A Guide to Directing
The director on a show is responsible for a wide range of tasks, including (but not limited to) picking the show, coming up with the creative vision, auditioning, rehearsing the cast, acting as one of the welfare contacts for all members of the company, supporting the designers through the design process of the show, and curating all elements of the show as they come together in show week. The role takes a lot of work, commitment and creativity, but it’s also one of the most rewarding roles to do when everything comes together.
Whilst every show needs to be handled differently (depending on venue, text, cast, crew and your own directorial vision), the following steps with hopefully show a little bit of what the process of directing a show in Oxford is like.
(NB: throughout the following when I refer to ‘plays’, I include all forms of staged theatre including dance, musicals and opera, as well as straight plays.)
1. Choosing a Play
This is arguably the most crucial part of the directing process and, if done wrong, can result in a lot of time spent putting on the wrong show. There are two main aspects to consider when choosing a play: practical and creative.
The practical side of choosing a play ultimately boils down to finding a play you can actually put on. Often there’re lots of plays people want to put on, but there are many steps and checkpoints a show needs to pass before you can even consider staging it.
The biggest hurdle is going to be whether the rights are available. Often you can work this out by typing the play title into Google and searching around - you’ll soon find if there are rights you need to get, and where to get them from. (It’s worth noting that plays where it’s been over 70 years since the author’s death are free to put on without rights – this includes all original Greek plays, Shakespeare, Chekhov and so on, but be careful about paying for rights to stage a translation).
A good place to begin looking is Samuel French or, for musicals, MTI.co.uk (make sure you go to the UK site!). These websites will give you a list of shows that these companies hold the rights to, as well as how to apply for these rights.
Other practical things to think about when choosing a show include:
- Budget – can you do this play on the budget you’ll be working with?
- Space – what stage spaces are available to you in Oxford?
- Children – the only shows I know that have been able to bring children into the cast are shows in the Oxford Playhouse, and even then this involves chaperones and DBS checks and so on. It is also usually limited to 1-2 children in a couple of scenes, as you can’t rehearse a young company as intensely as you do students (you might have them for 2-3 hours every Sunday, for example).
- Size of cast – how many company members can you fit in the venue you’re aiming for (think not only about stage space but also dressing room space etc)
Some of the above can be manoeuvred around by creative choices, but they’re worth thinking about as early on as possible.
This is an aspect of choosing a show that took me a very long time to get right and it is really important to think about right at the start. I used to pick shows because they were fun, popular and I’d seen them staged myself. This method of choosing completely failed me when I tried to stage a show that I realised I loved to watch, but I had nothing to say about it myself. Every design meeting I went to I plucked ideas out of thin air without much reasoning behind it – and rehearsals weren’t any better.
Before you even think about putting on a show, get your hands on the script (don’t settle for having watched the film or a bootleg on YouTube), read it all the way through and if your mind isn’t buzzing with creative ideas, either read it again or forget staging it.
What you want is a connection to the piece. A feeling that you, and only you should be putting it on, and that you have a very specific part of the story you want to bring out in your staging. As the director, you’re in charge of picking out certain elements of the story for the audience to see – so the sooner you know what these are, the easier the rest of the process will be. (All of this is particularly true for things like Greek and Shakespeare plays that have been staged many times over, original plays/new writing have slightly more flexibility in terms of original creative vision.)
A good place to start with choosing a play is to either start by looking through websites and recommendations for shows you can put on, or to think about what kind of a show you’d like to stage and then find one to fit that. E.g if you want to stage a show with a strong female focus in the story search around for plays that explore that.
Another thing that I think is important to consider at this stage is your audience and why they should come and see this show, particularly as that will shape your marketing plan and it will almost definitely be a question asked in bid interviews. Some shows are great, but if you don’t think a largely student audience (or any other audience you think you can target) will want to see it, either save that for post-uni times or find a way to make it relevant for that audience.
Finally, as a word of caution, make sure you’re putting on a show that you’ve thoroughly checked has aged well. You don’t want to get to the rehearsal point of a show and realise there’s previously undiscovered racism, sexism and so on in the text that you have to work around. (I think this is more of a thing in musicals than in plays, but just be aware of it!).
2. Getting a production team together
Once you’ve chosen your show and have decided to stage it, the next step is to get a team together to help you stage it. The first person you’ll want on your team (if you don’t already have them) is a producer!
The producer will be the one leading the production team and acting as the practical counterpart to your creative one. You’ll be working with your producer a lot, so it’s a good idea to make sure that whoever you’re working with you a) get on well with and b) does their job (otherwise you’ll be the one picking up the slack!).
If you have contacts in Oxford drama, it’s a good idea to ask around and see if anyone knows anyone looking to produce something (that’s how I found a producer for one of my shows). If not, you can try posting a call on the OUDS and TAFF Facebook pages for a producer, or even email someone from OUDS and they might be able to link you up with someone.
Once you have a producer, the two of you will need to set up a production company (steps on how to do that can be found here)
Then you’ll need to start building up the rest of your production team. This will always start with OUDS and TAFF calls, but as you start building contacts in Oxford drama through multiple shows you might start working with the same people more regularly, reducing the number of roles you need to advertise for in calls. (Whilst working with the same exec crew on multiple shows can be helpful in terms of working with a familiar team, we recommend all assistants are new/brought on to the team via OUDS/TAFF calls for each show to allow for access of opportunities.)
Who you’ll need on your team at this stage will vary depending on where you’re bidding and will be detailed in the bid requirements given to you by the venue you’re bidding for (more info on which can be found on our Venues page)
Once you have a team together, you’ll submit a bid to the venue(s) you’re considering putting your show on in. At this point, it’s good to have a fairly solid idea of what you want the show to look and feel like. This can be changed after the bid and will of course adapt through rehearsals and meetings, but if you can figure out everything you need to know at this point (your preferences for design, characterisations, theming, adaption etc.) it’ll save you from having to figure that all out when you have a cast in the room. It’ll also make your bid a lot stronger if you have previously thought about these things and you can answer questions on them, rather than having to make something up on the spot.
Also as a bit of advice, in almost every bid interview and funding interview you go into, the first question will be asked to you (the directors) and it’ll be something along the lines of ‘why this show’ shortly followed by ‘why that show in this venue’ – so make sure you have two killer answers for those (and if you can't think of any good answers, you need to re-think your show!).
This can be both the most fun and the most tedious part of a show. On the one hand, it’s not too strenuous and you get to meet lots of amazing performers, on the other, you will be in a room doing the same thing for hours on end. For a smaller show you might be able to get all auditions done in a couple of days, but for a Playhouse scale show you’ll probably be looking at a solid 5 days of auditions (you can of course choose to open less audition slots or do group auditions to lower this time but you will be limiting the number of people you see – and as you never know who might be your next leading player, I’d always recommend making room for everyone to audition if they would like to).
Another way of auditioning that we’re just starting to explore due to the pandemic is doing the first round of auditions via video submission. This makes this round a lot easier for so many reasons, including:
- you don’t have to book rooms to hold auditions in;
- no worries about people showing up late and that shifting the timetable for the day;
- auditionees are often less nervous and have the chance to rerecord until they’re happy with their submission;
- you can rewatch the auditions multiple times, which is super helpful if you’re making the callback decision a while after you saw the first audition, as it means you can see everyone fresh and not just make decisions from notes;
- everyone on the audition panel can watch the videos in their own time, around their busy schedules, and then you can find a couple of hours to meet up and make call back decisions, rather than needing a whole week when you’re all free at the same times.
Whilst this way of auditioning was set up because of safety regulations, I think it’s definitely something to consider going forward for all these reasons.
That said, when it comes to callbacks (which you should really do for every role if possible) I’d recommend doing them in person, if regulations allow it. In the first round of auditions you’re looking to see if the auditionee a) has the necessary talent for the show in whatever disciplines you need, and b) has the potential to fit at least one of the characters. However, as they probably won't have shown you a character extract in the first round of auditions (it’s customary to allow the auditionee to pick their own monologue/song in the first round), the callbacks are a chance to see how they fit into the character roles you’re considering them for.
It’s also a good idea to try giving them some direction in the callback. Whether they need it or not, give them adjustment to make second time around so you can see how they respond to direction. If they don’t respond to the way you direct them, they might be tricky to work with them later on (not always – it’s always tricky to decipher everything from a callback, but it’s useful to get an idea of it!). If the auditionee is very good and I can’t think of an adjustment to give them, I like to give them a ‘try this’ scenario in which I ask them to do something really unexpected e.g play this sweet romantic monologue as though you’re a psychopath – it won’t help me see if they’re a better fit for the character, but it’ll show me how comfortable a performer they are, what range they have, and how they respond to direction.
For more info on auditions check out these other pages:
The welfare guidelines should definitely be read, as they state all the protocols you should be following throughout the entire process (including things like audition etiquette etc).
One last pointer I’d give is to always go into auditions with an open mind. Be open to your idea of a character being pushed in a new direction by the way an auditionee presents them, be open to casting against your original thoughts, and be willing to take a chance on someone if your gut is telling them you should cast them.
You’ve got your cast, now onto the fun bit! Like everything else in this guide, rehearsals will vary massively depending on what the show is, when/where it’s on, who’s in the cast etc., but in general it goes like this…
You tend to start most projects with a read through that involves the entire cast coming together to read through the script top to bottom. This is also a nice chance for everyone in the cast (and I suggest you invite the crew as well!) to meet, get to know each other and so on. It’s also a good chance to do admin-y things like hand out scripts (make sure to note down who has which one so you can check them back in at the end – I promise it’ll be worth the effort!), tell the cast when you’d like them to be off-book (= to have learnt their lines by), talk about how the rehearsal process will work and answer any questions anyone might have.
If you’re doing a musical I like to have a week before the readthrough in which there’s a music intensive so everyone learns the music. You’ll of course keep working on the music throughout the rehearsal process, but it allows us to sing through the music in the readthrough, which is a really exciting and fun thing to hear so early in the rehearsal process.
When you move on to more regular rehearsals, everyone will want to do this differently. I tend to work with When2Meets, which are free online spreadsheets you can send to the cast to fill out so you can work to their availability. Generally speaking, you want to be sending these out at least a week before the week they’re about, as it’ll take at least 2-3 days for the cast to fill them in, a day to schedule rehearsals and then 2-3 days after that to find rooms for all those rehearsals, by which point it’ll be the week in question – and trust me you don’t want to be finding a room for a rehearsal on the day of the rehearsal!
On the topic of finding rooms, I like to give this job to my assistant director(s), as it’s just one thing too many for the director to be thinking about. Sometimes the AD will also do the rehearsal schedule but I tend to find it makes more sense for the director to do this as they will know what they want to rehearse and when.
Tips for finding rooms – once you’ve cast the show, create a list of who’s from which college and then contact each person to see if they know of any rooms you can book in their colleges, in case you need to get them to book those in the future. Then you can compile a list of rooms you can try to book and who to go to ask (it’s also a good idea to check how much notice they’ll need to book those rooms e.g does it need to be a week in advance or can you book them on the day?). Generally, if you can book rooms in your own college that makes life a lot easier since, as the director, you’re going to be wanting to arrive at the rehearsal room around 15 minutes before the cast to unlock, set up the room and get ready, and if you’re waiting for a cast member to pick up the keys it eats into your precious rehearsal time.
Also, it’s worth noting things like what size space you need. The Naz Shah in Worcester college is really good for dance rehearsals because of the floor and the mirrors – for musicals that need two 12-hour Saturday and Sunday rehearsals with the full cast for multiple weekends, think about booking those kind of spaces as soon as you have a cast, so you don’t need to worry about finding a space for those critical times when you’re in the chaos of rehearsals.
Note - if you are doing 12-hour rehearsals, as explained in the welfare manifesto, you have to find time to give the performers adequate breaks. Also try to read the room as much as possible. If they’re all having a breakdown by 6pm and you have another 4 hours to go, make the call to give them the night off. It’s better to have an alive, happy cast than ones that are stressed and drowning in work.
On the flip side of that, it’s important to establish the rules of commitment as early as possible (I’d recommend doing this in the readthrough). These might include things like – if you have something on that you want to go to e.g a Union debate, a club night, a formal dinner, you’re allowed to go, but you have to tell the director as soon as you’ve booked it. If a rehearsal has already been scheduled for then and they don’t check with you before booking their other thing, it’s then within your right to tell them they have to come to the rehearsal. It sounds harsh, but if you’re trying to co-ordinate a cast of 20, you can’t afford to have people dropping out of rehearsals every other day because you can’t properly rehearse something if they’re not all there. (Smaller casts have slightly more leeway on this as getting the full company in the same place at the same time isn’t so much of an issue, but it’s still good to set up expectations as early as possible.)
In the Rehearsals
Now for the creative side of rehearsals. This again comes very much from you and what you like to do so I won’t tell you much about how to run a rehearsal or lead a room. That said, if you’re not sure what a rehearsal looks like, I’d recommend ADing with 2-3 directors before you think of putting on your own show. That will give you a chance to see how different directors run rehearsals and might even give you the chance to try it out a bit for yourself (though that will depend on the director you’re working with). Then, when it gets to your chance to direct your own shows, whilst you’ll be figuring out what your directing style is, you’ll have some ideas from previous shows you can fall back on if you’re not sure where to begin.
As always, please also read the welfare guidelines as they have some info on how to run rehearsals in line with welfare advice. One point that’s in there that I think we need to see more of in Oxford drama, is the director as the role model and team leader. You’re in a weird position as the director because on the one hand you’re just a student like everyone else on the team, but there’s also a weird hierarchy in which you’re a bit of a mentor/leader and therefore, you should act as such. This includes everything from looking out for every member in the cast – if there’s a newcomer who doesn’t know anyone in a cast full of old-timers make sure to talk to them, include them in conversations and introduce them to people. You also shouldn’t be talking about people behind their backs, gossiping or being generally rude. You shouldn’t be swearing or shouting at anyone in the rehearsal room – it’s your job to keep a kind, supportive and productive environment in there. Also, if there are any cast activities outside of the rehearsal room e.g pub trips or club nights a) make sure EVERYONE is aware it’s happening and knows they’re invited, b) make sure not all these activities are alcohol-based and c) don’t go to every single one yourself. This might feel counter-intuitive as the leader of the pack, but it’s just as important to show yourself not going as it is to show yourself going, as this will show others in the company that there’s no pressure to join in with these activities – it’s ok to go home, work and rest.
6. Production meetings
Production meetings are check-ins with the whole crew (for smaller productions maybe once every 4 weeks, larger shows might have weekly ones) to see how the show is progressing. Whilst you have to attend all of them, these are organised and chaired by the producer/PM, so you just have to show up and give an update on how rehearsals are going/answer any questions relevant to you throughout the meeting.
Out of production meetings might come smaller design (lighting, set, costume) or creative (choreography, musical direction etc) meetings. You will also have to attend these and you might need to either organise, chair, or bring ideas to. You might also be needed at various marketing meetings, especially if your production is having trailers, filming or photography.
7. Paper tech and Sitz probe
These are two bizarre words that I hadn’t come across until I got involved in my first Oxford drama show, so here’s a quick explanation…
Paper tech is the super long meeting where you (the director), the DSM (Deputy Stage Manager), PM (Production manager), Lighting designer, Sound designer and anyone else (Musical Director (MD) and Choreographer, if it’s a musical) attend. You go through the script from house lights down to house lights up and agree on the exact placement of every lighting and sound cue in the entire show. These may not be too long for short straight plays, but tend to last about 12 hours for full-length musicals (so, start in the morning not late afternoon like we did once – by 4am no one can focus on anything!).
This will be run by the DSM and/or the PM, usually the week before the tech, though again depends on the scale of the show. Don’t worry about having to know how this works, just make sure you can answer questions like where certain actors will be at certain times, what kind of moods, lighting, sound effects and so on you want and when.
The sitz probe is only something you have for musicals and it’s when you get the band and the cast to go through the music together for the first time. This helps double check things like pace and also it is just a really exciting time to hear it all come together. It’s worth choosing a date for this (and your paper tech) as soon as you’ve cast so you can tell everyone they have to be there from day 1, and hopefully you’ll have your full cast there at the end. Also, if you have one, invite your choreographer to the sitz so they can make sure the music is the right speed for the dances as have been choreographed!
8. Tech week
Tech week! Everyone’s favourite and most stressful week of a production. This is when your job as director is going to explode and you’ll be feeling like a bit of an octopus. At this point, I strongly suggest to start using your ADs to the max – everything from standing on stage to test a light placement, warming up the cast whilst you talk to designers, running food runs for you and the rest of the creative team (trust me, for large shows make sure you designate this role to someone or you just won’t eat all week) and filling in for cast when they’re at tutorials and so on. They should know the play inside out so they’re really useful for standing in as well as being an extra pair of hands wherever you need them.
The way a tech week generally works is that you’ll have a get-in that may last from 2 hours to 2 days (depending on venue). You probably won’t be involved in this, as you’ll likely be rehearsing the cast somewhere else, but you might be called in to ‘spike’ (tape) some positions on the stage to indicate where certain things need to go or where lights need to be focused based on blocking.
You’ll then have anywhere from 2 hours to 3 days to tech the show. This is when you get all the cast and most of the crew in the theatre for as long as you can and go through the show ‘cue to cue’ (cue-to-cue refers to the cues the DSM will be calling out throughout the show, every sound or lighting change throughout the show will be signalled by a cue). This part of the tech is often very slow and frustrating for the actors, and chaos for the tech team so it’s really important that you keep your head on and try and keep the atmosphere calm and productive.
Again, techs vary hugely depending on the show and the venue. A 50-minute play in the BT might be tech-able in an hour, but a full-scale musical in the Playhouse will take at least 24 hours to get through, and even then might not be fully teched. As a result, your role will vary massively show to show (another reason for ADing on as many shows as possible – especially if you’re doing an OP show I’d recommend shadowing another director doing it first!). Generally, however, you’ll be bouncing between the cast (making sure they’re ok and working out the blocking on the stage) and sitting with the lighting designer at the lighting desk working out how that all works. If the lighting desk is far away from the stage (e.g Playhouse and O’Reilly) you might need a god mic (most venues will have one) to talk to the cast whilst you’re at the other end of the theatre.
Whilst you’ll be operating like an octopus, the nice things about techs is that for this part of the production, you’re not alone – for all shows you’ll have your producer managing this part of the production and for bigger shows there’ll also be a production manager (PM) who’s specifically in charge of the get-in and tech, so whilst you will have a lot to do, you don’t need to worry about fixing any problems (unless it’s cast related) or managing anything to do with the crew, you just need to help tie together all the creative visions.
The final part of tech week before shows is the dress rehearsal. You and your cast need to treat this as much of a real show as possible to make the most of it. It’s usual to get reviewers and maybe a photographer into the dress to capture the show before an audience sees it, so you want it to look as good as possible!
In my opinion, the shows are the best part of a production as you get to sit back, watch and enjoy. However, until closing night, your work is not yet done.
In terms of show days, you’re in charge of informing the cast when they need to be in the theatre by, and what they need to be doing when (do they come in costume, do they change there, when do they warm up etc). This varies show by show and can generally be worked out by working backwards from the starting time of the show (factoring time when the house opens, warm up, notes, getting dressed etc) and might also be helped out by the stage manager or PM for an OP/O’Reilly show.
You then sit in the audience every night (if possible) and make notes to give to the cast the next day before the following show. If you have lots of notes, it’s a good idea to find all the ones for individuals and send them to the appropriate people the evening of the show so they can read and take them on before coming to the theatre the next day. Then save up all the group ones/more complex notes to give when everyone’s together, and that way you won’t be wasting anyone’s time with hours of notes before every show.
The day after the last show (or the night of in some venues) you’ll have the get-out which is when you take everything out of the theatre and essentially tidy up. You’re not in charge of this, so don’t worry about organising anything, but it’s important you do your part and get stuck in, as well as encourage the cast to do likewise (if it’s been agreed that they’ll help with the get out – this is more common on shows where the get out is immediately after the last show.)
After the last show and the get-out, your job is largely done. There may be a few bits and bobs but the rest of stuff to be done will largely fall into the remit of the producer.
I hope this is helpful as a run down of how directing works in Oxford drama!
If you have any questions feel free to get in touch with me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or any other OUDS committee members, who will be happy to help.