Directing the Details


So…what does a director do?

It’s a difficult question, and a little too broad to tackle in a neat, concise fashion. Like other lofty questions (such as “What is theatre?” and “Why do we tell stories?”), it’s easy to throw a lot of words at the subject without feeling like you’ve gotten a complete picture.

The function of a director is further obscured because the audience doesn’t directly experience their work. When it comes to opening night, the director has (hopefully) finished their contribution to a production, and the audience sees their work only through the final product created. If you ask a random theatregoer to evaluate the direction of a show they saw, they will often equate it to the overall success of the production, but struggle to reflect on what the director’s specific involvement was.

Also, EVERY director is a different beast. We sometimes draw from the same techniques, but no two directors work in the exact same way. Ask an experienced actor who has been in the room with dozens of directors – there is a crazy range of styles.

That’s why assistant directing can be valuable for a director: you get to be in the room and watch somebody more experienced than yourself work. The point is not to try to emulate that director in the future, it’s to watch a process happen in a different way, challenge or re-affirm your own technique, and hopefully make some valuable discoveries along the way.


Director Dale McFadden talks to Tess Cunningham (Chris Mundy) and Jason Craig West (Gerry Evans) in rehearsal.

Watching Dale McFadden direct Dancing at Lughnasa has been fascinating. At times, he works very much like an engineer: with a specific eye for the machine he’s building, he crafts very small pieces with precision. He’ll often deal with a handful of acute details in quick succession, before taking a step back to see what he’s built. If the machine is running well, he’ll let it run. If it’s malfunctioning, he’ll put his gloves back on and return to work.

Having a deep level of specificity serves the story of Lughnasa well. Much of the play simulates the daily life of the five Mundy sisters, and there is an abnormal amount of activity and stage business: clothes are ironed, bread is baked, groceries are unpacked, gloves are sewn, chickens are fed. The repetition of chores helps us feel the release of the women when they stop everything to dance to the radio – we understand their need to escape.


Meaghan Deiter (Maggie Mundy) kneads her bread dough.

So the craftsmanship that Dale is providing by breaking down each detail is essential – without the sense of realistic specificity to the stage business, we won’t be as engaged with the world of the play. For the actors, knowing their exact movement allows them to inhabit the story more deeply.

On opening night, will the audience realize the amount of time spent in rehearsals working each activity with careful detail? Probably not, nor should they. If the play is successful, this work will serve the larger purpose of the story and help the audience believe in a living, breathing world.

So I guess you could say even the audience’s attention was… directed.

James Nelson is a first-year MFA directing candidate. He is currently assistant directing IU Theatre’s season opener Dancing at Lughnasa.

About IU Theatre Department

Welcome to the 7th & Jordan blog. This blog is a peek behind the curtain at the productions and people at Indiana University's Department of Theatre, Drama, and Contemporary Dance.
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