The assistant director is one of those interesting theatrical enigmas. They certainly serve a vital role in a production, but they rarely have a clearly defined role and usually end up serving in whatever capacity the director needs them to. That can be anything from getting coffee to staging entire scenes. I’ve also seen directors just arbitrarily give someone the title of assistant director because the person had nothing else to do.
My first experience as assistant director was for a community theatre production of The Rocky Horror Show. The director also happened to be playing Brad, so my main function was to either serve as his stand-in so he could look at blocking or be his eyes when he was on stage. It was a good time. My next A.D. experience, and the one where I probably learned the most, came during my first year of grad school.
As theatre grad students, we were often given opportunities for leadership roles in lots of different areas. Though I’d primarily thought of myself as a performer up to that point, directing was something I was becoming more and more interested in, so I agreed to be the assistant director of our production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The director was one of my professors and we had a good rapport. I realized pretty quickly that this experience would be different from Rocky Horror. Before, I was working with people that I didn’t know all that well. We rarely socialized or did anything outside of rehearsals. The power structure and dynamics were clear. But now I was suddenly working with my classmates and friends, people that I saw daily and spent time with socially. This didn’t present any real challenges insofar as my authority in rehearsals, but it did teach me a few things about pivoting to a more professional role with people that you know well.
My first lesson in this came during one of our first rehearsals. A friend of mine was playing one of the leads and before they started working on a scene, I facetiously said “don’t mess it up”. The director wasn’t pleased. I suddenly had to adjust my headspace a little bit. Friendly ribbing read differently as an assistant director in the rehearsal space.
One of the other little nuances I began learning to navigate was just how much agency to give myself and how much I should assert. The director was always good about asking me if I had any thoughts or notes at the end of rehearsals, but was it my place to give certain notes? I, of course, felt like it was well within my bounds to give notes on things like sightlines or actor volume. But what about acting notes? I ultimately decided to position myself as an audience member who happened to have a good understanding of the play’s text and give the director my notes through that lens. One of the things I learned in undergraduate stage management class was that a stage manager should identify problems, not propose solutions. I took the same track and simply relayed my observations without suggesting changes unless I was specifically asked.
The big thing I was tasked with was to stage a pre-show scene that tied into the director’s concept for the show. In our version, Benedick and Claudio were soldiers returning home from war. The director came up with the conceit that Claudio had lost his hand in an injury during battle and wanted a brief scene at the very top of the show showing that battle. It sounded like a cool idea. We had swords and everything.
I enlisted the help of a fellow grad student who was actively getting certified in fight choreography. He knew his stuff and helped us safely stage some pretty impressive stage combat. The director wanted us to include the moment Claudio’s hand gets lopped off by a sword, so we spent a lot of time figuring out what that story was and how to safely stage it. I don’t remember exactly what we came up with for that moment, but essentially, we decided the blade would end up getting slashed across Claudio’s wrist. To make a long story short, it was a challenge trying to figure out how to do this without hurting the actor. We seemed to find a solution, but at one point he started getting cut by the blade, which had some knicks in it. They were superficial cuts, but when it comes to blades being swung around, any injury is a reason for pause. The actor was told to just make sure he wore long sleeves, but I felt like perhaps more needed to be done. And there were a few other times where I didn’t feel like the stage combat was being rehearsed entirely safely. But what did I know? I was just a first-year grad student with an experienced director and a fight choreographer who had certifications and training. Maybe I was just being too protective. If the director isn’t concerned, is it my place to speak up?
But the actor kept getting cuts. We mentioned it to the fight choreographer, but we never really came up with a solution. Being a fully committed and diplomatic undergraduate actor in one of your first shows, as he was, he didn’t want to make a fuss. But I was worried that superficial cuts could lead to something worse. I knew that taking on even an assistant directing role means taking a new level of ownership over a show, and that means taking ownership over problems. Of course, I didn’t have a lot of experience in just how to own and address those problems. Finally, I decided that if I was being tasked with staging this fight, and someone was getting injured because of the fight, it was my place, and obligation, to say something. I decided to go to another professor who was also the theatre school’s production manager. He very quickly addressed the issue by making it clear that real weapons would no longer be used in the scene. I was later told that going to him made it seem like I was going above the director’s head (or behind his back). That wasn’t my intention, and I had my reasons for taking that path, but in hindsight I of course understood how me going to the production manager came across. Which brings me to my next dynamic…
Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in a college theater department…or any department really, may not be surprised to learn that internal politics run rampant. People do things because they don’t like someone or because they want to impress someone or because of many, many other reasons. As students, we were privy to a certain amount of department politics, but when I stepped into a production role, I suddenly became part of them. I don’t want to air anyone’s dirty laundry, but I’ll just say it was…interesting. Sitting in production meetings and overhearing things suddenly made me feel oddly like an insider, privy to things my peers weren’t. I felt like I was becoming a little bit of a department secret-keeper. There were times when I actively had to stop myself from spilling a juicy piece of gossip I’d picked up (after all, gossip is what bored and angsty theatre students do best).
All in all, the experience was a good one (and a valuable one). It was a good exercise in trusting your judgment and learning to speak up (even if I didn’t necessarily go about it entirely in the right way). In retrospect, I’m glad that the people I was working with were professional and mature enough to understand and respect the dynamics in the rehearsal room. I think it was helped by the fact that, like many college theatre programs, our department regularly gave undergraduate and graduate students positions of authority in production situations. It was part of the culture. Although, this was the first college I’d attended where students were routinely put into roles beyond stage managing, like assistant directing or vocal coaching. I’m glad that the program does what it does in this capacity; it taught me valuable, practical skills and a level of maturity and professionalism that I still apply to this day in leadership positions. I hope that college and university theatre programs continue to utilize student assistant directors in formalized production roles.
If you’re interested in seeing how assistant directing works in other theatre programs, here are some resources from Barnard and Appalachian State University. And here is some great insight from a professional assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Oh, and if you’d like to find out more about stage combat, check out our blog post on Stage Combat: A Beginner’s Guide.