SparkNotes Blog

How to Direct a High School Play

Sparkler bobbieslick directed Othello last year as a high school junior, and this year is directing an original play based on the Brothers Grimm fairytale, Snow White and Red Rose. Good luck, bobbieslick (and send us a youtube link to your plays, eh?)!

It’s wonderful, the experience of directing a high school play, because of two things: (1) You get to do it with people you’re comfortable with, and (2)  You get to stage some of the most awesome plays in history (Shakespeare, Wilde, etc.). Directing is not simply telling people what to do onstage; it requires a lot more work than that. Allow me to elucidate in this list of tips…

1. Be passionate about your play.

This is the only motivation you will ever have. No one will be your motivation, because you serve as motivation for everyone else. Get the play to pump life and blood into your system every time you open the script or step into the rehearsal hall. Make yourself love the play. Make yourself want to make the best of it.

2. Read, read, read (and watch)!

This is very important. When you’re the director, your text is not limited to the actors’ lines. You need to understand the core of your play, understand what it actually means.  Playwrights like Shakespeare love keeping things secret from the audience, as a reward for the more intellectual and observant viewer who is able to spot these little jokes.

A firm grasp of the play’s themes, symbolism, and characters is essential in constructing your play. (SparkNotes helped me a lot with this part!) As you try to get your mind around these elements, it’s a good idea to watch a live presentation and a film presentation of your play. Reading the play on paper is different from actually seeing it. When you watch your play in motion, the fundamentals come into perspective for you. This big-picture perspective will help when you try to figure out the little details of your play later on.

3. Hold auditions

Imagine casting the hottest guy in your class as Cinderella’s Prince and finding out he can’t sing a note. Although you probably do know enough about your company to gauge who will do great as a certain character, it is IMPERATIVE that you hold auditions.

It is a mortal sin to “pre-cast” (that is, to cast someone into a role before seeing them act). If you can’t avoid dreaming of a person in a certain role, you may personally ask them to audition. Say that you’re really curious because you see them in the part, but also make clear that you’re not willing to make hypothetical decisions. This is all about getting the right people into the right roles, and hypothetical or “pre-casting” will just lead to a big mess later in your production.

Be thorough and critical in your decision-making, because your cast will be the people you’ll be working with for a big chunk of time. Also, when showtime comes, if anything goes wrong, it will fall to your actors to deceive the audience into believing that the mistake is all part of the show.

4. Teach your actors, don’t order them.

This is especially true for when you work with actors who can carry the part, but have some difficulty in a certain scene or two. Remember, you’re all just high school students, and the really cute guy who winces while he is felt up when playing Cassio just needs a little support. Sometimes, showing actors how to do it (by doing the scene yourself) may lighten the mood and show that really cute guy that it’s all just pretend.

5. Have a “thing.”

Have an activity with your cast and company that’s uniquely reserved for rehearsals. In my case, it was the warm-ups where I had actors run around the room and made them stop at random times. Another was our parody rehearsal. Hilarity resulted when our Emilia would karate-chop Iago when he tried to bring her closer to kiss her. Note that these parody runs (if you choose to do this) should be used sparingly. This is just the occasional break from the rigorous rehearsing you should be doing the rest of the time.

6. Hold regular meetings.

Unless you have a Production Manager, you are also in charge of the backstage stuff (read: costumes, backdrop, lights, etc) and even if you do have a PM, it is part of the director’s job to spearhead the whole production creatively. In short, you will have to guide the crew so that everything in your production will appear coherent come show time. Hold regular meetings with the committee heads.  Updates and concerns should be the agenda.

It is also your job to make sure that everyone is on the same page creatively. You should allow everyone creative freedom, just make sure that everything is unified and reflects a central theme in the end. It’s all about communication and keeping everyone together.

7. Think outside the box.

To have a great play, you must present something no one has ever seen before while staying true to the play’s original essence. It takes a lot of effort to make a play that has been around for centuries entirely unique. This is where your background knowledge and research would help. By considering many different perspectives on the script, it will be easier for you to generate ideas of your own.

8. Have fun.

Remember that after everything, the most important thing will still be what you’ve learned from the experiences you’ve had and the relationships you’ve made. If your play does end up sucking, you’ll all just laugh about it and say to yourselves that you all did your best.

Have you ever directed a high school play? Have you acted in one? What was the experience like?

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