Advice to Yale Directors by Shira Milikowsky ‘03, modified by Eyad Houssami ‘07 and YDC ‘09, ‘13.
After reading this section of the YDC website, it would be wise to plow through all of the preceding topics. Just like the producer, the director gets to do a little bit (and sometimes) a lot of everything. Empower yourself with knowledge and experience in all fields of the theater.
Everyone comes to directing in his or her own way. If you are thinking about directing your first show, you might want to consider assisting an older director for a semester, and then putting up your own work. Many new directors find this to be a helpful introduction into the directing world. Below is a list of helpful hints that will get you started on your way. This list is meant to be a practical guide, not an artistic one, though the two, of course, are never wholly separate in this line of work.
Choosing a Play
Sometimes you decide to try your hand at directing because there’s a particular play you’ve always wanted to do, and that’s amazing. But sometimes, you just want to try directing and you don’t have a play in mind. When looking for a play, I suggest leaving yourself a lot of time and looking everywhere. Ask your friends, your professors, everyone, if they have plays that they particularly love. Look at lists of plays that have won awards. Pull random plays off of the shelves of the arts library. Read a ton and you will eventually find something that you feel you simply have to direct.
It’s possible to do almost any play at Yale, but some are definitely more possible than others. You’ll want to consider things like cast size and technical demands and carefully consider what your resources will be. Once you’ve found a producer, he or she can help you ensure that the show is feasible.
Finding a Producer
Once you have a script that you know you want to direct, you should get a producer as soon as possible. The earlier you start a productive and team-oriented working relationship with your producer, the more efficient and successful your experience will be. Although previous experience as a producer or in other production staff roles is desirable, it is not always necessary as long as she or he is dedicated to the job. Meet early to clarify what you expect from your producer, and ask her what she expects from you. It is imperative to have open lines of communication from the very start (email, texting, phone calls, etc.). You should always feel like you are working with your producer, not against her.
Importantly, limiting your relationship with your producer to logistics and finances can strain the production process. Try to make the producer your partner in artistry as well: place her on the cast list, invite him to rehearsals, ask her for advice, and nourish a relationship between him and the actors. Two heads are better than one, always.
It is important to submit the necessary forms to Yale College Undergraduate Production (UP) so that safety is ensured and Undergraduate Production can provide the show with support. Please fill out a notice of intent to the UP once the decision is made to mount a production.
More important information about forms to fill out and working with the UP can be found here. These forms are primarily the responsibility of the producer, but you should be on top of them as well.
Compiling a Production Staff
You and your producer can work on assembling the rest of the production staff together. The producer’s primary pre-production job is often the compilation of the crew. It helps to sit down together and make a list of all the positions you need to fill, as well as which are most important to this particular production. Some productions need lighting designers but maybe don’t require a complicated set design, etc. Brainstorm three or four possible names for each position, list them in order of preference, and send your producer off to email the first person you have listed for each position. Once the producer emails the potential designer, he/she might respond with a “maybe” answer. At that point a follow-up email from you emphasizing how much you are looking forward to working with her will often clinch the deal. Coffee meetings are good, too.
This division of responsibility (producer-legwork and director-follow up) may not work for you. If you have a particularly striking artistic concept for your show or a personal relationship with a designer, it’s probably best if you email them directly explaining your ideas for the show and why you would especially like her or him to be involved.
There are two main audition seasons. The first is at the very beginning of the fall semester (for shows going up over the course of that semester). The second is at the end of the fall semester, often during reading week (for shows going up during the spring semester). Shows sometimes also hold auditions during October, if they’re going up at the very beginning of the spring semester, or after winter break.
If you have a stage manager already, ask him to sign-up for a space for the auditions, to draft an audition form (the questionnaire the actors fill in when they arrive), and print out copies of sides. People hold auditions anywhere from WLH to the theater studies 220 York building. It’s important to find a room with enough space and a place outside for actors to wait. If you don’t have a stage manager yet, these tasks will fall to you and your producer.
You will want to list your auditions on your show page on YDC as soon as you have scheduled them. That way people can sign up electronically and you can manage your list in real time. It is often helpful to email a group of actors with the information just to encourage them to read for you, but beware of personal emails. Actors often hear that as you-will-definitely-cast-them and it can lead to hurt feelings. Keep these emails professional and make it clear that you are inviting them to audition, not promising a role.
It is up to you if you want anyone with you in auditions. Typically, your producer and stage manager will be in the room with you. It’s always helpful to have another pair of eyes and your stage manager will keep you on track and organized.
All directors run auditions differently. Some ask their actors to bring in pre-prepared monologues, but most provide sides. Sides are sometimes from the play itself or from other material that the director decides will be informative for one reason or another. Typically, audition sides will be monologues (from the beginning of the play if possible) and callback sides will be dialogue (from later in the play).
Be efficient, polite, and respectful. You can usually tell if you want to call the actor back or not within the first minute or two of the audition. No reason to keep her if you’re certain you’re not interested. If you want to see more, give her a few notes and ask her to do the piece again. Always thank the actor and remind them where and when you’ll be posting callbacks.
Directors need to be upfront about pre-casting, because actors can often feel offended and as if their time has been wasted by auditioning for a show in which only one minor role is available. While it is not necessary to post the actors already pre-cast, actors will appreciate the director providing information about which roles are still uncast. Some directors fear that actors won’t audition for a largely pre-cast show, and while some actors have this attitude, most Yalies aren’t divas and will take any role they can get. Furthermore, with all the theater going up on campus, some actors would rather take a small role with less rehearsal time so they can be in multiple productions at once. You will get the best results if you’re honest about what you’re looking for.
Callbacks can also be run in a variety of ways. Some directors prefer group callbacks, some see only monologues or scenes. However you structure your callbacks, make sure to be upfront about the time commitment with the actors and try to be efficient. The most important question to answer in a call-back is not, “is this the best person for the role,” but rather “do I feel like we could get to where the role needs to be.” An actor could come in and blow you away, but when you give him a note, he does the monologue in exactly the same manner. Someone else might come in, give a presentation that doesn’t fit with your ideas, but then takes your note excellently and really begins to get somewhere. If you feel like you actually got some work done in the call-back with the actor, she’s the one for the role. The best callback feels like a short rehearsal.
Always thank your actors for their work, and be clear about where and when you will email the cast list. Make your decisions efficiently, and email the list when you said you will or send out a casting delayed email. Usually, directors call actors who they would like to cast ahead of time to offer them the role. As you surely know, theater at Yale is ABUNDANT. It is very rare that you will have 100% acceptance rate of all the roles you cast. You will often need to switch some actors around, or to cast new people. For this reason, directors usually don’t send out rejection emails until they have a confirmed cast.
Applying for Space and Funding
The next step is applying for both a theatre space and funding. Though outside in the world this step is the most difficult, here at Yale it can actually be the simplest, as long as you put it together efficiently and hand in the proposal on time.
Creative and Performing Arts Awards (CPA Awards) are the most popular way to get funding for shows, and they will provide you with a grant of up to $1200 (with the possibility of $200 extra for rights). Guidelines for applying for a CPA award, as well as the application and deadlines, can be found here. It is recommended to apply as early as possible (students may apply as early as a semester in advance).
When you apply for a CPA Award, you will also be given the opportunity to apply for a theatre space on the same form. A list of theatre spaces on campus, with pictures and information, can be found here on the UP website.
If you are directing a senior project, you might receive a couple of hundred dollars from the theater studies program, but most likely you will still need to apply for CPA Funding.
Other sources of funding, such as from the UOFC (the Undergraduate Organizations Funding Committee), cultural groups, or Melon Fund (for senior projects) may also be used.
Keep in mind that CPA Funding will not cover certain expenses, such as food.
NOTE: Please make sure that your producer checks the UP website on a regular basis to ensure that proper forms (concerning theatre spaces and other matters) are submitted and meetings are scheduled with the UP throughout the production process.
Now that you have chosen a script to direct and have a producer to work with, it is important for the two of you to secure the rights for your production. Guidelines for this essential step can be found at the Yale College Undergraduate Production Website, here.
Production and Design Meetings
Design meetings at the start are usually one-on-one meetings between you and your designer. It is often helpful to have the producer there, if you both desire it. Try to have at least 2 design meetings with each designer before you go into rehearsals, although some designers will need more meetings than others (e.g. the set will have to be done earlier than the lights, for instance). Always start your meetings by discussing process-find out how your designer works best, ask her what she needs from you, and then let her know what you expect from her. Only after you establish basic working rules, begin discussing design ideas. Set deadlines for when preliminary designs will need to be in.
Production meetings are meetings with the entire crew: designers and technicians. It is very important that your producer run these meetings, NOT YOU. After running rehearsals every day, it is tempting to run production meetings, too, but it is not beneficial to anyone, especially you. Take it as a vacation-you finally don’t have to be in charge. Bring snacks or candy, especially to the first meeting, which should take place well before your first rehearsal. ALWAYS BE ON TIME AND NEVER MISS A MEETING, NOT EVEN FOR REHEARSAL. Designers and technicians are oft-abused, and it will end up hurting you if they think you don’t value their work. Remind them regularly that you do, and prove it by being on time for meetings. (If you’re on time for the first few and you’re late later on, you’ll probably be forgiven, but it’s not worth risking it.)
In the production meeting each department will report on their progress, and the producer will lay out what needs to get done by the start of the following meeting. Production meetings should take place weekly, and the time limit of the meeting should be established in advance. No meeting should extend beyond the previously decided time limit. Be sure your producer sends weekly reminders about the meetings that include a list of the upcoming agenda. After the meeting, your producer or stage manager should send an email to everyone with abbreviated minutes reiterating each department’s responsibilities for the upcoming week.
Now you have a cast and a crew and you can start the work. The hardest thing about rehearsals is that they are fun and all-consuming. Try not to lose yourself in rehearsals and slack off on your other production duties. Keep in regular touch with your producer, and be sure to stay updated on your designers’ progress. One of the hardest things about directing is that you need to be there for everyone whenever it is that they need you. Even better, you should be there just before they realize they need you. Keep in regular touch with your designers, ask them how they feel, look over designs, and you will be good to go.
Some people like to schedule rehearsals week-by-week. With your stage manager and actors, decide on one night of the week and include an specific time deadline by which the actors must send the stage manager all of their conflicts for the previous week (using Google Calendar tends to be a good system). At the start of the rehearsal process, the stage manager will compile a schedule of their regular conflicts, but everyone has additional conflicts each week. Once all the conflicts are in, you sit down with your stage manager, and tell him exactly what you want to get done that week. It is his job to figure out how to make it work-NOT YOURS. You will tire yourself out as well as make your stage manager feel inadequate if you try to make your own schedules. Sometimes he will come back to you and tell you it’s impossible, and together you will figure out a Plan B, but always allow him to do his work. Nevertheless, do offer to contribute to this sometime difficult process.
The stage manager is also in charge of drafting contact sheets for the cast and crew and passing them out at the first read-through. It helps to paste these into your script or production notebook so you are sure to have them with you at all times.
The UP Website is a good source for information about rehearsal spaces and how to obtain specific ones.
The Broadway Rehearsal Lofts (at 294 Elm Street) are wonderful spaces, and in very high demand; book early if you want to use them by signing up for slots on the dry erase board there (294 Elm Street, upstairs) on the Sunday before a week begins. You can also contact theater studies for use of their rooms in 220 York Most colleges have multipurpose rooms or dance spaces you can use, and empty classrooms in LC and WLH are also popular places to rehearse. If you’re using LC or WLH, have a way to notify your cast which room you’re in. Security will kick you out of LC and WLH at midnight, so plan accordingly.
It is most likely that one or more of your actors will be working on another show. It is important to handle her or his schedule efficiently as well as to be patient and respectful of your fellow director. Other directors are your colleagues, not your enemies. In general, the rule is that the show which goes up first has priority over the actor’s schedule. In order to keep the airway clear between you and the other director, it is best to let your stage manager handle all conflicts with other shows. At times, however, the directors step in to hash it out. Be respectful, even if it’s difficult, and ask your producer for help!
Tech week is hard. There is no getting around that basic truth. Your actors will be scared, your technicians will be over-worked, and you don’t even know where to begin. Keep your calm. It’s an impossible task, but you simply have to do it. Everyone in that room is looking to you to set the tone, and it is your job to be calm and productive. This is when a good relationship with your producer comes in handy because you pull him or her outside and freak out and then put your calm face back on and step back into the room. Keep in mind that you are the liaison between the different parts of the production, and it is up to you to hold it together at the seams. When opening night comes, you will be rendered irrelevant, so try to enjoy your waning hours of influence.
On the note of irrelevance, tech week is the time during which the greatest transfer of responsibility occurs. Heretofore, the director has commanded 70ish% of control of rehearsal and the stage manager 30%. Tech week marks the time when the producer also begins to directly guide rehearsals. A triumvirate arises. As tech week goes on, the director’s role should diminish more and more, so much so that by Tuesday or Wednesday s/he should sit quietly and take notes, nothing more.
Keep in mind that there will always be glitches in the plan. There will always be unexpected tools missing, unexpected trips to Home Depot required, unexpected everything. It’s really helpful to have a car at your disposal. If neither you nor your producer has one of your own, do your best to borrow one for the whole week, or even for the week before tech which is when you’ll be doing most of the runs for props and supplies (or get a Zipcar).
Before tech starts, you and your producer should sit down with all of your designers and make a schedule for tech. A typical tech week schedule might be as follows. Sunday: load-in and focus. Monday: cue-to-cue. Tuesday: tech run. Wednesday: dress rehearsal. Personally, I encourage you not to do more than one tech run in a night as it is often more draining than productive. Use extra time to work specific moments instead.
Rehearsals during tech week often last from 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. until midnight, with a midnight meeting for production staff members just following the rehearsal. Do NOT keep your actors past midnight; it will only create exhaustion in both them and you, undermine morale, and take away from the productivity of the following evening’s rehearsal.
Food is always helpful during tech. Gummy candy, pizza, soda, and vanilla wafers are personal favorites, and everyone will love you when you bring it. It is also extremely important that all members of your cast and production staff have the opportunity to eat dinner during tech week. No one will be able to do their best work at 11:30 p.m. when they have not eaten since noon. If actors or production staff members do not have time to get food before reporting to rehearsal, ask an assistant stage manager and/or an assistant producer to grab food from the closest dining hall for them (or GHeav, Booktrader, Atticus, Yorkside etc. if money is provided).
Actors During Tech:
Actors are scared during tech. They deserve to be scared-they will be performing soon. As you are focusing on the tech and trying to set cues, fix the costumes, build the stage, remember to check in with the actors and give them positive reinforcement, and thank them for your patience. Remember to put things in perspective for the actors; they’ve had 5 or more weeks of help creating this show, and the techies get 1 week to cram in the same amount of work. Tech week is time for the actors to take responsibility for themselves.
While every director handles things their own way, it’s always nice to check in with cast and crew at the beginning of tech, and be upfront about the fact that it’s a stressful time, and each person need to be considerate of the rest of the cast and crew. Remind everyone that the cast is an ensemble and must support each other, and that the show is nothing without the help of the crew. As director, it is your job to foster a supportive atmosphere that encourages personal responsibility and a collaborative group dynamic.
Every director handles notes differently during tech week. It is of utmost importance that you separate acting notes from tech notes. After the tech run, do the actors’ notes first while the crew cleans up their tables or take ten. That way you can send the actors home and then work on technical notes.
When you give your actors notes (after a full run or even just a run of an act) this is your time to perform for THEM. Be simple and fast, but make it fun. Run through the notes and if they have questions, tell them to come to you after. It’s difficult, but notes should never exceed 30 minutes. If you run out of time, stop and send the rest by email. This can be really tedious for you, but it’s better in the long run. Some directors don’t give notes once the show opens, some choose to give notes but to post them in the dressing room or send them by email, so actors can take them or leave them. It can be really debilitating to sit through 30 minutes of notes after a performance, so posting or emailing can be very effective. It’s also helpful to give notes on the following day before makeup and costumes. If you choose this option, be sure to call actors 20 minutes before makeup call so that they are completely focused on you in addition to their sandwich from Gourmet Heaven. Makeup/costume time is focusing time: do not give notes then.