Thoughts on Theatre: Directing as an endless series of unbelievable details

2-time Tony award winning Broadway director George C. Wolfe once described directing like this: “To make a show go from good to very good, it’s very easy. It’s a series of very bold, smart things that you have to do. But to make a show go from very good to brilliant, it’s an endless series of details. An endless series of unbelievable details that lift it up” (from an interview in the documentary ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway 2006). This quote captures the work of the director. Lets briefly consider the two categories of work he suggests. First, what are these bold, smart things a director needs to do?

Most productions begin with a script. In some cases the director may get to choose the script themselves, or in other cases the script may be predetermined and the director is hired to direct it. In either case, choosing the best script is one of those bold decisions. In most plays and many movies, the director has some say in casting. Getting the best possible cast is paramount. These are the first two bold things a director must do. A poor script or the wrong cast and the production will be starting off with many problems.

Also, a director must have a vision for the play. A director must become very familiar with the script so that their analysis is thoughtful. The director must know the central theme and decide the basic look and style of the show. For example, Romeo and Juliet is famous as a tragedy, but it has many funny scenes and almost plays like a comedy. So, a director must resolve how to handle this paradox. And, a director must communicate their vision to the actors and to their design team.

If these are examples of the basic but essential things a director must do, then what are some examples of this so-called “endless series” of details needed to elevate a production? Of course, endless means “infinite” and that itself is part of the challenge: it never ends! There is no quantity or quality that a play achieves and then the director is finished. But let me give you some examples. In the TV series Breaking Bad Vince Gilligan once stopped filming a scene and made the painters repaint a kitchen a slightly different shade of green. A minute detail but a good director would never settle for the wrong color! While directing The Shape of Things in New Zealand, my set designer and my lighting designer got into a dispute over the color of one lamp on stage because the colors clashed and I had to decide the solution. For that same project, we were in an oddly shaped rectangular venue with irregular aisles — and I took numerous measurements of angles and distances so I could fine-tune the actor’s blocking to be more precise in that unusual hall. These are just a few simple examples of the kind of minute details a director must pursue that never, ever end!