- Direction by Simon Shepherd
Direction by Simon Shepherd is one of a series of books entitled “Readings in Theatre Practice” that aim “to gather together both key historical texts and contemporary ways of thinking about the material crafts and practices of theatre” (viii). Each of the books in the series is devoted to one of the crafts of the theatre, including sound, clowning, puppetry, light, direction, voice, costume, and construction. Shepherd is the author of the book about directing as well as the editor of the series. As such, he emphasizes in the preface to the series that it is not another “how-to” of theatrical crafts, but rather an investigation into concepts and tools “not just for the doing but for thinking about theatre practice” (viii), with the goal of recognizing the multiple and conflicting viewpoints therein.
Shepherd’s investigation into directing, as it has emerged in European and American theatre, is both thorough and lucid, teasing out the complexities of its historical development as well as the multiple ways in which it has been practiced and perceived. This is no small feat, given the elusive nature of an activity that seems to defy definition, description, or even name. But Simon revels in such complexities, making them the subject of his book. When, for example, he recognizes the dominant view that the director emerged as a separate and distinct role with the rise of Modernism in the late nineteenth century, he makes it his purpose to introduce counter narratives, including how many of the responsibilities associated with the role have been undertaken by others going by different names at different times and in different cultures.
Shepherd organizes his investigation of complex narratives and counter narratives about directing into five parts. The first part is a brief introduction to some of the historical antecedents for “the process of organizing a performance: both getting it on the stage and shaping its contents” (9). The discussion ranges from the metteur en jeu, who “sets up the play, creates the game, leads the entertainment” (10) in sixteenth-century Passion plays to what Gordon Craig, in 1905, called a stage manager, by which he meant someone who could bring together all the elements of the theatre in harmony. By the end of this introductory section of the book, Shepherd makes clear that what interests him most, and what he will return to over the course of the rest of the book, is the notion that “organization may be the critical and defining activity in directing” (16).
The second part of the book shifts to a discussion of conflicting assumptions [End Page 287] in our own time about what directors do, how they do it, and how they come to occupy the role. Again, lack of agreement is the focus of this discussion, as Shepherd presents just how far apart opinions range with regard to these topics, provoking questions: Is directing primarily creative or interpretive? Is it about inspiring with vision or managing time, space, people, and money? Can or should directing be taught, or is it something one comes to through acting, stage managing, or other backgrounds? What assumptions lie behind the multiple ways directing happens, from forming and leading a company to researching a script, and more?
The third part of the book turns back to historical accounts of directing, this time with the intention of showing that there are divergent narratives about its emergence. For example, balanced against the Modernist notion that someone was needed to organize a visual whole at a time of cultural alienation during the Industrial Revolution is the idea that directors, as we tend to think of them today, are not relevant, given that the theatre has prospered for centuries without them. Or, another example, colliding with the Marxist critique that directors can be seen as part of the rise of the “Professional-Managerial Class,” whose main function was the “reproduction of capitalistic culture” (88), is the notion of an “aura” of directing that sees directors as the guardians of the “spirit” of a play (91...