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What Actors want from Directors

ART TIMES January February 2008

Recently I’ve had occasion to watch several dozen interviews in which various actors talk about working with various directors. Amid all the stories, reflections, perceptions and observations, certain themes stood out more and more as I watched more and more of these interviews.

I think the first theme that popped up, expressed in many different ways, was praise for directors who know what they want. “He knows what he wants and he gets it.” “She comes in with a very clear idea in mind.” To me, this is a very important part of leadership in any endeavor, and particularly an artistic endeavor, where “what is wanted” can be very hard to nail down. So much of what we do in the theater is not really very easy to put into words, and when we try to do so, the words turn out to be very slippery, elusive and polyvalent. So when a director succeeds in coming into production with a very clear concept, the whole effort is a long way ahead, and actors definitely recognize the value of it.

The second theme, however, directly contradicts the first. Actors have high praise for directors who are open to their ideas, and indeed for directors who are open to ideas from others generally. There is a refreshing absence of the urge to pull up the ladder once we’ve gotten into the clubhouse. Actors like to see a director who truly listens to ideas coming from actors, from crew, from designers, from technicians. But wait a minute—didn’t we just say that a director should come in with a clear idea in mind? So how do we expect a director to address all these ideas coming in from every direction? That idea doesn’t really get addressed, but the implication seems pretty clear. All the people around the director, regardless of job description, want two things: clear leadership, and respectful attention. They want to know that their voices are being heard, even if ultimately their ideas are not accepted. The implication is that the clear concept the director brings in needs to be broad in character, conceived in principle but not in detail, an idea that has room for development, modification, and improvement that is not set in stone or elaborately worked out in detail.

For me, however, the really outstanding theme was this: over and over again, actors expressed the idea that “the director makes me feel safe.” Now, stunts, stage combat and pyrotechnics aside, theatrical rehearsals are not physically dangerous. Sure, there’s various ways to get hurt running around a theater, particularly backstage; you can step on nails, catch splinters off scenery, trip over things, and so forth. But the “safety” actors are looking for is fundamentally not physical, but emotional. All actors worth their salt dig deep into themselves in their work on a part, and expose those deep layers of themselves to public view. No matter how good you are at it, no matter how experienced you are at it, no matter how much you enjoy doing it, if you do that and somebody trashes what you did, it hurts. It hurts a lot. And it makes it that much harder to do it again.

The unfortunate truth of the matter is that quite a few theater people, especially low-grade professionals, develop a hard-nosed, highly defensive, superciliously dismissive attitude toward the work of everyone around them—everybody but themselves, naturally. It develops in a very natural way: they’ve been beat on themselves, and because of that, they develop the willingness to beat on others. Passing on the pain is a pretty general human inclination, and theatrical culture, unfortunately, has accepted, even nurtured, such behavior. The bottom line is that when actors find directors who have somehow managed not to forget the Golden Rule, they value the way such directors treat them very highly.

As they should. The best directors love working with actors and it’s easy to see why. What actors share with us, when conditions are right, is very, very special indeed. What a treat it is to see an actor suddenly find something, direct from the heart, that works! And what fun it is as an actor to find something special like that and hear spontaneous, authentic happy noises from that person out there alone in the seats! And when you try something and it fails, as must inevitably happen many, many times, it is balm in Gilead when the director shows genuine appreciation for what you tried to do and moves on to the next step in the work, whatever it might be, without, for heaven’s sake, inflicting some sort of punishment.

Artistic leadership, emotional safety, genuine collaboration. One can go a long way with those three basic elements. And, despite the hard knocks one may have taken from a theatrical culture that in many ways is profoundly unhealthy, so one should.

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