I’ve been directing work on the Fringe for a couple of years now with the company I co-Artistic Direct, Nothing to Perform [N2P]. I have loved learning on the job how to be a good director. I can run a crowded room, hold safe space for sensitive content, and try to command something between friendly admiration and real respect while working ruthlessly yet empathetically under impossible financial circumstances and time constraints. It’s been a trial by fire, but I have those years of experience to thank for a new degree of self-assuredness and professionalism that I’m very proud of.
But even after all that, from my vantage point down here in the fringes, it seemed like the industry was waiting for me to step it up. I needed to make the ‘upgrade’ from fringe director to assistant director on a bona fide show.
Last season I was lucky enough to secure that opportunity, which felt like a win in-and-of itself. But I was surprised to find I had fewer transferable skills than I had hoped and more self-doubt than I needed. It’s probably a familiar story for other young womxn out there grafting as directors, but not one I’d heard anyone tell before.
I was Assistant Director on Christopher Hampton’s brand new adaptation of the Austrian classic Youth Without God. I couldn’t have asked for a better induction into the world of Assistant Directing. I was right-hand-woman to Stephanie Mohr, a titan of both decisiveness and playfulness. Under the watchful eyes of Producer Hetty Shand and Artistic Director Anda Winters our female-led creative team was unafraid to boldly tackle some of the most prescient and daring content I’ve ever worked on.
In spite of all of these incredibly favorable circumstances, though, I still managed to get in my own way, especially at the beginning. I second guessed my right to speak. I constantly compared my own experience to everyone else’s. I sat as far away from the action and took up as little space in the room as possible for fear of stepping on someone’s toes.
Looking back, I hate how I tortured myself for those first two weeks of rehearsal. As a young director I’d worked hard for my place at the table, but as soon as I was the slightest bit out of my depth I started to revert back to learned, often gendered behavior.
Many of my fears were fed by an industry-wide lack of clarity on an AD’s job. I was chosen based on my competency as a director and immediately learned that what our room needed was not a second director. Especially if you’re lucky enough to work with someone like Stephanie, the vision is nearly complete. The piece would suffer with too many cooks, and I would learn most just by watching her work.
But if you’re not going to direct, it can be hard to figure out what you ARE going to do.
Much of my anxiety came from this uncertainty. And while I believe what a ruthless and brilliant Musical Theatre teacher once told me- nerves are just a lack of preparation- there is no instruction manual or best practices guide for assistant directors. I took it upon myself to prepare three-part choral music, multiple translations of the text, and copious dramaturgical research on 1930’s Germany, but I still panicked, sure I’d under-prepared.
I confided these anxieties in a stunning and accomplished director friend, Julia Locascio, who did far more than her fair share of ADing and she gave me some of the best advice: She said you only get as much respect as you give yourself. I felt newly emboldened.
If I’m honest, I was so eager to be easygoing that I probably failed to command much respect in the beginning. I allowed my fear of making a misstep to prevent me from being as clear and commanding as I would usually be in my own room. But perhaps that’s appropriate? After all, you rarely get to practice Assistant Directing without being in rehearsals, at which point the stakes feel high and the safety net of practice is gone. I was opting for a better-safe-than-sorry approach, even though that is not true to me or my practice.
It wasn’t until we opened and I was thrust into my own responsibilities preserving the show that I finally started to feel truly confident. Leading Q&As and community outreach workshops helped remind me that I did have a place on the creative team that no one else could fill and responsibilities I could rise to. I thrived once I knew where I fit. But looking back it seems unfortunate that finding my place came so late in the process. Perhaps that’s part of the trial-by-fire nature of our business that I mentioned before. Or maybe it’s a consequence of considering Assistant Directors last, as is so common in our industry.
Regardless, I know better now. I can be respectful to my director without apologising and give my cast the pastoral care they need without being a pushover. By the end, I’d proved that.
And for all my post-rationalizing, I had an amazing experience on Youth Without God. I met gorgeous artists, got to share work I believed in, and became a better director for N2P.
I guess if I think I’ve learned anything I’d like to pass on, it’s this:
-The industry needs an Assistant Directing overhaul, but you can’t wait for circumstances to be perfect. Screw better-safe-than-sorry.
-I wish emerging creative womxn the privilege of assisting strong, established womxn. You’ll realize you have a lot in common with these incredibly human idols and take heart.
-It’s probably normal for young womxn directors to come up against some surprising, old, and maybe even gendered behaviour when put into a new room with unclear power dynamics. It’s not a personal failing and it won’t necessarily keep you from doing your job well. But you might have to check in to remind yourself to use your real voice - not that high pitched deferential one - and to revise your cast-notes to make sure every direction doesn’t end in a please-don’t-hate-me question mark.
-Most importantly, you need a tribe (or at least one benevolent big sister type) who knows what it’s like. Without the advice of other womxn who’d done their time as Assistant Directors I would have wasted time self-questioning and second guessing instead of finding a place for myself in the room and owning the power and respect I deserve.
I feel immeasurably grateful to have had such a wonderful environment to learn in, and I can hardly wait to be that confidante for another young assistant director who needs it.
Harriet Taylor is a graduate of NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied musical theatre at the New Studio on Broadway. After working on Broadway at general management firm Richards/Climan, Inc. and off-Broadway as a performer and arts administrator at New York Classical Theatre she moved to London and completed her MA in Text & Performance at RADA. Since graduating she has directed new work at the Camden Fringe, The Cockpit Theatre, Bloomsbury Festival, RADA Festival, Tristan Bates Theatre, The Old Red Lion, Theatre 503, and the Actor’s Centre’s John Thaw Initiative. GRIP, Nothing to Perform’s latest play, won Audience Choice Award at the International Youth Festival 2019. Ian Brown of Ought To Be Clowns said, “It’s a powerful and inventive piece of theatre, directed by Harriet Taylor for Nothing To Perform, unafraid to be challenging not only in its subject matter... but also in its form.” Harriet is now completing an MFA in Creative Producing at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama and just finished a year as Assistant Producer at The Mono Box. She produces a free monthly #networkshop series with her theatre collective Nothing to Perform which has gone digital during self-isolation.