This series is not the definitive ‘How to Direct a Play’ guide – I wouldn’t presume to be anywhere close to that (not even sure what it might look like). This is how I direct a show and I daresay we all have a few things in common we can compare and explore.

It may also be of help to directors just starting out on their journey or others that need to refresh the way they approach the task. It may also be of no help whatsoever or may just give you an insight into how other people direct and be rather/tremendously/vaguely interesting in that respect. Who knows …

Sir Galahad - the Quest of the Holy Grail - Arthur Hughes, 1870 - or 'On a Quest for the Director's Vision' ..

Sir Galahad – the Quest of the Holy Grail – Arthur Hughes, 1870 – or ‘On a Quest for the Director’s Vision’ ..(I wish)

So … stepping gracefully up to the ‘vision’ part, we assume that you have in fact read the play you want to direct. I know, it’s obvious isn’t it (no insult intended), but I have known directors turning up to an audition for their play and guess what? Yep, they haven’t actually got round to reading it. Director’s credibility at this point in the eyes of the prospective cast = nil. What on earth a director hopes to do in terms of casting without reading the play I really can’t imagine (and I do consider that I have some imagination!) Anyhow, moving swiftly on, you’ve read the play and absorbed the plot, met the characters and you REALLY LIKE it! This bit is important – you need to have affinity with the play, you need to enjoy it, it must inspire you to seek your vision (this, I find is doubly true if you’re not actually getting paid and directing is something you do in your spare time – you really MUST enjoy what you do – if you don’t do something else). By the way, you should be reading your play WAY before you think about casting. I mean months – maybe a year before you intend to put it on – maybe less if it’s a one act. But a BIG show – I like a year so I can think and plan at my leisure before I get too many people involved. Ask yourself a few questions:

  • Do I REALLY want to do this play?
  • Can I do it well with the resources I have?
  • Can I cast it from the people I currently know?

The first question – it is vital that you can answer YES!
The second question – this is just a baseline consideration. There are many ways and styles you can adopt to get your play on. But, personally, if I wanted to put on a big glitzy musical I would want it to be big and glitzy – not small and plain.
The third question – Again, just a baseline consideration. If you can cast from people you know you can be quietly confident about casting, although you will, of course, want to get new people interested. Or maybe you won’t! Anyway, if you can’t cast it at first glance you just need to bear in mind that you’ll have to have a strategy for getting more people involved. Some people don’t ever have that problem – some companies experience it every time the cast number exceeds 4. At our local theatre the problem arises everytime we need someone in their late twenties or thirties!

And now, we like the play, we think it will work in the venue and casting should be ok ….. now it’s time to dream (my favourite bit). What exactly is the job of the Director? To me the job of the director is to tell the story (the one the author has written!) in a coherent and entertaining way. That means being in touch with every aspect of the show throughout the process and it starts with your vision. At this stage I NEVER let myself be held back by minor considerations (like cost for instance). I like to dream BIG and start to imagine the play as grand and as amazing as I can. By the way, I always respect the play that has been written and try to get behind the author’s meaning and intention. I don’t adapt it to suit myself (I write my own play if I want to do that) and I try to work with all the information the author has supplied. I once directed a play with a Youth Theatre and the author came to see it. She was so pleased that I had actually put HER play on – having watched many versions where the directors had reworked it to make a completely different and almost unrecognisable play. If you feel inclined to do that I would humbly suggest that you choose another play…

When I’m in ‘vision quest’ mode and happily dreaming away, I make my wish list of everything I want that will make to show stand out. I see the set (not good at drawing but I have a go), the costumes – I decide on style and staging. I start a Style Board (Pinterest is good for this), often getting photos from an online image search and pinning them on a board (real or on computer). It really is important to get a good idea of exactly how you see the show being performed so you can start to talk to your designers, costumers, cast, crew, set builders, lighting & sound designers with confidence and authority about what it is you want them to do. Surround yourself with your ideas and gradually the ones that work will start to stand out. Make lists and plan away. I also like to have a really nice book (like an A4 journal) for each show and I start to compile my ideas (and many lists). Partly the ‘nice book’ thing makes it special and it also serves to keep ideas in one place. An Ipad would work as well though – something fairly portable. Have it in the back of your mind all the time and keep working on it (ok, we’re bordering on obsession now, you can step back if you wish but I prefer the ‘completely obsessed’ route). So .. dream away until you know your show really well. Don’t use the dreadful phrase ‘oh, that will do’ – reach for the stars! Reality comes later.

That completes Level One – The Vision Quest – although you never let go of your vision. You nurture and start to bring it to life ….. more to come on that!

The next in series
Offbeat Directing Ideas 2: Understanding the Script



Barbara lives in CMHQ - a virtual land of fantasy and creative wonderfulness where daydreaming is compulsory and much tea is consumed. Some people never come back, some get turned into frogs by witches.


Susan Cooper · May 8, 2013 at 6:15 pm

That was really interesting. I had not idea what it looked like to do this. You have given me some great insight into the process. In many ways it’s like walking in someone else’s shoes all the time. 🙂

Mary Slagel · May 8, 2013 at 6:17 pm

I find this article very interesting because the behind the scenes directing or putting on a show is not something I have really thought of. Growing up I participated in many plays under the direction of a director but I never once thought about how that director came to the point of casting and directing us.


Barbara · May 8, 2013 at 6:40 pm

Thanks Susan! directing (for me) is like an intense journey into your own imagination and commitment and it goes on until the last night of your show! I love every minute.


Barbara · May 8, 2013 at 6:45 pm

Thanks for your comment and I know what you mean Mary! What the actor sees of the director is the distilled essence of all the thought and planning that happens beforehand. I don’t think ‘vision quest’ is overplaying it really!

Hola BackGrinder · May 9, 2013 at 6:08 pm

Reading this it’s clear that staging a play is a lot more complex than just directing the actors when they show up for the first rehearsal. A good director has to handle the artistic decisions, but they are also running a small business, and they need to manage a lot of things well at once to succeed at opening night.


Barbara · May 10, 2013 at 8:23 am

Yes, I like that analogy – it really is a small business with one very important product – the show! Lots more to come on how to get your product on the stage and noticed! Thanks for comment.

Jeri · May 10, 2013 at 3:41 pm

I am fascinating by the behind the scenes aspect of practically every artistic process. Theater is something I love and regularly attend, but have never been brave enough to participate in. Your blog is clearly a great resource and I’m adding it to my RSS reader.


Barbara · May 14, 2013 at 12:41 pm

Thanks for your comment Jeri. It’s one of those strangely scary things the purpose and benefit of which you can only appreciate when you’re on the stage! Or, in my case, safely tucked away in the wings!!

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