There are many parallels between theater and sports. The actors, like athletes, train together for months, creating close bonds, before an important performance in front of a crowd. And the director is like a coach who works with the actors but once the show starts has to sit back and watch. The only difference is that once the curtain rises, a director doesn’t get to call time out.
Judy Hayward, a musical director in Nashua, said that before a show opens, the atmosphere behind the curtain is very similar to that in the locker room before a football game.
“The director usually gives a pep talk and tells the actors to go out and give it their best,” Hayward said.
Hayward said she doesn’t get nervous but is anxious to see the audience’s reaction to the show because so much is resting on the director’s shoulders. She said the week before a show can be stressful. This summer, all three leads in Into the Woods developed laryngitis and Hayward wasn’t sure if they’d be able to perform. Luckily, after much Vitamin C, everything worked out fine. But such headaches are part of the director’s job. It is a job most believe ends once the show starts.
“Sometimes you spend years with a script or an idea and then you hand it off to the cast,” said William C. McGregor, who is directing A Streetcar Named Desire. “But you have to have enough confidence. The last rehearsal is a director’s last day on the job.”
“Once the show opens it belongs to the actors and stage managers,” said Lowell Williams, who recently wrote and directed Six Nights in the Black Belt.
If on opening night, a director’s job is done, what are they thinking when they watch all of their hard work performed live in front of a crowd?
McGregor said on opening night he likes to arrive at the theater early and sit in the house. He described it as his most cathartic moment. But once the show starts he has a hard time enjoying it. McGregor said everyone puts their trust in the director, who can only hope the play is well received. Williams said he sits in the back, often at different angles, to see the audience reaction. As the writer of Six Nights in the Black Belt, he enjoyed watching the performance and actually surprised himself by thinking, ‘hmm, that’s pretty well written.’
Matthew Cahoon, who is directing Hedda Gabler, said the most important thing for a director is audience’s reaction. He said the relationship between the actors and audience is like an electrical circuit and it can’t be complete without the two parts.
That is why Cahoon, who leads theatre KAPOW, hosts audience talk-backs after many performances.
“I like being part of that process,” Cahoon said. He said it helps both the actors and him to improve performances for the current show and future shows. But Cahoon said he never goes back stage and makes suggestions during an intermission.
“The actors are so focused that it would be intrusive at that point,” Cahoon said. “It is as much their break as it is the audience’s. But we’re discussing the show constantly.”
This restraint by directors doesn’t mean everything goes perfectly. McGregor said at one show an actor decided to dump a glass of water on his head, even though the play was about a drought.
“I’ve seen my share of snafus but every time I go through this I learn this is an art form,” McGregor said. “It is never going to be exactly perfect. There are too many variables. Early on, I had a hard time accepting that. But if you prepare well enough, you’ll be ready when something goes awry.”
Despite all the invariables and nerves, when it is all said and done many directors feel “show remorse.”
“Theater is a collaboration and we miss getting together,” Williams said. “But most of us aren’t professionals and so there is a mix of relief so we can get back to our regular life.”
Cahoon said, sometimes, even before a show ends, he is already planning and thinking about the next one.