Nick KowerkoThe Merry Wives of WindsorGreat River Shakespeare Festival

I had the opportunity to assist Paul on The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Great River Shakespeare Festival a few years ago. It was my first (and favorite) assisting experience. It was great to see how much of what I was learning in the classroom of my directing M.F.A. was embodied in Paul’s directing. He is a master of stagecraft: from him, I developed a deeper understanding of table work, strategies for early blocking rehearsals, communicating with designers, problem solving with actors, working moment-to-moment, and always making sure the story is being told. The most valuable thing that I walked away from the internship with was seeing how a director is the “father” of the production. Paul has the gift of making people feel included, valued, and free to express, play, and try things. I learned that a director needs a keen awareness of the sensitivities, efforts, and talents of all members of the production. He is very caring, and a passionate educator at heart. He wants to get to know his assistants; he wants to make sure they are learning. I always felt so included and a member of the production. Beyond the internship, Paul has continued to provide valuable advice and mentorship about navigating this challenging, but very rewarding career. I am grateful that if I ever need a phone call to ask for advice, he is happy to chat and catch up!

Jessica ShoemakerMacbethChesapeake Shakespeare CompanyThe CrucibleArkansas Repertory Theatre

Before anything, Paul Barnes is a teacher: one who has left an indelible imprint on my approach to leadership and directing. When assisting Paul, you're privileged to learn both by example and by direct transmission. A master of clear storytelling, Paul consistently takes time to explain his approach to the work by spelling out the "why and how" of his process. He has the unique gift of building communities of collaborative artists that work with respect, integrity, and love. Watching Paul talk to designers, watching him interact with his cast and crew has been enormously instructive. From him, I have developed deep respect for the individuals working at every stage of a theatrical process, I have learned to say thank you, to know every individual's name, and the value of fostering personal relationships. I have learned that details matter. Paul is always ready to answer questions about his process - and has dedicated himself to creating communities and collaboration across generations. As a mentor, I've so appreciated his willingness and enthusiasm for watching my growth and allowing me to offer what I can to the rehearsal room. Paul understands and appreciates the naïveté and enthusiasm of early-career artists: something unique in established directors and something which makes him an ideal mentor. Observing Paul for nearly a decade and assisting him directly on several productions has been a highlight of my early career.

Conner WilsonTwelfth NightGreat River Shakespeare FestivalOf Mice and MenClarence Brown Theatre

Assistant Directing can often fall into two categories: Passive and Active. Passive experiences I would describe as observing opportunities; a time to stay silent; a time to take notes and not get in the way of the work. I mention this because to understand assisting Paul Barnes it is imperative to know just how active a role you play. Assistant Directing for Paul is Directing. It’s taking notes, giving opinions, checking sight lines, doing research, late nights, early mornings, and always collaborative. It’s repetition, it’s specificity, it’s no egos allowed, and it’s a whole lot of trust. Assisting Paul is an opportunity to learn from someone who never stops learning himself. He’s constantly passing notes and giving advice about what he thinks makes great theatre. What is so important about my time assistant directing for Paul, which I would do on any show he asked, is that the dialogue between us never ceases. The dialogue of director to director, mentee to mentor, and friend to friend, is open well after the show closes. If you are fortunate enough to enter this conversation I would highly recommend sitting up, paying attention, and I guarantee you will learn worlds from each other.

Stefano Vincenzo BrancatoMacbethConnecticut Repertory Theatre

I had the inspiring opportunity to assist Paul Mason Barnes on a production of MACBETH in 2008. He electrifies the room with a creative energy charged by his knowledge, experience and warmth. In working with him, I gained immense insight into the craft of directing both in the rehearsal room and behind the scenes. The lessons I learned by working with him are still with me today. He has a clear vision and yet trusts his team of artists to fully collaborate in the creative process. Paul was always willing to answer my questions and hear my thoughts. Better yet, Paul entrusted me to to flex my directorial muscles by working with actors and staging scenes, mainly the witch sequences. His trust and generosity in these moments not only allowed me to hone directorial techniques but develop a deep sense of self-confidence and pride in my work. Paul was and remains a supportive, generous and talented mentor who inspires in me a hunger to learn more, do more and risk more. Work with this man if you have the chance. Thanks for everything, Paul!

Keegan TuckerThe Madwoman of ChaillotClarence Brown Theatre

Paul is a director who leads by example, communicates clearly and kindly, and works to make rehearsals a worthwhile experience for the entire company. He is also a master at his craft and a joy to watch work. When I worked with him on The Madwoman of Chaillot, he always took time to explain his thought process through each rehearsal, providing deeper insight to my observations. Paul always made sure to point out not just what he was doing, but why. Through him, I learned to let the play “work on me” every time I see it, I gained practical knowledge of blocking techniques, and I have a greater understanding of how to communicate with actors, designers, and a stage manager. Paul gave me a voice in the room, and I always felt appreciated. Whether it’s doing research, checking sightlines, or asking questions, Paul welcomes your input and wants you to walk away having learned something and contributed to the production every day. I have never assisted a director as caring, attentive, and thoughtful as Paul. He has a special way of creating an environment where everyone feels valued. He wants to hear from you, during and after the production, and he cares about your growth and development as an artist. Paul is an inspirational leader and storyteller, as well as a wonderful mentor and friend.

Ethan GrahamMacbethGreat River Shakespeare Company

One often hears rumors of Paul Barnes’ productions, but I had the rare opportunity to be involved in two consecutively: I first worked as an actor in The Madwoman of Chaillot at the Clarence Brown Theatre, and then transitioned into an assistant director on Paul’s production of Macbeth at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. Having this dual perspective on his creative process, I can safely say that there is never a stone left unturned in a Paul Barnes piece, and if there is, it’s because he’s turned that stone before and you don’t want to know what’s underneath. I immediately connected with his sense of efficiency and dedication to the task at hand. The belief that preparedness and focus lead to the best discoveries is omnipresent in Paul’s room. Watching his manner tune to those in the room was a masterclass in understanding what disparate actors and members of the creative team need in the moment. I may have learned the most outside of the rehearsal room, as we would sit with the notes taken over the course of the day’s work and parse them into actionable items for each actor based on their own vernacular and how they would best respond to the text. Beyond the technical skills of being a director, what an assistant gains from working with Paul is an ally and confidant. Always ready to listen and explain, Paul’s lessons on directing blur into lessons about life and vice versa. He always encouraged me, the cast, and creatives to keep asking questions, because he is always asking them himself. 

Directing Assistants

Stephen Sondheim says that teaching is a privilege; one without which he would not survive. I’d have to agree. And I would add to that sentiment that directing involves teaching on multiple levels simultaneously, whether you’re helping to instruct designers, actors, staff, crew, or audience members – and as is usually the case, vice versa. The element of teaching when you’re directing naturally extends to aspiring directors who are assigned to assist you with a particular project.

Many theatres where I’ve had the good fortune to direct have directing internship programs, as do most university theatre departments. It’s rare for a guest director to get to hand-pick their assistants, which means you have to work to become acquainted with the particular skill set and level of education each individual brings to the room. Just as it can take several weeks into rehearsals before I can comprehend the process of an actor with whom I’m working for the first time, it takes a similar amount of time for me to know what an assistant can contribute. In at least one instance, an assistant with whom I worked (Rene Moreno, at Milwaukee Repertory Theatre) was an accomplished director in his own right, but had entered MRT’s directing internship program to expand and build on those accomplishments. Because I didn’t take time to become better acquainted with Rene, who is a formidable artist and remarkable human being, I missed a precious opportunity to have my own perspective about the production on which we were working broadened and deepened. My loss – and an important lesson learned.

But most often the assistants assigned to work with me are young and just starting out. Regardless, I think it’s important to engage them, to pick their brains, to guide them to appropriate rehearsal room decorum (when to speak up, when not to, etc., etc.), to consider their ideas and perspective when the timing is right and I’m not so consumed by the process that I’m unable to hear other ideas, and to lead and instruct by my own example. It’s also helpful to be clear enough about your own process that you can answer questions and communicate clearly the method behind your seeming madness. That’s when the morning coffee or the post-rehearsal libation can be particularly useful; more than that, though, a continual checking in (“what did you learn today?”) is helpful and makes assistants feel valued – which, as far as I’m concerned, they are. And frankly, the consistent checking in helps mitigate that sense of passive observation in which you feel the assistant is simply sitting in the room with arms folded, squelching their “if they’d just let me, I could do this better” feelings, which are actually the manifestation of my own insecurities rather than something real.

And, of course, there are very real tasks for assistants to perform: note taking, sitting in on production meetings, checking sightlines, being an extra set of ears on volume and clarity. I’ve also learned that reducing the number of times you ask an assistant to fetch your coffee, water, or lunch increases their sense of value, although most assistants I’ve worked with are usually more than happy to fetch and carry when asked, if for no other reason than it gets them up and out of the chair in which they often sit for endless hours watching other people do their work.

Paul Barnes and Conner Wilson behind the table

Directing is an acquired skill and, I think, can be divided into three major categories of endeavor: book learning/class work; observation; experiential. Directors develop their own particular process over time. It’s a cumulative and fluid art form, vast in its scope. It’s always my hope that through observing and assisting on a production I direct an aspiring director comes away with pieces of a much larger puzzle that will help them build their own unique process and that perhaps I’ve opened assistants with whom I’ve worked to multiple possibilities while also sharing a clear sense of my own particular values and way of working.

Above is what a few of the gifted young directors with whom I’ve gotten to work have to say about our collaborative experience.

Background Photo: Brandon Dawson, Alexandra Ralph, Sense & Sensibility, Nevada Conservatory Theatre (Photo: Don Cadette)

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