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So You Want To Be a Director?

Timothy Thompson chats with Carnegie Mellon directing student Alex Tobey about his career path.

Alex Tobey
The director is a guiding force behind a production, and he or she is responsible for leading all aspects—acting and design, making sure they are telling the same narrative. I've always carried an esteem and curiosity towards the directors I have had, because I confess that, one day, I would like to direct something of my own. But how on earth does one become a good director?

Who better to talk to about directing than someone who is in the process of developing his approach to directing? I caught up with Alex Tobey, a graduate of UNC School of the Arts' high school drama program. I remember hearing he had expressed an interest in the directing path, and I wondered what he was up to now—how the pursuit of his dream was panning out.

These days, Alex attends Carnegie Mellon, pursuing his BFA in Directing (yes, undergrad programs for directing exist!). This year, Alex will be assistant directing CMU's production of Angels in America and a world premiere, DYO: Or, Please Take Care of Me.

Timothy Thompson: When did you first become interested in the directing path?
Alex Tobey: I had been interested in acting since elementary school, so theater had always been a part of my life since I can remember. I grew up performing because, for a young kid, that was the only way to be involved. It was towards the beginning of high school that I realized my interests lay more in directing. I was starting to look at the "big picture" when it came to plays. Whenever I would read a new play, my first thought wasn't how much I wanted to play the lead. I would imagine how the play would fit on the local theater's stages, where and how I would stage it, and the best way to tell the story. The more experience I've had now, the more I learn how much I love telling stories. Shifting towards directing has made me realize the sheer amount of work that goes into any production.

TT: What does an average day look like for a directing student?
AT: First year, my schedule looked a lot like those of the acting/musical theater students. I took acting and movement, directing, other arts/drama classes, and the occasional elective. Starting this year is when my schedule starts to diverge. I'll still take acting for one more year, but I'm starting to take more design, management, and history courses. We also take a good deal of classes outside of the School of Drama. Our program emphasizes that a director needs to know everything—both technical and academic. After all, how can you be expected to direct a show that takes place in 1700s France if you don't know the historical, cultural, and political significance of the play's events?

TT: When does a director begin work on a production?
AT: Immediately. I'm one of those directors whose ideas change constantly, even once the rehearsal process has begun. As I think back on some pieces I've worked on, I don't think my original ideas were ever the ideas I kept. The more time you spend with the material, the more you begin to absorb it and gain a better understanding of it. Also, the larger the scale of a production, the more people are likely to be working on it: designers are going to start turning to you immediately for ideas and guidance. Their process is similar—they need time to work, digest, and develop before opening night. The work is never done. Get started.

TT: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to be a director?
AT: Don't wait around for opportunities. If you're interested in directing, see if there's something you can direct at school. If not, find a play, find some friends, and just do it yourself. Even if your final production takes place in your garage, this experience will be invaluable. And it's one step closer. Also, just get involved in theater in whatever way you can. I worked a sound internship on a show a couple years ago, and even though I wasn't immediately involved with the director's process, I got to see a little bit about how the show was run from a technical side. The more you know about everything that goes on in the theater, the better.

Thank you, Alex! Congrats and good luck with the season!


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