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Introduction to Theatre Online Course

Dr. Eric W. Trumbull, Professor, Theatre/Speech

Last update: January 4, 2008


The Director:


Objectives for this lesson:

Students will examine:


Directing is still a relatively new phenomenon – late 19th, early 20th century -- and still developing.

Began to become more prominent during the Industrial Age and before (Romanticism).

Now the director is the dominant figure in theatrical production


History of Directing:

Product of Industrial Age and Realism.

Some of the director's functions done earlier by other personnel:

Ancient Greek: The "choregus" (head of the chorus) often directed / coordinated song and movement.
Playwrights probably staged the plays, and probably cast them.
         We know too little to understand if they "unified" the production.
Roman: a wealthy citizen organized, but we still do not know to what extent they "unified."
Medieval: the "master of secrets" – a special effects expert (and there were many special effects in the medieval theatre).
         "Keeper of the register" - the "register" was a master copy of the script – a "guild" (group of craftsmen) could hold on to the register and pass it on from generation to generation.

All were primarily managerial skill, rather than artistic…

With the rise of professional acting companies (during and after Shakespeare’s time (15-1600’s) – came the "actor / manager".

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Molière (Jean Baptiste Poquelin) – a producer, director, writer.

David Garrick – actor/manager of the Drury Lane Theatre in London (from 1747-1776) , which still exists today.

His innovations:

    • No audience members on stage (had been the practice for wealthier, higher status folks to be on stage during the performance).
    • "Natural" style of acting (though to us it would probably still seem stilted).
    • Importance of scene design.
    • Considered a director in his day, but term would not have been used (even today in Great Britain, the term "producer" is used instead…)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (c. 1796-1807) [pronounced Gerrt'-uh]– Weimar Classicism— very strict, distrusted others’ talents.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883) [pronounced Vahg'-ner]-- theorist and composer – wrote operas that were fantastic, mythical, and patriotic– ran the Bayreuth Theatre [pronounced "Bye'-roit"] (1876-1883) (which still exists, run by Wagner’s descendants, and until a few years ago did does nothing but Wagner’s operas).

    • He wanted total control over the production, and focused on illusionistic theatre.
    • An important factor in the development of realism, also, but his operas were not at all realistic
George II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen (1826-1914) -- from 1870-1890, his theatrical troupe toured Europe -- known for unifying the productions.
    • Specialized in historical dramas.
    • Emphasized historical accuracy and realism (particularly in costumes and settings).
    • Emphasized a pictorial style – focus and composition – and was particularly renowned for his crowd scenes and "ensemble."

André Antoine (1858-1943) – Théâtre Libre (Free Theatre), Paris, founded 1886.

Fourth-wall realism—real beef onstage for slaughterhouse.

Otto Brahm (1856-1912) – the Freie Bühne (Free Stage) in Germany.

J.T. Grein (1862-1935) -- Independent Theatre, London.

Constantin Stanislavsky (1863-1938) – Moscow Art Theatre, 1898. With Vladimir Nemerovich-Danchenko (1858-1943) as co-founder.

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Edward Gordon Craig – after 1020 – a designer – wanted "uber-marionettes" – so that he could control variables and unpredictability of actors – never realized.

Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940)– a dictatorial style.

THUS – by 1900, the term "director" was in wide-spread use and the primacy of director became clear – directors placed themselves at the center of production…

David Belasco – American producer and playwright also.

Did popular plays – sensory spectacle (real food) – an eclectic approach – he used all approaches.

Max Reinhart (1873-1943)– German – authoritarian, eclectic.

Tyrone Guthrie (1900-1971)– Canadian – eclectic – in 1956 did Troilus updated to be set in England just before WWI.

Elia Kazan (1909- ) – Group Theatre in the 30s – mentor, critic, therapist of actor – used Stanislavsky’s "inner" "psychological realism" – Streetcar, Salesman. (New controversy regarding his 1999 Oscar for lifetime achievement because he named names to HUAC.)

After World War II, the term "auteur director" developed.

New eclectics – Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999), Peter Brook, Richard Schechner

No real theories yet about these new directors or the changing face of director in modern theatre.

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The Modern Theatre Director:

Functions: Artistic and Managerial

  • Decides on interpretation of script
  • Casts actors
  • Works with other theatre artists in designing the production
  • Rehearses actors
  • Coordinates all elements into a finished performance

A new question has developed: should directors be "interpretive" rather than "creative" artists? To interpret the script or fashion their own work of art, using the script as a basis?


value: ability to focus the production

danger: concept may distort script or diffuse attention (many think Peter Brook is this last kind…)

Still evolving…

Director’s skills:


In the past, a manager or theatre owner organized everything, but not really "artistic" unity.

Greek and Medieval – a businessman or civic or religious leader – goal was efficiency, not artistic unity…


  • Human relations – with designers, actors, etc.
  • Decision-making – with a willingness to change.
  • Professional – business manager, publicity director, etc., to all who do individual jobs.
  • Non-professional – director often does it all.

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Artistic Functions

  1. Script selection
  • Professional directors either approve of scripts or are "matched"—by the producer(s).
  • But most try to do the things they like best.
  • Non-professionals – do what they like, usually – doing what they dislike might ruin the production.
  • Idea and spectacle are the most common elements to excite directors.
  • Must learn to know what you do best, and improve on others – choose plays you can do well…
  • The "master metaphor" – or   "directorial concept" – a concept or directorial image –  To sort out the random ideas into a pattern of sorts – draw connections, give theatrical life to those that seem possible.
  • Concept implies rational and thoughtful.
  • Image implies picturemaking.
  • Perhaps a combination of both, depending on director, is best.
  • Wilson, in The Theatre Experience, 6th edition, 138, suggests using the following as ideas/ jumping-off points:
  •    Period
  •    Central / controlling image / metaphor
  •    Concept / purpose:
    • Alan Schneider called it the "directional conception."
    • Zelda Fichandler of the Arena Stage refers to the Russian term, "zamissel," or pervading thought.
  •    (Example: Oedipus  as a mystery--- perhaps?)
  • Harold Clurman (1901-1980) – critic and director – look for the "spine" of the play – the "throughline" -- the "main action" -- a general action that "motivates the play" – the fundamental drama or conflict.
  • Stanislavsky referred to the superobjective.


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  1. Analysis of the script—to help director "understand" the play – to make director’s consciousness capable of staging the play.

a. Depends on your point of view about directing:

(This following is from Cameron and Gillespie):
The worshipful vs. heretical approach to the script:

On a continuum

-- Worshipful approach:

Director’s job is NOT to create theatre, but to cause the script / play to create exciting theatre.

Can become boring and empty (letting the text do the work), or it can thrill us with the brilliance of getting the text’s strong points across.

-- Heretical approach:

Director’s job is to interpret the text in order to make a theatrical entity of the entire production for the audience.

--to make good theatre exciting.

--director’s responsibility is to the MEANING of the performance, of which the script is only a part.

Historical precedent: classic plays becoming opera,

"Bowdlerizing" (or click here) a play -- refers to deleting or changing parts of a script, removing socially "unacceptable" or sexually "offensive" parts of the script (from Thomas Bowdler, who published the "Family Shakespeare," with sexual innuendo and reference left out, and turning sad endings into happy ones).

Can lead to offensive or meaningless productions, or innovative and truly exciting ones.


Analysis and interpretation of the script would also include.

b. The pattern of the play – its major elements -- structure.

  • How do the characters function in the play?
  • What are the demands on the actor?
  • What are the technical demands / requirements? -- sound, lights, costume, sets?
  • The context of the play (often this is a factor)
  • Biography of the playwright’s life
  • Playwright’s canon of work (other stuff)
  • Period play written
  • Period play takes place
  • Critical response to play and earlier productions
  • Old plays are often updated, new plays often need a different combination of techniques.

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  • Tone and impact of the play
    • The play’s intended effects – director’s ideas can be placed on them.
    • Relative importance of elements
    • Which elements are the most important?
    • Pick elements that the script gives theatrical life to.
    • Spectacle and sound can be most clearly manipulated – can add to play.
    • Character, idea, story usually integral to the play itself.
    • Director interprets and helps actors achieve characterization clearly.
    • If a play of poetic language, must pay attention to.
    • If play of character directed as play of plot, has long stretches where nothing seems to be happening, boring (Three Sisters).


        • Where in the play are the highs and lows of each?
        • How to give theatrical excitement to each?


    Environment of play:

      "Given circumstances" – what are the necessary elements?

      Updating – can often make a strong statement or clarify an idea (Julius Caesar in Nazi Germany, Hamlet  in Nicaragua, As You Like It  in 60’s commune [I was in this one!]).

      Mood of environment is also important )rain, warm summer, hurricane, tension).

    1. Idea – paradoxical

While the idea may appeal to directors at first, other values need to be gotten across.

Seldom are plays written "about an idea."

Other elements shape the production – (Cameron &Gillespie: "idea blatant in none, but subtle in all.").

Idea needs to be embedded in entire performance – when stands out, can ruin performance.


  1. Design oversight and inspiration:


    • Production meetings
    • To coordinate – managerial efficiency
    • Concept meetings
    • To coordinate artistic elements
    • Director helps to get ideas across to designers, without restricting with interpretations.
    • (H, P, &L, 237: Hal Prince, very famous director / producer, said: The worst thing that can happen is to get back from artists exactly what you ask for."
    • Director brings all different interpretations of different designers into a single focus.
    • Unity and Variety – variety within unity sought.


    Ground Plan – we'll discuss under the heading of Design.

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  1. Coach Actors


  • Stanislavsky’s influence has led to collaboration between director and actors.
  • That can lead to dependency.
  • Actors and directors should be aware not to let actor be too controlled.
  • Collaboration – coaching.
  • Advises, inspires, encourages.
  • Helps actor see other dimensions.
  • Both actor and director are engaged in mutual creative enterprise.

    From Cameron & Gillespie:
  • Actor-Director relationship can be seen in a number of ways:
  • The director as parent --authoritarian
  • Guru --visionary
  • Therapist ---"trust me"
  • Seducer --emotional attachment
  • Victim --cajoler
  • Playground Director --fun and creative
  • Green Thumb --let’s grow—little planning
  • Lump --vague
  • Amalgam of above is probably best
  • Preparation and adaptability necessary
  • Less actor coaching as performance approaches


  1. Staging the play

Where should actors / characters go so that the focus in the right place?

Focus – arrangement of stage picture so as to direct audience’s attention to the appropriate character, object, or event. (H, P, &L: 244).

Blocking – where actors go on stage.
Remember stage positions and body positions.
Called "blocking" because early directors conveyed staging instructions by drawing a grid on stage floor and labeling each stage position, or "block." (H,P,&L: 248).

Stage business: -- detailed handling of props, specific actions such as answering telephones or turning on a lamp.

Visual composition and picturization.

Physical movement of characters onstage.

Movement, pace, rhythm.

Visual punctuation marks, emphasis, motivations, relationships – all conveyed through movement, pace, rhythm [Edwin Wilson, The Theater Experience, 7 th edition, (McGraw-Hill, 1998), 146-147)]

Body language, symbolic values (If Richard II starts high, moves slowly to earth…)

H,P,&L, 244: Achieving focus

  • By body position – the actor who is most "full front" will have the focus.
  • By stage area – central areas have most focus.
  • By level – actor on highest level.
  • By plane – farthest downstage.
  • By triangulation – actor at apex of a triangle.
  • By contrast – actor who is apart from group (sitting, while rest of cast is standing).
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From late 19th century, the proscenium, "picture-frame" (box set, fourth-wall realism) have exploited stage’s potential for displaying pictures.

Not as easy on thrust or arena.

Mood and rhythm can be conveyed through movement:  angular, round movements, jerky / smooth, etc.

Progression – the rate at which things happen -- speed and emotional intensity and energy.

Setting up of rhythms.

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Managerial (Director as Manager):


Casting –
American Director Alan Schneider   said "style is casting" – casting is half the work.


1. Read-through

Read through play, actors and director discuss character and vision of the play, discuss play, show designs.

2. General rehearsals

rehearse in parts

scenes with particular characters

"French scene" -- entrance or exit of a character Scenes -- between "curtains" or blackouts (Remember: many contemporary stages do not have or do not use curtains).

3. Run-throughs  -- of acts or the whole play -- sections.

4. Technical rehearsals .

5. Dress rehearsals -- like an actual performance, sometimes for an "audience" (of selected invited people).

6. Previews (also called tryouts)-- usually primarily for the professional theatre -- so the director and actors can work out some of the rough spots before opening it officially -- often previews are out of town before coming to New York. (We at this campus usually have a preview performance for reviewers to come to).

7. Opening night -- in most professional theatre, the director's job is then over .. usually goes on to another job, and the Stage Manager takes over any directing responsibilities, such as "brush up rehearsals."

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See the chart of the Director's duties in text


The Stage Manager

The Dramaturg

Artistic Director

The Producer

Important terms:

master metaphor

given circumstances


master of secrets


keeper of the register



You can take short study quizzes based on textbook materials by going to the Student Online Learning Center page for our textbook...

Next Section: Designers.


This page and all linked pages in this directory are copyrighted © Eric W. Trumbull, 1998-2008

Last update: January 4, 2008