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New Directions for Theatre Directors Part I

Date: Nov 23, 2009


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What does it take to be a theatre director? The answer changes all the time. There’s always some new artistic trend or economic concern that requires directors to adjust their approach to their craft.

With that in mind, TDF presents a two-part series on where directors are and where they’re going. Today, we’re exploring a labor union’s role in the art and business of the job, and on Wednesday, we’ll speak with prominent directors about how their work has changed in the last ten years.

It was 1959 when the Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers was officially recognized as a labor union. At the time, the idea that directors and choreographers should be treated as a collective bargaining force angered many theatrical producers, and one of them even sued the union for conspiring to prevent free trade. Little by little, however, the SSDC—which recently rechristened itself the SDC (Stage Directors and Choreographers Society)—managed to secure standard contracts, benefits, and pension funds for members working in both New York and regional theatres.

The battles haven’t ended, however. The SDC recently has been involved in prominent lawsuits against theatre companies who were accused of plagiarizing direction and choreography. In 2007, for instance, theatres in Chicago and Akron were both required to pay royalties to the original director and choreographer of the musical Urinetown. It was decided these regional productions copied such a significant amount of the Broadway production’s staging that they constituted theft.

Thanks to this and similar cases, a universal standard may develop that lets a director’s staging be licensed for use by other theatres. That’s a controversial idea that divides many people in the theatre community.

It’s certainly an issue that impacts the SDC. “We’re really exploring that question of how we can make directing available for licensing,” says Laura Penn, who was named as SDC’s executive director last year. She adds, “When I was talking with folks about this job, I said, ‘If you want somebody who has the answer to this issue of directors and property rights, you should find somebody else.’ I’m interested in it, and I would love to help figure it out, but what the answer is, I don’t know.”

Another major issue is the increasing overlap between theatre and technology. The SDC stays in constant contact with its members, trying to determine the prevailing attitude about everything from filming rehearsals to incorporating technology into productions.
“In terms of media stuff, we’re making it up as it’s happening,” Penn says. “I have members who say, ‘Never. Never is a camera going to come in my rehearsal hall. The rehearsal process is sacred.’ And then there are directors who will say to me, ‘Whatever. Privacy? Thing of the past.’”

Despite these new issues, part of the union’s work has stayed the same for fifty years. Along with advocating for its members legal rights, the SDC also strives to create a sense of community.

That can be difficult. Directors live on a hinge: On one hand, they’re the bosses of the rehearsal room, but on the other, they’re employees of producers, boards, or artistic directors. That divided life can feel isolating. Plus, directors almost always work alone, whereas actors and stagehands usually have colleagues on a production that make them feel like part of a group.

“If we don’t keep a sense of community among our members, we won’t be viable,” Penn says. “And that sense of community doesn’t happen naturally. We don’t break from rehearsals and go have drinks with the rest of the directors at the end of the day. There’s no natural gathering, so our member services work is necessary to keep members feeling like they’re part of something bigger than themselves.”

To that end, the SDC has added more interactive features to its website and begun hosting informal discussions in New York City. Members have been eager to talk to each other about everything from collaborating with film directors to opportunities for minority artists.

For Penn, the future of the SDC relies on pushing these conversations further. “If we can speak about our needs, then maybe we can start to learn about where directing will be in five years or ten years,” she says. “I don’t know where it’s going to go, which is kind of cool, but we’ve got to be talking about it and thinking about it.”

For more information on the SDC, visit