The Director is a Modern Invention

For those who have studied theatre, most of you should have heard the following at some point or another: the director is a modern invention. Before the 1800s, that duty was spread among the actors and possibly playwright.

It is easy to forget, because we (especially we directors) cannot imagine how theatre existed without our sacred expertise.

I have had the opportunity to teach/oversee two devised works by students this year. One was put together in a week, and the other was put together through a class over the course of this semester. We also had a new works festival where three student-written shows were presented in repertory. All of these projects turned out better than I expected, and gave me ample opportunity to look at my own directing techniques and evaluate some possible new directions.

I am not advocating getting rid of the director, but perhaps more directors should look at the valuable learning accomplished without the traditional director.

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In my mind, the number on advantage of no traditional director was the level of involvement and problem solving brought by the ensemble. The week long project looked a little more traditional, with 2-3 dominant personalities largely grabbing the reins. Still, they were all very active. However, it was my theatre of the oppressed class (largely made up of actors with no theatre experience) that really made me step back and look at the merits of a different approach.

Firstly, I made an effort to never tell them what to do. I’d praise them when they did something right, even if 95% of what they were doing was wrong. I’d ask them questions for them to work out at opportune moments. When they asked me to solve their problems, I did not. But I did try to ask more questions to put them on the right track.

I watched students discover theatre like cavemen must have discovered fire. On their own they were actively figuring out how they needed to be seen and heard on stage. Working out issues of making their blocking less static. Finding their character motivations and conflict. They didn’t know the terminology for any of these, but they were working it out. And, this is the most important thing, when they finally figured something out, the lesson stuck.

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I might add that there is no Theatre major or minor at my school (University of Great Falls), but we have a lot of students participating. I have tried to let/make my students be more active in the past, with mixed amounts of success. What I saw in the Theatre of the Oppressed class was that I need more patience.

The progress, at first, was slow. They didn’t know what to do. But we played games, played trust excercises, and I kept making them find their solutions. Like a train slowly building up steam, they were slow by sure, and they were chugging along in high gear at the end, high enough and retaining enough to make up for the earlier “unproductive” time.

Was this easy for me? No, it was not. Every few minutes I wanted to shout out, tell them what to do. And sure, certain moments and scenes could have benefitted by a heavy hand. But I’ve been working with inexperienced actors for a while, and I can safely say that overall, the final project was much better that if I had “directed.”

My next experiment? Taking this a step further on a full, main stage show. I plan to take what I’ve learned. I shedule rehearsals as tightly as I have in the past. However, this time I’m going to present the scene as a puzzle, and tell them what I would like them to solve in the given time. I am going to accept that the first few weeks may not seem productive. Then in the last two weeks, I will use the heavy song on the scenes that would benefit.

We’re about to announce our Fall show, and needless to say, it is not a show I will find easy to sit back and do “less” on. But it is a different type of mental activity watching for the time to ask the perfect question. But I do believe it is the director’s job to create the best show possible and bring the best work out of the actors and designers. I’m eager and nervous to see if these principles still work as I “scale up”.

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