A director interprets a script and creates a “vision” for the production. But what does it mean to create a vision? Even though most plays in script form may look straight forward, it is an effort of artistic will to translate the page to the stage. So, what kind of things does a director have to figure out to have a “vision”?
To take one example, if someone is directing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, they must decide what it is about. For example, is it about aging? The American Dream? Fathers and sons? A careful reading of the play might reveal these or other themes, but the director will decide what to prioritize and HOW to express those priorities. If they want to emphasize the theme of aging, how should they cast Willy Loman? Or do Willy’s costume? How will it effect certain line readings?
A director may make choices that wildly depart form the original script. You will find many such examples in contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare. Over the years, I have seen Othello done as if the Moor were Maori. I have seen Hamlet done as if Hamlet were three different characters, played by three different actors. I have seen Troilus and Cressida done as if taking place during the British invasion of the Falkland Islands. Orson Welles was famous for his highly creative adaptations of Shakespeare, such as his “Voodoo” Macbeth and his “Mussolini” Julius Caesar, both on Broadway in the 1930s.
Some directors do not consider it appropriate to depart too far from the apparent intentions of the playwright. They feel it becomes disrespectful. On the other hand, when directors have such wildly divergent and original interpretations, we sometimes call this “conceptual” because it values the director’s concept over the playwright’s script. Conceptual, visionary directors can score big successes (as Welles did) when their versions excite the audience — but they will also be blamed if their concepts are boring, inappropriate, and otherwise fall flat.