GOALS AND PRINCIPLES
The goal of the Professional Director Training Program in the Theater Division of Ohio University’s School of Dance, Film, and Theater is to prepare students to be professional directors at the very highest level of the American theater. We aim to be among the best director-training programs in the nation – in faculty mentorship, curricular exposure and production opportunities.
Admission to the MFA Directing Program is both extremely competitive and rigorous. Currently I recruit two out of every three academic years – for example, I recruited for the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 academic years, but will be skipping recruiting for the 2017-2018 studio. This means that at any given time I am working with four graduate directors, which allows for an extraordinary level of personal mentorship. The primary venue for recruitment is the University/Resident Theatre Association (URTA), the nation’s oldest and largest consortium of professional, graduate (MFA) theater training programs and partnered professional theater companies. Anywhere from 40-55 applicants apply to our program through the URTA process, of which approximately 15-25 are interviewed in New York and Chicago. This is followed by campus visits (I usually invite 6-8 candidates), from among whom two directors are chosen for admission to the program.
It is my firmly-held belief that director training should be anchored in both theory and the practical realities of the profession. Naturally, students need to learn the fundamental concepts of directing – script analysis, conceptualization, the design process, table work, and principles of staging. Without these basic skills any director would be lost. But I’ve always felt that too much emphasis is put on theoretical matters and not enough on practical issues (i.e. the director-stage manager relationship, the basic guidelines of the Equity rehearsal process, etc.).
Another important principle that I adhere to in the training of young directors is that they should study acting and the design process alongside actors and designers. Learning what actors go through in order to craft a character, how they approach the emotional, physical and vocal demands of a performance, and how complex the process can be on all those levels, gives them a deeper appreciation of the craft of acting, and how delicate the underpinnings are. I’m also convinced that the experience of performing onstage engenders respect for the courage it takes to be an actor, and allows for a more respectful approach toward the director-actor relationship. Since I became Head of PDTP, I have made it a priority to get my directors into the acting classes to participate in and observe the training process, giving them a much needed perspective on their future work with these same actors. As part of their current progression, they take two full years of actor training, which in our program emphasizes the techniques developed by Sanford Meisner and Michael Chekhov.
The same principles apply to the design process: studying it from the inside out, comprehending the various ways a designer approaches the task of design, allows a director to explore new avenues of working with designers, inspiring them and making clear to them his or her needs on any given project. To that end, the directors study all the relevant design disciplines – scenic design, costume design, lighting design and sound design – in classes taught by the Production Design and Technology faculty, alongside design majors from each of these respective disciplines. Finally, the directors take a playwriting course with Distinguished Professor Charles Smith to learn the valuable lessons of how plays are made, and the importance of dramatic structure, as well as several theater history seminars to strengthen their comprehension of that crucial aspect of drama.
The production calendar here in the Theater Division always reflects the vital relationship between the MFA directors and the Division as a whole. To cite a specific example, in the 2012-2013 academic year we presented four main stage productions, two studio productions, one lab production, and two world premieres (part of the annual Seabury Quinn, Jr. Play Festival). Of those nine productions, six of them (66%) were directed by MFA directors. I think this is a clear indication of how integral the Directing Program is to the school, interacting as they do on a daily basis with designers, actors, stage managers, playwrights and dramaturges from the first day of training to the last.
It is also important to note that the casting process at Ohio University is designed so that graduate directors do not get the short end of the stick. To put it simply, Main Stage shows do not get priority over Studio and Lab Shows. Twice a year we get together as a performance area, hold general auditions and callbacks, then rigorously work through the entire undergraduate and graduate casting pools and match them to the various projects, with consideration of the needs of the actors, the directors, the playwrights, and the Theater Division as a whole. This is not always the case in other graduate directing programs, where the best actors are often cast in faculty-directed shows and the student directors are left with those who are uncast. As a faculty, we acknowledge the graduate directors’ needs and treat them fairly when it comes to casting.
DIRECTING COURSES: AN OVERVIEW
First year directing classes (THAR 5210 and 5211) are designed to help the director understand the logical progression of organic components which make up the directing process. This includes exploring how a play is chosen, including the shaping, cutting and modification of the final acting text; examining how a concept or directing approach is formulated, and where the dangers and pitfalls lie; discussing matters of textual analysis, including classical Aristotelian elements, dramatic structure, and breaking the text down from the actor’s point of view into objectives, actions, subtext, given circumstances and beats; analyzing research techniques and the pre-production period; probing the art of collaboration – with the designers, playwright, and actors – and how each collaboration is different; investigating the process of working with the design team on everything from the ground plan to the sound design; scrutinizing the casting process, from the writing of breakdowns to running an audition, and what a director needs to look for in the audition room; breaking down the rehearsal process, from first reading through table work, blocking, scene work, and run-throughs, with particular emphasis on working with the actor; and finally, looking at technical rehearsals, including methods of saving time and energy during cue-to-cue, and strategies for accomplishing as much work as you can in as little time as possible.
A particular emphasis during the final ten weeks of THAR 5211 is sound design, and how the director interfaces with this vitally important aspect of theatre production. Topics include understanding how music and sound have the ability to bypass an audience’s emotional defenses and, in a director’s hands, can be used as a powerful tool for guiding the audience’s emotional response to a production; comprehending how directors work with sound designers, composers, and sound engineers in the creation of an imaginative but subtle soundscape; examining the range of research materials available to the director and sound designer in the form of books, periodicals, organizations, and particularly on-line resources; defining the various functions of music, sound effects and ambient sound (pre-show and intermission music for establishing tone, genre, historical period, and social milieu, transitions and segues, allowing the production to flow effortlessly from one scene to the next); understanding the efficacy of underscoring, its function and methodology; the importance of source music onstage; and comprehending the various approaches to sound design, including the use of one composer, era or instrument versus the use of a myriad of styles and talents, as well as the use of leitmotif.
Classes during the second year of director training (THAR 6210 and 6211) shift emphasis to the director’s study of theatrical style. We begin by asking the questions, “What is period style?,” and “How does a director change his or her approach to pre-production and rehearsal when dealing with a period play, or a contemporary play with period style elements?” In order to provide answers, we examine the elusive nature of period style, with the goal of obtaining a clear understanding of its distinguishing characteristics as seen through the lens of the playwright, the actor, the director and the designer, while looking to identify stylistic differences from playwright to playwright, country to country, era to era, with specific reference to how these characteristics are examined and exploited in the rehearsal process. We explore how these contrasting elements become embodied through the work of the actor, particularly as they are expressed through the physical life and vocal expressiveness of the characters they portray. Finally, we look at how period style becomes incorporated into the work of the designers with whom the director must collaborate.
The first semester focuses on the Greeks, pre-Shakespearean verse, and other style challenges (melodrama, commedia, etc.), and in the second semester we concentrate on the poetry and plays of William Shakespeare and how, as directors, we adapt our pre-production and rehearsal work to his world. We begin with an in-depth study of the poet’s primary verse mode, iambic pentameter, starting with a thorough examination of his work in the Sonnet form, and how it functions both as poetry and as a method of storytelling. The students do in-depth analysis of several key sonnets, and along the way develop a working knowledge of the various rhetorical devices that Shakespeare used, including alliteration, antithesis, malapropism, simile and metaphor, onomatopoeia, parenthesis, synechdoche, assonance, metonymy, chiasmus, and others. They learn to adapt their existing pre-production skills to the varying challenges of working on the plays of Shakespeare. Among the challenges we address are the construction of a director’s prompt book for a Shakespeare play, addressing the various issues of editing and/or cutting a Shakespeare text, conflating scenes and/or characters, trimming the fat of scenes, doing the necessary textual research in order to be fully prepared for the first day of rehearsal, and comparing and contrasting the myriad of printed editions of Shakespeare. To that end, each student develops a comprehensive knowledge of the resources which exist to help them in their directorial work on Shakespeare. They will be able to discern amongst and be familiar with the multitude of reference works, production histories, performance editions, historical treatises and biographical studies, as well as have a fuller understanding of the many texts that address the issue of acting and speaking Shakespearean text. Finally, the goal is for the director to have a richer context for working with actors in the rehearsal hall, addressing the issues of character work, vocal reinforcement, breath and textual clarity, as well as the larger issues of conceiving a Shakespearean production and collaborating with designers on achieving their conceptual goals.
The third year of training consists primarily of internship, thesis production, and independent studies. Classes associated with thesis (THAR 6940 and 6960) involve weekly mentoring sessions during the pre-production process as well as during the rehearsal period. Every aspect of their directorial collaboration is evaluated, with particular emphasis on the strength, clarity and imagination of their conception of the production. Naturally, this involves regular attendance on my part at design meetings, casting sessions and, once they are in progress, rehearsals. The directors are also required to submit a professional-looking production journal as part of their final grade, and participate in an Oral Defense of their thesis production with a Thesis Committee comprised of myself, a representative from the performance area faculty, and a third member from outside the performance area.
Kerry Glamsch (MFA ’15) recreates a painting with actress Lorraine Wochna for his portrait project in THAR 6210 Period Style and the Director.
In their first semester, MFA directors assistant direct a Main Stage production, thereby allowing them to experience real life rehearsal issues in the evening that they can apply to in-class discussions the next day. I find it most useful if they assist me on a Main Stage show (when possible) so that this integration of class work and rehearsal experience is even more fully fleshed out. This also allows the directors a first hand opportunity to see a large-scale university production come to life from pre-production to closing night.
In the spring semester of their first year, the directors work on their first official production – the MFA Realism Projects, a full-length realistic play. Recent examples include Will Eno’s Middletown, Diana Son’s Stop Kiss, Paul Downs Colaizzo’s Really Really, Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe, David Auburn’s Proof, David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, Donald Margulies’ Dinner with Friends, Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, and Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things. These are low-budget productions which are fully supported in the sense that they are given equal casting consideration with the Main Stage, and they are provided with designers and stage managers from the current talent pool. The focus, to my mind, is much less on design and concept than it is on the director’s work with the actor. If schedule permits, first year directors are also strongly encouraged to be involved with the annual Seabury Quinn, Jr. Play Festival, either as director for fully-produced world premiere productions, or with the many staged readings and sit-down readings that require directors.
The fall semester of year two brings the Style Projects, which are synchronized with the period style training that is the focus of the second year. Recent examples range from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters, Sophie Treadwell’s Machinal, and Tony Kushner’s The Illusion, to Ionesco’s The Chairs, Emily Mann’s Mrs. Packard, Garcia Lorca’s Yerma, Caryl Churchill’s Cloud 9, and John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Again, time permitting, the second year directors are encouraged to create independent Lab Shows in collaboration with O.U. playwrights, as well as further involvement in the annual Play Festival productions.
The third year is the culmination of the director’s work, including a fully-supported Main Stage thesis production, and an internship with a nationally or internationally known professional theater. Choosing a thesis is an involved process that occurs in the second year, usually taking months of intensive reading and research, all of which leads to a well-considered pitch to the Theater Division’s Season Selection Committee. The design process begins the spring of the second year, with weekly meetings involving the director, student designers, design faculty and myself. Recent thesis productions include Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, José Rivera’s Marisol, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, June Havoc’s Marathon ’33, Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, and Frank Galati’s The Grapes of Wrath.
We continue to explore superior internship opportunities across the United States for students in the MFA directing program. In the years since I’ve become Head of PDTP, we have placed students in an exciting array of professional theaters, including:
- Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee – Ryan Holihan completes a year-long directing internship, assisting on multiple productions (Dreamgirls, The Mousetrap, The Invisible Hand, Sirens of Song) (2015)
- American Stage Theater Company, St. Petersburg, FL – Kerry Glamsch assistant directs a production of God of Carnage, then assistant directs a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at Freefall Theatre Company, also in St. Petersburg (2014)
- Manhattan Class Company (MCC Theatre), New York – Lee Kinney assists Obie Award-winning director David Cromer on Really, Really by Paul Downs Colaizzo (2013)
- Milwaukee Repertory Theater, Milwaukee – Emily Penick completes a year-long directing internship, assisting on multiple productions (An Iliad, End of the Rainbow, Ragtime, Forever Plaid, A Christmas Carol) (2013)
- Florida Repertory Theater, Ft. Myers – Emily Penick shadows Maureen Heffernan on a production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at a theater The Wall Street Journal calls “One of America’s top repertory companies” (2012)
- New Georges (one of New York’s premiere downtown theater companies) – Jocelyn Wiebe completes a summer internship (2011)
- HERE, New York – Elenna Mosoff interns with Kristin Marting at this Obie Award-winning theater and is invited back in the Spring (2010
- Pangea World Theater, Minneapolis – Vanessa Mercado-Taylor interns with Founding Artistic Director (and Ohio University theater alumnus) Dipankar Mikherjee, and is offered a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2009)
- Orlando Shakespeare Theater – Andy Felt interns with Artistic Director Jim Helsinger, assisting on my production of Much Ado About Nothing (2009)
- Contemporary American Theater Festival, Shepardstown, WV – Bryce Britton interns with Founding Artistic Director Ed Herendeen, and is offered directing work and employment at Shepherd University (2009)
- Victory Gardens Theater, Chicago – Heather Keith interns with Founding Artistic Director Dennis Zacek at this Tony Award-winning theater (2008) and Ed Cisneros interns there, working with Tony Award-winning director Frank Galati on a world premiere production (2006)
- Orlando Shakespeare Theater – Michael Gerber interns with Jim Helsinger and is offered a staff position in Orlando immediately upon graduating (2008)
- Goodman Theater, Chicago – Ed Cisneros assists director Henry Godinez on the Latino Theater Festival (2007)
- Shakespeare Dallas – Ed Cisneros interns as an assistant director and interim project director (2007)
- Abingdon Theater, New York – Michael Page interns, beginning him on a path which would lead directly to his current position as General Manager of Theatre for a New Audience in New York City (2006)
- Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theater (PICT) – Lisa Grande does a summer internship with Founding Artistic Director Andrew Paul, shadowing him for three months, and is subsequently hired onto their staff to direct and function as Marketing Director, followed by numerous opportunities to direct there (2006)
- Many other wide-ranging internships, self-generated projects and workshop experiences with companies and artists such as Ringling Brothers Museum, the Prague International Fringe Festival, Dallas Opera, Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater, Augusto Boal and Theater Oppressed Workshop (Berlin), Royal Opera House (London), Punchdrunk Theater (London), Cara Mia Theater Company (Dallas) and Pittsburgh Pride Festival (2006-2013)
As this list testifies, many of our internships have led to direct employment, either as a director or as a staff member, underlining the professionalism and accomplishment of our graduate students as they bridge to the profession.
Our directors have also continued to work at the Monomoy Theater, a summer stock company in Chatham, Massachusetts. Monomoy was founded 57 years ago and has provided an artistic home for our young theater artists ever since. MFA directors have directed productions of Dracula, The Cocktail Hour, Hands Across the Sea, and See How They Run over the past decade, and assistant directed/stage managed dozens of other plays, working side by side with their classmates as well as a multitude of Equity guest artists. In the summer of 2014, two of our MFA directors returned for a second season, this time to direct – Aurora Held directed Arthur Miller’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, and Ryan Holihan helmed a production of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs. Now that Ohio University is no longer associated with Monomoy, we have developed a relationship with Tantrum Theatre, which was founded in the fall of 2015 by Ohio University’s College of Fine Arts. The theater is a professional company and serves as a training ground providing apprenticeships for students in the Theater Division. The name Tantrum Theater comes from a group of Ohio University graduate students who discovered that one of the collective names for a group of bobcats (the Ohio University mascot) is a “tantrum”. Tantrum’s mission is to create and propel forward a resident professional theater company and training conservatory in Dublin, Ohio in a partnership between the City of Dublin, Dublin Arts Council, and the Ohio University College of Fine Arts.
The strength of any serious director-training program is based on several variables:
- The teaching strength of the mentor
- The talent of the student directors
- The talent of the student actors, designers and playwrights with whom they collaborate
- The number of opportunities to take teaching and talent into production
- The path of entry into the profession
And here are my thoughts on these five important variables:
- As a professional director with more than 120 productions to my credit and a 23-year membership in the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society (SDC), I strongly believe that people who mentor stage directors need to be intimately involved in the rehearsal process with them in order to observe and critique that process. My experience (and from what I can tell, a typical approach) is that directing teachers communicate their ideas to students in the classroom, supervise the selection of various projects, and attend performances of those projects in order to provide a critique of the students’ work, but with little to no actual contact with the student in the rehearsal hall. I feel it is integral to the process of teaching directing that there is constant interplay between the teacher and student, especially during the rehearsal and design process, where there can be direct observation of the student’s work with the actors, designers and stage management team. With these principles in mind, I have worked diligently to improve the mentoring process here in the Professional Director Training Program. A typical mentoring year consists of two Main Stage Thesis Productions, two Style Projects and/or two Realism Projects, and between 1-3 Lab or Play Festival productions. The mentoring process is less time-consuming for Lab Productions of course, but for the productions directed by my students as part of their regular three-year sequence, it is a fairly intensive involvement. Beginning with the play selection process itself, I continue to stay closely involved with the directors and designers in the conceptualization and pre-production process, attend all general auditions and callbacks and the final casting meeting, attend weekly design meetings, and attend multiple rehearsals through the rehearsal process as well as previews and performances. The added requirement of production journals for all MFA-directed shows has given the directing process a much-needed component of self-analysis, compelling the directors to take a long, hard look at what works, what doesn’t work, and how they can address problems before they can have a negative impact on a production. And, finally, a semester review process has helped in giving the directors an opportunity for one last conversation with me about what’s working for them during this three-year learning process and what isn’t. Because of this hands-on mentoring philosophy, the MFA directors have become a much more cohesive unit, responding with more imagination and a stronger sense of collaboration to the myriad of unique challenges presented by each production.
- The caliber of directors I have recruited over the past ten years has been (and continues to be) very high. The proof is in the quality of the productions they create, the respect these young directors accrue in their work with faculty, and the high quality of their collaborations with fellow students. I would also argue that the academic achievement of these students is extraordinary. The average GPA of the directors who have graduated from this program in the past 10 years is 3.9, and several have gone through the three years with a perfect 4.0. This is quite an accomplishment for students who are literally the only graduate students in the school who have to take classes in every discipline — acting, design, playwriting, theater history and directing. I’m also proud to point out that with only one exception, I have never lost a student, either to academic failure or because of a waning interest in the program. Until this past year (when I recruited a 50+ year old student who decided at the last minute that they weren’t cut out for grad school at their age), every single student I’ve recruited has left with their MFA degree, and most of them graduate with outstanding grades and recommendations. This speaks to the integrity of the training, the quality of the students, and the trust they have in me as their mentor.
- I would be the first to say that the success of the graduate directing program exists in direct relation to the quality of the other training programs in the Theater Division. The Performance Area, for example, maintains an extremely high bar for what they teach. Recruitment for this program (and for mine) has always been challenging in that we can rarely fully fund the graduate students. But the high level of the training and the dynamism of the faculty allows us to continue to maintain a pool of excellent actors. The same can be said of the Production Design and Technology program. When I show pictures of our productions while recruiting at U/RTAs, the candidates are more than impressed — they are blown away. In short, we do beautiful, professional looking shows, which is integral to the experience of teaching and studying directing. Without talented actors, accomplished designers, and innovative playwrights, it’s very hard to keep a young director’s interest or to challenge their imaginations. Luckily, we have all of that here at Ohio University.
- I have always believed that you learn to direct not by listening to someone lecture about directing, but by being in the rehearsal hall and experiencing the work firsthand. The directors here get to do just that. Some of them leave with as many as six or seven productions under their belt, as well as relationships to playwrights, actors and stage managers that they can foster for the rest of their professional careers. Their experiences with Lab Shows, Realism Projects, Style Projects, the annual Seabury Quinn, Jr. Playwrights Festival, and a fully-supported thesis production are structured in such a way as to provide ever-increasing challenges, and allowing me as their mentor to guide them as they face these challenges. It is important that they are given enough space to allow them to express their artistry, their imagination, and their leadership, while at the same time helping them to avoid traps, advising them when they struggle with serious problems, and inspiring them when they lack inspiration.
- The directors who have graduated from the Professional Director Training Program continue to direct, to teach, and sometimes, no doubt, to struggle in a chosen career path that is merciless in its competitiveness, and brutal in its attrition rate. Unlike many actors, stage managers and designers who segue directly into the regional theaters and New York/Chicago theater scene, directors are seldom able to jump to the top (or even the middle) of their profession immediately. And that makes sense. Directors are the leaders – they aren’t just another cog in the production wheel, they actually have the responsibility of running the entire show. So it’s not surprising that it takes time before they end up being hired to direct at regional theaters or can join the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers. By example, it took me seven years after getting my graduate degree before I was able to join SDC, and I feel that times are even tougher now for young directors. That said, I’m extremely proud that on seven different occasions, our directors have segued directly from internships to being offered directing work and even staff positions at professional theaters around the country. Michael Gerber, Michael Page, Lisa Grande, Bryce Britton, Vanessa Mercado-Taylor, Emily Penick and Lee Kinney have all experienced enormous success with their internships in this fashion, making enough of an impression to gain employment
immediately upon graduation or shortly thereafter. These directors are working and teaching around the country – from New York to Chicago, Pittsburgh to Montreal, Portland to Seoul, South Korea – creating exciting work and making their way inexorably up the directing ladder. The examples are wide-ranging and exhilarating:
- In December 2013, after stints with The Pearl Theatre Company, The Barrow Street Theatre, and the Vineyard Theatre, Michael Page was named General Manager of Theatre for a New Audience, one of the premiere Off Broadway theaters in New York.
- Emily Penick finished a year-long internship at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre, and moved from there to Seattle, Washington, where she continues her exciting collaboration with John Langs, Artistic Director at A Contemporary Theatre.
- Ed Cisneros runs a drama program at a Multicultural Arts School in Chicago, directing young people in such exciting plays as Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, and Electricidad, a Chicano take on Sophocles’ Electra by Luis Alfaro. (Ed was also given the Inspire the Future award by Steppenwolf Theater.)
- Lisa Grande has made herself one of the go-to directors in Pittsburgh, with productions ranging from Much Ado About Nothing at Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks and House & Garden at Pittsburgh Irish & Classical to Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me.
- Michael Gerber recently directed Hard Times at CoHo Productions in Portland, Oregon, and has just been named the new Associate Director of the Barter Youth Academy at The Barter Theater in Abingdon, Virginia.
- Vanessa Mercado-Taylor has forged a dynamic teaching and directing career in Dallas, Texas, where she has become a company member of Cara Mia Theatre Company, a visiting scholar at El Centro College, working not only with professional actors, but pursuing exciting collaborations as an activist with Latino playwrights as well as working with underprivileged students and minorities.
- Elenna Mosoff has served as Associate Artistic Director at Acting UpStage in Montreal, which has produced the Canadian Premiere of Caroline, or Change by Tony Kushner, as well as such exciting musical theater productions as William Finn’s Falsettos and Parade by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry (nominated for a Dora Award for Outstanding Musical Production).
- DaeHyun Lee, who recently won an Educator Award at Dankook University in Seoul, directed a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Korea National Theatre.
- Among Bryce Britton’s many productions since graduating are Dead Man’s Cell Phone and Wonder of the World, and he has served as Head of the new BFA in Musical Theater at West Virginia University in Morgantown.
- Andy Felt was awarded tenure at Marietta College, where he has directed such plays as Hamlet and Shaw’s Arms and the Man, and where he has developed a summer theater series, the Shakespeare by the River Festival.
The list goes on and on, illustrating how we’ve been able to provide a bridge to both the professional theater world, but also the academic world as well.