Scene4 Magazine — International Magazine of Arts and Media
Scene4 Magazine — Nathan Thomas
Nathan Thomas

Jan Skotnicki, a director from Poland, told a group of us a story many years ago when it was exotic for Americans to work with someone from behind the Iron Curtain. Skotnicki had been in Canada working on a project and met a local woman. They became romantically involved. On an afternoon they walked down a lovely thoroughfare together, talking of this and that.  At a point in the conversation the woman asked Jan, “What does a director do?”  Jan said at this moment he realized that it would never work out between him and the woman.

What does a director do in the theatre do?  It can be a challenge for the hardiest of souls to explain fully what a director does.  An actor with any kind of experience at all has probably worked with a variety of directors with a variety of styles.   

Some directors merely point where actors ought to be on stage in correspondence to places in the text – so called “traffic cops.”  Some directors attempt to be latent acting coaches – advising on acting bits without evident care to the whole.  Some directors possess the uncanny ability of eliciting group creativity while also being creative as well.

Somehow the modern theatre has developed into a place where the director seems to be absolutely necessary.  There have been times when I’ve suggested to folks that ultimately a director might be unnecessary to the practice of theatre that I’ve been shouted down in a way that suggested that I’d said awful things about someone’s mother.

What does a director in the theatre do?  I’ve taken courses in directing from teachers I think are good teachers.  I’ve taught directing.  But what did I learn?  What do I teach?

I admit to my students that parts of the director’s work can be taught, a large portion of the work appears to be beyond classroom instruction. Certainly directing should not be approached like a formula for baked goods – assemble the right amount of flour, sugar, eggs, fat, and flavorings and bake at the right temperature.  Voila! The perfect show!

As a director myself, I often feel that I should spend my rehearsal time interfering less and less.  My goal in life is to rehearse a play without uttering a word.

And yet I wind up talking and talking.  As an actor I don’t like a director who talks too much.  So why do I do it as a director?  I’m convinced that the actors need my “wisdom.”

What does a director in the theatre do?

Probably the best explanation I have comes from something said by Skotnicki and something said by Lee Hicks.   

I wasn’t there, but I heard a story about Hicks at a Director’s Forum. The directors were sitting around trying to impress each other with their learned impressions and their theatre “wisdom.”  Hicks generally remained mum.  After a while of directorial jibber-jabber, Hicks got up and went to the coffee station to get a cup of coffee.  He poured a cup and turned around and asked the group, “Did they tell a story?”

Pretty good place to start for theatre.  Tell a story.

So, I try to stay with the basics.  Make a good casting of the show. Know what story you want to tell.  Tell the story.

Sounds easy, yes?

The trouble starts with how modern theatre works outside the upper levels of big regional theatre and big professional theatre.  In the big LORT houses and the big, corporate projects several players can check and balance the director’s power.  Producers, the “money,” a “star,” the Artistic Director can all help provide some balance against a director’s overall authority. Like any system, things tend to work smoothly if power is exercised lightly in a chain of mutual respect and appreciation.

But . . . . .

(You knew there was a “but,” yes?)

For the vast amount of theatre in community theatres, college and university theatres, and smaller (budget-wise) semi-pro and professional theatres – the director serves as dictator.  The director can be a benevolent dictator.  But benevolence changes not the supreme authority of the office.

And what happens when something needs to be done to a show, but the “king” doesn’t realize it?  Who’s to tell the king?   

Not the actors.  The modern actor has been trained to follow the director.  And in some cases, the actor may not see the problem only when it’s too late in the production process to say anything.

Not the designers.  The designers probably aren’t getting paid much to begin with.  It’s not their job to “save” a show.

The stage manager?  The tech staff?  Who? Outside of the big professional projects, there appear to be rare few folks who can help a project past a director’s mistake.

Recently I’ve had the experience of two different plays.  In both instances the directors made assumptions about their plays that didn’t quite work.  In one instance a person on staff was able to make a suggestion that helped the overall ambience of the show.  The other show, however, is troubled by a jumble of differing approaches throughout the plays that render the whole less than satisfying.

What’s to be done?

The vast amount of towns and cities in the U.S.A. don’t have the services of a good critic. Some readers may find this an odd statement.  But a good critic can be very useful to a good theatre company.  A good critic can provide a useful outside eye about the whole work of a company.  Most critics in this writer’s experience barely make for competent reviewers. Given the paucity of resources available to traditional media criticism in a town (i.e., the newspaper), perhaps the ‘net will give rise to a new class of critical work.  But I haven’t seen evidence of it on a local level yet.

Outside of that, one solution continues within the Kennedy American College Theatre Festival system in the region that includes Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, and New Mexico.  Lee Hicks foresaw the trouble in not continuing to develop the talent of college faculty directors.  Consequently he greatly worked to enhance directors’ forums – places where directors could gather and discuss plays they’d directed and seen.

Outside of that.  What can be done?  First, we need to be aware that if we’re going to rely on the director as authority, we need to continue to develop the skills and talents of those directors. There’s no “stopping.”  As a singer continues to take classes, as an actor continues to take workshops – a director needs to continue to training.

What that training might look like will be a discussion for the future.


©2008 Nathan Thomas
©2008 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, is a member of the theatre faculty at Alvernia College and a senior writer and columnist for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives


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july 2008

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