Directors: An Actor's Survival Guide
Directors. Love them or hate them, they are one of the most valuable members of the team when it comes to producing theatre and film. While many directors consider themselves the most essential member of the team, what many might consider surprising is that for most of the history of theatre, directors didn’t exist, at least not how we have them today.
During Shakespeare’s day, for example, plays were “directed” by the senior member or members of the acting company; the main shareholders in other words. Rehearsals were kept to the bare minimum, actors memorized their lines on their own and were only given their side of the script. This is incidentally where the term “sides” comes from in referring to the script an actor reads from during auditions.
The Stage Manager actually pre-dates the Director by hundreds, if not thousands, of years and while they performed many functions of a modern day director, for the most part, they were more interested in keeping the actors from bumping into each other and the furniture than they were in creating a unifying vision for the play as a whole. They also held much less power than a director as the “boss” was typically the Lead Actor-Manager of the company and his concern was mainly to make sure he was seen in the best possible light (sometimes quite literally).
Stage Managers, however, were and are managers. Essential to manage all the different elements and people involved with the play, but not directors, whose very name radiates a feeling of finality and order.
The modern director didn’t come into being until huge theatrical spectacles began to be produced in Europe in the latter part of the 19th Century. In fact, the Actor-Manager didn’t really go away until after World War II.
Today, we take for granted the importance of a director when it comes to theatre and film. Film, for example, is a director’s medium. The actor can perform differently in each and every take, but it is the director with the help of the editor who piece together the actor’s performance for final consumption by the audience.
An actor needn’t even know the type of movie they are in. For example, the little boy in The Shining had no idea he was doing a horror film until years after he filmed it. In film, the director has near absolute power and actors can give the best performance of their lives only to have it end up on the, now metaphorical, cutting-room floor.
In theatre, actors have more control over their final performance and ultimately the director can do little more on opening night but hope and pray the actors perform somewhere close to his ideal vision for the play. In fact, the longer a play runs, the farther from that vision the play can get, so one of the modern stage manager’s jobs is to try to preserve the director’s vision as much as possible. Sometimes, during especially long runs, the director can be called in to try to get the performance back to where it was on opening night; something that actors in Shakespeare’s day probably wouldn’t even begin to comprehend.
The modern theatre director acts as the audience’s advocate throughout the rehearsal process. Their job is to take the script and interpret the story in a compelling way. Through casting, blocking the play, and guiding the actors’ and the designers’ interpretations, they try to create a unifying vision for the play in which the story and themes are comprehensible to the audience.
It’s a very tough job. And because it can be so complicated, the quality of a director can vary greatly from show to show. In fact, the same director can be great in one show and mediocre in the next.
Here’s an actor’s survival guide.
There are five categories of director: The Great, The Good, The Bad, The Utterly Awful and The Medioce.
The Great Director
The Great Directors are the unicorns of the theatre world. As an actor, finding a great director is like hitting the friggin’ lottery. They are super hard to find and if you do happen to get lucky, I suggest kidnapping them “Misery”-Style.
Ok, not really. But seriously, great directors are so hard to find that you would do well to try to keep in their good graces and try to work with them as often as possible.
How do you know if you are working with a great director? Great directors usually have a deep understanding of the play they are directing right from the get-go. They know how to talk the actor’s language and pull the most surprising and truthful performances out of them. They are leaders who make everyone as excited about the project as they are (and they are usually really passionate about the project). They are unifiers, uniting all elements of the production into a seamless whole. They have a feeling for the whole and understand and work to integrate all elements of the production on both a macro and micro level.
You will sense you are working with a truly great director when the project you are working on begins to transcend the normal experience of working on a play and touches something brilliant, something better than you could have hoped. You may know this from the outset, the very first day of rehearsal, or you may not truly get it until tech week or even well into the run. But when you do understand that you are working with a great director, I suggest taking as many notes you can, even if they seem unimportant. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
The Good Director
A good director is not quite as rare as a great one, but still hard to find so don’t take them for granted either. A good director is technically proficient, understands pacing, stage-pictures, and integrating design elements. They are still pretty good at talking the actor’s language and they can bring out great performances, but it might be more of a struggle sometimes.
It’s hard to describe but the difference between working with a good director and a great one for the actor comes down to effort. The actor just has to work harder, research their characters on a deeper level, score their scripts more specifically with a lesser director. This, incidentally, is the general rule of thumb, the lesser the director, the more work you, the actor, have to do by yourself.
Not that you shouldn’t come equally prepared no matter what, but it’ll just feel like you are working harder in rehearsals depending on how good or bad your director is. Finding the truth in the scene and in your character will be just a little more elusive and frustrating. With a good director and a great director, the difference may be slight, but you will notice it when you’ve been in enough shows.
The Bad Director
The Bad Director is sadly more common than the good ones. They are directors who rarely take risks either in casting, in directing, or designing. They are less the audience’s advocate and more at the service of the audience. In other words, they are less interested in doing what’s best for the story and helping uplift the audience to reach the heights of that story and more interested in meeting audience’s expectations by leveling the story to make it sufficient for audience enjoyment.
This difference in approach while seeming subtle leads directors in two entirely different directions and with two antithetical goals. Bad directors are less interested in finding truthful moments in performance and instead focus on what the audience will “like” or “laugh at” or “cry about” and so on.
How will you know you are working with a bad director? Oh, you’ll know. You. Will. Know. MWA HA HA HA HA.
Bad directors rely heavily on shtick or clichés even when the play doesn’t really call for them. They love to act out what they want their actors to do for them and then say “do that”. They expect the actors to mimic their interpretations rather than encouraging them to find their own.
Bad directors tend to have a static concept or agenda for the play that is either out of place, not supported by the text, or changes the play dramatically from the playwright’s intent. I once had a director who really wanted to direct Jesus Christ Superstar on the Space Shuttle Columbia. That same director ended up directing an all-white Ain’t Misbehavin’.
I had another director who for Romeo & Juliet, the greatest love story ever written, directed all the actors to never show any love for each other during the entire play. He felt the play wasn’t about love at all, but about power structures within familial, class, and social constraints. The show was…not successful.
Also, if a director ever says that they have “big ideas for your character”. It’s probably a good time to run as far away as you can. I played one of the servants in that production and was featured in every scene including the balcony scene.
To be clear, trying to make the play entertaining or highlighting a particular theme is not what makes a director bad or good. All plays should be interesting and entertaining. So, maybe, perhaps overlaying populist Neo-Marxist themes into the musical, The Pajama Game, might work. Perhaps throwing in Three Stooges-style slapstick comedy into Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf might be just what the play needs. The difference is a good director will be able to seamlessly integrate those ideas into their plays and a bad director will make everyone look foolish.
Bad directors either think they have all of the answers or don’t bother to know any of the answers. Many of them think their job ends at blocking the play and rarely, if ever, give helpful acting notes. Many of them secretly think they are inherently frauds as directors and are exceptionally insecure or defensive as a result.
Not that a director shouldn’t have some insecurities. Self-doubt is natural and everybody has it to one degree or another. But a bad director lets their insecurity drive their direction and their relation to their actors, stage manager, and designers. As such, they cannot lead their team, quickly lose trust, and the production becomes a nightmare for all involved.
How do you survive a bad director? Bad directors somehow find work in all levels of theatre so if it’s a professional show and you’ve signed a contract, sometimes you have to make the best of a bad situation, pay your dues, do your homework, and try to live truthfully moment-to-moment on stage with your scene partners as best you can.
Having a bad director doesn’t mean that the show will be bad. Theatre is an ensemble art and as such, you can end up in a pretty great production in spite of the bad direction. That’s what makes theatre such a mystery. You can be in a bad production with a great director or a great production with a director who doesn’t know stage left from literally their own butts. So much depends on luck, the mix of talent onstage and off, and whether the play resonates with its audience.
The Truly Awful Director
The truly awful directors are directors who eclipse even the very low bar set by bad directors by being bad on a level rarely seen. I have had directors fall asleep, not once, not twice, but in every single rehearsal. I did a production of The Tempest once in which I was playing Ferdinand (Hey, this was a long time ago). The actor playing Prospero was doing one of his soliloquies and I went out into the lobby to go over my lines.
The director was already out there reading a book.
“Oh, are we on break?”
“No.” the director said.
“Oh…. shouldn’t you…be…in the theatre?”
“Nah, he knows what he’s doing.”
He didn’t know what he was doing.
No one knew what we were doing.
The show was terrible.
Falling asleep, not bothering to actually watch the rehearsals, showing up to rehearsals drunk, high, or generally incapacitated in some way. These are the hallmarks of the truly awful director.
The good news is that generally speaking, a director not being present during rehearsals isn’t always a bad thing. I worked several times with the fall-asleep-at-every-rehearsal director and usually his shows were pretty well-received both critically and by audiences. This was because without a director, shows tend to default back to the actor-manager model. The actors band together and basically direct the show themselves. It’s strange what can be accomplished when everyone in the cast recognizes that they have the same adversary.
There are some important caveats to this however. Harassment, sexual or otherwise is absolutely unacceptable. The actors’ unions have some pretty stringent rules protecting their actors. If you can, follow the procedures laid out in the bylaws and hopefully it will be resolved quickly.
But the truth is, there is no one right answer for how to deal with it. Backstage has a pretty good article about it, so give it a read if you're interested.
However, if any director knowingly puts you in danger or asks you to put yourself in a dangerous situation, then walk away or refuse to do it no matter what. This is your life. Ignoring safety rules, breaking the law, forcing you into dangerous situations for the sake of “Authenticity”: Do not do it.
For example, I heard a story about a director who was directing HurlyBurly by David Rabe and made all the actors do cocaine to make it more realistic. Yeah, actually, don’t just walk, run to the nearest exit in those types of cases and never look back. It’s never worth it if you’re dead.
The Mediocre Director
Those exceptions aside, the most dangerous director to the quality of the play isn’t the bad one or awful one. The worst director is the mediocre one. These directors can seem like good ones, but at some point during the process, usually when it’s way too late, they reveal themselves to be just…meh.
They might come in filled with energy and with a seemingly great concept but have little to no idea how to execute the direction to fulfill their goals. They might know how to talk to actors, but they think like bad directors (you know, wanting to please the audience instead of servicing the story) and ultimately misdirecting the play as a result. They might work great with designers but are terrible with the actors. They might brilliantly direct one scene of the play but have no idea what to do with the rest of it.
The worst part about Mediocre directors is that they give actors a false sense of security. You think you are in good hands and don’t know you are not until it’s too late.
What does an actor do in this case? Well, as is the case with any director, no matter who they are, your best bet for survival is to come in prepared. While a director’s job is to tell the story of the play, the actor’s job is to tell the story of their character. This means having a clear understanding of your character’s wants and needs so that you can make strong, truthful and inspired choices in rehearsal.
Do your homework. Make the scene about your scene partner. Be able to translate whatever direction you get into something you understand. If the director says, “be angrier”, find greater obstacles to your objective and raise the stakes for yourself. If the director, wants you to do that falling shtick thing that he loves, find a truthful reason to fall and embrace the atmosphere of silliness that the moment might inspire. If the director wants you to use a real gun and bullets on stage…that was a trick question. Run.
I want to leave you with this story. I was in a production in which I was really struggling with a part and my director was giving me some notes on my character that just didn’t feel right to me. After about a week, I went to him and asked him if I could try an idea I had that was different from what he was giving me and he said “yes”. I did it and he loved it and asked why I hadn’t come to him with my ideas before.
I said, I wanted to be a good actor and try to make his direction work. He said he appreciated that and for a rehearsal or two that would be fine, but then he said something that I’ll always remember. He said, “Good actors know when to take a director’s direction. Great actors know when not to.”
See you guys later.