Interviews with NYC's Indie Theatre Directors

What Makes: A Director Good or A Good Director?

What constitutes “good direction?” What makes a person a “good” director?

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As most of you know, I have been interviewing directors for this blog, which means I’ve been thinking and talking about directing a lot lately: what a director does, and what makes someone good at it. So I decided to start a conversation with you, dear reader, about the topic. It will have to be an on-going dialogue, as no one little blog could ever hope to hold all the nuances involved in the art and craft of directing. But, here’s a start, and hopefully you will add your two cents in the comment section so we can continue the conversation!
The job of a director is a difficult one to express in a succinct, yet encompassing, manner. The list of what we ‘do’ is as varied as the individuals who do it, and the production’s that they do. That variety is wonderful – giving us productions that range from naturalistic, text-based, proscenium plays to flash mobs at the local mall. This variety also makes it difficult to compare directors to each other – it’s not “apples to oranges” so much as “cherimoyas to kiwanos” (go ahead, look ’em up, I’ll wait). But why compare directors anyway? We’re all individual artists, right? Well, people DO compare them, and somebody hires them. And everyone wants a “good” one!

So, how can you pick out a “good” director? One of the recurring phrases in the directing world is “the best direction is invisible.” Meaning, the average audience member should walk away from a production talking about the experience as a whole, the message of the story, or the point of the event. If they walk out talking about the creative directing, then perhaps there’s been a heavy hand at the helm. But theatre professionals typically can suss out directorial choices, for good and bad, in even the most subtle productions. I don’t know what others notice, but here’s a few things that I react to:

Director’s Chair

The Opening Beat: I will never forget the opening seconds of BAM’s production of The Cherry Orchard. Lights, music, focus and tension all worked in unison to build a cohesive world right off the bat. I relaxed into the production because that opening beat let me know I was in good hands. Look closely at the first 30 seconds of your production, and start counting 10 seconds before the first cue is called. How do you want your audience to feel during that 30 seconds?

Transitions: Playwrights create each scene. Actors inhabit each scene. But good direction can be spotted in transitions. Blackouts, blue-outs, choreographed scene changes, curtain moves, exits & entrances, sound that travels around the room – what tools are you using to keep your audience engaged between scenes? Many directors don’t use anything at all – a bit of a light fade maybe, reliance on the “button” text to let the audience know a scene is over. Perhaps that works best for your production, but did you REALLY consider it, or did it just end up like that? Plan your transitions!

Sight & Sound: If the audience cannot see or hear an actor, they will check out of the production. And there’s no way for an actor to make this determination for themselves. The director has to be the first “audience” and be on guard for a lack in visual or audible clarity. Move around your house, see and hear the play from lots of different seats.

Pace: More good plays have been ruined by bad pacing than anything else, in my opinion. Too fast, too slow, too many pauses – problems with pace can kill an otherwise good scene. The director is the lynchpin of pace, because it’s a thread that goes through every part of the production. You have to be the conductor and give each character the pace setting that is best for the entire production at each given point.

So, what traits lead to a person being a “good” director? Here’s a few of my thoughts: (and I’m eager to hear yours, leave ’em in the comment section below, please. PLEASE!)

Story Teller’s Chair

A love of story-telling. This is so basic and so critical. If you don’t get a thrill out of connecting with another person through the art of story-telling (however you define it) then you probably won’t enjoy directing. From the time you first encounter a story to closing night, your main goal should be to find the best way possible of sharing that story with an audience.

Compassion: In my opinion, compassion underlies the work of any true artist. Yes, there are angry artists that may not come across as compassionate, but I’d contend that it’s difficult to be angry about something if you don’t care about it at some level.

Empathy: Can you put yourself in another’s shoes? Directors need to step into multiple shoes and connect with many people: you connect to the playwright through their text, the producer through their budget and parameters, the actors through their voices, bodies, heart, mind and soul. Directors connect with designers, marketers, technicians and of course, the most important element, the audience. Can you place yourself in seat G12 and experience the play through that person’s eyes? You have to want to try….

A Love of Puzzles: Directors don’t direct plays, we direct productions. And productions consist of many, many moving elements, and your job is to put them together in the best way possible. But what is “best?” Ah, therein lies the rub – you get to decide. Good puzzles often have several possible solutions, and it’s the saying yes to one and no to others that lies at the heart of the job of the director.

A Theatrical Education: Whether you get it from real-world experience, or through institutional programs, its important to become knowledgeable about the existing world of theatre. Reading critically about what’s come before us, and what’s going on now, as well as going to SEE theatre helps a director to reinforce their own vision as well as broaden their horizons.

A Connection with the ‘Whole’: Directors need to be involved with the totality of a production. Actors can afford to go into great depth with their character, but a director has to be curious about the wider picture. A lighting designer should fight hard for their design choices, but a director has to factor in the impact that the choice has on the production as a whole. Most directors come to their art with a strength in one area, but it’s always beneficial to improve your knowledge in other areas as well: love text? study movement. Adore costumes? play with light. Feel comfy in a proscenium? direct “in the round!”

Ability to be a Leader AND a Manager: All leaders are not necessarily good managers, and few managers have the ability to be good leaders – work to cultivate the best of both. Good managers utilize the strengths of others in support of a common goal; Good leaders create an environment that challenges others to go beyond those strengths. Good leaders give clear vision and conviction to a group; Good managers make sure everyone has all the resources they need to support that vision.

Value and Utilize Others Strengths: Directors may sit at the hub of a production, but it’s the spokes that support the rim so that it can rotate. It is not necessary for a director to know what a leko is, or what grade of plywood is needed to support the weight of 10 pogo dancers, but it is important that a director know the value of a designer as a fellow artist and create an environment that brings forth their best work on the stage. When you can feel as proud of the accomplishments of the others involved in the production as you do of your own work, then you’re on the right track.

Ability to Create Strong Outlines: To me, one of the prime jobs of a director is to create a cohesive production – a production who’s whole is better than it’s parts. Each contribution to a production must be funneled through the same filter, so that each element builds a foundation that is not only strong, but also cohesive.

Well, that’s my list for now. As mentioned, I realize that there’s lots more to say on the topic. I’d love to hear what you think: what traits are to be most valued in a director? what background/training helps to strengthen a director’s skills? Leave me a comment, and I’ll be sure to reply!


3 comments on “What Makes: A Director Good or A Good Director?

  1. Pingback: Let’s Discuss Directing « Theatre Colloquium

  2. Jane Wilson
    January 9, 2017

    That’s very helpful, thanks, Cat. I like what you said about ‘pace’. I think that is really important for a director and makes or breaks a performance. As well as a good 30 seconds start, I think the ending needs some deep creative thought too.
    A couple of other character traits I think are important are patience – not losing your cool and not making people feel put down. And team building – there are so many varieties of character types and learning styles in a cast and the director needs to lead the way in showing acceptance to each cast member and helping everybody feel they are part of a team. I think one rehearsal a week should have 20 – 30 minutes of down time over a cup of tea and cake for the cast to make friends and get to know each other. In the end, I have found a performance goes so much better when the relationships between the team are positive.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I’ve printed them off so I can study them more.

  3. Todd Westervelt
    September 30, 2018

    A good director’s most important behaviors are to, first, pick the actors who are going to mesh and propel the production the way that you want the audience to see and feel it. After that, a good director concentrates not on the actors, but on how he/she wants the story that the writer created to be interpreted by the audience – concentrate on the story, not on the actors.

    Finally, while there are some rare persons who can perform a task better doing it alone rather than in teams, almost all complex efforts are successful because of teamwork. The director is the leader of the team and must keep to budget and timelines, but also must make final artistic decisions. That, however, means trusting the casting process and making sure that there are open lines of communication so that everyone else on the production understands the interpretation that the director has for the audience.

    Don’t be a tyrant. Don’t be a diva. Don’t be a boss. Be a project manager and a lead team player who clearly communicates the interpretation that is desired for the audience, trust your casting instincts, and then getting out of the way as much as possible. If the production is bad, it’s most likely because of a failure of one or more of the factors above.

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