CHOOSING YOUR DIRECTOR
When a playwright finds her ideal director, she finds the person who doesn’t just “get” her play but has a vision of where the play could go beyond what the playwright imagined, someone who will interpret the script and add something to it. That’s my take. Some playwrights, however, simply want a director to follow their script, without changing or embellishing—someone who won’t get too “creative.”
This is where having some self-awareness is vital. Are you the type who wants a say in every aspect of getting your play to the stage? If so, consider directing the play yourself. Alan Ayckbourn, the English playwright, built a theatre so he could direct his own plays. Maybe he’s a control freak or maybe he simply enjoys directing his own work. Some say he does a fine job directing his plays but more than a few directors I know (of course they’re directors) say other people direct Ayckbourn better than Ayckbourn directs Ayckbourn. The point is, you can save yourself some angst if you know how much you’re willing to let go before you hire someone. Granted, this is determined, to large extent, on whom you get to direct your play and how much you are able to trust them with your creation. If someone with the reputation of a Dan Sullivan or Emma Rice wants to direct your play, it might be easier to hand off artistic control but how many of us in low-budget theatre can afford them? (That is if they’d even deign to read our plays.)
There’s nothing to be lost by trying for your ideal choice of director but the simple challenge for most of us is finding a director you can work with, who you can trust, who’s available, whose work you respect, whom you can also afford.
Start your search by seeing a lot of plays produced in your geographic region, particularly those that are a genre similar to your play. If you have money to bring someone in from outside that’s fine but see their work, talk to other playwrights and actors about the reputations of prospective directors and filter those opinions based on reviews, genre of play and budget. Once you’ve found some prospects, contact them and ask if you can send your play. If the prospects act like they don’t have time for you, they’re probably not a good fit.
Another place to look for a director is at local universities offering a MFA in Directing or Performance Arts. A recent graduate might be thrilled at the opportunity to direct a new play and you might find a wunderkind.
Once a few directors have read your play, meet with each of them and find out what their work process is. Some don’t want the playwright around. Some, like the director of Villa Thrilla, wanted me at every rehearsal. At a talk back with Jonathan Tolins, the author of Buyer & Cellar, I asked him this very question. He said he sits in on rehearsals for the first week, during read-throughs and character work to answer any questions and then he goes away unless the actors or someone else on the production has a problem he needs to solve. He says the director and actors need time to bitch and moan about the play without fear of offending the writer. Also, not being at all the rehearsals gives him time to write something new (not a small thing for a writer).
You should also discuss the budgets and ideas for Set Design, Costume, Lighting and Sound with your prospective directors. Often they will have people they’ve worked with in the past and sometimes they are able to get key designers to lower their rates. Beware the director who gets big ideas about expensive things your show needs after you’re already in rehearsal. Ideally you can avoid this by talking things through ahead of time and by finding out a director’s reputation prior to hiring him or her.
What you pay a director is a negotiation like any other and the pay range can be anywhere from $500 to $4000 depending on the schedule and how much work is expected. Some directors are members of the SDC (union) so their rates are set. In other cases, you might negotiate a profit-sharing arrangement, with playwright and director sharing a piece of the show’s future success. If you decide to do this, I’d advise building a buy-out fee into the contract, should it turn out the partnership doesn’t work out.
In closing this post, find the director who is keen on directing your play whose personality and vision for your show meshes with yours. Putting on a play is a collaboration and sort of like a short-term marriage. Spend time researching and choosing your partner and you should have a great working experience.
Next: Finding (and keeping) your actors