How to become a theatre director – job role and training routes explained
Theatre directors as responsible for bringing a show to life. Typically they will start out with a script that has been written by a playwright, analyse it carefully and develop a concept for what this particular production of the play will be like.
The key aspects of the concept will be where and when the production is set – for example, if you are directing Romeo and Juliet, will you set it in Renaissance Italy, in Spain in the 1930s at the time of the civil war, in present-day Iraq or on the moon in 2050? A good director will choose a concept that draws out key themes in the play or helps the audience understand it or see why an old play is still relevant today. The director also needs to understand the script really well, and any important background information – for example, if the play is about a soldier in the First World War, you’ll need to research as much as possible about the relevant battles and the life of a soldier at the time.
Working with the creative team before the rehearsal period begins
Before rehearsals start, the director will discuss their ideas with other off-stage members of the creative team. They will work closely with the set designer to come up with a set that fits with the concept, looks good and is practical and affordable, and with the lighting designer and sound designer to discuss lighting and sound that will fit it, help give the feel for time and place and create an appropriate atmosphere. If there are other specialists working on the production, such as composers, video designers, movement directors, choreographers or automation experts (who deal with complex moving machinery), the director will discuss needs with them too.
The director won’t always have creative free reign. For example, they may have been hired onto a production by a producer or theatre that already has a rough idea of what it wants and needs a director to make this happen. The director also needs to work closely with the producer to make sure that their decisions are affordable, practical within the available time, and won’t put the show’s target audience off booking tickets. In terms of casting, the director will usually have a lot of say but on big, commercial productions the producer may insist on having famous actors in leading roles to help attract audiences.
The role of the director in rehearsals
The director will then lead rehearsals with actors, helping them to explore and understand the script and their character, and make choices that are appropriate, dramatically interesting and fit within the director’s overall vision for the play. For example, if a line could be delivered as a threat, a warning or a joke, which would be best within the context of that particular scene? These choices will also affect where, when and how characters move around the stage – deciding on this is known as blocking and usually needs to balance factors such as looking natural, creating interesting images that help tell the story, focusing the audience’s attention in the right place and making sure that all audience members can see what’s happening.
Final rehearsals: directing in the theatre itself
When a production moves from the rehearsal room onto the stage, the director may need to make changes for practical reasons. They will oversee rehearsals on stage with the actual set, the technical rehearsal (which focuses on matters such as sound and lighting cues and scene changes), and the dress rehearsal. Typically the director’s involvement ends once the show has opened to the public and they will move on to their next project, though this does vary.
Who employs theatre directors?
Theatre directors usually work freelance. That is, they are offered work by different theatres and theatre companies on a play-by-play basis, instead of having a permanent job. There are some ‘artistic director’ jobs available for experienced directors, which involve helping to run a theatre or theatre company but may also involve directing plays. Alternatively, some directors run their own theatre companies, especially when they are first starting out.
Working in film and TV is another option for theatre directors – experienced directors may combine this with theatre work, or switch to film and TV entirely.
How to become a theatre director – training courses, assistant director jobs and making your own luck
There’s no clear path to becoming a theatre director and it’s a very competitive job to get into. It can be a bit chicken-and-egg in that you’re unlikely to get hired to direct a professional show unless you have professional directing experience. But there are still steps you can take. The suggestions below work on the assumption that you want to go straight into directing, though you could also consider becoming an actor and moving into directing later in your career.
First steps towards a directing career
- Get involved in drama in any way, regardless of whether you get to direct. Find out about local opportunities to act, help backstage or assist front of house (that is, looking after the audience). Investigate youth theatres, acting classes, amateur drama clubs and ways to get involved in your local professional theatre.
- Read and watch loads of plays and form your own opinions about them.
- Studying subjects such as English, drama or theatre at school, college or university can help you learn more about plays and theatre, though they’re not essential. If you go to university you could study something entirely different but still do lots of student theatre in your free time.
- Direct student shows, student films, school shows, youth shows or amateur drama shows. You won’t be paid and it doesn’t class as professional experience, but it is a very good way to learn and to let you decide whether you’re suited to directing. You’ll probably need to get involved in groups in a non-directing role before you’ll be considered for a chance to take the reins.
- The National Youth Theatre (NYT) offers training opportunities and involvement in shows, both onstage and backstage. It’s open to 14–25 year olds. Shows are directed by professional directors, but you can learn by getting involved in other ways and make contacts for the future. You may also be able to get onto a directing-specific course – for example in summer 2018 NYT ran a writing and directing masterclass for 15–25 year olds.
- The National Youth Music Theatre (NYMT) also offers onstage and backstage opportunities, including the chance to apply to be an assistant director. NYMT is open to 10–23 year olds.
- There are plenty of short courses, one-off workshops and summer schools open to non-professionals, some of which focus specifically on directing. Good starting places for find courses include local theatres, drama schools and the National Operatic and Dramatic Association (NODA), which runs an annual summer school programme (you need to be 18 or over by the first day of your course).
- Masters degrees in directing are university courses aimed at students who’ve already got a university degree (or who have lots of relevant professional experience). There are a few available at UK drama schools and will teach you about how to direct and give you the opportunity put these into practice, for example by working on productions with fellow students. It’s not necessary to take one of these courses to get into directing and they’re unlikely to lead directly to employment, but depending on your skill and experience level to start with you could find them helpful.
Breaking into professional directing
- Starting your own theatre company is a first step for many would-be directors. Consider banding together with any would-be producers, actors, stage managers, set designers, lighting designers or sound designers you know. You’ll need to fund or raise the money you need and might not make any profit, but it will be good experience. Perhaps you’ll put on shows locally, in London pub theatres or at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
- Leading youth drama groups is a good way to get experience, and in some cases you will be paid. Putting on showcases or shows with the group or simply working on scenes with them will get you some directing experience.
- Non-directing theatre jobs won’t teach you how to direct but they will still develop your understanding of how the theatre world works, help show on your CV that you are committed to theatre and earn you some money. They might also help you start making contacts and put you in a better position to hear about any relevant opportunities. Opportunities such as working front of house, admin roles or stage crew tend to be easier to get than others – see careers in theatre for more detail.
- Unpaid assistant director jobs also involve helping a director and may be easier to get than paid opportunities (see below). Basically, write to directors or companies whose work you like and ask if you can come and make yourself useful. If your application catches a director’s eye you may be given the chance to sit and watch and perhaps even share your ideas, though equally you may find yourself running errands. You’ll still need some relevant experience on your CV, to show you’re committed to a directing career.
- Paid assistant director jobs offer the chance to help out on a show. Some last a month or so, and cover the rehearsal period for just one show, though a few last longer – for example, the Donmar Warehouse’s resident assistant director role lasts one year. Be aware that the director will be directing and you will be helping out as required. For example, one of your duties may be to sit and watch performances once the show has opened to the public and the director has moved on, in order to note and feedback to the cast on any problems – such as a scene no longer being played as it was in rehearsal. You’ll need directing experience to get a paid assistant director role, and there will be lots of competition.