How Do Directors Train?

May 12, 2022

Actors train their bodies and their voices in movement, in physical action, and in scene study.  Playwrights listen, write, practice, and study the skills of writing. Designers draw, make models, draft and they study art history. What do we directors do? What are our “scales?” How do we practice?  Unlike many other areas in the theater where the training is relatively straightforward, the approaches to director training are less obvious. 

While it is true that we must know how to analyze texts and we should study history, literature, politics, science, psychology, music, and visual art, all which enriches our understanding and empathy about how other artists dealt with difficult questions, what must we actively practice, on a daily basis, to develop our directing skills? What are the nuts and bolts, the components, of a director’s toolbox?

The producer and writer Robert Brustein suggested that there are three ingredients required to create successful theater:  1. You must have passion 2. You must have something to say, and 3. You must have technique.

  1. Passion.  There is no way to teach passion except by encouraging and cultivating curiosity and by promoting constant study and learning.  Directors who lack passion will not be able to convince collaborators to work at the top of their abilities, or convince funders to invest, or entice audiences to show up. Directors are entrepreneurs, gathering together all of the surrounding forces and drumming up financial and practical support from skeptical sources.  These skills require real passion and enthusiasm, which cannot be taught, feigned, or faked.
  • Something to say. Directors must develop the ability to make and share observations and points-of-view. These reflections give actors, designers, and playwrights a way to move forwards when the process slows down. Good director training includes regular practice in cultivating points of view and in articulating opinions. 
  • Technique.  In the arts, technique is the conscious use of skill and the creative imagination.  It is the artistry with which elements are united. The word “art” comes from the Latin ars, which is a translation from the Greek techne, which simply means skill. Skill is required to do so many things. Directing techniques and skills are indeed passed down from generation to generation and can be practiced. Techniques are what directors can fall back on. These techniques include visual storytelling and composition, aural arrangements, juxtaposition, montage, musicality, layering, working with levels, making time elastic etc.

But mostly, directors must regularly practice directing. It is impossible to learn the craft of directing without engaging in the act of directing. Only in the heat and crisis of one’s own rehearsal can any real progress happen. And in these rehearsals, problems always arise. And these problems, these obstacles, are the specific training necessary for a theater director. Confronting them will improve skills and promote progress. Guaranteed! After that, the director and their team should put what has been rehearsed in front of an audience in an event fully embodied by actors who are “off book.” The audience can be anyone; friends gathered in an apartment or in a church basement, passersby on an open field, or alternatively, a group of children squeezed into a tiny, intimate space.  Watchers. Listeners. Occasionally it is useful to perform for audiences who truly do not care at all about the intentions of the team. Their responses are sometimes the most useful and instructive in the director’s training process.

Sharing with an audience as often as possible teaches the director about what is effective, what resonates, and what does not. But because directors generally cannot stop a performance to fix mistakes or make changes, the event can cause them acute embarrassment. They may feel like they are in public with their pants are down around their ankles. But this embarrassment is yet another useful tool. Later, when the director goes back into rehearsal for the next project, they return armed with more information about how to direct and the determination to avoid future embarrassment.

Play readings are rarely useful for directing training. Similarly, assistant directing too often falls under the category of avoiding the crisis of one’s own rehearsal.  Techniques are developed through ongoing personal practice within the ever-present constraints of one’s rehearsal which, in turn, heightens the learning process. The constraints are generally spatial and temporal. The restraints of space and time force creativity and innovation. Ongoing practice within challenging circumstances increases flexibility, agility, strength, and endurance on the part of the director. These practices promote better storytelling, a greater sensitivity to harmony and dissonance, differentiation of moments of being, and sensitivity to melody, scale, color, and composition.

Here are skills that directors can develop:

Learn to relish handling high pressure environments.

Learn to make decisions and choices with no guarantee of success.

Be able to juggle diverse psychologies coming from many directions.

Develop a sensitivity to musicality and to the vicissitudes of time and space.

Be able to access fuzzy logic when standard logic breaks down.

Be able to make intuitive leaps in the heat of rehearsal.

Create a good work environment and be responsible for the politics of the room.

Practice attention to detail.

Practice leadership and people skills.

Be able to communicate.

Practice time management.

Use research skills

Practice organization.

Be able to unify disparate points of views and opinions.

Practice multitasking

Develop interpersonal skills

Develop the ability to think critically and analytically.

Learn from what it is that music conductors do – bringing together hundreds of different elements, so that every tiny detail in a production harkens back to one idea, much like voices in harmony. 

Develop the ability to collaborate with others, which includes disagreement.  

Here are some actions for directors to practice regularly:

Find like-minded colleagues.

Meet playwrights and help them to develop their work. 

Meet actors and learn to appreciate the miracle of what it is that they do onstage. 

Develop the ability to play, the capacity for play – playfulness.

Stay motivated.

Learn to relax during moments of adversity.

Pay attention to the world, to art, to how people move together, in groups, in pairs, in threes. Notice how they adjust to others and how they interact. Notice patterns. Observe positive and negative space.

Read as much as possible. Prepare thoroughly and be ready for searching questions from the actors and designers.

Experience as much theater, visual art, literature, and music as possible.

Travel. Find out what theater is in different traditions and cultures.

Practice learning other languages in order to stretch the boundaries of what you think that your “self” is. Make languages a specialty.

These myriad tasks may feel overwhelming, but it is essential to understand that they do not have to happen all at once. I believe in the power and effectiveness of “micro-habits,” a tiny bit of practice repeated every single day.  For example, as a young director, I spent ten minutes each and every day intentionally observing “God’s choreography.”  This practice had a huge effect on my development as a director. Each day I chose a place and a time to be still in order to watch and listen without having any personal desire for something in particular to happen. I would sit, for example, on a park bench to observe passersby or stand inconspicuously outside a restaurant window to watch people sharing meals together. Each day, repeating this practice of watching and listening, I was able to learn from the great laboratory or library of the world around me. From attending to “God’s choreography,” I learned to stage movement, and by paying attention to shapes and repetitive patterns I learned how to incorporate architecture and found objects, and through listening closely, I learned how to layer sound in the context of a production. 

Art is the activity by which a person, having experienced an emotion, intentionally transmits it to others.

(Leo Tolstoy)

Practice is a process of self-creation. But how do we directors not get overwhelmed with the amount of practice, study, and preparation that we must engage in on a daily basis? Perhaps the concept of titration can be useful. In chemistry, titration is a method commonly used to figure out the amount of a chemical solution by breaking it down into small bits. The concept can also be applied to managing strong feelings, thoughts, or memories.  Titration is the act of slowing down and opening up more space and managing the speed of processing. It is the act of taking only a small piece at a time and leaving the rest for later. Titration is moving both towards and away from something at the same time so that the nervous system and the body can process what is occurring and not become overwhelmed.  This allows us to find balance and stay in the present moment in extreme circumstances while managing the vast amount of content and information that must be processed and acted upon.  We slow down and parse and separate. And this practice teaches us precisely how to behave in a rehearsal room.