How to Become a Theater Director

By TACP Staff on July 31, 2019

Theater directors have amazing jobs bringing to life the visions of playwrights across the generations. It’s a tough field to break into, though, and you’re going to need persistence and a willingness to get out there and network with other professionals in the field. The good news? Behind every curtain is a theater director making magic come to life.

1. Getting Started in Theater

The theater is a time-honored tradition going back to prehistoric times, where acting and dance kept people entertained around campfires on long winter nights. Today, velvet seats, dramatic curtains, lighting, costumes, brilliant writing, and excellent actors all help bring beautiful productions to life. But arguably, no one has so much say over the nature and merit of a production as the director.

Your career as a theater director will likely begin in high school or college. These relatively low-stakes productions (even though it may not feel that way at the time!) help you learn the basics of the trade and give you a taste of what it’s like to be a professional director. From helping actors best express the meaning of a phrase or gesture and placing them in the right position, to ensuring they drill appropriately, the director’s job is vital to every production.

So what exactly does a director do? Well, a lot of things. They typically get to choose the plays (though sometimes that honor may go to an owner or supporter of the theater). They are often directly involved in casting and have a say in how the set is designed and what costumes are used. They also interpret the scripts, deciding, for instance, whether to put a modern or antiquated spin on a Shakespeare piece or how best to interpret a play by an up-and-coming playwright that has no established brand or approach.

They also plan the rehearsals, which can be challenging, especially if the actors are not full-time, but have other jobs or commitments to work around. Lastly, and most importantly, they help the actors realize the play’s intention and spirit, which hopefully (through skilled directing) is transmitted to the audience during live performances.

Learning the craft can be difficult, especially since you’re unlikely to be granted many opportunities to do so until you’ve proven yourself. But don’t be discouraged; the trick lies in practicing your craft and learning from those who will not only impart the skills you need but open doors for you to the rest of your career.

2. Improve Your Skills and Become an Expert

Aspiring directors approach a career in this field from many different directions. Some start out gaining experience in school productions or in community theater as crew members, playwrights or actors.  Some will assist during productions as an assistant director to gain experience and contacts in the world of theater. And, although a degree is not necessary, it doesn’t hurt, and can actually help advance a budding director’s technical knowledge, skills, and self-assurance. In fact, preference is sometimes given to applicants who have production and theater experience gained in school. Some employers will also look more closely at applicants who have studied or gained experience in performance theory, theatrical audio, acting, lighting, and design, outside of their degree through internships.

A bachelor’s degree from an established theater school provides preparation for further study in theater, but also allows students (usually in their second year) to focus on a concentration, such as directing, playwriting, design, and theater and performance studies.   Besides classes in theater and production, students also learn punctuality, work ethic, how to work in a team environment, and how to deal with the pressure and stress that comes with a career in theater direction, among other vital attributes.  Graduates of a bachelor’s program can find work in television, motion picture studios, theater, and more. Some students may wish to get certified or licensed to teach acting in high schools. Most programs feature coursework in stage production, film, theater history, acting and even music.

Master’s of fine arts programs typically begin with theater production work which allows students to direct a classical play, and offers opportunities for internships with community theater companies. Coursework builds on what was learned in a bachelor’s of fine arts program and includes courses in drama theory, history, literature, and criticism, among others.

It’s time to take that knowledge and transform it into an actual skillset that will land you the job of your dreams. Know, from the outset, that this is a difficult prospect. As stated above, the role of director is a highly coveted one, and you are unlikely to simply walk into it. Instead, you will need to prove your abilities, likely over and over again, before you can safely call directing your lifelong career.

Start by going to the theater. See as many shows as you can, and don’t bother being overly critical; you can learn just as much from a poorly executed performance as you can from one that was brilliantly well done. If ever you have an opportunity to watch a show, take it, always putting yourself in the role of director and asking what you would have done differently. You can augment this practice by reading plays, as well, which gives you a slightly different angle.

While it might seem difficult, do your best to reach out and meet playwrights and other directors. You can ask to go backstage after a show, for instance. Smaller theaters will likely grant you your request if you are polite. If you can swing a press pass by blogging or writing for a local newspaper, that will heighten your chances considerably. Reach out to playwrights via press contacts or by emailing them directly.

Become known by forming a company of your own or working as an assistant for someone who is already established in the industry. Don’t make the mistake of insisting on being paid; those who refuse to apprentice for free may bar themselves from otherwise fantastic opportunities. Luckily, rehearsals are often in the evenings to work around the schedules of actors. If you can’t get a gig as a director’s assistant, take any other role you can find: lighting, set design or even acting. Any role will give you perspective, which will come in very handy once you do land your dream job.

3. Create Demand for Your Services

You might think theater direction is all about the art, but the truth is, there’s a lot of pavement-pounding and hand-shaking involved. If you want to impress the people who matter in your field – actors, playwrights, boosters, other theater directors – you’re going to have to spend a lot of time telling people about your dreams and proving you have the chops to handle the role of director.

Early in your career, you’ll likely need to spend a lot of time collaborating. Forge relationships with other creatives – for instance, budding playwrights who might be willing to give a new director a chance, or small theater companies looking for shows. Over time, you’ll work your way up to the more impressive roles.

As your reputation grows and you’re finding it easier to get work, take the necessary steps to ensure a steady and streamlined workflow. Many directors (and creatives in general) get in trouble when their success outgrows their organizational abilities, but you can avoid this fate by hiring a stage manager or a secretary, and keeping all your to-dos and contacts all in one place. It’s a good idea to hire other professionals as well, such as designers, costumers, and casting directors. While you may be able to oversee all of this at first, your shows will be better and richer if you can delegate. Do so, and you will earn a rightful reputation as a director who understands the heart and soul of theater.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, (BLS) employment for directors is projected to grow nine percent between 2014 and 2024, which is faster than average for all career fields. This positive growth stems from a surge in the motion picture and video industry brought about by strong demand from the public (both foreign and domestic) for more movies and television shows.  The median wage for a professional theater director was just over $68,000 in 2015.  Of course, wages vary greatly depending on your level of education, experience, industry, and geographic location.

Similar occupations include actors, writers and authors, playwrights, multimedia artists, animatorsvideo editorsdancers, and art directors.

Helpful Organizations & Resources for Theater Directors

Additional Guides