Trigger Warning: some non-graphic discussion of child abuse.
Holding a Mirror Up to Nature
Its not rocket science, what I do. Its not brain surgery.
I've been directing theatre for nearly 30 years now. Mostly Shakespeare, but also original work, musicals, modern plays, improvised plays, what have you. I've directed professionally, for community theatre and in educational settings. I've had huge successes (about a dozen, hurray!), huge flops (only a couple, hurray!) and everything in between. In the last year, I've directed four shows - a pair of hour long touring Shakespeare productions for schools, a full length production of Othello and a mostly-improvised children's Christmas show.
Here is a picture of me directing. I believe I was teaching actors how to enter the stage:
Directing is a ton of work. For example, if I'm rehearsing a 2+ hour production for our local Shakespeare Festival, I typically add 20-25 hours to my work week for about 8 weeks. This doesn't include the script editing, production meetings and general obsessing that goes on for up to two years before the production opens.
To prepare, I also watch Christopher Guest's community theatre mockumentary Waiting for Guffman each time I start the directing process to make sure I've not yet turned into takes-himself-too-seriously director Corky St. Clair yet. Eventually, all community theatre directors turn into him. I'm not there yet but I'm on my way. For example, I describe what I do as "directing process."
Sometimes, I'm so busy directing theatre that I forget why I do it. In fact, I didn't have a clue why I did it for my first five or so years - I just knew I enjoyed it.
I discovered my purpose while I was taking a youth theatre course in graduate school. On the first day of that class, the professor presented us all with a xeroxed copy of a newspaper article from the 80's. The article described how a local little girl had been abused and killed by her parents with horrible detail. We were (I think understandably) shocked that this is how she'd chosen to start the class.
Our professor explained "whenever you're doing children's theatre, children like this little girl are in your audience. Your show might be the only happy moment in her day, maybe even in her life. If you're focused on anything other than doing the best show you can for her, you're being selfish."
This was a huge revelation for me. When we create theatre - when we create a vibrant, believable world and welcome an audience into it for a couple of hours - we're doing something profoundly important for people. Humans (both children and adults) often have horrible lives. Even those that have decent lives are burdened by all the myriad troubles that come from being alive. My purpose as a director (my duty?) is to make a piece of theatre that helps them in some way.
"Help" is a fairly broad term, but when we are at our absolute best as artists we offer relief to people who are suffering. Sometimes, we do this by offering them escape. Sometimes, we do this by showing people they're not alone. We try to delight or empathize or educate but at the end of the show, we hope an audience can leave feeling a little better or like they should take action or like they see the world a little differently.
At our worst as artists, we introduce new suffering either through bad work or bad choices. Fortunately for artists, we can't get sued for malpractice. Good artists feel genuinely bad about creating accidentally lousy work, though.
I explain this to my casts and crew whenever I start directing a new show. I want to work with people who are philosophically aligned with that ethos - the belief that we're all working towards a common goal of creating art that impacts an audience. I make a point to try and cast talented people who are not jerks. In fact, I will cast a slightly less talented person over a more talented jerk.
The crazy thing is you never know with 100% certainty which of your works is going to be one that most impacts people. Recently, I directed a production of Hamlet that was quite good but also not quite at the level (in my opinion) of my previous two productions. However, audiences absolutely loved this production - standing ovations, students saying they finally understood Shakespeare for the first time, and a flood of letters of praise.
That is very gratifying, to be sure, but also mystifying. If I could figure out why it worked for audiences as well as it did, could I replicate its success? Probably not - there's too many factors that influence how an audience member perceives a production. You can do everything perfectly and the play still won't work. You can screw everything up and the audience might love it. On the day the production opens, the best that directors can hope for is that we did our job as well we could and that we inspired great work from the rest of the play's artists.
There's a ton of moving pieces in live theatre - actors, designers, technicians, staff, musicians and audience. When everything works in synchronicity together, a play can have a profound impact on an audience. I've seen audience leave my shows weak from laughter, I've seen them leave with tears in their eyes (not from the same show). Every now and then, I get a note from somebody who felt like seeing my show changed their life or made their day.
So it isn't rocket science or brain surgery, but making art is still a pretty important and meaningful thing. Whether you're creating theatre, making music or writing stuff, you're potentially making somebody else's life a little better. That's a pretty noble thing.