“So what does an Assistant Director actually do?”

Whisper #6

A question I am regularly asked when I tell people about my current job status. The answer is, invariably, “it depends on which director I am assisting and what the play needs.” Vague I know, but true.

I have been assisting directors since I started studying at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and some rehearsals rooms have given me a better insight into what it is to be a director than studying years on the subject.

I have assisted on many shows from Shakespeare to West End musicals and every experience is completely unique. I think this is what draws me to directing as no two projects or even days are the same. Every rehearsal throws up new discoveries and new challenges. I direct theatre of my own on the fringe and I find that working within other directors' rehearsal rooms helps me learn about different processes and provides me with a wealth of experience of working within large teams.

An assistant director is there to assist the director in delivering his or her creative vision. This could entail pre-rehearsal research on the context of the play, the playwright or a certain concept that the director wants to explore. It could involve aiding script editing and development, sourcing experts within certain fields to come into the rehearsal room to provide talks to the actors, reading in for actors who aren’t present, organising rehearsal calls, running parallel rehearsals or leading games or warm-ups. 

You are there to provide a strong support to their artistic vision and be an extra set of eyes and ears in the rehearsals. It is very important to have good communication skills as you are responsible for liaising between many different departments and making sure that actors feel they can come to you with issues they may not want to approach a director with.

The cast of Hamlet in the rehearsal room learning to handle a gun

This is my first time assisting for the RSC but not my first time assisting Simon Godwin and I therefore have more of an understanding of how he likes to work and what he might need from me without him having to ask. One of the great things about the RSC is that they have a strong understudy cast and it's the assistant director's role to make sure they are rehearsed and prepared to go on when needed. Once the show is up and running it is down to the assistant director to keep and eye on how the production is running and be around to help if and when an understudy is needed last minute.

We are about to enter the fifth week of rehearsals for Hamlet and I hope that during the next few weeks I can find time to give updates of what we are up to and more specifically what I have been required to do as an assistant director on this project. Hopefully I will be spared having to excise any of my (very weak) acting muscles!

Two actors rehearsing for Hamlet

Anna Girvan

Anna Girvan is a director who loves working with texts (new and old), actors (new and old), devising, playing and telling stories. She is from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and was first exposed to Shakespeare’s work through the RSC tours to Newcastle Theatre Royal. She first got the directing bug at the University of Sussex and continued to study an MA in directing at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Follow her on Twitter @AnnaGirvan or visit www.annagirvandirector.co.uk

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