It is the director's first task to discover a central mood or idea in the text of the play to be performed that will serve as a unifying determinant for the interpretation of individual scenes and characters. Then he or she must work out the movement of the actors on stage and the pacing of each line and scene. Finally, the director helps plan the lighting, scenery, sound effects, and musical accompaniment for the production. All the director's efforts are aimed at creating a fully unified aesthetic experience.
Directing in some form has always existed in the theater. In ancient Greece playwrights trained their chorus and actors, and medieval religious plays had either individual or group directors. During later centuries the stage manager was the forerunner of the director. In England, Madame Vestris and W. C. Macready were the first to place great emphasis on the importance of rehearsing, and they also introduced realistic scenery and acting techniques. The 19th-century interest in realism, coupled with far-reaching technical advances, made indispensable the director's function of integrating the various and increasingly complex aspects of play production.
The beginning of modern directing is commonly associated with the Meiningen Players, a German acting troupe organized in 1874 by George II, duke of Saxe-Meiningen. Under the direction of Ludwig Chronegk, the group worked as a unit, setting an influential example of effective ensemble playing. Leading realistic directors of the late 19th cent. included André Antoine in France, Otto Brahm in Germany, and Constantin Stanislavsky in Russia. The most innovative of these was probably Stanislavsky, who stressed ensemble acting and the importance of actors' absolute identification with their roles.
Almost as soon as realism gained ascendancy, various antirealistic theatrical movements developed, beginning with Paul Fort's Théâtre d'Art (1890). The theories of Adolphe Appia in Germany and Edward Gordon Craig in England encouraged European directors to experiment with symbolic settings. Even conservative directors such as Harley Granville-Barker and Jacques Copeau soon realized that a realistic setting was not essential to the true rendering of a play's meaning.
In addition to producing increased artistic possibilities for directors, the rise of antirealism made the director's practical task of coordinating scene design, lighting, and acting even more essential. A director who experimented successfully with both realism and antirealism was the German Max Reinhardt. Noted for his extravagant productions, he tried to remove the barrier between actors and audience by projecting the stage into the audience and scattering actors among the spectators.
During the 1920s there were several important antirealist directors working in Germany and the Soviet Union, notably Vsevolod Meyerhold, Alexander Tairov, and Erwin Piscator. A disciple of Reinhardt, Piscator worked with the playwright Bertolt Brecht, whose theories have greatly influenced 20th-century theater. In order to emphasize the social and intellectual content of Brecht's plays, Piscator utilized stylized settings and mechanical devices such as motion pictures. Brecht wished to insure the intellectual receptiveness of his audience by making it continually aware that it was watching a play, not reality. To this end he and Piscator took the opposite of the Stanislavsky technique and schooled their actors to alienate themselves from their roles.
During the 19th and early 20th cent., the American theater was dominated by directors specializing in elaborate surface realism, with David Belasco as their prototype. A break from that tendency was made by the Group Theatre (1931-41), with Cheryl Crawford, Lee Strasberg, and Harold Clurman directing plays of social significance and promulgating Stanislavsky's theories of acting. Strasberg's Actors' Studio has produced several generations of theater and film actors devoted to the Stanislavsky technique. Enormous emotional expressiveness was also elicited by José Quintero in his direction of actors at New York's Circle in the Square and in Poland by Jerzy Grotowski in his sparely experimental productions at Wrocław's Polish Laboratory Theatre.
During the 1950s and 60s the emergence of the theater of the absurd and the theater of cruelty granted directors more scope than ever. Many directors, among them Peter Brook, began incorporating music, acrobatics, dance, film, and mime into their productions, whether the plays being performed were by Beckett, Stoppard, or Shakespeare. Theatrical happenings and the orgiastic productions of Julian Beck's Living Theater—replete with audience participation—may be viewed either as giving the director unlimited freedom or as eliminating his function altogether.
The director was commonly of prime importance in the theatrical productions of the late 20th cent. In the Brooks tradition, a number of directors, including America's Peter Sellars, Germany's Peter Stein, France's Ariane Mnouchine, and Poland's Tadeusz Kantor, put their individual and innovative creative stamps on classical and contemporary works. A wide range of approaches and preoccupations characterized late 20th-century directors, including the social concerns of such figures as Brazil's Augusto Boal and Russia's Lev Dodin; the experimentalism of such writer-directors as America's Robert Wilson and Maria Irene Fornes, Canada's Robert Lepage, and Japan's Shuji Terayama; and the varied techniques of such other prominent directors as Jonathan Miller (Great Britain), Yukio Ninagawa (Japan), Lluís Pasqual (Spain), and Julie Taymore (United States).
See E. G. Craig, The Art of the Theatre (1905) and Towards a New Theatre (1913); C. Stanislavsky, My Life in Art (1948); N. Marshall, The Producer and the Play (2d ed. 1962); T. Cole and H. K. Chinov, ed., Directors on Directing (1963); H. Clurman, On Directing (1972); E. Braun, The Director and the Stage (1982); W. Bell, Sense of Direction (1984); A. Bartow, The Dirctor's Voice (1988); D. Bradby and D. Williams, Directors' Theatre (1988); L. E. Catron, The Director's Vision (1989); A. Dean, The Fundamentals of Play Directing (5th ed. 1989); W. J. Robert, Directing in the Theatre (2d ed. 1993); J. W. Frick and S. M. Vallillo, ed., Theatrical Directors (1994); J. Luere and S. Berger, ed., Playwright vs. Director (1994); M. M. Delgado and P. Heritage, ed., In Contact with the Gods?: Directors Talk Theatre (1997).