How do you train to be a theatre director?
While there are myriad ways to become a theatre director, as any professional will tell you, if you are looking for specific training there are four main routes available. Susan Elkin takes a look at the pros and cons of each
There is no tried and tested, reliable path to becoming a director. There are almost as many routes as there are successful practitioners.
And it pays to be entrepreneurial. Amy Leach, for example, who is associate director at Leeds Playhouse and whose acclaimed Hamlet runs there until March 30, says: “I didn’t train in an official way. I set up my own theatre company with friends from university when I graduated in 2002. It taught me a lot about creating work and why we do it. I also went back to my old youth theatre at Octagon Bolton and started assisting and delivering creative engagement projects for them. I learned how to run and get the best out of a room and my work today is still hugely influenced by what I learned when I was younger.”
She adds: “The great, yet scary thing, about a career in theatre directing is that there’s no one way to do it.”
Thomas Hescott, director, writer and executive director of Stage Directors UK, agrees. “There is no fixed way to become a director,” he says. “The costly master’s degree is not the only way in or the most effective.”
Hescott also points out that becoming a director is almost never achieved overnight. “It’s a long journey,” he says. “It is rare for someone to jump from university to assistant director to fully fledged director in the space of a few years. More likely, it’s a process that takes decades. And training doesn’t stop with education.”
So what are the usual training options for aspiring directors? Here are the main four.
Many directors train as actors in drama school and then eventually – and usually gradually – move into directing. Some, like Daniel Evans, artistic director at Chichester Festival Theatre, who trained as an actor at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, have very successful performance careers before attempting to direct. And Evans, for the record, refuses to rule out more acting in the future. So it can be a dual career.
Drama schools often run degrees in directing, usually at postgraduate level, so that the student already has a degree in drama, acting or some other subject – or relevant theatre experience – before embarking on it.
Mountview’s MA in Theatre Directing is led by director Peter James. He says: “Our course is extremely vocational. There is a dissertation and you leave with an MA, but the course is weighted on practical experience and skills development. We have created a route that takes you to a job.” Alumni include Michael Longhurst, incoming artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse, and Iqbal Khan, who works regularly at the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Other drama schools that run MAs in directing include the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. And LAMDA’s MA in Directing alumni include Rebecca Frecknall (2019 Olivier nomination for Summer and Smoke), Lucy Jane Atkinson (A Hundred Words for Snow – currently at Trafalgar Studios) and Tinuke Craig, who has The Colour Purple and Vass coming up at Curve Leicester and Almeida, respectively.
Some universities now run undergraduate degree courses in directing. There’s a BA (hons) in Theatre: Writing, Directing and Performance at the University of York, for example. Or consider the BA (hons) Directing offered by Plymouth Conservatoire. The conservatoire is a partnership between the University of Plymouth and Plymouth University and students are promised a lot of hands-on experience.
The most usual way for aspiring directors to use university, however, is to get a degree in some other subject – usually arts and often English or drama before going on to some form of vocational training, maybe on the job. Indhu Rubasingham, artistic director of the Kiln Theatre studied drama at Hull, Josie Rourke, outgoing artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse, studied English at Cambridge and Vicky Featherstone (London’s Royal Court) studied drama at Manchester.
Various schemes enable directors to train by working in theatres on shows. Take the Furnace Programme at Leeds Playhouse, for example. “We provide free or paid opportunities for directors at different stages of their careers,” explains Leach. “They range from paid trainee assistant director positions for people at the very start of their careers, paid trainee director opportunities and intensive workshops for early-career directors and resident directorships for those who are more established.”
She adds: “In the last year, we have hosted one resident director, eight trainee directors and welcomed back three previous trainee directors to direct professional shows.”
On a smaller scale, the Donmar, in the heart of Covent Garden, takes one resident assistant director per year for a 12-month position. There are quite a lot of opportunities like this in small or mid-scale venues because the industry is committed to career development.
Take the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme, which was founded in 1960 and has, over the last 59 years, developed the careers of dozens of successful directors. It arranges three-month placements and 18-month residencies in theatres all over the UK with an emphasis on reaching under- represented groups.
Now in its 20th year, the JMK Trust provides talented young and emerging theatre directors with awards, guidance and development opportunities and there are well-embedded director programmes at, for example, Young Vic Theatre and the BBC among others.
Look out too for opportunities to learn about directing, or to hone/refresh skills, on short or part-time courses. In London, Royal Central School of Speech and Drama runs a one-term, two-evenings-a-week course entitled Directing – An Introduction, while Identity School of Acting’s Introduction to Theatre Directing is taught intensively part-time over three weeks.
JMK sets up director workshops all over the UK continually. On April 9, there’s a three-hour workshop at Nottingham Playhouse, led by James Grieve of Paines Plough.
RTYDS also runs short courses across the country and is currently seeking regional theatres interested in hosting its Introduction to Directing (closing date for application March 25) with funding. Typically this involves 10 or more over-18s working in the theatre for at least five full days.
Visit thestage.co.uk/advice for more information about training
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