Who does what at the Theatre Royal: Assistant Director

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This is the second year that the Theatre Royal have recruited a trainee Assistant Director, an 8 month contract that offers the opportunity to observe and assist in the direction of productions and other processes. Bethany Pitts was our successful applicant this year – beating literally hundreds of others from all over the country. I’ve handed over to her to give us an insight into her role at the Theatre. She’ll also be posting some updates from the rehearsals of our next Drum Theatre production, The Astronaut’s Chair.

“I think it’s fair to say that most people don’t really know what an Assistant Director is for. In fact, quite a few Assistant Directors don’t know this, particularly when starting a new job, as it can vary hugely between different organisations. Most people assume that I make the tea and hobnob with the actors, which is sometimes the case, but it really only scratches the surface of the myriad responsibilities that can end up in your lap.

“There isn’t really one clear route into directing, though assisting is something that most directors will do at some point in their careers. Some directors train specifically on directing courses at drama schools; others learn on the job; some might produce, act or do stage management first. I did English and Drama at York, following the advice I’d been given to have something to fall back on (although the use of an English degree these days is debatable) but mostly spent my time in the confines of what was known as the Drama Barn, a tiny black box theatre space where shows went on each week of the term.

“I didn’t really appreciate the complete luxury of having space and a budget to work with at uni and graduated having taken a couple of shows to the Edinburgh Fringe but unsure about what to do next. I considered doing an MA in Directing, but, put off by the cost, I decided to see how I got on learning on the job. For me, it has been the right choice and it is what I’m still doing really. Directing is a practical art and if you’re reading about it or studying it this isn’t enough on its own – you must be doing it.

“But there are several key things I have learnt about being a director between then and now:

1. Don’t expect to earn much money. For at least the first few years. I thought I’d been poor as a student, but being an unpaid assistant director in London really tested my resourcefulness. That’s why a paid opportunity like the one here at Theatre Royal Plymouth is like gold dust.

2. You must love theatre. I mean really, really love it. The hours are long and unsociable, the work all consuming and if you don’t have a burning passion for it then you’ll soon find that missing out on socials occasions or not being sure when you’ll be paid next will start to matter more.

3.But, you must also remember there is a world outside the theatre. At first, I thought that if I spent my whole life in theatres either watching it or making it then I would be qualified to be a director. However, I wasn’t really having much of a life, and unless live a bit you won’t truly understand much of the great drama around.

4.It helps to know what other people do. I have stage managed, produced, run an education department, promoted shows and, on occasion, performed too. I wouldn’t want to do any of these jobs full time, but having done them I am far more sympathetic to the challenges they contain which is a good position for a director to be in.

“I’ve assisted for a few different companies and theatres prior to arriving in Plymouth earlier this year. Most recently, I was the Assistant Director for Theatre 503, a premier fringe new writing venue in London where the AD is quite often required to text the landlord (the theatre is above a pub) during a show to ask him to turn the football down or stop his mad dog from running around in the flat above the theatre. Before that, I worked for a touring Shakespeare company, Icarus, where I was required to pop up periodically on the tour to check up on both show and company – this was a brutal tour where the cast often drove many miles before getting in and out on the same day and driving on to the next venue, so many a pep talk was needed. In addition, I’ve directed and produced my own work, most recently at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter. For me, it is vital to me to balance assisting and directing: it is easy to feel rusty if you haven’t led a rehearsal room for too long and you’ve got to remember the reason you are assisting in the first place. In my case, it is to help me become a better director.

“So it is a great privilege to be working full time in a theatre as an Assistant Director. These appointments are few and far between in our economic climate. My work in terms of the building stretches over several departments. So far I have assisted Nicola Rosewarne on the recent People’s Company production of The Good Person of Szechwan and led a young company group for a term, as well as spending much of my time trying to get to the bottom of how this sprawling labyrinth of an organisation works. That is definitely a full time job in itself.”

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