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Taking the first steps in a directing career

Kate Saxon, co-chair of stage directors UK. Photo: Darren Bell

Of any job in theatre, the role of assistant director can be the hardest to pin down.

“Sometimes, you walk into a room and you’re the director’s right-hand person,” says Rafaella Marcus, who graduated from Birkbeck’s Theatre Directing MFA course in 2014. “Sometimes, you’re the bottom of the rehearsal room hierarchy.”

The cliches can be true. If directing is your vocation, you’ll most likely start as an assistant director and you’ll probably end up making a cup of tea or doing a lunch dash. But that’s likely to be just one of a range of tasks you’ll face. So, as well as (hopefully) having some creative input, what else can you expect?

Depending on a show’s budget, the type of venue and how much a director actually wants you in the room, as an assistant director you could find yourself responsible for marketing and scheduling, as well as rehearsing actors. Your relationship with a director might involve mentoring, or not. But assisting should be an opportunity to observe and learn.

In 2014, funded by a JMK Trust regional bursary, Dan Hutton won a place assisting James Dacre on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate.

“What I learned most was about things like Equity hours and doing the calls, about when breaks are needed,” he says. “They sound banal, but I learned so much about how to run my rehearsal room.” Hutton’s production of The Spanish Tragedy is now running at the Old Red Lion Theatre in London.

In addition to schemes like the JMK Trust’s bursary, some drama schools offer assistant director placements. While at Birkbeck, Marcus spent nine months at Sheffield Theatres. “I’d never been inside a building that big, or worked on shows of that size, that involved so many people,” she recalls. “Seeing how all those networks fitted together was incredibly useful.”

Residencies provide useful continuity – a time to bed down your skills. Bobby Brook was recently resident assistant director at Theatre503. “The joy of being with a venue is that you have that network and that support,” she enthuses. “You can turn to someone.” It’s also a valuable opportunity to form links with other directors, who’ll hopefully then come to see your shows.

These relationships, successfully forged, can lead to the kind of repeat work with established directors or companies that will give you the clout to realise your own projects. “All my assisting jobs have felt like ‘right place, right time’,” says freelance director Hannah Joss. The personal connection is crucial. “Directors are individuals,” she continues. “They want to be able to go, ‘I could have that person in my rehearsal room.’ ”

Dan Ayling, who has assisted directors such as Lucy Bailey and Katie Mitchell, says you need to create opportunities – especially if you are not resident at a theatre or with a company. “It’s about having seen a particular director’s work, writing to them and saying: ‘I really liked your show, can I assist you? Or meet you for a chat?’ ” he says. “Maybe some people don’t think that’s possible, but I know a lot who have done it.”

Assistant directing can be rewarding, providing first-hand insight into the relationship between director and writer that you can adapt for your own work. But be careful you don’t end up overstretched. “It can sometimes feel like every department is trying to take a bit of you,” says Brook, who is experienced in fringe theatre. “Ultimately, you’re there to serve the director.”

Freelance director Hannah Joss. Photo: Josh Tomalin
Freelance director Hannah Joss. Photo: Josh Tomalin

Brook has advised Stage Directors UK on a new contract devised for assistant directors. This agreement – launched in January – is intended to prevent exploitation. It has been sent to SDUK members, supporters, commercial and subsidised theatres and companies, as well as agents who represent directors.

One of the contract’s key features is a section to be agreed on by a show’s producer, director and assistant, outlining the extent and nature of the assistant’s duties, from making tea to whether the director will provide mentoring. “This list is about making sure that everyone’s on the same page,” says Brook, addressing the potential variety of the role.

This is the first contract from SDUK, formed in 2014 to represent the interests of directors. It became a priority, explains co-chair Kate Saxon: “A lot of our younger members felt they didn’t have any protection at all, and didn’t know where to turn for it.”  The contract also recommends pay rates for West End, commercial, publicly funded and fringe theatre.

“That’s one of our biggest things,” says Saxon. “We want people to be paid for their work. It isn’t a hobby, it’s a professional job.” Though being paid for early-career work, particularly on the fringe, is not always feasible, she adds: “We tell our members that they need to look very carefully at what they’re going to gain. And if they’re unpaid, everyone on the production should be.”

While the contract is currently unenforceable because SDUK is not a union, Saxon is optimistic that venues and companies will pick it up, arguing that clearly defined remits are useful for everyone. “I think we’ve ended up with something that’s balanced for all the parties involved – assistant, director and producer,” she says. “I hope they’d look at it and go, ‘Oh, that’s good, because I can be very clear.’ ”

If you are a young director, joining SDUK could make a big difference. And while actors are still the majority of its members, Equity also has a Directors and Designers Committee that meets four times a year. Ayling, an Equity councillor, says there have been discussions about establishing a West End agreement for assistant directors.

One day, Ayling suggests, SDUK and Equity, with its trade union powers, could work together. Meanwhile, freelance directors such as Joss are hugely encouraged by the emergence of SDUK as a voice for directors, and by its contract. “It gives you leverage,” she enthuses, adding: “It’s really made me look, psychologically, at how I viewed the role of assistant before.”

If you are about to take the plunge as an assistant director, you are not alone. There is support out there – and it is growing.

Tom Wicker is a freelance writer and reviewer for The Stage


Resources for assistant directors

• Stage Directors UKUK-based professional body dedicated to dealing with all directors’ issues. For more information, see: stagedirectorsuk.com

• Equity Directors and Designers CommitteeAdvises the Equity Stage Committee on any issue related to Equity members who work as designers, directors or fight directors. It submits industrial claims and agrees settlements. For more information, see: bit.ly/EquityDDC

• JMK TrustWith venues around the UK, the trust runs a regional assistant director bursary offering emerging directors the chance to work on a production at their local venue. For information on the scheme, see: bit.ly/JMKregional

• Birkbeck – MFA in theatre directingFor information, see: bit.ly/BBKdirecting

• Resident assistant director positionsMany theatres have opportunities available. Contact them direct for details.