Recently finished this…. (a real bargain too, knabbing a pre owned – turns out, ex library copy – from Ebay, for a fraction of the cost) “The Director’s Craft – A Handbook for the Theatre” by renowned theatre and opera director, Katie Mitchell. 

“The Director’s Craft – A Handbook for the Theatre” by Katie Mitchell

Firstly, I should begin by pointing out that I wasn’t reading this intending to glean lots of useful information specifically relating to puppetry or object work. Neither of these languages feature heavily inMitchell’s work and aren’t commonly seen as part of her onstage vocabulary; I wanted to read this to gain a more general approach, and different perspective, on telling stories through the art of theatre and performance.

Currently I’m being funded to research how I can improve my own creative practice and develop my career as an artist, and also into methods of storytelling through theatre. This seemed like an excellent choice of read to help filter into all of these aspects.

At times it reads a little like Directing 101, or “so you want to be a theatre director?”, however it’s approach to the subject is broad ranging and comprehensive and offers a lot of insight into Katie’s insights, experiences and personal views on many of the day to day things that are taken for granted that go into the process of making work. 

What really comes across from this text however are two main areas of consummate knowledge that have clearly helped achieve Katie Mitchell’s status and reputation – and they feed into each other nicely.

The first is Mitchell’s methodology in approaching work that keeps it measurable and assessable in regards to the effectiveness of its communication. She’s found a way to keep the creation of work objective. That’s not to say there isn’t passion here and the work is all about process (churning it out and following the Katie Mitchell formula) it’s very obvious that there is real fire and drive. The tone of the book feels conversational, with many asides and quips from the author from her own opinions and experiences.

What is very interesting, and something that I have noticed in creating work, is that makers can lose sight of the end goal and the work turning into a passion piece. Mitchell’s approach sees the work very much as part of working out a puzzle, analysing the best ways to convey what is necessary to ensure clear delivery and communication of what was intended. It’s very refreshing to read, every technique and device deployed has purpose relating back to, and fed into, the intended creation of the piece.

The second sensation that I got from this read – and also what I found particularly impressive – is Mitchell’s ability to account for human factors in the creation of work. Human factors, if anyone hasn’t heard the term before, boils down to all the possible outcomes and instances and influences that may come when working with, well, humans. It’s clear that Mitchell handles her teams well even if the team may have to buy into some of her ways of working in regard to her terminology and jargon to maintain a point of common reference. She manages to account for the unpredictability and flux that comes when working with fellow humans. There are detailed and thorough advice sections on how to deal with notes sessions and ensuring optimum clarity, the difference in speech between talking to your cast and creative team and even advice on sitting in a rehearsal room to get good results. It is evident that Mitchell’s approach is very much centred around the work; an objective undertaking to tell story and communicate narrative.

Only possible criticism, it could be argued that in these fast moving, economically taught times, most companies are lucky to receive 4 weeks rehearsal. Mitchell is clearly used to 6-8 plus tech, previews and works on the play well into the run. For her it seems the work is never “done”. It may come as a shock or struggle to the aspiring theatre maker wanting to implement her techniques that they may not have thus luxury and naturally be disheartened. This is taken into consideration though with advice about how to streamline her application and even acknowledgements of a clearly less established, younger Mitchell making her first steps in her directing career and making the necessary sacrifices and adjustments to make the work work. 

Furthermore, the book is written applying examples of the exercises described to Chekhov’s “The Seagull”. Mitchell admits herself that she usually works with scripted plays, and usually ones which have come from an author long since passed. For those possibly seeking information about directing work with new writing or devised work: take the principles demonstrated here, evaluate their purpose and apply at will with a pinch of salt. There is logic that everything presented is very effective and worthy, it is important though to bear in mind the how and why to implement the exercise and what the desired result is.  

All in all, I’d heartily recommend to anyone involved in the art of making performance. Even those not involved in a performance or directorial capacity. There’s a lot of value to be taken away from this book. It’s a read that I found had a real weight and gravity to it that re-anchored a lot of the principles that in time, one would forget or, in bad habit, lose sight of.