What Does a Director (Theater and Opera) Do?

At the heart of almost any theatrical performance is the guiding hand of a director, a unique professional who takes charge of the production process and shapes almost every aspect of the show. Directors audition and cast actors; assemble and oversee the production team; provide design directives; lead rehearsals; and manage the production schedule of the project, ensuring that all the moving parts connect. Perhaps most importantly, they also supply a unifying understanding of the text and a particular vision for the production, which might mean a unique setting, a visual style or mood, or an interesting design concept that plays off themes in the text.

It's the director's job to answer the difficult question of "why": why stage this show here, now, with these actors and for this audience? In essence, why does this performance matter?

Directors typically begin their work on a production with careful reading and analysis of the script and its characters, sometimes aided by a dramaturg. Following this, the director assembles a creative team that might include a set designer, costume designer, sound designer, lighting designer, prop artist, choreographer, music director, and even the playwright or librettist. This creative team works closely with the director, altering and polishing the production's artistic vision and providing insight on design implentation. The work continues in rehearsals, where the director—assisted by stage managers—guides actors through the process of understanding their roles and lines, controls and refines the pacing of scenes, and implements blocking and choreography. Once the show opens, the director's job is complete and responsibility for future performances passes to the stage manager, although the director might still provide small performance notes.

Director (Theater and Opera) at a Glance

Career Path

This senior position is, for many, the culmination of a long career in theater—working one's way up from stage and technical crews to become first a lead designer, stage manager, or production manager, then an assistant director, and then, finally, the director. Still, not everyone takes the same path; some break into directing early in their careers by producing their own work or founding a small theater company, while others find success as performers before trying their hand at direction. For directors, success means being hired by prestigious companies to direct high-budget productions, finding long-term positions or residencies at theater companies or universities, or rising to the top of a theater company as the artistic director.

Finding Work

Most directors are independent contractors who are hired by theater producers and companies on a per-project basis, although some have full-time positions or residencies with theater companies, or with university theater departments as professors or teaching artistsThis is considered a tough field to break into, because aspiring directors can't learn the craft without doing it, and they can't get hired to do it until they've proven themselves capable. Aspiring directors should learn everything they can about theatrical direction, production, design, acting, and more—and if initial opportunities aren't forthcoming, should create their own by producing and directing shows independently. Additionally, building a network of connections and a solid industry reputation is vital to landing jobs, which are often found via word of mouth.

Professional Skills
  • Hiring and leading a production team
  • Casting and running auditions
  • Basic theatrical design
  • A unique vision
  • Critical and analytical thinking
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Leadership
  • Multitasking
  • Networking
  • Time management
Interpersonal Skills

Successful directors possess a large suite of interpersonal skill, including personal and artistic sensitivity, aesthetic acuity, excellent communication and organization, and the confidence to lead and inspire others through a difficult and unpredictable process. They are superb multitaskers and steady as a rock in the face of adversity. While not all directors are great collaborators, all must understand how to facilitate the collaborative process and synthesize the efforts of large creative teams. Finally, it's vital that directors possess the ability to think critically and analytically about a text, and the passion and conviction to pursue their interpretations. It's the director's job to answer the difficult question of "why": why stage this show here, now, with these actors and for this audience? In essence, why does this performance matter?

Work Life

Like most theater artists, directors tend to work in bursts. Several months of intensive labor on a show culminate in the arduous final dash to the performance, followed by an abrupt transition to downtime, during which directors have the opportunity to relax, regroup, network, and acquire new skills before setting out on the next creative journey. Again like others in the theater industry, directors primarily work during the evenings and weekends.