The Fine Art of Assistant Directing

A few notes on the experience and effective practices of an assistant director

Meg Roe in front of Tempest Set designed by Pam Johnson, Lights by Gerald King.

An assistant director is a strange buzzing creature. It is one of the most nebulous positions in the world of art, and it’s seldom spoken of critically. There are books written on directing, acting, producing, and designing but there are barely even articles about the fine art of assistant directing.

Well, a few months ago I worked as an apprentice director at the prestigious Summer theatre festival, Bard on the Beach. Bard is in its 25th year of operation and, under the tutelage of Christopher Gaze, has become one of the biggest theatre companies in Canada. I apprenticed under Meg Roe on her production of The Tempest.

I went into the process knowing very little about what was expected of me. When you ask, ‘What does an assistant director do?’ the answer always seems to be, ‘It depends who you’re working with.’

I should make some comment on the vague distinction between an apprentice director and an assistant director. Apprenticing has an educational capacity, mentoring under an accomplished professional, assisting is more often as a recognized peer. These terms are rarely used correctly in the professional world. For our purposes here, assisting and apprenticing are the same thing.

I’ve assistant directed on two projects and both were with massively talented artists. I imagine working with a shitty director would be an entirely different experience.

I

A few errant notes and thoughts on the process of assistant directing from the point of view of my experience working alongside Meg Roe:

Imagine for a second, you’re in a little rubber dinghy in the middle of the English Channel. Down in the water, swimming powerfully and even, is an elite athlete. They are attempting to cross the Channel and you are cheering them on, equipped with a few helpful resources. Don’t throw energy bars at them while they’re setting new breath stroke records.

Like working with a painter, you shouldn’t criticize any single brushstroke until you can see the picture as a whole. You have more to gain by watching the strokes come together.

You can, however, look at the general composition and observe things the painter may be too close to recognize.

Be patient. Superhumanly patient.

When you do give feedback, say your piece and leave it alone. Don’t harangue your point day after day. The director will hear you and absorb the information. Good directors are very careful and meticulous. Just as they give actors time to work out a note, they too need time to process even the best, most articulate points.

If a director doesn’t use your note, there’s a reason for it.

A director must figure out strategies. If they want an actor to come to a realization on their own, they must find the right way to guide them without pushing.

An assistant director does double duty. Their notes must not only accommodate the feelings and confidence of the actors but also the feelings of the director. You not only have to come up with a good note, you have to be able to articulately explain to the director why it’s a good note.

Directors have feelings too. If you’re careful with their heart, they’ll be careful with yours.

Theatre making is a process of acknowledgement – actors need acknowledgment to carry on with their bravest work. Directors get acknowledgment when actors take notes.

One of the first hurdles to overcome as an assistant director is this thirst for acknowledgement. There will be days that you wait 8 hours to share one note with the director. And it will likely be something that they already know. The cast may occasionally wonder why you’re there. You may occasionally wonder why you’re there. Assistant directing can be lonely work.

In a professional setting, you are the only one in the room who is mostly there as a student. Remember that. You’re not there to direct the play. No matter how badly you want to. You are there to support the director and the production. And most importantly, you are there to learn.

You’re not there to prove you’re a good director.

As much as you possibly can, be there. Be in the room. Be listening. Be present. Even if you’re silent, your presence matters. I took some time off rehearsal for work. Coming back from a few missed days felt like I was starting from scratch.

The Director, the stage manager, and the actors need a lot of things from each other. No one really needs anything from the Assistant Director. At least not to start.

Take advantage of this. You have the benefit of passive observation. You are in a real position to learn and you are also in the best position to see the show as the majority of the audience will: as a spectator.

You will spend many hours in the day actively listening. You will only get small recourse for response. When you’re called upon, you need to be ready. So: PAY ATTENTION. Be a sponge. Don’t make the director repeat themselves. When you get your opportunities, take them.

If you can’t clearly articulate a note, wait until you can.

You will give a bad note. Don’t beat yourself up over it, but own it (especially if the note’s been given to an actor – clearly, verbally take responsibility).

Get to the know the cast. Step out of your comfort zone and do it. It will help you enormously. Bard has an intensive before rehearsals start and the apprentice directors are invited to participate. This was a huge advantage. It fostered trust, identification, and care for each other. It set me up for success. If Meg allowed me to give a note to one of the senior actors I could feel confident that they, at the very least, knew my name and what I was doing there and, even more likely, that they respected and welcomed my feedback to their personal process. That’s huge.

II

At the end of my experience, I identified some stepping stones throughout rehearsals that helped me feel like I served the production, the director, and myself:

Before Rehearsal: Don’t be a pest, but get in touch with your director and see how you can be a part of the preparation. Prep is a huge part of the director’s work. I went for coffee at Meg’s house and we talked about her vision, my interpretation, and how I could contribute in the room. It took an hour and it set me up as a willing and enthusiastic teammate for the whole process.

Week One: Show the director you’re not an idiot. This sounds weird but I think it’s important. Make one valuable contribution. It doesn’t have to be a brilliant note or a huge revelation. I didn’t say ‘prove you’re a genius.’ For me, this moment came during a break when Meg was revising her bio for the program. She asked me to read it over to see if anything could be cut. I made a few respectful observations and she seemed to appreciate the feedback. It was really small but I think it was a big step in the direction of her trusting my opinion and precision with regards to expressing ideas. It can be anything though. Recognize your opportunities.

Week Two: Your back will be sore from passively sitting at the director’s table 8 hours a day. You’ll feel like you have a million ideas but they’re all sort of pointless because your director has them too. You don’t want to eat up their precious time telling them things they already know. You need to find a way to feel personal progress.

Take an active hand in what is going on. For me, this was difficult. I’m shy. Initiative is something I’m competent taking but I worry about stepping on toes. I had to quickly get over this. Every break, I made sure to tell Meg I had a few thoughts I’d like to share with her. Initiative can be simple and unobtrusive. Most of the time, she’d take a few minutes to sit with me and I’d share my three or four clearest notes. If she was busy looking at a costume change or speaking with an actor, she might not have a chance to talk with me. But I made sure she always knew that I had a few ideas locked and loaded.

Week Three: The director gives you a small island of ownership. You can’t force this. It might never come. Meg let me work on some lazzis in another room with the choreographer and cast. She didn’t use all our ideas but she used some. It cemented my confidence and established a working trust between the two of us.

Remember: This is not a one day mission. Something you fail at one day might have a huge pay off next week. I loved finding things I was wrong about. An assistant director is free to regularly revise and destroy their idea of what the play is.

Tech: Things go crazy at tech time. The hope is that the previous three weeks have established you as a competent and proficient assistant. I worked hard to take over some small details of moving from the rehearsal space into the theatre. I monitored site lines and kept track of specific dialogue that I could and couldn’t hear. This allowed Meg to focus on tech integration and more difficult problems.

We now had a solid framework and relationship. She could ask me direct and significant questions about the success of certain scenes and trust my feedback. She would massage, sometimes scrap, or even completely reblock those moments until they worked. She was tireless. The toughest moments, we attacked as a group and I was proud to be a part of that support team, manning the oars of the dinghy, as Meg and the cast swam on across the channel.

III

Working on The Tempest taught me so much, both as a director and as an actor. Here are a few scraps from my notebook:

The positive choice is almost always the more interesting choice. Don’t play the problem.

Shifts in status are interesting to watch and often generate comedy.

Surprise is anticipation.

Engage with the action rather than a quality.

Economy of physicality is important.

Giddiness is exciting.

Understanding the character’s journey will help you avoid playing the end at the beginning.

Make choices that cause you to be on voice. Internal choices can make it harder for the audience to hear you.

Heavy vs Light, Slow vs fast, Direct vs Indirect.

Punch, Press, Dab, or Glide. Wring, Slash, Float, or Flick.

As we get to the end of the play, we have to be even more precise and charged. That’s what gives it power and keeps the audience in – they see the end coming and they want that ball to keep rolling at its top kinetic energy.

The actor’s problem is the character’s problem. If the actor’s hands hurt from walking on all fours, so do Caliban’s. How Caliban solves this problem is how the actor solves his own problem.

Make a little wardrobe book organized by actor. Keep this in the rehearsal room for the actor’s to see.

Constantly reinvestigate the characters’ need for each other.

Don’t get behind schedule. Be firm.

How quickly can you get to the action off the top of the play?

If it’s there, go for it.

The Harpy Scene, Set by Pam Johnson, Costumes by Christine Reimer, Lights by Gerald King.