Author Topic: The Assistant Director Puzzle: A Modest Proposal  (Read 10401 times)

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.


  • Site Founder
  • Administrator
  • *****
  • Posts: 1357
  • Gender: Female
    • View Profile
  • Affiliations: None.
  • Current Gig: SMNetwork *is* my production.
  • Experience: Former SM
The Assistant Director Puzzle: A Modest Proposal
« on: Nov 04, 2006, 06:27 pm »

Another question from a reader prompted this essay: "Quick question: Is the stage manager the same as an assistant director when doing a play?"

While the duties of the Assistant Director and the Stage Manager overlap, especially in community and school theatre groups, in the professional world the roles are very different.  It has been frequently noted that the most friction-prone relationship for Stage Managers is the one with the Assistant Director--there are several potential causes for this.  I would posit that if we start making a universal effort to create a clear definition of the Assistant Director's role that parallels the definition of the Stage Manager's duties, then many of these matters would be resolved.

I should preface this by defining how most schools look at the Assistant Director vs. the Stage Manager, and then how the pro world defines them. In a school, you'll often find the Stage Manager supervising the build of the scenery, and assembling the props, while the Assistant Director prompts the actors and generally keeps the cast and director happy. Everyone is directly supervised by the director, who is generally a faculty member of some sort. As the director sticks around until the end of the run, often giving notes to the actors directly every day, the Assistant Director also stays with the show.

In the pro environment, the Assistant Director is responsible to the Director, and the duties generally include things like running small sectional rehearsals or chorus rehearsals, helping with learning dialogue and running fight choreography, dialect work, and assisting the director with paperwork. Sometimes, if understudies are cast during the rehearsal period, the Assistant Director will rehearse the understudies, although this can also be the Stage Manager's job. Once the show opens, the director's responsibilities to the production are ended, and the Assistant Director's tasks are likewise over with.

The Assistant Director is chiefly in communication with the actors and the Director. The job isn't all that well defined--it's basically whatever the Director wants you to do. Even so, some Directors have been working with their  Assistants for so long that it's like clockwork, in which case the specific Assistant Director probably knows what their job is going to be on a day to day basis.  Either way, when the three parties of Director, Assistant Director, and Stage Manager work together as a unit, a load of confusion can ensue if one is not clear and precise about how the tasks of assembling the show are to be distributed.

The Stage Manager, on the other hand, reports to the Production Manager, who oversees all of the technical aspects of the show. As the technicians' representative in rehearsal, it is the Stage Manager's job to translate what the director says, (often esoteric or abstract) into something that can be accomplished by the technicians. (In other words, if the director says, "I want this to have a cold feeling," the Stage Manager has to relay to the lighting designer that the lighting should use the cooler end of the color spectrum--blues, greens, and not reds or ambers.) While the Assistant Director is concerned mostly with helping the director get their job done, the Stage Manager is responsible for making sure that everyone knows what happened in rehearsal, including the designers, the crew, the publicists--everyone. And whereas the Director and Assistant Director can split out after the show opens, the Stage Manager has to stick it out through the run, calling the show and maintaining the director's vision.

There are many potential causes for friction, and any of them can be an issue at any given point in time.  There are also many good solutions to this.  The jobs often overlap, and this is one of the main causes for run-ins.  Since the Stage Manager's job is generally well-defined (if overloaded) and the Assistant Director is often in a more vague spot, many Stage Managers complain about overeager Assistant Director's stepping on their professional toes and taking on jobs such as setting props or prompting actors that traditionally fall within the domain of the Stage Manager.  If this is the case, then the Assistant Director may be suffering from underuse, which can often be the case when a Director is not accustomed to having an Assistant around.  One can make the suggestion, in private, that the Assistant Director could be given some additional assignments from the Director that pertain more specifically to the conceptual sphere of the Director more than the implementation-driven realm of the Stage Manager.  Or, you can make lemonade out of your lemons and treat your overeager Assistant Director as a Stage Manager in training and give them small Stage Management assignments to make them feel useful while not getting in your way.

In more nasty environments, there is also the supremacy/proximity issue.  Both parties need to have a great level of communication with the Director during the rehearsal process if the production is going to be of high and consistent quality.  Generally, the Stage Manager has to think in terms of details during the rehearsal process, while the Assistant Director needs to think more abstractly, helping to get the "art" done.  Even so, in order to preserve the show, the Stage Manager needs at some point to sink their brain into the Director's way of thinking, so that their intentions can be upheld once they are gone. 

In situations where the Director has some level of a name, or even if they are relatively unknown, little ego wars can crop up.  The Assistant Director can feel like they have the Director's ear, and that the Stage Manager should not be sticking his/her nose into the staging process.  As noted above, this isolation of the Stage Manager from the Director's line of thought can be detrimental to the show after opening.  Meanwhile, a general attitude this Stage Manager has found is that while you can run a show without an Assistant Director, you cannot really do so without a Stage Manager, which can lead to a sense of supremacy for the Stage Manager that is not necessarily well-founded. 

It is crucial to remember that when an Assistant Director is necessary for a show, they are absolutely mandatory for the show to be produced--the Director may not have sufficient time and resources to handle the entire staging of the piece alone.  Also, Directors are good at what they do when they can keep the esoteric elements in mind and at first priority, rather than getting bogged down in details.  One must also keep in mind that the Stage Manager has their role to play, and that they will remain with the show long after the Assistant Director rides off into the sunset.  All units need keep in mind that theatre is a collaborative art.

There are certainly cases of excellent relationships between Assistant Directors and Stage Managers.  More power to those who can find common ground early on and keep it that way.  In cases where the Director himself (or herself) is weak, then the Assistant Director and Stage Manager have even been known to bond together to cover up for the Director's flaws.  In all cases, the best line of defense is to clearly define what the individual roles and duties will be on a show-by-show basis to a level where all parties are in understanding and agreement.  Lines of communication should be clearly established both between Director/Assistant Director/Stage Manager and between these individuals and the rest of the company.  Communication generally falls to the Stage Manager to maintain, so it is, of course, in your best interest to keep these channels flowing, but encouraging your coworkers to help maintain the two-way street is always preferable.

Perhaps in a few years people will realize the value of Assistant Directors and this article will become obsolete, a relic of a divisive and pessimistic past.  But, in an ideal world, the role of the Assistant Director would be as clearly and consistently defined as that of the Stage Manager.  Both would know their value to the production, and realize that they have their own individual talents and training to contribute to the good of the project.

But you knew that already, didn't you?