When it comes to directing, we all need help. From our cast, from our crew, from our designers. But what about for those less tangible aspects? Things like developing an approach to text analysis. Learning to effectively run a rehearsal room. Or even strategies for a crisis in confidence. Who can we turn to for help with these?
The answer might just be Katie Mitchell.
Mitchell has been labelled many things during her thirty-year career.
A revolutionary. A feminist. An auteur. An egotist.
Some consider her Britain’s greatest living theatre director.
Others are less enamoured.
Regardless of opinion, what isn’t in dispute is the intense way she goes about directing.
This rigorous approach is documented in her seminal book ‘The Director’s Craft – A Handbook for the Theatre’.
And for anyone who wants to be (or even “is”) a theatre director, it really is essential reading.
The Director’s Craft is divided into three primary sections.
Part One is ‘Preparing for Rehearsals’.
Part Two is ‘Rehearsals’.
Part Three is ‘Getting into the Theatre and the Public Performances’.
There is a Part Four called ‘Context and Sources’ which simply documents key influences on Mitchell’s career.
PART ONE – PREPARING FOR REHEARSALS
Sun Tzu, who wrote ‘The Art of War’, is credited as saying “Every battle is won or lost before it’s fought”.
Mitchell is clearly an advocate of this principle.
The scale of her preparation is beyond comprehensive. In fact, at times, it’s downright intimidating.
However, her detailed approach to text analysis provides a definitive platform to assume authority over a production.
The value of which, as any director will tell you, cannot be overstated.
BREAKING DOWN THE TEXT
Mitchell asserts the foundation for all directorial choices lays with identifying the facts of the play.
Practically, this means making a list of everything explicitly stated in the text.
Not what’s implied. Nor what is open to interpretation.
Only what’s EXPLICITLY stated.
As she does this, she’s also making a list of questions that arise from anything the facts don’t cover.
By starting here, it frees the director from having to make creative decisions before they’re ready.
Once the facts are in place, Mitchell turns her attention to the many questions she has.
They become the basis of her research into the world of the play.
When she talks about research, however, she doesn’t mean a bit of generalised reading.
She’s referring to an extensive investigation into every aspect of the text.
For example, her study of place extends far beyond just the play’s setting.
It also includes research into the town or city the play’s located in, where that might be positioned in terms of other major hubs, and even the overall socio-political circumstances of the country itself.
Equally as important is the concept of time. Beyond simply time of day, Mitchell explores historical context, political context and how the passing of time shapes each scene.
She also prepares biographies for every character in the play, creating a chronological outline of all the key events that have shaped them.
Traditionally, this has been considered the actor’s domain but Mitchell insists it’s also a directorial task.
Which is then discussed and negotiated with the actors in rehearsals.
Next, Mitchell sets her sights on the “immediate circumstances”.
Whereas identifying background facts involves listing everything prior to the play, immediate circumstances focus only on the twenty-four hours leading up to each scene.
Discovering these follows the same process as compiling facts. Record what’s explicitly stated and write up everything else as questions to be researched.
Mitchell’s entire MO is essentially list what’s known, question what’s not and research it.
Does it feel overwhelming?
But that’s the beauty of The Director’s Craft.
It very clearly illustrates how much work the job of directing entails.
There simply ain’t no shortcuts.
THE BIG IDEAS
Mitchell’s next step is to address the play’s big ideas.
First, she suggests reading through the text looking for an answer to one simple question
What is the play really about?
Mitchell recommends coming up with a list of ten or so possibilities.
From there, go back to the text and measure how many of the characters does this idea apply to?
If it’s the majority, it’s likely an overall part of the piece. If it’s just one or two character, it can probably be discarded.
By the end, the director should land on about four keys ideas that become the foundation on which everything else is built.
ANALYSING THE ACTION
At this point, Mitchell’s now ready to work directly on the scenes.
She starts by giving all the acts a name (assuming the play is structured with acts), noting however, the importance of assigning names that relate to all cast members. This inclusive approach ensures everyone identifies with it.
From here, she begins detailed work on the text using the concept of “events”.
Events, at their simplest, are a change in the action of the play.
They could be, for example, the entrance of another character, the emergence of a new plot development or simply a shift in conversation.
However, the simplicity of the description belies its difficulty in practice.
Unlike the more ubiquitous “beats” commonly used by many directors that mark a change in topic, events are based purely on shifting character intention.
Such a breakdown provides both the actors and the audience with a much clearer structure with which to interpret the play.
As the director goes through each scene, Mitchell recommends circling each event and giving it a simple name.
She also emphasises the importance of using neutral language to prevent any overt influence on the actors’ interpretation when it comes time to rehearse.
The next thing she does is interesting.
Once Mitchell has the events listed, she’ll then work out which one is the most important and label it “the main event”.
She does this in order to prevent one of the biggest issues with the work of inexperienced (and even experienced) directors.
The final step is to give all the action between events a clear intention.
Naturally different characters will have different intentions, but Mitchell stresses that whatever the choice is for each actor, there are no changes between events.
With these key mark-ups in place, there’s one final piece of the prep-puzzle to complete.
DEEPENING CHARACTER UNDERSTANDING
Mitchell’s last form of analysis involves taking a deeper look at the characters.
She makes a list of everything each character says about themselves before boiling it all down to a simple “I am… ” phrase.
For example, “I am a bad mother, poor, a great actress, ageing.”
Once she’s determined how each character sees themselves, she then repeats the process, but now identifying how they see the other characters.
“He’s my son, a burden, unemployed, my baby boy, a parasite.”
She reminds directors to not shy away from having conflicting statements about others as this reflects real life. And again, these should be distilled to a single phrase consisting of a noun and adjective.
So now, with hours of analysis ensuring the director understands the piece they’re directing, they’re ready to meet the production team.
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS WITH THE PRODUCTION TEAM
Mitchell identifies 7 key relationships to be developed. These are:
Here she covers the scope of each area (for example, “design” includes set, props and costume) and explains their respective functions.
She goes on to discuss how to establish clear communication channels with each of the specialised designers in order to effectively convey your ideas.
AUDITIONS & REHEARSALS
The final two chapters of Part One focus on casting and preparing the rehearsal environment.
In terms of auditions, Mitchell likes to separate it into four stages:
- Talking with the actor about their resume
- Asking them about the play and the character they’re auditioning for
- Explaining the process
- Giving them different tasks to play on a scene from the play
Interestingly, she makes no mention of monologues but only refers to scene work from the actual play (preferably with someone else reading across from the actors).
She also encourages questions from the actors, but warns directors to be prepared for this.
Often queries such as ‘Why do you want to direct this play?’ will be put forward, and having a confident answer will ensure the actor feels assured they’re in safe (or at least “competent” hands).
To wrap up Part One, Mitchell talks about the practical aspects of prepping for rehearsals, including working with a stage manager (one of the most crucial relationships a director will have), establishing communication structure and setting up the rehearsal room.
And now with all of the prep in place, the director is at last ready for rehearsals.
PART TWO – REHEARSALS
Mitchell opens this section by emphasising the need for patience.
Frustration often arises from an impatient desire for quick results. The process of finding character is usually a long one and the rehearsal room needs to facilitate this development.
Next, she offers 12 golden rules for working with actors. In the book, she elaborates on each, but in simple point form they are:
- Cultivate patience and long-term thinking
- Be consistent
- Don’t’ worry about being liked
- Make the text the mediator of any conflict
- Don’t automatically blame the actor if something goes wrong
- Always apologise (briefly) if you make an error
- Don’t use anyone as a kicking stool
- Don’t put time pressure on actors and don’t waste time
- Keep an eye on the actors “audience thinking”
- Keep clear the boundaries between actors’ private lives and the work
- Avoid last minute instructions
- Hold your nerve
After this, Mitchell discusses the importance of establishing a common language.
Every director (and actor) has their own vocabulary, but using a host of different terminology on the same production is counter-productive.
She therefore recommends directors taking time to think about their use of language and then clearly introduce this to the cast.
An example from Mitchell’s own vocabulary is the word “affinities”, which means our natural inclination to focus on the elements we like. She uses the term to remind actors they must adopt an objective approach to analysis rather than only moving toward the choices that resonate.
Another word she likes to use is “practice” rather “rehearse”.
She also avoids blanket adjectives like “good”, “bad”, “right” and “wrong”, instead choosing words like “clear” and “unclear” or “specific” and “unspecific”.
This segues into her next part which is on how to give feedback to the actors.
The first point she makes is to remain consistent through the entire process, regardless of if it’s an impro, a run through or a tech rehearsal.
Shifting language, tone and approach mid-way through the process will only confuse the actors and likely be counter-productive to what you’re hoping to achieve.
Mitchell goes on to provide a checklist of areas she references in offering feedback.
- Immediate circumstances
This covers all the foundation work the director did in prep, which can now be used to accurately guide the actor.
She also stresses the importance of giving short, simple sentences and staying specific.
She even goes so far as to say that if the director doesn’t know how to say something concisely, don’t say it at all.
Finally, she reminds directors to give praise in equal measure to criticism.
THE FIRST DAY OF REHEARSALS
Next, Mitchell moves onto dealing with first day nerves.
She suggests something physical as a starting point.
A movement workshop.
Some simple choreography.
Anything to get the actors out of their heads and into their bodies.
She also strongly discourages a formal read-through with an invited audience, instead opting for a reading where everyone sits in a circle and each person reads one line, including stage directions. This removes all pressure from the actors and often results in a fun, pacey first encounter with the text.
BUILDING THE WORLD OF THE PLAY
Here is where all the work done in prep, really comes to the fore.
Mitchell introduces the concepts of facts and immediate circumstances to the actors. Afterwards, she has them go through the text making their own lists. As with the director’s approach, the actors also make a separate list of questions that become the source of their own research.
She then has them conduct extensive research into all the key areas such as time, place and immediate circumstances.
This process, naturally, isn’t covered in just one rehearsal. It crosses over numerous days and leads into a practical analysis of the play.
She has the actors determine the key ideas and then how these might apply to their life. She has the actors create a short improv around this moment, noting any useful details that could be used to connect with their characters.
She also discusses working on emotions, which follows a similar process to that above. Instead of focusing on events, the actors discuss the core emotions of the piece and again, how any of them could apply to their life.
Character biographies are also addressed, with the director an actor conferring on their respective breakdowns.
Importantly, the actors also need to work together on ensuring all backstories are congruent.
This then evolves into work on the relationships and how characters see the people around them.
The term Mitchell likes to use is “building shared pictures” which the actors can collectively reference as they practice the scenes.
It ensures everyone’s using the same playbook so to speak.
WORKING ON THE SCENES OF THE PLAY
Mitchell’s approach to rehearsing the scenes is interesting.
For one thing, she’s a big advocate of improvisations. But with a very clear structure.
This ensures the action remains focused and directed toward a specific purpose.
For example, she’ll have an impro that focuses on only place. Or time. Or the immediate circumstances.
All the core elements that formed the foundation of her preparation process.
As for what she improvises, it could be anything that anchors key moments in the play.
The trigger event is one, that she introduces in Part One.
The “trigger event” is simply the moment that forms the catalyst for everything which follows prior to the play’s beginning.
Knowing what this is forms a launching pad from which other creative choices can stem, and Mitchell will often improvise it.
Other areas she may improvise are defining moments within the character’s biographies, immediate circumstances or things that happen between acts.
The essential element is to be specific in terms of context so that actors are highly focused in their purpose.
She also addresses the issue of actors who may be resistant to the ideas being improvised. Her advice is to start by assuring them improvising is only ever an exploration. Concrete decisions won’t be made until much later.
But if the actor still doesn’t want to do it, then asking them to come up with an alternative and improving that is an option.
Of course, this means coming up with context-specific instructions on the fly. However, the prep done beforehand means the director is well equipped to deal with unexpected developments.
WORKING ON THE SCENES
The closing section of Part 2 focuses on getting the play up and running which according to Mitchell accounts for around 60% of rehearsals.
She first goes through the events and intentions, and has the actors write down what they are.
Once these are collectively agreed upon, Mitchell has them read the scene with intentions acting as a guide.
After that, they’ll go through the immediate circumstances, time and place before finally getting the scene on its feet.
Here, Mitchell doesn’t allow the actors to hold the text. In fact, she’s adamant that when rehearsing, the actors should never be holding their scripts.
The “practice” is a mix of what the actors remember, and what they improvise.
She uses this template as the basis for all her rehearsals, emphasising that initially, most of the scene will be improvised. But then as the actors move into practising the scene a second and third time, the content should become more aligned with the text.
For many directors, blocking is where their rehearsal process begins.
However, for Mitchell lets it evolve organically in response to the actors’ intentions.
The strength of this approach is it prevents inauthentic movement from the actors.
Whether the audience is conscious of it, or not, a disconnect occurs when an actor moves simply because the director has told them to.
Blocking that engages and establishes clarity is only possible with a specific purpose driving the decisions.
And for directors who are not visually orientated or struggle with building clear pictures on stage, Mitchell suggests studying painters such as Caravaggio, Vermeer of Edward Hopper to see how they use composition and colour to focus action.
The most important part of a run-through, according to Mitchell, is to keep the same tone as all other rehearsals.
After that, be very clear with notes. Try to allow plenty of time, rather than cramming them in at the very end of rehearsal.
She also likes to ask the actors their thoughts before commencing. It gives them the chance to identify issues, some of which may be in the director’s notes.
The last point she raises is that as the run-throughs progress, expect tensions to rise. Actors may become increasingly resistant to notes, but the trick is to remain patient and remember it’s just an expression of their fear that opening night is fast approaching.
PART THREE – GETTING INTO THE THEATRE AND THE PUBLIC PREFORMANCES
This section is the shortest (excluding Part Four) and covers all the aspects of dress rehearsal, tech runs, opening night and managing the first few shows.
She offers a generalised overview on light plotting and programming sound cues.
And finishes up by discussing how to deal with press night, giving notes to the actors after the run has started, and analysing your own work after the show has ended.
As previously mentioned, Part Four is simply a summary of the influences that have helped shape her entire approach.
Obviously, there are many other components to the book that haven’t been covered here.
One of the very useful tools Mitchell’s uses is Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull to exemplify each step. Particularly throughout Part One, the way she gives practical illustrations is extremely helpful in facilitating understanding.
She also provides a listed summary of key points at the end of every section, further clarifying her ideas.
And then of course, there’s the overall tone of the book, which is anchored in the confidence and authority that only comes about from someone who knows what they’re talking about.
‘The Director’s Craft – A Handbook for the Theatre’ is truly an essential resource for anyone looking to develop their craft as a stage director.
Do you have a favourite book on theatre? Let us know below.