing are not good readers but when you get them on the stage they are magnificent. This is something you can only learn with experience.However you can take advice from people who have directed before on the merits of some individuals who have been in their plays previously.

Before you make your selections you should make everyone there aware of your rehearsal schedule and you will need to take note of any problems any individual has with it.If the problems are too great select someone else for the part who can be there at rehearsals most of the time.

Once you have selected you cast, get your production secretary to inform them that they are selected and when they are required for first read through. Also you must inform the people who you haven’t selected. This should all be done within a week of the audition if at all possible.

Recruiting

This is a very important aspect of your pre-production role.

Little Theatre committee should be able to suggest people who can help in the following areas of responsibility but like in all matters to do with your production you need to be comfortable with the choice of your crew and ultimately it is your choice who you take on board.

In most cases you will need:

  • Production Manager
  • Director’s Assistant
  • Stage Manager
  • Prompt
  • Properties Coordinator
  • Costume Coordinator
  • Makeup Coordinator
  • Publicity Coordinator
  • Lighting Designer and Operator
  • Sound Designer and Operator
  • Set Designer
  • Set Builder and crew

The Stage Manager will ultimately take control of your production from the final dress rehearsal to the conclusion of the play. At this stage you will have done your job and it will be time to sit back and hopefully enjoy. However in amateur theatre it is more likely you will want to comment on the production but any communication with the cast or crew should be made through the Stage Manager.

The Production Manager will be your right hand throughout the pre-show period being responsible for keeping a cast and crew list complete with all their and being in contact with the committee on all matters related to the production of the show. You may want a Director’s Assistant (sometimes called a Production Secretary) to help you out during the rehearsals for keeping notes of anything you have indicated during a rehearsal that you want the cast to do, particularly in connection with movement on stage. This will help you focus on watching and directing a rehearsal without the worry of missing anything while your head is down. You may get your Production Manager to do this job for you instead of having a separate person.
You will soon realise the importance of choosing an efficient and organised Production Manager. Generally speaking the Production Manager should be at all rehearsals in order to report back to the committee on the progress.

The Properties person will also be crucial to your production. He/She will be responsible for finding all the properties (props) in the play. This person will read the script from start to finish and create a list of all play properties (personal and otherwise) that will be needed for your production. This will have to be confirmed with you as director as you may decide to change some aspects of the play and therefore you may require a slightly different props list to that listed in the script.
A good props person will provide props early in the rehearsal schedule so that actors can get used to handling them naturally although they may not be exactly the props that will be used in the finished product as sometimes they are hard to get particularly with regard to period pieces, furniture and the like. No properties should be bought when they can be borrowed and with bigger properties, like furniture, a thank you should be printed in the programme.

Once you have got your production team in place to your satisfaction treat them like gold. Always remember they are crucial to the success of your play.

I am a great believer in delegating these responsibilities to the selected personnel and usually go along with suggestions they make with regard to things like set design and costume but always remember that you have the final say in any decision relating to you production.
You should schedule a regular production meeting outside rehearsal hours in order for your team to bring you up to date with what is happening in each head of department’s area.

Rehearsals

If the actor is having too much trouble with his book down and it is causing too much trouble timewise the ask the actor to pick up the script in the meantime. You should, in your preparation have decided what you are asking of the characters in your play. It is the actors job to portray the character but it must be within the parameters you have already established (perhaps in liaison with the actor playing the role).

The actor must be guided into giving you the character that you want which you may not get if you let the actor do it him/herself. It is a good idea to get the actors to establish a history for their own character (ie before and after the present).
Is their character married?, are there any children?, what sort of a job do they do?, where were they born etc and all sorts of things which will help them recreate their character on stage. Spend a rehearsal hour going over these ideas with your actors and see if they concur with the character that you had in mind. If not, can you comprornise and if you can do that then set the actor straight with what you want. It will usually be a compromise.

As you get closer to first night you should see things begin to improve in all, areas. The final element is to get the cueing tight. This means that actors are quick to respond to each other with their lines. There should be no huge pauses in between two characters’ lines as it slow the play tremendously. However a cue need not be a line, it can be a facial expression or a physical movement like a shrug for instance. Still, even if the cue is not a word cue the cueing needs to be tight.

At this point nerves will be showing from actors and director alike and it is important for you to minimise this in your actors even if you are unable to do it for yourself. You should be very demanding of them at this time but you should offset this by having a laugh and a joke with them in the coffee break (if you have a break.)

You should have a fair idea of the length of the play by now and the committee will be anxious to know this in order to arrange front of house personnel. However, if your play is running 2 and a half hours two weeks from opening night then you can guarantee that by the time you open it should be down to 2 and a quarter hours (hopefully through tight cueing and not forgotten lines).
Your stage manager should now have been included. In rehearsals for several weeks.

Wardrobe

Costuming is an interesting and important aspect of theatre and if your costumier does her job they can add so much to your production. You will have to let the Wardrobe Mistress know in which era you have set your play as they may need to research the costumes of the time.

Sometimes directors change the era of a play to suit themselves as with recent productions of Shakespeare which have been brought into the modern era.

They will need to be involved from the outset and will, at times, ask for certain characters to try out costumes for them in rehearsal time. This can often be arranged as not all characters are required on stage at the same time.

The Wardrobe Mistress should always ask for your comments on. how they has dressed your characters to make sure that what they is doing is to your liking. Take time out to discuss things with them, advising what you like about what they has done and tell them what you dislike and how things can be improved.

The Wardrobe Mistress may also have to recruit a team to help her during the show especially if there are quick changes to be performed. You should not expect the actors to have to make their own quick changes as they have enough to think about with their lines.

Publicity

Publicity will be another very important aspect of your job as director. Although the publicity will be handled by your chosen publicity co-ordinator you will still need to approve of any adverts or bill boards being done to advertise your play.

Be aware that many scripts stipulate exactly how they want the play advertised, particularly with reference to the author’s name in relation to the name of the play and the size each one must be. If there are stipulations you may not vary them. It is also important that you stay within the decided budget for advertising because it is an area which can easily blow out if you are not careful.

The person who designs the adverts, billboards and posters will also need this information.

Make Up

Make-up is another area you can usually leave to the experts. If you have an experienced make-up person in charge of your make-up team you should have few problems.

All actors need making up for the stage. In an intimate theatre like Little Theatre, not too much make up is needed but some will always be required. This is because the harsh stage lighting tends to flatten out features and stage make up should enhance those features. Ageing and character make up requires a very experienced person to get it just right.

Many experienced actors will tell you that they prefer to do their own make up and this can be allowed so long as the make up co-ordinator has the final say, in consultation with the director, as to whether the actor has got it right or not. Do not be bullied into accepting anything an experienced actor tells you with regard to his/her own make up.

Sound & Lighting

Two to three half weeks prior to opening night your lighting designer and sound designer should be rigging lights and setting up sounds to your requirements. You will need to schedule at least a couple of technical rehearsals to get this aspect of the play right. During this time the actors should be made aware that the rehearsal time is not for them but purely technical. They will have very bitty rehearsals whilst the technicians get everything to your liking.

Once this is in place all rehearsals from that point on should be in full mode with lights and sound in place. Actors will need a little time to adjust to the new aspects of the show so expect the standard to drop for a rehearsal or two (no more).

Most of the lights you will require are owned by Little Theatre but in the event of you requiring special lights (black lights, strobes etc) they will need to be hired. This should be done in consultation with the committee.

You should note that if you are doing a play in blacks (no box set) then the lighting is likely to be more complex as the lights are needed to generate and separate areas of the stage. This requires a very good lighting designer so make sure you have got the right help.

Sound design usually happens as the rehearsal progress and you start working out what sound effects and music you want where. If you require sound effects and music to be mixed for your show it is a good idea to get a sound designer along to tell him/her what you are after. Poor sound can really let a play down, as can poor lighting.

Depending on the sound and lighting requirements of the play, you may be able to get away with one operator for both light and sound if both have a simple design. For a more complex play then separate operators will be required.

Bar & Front Of House

Bar and Front of House are areas which you will have little impact on. This will be organised by the committee.

However if you have any special requests with regard to the way the F.O.H personnel should be dressed (eg in a period play maybe the front of house people could be dressed in period costume although this tends to be problematical for you costumier), then you should discuss this with the committee. Any special requests of this nature will be considered by the committee and discussed with you.

The front of house coordinator will have to be informed of the approximate time of interval and the time of finale.

Handing Over

You have now reached to the point where you must hand over the running of the show to the Stage Manager and you must trust that person’s integrity to not let your show down. It often happens that you wish to gee up your cast during the run of the play but as stated previously this should be a job for your Stage Manager to do. If you wish to speak directly to your cast you must seek the permission of the Stage Manager first.

Good luck with your production and enjoy your experience. You should by now have learned lots to take with you into your next production.