Student Directing: Working With Your Peers

student directors - working with your peers
Written by Lindsay Price

Directors have to be the ultimate communicators. Not only do they have to communicate a vision, but they have to keep everyone on task during rehearsal. If you’re a student director, how do you manage this with your peers?

What is a director?
  • Someone who leads a group.
  • A person chosen to be in control.
  • A person responsible for the interpretation of a play.
  • A supervisor of the action on stage and the direction of the production off stage.

What all these definitions have in common is that a director is a form of boss. This can be difficult for the student director to grasp and implement: who wants to be the boss of their friends? How will a group take a director seriously who was fooling around at lunch five minutes ago?

This can lead to one of two disastrous situations:

  • The lackadaisical director who doesn’t lead their actors, letting them take control.
  • The dictator director who overstates their control, demanding that everything is done their way without exception.

Many first time directors are unaware that the relationships within a production and the tone of those relationships can make or break a rehearsal process. The process is as much about directing people as it is about blocking or character development. The play will suffer if a director fails communicate or set the right tone.

This is especially true for student directors riding the delicate balancing act of being friends with their actors at the same time as leading them.

The key to success for the student director is to strive to be a leader. Think of the cast as a community. The community is going to function best when there is someone leading the way.

 Exercise: Reflect on the following questions.
  • What are the qualities of a good leader?
  • What leadership examples do you have in your life?
  • Are you a good leader? Why or why not?

The Leadership Role

How do you get your actors to take you seriously?

A Good Leader needs the following skills:

Good communication: No one can see inside your head. Therefore, never assume actors know what you’re thinking. If you have a specific vision for the play, tell your actors. Tell them when they’re doing a good job. If there’s a disruption, talk about it. It’s not easy to give feedback to a friend, but it’s an important skill to learn.

Confidence: Sometimes you have to fake this. A leader must take charge. It’s not about being bossy but about leading the way. Being a strong leader will motivate your actors to work hard for you. Be decisive. Don’t apologize when you critique an actor or when you change your mind. Make firm decisions. Don’t worry if it’s the wrong decision. Rehearsal is a place where mistakes are not only OK, they’re encouraged.

Positive Interaction: You set the tone for your actors’ behaviour. If you’re sluggish, your actors will match your tone. If you’re energetic and committed, your actors will mirror that. If your actors are lifeless it’s your job to counter that attitude. It’s your job to inspire and encourage.

This doesn’t mean you have to jump up and down like a cheerleader or pretend to be happy all the time. Positive interaction does not mean manic joy. But the work won’t get done if you let a lifeless tone fester.

Collaboration: I stated above that a cast is a community and needs a leader. What that also means is that your actors are going to have input on how the community functions. A dictator will shut down any feedback. A friend will make any change the community asks for, which can lead to chaos. A good leader will collaborate with their actors. A leader can work with others’ ideas, know when they will work for the good of the community and be able to constructively turn down an idea. The most effective way to assess ideas is through a well-defined vision, which we’ll discuss shortly.

Organization: Have a plan for every rehearsal. It’s not necessary to stick to the plan, but never walk into rehearsal blind. It’s your job to know what’s going on. Never ask the cast, “What do you want to do?”


How do you rank your Leadership Skills?

  • Very good
  • Good
  • Needs work
  • Needs help

List three steps toward improvement for each skill that needs help.

Your Rehearsal Plan

The best way to show leadership is to be prepared.

You must have a plan in order to be taken seriously. Show that you’ve thought about the play in great detail, that you have vision, and you have conceptualized this vision. Idle rehearsals often lead to actors running amok.

What are the necessary steps to create a rehearsal plan?

Vision: There is more to preparation than blocking. The Vision is the first and the biggest step. It takes your interpretation and visual concept (such as costume and lighting) into account. Every element from characterization to staging should stem from the vision.

Conception: Communicating a vision is sometimes hard for directors – you must turn interpretation into conception. Translate a vision into concrete action for your actors. Having a vision is not enough, the director must bring that vision to life. How will the characters address your vision? How will the lighting and sound address your vision? How will the costumes address your vision?

Schedule: Before your rehearsal period starts, create a schedule from auditions through to closing night. Review the schedule before every rehearsal and decide on an action plan. Are you on schedule? What is your goal for this rehearsal? What do you need to accomplish? No rehearsal schedule is perfect and issues arise. You don’t have to stick to your schedule at the expense of the creative work. But having a schedule gives you a concrete anchor to stay on track. Communicate your schedule goals to your actors. Let them know what needs to happen. A Rehearsal Schedule Sheet is included at the end of this article. Fill this out in advance to give yourself a sense of what to expect.

Organization: Being organized also means being flexible. Just as you don’t have to stick to your schedule, you don’t have to organize every single moment of rehearsal. Rehearsal don’t have to be a robotic process. Being organized is more about being prepared when you walk into rehearsal. Review your schedule, know what scene you’re working on, read it, and review any notes you’ve made. Organize the first fifteen minutes of every rehearsal. Walk in, know exactly what you’re doing, know the warm up, know the first planned activity. Get down to work with purpose and your actors will follow suit. Use the Blank Rehearsal Sheet at the end of this article to plan individual rehearsals.

Routine: Having a routine works hand in hand with organization. Create a standard routine for your rehearsal. Warm Ups, Review Notes, Work on pre-determined scenes, Set up next rehearsal, End exercise. Create a shell: what is the beginning, middle and end? Actors like to know what they’re doing and what’s coming up next. If you establish a routine of starting each rehearsal with a warm up, actors will know what to expect when they walk in the room. Good work habits are borne out of following a routine.

Taking back the Leadership Role

How do you get back on track when a rehearsal goes off the rails?

It happens. An actor feels they know more than you and tries to take control. An actor disagrees with your vision or interpretation of their character. A discipline problem arises and it takes forever to get started. You’re way behind schedule and suddenly there’s a sinking feeling in your stomach. The rehearsal process is going poorly, and it’s your fault.

You have two choices: sink or swim. If you choose to swim that means sitting down with your actors and addressing the situation. It may a private conference with an actor that may get heated. No matter what, don’t yell at anyone in front of the entire cast. Yelling never works.

Bottom line, the leadership role lies with you – not with the other actors, not with your teacher. What you’ll have to do is start from scratch and establish a routine. Establish your vision. Show your actors that you know the play and you know how to move the play forward to production.

Download the PDF version of this article - additional worksheets are included!

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About the author

Lindsay Price