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A Question of Directors

A Question of Directors
How hard can it be?
(Theatrecraft - August 1998)

According to my Funk and Wagnalls, the definition of a director of a theatre production is as follows:

"The director makes all artistic or creative decisions as well as being responsible for the harmonious unity of a production. The director interprets the script, selects a cast, rehearses them, decides on scenery, costumes, lights and sound"

If that isn't enough, movement, timing, pacing, visual and aural effects are also all determined by the director. As the director's vision is what the audience finally sees, should this massive responsibility be given to just anyone? Well, I don't think so, but there are obviously some who disagree.

From the time of the ancient Greeks until the 17th Century, the director's job was generally filled by the playwright (imagine how busy Neil Simon or David Williamson would be today!), and from the 17th to the end of the 19th Century directing was the function of the leading actor of a company. Things have changed just a little, but maybe not wholly for the better.

The committee that happily acceded to the first fledging cry of a novice is, in my opinion, looking for trouble, and often finds it in its most heinous form - the bad critique. I'm sure we've all had the bad play experience. The one in which actors employ bad technique (or have none!), or wander around the stage like lost waifs. Maybe their diction isn't clear, or their costuming is inappropriate, or maybe they are just as embarrassed to be there as you are.

The guidance of an experienced or competent director (the two do not always reside in the same body) should be obviously but comfortably woven through the fabric of the play. The director has a tremendous responsibility because the ultimate outcome and integrity of the play reside with him, as does, I believe, the playwright's intent. But perhaps there is something else at stake when a director's cap is handed out to merely appease a whim.

A good reputation and good custom are important factors when talking about the sometimes tenuous life of amateur theatre companies. These elements can be strengthened or lost within the course of one play's run and when they are lost, may take years to rebuild, so why risk it? Yet some amateur groups continue to entrust their reputation to those who are not yet ready to direct.

A lugubrious, sloppy or downright boring play can sometimes be the unfortunate result for the ill-prepared first time director. This impacts both on the theatre group and the individual who believes himself a failure. Choosing directors is not an easy process especially if the choices are limited, but, I think, committees are under an obligation to ensure their chosen director is ready for the task ahead. If there is any doubt, assistance and support, in the form of an Assistant Director perhaps, should be offered. Most successful. amateur groups make a point of choosing their directors wisely. Therein, I'm convinced, lies their success - in part anyway. This doesn't mean that a first time director can't get a Guernsey, because he can. What it does mean is that the first time director will be under closer scrutiny than a known director simply because the successful group is ever mindful of the impact that a poorly lead production may have on their reputation and custom.

Experienced director or not, those seemingly dastardly pitfalls can worry any production (see The Farndale Avenue Housing Estate Townswomen's Guild Dramatic Society Murder Mystery for some of the more humorous ones). While the broken globe, the silent phone or the fallen flat can be attributed to the theatre gremlin, the tired production, filled with unfocused actors cannot. Now, I know it isn't possible for any director to mend all of the ills afflicting the amateur actor, but making a wise choice when casting can save many headaches. The first time director who forgoes appropriate casting in favour of the comfort of friends is well and truly on his way to failure.

Maybe the committee that hasn't researched enough is not all to blame. The inexperienced actor, whose immediate goal is not to gain more stage experience but to direct, should think again. While it is possible for an individual who has never acted, but who understands stagecraft, to be a successful director, it would be almost impossible for the individual whose only experience is a handful of amateur plays.

Committees should also be aware that apart from lacking the necessary experience, first time directors will undoubtedly be lacking that elusive quality - style. Style can be emulated (careful here; what works for someone else may not necessarily work for you), acquired or be a healthy mix of both - but it must also be flexible. While the director that creates order out of chaos through sheer force may challenge one group of actors, another group may require a more passive, patient director. In short, the director who understands the personalities within his cast, and is confident and competent enough to alter his style accordingly, will find that 'harmonious unity' far easier to achieve.

There are, I know, some groups out there who believe in giving everyone a go regardless of experience or outcome. If this is your philosophy then so be it, but for me there is nothing more inspiring than watching the thread that the hand of experience has woven.

For the trivia buff - the concept of the modern director can be traced to the 18th Century English actor-manager David Garrick (1717 - 1779) who was regarded as one of the greatest actors of the British stage. However, George II (1826 - 1914) Duke of the German principality of Saxe-Meiningen is generally referred to as the first director; touring Europe with his theatre company in the 1870's and 80's, he exercised absolute control over all aspects of production!