(845) 246-6944 · info@ArtTimesJournal.com

Don't Tell the Actors What to Do!

April, 2003

People who decide they want to direct are generally attracted to it by the sense of power you have.

The secret to successful directing is not knowing how to tell the actors what to do. It’s knowing how to give them a consistent set of viable options, and knowing how to integrate possibilities you didn’t foresee into those options when possible.

Many first-time directors charge into rehearsals with elaborate plans on paper, made up in the privacy of their own homes, based on the director’s imagination and the director’s reading of the play. Well and good—until you meet up with your flesh-and-blood actors. The question then becomes, are you going to use them in the poorest way possible — as telepathic automatons expected to implement your every whim as you see it on the inner screen of your mind, a screen accessible only to you — or in the best way, as live human beings and creative artists with valuable ideas and imaginations they are ready, willing and able to share?

You can tell an actor who’s worked a lot in that first environment. They don’t arrive at rehearsal looking like they’re happy to be there; they arrive at rehearsal looking like they expect to be punished. They take direction—often they take direction very well — but there’s a reserve in them; they don’t commit to what they’ve been given. And why should they? They have no investment in the work, and they certainly aren’t being invited to have any.

Put such an actor in a creative environment — one in which ideas and imagination are valued — and you see a slow change. Very hesitantly, the actor tries something that didn’t come from the director. A little positive feedback, and there’s another tentative attempt. Pretty soon the actor is all over the map and has to be encouraged to take it easy — but that’s far preferable to the robot we started with!

But how is a director supposed to take control of this madness? What’s to prevent all these creative minds from spinning off in a thousand directions and destroying the integrity of the production? The producer stomps in, screaming about a show that has to be put on! The marketing guy stomps in asking how in the world he’s supposed to communicate what this production is all about to a fickle and uncaring audience! The playwright really stomps around, screaming about the integrity of his hard-won work.

That’s where most directors jump off the deep end and start trying to control everything all over again. The good director, however, manages chaos effectively, shaping it as it develops, steadily and patiently nailing jelly to a tree until it sticks. In the end, everybody is happy, because in the end, what is on stage is a fully living work of art, not a machine.

What you wind up with is what this columns starts with: a consistent set of viable options, an integrated set of valid possibilities, from which the performance can be constructed anew each time. It’s not pure improvisation, which is unpredictable; nor is it slavish adherence to a preset plan, which is unbearable. It is creativity operating in a framework, which is magic.

Return to Theatre Index

Art Times HomePage