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The Director's Boot Camp

by Chris Polo

Cool Stuff for Directors

at the Community Theater Green Room Store


trans1.GIF - 49 Bytes A director is responsible for coordinating every aspect of the show. He or she should have the final say-so on lighting, sound, makeup, costumes, and a hundred other things, in addition to telling the actors what to do. If the director has never worked at any of these jobs, it may be tempting to leave the technical side of things up to the experts, the folks backstage who will actually be doing the work. The best directors, however, direct not only the cast, but the crew. They decide when the lighting should change and what it should look like when it does. They see that an actor looks too light or too dark and request a change in the makeup. They ask for the sound to come from stage left or stage right, to crescendo at a certain point and then cut off abruptly or to taper off gently. How do they get so detail-oriented, and how do they know what to ask for? Part of it relates to their vision of the show, but it also comes from an understanding of theater jobs and of what their people and the theater itself can deliver.

Well-Rounded Means Well-Grounded

The best directors have at least some experience at many different kinds of jobs. Fortunately, community theater is a learn-as-you-go enterprise, so there are many, many opportunities to get training. Of course, not everybody is going to excel at every job; you might be tempted to avoid some of the areas for which you really feel you have no aptitude. Do them anyway. In many cases, you can serve a sort of "apprenticeship," that is, you can volunteer to help someone who really knows what they're doing and let them teach you about it without actually being completely responsible for knowing how to do it all. At least you'll learn some of the basics, and that's what's important. If you really want to feel comfortable with one day communicating what you need to a crew of your own, here are the jobs you want to volunteer for and why:

  • Stage Manager or Crew - Working this job will help you understand such things as how long it takes to call a cast member waiting in the green room, whether that fast change can really be accomplished in 15 seconds, or when a cue from the light booth is going to be needed because the crew is working blind behind the set. Working this job also helps a director understand why, once the curtain opens, the stage manager, not the director, is in charge.

  • Lighting Director or Crew - Your theater's lighting system is finite. Unless you know its limitations and capabilities, you won't have a clue as to what you can ask for. Once you've worked a stint in the light booth, you'll know how many lights you've got, where they can be hung, how tightly they can be focused, and what kind of transitions you can expect. You'll learn how to look for dark spots, will know a good wash from a bad one, and will know how many specials you can ask for. And when the lighting director for your show says what you're asking for can't be done, you'll understand why or why not and can work on alternatives.

  • Sound Director or Crew - How extensive is your sound effects library? Can your system produce a tinny sound? (It probably can) A deep rich sound? (Maybe not) Can you have three quick sound cues in a row? As a director, you may need the answers to questions like these. As with lighting, sound also has its limitations. And to help your sound guy establish the sound levels you want to hear from the house, you need to have walked a mile in his headsets.

  • Set Design or Construction Crew -- As a director, you should be prepared to tell the set designer at least something about how you'd like the set to look, and you need to know the basics of how a set is constructed before you can realistically do that. Again, it's a question of learning what you can and can't ask for in your particular theater.

  • Makeup Crew - Spend some time working on the makeup crew, and you'll learn how colors can change under the lights, whether an actor should go with a darker or lighter base, and which actress needs a pinker or redder blush. You'll also become acutely sensitive to actor's ring-around-the-collar, that white space under the ears and continuing around the back of the neck where the actor forgot to use any makeup at all.

  • Costume Crew -- You need to be familiar with your theater's wardrobe department. Are there costumes already on hand that can be altered for your show, or will you need to have some made? Is the outfit your actor is attired in really 1920's or is it more 1950's? Shouldn't that actress be wearing a hat? Directors are often faced with these kinds of questions. The more you know, the better your show will be.

  • Actor - Although most directors come from an acting background, there are some who come into it from the technical side. A director needs to understand how it feels to be up there under the hot lights with everybody watching every move you make. Receiving direction is also the first introduction most of us have to giving direction. Unless you yourself have been on the receiving end, you may tend to underestimate the feelings that actors experience as they're being told what to do. Experiencing it for yourself will increase your own sensitivity.

  • Assistant Director - In many theaters, this is the final step to becoming a director. This allows the director-in-training to work with someone more experienced and to get their feet wet without having to take full responsibility for the show. This is also the point where many find they really don't want to direct, or that they have a lot more to learn. If you've done this job and feel you're ready to direct, ask the director you AD'ed for if he or she also thinks you're ready. If the answer is no, keep on assisting until you get the green light from someone more experienced than yourself.

Know Thy Theater

Every theater is different. There are many different kinds of lighting systems, stages may be small or large, acoustics may be great or awful. Support systems, finances and technical expertise also vary from theater to theater. For this reason, it is best to serve your director's apprenticeship at the same theater you plan to direct with. Our theater, the Kent County Theater Guild in Dover, Delaware, has set up an informal apprenticeship program for those who think they would like to direct. Budding directors are encouraged to both act in our shows and work a variety of backstage jobs with us so they can learn from as many different people as possible. Even those who come to us with extensive experience in other theaters or with formal training still find they have a lot to learn about how a show is done on our stage with our resources, and the value of serving an apprenticeship with our group regardless of how much knowledge they already have has been proven many times over. Because an assistant director may soon be directing on his or her own, our directors choose their AD's from those who are already well-versed in backstage and onstage skills, and work closely with them throughout the production, always with an eye toward making sure that by the time they take the reins themselves, they'll be as well-prepared as possible. The AD positions are therefore considered highly valuable slots, and those who fill them are chosen with care.

Upon completion of that last hurdle, the assistant directorship, the would-be director asks our Board of Trustees for permission to direct and submits a resume or letter listing the skills he or she has acquired in the course of apprenticeship with our theater, as well as any other training they may have. If they also receive satisfactory recommendations from the directors they have AD'ed for, they are then admitted as full-fledged directors. We're a fairly small theater, with approximately 100 paid members, of whom a core group of 20 to 30 very active members handles a majority of the year-round work; this system has allowed us to add many new directors to our stable over the years. The bottom line is you won't have to scramble for directors if you grow your own!

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