Advice for First Time Directors

Since returning from studying acting in Australia in 2005, I have made a transition from just being an actor to also being a director. Working as a director has been an interesting and valuable experience that has helped inform and improve my work as an actor, as well as giving me an outlet in which I get to define the creative vision of a piece. That said, directing is a strange and difficult beast, and there were a lot of things I wish someone had told me before I got started.

Here are some tips for first-time or beginning directors.

Choose the right material.
A director should choose material set in a world they understand, either directly or through research. If you have time, choosing material to direct that’s set in a world you desperately want to research also helps. Unfortunately directors often have a shortage of time.

A beginning director should choose material with more than two characters; it’s a weird thing, but it’s easier to demonstrate directorial authority and get directorial respect with larger casts rather than smaller ones. Working when it’s just you and two actors can be very claustrophobic and may seem like a good idea for a first-time director, but isn’t. A short place with 3 – 6 characters is ideal.

Choose a piece with movement in it – David Mamet is all very well and fascinating, but many of his pieces boil down to two people in a room arguing; creating visual interest there can be hard for a novice director. Choose a piece that won’t require costumes you can’t acquire to create the world (although visually compelling is an important criteria). Think twice about choosing work you’ve written; being that close to a piece can make it hard to think outside of the box when directing.

Casting is hell.
As nerve-wracking as it may be to be in an audition for five to ten minutes, it is infinitely more exhausting and emotionally draining to spend hours watching people’s auditions and dealing with their hopes, desires and fears. It’s one of the most fascinating (and worst) parts of being a director. And it’s why in most cases a director won’t even come to the early casting sessions of big projects. If you can, spread your auditions out over several days in short time blocks; doing it all at once can be exhausting. Know exactly what you’re going to ask of each actor so that the process can be smooth and consistent. Remember that any actor you hire will have their first impression of you as a director at this audition. It’s important you seem in control. Find someone to attend the casting with you, whether this is a production designer, stage manager or curious friend – you’ll need the help and you’ll need someone to exchanged stunned looks with between auditioners. You think I’m joking, I’m not. In auditioning actors I have seen people so nervous they insisted on doing their monologue with their back to me, people who brought friends who wanted to see a “real New York audition,” and a fellow who constructed a witness box out of several chairs and then proceeded to do a spot on imitation (not acting, mind you) of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. You won’t believe some of what you’ll see if you don’t have someone there to corroborate it. I also suggest devising a system of marks or highlighter use to mark headshots and resumes, making it easier to find the right ones later. I made marks for Yes, No, Maybe and Will Call for Different Production. It made it much easier to sort the headshots later.

Have a team.
On some level every director directs because they have a vision and they want to execute it all themselves. In many cases there are some serious control freak tendencies at work. Regardless of these facts you must learn to delegate, and the sooner you have people to delegate to, the better off you will be. Which means you absolutely positively need a fantastic stage manager. Consider going with a stage manger you’ve worked with before as an actor, or someone that is recommended to you, even through friends of friends. Finding a good stage manager is hard, and you need someone who can deal with you and your neuroses, while also keeping your actors in line, protecting your directorial vision and staying organized. A good stage manager changes everything and a bad one is worse than you can possibly imagine.

Communication, communication, and by the way, COMMUNICATION.
One of the hardest things about being a director is that you have to convey a lot of very fuzzy concepts to a lot of very different people. Take the time to get to know your cast and watch how they communicate with each other both in and out of scene. It will help you later when you’re trying to find the right words to get what you want out of a scene. Truly, the magic of a director isn’t just in artistic vision, but also in being enough of a chameleon to get the right message to the right actor at the right time. I tend to use a lot of pop culture references when talking to my actors about what a scene or character is life – which doesn’t work too well, if I’m all on about the 80s and they’re not old enough to have conscious memories of the decade! I’ve also had analogies to books I thought everyone had read fall flat because everyone but my actors had read them. Your job as a director is to listen and find the key to each actor.

Realize that you’re going to go crazy.
Have you ever heard of a director being sane, functional or calm? No. Sometimes you’re going to be stressed beyond belief. Plan for it. The goal isn’t not to freak out, the goal is to only freak out in appropriate ways at appropriate times (i.e., don’t take it out on your cast).

Choose the right time and place.
Your first outing as a director should be as easy for you as possible, which still isn’t going to be that easy. As much as festivals are extremely chaotic environments where you often have to cede control of things like publicity to those you might think are not as clever as you, they do at least mean you aren’t worried about booking performance space or arranging your own publicity. Additionally, festival audiences have a certain set of expectations based on the reputation of the festival, which gets you off the hook in many, many regards.

Stay focused.
Most actors are chronic multi-taskers, but I must say it’s nearly impossible to deal with the demands of being a director and get much of anything else done. Be prepared for your other commitments to suffer, or try to minimize them in advance.

Don’t be afraid of being the bad guy.
Sometimes a director’s job is ugly. Much ugliness can be handed to the stage manager, who can and should be, the bad cop to your good cop – things like dealing with actor lateness to rehearsal and the like. However, if there’s a serious problem, or you need to replace a cast member, trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to do it. Certain types of problems if left untreated can only get worse.

Being a director is incredibly exciting and as an actor will help improve your own work with directors. But it can also be crazy-making so get enough sleep and good luck!

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