The Many Hats of An Assistant Director

This list was originally compiled as part of a discussion in class in the School of Drama at Carnegie Mellon University. Considering it’s getting to be AD season again soon for the school kids, and lots are out doing just this in the real world, I thought it’d be interesting to put the list back out there. Nota Bene this refers to an Assistant Director in theatre. In the film and television world, ADs are whole different [very interesting] story, but they overlap with Stage Mangers more than Theatrical ADs typically do. (Originally published on the CMU Directors tumblr.)

  • Active Observer – This is your most important job. Be present in the room. Take notes (with permission.) Be able to speak articulately about the process (but only when asked.)
  • Staging Director – Sometimes a director has you take a stab at a scene while s/he works on another, especially if the scale of the show is daunting or the rehearsal period is short
  • Acting Coach – Working on monologues, moments, talking through things with actors (with permission.)
  • Translator – Sometimes it’s English to Spanish, sometimes it’s their English to conventional English 😉
  • Production Assistant / Personal Assistant – Coffee, correspondence, sometimes even babysitting
  • Emotional Supporter – Depending on your relationship, this becomes an important part, but it’s also part of being a good friend and good person
  • Stage Manager / Technical Director  – Can that chair be brought on stage left? Is there enough clearance?
  • Sounding Board / Confidante – Sometimes a director needs to talk something through, and they might not necessarily want your opinion. They just need to talk it through.
  • Wide-Eyed Optimist – Be the person who sees the good in everything: the production, the difficult actor or designer. Be infectious but not obnoxious.
  • King’s Fool – (With permission) Ask the stupid questions. Not pointedly, but ask them. Someone’s got to do it.
  • Sightline Checker / Traffic Cop – Two sets of eyes are better than one.
  • Dramaturg – Research, theory, accountability to the vision.
  • Fixer – in the organized crime sense. Sometimes you get sent out with a task that you’re not told how to do, and you just have to figure it out. You’re the fixer. The family depends on you to take care of things.
  • Liaison – Directors have lots of meetings to go to, and if you prove yourself, you can be a great representative for him or her if there’s a scheduling conflict that requires s/he be somewhere else when the meeting’s happening.
  • Hostage Negotiator – Things should never get to this point, but sometimes they do. This connects to being an optimist. Smoothing over professional disagreements as gently as possible is a skill you are sometimes called on to have. Be very careful with this one. It doesn’t, and shouldn’t, happen often.
  • Wrangler (Children, Animals, Puppets, Actors, etc.) – Some directors don’t like having to deal with kids, animals, or particular special effects. Make their life easier and take care of those issues both artistically and personally. (Again, always wait until you’re asked.)

Most importantly, you need to talk to your director to figure out which roles you’re fulfilling. Expectations will often change after that first conversation, but you need to know the rules of the world before you start helping someone run it! Every assignment, every relationship, every director, and every situation is different!

Like sometimes you directed the best Star Wars movie and you don’t end up a household name.

I love you Irvin Kerschner.

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