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Dealing With Your Director

June 18, 2010

In some setups, the musical director is the director. That only makes sense if there is only one competent person to do each job. And I have seen that. I would say if possible, it makes more sense to have 1 person doing each job: one musical/vocal director, and one dramatic director. And when those are 2 different people, the director is usually the one in charge of making the whole show come together, the visionary and executive functions. There is really no way to do what a director needs to do with blocking and what have you, and still pay attention to the music adequately. And there’s no way to pay attention to the music adequately and still oversee the dozens of things that need to be coordinated in order to get a show running smoothly. Somebody has to keep an eye on the whole thing, and that person should be the director, not the music director. That doesn’t mean you’re second fiddle. It means that you are charged with musically carrying out the director’s vision of the show, and making sure the music is working toward the director’s ends. Think of yourself as a craftsman who is specially qualified to carry out a certain task, not as a lackey.

Your position as qualified craftsman means when the director is bored during a number, the director has a right to ask for it to be faster, you have a discussion about it, and then you do your best within what you find acceptable to give the director what he or she wants. You are the person who can translate the director’s wishes into music-ese. For example:

Director: “I’m so bored here. Aren’t you bored?”

Music Director: “Do you think a faster tempo would make it better? Or maybe it would make more sense to cut a section to make it shorter.”

Director: “He’s so wimpy here. Can’t you fix his voice?”

Music Director: “This music is a little high for him, and he’s doing it in his head voice. If we lower the key a little, maybe he can sing it in a chest register.”

or:

“This music is a little low for him and his voice lacks power in this register. If we move the key up, it might work better.”

or:

“He doesn’t have a mic yet. When he gets a mic, this whole section will work a lot better.”

The trick is to try and listen past what the director is saying to what the director means and how you might solve the problem. Some directors are very musical and know exactly what they’re saying. I’ve worked with directors who could easily music direct themselves if they cared to. But most directors are really thinking about the feelings they’re getting from watching what’s going on, not the musical material. That’s what they should be thinking about. If they’re bored, the audience will be too. The quicker you both get to why it isn’t working, the quicker you can get to how you’re going to make it work.

Is your director incompetent? That can be frustrating. But if you do less than your best, or if you try to undermine the director, now there are two directors acting inappropriately. If you find yourself with a bad director, narrow your focus and be sure you have done everything in your area of expertise to make the situation better.

One other thing a director should do (but doesn’t always do) is shut down time wasting discussions and activities. Sometimes a rehearsal can degenerate into a discussion about a small point or a negotiation between directors, while the cast is standing around wondering what they’re doing there. A director should stop those conversations or reschedule them and move on. If that happens, the Music Director should make a note of whatever concern it was that needed to be cleared up and then move on. The director isn’t disrespecting you. The director is doing her job.

When you can see a place for your training and your specific skills to work toward the end of creating good theatre, battles of ego and power plays are seen for what they are: unnecessary distractions.

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3 comments

  1. Peter,every director should be so lucky to have a fantastic Musical Director like you. Kim


  2. Hey, I think it’s worthwhile to note, although you’ve done a lot of extensive discussion about the role of the MD/PD and the role of the director, that unless you have an awesome relationship with the director and it’s understood that it’s ok, you should not be giving non-musical notes to actors (and really, directors should contact their MD’s with musical notes..lesson learned there).

    I like what you said about the director needing to shut down unproductive activities. Awesomely put. You may see why I’m hesitant to do that sometimes (although I really like to).

    True story: during a tech, I gave a note to an actor to move the comedy in a scene a bit quicker. It was really dragging. Pit director hadn’t heard me say that (was talking to the pit at the time) and immediately followed up my comment by giving a note to the opposite effect. I got frustrated and said loudly “I DISAGREE”, reiterated my previous note and moved on. Now she and I are the best of friends and she hasn’t let me live it down and likewise!


    • Kim, thank you!

      Mindy, I have a whole post ready that I’m putting up in a month or so called “Knowing the limits of your job” where I tell a funny story about when I crossed over that line. You are very good at keeping things moving. There simply has to be one person in charge, and it really should be the director, NOT the MD!

      I love how this is starting to be a place where people tell their war stories! That was half the fun of the idea of this blog.

      -Peter



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