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November 27, 2006


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Nice post Isaac. Yes, theatre needs only 1 performer and an audience member. And that is a crucial thing to remember. But we built these institutions of the critic and director from that very ground swell. Just as a society develops rules and structures of governance from its archaic beginnings, the director and critic come from that very basic place. Because they are a necessity? Mostly. But more importantly, because they are the limbs of evolution, a question about their need becomes a question about theatre at large. Because in 2006, not just theatre as an idea, but theatre as an art, is bound up in them.

Scott Walters

An interesting sidenote: the Provincetown Players had a rule in their bylaws that the playwright directed his own director AND served as the prop master! (The latter had quite an effect on the shape of the plays, I'll bet!)

Another historical note: we've had directors for about 125 years. I think it is significant that the person identified as the first director (as opposed to playwright-director or actor-manager) was the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, and all the actors in his troupe were not only his employees but his SUBJECTS as well -- his power was total. Thereafter, the first generation of directors spent a great deal of time writing not directing theory, but ACTING theory (most notably, Stanislavski, Meyerhold, Tairov, Brahm, Craig). [Sidenote: if you want a real eye-opener, look at the articles in the anthology "Actors on Acting" -- most of them are written by playwrights and directors! So much for ACTORS on acting...] These acting theories not only changed the way actors acted, but it created a situation where the actors REQUIRED a director. Stanislavski, for instance, created such an internally-focused actor that there absolutely needed to be a director present to provide an Outside Eye.

The point is that somehow the early directors convinced the actors to give up their power. So what? Am I suggesting that directors are unnecessary? I don't know. I guess I am suggesting that the centralization of power in the theatre might not have been an unalloyed triumph for the theatre. It increased efficiency, I suppose, but at what price? Long before the production line broke the building of automobiles down into separate, and disconnected, jobs the theatre had done the same thing to the rehearsal process. Now theatre etiquette says actors dare not give each other notes -- they need to pass them through director; actors dare not talk directly to the costume designer, they need to go through the director. It's a lot of focus to put on one lone imagination -- and if the director is anything less than a pure genius, one wonders whether the result is a better or a worse final product... Of course, most director say they are collaborative, but are they really? When the lights go up after the run-through, who is it that gets to give notes? 'Tain't the actor, I'm thinking!

Alison Croggon

Is American theatre that heavily hierachical, Scott? Maybe Australians are just that much more casual.

The directors whose work I most enjoy seem to all work out their own processes, which are specific to what they believe theatre to be. Someone like Robert Wilson, who is clearly about huge visual panoramas and musical composition, is going to work rather differently from a director who concentrates more on specifics of actorly performance and textual interpretation. Some directors - Mnouchkine, for instance - invite articulate collaboration from their casts (which seems to me, on the whole, sheerly sensible); others don't. The proof, in all cases, is in the pudding. What seems unarguable is that whatever happens on stage reflects the process that gets it there. I can't think of any artform of which this is more true than theatre. I'm sure it's possible to have both good and bad processes in all the models of director that are out there. In each case, it all depends on the specific collaborators, and even the specific production. They're all different. Thank God.

Of course directors aren't necessary, just as copy editors aren't necessary. That doesn't mean that they don't contribute quite a lot to the possibility of a work. (Have I got all my negatives right, there?) I rely heavily on my editors: they pick up my mistakes, they make the book better - though, true, perhaps they don't have as much influence on the artistic direction of the work as a director woulld. All the same, it's a relationship of trust. I'm sure an actor regards, or would like to regard, a director in a similar way.

Scott Walters

Others can correct me if I am working in an old paradigm, but my impression is that the rules of etiquette still hold: actors don't give notes to actors, playwrights don't give notes to actors -- everything is filtered through the director.

Your copy editor analogy is true, but as you note, "they don't have as much influence on the artistic direction of the work as a director would." I think the issue is the centralization of interpretive power of the overall work. Actors can be creative within the parameters set by the director, designers can be creative within the parameters set by the director, and the playwrights can be creative when they're writing at their desk but in the theatre they better back off (the extreme example of this is John Arden and Margaret D'Arcy, who were banned from attending the rehearsals of THEIR OWN PLAY and ended up picketing outside the theatre!).

I guess I have to agree with Bentley -- we might be due for a re-evaluation of the role of the director, and perhaps a redistribution of the interpretive power.


Isaac, you link to George's abstract of Bentley's speech which misrepresents his main premise and question. He states it twice in his speech.

"Let’s simply agree that consumer guiding is not proper drama criticism. What is?"

"If the purpose of daily theater journalism is to guide the consumer toward or away from a show, what is the purpose of the broader theater criticism I respect and try to emulate?"

So obviously Bentley is not saying "no criticism." He was specifically speaking about "newspaper criticism" or theatre reviews. He also states in the speech he has worked as a director, so his deliberately provocative attack on the ultimate middleman in theatre should be considered in that context.


There is always a director even if he/she is not credited in the program. Even if the actors are convinced that they are all equal in power and politcal weight on a given stage. There is always one person who if the show is being rehearsed is directing.

Every improvisational scene i've ever witnessed has a director. One of the improvisors starts directing the action.

Where theatre needs it or not, if more than two people are performing one of them is directing.

I like to think of directing as setting up "systems of belief" that the audience and the actors can subscribe to.

For me good direction is about negoitation with the other participates rather than this sort of hypothetical totalitarian ogre everybody seems to like to take pot shots at.

Scott Walters

Anon -- yes, in the past, the "director" was the playwright or the leading actor, either of which makes perfect sense. However, what is very different since the Duke is the level of interpretive control. In the past, the actors were more like musicians: they mostly rehearsed on their own, then came together to coordinate the basic movement of the play. There was no "concept" or "interpretation" that everybody was supposed to fit into -- the actors passed down traditions, and in performance they reacted to (or ignored) whatever came their way. Now a person who stands outside the performance, who neither acts nor designs nor writes, controls the work of everyone around them. And this control does not come as the result of special abilities, but rather by the position they have received -- they are The Director. Be honest -- how many productions have you been in where it was clear from the beginning that the director was a total idiot? In a normal social situation, the stronger members of the group would step up and lead, but in the artificial hierarchy of the theatre, the stronger members have to pretend they are following the director, and/or work behind his or her back (secret rehearsals, late-night scheming at a bar, complete interpretive changes once the director has gone, etc.).

I'm not saying directors are evil, or even that they should be jettisoned. But I do think we need to take a step back and examine the position, rather than assume that it is a natural evolution that symbolizes progress from the Bad Old Days when playwrights and actors had power. I'm not certain that the current situation is creating productions that are any better than if the other systems were used.


Hmmmm . . . after much thought, it's true. You are unnecessary.


I agree. Let's burn it all down and start fresh. From now on, I will clumsily direct all my own work. I will fail utterly to communicate my ideas to the actors in a way that I've studied in any depth. I shall also, of course, treat the actors as cattle. These mistakes will be far better than the mistakes we've made by trusting our work to DIRECTORS. Charlatans, all.

Scott Walters

"From now on, I will clumsily direct all my own work. I will fail utterly to communicate my ideas to the actors in a way that I've studied in any depth. I shall also, of course, treat the actors as cattle."

I recommend a quick read of Moliere's "Impromptu at Versailles" to see that playwrights directing their own work is brilliantly possible. Many of the Greek playwrights directed their own work, as did Shakespeare. It was very very common until the 1870s. So please do not behave as if this is turning over the asylum to the inmates.

But let's grant Freeman's description. Actors, let me ask you: in what percentage of the current work you do is Freeman's description accurate as far as the way the director behaves? My experience: there are far more clumsy directors who fail to communicate their ideas and who treat actors like cattle than we would like to admit. Being given the title "director" does not automatically increase one's artistic skills, insights, articulateness, or sensitivity. What it DOES do is increase one's power.

What astonishes me about Freeman's response is something I have found to be all too common among theatre people: the almost complete unwillingness to imagine new ways of doing things. I'm not even talking about the courage to put those ways into action -- I'm just talking about imagining alternatives. Apparently, we have come to a point where the way we create theatre has reached a level of perfection that simply cannot be surpassed. Evidence of this perfection can be found on the stages of the nation, which are regularly filled with theatrical masterpieces. 'Tis bliss to be alive in such a theatrically rich time!

Complacency is deadly to an art form. Peter Brook knew that. Why don't we?


Whoa. Ouch.

(ducks flying accusations of complacency)

Scott Walters

*LOL* Not YOU, Freeman -- everybody! What I mean is that, when we stop questioning, then the theatre becomes moribund. I'll try to write about this in more detail on my blog.


Obviously I've joined this 5 months since the last posting, but I'm currently researching the director/actor relationship and it's similarity to business. It was interesting to read that the model of the director has evolved from a more collaborative approach, and I would dare to argue that perhaps this "project management" appraoch is a positive model. (Of course, this would also depend on the ability of the Director!)

Productions with a good director (not only artistically, but also someone who keeps the well-being of the cast in mind as much as the overall presentation itself) can surely be a good role model for businesses, as a) a director knows exactly what he is demanding from his cast and b) what support needs to be in place to achieve it. I suspect businesses that follow a similar model (manager - worker) do not have the same sort of success.

I would be very interested to tallk more with anyone on this site - although i'm not sure how to get in touch.

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