Conducting an orchestra or being a one-man band? (Oct 2010)

So at last Harvey takes on a life of its own and we’re into the last panicky couple of weeks before the curtain opens and a real live audience sits expectantly waiting to be uplifted by a glorious evening’s entertainment….

Behind the magic of theatre there is so much to be done to get it up and running.  Taking responsibility for this is the director, a person whose role extends far and wide and encompasses all key decisions (except budgets): selection of the play; creative direction of the play and cast; appointment of cast and crew; devising of lighting and sound cues; sourcing of props, arranging transport etc.; design of set; approving costumes; organisation of rehearsals, set building, technicals, front of house, ticket sales, refreshments, raffle prizes, everything.  In fact, every aspect of the play!

The only thing you don’t get involved in is actually being there on stage and spouting forth lines, though since amateur companies rarely if ever employ understudies it is far from unknown for the director to have to learn a part at very short notice, don the britches and set forth to act.  It happened to me once – I had to sack an actor from a production since he didn’t bother to turn up for rehearsals, then appointed myself as romantic lead, opposite an actress to whom in a previous production I had had to propose marriage every night of the run.  She never accepted even once, but at least both shows went down well with their respective audiences!

Speaking with my actor’s hat on, acting is the best part, the place where you get the buzz, get the character inhabiting you, feel the adrenalin flowing, hear the laughter and applause, hear the greasepaint and smell the audience… where the director paces nervously at the back of the hall, as powerless as a football manager, muttering under his breath : “No, you blithering idiot, I told you to say that quietly while standing downstage right!”

Of course the director does delegate where possible, but in the context of amateur theatre the options are rather restrictive: you can’t dragoon anyone as paid employees, so you have to wheedle and grovel to persuade people to give up their valuable time and participate in whatever activity fills the void.  Sometimes you must extemporise because the ideal solution is simply not available, for whatever reason, but since the show must go on, if nobody else is available.  Where in professional theatre the director is conductor of an orchestra, the amateur equivalent often feels like a one-man band, supported ably by the committee.

Meanwhile, the director must decide on his or her style.  Theory would suggest you can adopt one of several styles, or a combination thereof:

The dictator
In this style of directing, the director has a strongly assertive role and is very dominant in the process of creating a theatrical work. Rehearsals are more or less fully controlled and predictable, with the actors having little or no say.

The negotiator
‘The negotiator’ is a style of direction in which the director focuses on a more improvised and mediated form of rehearsal and creation, using the ideas of the production team and actors to shape a theatrical work in quite a democratic style.

The creative artist
The director sees himself or herself as a creative artist working with the ‘materials’ of dramatic creativity, be they the actors, designers and production team. The “creative artist” wants input from the actors but, as artist, has final say over what is included and how ideas are incorporated.

The confrontationalist
In this style of directing, the director is in constant dialogue and debate with the cast and the production team about creative decisions and interpretations. The director seeks out and actively engages in such exchanges. Out of these exchanges, which can sometimes be heated or risky, comes a final contested product.

Guess I am probably more of the creative artist school since I generally know how I would approach the task if I were playing that character, and by and large I welcome ideas from the cast which we can try out in rehearsal before deciding on the final approach.  I would be an awful dictator – far too much of a democrat for that, but I’ve met some true gorgons in my time, directors who breathed fire and woe betide a humble actor who crossed them!  They would be mincemeat before the rehearsal was out….

But in the final analysis, what satisfies me as an actor and a director are happy faces among the audience and the cast and the crew.  Amateur theatre is addictive – you want more more more!!  Wonder if I can get anyone to pay me to do it… 😉

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