Experience, reputation and credits, plus a passion for all things theatre, are prerequisites for a successful career as a theatre director
Theatre directors have responsibility for the practical and creative interpretation of a dramatic script or musical score.
You'll be involved in the whole process, from the design and pre-production stages, right through to the final performance.
You'll work closely with creative and production teams, performers and the producer to create a performance which connects with the audience. You'll therefore need to be able to coordinate effectively across a range of disciplines and with artistic vision.
Most directors are usually employed on a freelance or fixed-term contract basis as artistic or resident directors in repertory companies.
Some directors are also writers, designers and performers and may write, devise, design and act in their own work.
Some theatre directors act as an administrator or producer, depending on the staffing structure and size of the theatre. You may also work alongside an executive administrator or general manager who heads the theatre, or an artistic director who selects the plays and determines the programming.
Specific tasks vary depending on the role and type of theatre, but common activities include:
- programming and budgeting
- working with writers through workshops or script development schemes
- adapting a script and, if the play is newly written, working with the writer or collaborating with playwrights
- breaking down a script, analysing and exploring the content and conducting relevant research
- translating and interpreting a script or musical score
- holding auditions for productions, selecting and hiring designers, musicians, etc.
- managing time and organising people and space
- attending production meetings with set designers
- organising rehearsals
- communicating and liaising with all parties involved, including actors, the creative team, the production team and producers
- attending preview performances and preparing detailed notes for the cast and for the creative and production teams
- helping to publicise the production by giving interviews and leading discussions.
Salaries depend on the length and type of contract, e.g. freelance, repertory or touring.
The Independent Theatre Council (ITC) and UK Theatre negotiate minimum rates of pay with appropriate entertainment unions on behalf of their members.
- The agreed weekly fee for assistant directors is around £480.
- A theatre director of a full-length play should receive a minimum preparatory fee of £1,614.30 and weekly rehearsal payments of £494.
- Freelance directors in a commercial repertory theatre can command a minimum fee of around £3,015, with a weekly fee of approximately £560 to £670.
Directors may negotiate their own contracts and salaries or they may employ agents to deal on their behalf. Variations in salary may be considerable. Low salaries may be supplemented by freelance work, running creative workshops or script consultancy. Working as a theatre director can be a precarious way to earn a living. Directors may also branch out into acting or voice-overs.
Income data from the ITC and UK Theatre. Figures are intended as a guide only.
Working hours involve regular weekend and evening work. Many directors work more hours than they have been contracted for, with no time off in lieu. Building-based directors tend to have more regular working patterns and conditions.
What to expect
- Some directors are volunteers or work for their own companies. In a large theatre, an assistant director may support the work of the director. For small-budget studio performance runs or for fringe productions, a director may work alone.
- Theatre venues vary enormously. The working environment may be dark and gloomy.
- Theatre directors usually belong to the trade union Equity. Membership also provides insurance and legal assistance.
- Most directors are employed as freelancers on contract for each production from the planning and rehearsal period through to the final performance. Fixed-term contracts are also available, which tend to last for a few years.
- The work can be highly stressful and frustrating, but it can also be extremely rewarding.
- Travel is common and may involve overseas work. If working with a touring company, it's unlikely that directors will be on the road for the full tour, although they may visit certain venues.
A degree or HND is not essential to become a theatre director. You may be able to progress to the role after gaining a reputation and experience in other positions such as:
- assistant director
- stage manager
A relevant degree or HND may be helpful and could provide some of the necessary skills. Related subjects include:
- creative and performing arts
- drama and theatre studies
- English literature
- humanities-based subjects involving thought, reflection and interpretation, e.g. philosophy, history and psychology
Postgraduate courses are not necessary if you have a relevant degree or a certain amount of practical experience.
If you have an unrelated degree you may want to get a postgraduate qualification, but make sure the course has a strong emphasis on practical skills, e.g. in theatre or drama directing.
You can search for relevant courses at the Federation of Drama Schools, and search postgraduate courses in theatre studies.
You'll need to show:
- creativity and the ability to express yourself both orally and in writing
- persuasiveness and a willingness to take artistic risks
- excellent negotiation and interpersonal skills
- self-motivation and the ability to motivate and inspire others
- the ability to work as part of a team and time management skills
- an awareness and understanding of technical issues, the workings of a theatre and the process of performance and acting
- the ability to develop innovative ideas and to solve problems creatively and practically
- organisational and research skills
- knowledge of relevant health and safety legislation and procedures
- dedication and enthusiasm.
Theatre directors must also consider issues of ethics and authorship. Understanding all types of theatre, as well as having an awareness of audiences, resources and investors, is vital. Work may come from many avenues and you'll need to show flexibility in your approach.
You should gain practical theatre experience in acting, stage management and direction in amateur or fringe theatre, e.g. through youth theatre or a student drama society.
Consider forming your own theatre company. This is a great way to learn about the directing process and how to work with actors and other members of a production team.
Try and get work as an assistant. Contacts for speculative applications are available from the Performing Arts Yearbook. Explain why you want to work with a particular director and include all relevant experience on your CV.
Try to see as many productions as you can, taking in a range of styles in a variety of different venues. Talk to the people who are creating the work. Often, there are question and answer sessions with directors after a performance. Also, reading plays and novels, adaptations and screenplays will broaden your knowledge.
All theatre experience is useful and you can learn more about the organisational structure by working with the front of house team, perhaps as a steward or box office clerk. Consider other roles, for example in the wardrobe department, with the stage crew, or in the lighting or sound departments.
Networking is a key factor in getting work. Many jobs are filled through contacts made while working, so keep a list of contacts you make in the field and stay in touch on a regular basis.
London has an extensive list of theatres, both within the West End and in the surrounding areas, so most UK-based directors will work there at some point in their career.
However, there are also many opportunities in regional theatres around the UK. These include:
- producing theatres, where plays are programmed, rehearsed and created (sometimes newly written) for that particular venue
- receiving theatres, which act as a venue for touring productions.
If you prefer to work in a less traditional environment, there are rewarding opportunities available in:
- children's theatre
- community theatre
- the events and festival field
- fringe and alternative theatre
Many directors find that there are more openings in this type of work early in their career, rather than in traditional theatre.
Each year, many new directors take their first production to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There are also other large fringe theatre festivals throughout the UK, so it is worth investigating if your local town has one.
Look for job vacancies at:
Many jobs are filled by word of mouth and by being in the right place at the right time. It's worth sending speculative letters to artistic directors or producers at larger venues, particularly if you already have relevant qualifications and experience. Contacts can be found at the Performing Arts Yearbook.
As it's likely you'll have built up experience before becoming a theatre director, you'll already have many of the necessary skills.
Many directors have no formal training and continue to develop required skills on the job. Few venues can afford to sponsor in-service training and if you are a freelance director, you'll need to fund it yourself.
Some drama schools offer specialist courses in directing. Accredited courses in subjects such as stage management or technical theatre are available through the Federation of Drama Schools. It also provides details of other non-accredited relevant courses.
You may be able to gain some experience with professional regional theatre companies through the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme (RTYDS). This offers various programmes including an introduction to directing, a three-month placement and 18-month residency. It also provides details of other schemes at various regional theatres for emerging directors.
The professional body for theatre and opera directors in the UK is Stage Directors UK (SDUK). SDUK membership may open up networking and professional development opportunities.
Reading the specialist press, such as The Stage, keeps you up to date with the latest news and opinion affecting the profession and can be useful for anticipating future career opportunities.
First appointments tend to be on a small scale, for instance, directing for a small touring company. Many directors come from self-started companies.
The chance to progress to more prestigious work is determined by a combination of:
- reputation and individual style
- securing funding to develop work
- getting your work seen by people from other venues
- business acumen.
A minimum of ten years of reputable experience is normally required to apply for senior posts.
Once you have extensive experience, you may choose to set up your own company or theatre venue. Alternatively, you could accept a residency as an associate or artistic director in a particular venue, where you'd be responsible for the complete programme of productions in a season.
These roles tend to be more managerial in nature, involving planning, budgeting and determining artistic policy. Artistic directors are also usually responsible for directing one or two productions each season.
You may move from subsidised theatres to the commercial sector, which can open up opportunities in film and television directing and may lead to a substantial increase in salary.