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SO, WHAT DOES THE ASSISTANT DIRECTOR ACTUALLY DO?

May 14th, 2012

Writing this blog entry I was reminded of a little snippet of conversation I once overheard in the bar after a show I had just directed. Two young girls had a copy of the play’s programme and noticed that I had worked as Assistant Director on a play they had recently seen:

GIRL 1: So, what does the Assistant Director actually do?
GIRL 2: Pretty much direct the whole show. I think.

Her guess was wildly inaccurate, of course and was doing a great disservice to the play’s actual director. But it does throw up a few questions about the role of the assistant director: What exactly does an assistant director do? How does an assistant director contribute to a rehearsal process and subsequent run? How do you get the best out of working as an assistant director? Of course, it is a difficult question to answer in any definitive manner as the criteria tends to alter from production to production, director to director, company to company. Nevertheless, I shall try and outline some of my experiences and thoughts on how to go about tackling the role.

First and foremost, you must get yourself into the correct mindset and understand from the very beginning that you are there to learn and support the work of the director as well as that of the actors and the creative and production teams. You need to keep alert in rehearsal as changes are made and ideas are discussed and develop a keen awareness of the particular elements of the process at hand. If you are resident at the theatre, like I am here at The Watermill, you will no doubt be asked to see the show once or twice a week and you may be called upon to give notes to the actors or feed back to the director in detail how the show is progressing. The director will have developed a specific language with the actors in rehearsal and it helps if you try to remain faithful to this language as much as is sensible and natural to you. If the actors have become used to talking about their character’s behaviour in a scene in a particular manner, then it would serve you well to observe this when communicating with the actor. If you get a chance, arrange a meeting with the director in advance of rehearsals. It’ll give you a chance to find out exactly what their ideas for the production are and what specifically they require from you in the rehearsal room. The director may have a specific role in mind or some research tasks to undertake before rehearsals commence. You will feel much more comfortable entering the room on Day One if you have prepared well. On the occasions when I have failed to do this, I have felt nervous, flustered and constantly playing catch up. So do your prep and give yourself the best possible platform to work from!

As for the tasks you could expect to perform, you need to be prepared for anything. In our recent production of Lettice and Lovage I was charged with looking after the “extras”, two groups of four that would appear at the beginning of the play. It was my role to schedule and run their auditions, rehearse them into their roles, create a coherent performance schedule throughout the run and give weekly notes sessions to keep things fresh and accurate. On other occasions I have directed understudies, hosted post show talk-back sessions, helped source sound effects and music for scene changes, explored the best way of using tricky props and furniture, helped keep track of the actor’s role in scene changes, assisted actors with line learning and line runs, remained “on book” to prompt in rehearsal and helped with the Deputy Stage Manager’s rehearsal room tasks. A large and important part of my work as assistant director has also been that of observation; observing the director’s process as well as how the actors communicate with each other and how they develop their performances throughout a rehearsal period. Sometimes the suggestions you are certain will be of great use to the director, illuminate the rehearsal room and unlock all the mysteries of the play, are best left to burn in your own imagination and would be of no help to anyone at that specific moment. You may of course be wide of the mark in your thinking and interpretation and it will inevitably leave you in an uncomfortable and embarrassing position! Tread carefully and work out the best way to complement the director’s process. You will find that this is a much stronger route towards gaining the respect of your colleagues and creating a positive identity for yourself in the rehearsal room. By all means, stay true to your beliefs and ideas (after all, these are the things that make us want to direct for the theatre in the first place) however always remain open to new processes and ways of working. I have certainly never walked away from a project and said “that is exactly how I want to direct my productions” but I have without a shadow of a doubt been influenced by each and every director I have worked with and by every rehearsal process I have been involved in.

Love on the Tracks, our next Outreach touring show, will be the sixth production I have assisted on at The Watermill Theatre, and will very likely be the last one before my year’s training comes to a close. I had a cracking time working on Some Like It Hotter back in October, and the opportunity to get out to some of the village halls and arts centres again is something I’m really looking forward to. There is something very special about the relationship between the audience and the work with this form of touring. I’ll never forget the opening night of Some Like It Hotter in East Garston Village Hall. The audience were raucous and vocal and the atmosphere was pulsating with an energy that can only be generated by a group of people thoroughly enjoying their evening. The play seemed to leap off the stage with the usual mix of nerves and adrenaline driving the actors on. It was exactly how the theatre experience should be! Preparation for Love on the Tracks has encouraged me to return to Anton Chekhov’s short plays. The Evils of Tobacco and The Proposal in particular are fantastic works of comedy. It has also introduced me to some of his wonderful short stories, which some might argue demonstrate Chekhov’s true genius. Richard Attlee, the play’s writer, has pointed me in the direction of both The Kiss and The Lady with the Dog which are both fascinating in their portrait of human behaviour. Get hold of them if you can and enjoy reading them.

Clive Judd
Trainee Director (Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme)




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