20 Amazing Theatre Directors
A list of the accomplishments of 20 of theatre’s most influential directors. From modern theatre’s first genuine director Georg II, to Stanislavski at the Moscow Art Theatre, Brecht at the Berliner Ensemble, Elia Kazan on Broadway, the experimental avant-garde of Ariane Mnouchkine, to the universally acclaimed productions of Peter Brook, plus many others.
The world’s best theatre directors vary in their approach and use of style. Stanislavski, Antoine and Craig dabbled in realism and naturalism, Brecht and Piscator forged a path with a new epic theatre form, while Brook’s influences were international. Some of these directors worked mainly for subsidised theatre, others were kings of commercial theatre on Broadway, while several were renowned for their experimental work in ensemble theatre. – Justin Cash
Duke of Saxe-Meningen, a small principality now located in Germany. Considered theatre’s first director, this wealthy aristocrat was influenced by English theatre. Georg II founded the Meningen Players in 1886 who employed realistic speech and produced naturalistic sets and costumes with historical accuracy. He directed productions with the aim of imitating real life in as many aspects as possible. The Duke was considered the first to successfully bring all the elements of a theatre production together into a unified vision and by doing so, the modern director was born.
Co-founded the Moscow Art Theatre with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. Stanislavski was renowned for devising a realistic approach to acting, or “system”. This was later adapted and Americanised as The Method or Method Acting, which continues to influence theatre, television and film to this day. He directed or co-directed numerous influential productions at the Moscow Art Theatre including the famous 1898 production of Anton Chekhov’s The Sea-Gull, which put the company on the map for the first time.
b.1858 – d.1943
French director and theatre manager of the emerging naturalistic school. He founded the Théâtre Libre in Paris in 1887. Antoine experimented with the concept of the imaginary fourth wall to the extent that production sets were initially built with all four walls standing, only for him to later decide which of these walls should be dismantled for performance.
Edward Gordon Craig
b.1872 – d.1966
Perhaps better known for his revolutionary concepts with stage lighting and symbolic set designs, Edward Gordon Craig was also an accomplished director. He collaborated with Konstantin Stanislavski on one of the modern theatre’s most famous productions, the 1911-12 version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Moscow Art Theatre.
Widely considered one of the most prominent theatre directors of early 20th-century Germany. Reinhardt believed the director must control all aspects of the production, but also that a team of workers should be collaborative to achieve their art. He experimented with the actor-audience relationship and was known for including revolving stages in designs. Reinhardt’s versatility was his strength, mounting intimate productions in small cabaret-like settings, producing performances in reimagined buildings such as cathedrals, and directing huge outdoor productions on a massive scale.
Known principally for developing a movement-based actor training program known as biomechanics, Meyerhold also adapted constructivist set designs in productions and was an innovative director. A card-carrying member of the Communist Party, Meyerhold made a direct association between his theatre and Soviet-Marxist philosophy. He linked the efficiency of actor movement in terms of expression (“etudes”) with that of the efficiency of the worker in means of production (labour), and also the actor’s contribution to culture and society.
Along with fellow German Bertolt Brecht, Piscator experimented as a director with the concept of an “epic theatre”, yet it was Brecht who would go on to be synonymous with its name. It was in fact Piscator who coined the term and was the first to employ many of these new techniques, only later to be adopted by Brecht. Piscator’s early productions employed expressionistic set designs, while he was one of the first to successfully use moving images and projection in the theatre. Piscator is also widely regarded as the founder of both documentary theatre and political theatre.
Theatre practitioner most closely associated with epic theatre, playwright and poet. Along with Erwin Piscator, Brecht developed a range of non-realistic, didactic acting and staging techniques, largely underpinned by his Marxist beliefs. One of the modern theatre’s most skilled directors, Brecht founded the Berliner Ensemble in 1949, for a time one of the great theatre companies of the world. It was here that Brecht experimented with actors on his own version of an epic theatre, including his play Mother Courage and her Children with wife Helene Weigel in the title role (1949).
One of Britain’s most influential theatre directors, Guthrie was the artistic director of the Shakespeare Repertory Theatre (1936-1945) and helped establish the Stratford Festival of Canada, a critically acclaimed Shakespearean play festival. An avid supporter and icon of repertory theatre, Guthrie loathed the commercial theatre of Broadway, even though he directed over a dozen productions there between 1936 and 1969.
b.1909 – d.2003.
Elia Kazan began his career at New York’s Group Theatre as an actor in the early 1930s, while later co-founding The Actor’s Studio (1947). He cemented his name in the history of Broadway if for no other reason than directing four plays by two of America’s greatest playwrights – Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947) and Death of a Salesman (1949). The direction of Miller’s plays resulted in Kazan being awarded two Tonys. He was one of few successfully directing on Broadway and in Hollywood, winning Oscars for his direction of Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) and On the Waterfront (1954) starring Marlon Brando.
British theatre director who founded the Theatre Workshop in 1945. Littlewood attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Her actor training program at the Theatre Workshop focused on voice, movement and improvisation. She was a champion of the ensemble theatre, considered unconventional at the time. Directing productions at her Theatre Workshop in Stratford, she gained widespread acclaim for an inventive approach to the classic plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
b.1925 – d.2022
One of the modern theatre’s great directors, Brook is perhaps best known for his highly unconventional Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1970) with its blank canvas set and trapezes. It is widely considered a landmark in 20th-century theatre. Other influential productions include the nine-hour adaptation of the Indian epic The Mahabharata (1985) and the 1964 production of Peter Weiss’ Marat/Sade. Brook’s influences are widespread and include implementing the concepts of Antonin Artaud and Jerzy Grotowski in his work. His seminal 1968 text The Empty Space, based on a series of lectures, discusses the concepts of four main types of theatre: deadly, holy, rough and immediate. Brook’s directing output over seven decades was prolific.
b.1928 – d.2019
A true giant of Broadway theatre, Prince directed blockbuster Broadway shows over several decades including The Pajama Game (1955), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1962), Fiddler on the Roof (1964), Cabaret (1966), Company (1970), Follies (1970), A Little Night Music (1973), Sweeney Todd (1979), Evita (1979), and The Phantom of the Opera (1988). He also produced the iconic West Side Story on Broadway (1957). Hailed the Prince of Broadway, Hal Prince won 21 Tony’s including a lifetime achievement award in 2006.
b.1930 – d.2017
A champion of British theatre, Hall directed the UK and English language premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1955) which would go on to become one of the great plays of the 20th century. In 1960 he founded the Royal Shakespeare Company at the age of just 29. Hall was as much a politician as he was a theatre director, constantly lobbying the government for funding in the nonprofit arts sector. He was also a long-time director of the National Theatre (1973-1988) and became one of the most influential British theatre directors of the second half of the 20th century.
b.1933 – d.1999
Best known for developing his concept of a poor theatre at the Laboratory Theatre in Wroclaw, Poland. At the Theatre of 13 Rows he directed Akropolis (1962), The Constant Prince (1965), and Apocalypsis cum Figuris (1968). He also directed Faustus (1963) and Hamlet (1964). Similar to Bertolt Brecht before him, Grotowski implemented and trialled his emerging theories on the relationship between actor and spectator in his directing. Although highly experimental, Grotowski’s work became internationally acclaimed and has influenced modern-day directors such as Peter Brook, Tadashi Suzuki and Eugenio Barba.
Italian Eugenio Barba established the Odin Teatret (Odin Theatre) an experimental theatre group in Holstebro, Denmark in 1964. Over the past six decades, Barba has overseen the direction of more than 80 productions. A student of Jerzy Grotowski in the 1960s in Opole, Poland, Barba’s work has been heavily influenced by his former master. In 1979, he established the International School of Theatre Anthropology and also the Centre for Theatre Laboratory Studies in 2002.
One of the theatre’s most influential female directors, Mnouchkine founded the Théâtre du Soleil (Theatre of the Sun) in 1964, an international avante-garde ensemble with a Marxist orientation based in Paris. The Théâtre du Soleil has produced works under Mnouchkine’s direction for over fifty years, employing a variety of Eastern and Western theatre styles. Similar to the poor theatre productions of Jerzy Grotowski, the rehearsal period for the Théâtre du Soleil is a truly collaborative process lasting several months. Her experimental productions have gained international acclaim.
Multi-award-winning British theatre director who succeeded Peter Hall to become artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company at just 28 years of age, a position he held for 18 years (1968-1986). He later headed the National Theatre from 1997 to 2003. Nunn was also a very successful director of non-subsidised theatre including the West End premieres of Cats (1981), Startlight Express (1984) and Les Miserables (1985). In 1980, Nunn adapted Charles Dickens’ comic novel The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby into a nine-hour stage extravaganza. To this day, it remains one of the most successful productions in the history of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Perhaps best known for his collaboration with composer Philip Glass on the five-hour opera Einstein on the Beach, Robert Wilson is a master of experimental theatre. He is also a designer, performer and writer known for directing the twelve-hour-long Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1976), Death, Destruction and Detroit (1979) and the Civil warS (1983), a play unanimously selected for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama only to be overturned by the supervisory board. Wilson’s experimental form pushes the boundaries of theatre, often presenting long pieces over many hours, with slow and precise performer movement, expressionless dialogue and stunning use of light and visual design.
In 1985 LePage became artistic director of Théâtre Repère in Quebec, Canada, and later headed the National Arts Centre in Ottawa (1989). Usually writing and directing his own work (and sometimes acting in them himself), LePage is renowned for seamlessly incorporating new technologies into the theatre medium. In 1994 he founded the theatre company Ex Machina, which to this day performs works experimenting with the collision of light, music and multimedia. Influential LePage productions include Needles and Opium (1991) and The Seven Streams of the River Ota (1994). LePage has also experimented with interpretations of Shakespeare including A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1992) set in a mudbath.
Updated to reflect the passing of English director Peter Brook.