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‘Walking into a rehearsal room ready for anything’ – a weekend training in Directing with Philip Crawford

Sarah Mulgrew, Director, MORE Performing Arts Youth Theatre, in Coleraine attended TheatreNI’s intensive of training for Youth Theatre Directors, 28th29th, July with Philip Crawford, Head of Creative Learning, Lyric Theatre, Belfast. As a Youth Theatre Director with no formal Director’s training, Sarah was keen to learn how a professional working with young people in theatre prepares for rehearsals, explores a text and works with a creative team. Sarah shares with us below some of the learning from her two days training. 

During the two days we were provided with invaluable training, information and resources as well as many helpful dos, don’ts and golden rules. How do you choose a play in the first place? Philip discussed with us the considerations you need to think about, including: practicality in terms of your budget, suitability for cast, relevance of the production, and eligibility for funding, collaborations, sponsorship or other support.

With this in mind, we looked at Davy Anderson’s Blackout, which will be produced for the fourth consecutive year by the Lyric’s Creative Learning Department in the coming months. We were asked to read the script through with a youth performance group in mind and to stop when we felt that anything in the script might present a challenge in the future –  accents, bad language, reference to traumatic events, fight scenes, props that might be difficult to come by. We had to also ‘open our minds’ to other opportunities a text might present. With Blackout for example, the Lyric was able to develop a significant partnership with the Department for Justice whose support assisted in producing and touring the play.

Philip then showed us how he works towards getting a profile of the play, ascertaining the number of lines each character has and how often characters are on stage together. This initial preparation involves a lot of bars and charts and allows him as the Director, to consider the extent of each role and to discover which parts never overlap –  helpful for making decisions about the possibility of multi-roling. He also showed us the character timeline, which he devised for Blackout – where he marked out key events, dates and times for the character, which, he feels enriches his understanding of the characters experiencing these events.

He goes on to suggest that we should not ‘even pick up a pen’ during the first read of a play. This first read is about ‘getting a feel for the play’ and is not a time to worry about challenging, potentially expensive, dangerous or seemingly impractical stage directions for example.

On the second read, Philip advises us to compile two lists  –  a list of questions and a list of facts. He suggests working your way through the text asking and answering questions, jotting down initial thoughts about set and lighting etc.

Philip also discussed with us the importance of creating and nurturing a safe working environment of mutual and equal respect for the entire creative team right from the outset. Creating a warm and welcoming environment during the audition process will enable actors to show you their best, show you as the Director, how they will respond to direction, and how they will contribute positively in the rehearsal room.

Working out how many hours of rehearsal time you need and have, and agreeing the schedule with your creative team is an important next step.


Philip then summarised his rehearsal process: Table Work, Blocking, Detailed Work and Review. He spends a significant amount of time reading the play with the actors and dissecting each scene into units of actions and blocking these units with the actors. Once blocking is complete, the cast are ready to work in detail, confirming objectives and obstacles of characters within the play and aiming to have as many answers to questions about their characters as possible.

Philip also stressed the importance of not demonstrating what you want actors to do – he aims to illicit different portrayals by using verbs to get his actors to interpret lines differently, which he refers to as ‘actioning’. For example, someone using a line to ‘challenge’ the cast member opposite will appear very differently than using that line to ‘apologise’. It’s about ‘helping the actor to make decisions’, while the Director’s job is to ‘make the choice about what interpretation feels right or is most interesting’.

Another important piece of advice was acknowledging what your limits are as a Director. Philip regularly brings in specialists such as choreographers, physical movement directors, stage combat professionals and drag artists, if budgets permit.

Having spent just two days with Philip, I feel miles ahead of where I was as a Director working in youth theatre.  Learning from a professional builds your confidence, helps you to develop best practice and provides you with a tool box to overcome the inevitable challenges and obstacles which lie ahead.  As a youth theatre Director, I have also learned that directing is about facilitating – not dictating and that good people skills also play a vital role in the process. Walking into a rehearsal room to direct a youth theatre production can be a daunting experience for anyone. Armed with Philip’s template for pre-rehearsal work and the knowledge and experiences he shared with us will allow all of us who attended to be more extensively prepared for walking into the rehearsal room ready for anything.


Finally, Philip shared with us one of his Director’s bibles – Katie Mitchell’s: The Director’s Craft, A Handbook for the Theatre, 2009. Katie’s 12 golden steps are, paraphrased, as follows:

  1. Cultivate patience and long-term thinking: work slowly and take small steps
  2. Be consistent: think language, goals, behaviour and relationships
  3. Do not worry about being liked: replace with the aim of being respected
  4. Make the text the mediator of any conflict: Read together and ask what the writer intends
  5. Do not automatically blame the actor if something goes wrong: assume it’s your fault, ask what you can do to help – were you clear in your communication? Diagnose and try again.
  6. Always apologise if you make an error
  7. If you are feeling angry, frustrated or despairing have a break and tame it! Don’t take these feelings out on anyone.
  8. Do not put time pressure on actors and do not waste time yourself.
  9. Keep an eye on the actors’ audience thinking: advocate for thinking ‘I want my character to be clear for the audience’ instead of ‘am I impressing the audience’.
  10. Keep clear the boundaries between actors’ private lives and the work
  11. Avoid last minute instructions
  12. Hold your nerve.

Feedback from some of our participants see below:

‘As an aspiring professional theatre Director, I thought I would take up the fantastic opportunity at the Lyric Theatre, through TheatreNI, to attend a two day course to work with Head of Creative Learning, Philip Crawford. Having heard much about Philip’s outstanding previous work, how could I pass up on this incredible opportunity?

I found the two day course to be so invaluable to me! I gained a great insight into Philip’s process of directing and the steps he takes for every aspect of working on a production, from working with text to accessing plays to planning rehearsals to even learning about funding. Having just recently finished a three year Drama and Theatre Studies degree, I learned more about directing from the two day course than I did over the three years in university.

For a next to nothing price, this course was the best workshop I have done since my interest in theatre began! I am immediately signing up to anything similar in the future and would strongly urge you to do the same if directing is an area of interest to you – whether you’re new to directing or have years of experience, Philip Crawford’s Directing course is a must!’
Ryan McVeigh (Actor, Director)

‘The directing for youth course guided you through the process of directing from the inception of an idea to the practicalities of bringing it to life on stage.  All aspects were covered in a clear and inclusive way. I would recommend this course to anyone with an interest in directing young people or adults.  As an actor I found it useful to see and experience through the Director’s eyes.’
Adam Dougal (Actor)

Please note: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy, position, views or opinions of TheatreNI.