Thinking Like a Director: A Practical Handbook

Thinking Like a Director: A Practical Handbook

by Michael Bloom

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Bloom draws on nearly twenty years of directing and teaching experience to convey the full experience of directing for the stage, as well as the mindset that all successful directors possess. More than a mere set of guidelines, Thinking Like a Director details a technique that covers every facet of theatrical production, from first reading through final rehearsals. The key to directorial thinking, Bloom asserts, is a dual perspective—an ability to focus on both the internal lives of the play's characters and the external elements of the play's structure. In this illuminating, engaging, and accessible handbook, the art of dramatic interpretation and the craft of working with actors are integrated into a single, unified method.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780571199945
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 10/17/2001
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 312,913
Product dimensions: 5.53(w) x 8.22(h) x 0.76(d)

About the Author

In addition to directing throughout the United States and Japan, Michael Bloom is head of directing at the University of Texas at Austin. His writing on the stage has appeared in The New York Times and American Theatre magazine. Bloom directed the premiere of Donald Margulies's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Dinner with Friends at the Actors Theatre of Louisville, and he also directed premieres by Don DeLillo, Ariel Dorfman, David Hare, and David Lodge. He won the Elliott Norton Award for Directing for his production of Gross Indecency, and was nominated for a Drama Desk for Sight Unseen at Manhattan Theatre Club and the Orpheum Theatre. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Some textbooks and directing courses give the impression that a director's proficiency in certain skills, such as staging and composition, translates into great productions. But as with every art, technique alone is hardly sufficient. To be successful, a director must be creative, inventive, intuitive, and above all passionate. Passion is what energizes the director's search for the animus or inner life of a play. Without an enthusiasm for sharing stories, relating deeply to characters becomes laborious if not impossible, and directors who lack this passion tend to produce bloodless work. Just as an actor should have an ax to grind (a strong intention) when she comes onstage, the director-artist must have something to say. It need not be a social or political statement, and it should not replace or subordinate what the play has to say. It simply means a passion for communicating with a unique point of view. Having something to say is having a reason to tell a story, a reason to direct.

    as an art. In this environment, a background in literature and ideas was considered detrimental (in contrast to the English theater, where many directors used to prepare by reading philosophy at Oxford or Cambridge). A recent American comedy amusingly satirized the director as someone obsessed with making minute changes in the placement of furniture. But as the directorial profile has evolved from manager or craftsperson to full-fledged artist—not unlike the development of film directing—professional theaters genuinely committed to artistry have hired directors for their sensibility, taste, and vision—in other words, for their aesthetic. These attributes are very difficult to teach; paradoxically, they're best acquired by studying subjects other than theater.

    And so must a director, if he is to be an artist. "The great feature of the theatre," said Peter Brook, "is that the audience can enter very deeply into contradictions." By entering one point of view deeply and then another, he adds, "you can see what you can really do in life." In contrast to the media-dominated world of hype, speed, and sound-byte attention spans, theater has the potential to offer visions that are messy and conflicting, full and complex.

    Wright, described the sea change that occurred in his thinking when he first went to work as an associate director under the previous artistic director, Liviu Ciulei. According to Wright, Ciulei was

Thinking like a director entails far more than deciding where to place the furniture. It means knowing and accepting the responsibility of an art form. It requires a passion, intelligence, and sensibility as potent as the author's. Not every production can be as powerfully affecting as a Greek tragedy was for a fifth-century Athenian audience, but a director who is also an artist is always reexamining the possibilities of the theatrical form. Only when theater fails to live up to its potential does this sacred sense of purpose seem pretentious. If a director is to think like an artist, she must always be engaged in investigating the power and purpose of theater.


Although early directing textbooks hardly mentioned interpretation, it is now recognized as central to the director's work, informing every aspect of preparation and production. This progression is a late-twentieth-century phenomenon, occurring, not coincidentally, after the rise of relativism and psychoanalytic theory. In the theater, the reexamination of the classics by directorial titans such as Peter Brook, Ingmar Bergman, Peter Stein, and Giorgio Strehler; the American avant-garde movement of the late 1960s; and the emergence of modern directorial training have all contributed to a growing appreciation of the director's interpretive function.

    carries multiple meanings. Even a simple question such as "Can you take the bus to the store?" has more than one interpretation. The situation of a play is far more complex, especially as it takes on new sets of meanings after a playwright is no longer in attendance during rehearsals. Using the word "afterlife" in his excellent book Subsequent Performances, the British director Jonathan Miller describes this transformation:

Producing a play in its afterlife requires significant interpretation because of the difficulty of divining a deceased author's intention. You don't have to subscribe to fashionable critical theories to recognize that a playwright's written instructions, while sometimes useful, are rarely complete and not always practical. It would take hundreds of pages of notes to convey what is meant by every line of a play, yet what a playwright normally leaves to posterity is a set of declarations meant to deflect criticism, or to support or counter the tendencies of the original production. When followers of a playwright have tried to foster an orthodoxy based on their personal knowledge of the original production, the results have often been stultifying. For example, to see how the plays of Chekhov and Brecht were produced after their deaths—at the Moscow Art Theatre and the Berliner Ensemble, respectively—is to understand that a personal connection to an author does not guarantee a vibrant production. Just as misguided are the claims for presenting Shakespeare "as it was originally produced." These productions tend to be theme park novelties based on scant historical evidence that is in itself open to wide interpretation. Besides, even if we knew exactly how a playwright's work was originally produced, these methods would appear hopelessly quaint when viewed through a contemporary lens.

    audience, yet theater has no choice but to be contemporary. Because audience perception changes with time, interpreting a play necessarily involves making choices about what it means in the present. Theater couldn't remain a living art form if it failed to acknowledge that audiences themselves are engaged in interpretation. Much of the excitement in producing a period play lies in exploring how it lines up with the zeitgeist. After all, theatrical performance is a living, breathing object in the particular world in which it is created. Denying the present curtails a play's resonance, effectively consigning it as a museum artifact. When I approach a play from another era, even a classic, I like to imagine that it has arrived over the transom direct from the author, without the benefit of a celebrated history. In other words, every production should prompt the question How do I—as a director in my time—make this play work? At the same time, a play's integrity in production depends on a director's adopting a sensible approach to interpretation that, for Jonathan Miller, and most accomplished directors, takes into account "common sense, tact, and literary sensitivity." Directing Hamlet as a comedy would clearly be in violation of these guidelines.

    communion between a play and its particular audience in ways that delight and surprise. Changing the original time and place of an older play, a frequent directorial choice, can be effective when it is done with ingenuity and a respect for the audience. But making a play live for a contemporary audience doesn't justify any and all choices, such as automatically transposing it to a contemporary setting, a practice—especially popular in the 1970s—that can destroy a play's complexity.

    to her aesthetic and to the play. Being creative and humble before a play's essence is one of directing's supreme challenges. There is a thin but recognizable line between this perspective and that of the auteur who uses a play to promote anaesthetic, an agenda, or a reputation, presenting, in effect, a gloss on a play rather than the play itself. At the same time, productions such as the Wooster Group's imaginative revisions of Three Sisters and The Crucible possess a validity that stems in part from the fact that they are clearly presented as new works (with new titles) created by a director.

    narrower, especially with the playwright at rehearsals. Having directed the premieres of many new plays, I can attest to the value of having an author share his motivation or intentions behind a work. Knowing the writer personally can only help the director grasp her point of view and the imaginative world of the play.

    suggestions often need to be reworded, or even interpreted. Occasionally an author may not even know or remember the original basis for a phrase or circumstance. When Peter Hall was directing one of Harold Pinter's early plays, he asked him in rehearsal about a particularly gnarly moment. Pinter paused-of course—and then confessed that the playwright's intention behind the moment had been lost! When the playwright isn't present, the need to interpret her directives is even greater. This is made strikingly clear by seeing how different two (or more) productions of the same play can be, even when guided by a playwright's virtually identical instructions.

    director. But it need not be arbitrary if it includes the director's two perspectives: an examination of the characters' actions (the internal view) balanced by a grasp of the play's structure (the external side). The following four chapters attempt to demystify interpretation by breaking it down into a number of components. Ultimately, the best directors come to realize that the interpretive task, though great, is not theirs alone. They recognize their collaborators—actors, designers, and technicians—as partners in the process.

Excerpted from THINKING LIKE A DIRECTOR by Michael Bloom. Copyright © 2001 by Michael Bloom. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

Bob Brustein

It's rare for a 'how-to' book to be at the same time so practical and so literate.

Gilbert Cates

More engaging than a textbook, Thinking Like A Director is a concise and highly practical guide to the craft. It's required reading for young stage and film directors, students, and anyone who wants to know what a skillful professional director does.

David Lodge

Thinking Like a Director is a lucid, concise and admirably undogmatic manual for aspirant directors, from which writers, actors, and ordinary theatergoers will also learn much about the complex business of putting on plays.

Arthur Kopit

With a relaxed, informal style, Thinking Like a Director captures the experience of stage directing as well any book I can think of. Its section on working with living playwrights is a welcome addition to the literature, useful to playwrights as much as directors, and Bloom's writing on language will be highly informative for actors, too. I would think every drama school would want several copies.

Ariel Dorfman

If I ever decided (Heaven and Hell forbid) to direct a play, I'd be sure to have Michael Bloom's illuminating and indispensable text nearby to guide and challenge me, step-by-step, as I found my way.

Mariette Hartley

Michael Bloom's deeply instructional and encouraging primer takes the mystery out of the art of directing without taking out the joy. I've never seen anything quite like it.

Donald Margulies

Michael Bloom's Thinking Like a Director helps fill the void of practical handbooks that are available to theater directors. It is smart and lucidly written and should prove to be an invaluable guidebook for students and emerging directors.

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