At the Lincoln Center Director’s Lab, Artistic Director Andre Bishop had one lesson he wanted to impart most. “You have to understand,” he intoned in his authoritative baritone, “No one understands what you directors do."
The director’s art is frequently an invisible one. So how are we to know when a play is misdirected?
- Someone You Normally Like Does Bad Work. If an actor you love turns in a bad performance, it’s likely not their fault. Perhaps they were miscast, perhaps they were misdirected. Either way, the director probably deserves the lion’s share of the blame.
- The Production Is Sloppy. Ever since the days of Sam Shepard and Café Cino, there’s a certain brand of theater artist who thinks doing something as roughly as possible means it has integrity. While it is true that a certain ramshackle quality is exciting in some scripts, this does not carry over to directing. Productions may feel rough without feeling sloppy and ill-thought-out.
- Poor Transitions. The director’s art is not just about individual moments, it’s about how those moments are strung together—and not only from one scene to another, but from one beat to another within a scene. When those transitions seem abrupt, or the gaps between moments and scenes destroy the pace and momentum of the play, all the good work in the world won’t help the show achieve that magical liftoff we all know and love.
- You Know You’re Being Manipulated. Every time you see a play, you are being manipulated. You shouldn’t notice this, however.
- The Director is in Love With Toys. Does that set change really need to be automated? Does integrating video actually accomplish anything? Why is this music in Surround Sound? Why are there moving lights in this sequence? Technological advances are just storytelling tools. When used without taste, just for fun, they diminish the live feeling of the play and distract from the story being told.
- Bad Blocking. The director has few clearly defined parts of their job, but one of them is staging the show. Blocking is not just about who stands where, but about how the spatial relationships between the actors create meaning and help tell the story.
- It’s Business Time. Part of the process of making art is paring away the unnecessary bits so that we can focus on and unpack the real meat of the matter. Realistic stage business—snapping peas, cleaning the kitchen, smoking a cigarette—is only useful when it is either called for by the script, tells us something about the character, or can be used to reveal subtext. Otherwise, it’s a distraction.
(There’s a whole generation of directors that have been taught that doing a play well means inserting prop-related business so that the audience feels the play is more “real." I feel bad for them, as it’s a direct result of the cult of realism whose vice-like grip on the American theater has only now started to fade, and thus not really their fault.)
- The Actors Appear To Be In Different Plays. Performances need to be shaped so they agree with each other (or when they don’t, it’s on purpose). If thirty percent of the cast doesn’t realize they’re in a comedy, or if the lead is the only actor playing the rhymes in a Moliere play, or if actors have different stylistic takes on their parts, it’s probably the director’s fault.
- You’re Never Worried. If you never worry about something bad happening to someone over the course of the show, then the stakes have never been communicated to you. It will never thrill you, and it also probably won’t make you laugh.
- It’s a Shakespeare Play and Someone Grabs His Crotch To Indicate A Dirty Joke.
This list is only a partial one, of course. Directors—like dysfunctional families—can be bad in all sorts of inventive and unique ways. Still, with this list of ten main ways that directors manage to ruin the work of their collaborators, hopefully we can all begin to assign blame where it rightfully belongs.