Some Directing Terminology
Updated: Jun 25, 2022
Being completely honest, this is a very indulgent article which is intended to force me to define what I mean by certain terms core to my current practice which other people don’t necessarily use. But it may be of interest to other people.
Audience-Focused Practice: A key question, for me, is usually ‘what is the work doing for the audience?’ If theatre is a performer, a space, and an observer, we must always remember what we are doing for the observer. Of course, for some works what you have is a performer and a space; there, the audience becomes a witness, and it’s important to be aware of that distinction.
This partly comes from starting my directing work in comedy. If the audience stop laughing, it stops being comedy and becomes something else. I learnt to almost always be watching what the audience did with at least part of my awareness, and it’s a habit I haven’t un-learnt.
Language: From the above comes my concern with ‘language’. If I am doing a speech to my Pakistani side of the family, I might well slip into my broken Urdu for a bit, as the audience will understand it. If, however, I am speaking to the white side of my family, I’d view doing that as being at best ineffective, at worst almost rude in its refusal to try and communicate unless I made it reasonably clear what words meant from context. When making work, I do like to think that, if I’m using a strange language of performance, I help teach it to the audience early on so that they can enjoy the show.
A related principle is “cake, not vegetables”. By which I mean that far too many people talk about (especially new) opera (and, to a lesser extent, theatre) as though it was something eat because it’s good for you. Which is absurd, and I am generally of the opinion that this is why there is such a dearth of cake in the sector. I’m not saying all my shows are cake; nor am I saying that I actually dislike vegetables. But I do want to break the cake/vegetable binary a bit.
Colour/Flavour: the words I tend to reach for when I’m trying to say “the general mood/vibe/texture’ of a show. Colour sits more in the back of my head - often it’s a slightly lighter feeling - while flavour sits in my mouth - often a bit richer and darker.
Richness: It’s a difficult one, because I really avoid being snobbish where I can, and this idea does get close to it. I’d generally define ‘richness’ as ‘the depth of ideas in a work’. That might be that there’s one idea, very richly expressed, or lots of ideas expressed in a complex relationship. For example, an Margaret Atwood book will generally have a richer set of ideas about feminism and power than a cheap paperback that vaguely gestures at ‘living your dreams!’ and ‘having it all!’ but ‘oh no, sometimes people are unkind!’
To be clear: cheap paperbacks are sometimes great. But I’d tend not to say they’re rich. You can have a work that’s great and entertaining, but not rich.
In general, I’d say that rich works are often a lot more fun to direct or watch once you or someone else has already done it once. If a TV show is basically unwatchable once you’ve seen the twist at the end of the episode? Probably not very rich. If you’re still watching it after 20 years? It’s either comfort television (great) or rich enough that the ideas and textures between them are still interesting.
Texture/The Rhyme (or Harmony) Between Them (or Ideas): Closely tied to what richness means in practice: how the different elements of a piece relate to one another. In Shakespeare, it might be how the rhythm of a line relates to the idea it’s expressing and the importance of that idea at another moment in the play.
I find the visual and auditory metaphors of texture, rhyme, and harmony quite useful here because they then give the sense of roughness/smoothness (texture), precise perfection to strive for (rhyme), and things that are not quite easy to grasp, and may indeed be deliberately at odds with one another, but nonetheless people have an intuitive-ish sense of a relationship being there (harmony).
Intuitive: A bollocks word used when people want to avoid unpicking that most things are picked up from culture, and then identifying where that ‘intuitive’ idea comes from.
People: Generally good, trying to be good, and quite often not succeeding or having very strange ideas about what good is. But also, to be clear, in theatre we are not dealing with the real, and can therefore have absolute bastards on the stage with no redeeming qualities; it’s quite fun at times.
Not Real: Theatre’s not real - especially the epic forms like opera, Shakespeare, and comedy I tend to deal with, where each is reaching for a sense of something a bit bigger than the everyday.
Bigger Than The Everyday/Archetypes/Gods: One of my absolute favourite acting exercises in epic forms, used partly as a way to get away from the tendency towards Stanislavskian psychology—
Psychology: If you ever get the chance, do a show with a consultant psychiatrist in the lead role. I can assure you, all the nonsense pop culture psychology that gets used in a rehearsal room will be washed clean off you by the end of the process, and you’ll be left with a much more helpful set of tools to look at what a character is doing without having to pathologise it.
The best questions: do you have enough context to make that diagnosis? What, exactly, do you mean by that diagnosis?
Back to Gods: As I was saying, to break free of Stanislavsky can be a difficult ask. But by establishing that we are working at the bigger-than-everyday, and with characters who generally only have one or two impulses, we can ask ‘what are you the minor god of?’ For example, “I am the god of what is more-than-human,” “I am the god of loyalty to the crown [not its bearer]”, “I am the god of incomplete bridges” are all useful ways I’ve helped stagger my and an actor’s way towards a clear sense of an entity onstage.
Entity: Not everything has to have a mind. The witches in Macbeth being a clear example. By focusing on externals rather than internals, we can create something far more interesting than sitting down and trying to analyse what their grander goals are. All we know is what they say, and all they say is what their immediate actions are. They are at odds to the natural order, so they will seem thus. But we don’t know if they then, like Granny Weatherwax, go and have a nice cup of tea.
Granny Weatherwax: From Terry Pratchett. We will quote a lot of Terry Pratchett and Ursula Le Guin. One of her quotes we often come back to is the idea that evil is when you “treat other people as things.”
Meatpuppeteering: The thing I don’t do. Basically: when directors treat their performers as puppets made of meat, rather than as living, thinking people. If I wanted people who did exactly what I wanted, I’d work in animation. Instead, I work with people who can contribute, because if that’s who I’m working with that’s what we’re making.
Also, admittedly, a faith that I am not a genius. Yet.
We still make mistakes.
Conclusion: I am still, slightly, finding out elements of my voice as a director. The planets will be in a different orbit around each other next month (and there’s another metaphor I often like using when finding out how things fit together). But the above are key ideas I keep coming back to and find useful. Yes, it’s a bit wishy-washy in places, a bit vague and letting the human bit do a lot of interpretation. I hope that, backing that up with a hard core of script preparation, analysis, and research (even if historical research especially can mostly be useful so you can deliberately ignore it) - all the things you’ll have read about elsewhere - has led to a few productions that have been worth the audience’s time.
I do flatter myself in one regard: I’m pretty sure some of the work I’ve made with the above has been beautiful. And that’s the thing-feeling I cannot quite define, and the one thing above all I want my work to be.
After writing this, I added a few more terms here.