Effective Assistant Directing
Directors Intensive #1
This week, Will Davis and I are running a “Directing Intensive” at the Kennedy Center, as part of the National New Play Network’s MFA Playwrights Workshop. We have been blessed with a marvelous group of people and I am having so much fun talking about craft, theory and practice of directing.
Over the week I hope to use this space to share some of our discussions and continue to explore some of our ideas about new play development and new play directors. The following is my roughly remembered notes with occasional interjections from Will, who prefers to be called “Twinkle Snaps”
Our first topic of discussion was assistant directing. When a director is given an opportunity to assist or observe another director’s process, it is rare that the assistant is given any kind of instruction in how to be a good assistant.
Elements of being a good assistant director:
Have the “HOW SHOULD WE WORK” talk before rehearsal begins
Before the rehearsal process begins, sit down with your director and have a discussion about “how to work together.” Make sure that you’re clear about when and how you two will communicate, when you should share your ideas (some directors prefer that you wait until the end of rehearsal, or to write them in an email, and some prefer to have you speak freely throughout the rehearsal process)
Oftentimes, assistant directors feel like their jobs are to critique the work, and look for things that they would do differently, or be the “Devil’s Advocate” in the room. That’s fine. But a good assistant director should always keep in mind that directing a show, especially a new play is HARD WORK. It’s lonely and difficult, and there’s a lot of pressure on the director to get things right. Make sure that as an assistant, your job is to HELP the director. Try to frame notes to the director in a way that you can be supportive of their ideas and concepts. If what they’re doing is radically different from your conception of the play, then it’s your responsibility to put your ideas on hold and then embrace what the director is doing and try to find ways to improve and help them move the show. This is different from being confused or finding something unclear, that’s a question that you can always ask..but almost always, good assistants should be positive and encouraging forces in the room.
It’s incredibly easy, especially when you aren’t being utilized all the time in rehearsal to drift off, or check out of the room. DON’T. Take notes, hone your eye, listen for rhythm, pacing, whatever, but make sure that every second that you’re in the room that you’re paying attention. Consider it a form of training for your eventual directing career.
For the role of assistant director, your job is to be more organized than the director. Make sure that you always have pencils, pens, paper, and any other note-taking materials on you. Oftentimes, in the pressured time of a rehearsal, a director will say something to you, and you must be able to record it quickly. Furthermore have a bullet-proof system of note-taking that ensure that anytime you get a note or a task, that you’re tracking the page number, the action, the desired change, and that you can make sure whether or not it has been handled.
*** NOTES FROM TWINKLE SNAPS
Sometime you may feel like you don’t have a job in the room. Consider this an opportunity. How might you make yourself indispensable? Look for a way to help.
Be Ten Minutes Early and be Prepared to Stay Late after Rehearsal
The most valuable assistant directors are always there are the time that they’re needed. A punctuality and consistency, and willingness to spend extra time with a director to fix things is often a key to developing a peer relationship with a director. Oftentimes, in the quiet moments before rehearsal starts or after the actors leave, the director will want and need someone to talk to, and go over the plan for the day or to decompress after a rehearsal.
Being an Observer
Sometimes you will be included in a process solely as an observer. If that is the case, there is still a tremendous amount to be learned, simply by being present in the room. And even if a director is keeping an assistant director very busy, the following concepts are incredibly useful for an assistant to keep in mind as they are watching a rehearsal.
What you can learn from observing a director:
How does the director talk to an actor?
What kind of notes do they give? Do they speak about the play’s motivation, do they focus on the rhythm or music of a script, do they obsess over punctation or do they try jump immediately to staging a the show? The notes that a director chooses to give are often point toward their thoughts about a production, and also gives clues to the way that their mind works.
*** A NOTE FROM TWINKLE SNAPS: What is the particular artistic “lens” or “language” a director leads with when they work? How are they seeing the worlds differently or the same as you? Also HOW do they give a note to an actor? How is the culture of the rehearsal room being supported by the manner in which the director gives notes?
How does the director set up the atmosphere of the room?
In rehearsal, the director’s job is foster an environment that is useful for the production. Sometimes that means encouraging lots of free-wheeling discussion, sometimes it means restricting questions from the performers to a narrow aspect of the play to allow a playwright the space to figure things out. Sometimes it means keeping a jolly, joke-filled room, and sometimes it means, recreating a somber quiet environment for reverence, to approach works that shouldn’t be treated lightly. How does a director create that kind of space? How can a director inhabit a room, and change the atmosphere, how can they promote certain conversations or steer less productive conversations away? This skill is vital for a director, and the only way to really learn it is to watch and practice it. It’s the skill is necessary for directing and it relies on an unteachable skills–but perhaps the best way is that Anne Bogart’s quote that “good directors throw good parties.” I’d go so far to ask the question, “Can you make your rehearsals feel like an great party?”
How to Use Time
How do you structure the limited amount of rehearsal time? When is it important to focus on certain aspects of a script? Or when is it important to skip small problems so that you don’t run out of time,and can focus on other bigger problems? When do you communicate the agenda for the day, without over-programming everything, or make sure that you are using the rehearsal time efficiently.
How to talk to a Playwright and Dramaturg?
What kind of questions do you ask a playwright? What questions do you ask the dramaturg? How do you talk about structure, character, and about tempo and pacing? What are the things that you talk to a playwright about in front of the actors and what questions do you save for later?
How to stage a reading
What is the most elegant and appropriate way to convey the ideas of a play? What do you stage, what do you not stage? What conveys meaning, and what do you choose to emphasize in the staging?
A NOTE FROM TWINKLE SNAPS*** what is the ultimate goal of the reading? Who or what purpose is it serving? How can the developmental work in the room be organized in service of those goals.