Theatre Directing: What You Need to Know Starting Out

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Peter Hussey: Artist Director of Crooked House Theatre

To be, or not to be, that is the question. And if you’re thinking of dabbling in the wonderful world of live performance, we’ve managed to siphon a few words of wisdom from the accomplished Peter Hussey. Not just an academic, Peter practices what he preaches as a writer, director and drama facilitator. In 1993 Hussey established Crooked House Theatre, and since then, they’ve maintained a prolific output, working not only in theatre but through education, youth work, and community development. Peter has also been a regular in Maynooth University since the ’80s – and the early 80s at that. He started as a student, however, the Drama Society proved far too much of an addiction. Now he’s been teaching there for over 30 years and is the official Artist in Residence in Initial Teacher Education, a title supported by the Arts Council.

Ahead of his intensive Directing for Theatre training course, which kicks off in Maynooth University this September, Peter shares his thoughts on the ever-evolving art form of performance.

What’s the main difference between directing for film and theatre?

A director for the stage is someone who is constantly dealing with live performance. You’re looking at energies that have to be at a certain level all the time to engage an audience; it’s quite a visceral experience shared between the living, breathing people sitting in the audience, and the actors they’re engaging with. The main difference is that the stage director must sustain the energy, pace, choreography, direction of plot, and all the aspects of the production over the course of an hour, 20 minutes, or 2 hours. And do this without stopping. In film, you stop a lot. You can rewind, do it differently, and take your time. The pressure might be to get in under budget and on time, but you work in small units. Somebody once said the difference between screen and stage actors is that a screen actor comes out of their trailer, builds a scene, and performs with high intensity and then goes back to that trailer. It’s like doing the 10-meter sprint at the Olympics. You have all that energy for that short amount of time. However someone who performs for stage needs to be a marathon runner. They need to pace themselves, maintain it, and continue right through without stopping for a much longer period of time. And that’s similar for a stage director and a film director

What are the common issues that a stage director comes up against?

It depends on the type of production. There are so many. Really, we’re removing away from calling ourselves ‘directors’ to calling ourselves ‘theatre-makers’. The biggest challenge is collaboration. There’s an old-fashioned idea that a director sits behind the table dictating what happens, telling people how to move, and what to say, and how to say it. That’s nowhere near the truth of what happens today. We’re collaborators. We work with designers, stage management, and with people across all areas of production – but mostly we collaborate with actors. A huge part of the performance is the work created between the director and performers. Also, a lot still happens with the scripts and the writer. You try to work on the text and interpret it, but mostly you’re creating new material.

Directors need to know these processes because collaboration is difficult. You need to know when to give, when to pull back, how to get inspired, how to generate ideas and excitement in a group. The biggest challenge working with a script is to be very truthful to what the writer had intended. There are a lot of methods you can learn to do this: how to work with pace; ‘actioning’, so that the characters come across as real people, rather than a cardboard cut-out. There’s a toolbox of techniques that directors can use in all situations, both devised and with the scripts. That’s actually what we teach on the course.

What’s your approach to directing a production?

When I’m directing, I’m thinking of the audience’s perspective. Always. Your primary aim is to make sure what you’re saying is clear. Whether it’s devised or written, it needs to make sense to the audience. Unless you don’t want it to, and then your ambiguity needs to be clearly ambiguous! Does the audience understand something crucial that’s going to become significant later? It’s also important that you’re aware of what the audience can believe or buy, so you’re trying to get the actors to achieve that; whether it’s real or truthful or you’re trying to distract the audience from the kernel of what you’re trying to show. So in a way you’re guiding the audience all the time, slowly, by images which are revealed by certain movements, by focus, by where actors are placed. There are subconscious elements which you’re putting in the audiences’ mind with movement and positioning. You’d want to have a good bit of research done on your piece and on the interpretation, on the point of view you’re taking on it. Particularly if it’s a well-known play, and especially if it’s as big a thing as Shakespeare.

How does someone achieve a career as a theatre director?

Usually, they’re involved in theatre first. Personality-wise, they are curious and they are interested in finding out more. It’s a way of researching philosophies, ideas, concepts, and presenting those aspects to an audience. A director is always researching, is always listening in conversation and always watching how people do things. They are interested in psychology and politics; that’s the kind of thing that gets them going. A lot of people would first study theatre history, or various movements in theatre before progressing. You can also take degree courses in directing in Britain and Ireland.

In the last 25 years, a director in training would need to know a lot of site-specific theatre; that could be theatre that happens in abandoned buildings, theatre that’s on the street, or even in the back of cars. You need to know a lot about the style of performances, and verbatim theatre, which is using the words of real people to make theatre from. It’s a constantly evolving profession. There’s not a lot in terms of work. You can certainly set yourself up as a freelance director, and you might get gigs here and there. It’s helpful if you apprentice yourself with a well-known place like the Abbey for a while, or shadow a director before you move on to direct your own work. It’s not a nine-to-five job where you can find call outs for directors. Most directors make their own work, or set up their own company – as I did 35 years ago.

With regards changing trends in theatre, and the focus on diversity, how to you think theatre is evolving?

It’s really changing in terms of how theatre is made. The length of time that an audience needs to be in place is getting shorter. The days of long, five-act plays, are fewer and fewer. Long plays would be regarded as ‘event’ theatre now. While the space where theatre is performed is becoming, you might say… more democratic. A lot is happening outside of institutions, outside of buildings. Sometimes you don’t even know that play is being performed. The structure of theatre is not as narratively driven. You might find something on at Electric Picnic in a tent somewhere. It might be a collection of entertaining songs, sketches, drag, lip-syncing, verbatim, some physical, and some aerial – a whole load of things just packed into one short burst. I reckon that is a challenge.

The form is has changed considerably. In terms of issues, there’s a growing use of theatre in education. This could be non-formal learning; community development; youth work; working with groups such as migrants, refugees, travellers or community groups in various areas. The theatre of the oppressed is a form of working with non-actors to help them tell the kind of stories and face the kind of problems they would have experienced over generations. This means people from different backgrounds are now making theatre. These are people who were normally outside of the traditional buildings and institutions. Many groups, such as Anu Productions, have youth theatres all over the country and know that theatre is a natural language.

What would be the common pitfalls people make when they start directing for theatre?

They start telling the actor how to do their job. That’s the first common pitfall. They might start telling the performers ‘oh, say it this way,’ or ‘this is how you should say it’, or they might even try to semi-act for the actor. That doesn’t help anything. You need to create a space where the actor is free to experiment and try things on their own, or with the other actors. Your role is to create a safe space and an exploring space and an exciting space, rather than a dictatorial, do-it-this-way space. That is, believe it or not, a very common pitfall starting out for directors.

The second thing is that they tend to be very fearful of text and think ‘oh there’s a lot of dialog here, lets animate it, let’s put in movement, let put on lights and have people dance here,’ because they think people will be bored. When this is, in fact, the opposite of what they should be doing. They need to really focus on the text and on getting the performance very truthful and compelling. They should be helping the actor to connect viscerally with the audience so it’s not boring.

A third pitfall is that new directors very often tend to take on productions or projects that are bigger than they can handle. They get stressed and end up producing the thing as well. They end up making programmes, finding venues and a whole hoard of things they really never envisaged doing when they were sitting quietly at home reading a lovely one-act play.

Has technology changed the medium much?

Not really. There are some things that have been experimented with, such as giving the audience a set of headphones, and, say, you’re the only audience member with one story and there are actors passing you by. The whole play would be performed through the headphones. But this is more of an individual experience, and they don’t work by and large. They’re flashes in the pan. Theatre is fundamentally a collaborative enterprise. It’s a social thing and always has been. You’re physically sitting, or standing, and breathing the same air as the person beside you and you’re experiencing it together. That has always been at the heart of theatre, and it’s as strong as it ever was.

If you want more information about this excellent Maynooth Unversity Training programme, click here


Gemma is a nomadic writer, filmmaker, & journalist.
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