Who is the Director?
Peter Stein, a famous German director, defined the director as the “first audience member.” Let’s see what this means and how this affects a production.
When putting up a show, there are several elements that need to come together: the script, the performance space, the technical and design elements, and the acting. With the advent of realism in theatre in the 19th century, theatrical productions grew more complex and required an external perspective to assess and coordinate all that was supposed to happen on and off stage. While the actors are “the face” of the production, they can’t be fully aware of what happens around them, resulting in a lack of a clear and fully realized picture of what the audience experiences. On the other hand, designers tend to have a different approach to the process and do not regularly attend rehearsals.
The director is there to supervise and make sure that the production is cohesive and that everything the audience sees fulfills a specific artistic concept. It’s a bit like a recipe for some delicious dessert: the ingredients must be of the greatest quality, of course, but what makes it successful is the balance among the ingredients. The director’s job is to establish that balance. The director is like the pilot of a ship: he/she/they need to have leadership qualities while also being a great collaborator.
A Little Bit of History
The director is a relatively new profession in the theatre business. Historically, there is no mention of a director—in the way we think of that position today—until the second half of the 19th century in Europe. Classic Greek theatre featured actors, producers, and playwrights working together on the productions and very often the playwright wore several hats to fulfill their vision. A reminder that Greek theatre had a fairly simple structure, with few actors who played several roles by switching masks, in a playing space with almost no scenic design. The actors performed in open spaces, amphitheaters, facing the audience to better facilitate the projection of the voice. While we are aware of the level of complexity reached in the choreography of the chorus, the actors themselves relied almost exclusively on the text. The spectacle—a key element in the Aristotelian script analysis tied to the Classic Greek tragedy—was mostly provided by the music and the Deus-Ex-Machina (literally “God Out of the Machine), a primordial special effect that allowed a visual representation of the divine intervention to resolve the plot. For example, in Euripides’ Medea, the title character flies out to Athens on the Chariot of the Sun and leaves behind a desperate Jason, mourning the loss of his children and new bride.
The Romans also didn’t have a director. What is known is the presence of someone who functioned as a manager, who supervised production needs such as venues and would coordinate the necessities of the actors. Frequently, the theatre manager was part of the company and involved in the production as an actor. This evolved into a more structured engagement and empowerment of the actors when theatre started to become a profitable business at the end of the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. By then, theatre companies relied on a certain number of company members who each had a specific role. Commedia Dell’Arte troupes were often populated by families, and everyone did a bit of everything, from sewing costumes to performing. Shakespeare and Moliere had their own companies. Aside from writing, Shakespeare was a producer, an actor, and what we might consider in a way, a director.
The biggest step towards introducing the professional director happened at the end of the 19th Century—around the 1870s—in Europe, where Georg II, Duke of Saxe Meiningen introduced a completely different approach to a theatrical production. Georg II created an ensemble of actors, formerly a company, and started working on a more naturalistic aesthetic. Following the new ideas coming from Ibsen and Stanislavsky, he focused on cultivating a more relatable style of acting and creating an overall more cohesive production. He claimed that what happened on stage, behind the proscenium arch, needed to represent a world of its own. If the text was written in another period, actors were asked to rehearse in period-style clothing to be true to the script. The scenic design was also more complex and truthful to the styles of the play. Georg II’s attention to detail truly made a difference in the theatrical environment of the time, and his productions gained fame throughout Europe. We might think, because of his attention to how everything played a role in the overall outcome of the show, to consider him the first director.
In modern times, directors have grown more and more popular, and while not essential, as we have learned from previous chapters, it is a rare occurrence today to attend a production created without a director.
The Director Today
Directors come from different artistic paths. It’s unusual to start off as a director, it’s rather something you become as you develop your theatrical career. Some directors come from acting, others from playwriting, and others from producing. Although nowadays there are undergraduate and graduate programs devoted to training theatre directors—hands-on experience is always what makes the difference. It goes back to the concept of theatre as an art form and a craft: there is a conceptual and interpretative side to it, but the practical one is just as important. You may have the best ideas, but they are useless if you can’t translate them to the stage.
Directors need to have a certain knowledge of all aspects of a theatrical production, from script analysis to acting, as well as technical and design elements, because although the director will not actively work exclusively in those distinct areas, he/she/they must know how they function and might work together. Directors need to possess leadership qualities and be effective communicators and collaborators. Directors are the glue that keeps everything from falling apart. Directors deal with crises of all sorts but must maintain a clear and objective perspective on what is happening on and off stage.
Finally, directors aren’t credited much by the critics—unless they do a really bad job, which is ironic—and the audience rarely comments on the direction of a show. In reality, if you have enjoyed the show in its entirety and couldn’t see the hand of the director, that usually means that the director has succeeded. If the show fails, there is a good chance that the director has something to do with it.
British Director Peter Brook (1925-2022) is arguably one of the most influential directors of our time. He directed for the stage and for the big screen, winning several awards including the Tony Award, the Laurence Olivier Award, and several Emmy Awards.
For years he was the Artistic Director of the RSC – The Royal Shakespeare Company- where he directed several acclaimed productions, including Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade, which transferred to Broadway and was awarded several Tonys.
Artistically, he was influenced by Antonin Artaud, the Theatre of Cruelty, and experimental theatre practices, such as those of Grotowski and Meyerhold. He pursued an ongoing exploration of how theatre and theatre productions could reach out to cultures and communities and function as a unifying force.
He founded the International Centre of Theatre Research in 1971, a multicultural theatre company including artists coming from many different ethnical and artistic backgrounds. The company was based in Paris, at the Bouffes du Nord theatre. Among their productions, it is imperative to mention his adaptation of the Indian epic poem Mahabharata and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
In 1963 he directed the film version of The Lord of the Flies, adapted from William Golding’s famous novel.
His essential, pure, precise and extremely evocative directing style has been a model for generations of directors, and his book, The Empty Space, is a mandatory reading for anyone mildly interested in directing or theatre in general.
Step by Step: The Director’s Job
Step 1: Get Very Familiar with the Script
Like everyone else involved in a theatrical production, the directors need to know the script inside and out. This phase requires the director to read the script several times and research anything that isn’t familiar. Script analysis is crucial as well; it is vital to know how the play functions in its entirety and how the characters develop, interact with each other, and how their individual roles push the story forward. The play depicts a fictional world, but if the playwright did well, that fictional world follows the same logic as reality, and therefore it is important to trace the cause and effect relationship connecting the chain of events. Having a clear idea of what goes on in the play will facilitate the director’s interactions with virtually everyone else involved in the production. Actors will discuss their character’s motives—why they are doing certain things— with the director upon which they both need to agree. Designers will refer to the script to support their design choices for character and scenery.
In the case of contemporary plays, it is not unusual for the director to establish and develop a strong and ongoing collaboration with a playwright. This kind of collaboration, whenever possible, is very fruitful to both parties as it allows the director to have firsthand support when trying to figure out the nuances of the play. Similarly, the playwright has the ability to hear someone else’s unbiased opinion which might lead to rewrites and clarifications in the script. There are several cases where directors and playwrights have developed a strong bond and the playwright would only entrust a certain director with their play. Artistic kinship is an important element in theatre to this day. Think about producer, author, and actor Lin Manuel Miranda, for example, who has developed most of his work with virtually the same team of actors, directors, and designers. Tennessee Williams, for example, trusted director Elia Kazan above all others and many of his plays were developed and first produced through a tight collaboration with Kazan.
It is of the utmost importance that a director respects the script for what it is and serves to tell the playwright’s story. This is particularly vital when it comes to modern and contemporary plays, as twisting the meaning of a play could infringe on copyright rules and lead to sanctions or, even worse, the production being closed down. When the play is in the public domain, i.e., when the play isn’t covered by copyright any longer, the director could exercise more freedom in interpreting the script and bringing it to life.
Step 2: Interpretation and Concept
When the director has developed a strong knowledge of the script, he/she/they start working on their own artistic construct. At this stage, the director interprets the script by answering these questions: what does this mean to me? What does the playwright intend to say? What is the meaning behind this story? Why is it important to tell this story? What do I want the audience to walk out of the theatre thinking about?
Interpreting something is very common for everyone, and you don’t have to be a director to do it. We read an article in the newspaper, and we interpret it. We read a novel, and we interpret it. We hear a song, and we interpret it. Interpreting is innate— it comes naturally when we are faced with any narrative. Out of the whole story, we pick out elements that are meaningful to us, upon which we build our experience of the narrative. Sometimes, what we experience is a metaphor for something else. Interpretation will help us find those metaphors and understand them.
The moment we re-tell the story and recreate the narrative, our interpretation of it plays a decisive role. That is what makes each production of a script unique: each director will have a different reaction to the text, which results in varying interpretations of the same story. Shakespeare’s Hamlet has had thousands of productions since it was first produced in 1599. Yet, each production is different due to unique interpretations and their resulting artistic choices.
The answers to all of the above-mentioned questions lead the director to begin building a concept for the show. The concept needs to address all aspects of the production and provide an overall harmonic aesthetic. This stage happens early on in the production and long before rehearsals commence. The director meets with the designers and discusses the concept in what is known as a production meeting. In most situations, there are several production meetings completed before rehearsals and some during the rehearsal process as well. The first production meeting is really the moment for the director to share his/her/their interpretation of the script and vision for the production. The designers also bring ideas to the table and share their own interpretations. It is important that everyone listens to everyone else in the room: the most successful productions profit from the artistic input of everyone, and while the director has ultimate authority on artistic decisions, he/she/they are usually a good collaborator and are open to different takes on the script. By the end of the first production meeting, the creative team must reach an agreement on the concept so that each designer can start working while the director finalizes his/her/their ideas for casting.
It is the director’s job, at this point, to compile a character breakdown that includes the playwright’s facts along with the director’s ideas about the characters. At times, the director provides ideas about what the actors should prepare for the audition, like specific monologues or suggestions about the style (classic material vs contemporary material). This document is to be shared with the production team and the stage manager to be circulated amongst the actors’ community. The actors will then learn what is the director’s approach to the character and what roles are available for them to audition for.
“What is an auteur?”
As we have seen, the director bases their decisions about concept, interpretation, and audience experience around the playwright’s intended story. Though sometimes, the director’s vision holds as much weight as the script, providing the production with multiple layers of artistry. If this happens, the director is referred to as an auteur, a French word meaning “author.”
Auteur directors tend to have a very specific aesthetic vision as artists, which leads them to interpret the script through that lens. For example, American director Anne Bogart has worked with her own company, SITI, the Saratoga International Theater Institute, to produce and direct plays utilizing a technique called Viewpoints, which focuses on very specific patterns of movements. The auteur’s approach is never supposed to be disrespectful to the script and playwright but tends to use the script as a tool to support the concept.
Step 3: Auditions!
Auditions are a big part of the director’s job. It is usually believed that good casting has a strong correlation to the success of the show, which makes the audition process fairly stressful for the director and, of course, the actors. Depending on the kind of production, auditions can vary in size and protocol, but the overall gist doesn’t change: actors come in one at a time to perform a piece in front of the director, the stage manager, and possibly other people in the production. Once the actor is done performing, the actor leaves the room. That’s it! This is usually what happens in what is known as a general audition.
In the professional environment, for example in the New York City area, Actor’s Equity Association requires producers to arrange Open Calls, which are (very) large general auditions that give producing theatre companies the opportunity to see hundreds (yes, that is usually the number) of actors regardless of their current production needs.
Open Calls are known to be excruciating for everyone involved: they start very early in the morning, with the actors signing up in the wee hours of the day, and finishing in the late afternoon/early evening. Open calls are nicknamed “Cattle Calls” as while they do provide a precious opportunity for professional actors to be seen, it is generally not the expedited route taken by the director to cast a show, and also because directors don’t necessarily attend Open Calls. In commercial theatre— Broadway theatre— Open Calls are attended by producers and casting directors almost exclusively. If an actor stands out, the casting director or the producer will arrange for that actor to audition directly with the director of the show.
New York is probably the most competitive market for actors and theatre in general. Productions have tight schedules— time is money!— and the director isn’t tied to a contract timewise until the start of rehearsals. This is why producing theatres rely on a casting director to skim through the crowds of actors and present the director with a more manageable group of potential candidates for the roles. The casting director is someone who works closely with talent agencies and who is very familiar with the acting scene in that particular location. A good casting director can understand from the director’s character breakdown who is potentially best suited for the roles and is able to bring the director only a few options per role. Casting directors are very popular on and off Broadway and are very common in tv and film because, as one can imagine, the scale of those productions is wildly different.
Outside New York or other major cities, professional theatres organize their own general auditions according to their needs and to the director’s requests. As the information reaches the actors, they contact the theatre directly to sign up for it. Nonprofessional theatres and theatre departments in educational institutions follow this same concept.
When the general audition is over, it is the task of the director to make choices about roles. It is quite rare that an actor is cast right out of a general audition – unless he is Hugh Jackman or other celebrities of the kind, who by the way, don’t go through the general audition anyway. Directors tend to select a few options per role and call those actors back for another round of more specific auditions, called Callbacks.
During a Callback, actors are provided the material, usually from the show they are auditioning for, and might be paired up with other actors according to the needs of the script. Depending on the production, Callbacks can be more complex than general auditions. For example, actors might be required to sing or dance if they are called back for a musical. Or if the production has a need for a specific skill—like juggling, fighting, fencing, or playing an instrument — the actors will be asked to perform that skill as well.
Callbacks can take longer than general auditions as actors might be called at different times according to everyone’s schedule and needs; but by the end of the process, the director must come up with a cast. In the professional world, this would be when actors receive the offer for the role, which is accompanied by an economic offer and a contract.
It is important to know that while the director makes the artistic choices about who is in the cast, he/she/they are not in charge of the bureaucratic side of what follows: contracts and economic negotiations to close the deal are handled by the producer. This is an important element, as relieving the director from the economic side of the project allows him/her/them to discuss artistic choices with the actors exclusively. Similarly, the director has nothing to do with any of the technicalities relating to rehearsal spaces, arranging actors’ schedules, and things of the like. The producer will be providing a rehearsal space— and a venue for the show come opening night— and the stage manager will take care of the communication with actors.
Step 4: Rehearsals
Once the show is cast, and the actors have all accepted their roles, the production is ready to hit rehearsals. Depending on the size of the production and whether or not it is a professional one, the director and cast will meet to work on the play for a period of two to six weeks prior to the scheduled opening night.
The first day of rehearsals is a big day! Everyone is excited and nervous at the same time. This is the first time the director has the opportunity of sharing his/her/their thoughts, ideas, and concept with the people that will bring it to life for an audience. This stage of rehearsals is usually called tablework, as the director and the actors read and discuss the play while sitting at a table. This is a delicate step, as the director needs to clearly outline his/her/their vision while allowing the actors to contribute their own ideas It is said that the director provides the actors with a sandbox (the concept), and the actors are free to create their vision for the character within that sandbox. The director is there to guide the actors in their process and should be able to assist them by answering questions about their characters when needed.
During the course of rehearsals, the director has the most interaction with the actors and with the stage manager. This is the time when the show “comes to life”, the time when discoveries are made and the storytelling is physicalized. We mentioned at the top of this chapter that the director needs to be a great collaborator. In this phase, it is particularly true. As much as the director’s concept can be strong, at the end of the day, it is the combination of everyone’s efforts that make it a reality and the actors are front and center in this process.
Learning how to talk to actors is crucial, so it occupies a significant portion of the director’s training. A director needs to learn what to say to an actor to allow them to translate their note into his/her/their performance. Yelling orders left and right can be an approach— and unfortunately, sometimes, it is— but it isn’t a strategy that will prove successful in the long run. If an actor understands why and how the character does a certain thing, the actor will be able to replicate the performance consistently. On the other hand, if the actor does something solely because the director said so, and lacks understanding of what motivates that choice, they will not be able to consistently replicate it. That being said, the business is full of all sorts of directors. The majority are very supportive of the work of the actors, yet others are more pragmatic in their behavior, and there are some who are downright dictatorial. Although creating a collaborative and communal environment in the theatre is key, there are more than a few famous stage directors who are well known to be very firm about their choices, and while their reputation – particularly in the professional world – precedes them, ultimately the director serves the play first and foremost. If at some point hard decisions need to be made, like letting an actor go and re-casting the role or anticipating a stand-off with the producer on some marketing choices, the director must be ready to proceed in that direction.
It is not unusual for directors to work with the same group of actors, as it helps expedite the process. If the actor and the director have worked together before, they have already established an efficient way of communicating artistic ideas: the actor has a hunch about what the director is looking for, and the director has an idea about what the actor can deliver. Yet, it is important to understand that while directors and actors might become friends, the hierarchy must be sustained. The Stage Manager helps with that; for example, he/she/they are in charge of enforcing rehearsal etiquette, whatever that might be for the production, and is the person facilitating schedules, handling conflicts, and enforcing discipline during rehearsals.
Rehearsals are also when the director blocks the show, creates the stage pictures, and takes care of transitions. Blocking is all the movement the actors do on stage. The director and the actors need to agree on where the actors are placed in every scene, at any given time. When finalized, the pattern of the movement is then memorized by the actors and marked down by the stage manager in the production prompt book. Blocking is dictated by several elements, one being the character’s necessities. For example, character A needs to enter the room, sit on a sofa and drink a coffee, considering the particular way the stage and the scenic design are set up, as well the audience’s perspective. This last element is a specific concern for the director, to make sure actors do not “upstage” themselves, meaning they are not visible to the audience.
Stage pictures are a visual element that, similar to a painting or a tableau, can give audiences information about characters, such as their status and relationships. Stage pictures are representative of the essence of a scene, and they encapsulate the meaning and the soul of that beat in a singular frame. When building stage pictures and blocking the show, the director provides focus on who and what needs it the most at any given time. For example, center stage and down center stage—close to the audience—are the two most powerful positions If a character requires the undivided attention of the audience at a specific moment, the director will place the actor center stage.
When we read the reviews of a production in a newspaper, we usually see pictures of the show. Those pictures are provided by the press office of the production and are still frames of the stage pictures. If you think about it, when you see pictures of a stage production, they immediately evoke an emotional response and provide you with a sense of what that moment is about. If the director is successful at creating stage pictures in the show, the photos of the production will show it as well.
Transitioning a scene into another might require technical adjustments to the set and costume changes, leading to “dead” time. Nothing is more detrimental to a production than the suspension of storytelling for technical needs, as that breaks the illusion of reality that the playwright so desperately tries to establish. The director’s job, in this case, is to coordinate the transitions in a way that makes them either seamless or very much intentional and recognizable. If set pieces need to be changed, sometimes the director will want the actors to execute this change, while other times crew members, dressed in black or wearing a base costume of some sort, will enter the stage and take care of it. Transitions almost always happen on a less lit stage and aim to be as fast as possible. Think about F1 races: long pit stops can guarantee a pilot’s loss. In theatre, a lengthy transition will disconnect the audience from the storytelling. Seamless transitions are extremely fast—a matter of seconds— but are only achievable either in minimalistic productions or, on the other hand, in highly automated theatres, where everything can be moved literally by just touching a button.
Yet, regardless of the set requirements, it is not to be forgotten that actors might also need time to change costumes. This factor might influence the duration of a transition. It is to be said that costume crews are specifically trained to handle “quick changes,” and costumes are built in a way to facilitate the change. For example, buttons on a costume are sewn on just for show, and Velcro is used for fastening, which expedites the costume change by a long shot. The director is notified of complex costume changes during production meetings, so he/she/they can think ahead of time of a way to let the actor exit the stage at the best time possible.
The visual flow of the show is made by blocking, transitions, and the succession of stage pictures, which all fall under the umbrella of the director’s composition of the show.
The final ingredient for the successful direction of a production is determining its proper pace or rhythm. This is a delicate task for the director, as while it is not advisable to rush the actors there is nothing more treacherous than dead time on stage. If nothing is happening on stage, if the actors linger too much on their lines, the urgency of the moment dissipates and the audience loses attention. On the other hand, going too fast might cause the audience to miss text, and even key elements of the plot Once again, if the audience’s attention is interrupted, for any reason, it will be challenging to get it back. The director needs to ride that fine line between too fast and too slow and settle into a pace that feels organic and natural to the actors and audience alike.
While rehearsals are in progress, the producer might want the director to be part of the marketing end of the process, so the director himself/herself/themselves must be available for those discussions. That might entail speaking to the press or promoting it by talking directly to the community. This is also true for actors, particularly when the production features celebrities.
Step 5: Tech Rehearsals, Dress Rehearsals, Opening Night
The journey to opening night continues with technical rehearsals— or tech rehearsals— that start about a week prior to opening. During these special rehearsals, the director needs to focus on integrating all of the design and technical elements of the production. It is at this stage, in fact, that the designers bring in their finalized projects, including sets, props, lights, microphones, and costumes. Up until now, the cast rehearsed with rehearsal props, with a base look for the lights, and wore rehearsal costumes.
During technical rehearsals the director’s attention shifts from the actors to the whole ensemble of the production. Clearly, every part of the design has already been discussed and approved by the director during production meetings, but seeing it on paper might be very different from seeing it live, combined with all other elements. Adjustments might need to be made as a result of unforeseen situations, which are coordinated by the director who keeps in mind the ticking clock that counts down the days until opening night.
Remember: the director is the first audience member, and he/she/they have the responsibility of making sure that what the audience experiences will be what was envisioned and planned for.
Technical rehearsals can get very long and tiring for everyone involved. Nerves are tested and it is crucial that the director prove themselves to be a good collaborator and leader.
The last three rehearsals before opening night are called Dress Rehearsals and are when the production is run under showtime conditions. Under showtime conditions mean it needs to look, sound, and feel as if it were opening night and the audience was in attendance. At this point, the director must look through the objective lens of an audience member and take in the show as if he/she/they were experiencing it for the first time. The final touches could determine the success or the failure of a production!
During Dress Rehearsals the director rarely —or never— gives notes to the actors. On opening night, the director’s job is done. After working on the production tirelessly for several weeks, everything is turned to the stage manager, who will be calling the show and interacting with the actors and possibly the producer on a daily basis.
No matter what happens to the production during its run, the director is rarely called back. Even if an actor needs to be replaced— this happens on Broadway shows quite often, as actors move from one production to the other or have “limited engagements”— it’s the stage manager who is responsible for bringing the incoming actor up to speed with blocking and directing notes that were previously gathered during the course of rehearsals.
Lastly, commercial theatre and productions of new plays and musicals include a series of runs where the audience’s purpose is to assess how the show lands and if anything, mostly regarding text, needs tweaking. These runs are called Previews and tickets for these dates are sold at regular prices. During previews, the director is present in the theatre to see how the audience reacts to the production. If changes need to happen to better the show, they can happen during previews only. When it comes to Broadway shows, previews are the norm and can go on for over a month.
Once the show officially opens, there can be no more changes to the script or the staging. Opening night is also when theatre critics can see and review the show. The response of critics also determines the commercial success of a production in the form of reviews, blogs, and media coverage. In New York, the New York Times is by far the most reputed voice when it comes to theatre criticism. In fact, many shows have seen spikes in ticket sales following a glowing review… and many shut down shortly after a less flattering review.
Difference Between Stage Directing and Film Directing
For actors, shifting from the stage to the big screen doesn’t require a completely different approach. Yes, the technique is different, but the approach to the character and to the storytelling stays the same. For directors, on the other hand, the two mediums have completely different rules and require different skill sets.
As we have seen for stage directors, they are provided with a script and he/she/they have to interpret, create a vision for, and tell that story chronologically in just “one take.” When the show opens, the actors perform it every night in the same way it has been conceived and rehearsed. Because theatre provides a live experience, each show is never actually exactly the same as the night before as it changes and adjusts to whatever happens during that specific run. If an actor is feeling low, that actor’s performance might be slightly different; if the audience is very responsive, the show might be more energetic; some technical elements might fail, forcing actors to get creative about a solution. The circumstances are endless. The point is: from the moment the curtain rises in a theater, the show is on, and the story must be told without stopping—unless something really catastrophic happens— until the final bows. This is one of the reasons theatre requires the actors and the director to spend time developing a relationship of trust and mutual assistance. The director needs to enable the actors to replicate the same performance under all possible circumstances, all while supporting their creativity, personal investigation of character, and problem-solving.
On a film set, the scenario is completely different. First off, the relationship between the actors and the director is generally way less personal. Of course, there are famous actors and directors who have worked together on many projects and therefore have developed an ongoing professional collaboration and friendship; but it isn’t unusual for the actors to step on set on the day of the shoot and meet the director for the first time. That means that all their character development work must happen prior to the shoot, seldom times without much knowledge as to what the director intends to do or is looking for. In order to be ready for any possible scenario, actors tend to prepare the scene in many different ways, counting on the fact that at least one of them might be the one the director is looking for. Some actors don’t even get to see or talk to the director at all.
The nature of the film is dictated by variables that also differ greatly from the theatre environment. For example, shootings happen in several locations, often far from one another and at different times of the year. To accommodate those needs and make ends meet economically, the production might not be shot chronologically. This is a challenge for the actors and for the director alike. For the actors, it is a challenge because they might be asked to shoot the end of the movie first and then go back to the beginning— think of the most recent movie adaptation of Les Misérables. If that happens, the actors are not able to “use” the personal journey of the character throughout the course of the story to support and fuel their emotional status at the end of the movie. On stage, they get that option. For the film director, that translates into a much clearer and specific vision of the whole project and a detailed knowledge of the opportunities— unique to filmmaking— provided by technical elements, such as different cameras and lenses, special effects, aftereffects, CGI [Computer Animated Imagery] and so on.
Most notably, the movie is pieced together at the very end, behind closed doors, and almost exclusively by the director during what is called post-production. Actors are not present during this phase. At this time, the director goes through all the takes and selects the ones that best suit his/her/their vision for the storytelling, edits them, and places them into the sequence. Out of all the shots filmed on set, the majority don’t even make the final cut. This feature makes filmmaking the director’s medium, as they are the one person who truly decides everything. Most times, actors don’t even know what the final cut will look like until the first showing of the film!
At times, the script explores a topic that is so specific it requires more in-depth research than usual. As we have mentioned, research is something the director does at the beginning of the process to better understand the play. Yet, there are times when the director will need someone who is either an expert on the specific topic the play is about or who is a skilled researcher. This person is the dramaturg.
The dramaturg comes from varied backgrounds and provides the director, and sometimes the actors as well, with research packages to support and ground their work. The dramaturg tends to attend rehearsals in its early stages, during table work, and is available during the course of the production for further investigations.
Established theatre companies usually have a resident dramaturg as part of their literary department, and that person is there to assist directors for all the companies’ productions.
Alaine Alldaffer has been casting for theatre, tv and film for the past 25 years. She has been the Casting Director at Playwrights Horizons in NYC for over 20 years.
Kiara Pipino (KP):
Alaine Alldaffer, as the casting director at Playwrights Horizon… what do you do? What is the casting director doing in a theater production?
People think that the casting director hires the actors, but that is a misunderstanding. We don’t do the hiring, we provide ideas and possibilities, and it’s the director, the writer, and the producer’s job to decide who gets the role. The casting director in a theatre production provides the director, writer, and producer with ideas. These are usually based on meetings that happen ahead of time. We produce lists with different types of thoughts [on actors], and that’s how I boil it down and figure out what we’re really looking for. I sometimes ask the director and the playwright for a “wish list,” which is usually really informative and helps me to understand what it is that we are looking for. And then, once I have a list of actors I think would work, I set up audition sessions and I bring people in to read for the director, producer, and writer. That could also be a very informative part of the process because it usually helps me to come up with newer or better ideas based on how the director, the playwright, and the producer respond and react to the individuals I brought in.
Sometimes, we just offer the role to somebody—likely an actor who has a history with the project through readings and workshops. As well as someone with a strong resume already vetted by the community and thus in demand.. Some actors are “offer only,” which would mean they don’t come in and audition: they’ve graduated from the audition process. it’s not necessarily an “ego thing”: these are people who might have 10 offers on their desk and so they’re reading 10 plays, already working on several project and just don’t have time to audition for everything that they’re offered.
So when it comes to a production in a season, you do that for all the shows in your season. Correct?
That is correct. That is correct.
Is it part of your job to also scout actors or to go to general auditions? And if so, how do you handle that?
Equity [Actors Equity Association] has several requirements, and one of them is called an EPA (Equity principal audition), which is an open call for Equity actors. You are required to set one up for every play that’s produced. So, that’s usually the very first thing that happens and I make it a priority to keep stand-out actors on the list for future auditions with the creative team. I’ve actually hired the open actors from open calls. The second thing that happens is usually having meetings with the creative team.
Who attends the open calls, other than the actors, of course?
That depends. Whoever has casting approval can attend, which is misleading because, for example, I don’t really have casting approval, meaning I don’t get a vote. I have approval as to who comes to audition or who makes it on the list to audition for the creative team, and that’s like a whole other thing. In an Open Call, I’m looking for people I think are interesting. I’ll choose the person that I think fills the requirements of the role and checks all the boxes, but then I’ll sometimes bring in somebody who’s wildly different just to give the team a different option and see if that just inspires anything.
What is your relationship with the director?
It is usually a collaborative experience. My function is to really listen to the director. I can learn a lot just from the actors that the director mentions as possibilities for the role. My job is also to make sure that I’m bringing in people that the director wants to work with because you have to remember that in a production, you’re going to spend eight weeks with somebody.
Yes, they need to get along.
There’s socializing too, that happens in a production. Somebody that you might want to share ideas with after rehearsals can also be a factor.
So, the right person for the role is not necessarily the best actor for that role. Right?
Correct. There’s a lot of other factors that are involved. And I always say this, the best actor rarely gets the part. Our theatre [Playwrights Horizons] is unique, in this matter, as casting has to be a three-way unanimous vote between the producer, the director, and the writer. Sometimes I can be influential, because I’ve been doing this a long time and most of the times my opinion is respected, but I try not to squander that. Sometimes the director has a preference about a person, and maybe the producer and the writer disagree or don’t want to cast that person. In that case, what I do is to provide additional information and material about that actor to the producer and the playwright to see if that will make them change their minds. And sometimes it happens with a writer, who wants a particular person while the director and the producer are not sure about that choice. So that’s another function of a casting director: to make sure we’ve got as much information as possible about the actors so that everyone involved in casting can come to a decision in the most comfortable way.
Are casting directors involved in all theatre productions?
Generally speaking, yes. In some cases, the producer calls up “big-name” actors and asks them directly if they want to be involved. And in that case, a casting director might not need to come in for all roles. Or a casting director might be hired to figure out understudies only. In this case, the casting director would be hired later in the production process. This is most common in commercial productions where a cast is created around a particular person, usually a star. Also, in productions where the director is prominent and has many connections, the director might be the one hitting up one of his personal contacts. This is true for Broadway, Off-Broadway, and Regional Theatre
productions. There’s one time where I was working with an Off-Broadway company and they were doing a one-person show. They decided they were going to look for the actor themselves. And they did. They made offers to probably 20 actors and everybody declined. So, then they had to bring me in because you see, I’m talking to agents all the time. I know who’s out there who wants to do a play. I know who those people are.
So when it comes to process, you mentioned getting ideas from the director, getting ideas from the play itself, the script. What do you do, then, to actually get the actors?
The first thing I do is put a breakdown out and, of course, the Open Call. When that process has been completed, I put a breakdown out on a service called Breakdown Express, which sends it out to everyone in the industry, including to managers and agents. That’s when they respond by submitting ideas and I start talking to them. More ideas might come out of that as well, you might see people that you hadn’t thought would be right and turn out perfect instead. I’m grateful for my relationships with agents and managers. There are many I trust to keep me informed. Not only letting me know which seasoned actors want to do a play but introducing me to new talent as well.
Did the COVID19 Pandemic alter that process?
During the pandemic, you couldn’t bring in actors to audition in person and everything had to be turned in on tape. I have a feeling that when the pandemic is over, the formula might have changed
for good. There might be people who audition in person and people who self-tape, or self-tapes will be a pre-screening process. I get a lot of people on tape nowadays, and then the writer and the director go through it, and they choose their top five or ten. And that is who you bring in for in-person auditions.
When you finished with the casting process, do you move forward to the next project?
You know, sometimes I’m casting two or three plays at one time. All depends on the schedules of the writer and the director. You need them in the same room, of course, and that can be tricky with
their busy schedules. Most of the writers and directors we work with at Playwrights Horizons always have multiple projects going on at the same time, and they’re not necessarily all in the city. I have to make myself available when they can both be there.
When casting is completed for a production, do you keep following it? Do you go to rehearsals?
Once the play is cast, most casting directors don’t hear anything from the production until opening night or if somebody drops out. If that happens, the casting director has to jump in and try to replace that actor. At Playwright Horizons it’s different because I’m an Artistic Associate there, so I’m involved in rehearsals and in note-giving during previews. But that’s not the norm.
You also work also in TV and film. Is the process the same? How does the approach of a casting director change according to the platform?
Television and film just require a much faster approach to the process. When I work on a television show, sometimes I would get a script in the morning for an episode that is shooting the next day. I have to get on it quickly. I’ll pull ideas together and have actors on tape by late afternoon for whoever’s doing the actual hiring, that is usually the producers, The director does have some input as well. The writers have no say unless the producer is the writer. Choices will be narrowed down to two or three actors and then the list goes to the network, who has final approval. Most of the time the network will sign off on that person unless there’s a problem. So, you see, all happens rapidly.
So, if what I’m gathering is correct while in the theatre the director usually has the last word on casting, and in TV the last word comes from the Network?
Yes. For commercial theater [Broadway], I think it probably is more a combination of the producer and the director. And of course, the writer has some input as well.
What happens when a show moves from off-Broadway to Broadway for a casting director?
It really depends. Most of the time producers would want the original cast, although they’re not required to do so. Cast members might have the right of first refusal, that allows them to move with the production or be “bought out.” An actor is not obligated to move. They can pass on the production, but that’s pretty rare actually. For casting directors, it also depends. Producers are not required to bring you along to Broadway, I’ve been lucky so far that I’ve been hired to continue to work on it.
Looks like your job is more into connecting people and imagining people and actors and their abilities to cover a role. Have you ever thought of switching to directing?
I’ve thought about it, but then I see what directors do, I’m in awe and there’s no way I could ever do what they do. I think I could handle the staging and dealing with the acting and the performing, but for me what would be daunting is dealing with the production as a whole: the lighting, the music, the sound, and all what goes along with it. Also, there are so many wonderful directors out there, I think I’ll stay in my lane.
One last question. What is the difference between a casting director and an agent?
The agents are the ones who represent the actor and pitch the actor to the casting director for specific projects. They’re like a salesperson really, and their “products” are the actors in their roster. As a casting director, I’m the one who receives their submissions and decides who makes it into the list of the best possible choices. We might be talking about narrowing it down from 2000 actors to 20.
Wow: that is a lot of actors being left out!
Yes, it’s not an easy business. I believe only 8% of the actors’ population actually work. It may be lower than that, that might be generous. But that’s why I always tell the actors: don’t focus on that number. Focus on your commitment. Let your success be guided by your commitment to the craft. And don’t worry about booking the job or making a living as an actor because the odds are you won’t.
Georg II, Duke of Saxe Meiningen