Preparing to direct

Beginning a series on theatre education for high school students…

When you’re the director, you have to do several things before you step foot into the first rehearsal. Otherwise, your leadership may amount to little more than “Okay, actors–go!” and “Okay, actors–stop!”

After you find the script you want to direct, you need to re-read it several times. Each time, have a different focus. Here are four important topics to consider:

1.) You want to define in your mind the purpose of the play. Is it just a simple comedy designed to make people laugh, and that’s it? Is it trying to provoke thought? Does it have a theme you want to emphasize?

The production needs a reason to exist beyond “Well, I felt like directing a play my senior year, so…yeah…I’m doing this one…”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the purpose being harmless entertainment. Not everything needs a deep, complex meaning. If you’re just out to have a great time and share some fun with the audience, that’s plenty of purpose right there.

So that’s the what. Now to start thinking about the how…

2.) You’ll want to focus on developing your ground plan. You don’t have to design the whole set just yet. (However, if you’re a student director doing a one-act, there’s a very good chance you will have to double as set designer…But that can come later.)

With the ground plan, you’re thinking about basic patterns of movement for your actors to follow. The ground plan is a large enough topic for another full post, but the main thing to keep in mind right now is this: Your job, as director, is to direct, and your ground plan is an important tool for guiding your actors. A good ground plan will prevent your cast from wandering around aimlessly as they say their lines.

Think: What are some key props or set pieces that they’ll interact with? What obstacles will you place in their path? Where do actors need to be positioned as entrances and exits are made, and how do you get them there?

Get out some white copy paper and a pencil, and start drawing.

3.) Once you have a rough sketch of your ground plan, then it’s time to break down the script into smaller chunks. Find the scenes within the scenes.

Here, you identify key moments of the story — the most important actions that take place. Basically, you’re thinking, “What MUST my actors do, and when exactly must they do it?” (No shame in changing your mind later, though.)

This leads directly into…

4.) Start blocking the show. Outline all the major movement you want to happen.

You don’t have to plot out every action. The actors have to figure some of that out, too. But you do need to be prepared just in case someone’s feeling lost in rehearsal one day.

Side note: For some, I know it’s inevitable. As you read through the script before auditions, you’re going to feel tempted to cast the roles and imagine specific actors going through the blocking you’re beginning to brainstorm. You probably can’t turn this off entirely, but you can maintain an open mind during auditions. Remember, everyone has to start somewhere. A freshman or sophomore you’ve never met before might surprise you, and he or she might actually be better suited for a role than your good friend you’ve worked with for the past few years. So don’t get too attached to your imaginary cast. They might not all be available anyway.

5.) Make a list of all props, costumes, major set pieces, lighting effects, and sound effects you might need, and start thinking of how you’re going to pull it together.

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All of these points deserve elaboration. But that should give you a general idea of the pre-rehearsal work a director needs to do: Identify your show’s purpose, develop a ground plan, break the script down into smaller scenes, find the key moments, start blocking the show, and brainstorm all the materials you’ll need.

Of course, before you do any of that, make sure you’ve found a script you like.