Directing – the ‘Lungs’ of the theatre

Over the past four weeks, I have been lucky enough to be on an ‘Introduction to Directing’ course at the National Theatre as part of their youth programme. There were abut 20 of us who went down to the John Lyon Education Studio, next door to the Old Vic, and took in as much information as we could in 3 hours each week. The course was run by director Bryony Shanahan (@Bryony_Shan), founder of Snuff Box Theatre and staff director at the National, and she certainly squeezed as much as she possibly could into 12 hours. I learnt loads about rehearsal techniques and different directions I could take them in, so although I can’t recount the entirety of my new-found knowledge to you, I will give you a sprinkling of Bryony’s gems of wisdom!

Week 1 – Outside the Rehearsal Room
The first session looked at the role of a director; why they are important; and things that you should be doing prior to the rehearsal process. Having thought about (and written about) the role of a director for my coursework in A-Level drama, I already had a pretty solidified idea of the basic responsibilities: telling a story, communicating with all the creative departments, thinking what the audience are thinking. But the intellectual discussion that we had brought out new ideas for me, that I hadn’t thought about before: the director is responsible for the pastoral care and well-being of their cast and crew. The example that Bryony gave was that during rehearsals for the National Theatre’s current production of Sarah Kane’s ‘Cleansed’ actors went away from rehearsals with nightmares about the material they were dealing with, but it is the director’s role to make sure that they are safe.

One of the most important things I picked out from this first session was the Rufus Norris Formula: Why me? Why now? Why theatre? When putting on a piece you should be able to answer all three of these questions positively: Why should I be directing this piece? Why is now the right time? Why is theatre the right medium? I feel like I can answer these questions very easily for the Theatre of Minds project, but it is always good to remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing – why this work is important to you.


Lungs by Duncan Macmillan

The course was based on one specific play ‘Lungs’ but Duncan MacMillan, which tells the story of a couple, their relationship, their worries about climate change, and their journey to creating a family. The dialogue is all very naturalistic and the characters change location instantaneously – it would be such an interesting project to stage! During this first session we did some work on the text that a director would do prior to the rehearsal period. We scribbled down everything we thought after reading the text in five minutes, no thinking, just writing for a whole five minutes. Some of it might change through the process but you might also come back to it and find inspiration in your initial reaction before you got so deeply involved.

“Rehearsals are just the tip of the iceberg of the work you do as a director” – Bryony Shanahan

Week 2 – A First Rehearsal
Not everyone on the course came from a background of acting. This was something that was very interesting to me because they had a very different approach to the role, but this meant that we couldn’t ask everyone to jump up and act for us. Instead we had two actors come in and help us out: Dan Foxsmith (@dan_foxsmith) and Jodie McNee (@jodiemcnee). They were both very enthusiastic and we were very grateful for their willingness to jump in!

First Rehearsal PLan (NT)

The plan of our rehearsal

The three hours involved us planning our first rehearsal and then carry it out with Dan and Jodie playing the roles of M and W in ‘Lungs’. The main aim of the rehearsal was to develop the relationship between the two actors (who didn’t know each other very well) and between the director and the actors. We used lots of different on and off-text rehearsal techniques for this. Sometimes we started off leading them and the Bryony would jump in and get so much more out of it! One of my favourites was a trust activity where one actor was leading the other with their eyes closed with push and pull motions on their touch palms. We played around with speed and levels, then changing the leader with a clap, taking away the physical contact and finally adding in text. We discovered so much subtext behind the lines based on one physical attribute that started off as a simple trust exercise. I was amazed at how much we got out of it by delving a little deeper and letting things run. The rehearsal had brought us back to the play in hand and wasn’t so generic anymore.

“The director is my eyes when I am in character. They tell me when its not right and I have to trust them” – Dan Foxsmith

Week 3 – Academics

Units Diagram

Unit markings in my script

Stanislavski’s Units and Objectives was something that almost everyone who studies drama will have come across at one point or another. Units are difficult to explain on their own, and more easily identified by the change from one unit to another – where the location or thought pattern shifts. Units are not set in stone and a lot of it is down to personal opinion, so trying to get 25 people to agree on the end of a unit took us awhile. But the discussion that got us there was so interesting: I found myself being swayed from one side to another by people’s arguments. It took us at least 20 minutes to work out one unit because we couldn’t agree where the change happened for both characters at the same time. The discussion itself was perhaps more useful than identifying the unit because we delved into the journey and the subtext in order to find the shift – you had to have a reason to be able to back up your argument to the rest of the group.

Objectives then tell the actor what the character wants in one specific unit. I had never realised this before, but it should be something that is simple and focused; something practical that you would know when you have achieved it: “I want you to hug me” But a super-objective (for the whole play) is much stronger if it is a need: “I need you to love me” “I need validation that I am a good man” It has to be concise and open for the actor to interpret, not dictatorial or convoluted. Thinking about the characters obstacle to their objective gave it more tension and purpose. It upped the importance and energy, and made it a life or death situation: e.g. “My own expectations”

One of the most important things for the actors was to forget all of these things after discussing them. It has to be non-restrictive, and the best things will stay in their subconscious and come out in the character anyway – Units and Objectives are tools not laws to be followed.

“The best notes are questions left open to the actor rather than closed, cut off points” – Jodie McNee

Week 4 – Style and Concept
The final week was perhaps the most exciting. We played around with a chunk of the text and performed it in groups; we made a box set with our design concept and we all left the room wanting to go and put on this play!

It was also probably the most useful for Theatre of Minds. We spent some time exploring some very non-naturalistic style ideas which could be used as rehearsal techniques or as a final piece in performance. We looked at a physical manifestation of the relationship between M and W. Recording a section of the text meant that the actors didn’t have to worry about knowing their lines and could just be the characters instead, but it also allowed us to portray them in several different ways all at once. One pair stood next to each other and turned to face each other when the text seemed right. Another pair faced each other with the hands up in front of them and played with contact and distance, again based on the text. Running on the spot and pacing separately made the couple seem separate and together at the same time. Putting all these things on stage at once was visually so interesting and very simple for each of the actors, we had four or five different portrayals of the same characters/lines all at once, and it is something that I would love to take further.

“Sometimes you have to let things be. Don’t be afraid to not talk. Actors are very good at playing. They won’t get bored.” – Bryony Shanahan

I think that the biggest thing that I have learnt from this course is the value of simplicity. There were so many things throughout the four weeks that seemed so simple that sparked a whole idea or helped us develop the character, that we used for half an hour at a time! I really enjoyed delving deeper into rehearsal techniques and getting as much out of them as we possibly could. When working on Theatre of Minds I will definitely be trying things out and trying to use simple movements to start off our exploration – who knows, we might even use some of Duncan MacMillan’s play ‘Lungs’ that we were working on because an exploration that one group presented last week really opened my eyes to a whole new side to the character of W.

Thankyou so much to the National Theatre Youth Programme and Bryony Shanahan for this amazing opportunity. I always went home in the train scribbling away because I had so much on my mind, and it felt like the course really suited everyone on it in their own way, no matter how much experience they had had. Thankyou to Dan and Jodie for being our guinea pigs and imparting your knowledge. I can’t wait to get into a rehearsal room now – so many creative ideas to try out!


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