"You may have people in your life who don't expect much from you — who don't value your potential or input for whatever reason - too young, too old, too inexperienced... Well, I am not one of those people." If you’re an actor who’s been in one of my community theatre productions, it’s likely you've heard me say something like this on my first day.
When I direct, I tend to treat young actors like they’re adults and all actors like they're professionals - every one of them with opinions and ideas that matter. Then, if all goes well, at the end of a production the actors own the show as much as I will.
And that's where the magic happens.
I’ve seen other directors' approaches. Heck, I’ve TRIED the other approaches. And if an director is brilliant and creative and can get actors to do exactly what they say, the show will shine. And everyone will feel great about being a part. That's good.
But I want actors to do so much more than mimic my intent or the play's meaning.
I want actors to internalize the process like professional actors do. I'll start them off with a character concept, but from there they need to make that character their own. Method acting, emotional recall, knowing whether you learn best through audio, visual or movement - I'll teach these as I go. Anything that helps an actor get where they need to be.
And as rehearsals progress, I solicit their ideas. If the idea serves in one of three ways: 1. furthers the plot, 2. Reveals more about their character, or 3. Sets up the audience for a pay off (in this scene or later), then I’m going to want to try to work it in. For actors of any ages, when you approach a play this way, actors start finding relationships and possibilities that I, as director, might well have missed. I always want to be open to that possibility, because amazing things can come of it.
BEING WILLING TO KILL YOUR FABULOUS IDEAS
When I became a published author years ago, I had to defend this or that story choice to an editor. If I couldn’t explain why something was there, I knew it was time to question it. So what if I spent five hours crafting that paragraph... If it doesn’t develop a character or relationship, further the plot, or provide a set up for a later payoff, I have to be willing to let it die. Note: clearly this requires the director to A know the play inside and out, because a director who hasn’t prepared is going to become defensive, and if they B. Have a tiny ego, they might just... snap.
So a director has to be confident of their choices but realize they may not always have the best idea in the room. To quote myself, "Yes, I believe I have a creative brain. But why wouldn’t I want to tap into a larger creative brain if I was given the chance?"
The result of this process is that actors begin to take ownership - of their characters, each scene and the play itself.
And when everyone in the room is walking through an actor’s idea, it can have a ripple effect, i.e., "Yes, that’s a great concept, because it builds on that prior jokes. Only problem is, if we do that one more time it'll be the fourth time we've played on the same sort of joke, and now you’ve crossed the 'Comedy Rule of Three.' You won't get the laugh you're hoping for.” Or "Oh, if she's going to react that way because of what happened earlier, then as her sister, I would know that history, and it changes the way I'm going to react to her now". This is where magic begins to happen.
So even though this will replace the absolutely brilliant idea I had, well... gulp... let's do this instead.
But what if they’ve come up with an idea that just won’t work? Is truly horrible? Then I'll tell them so and then explain why. Why? Because I want them to know suggestions are respected and appreciated. But explaining why it won't work helps them understand the character, the plot or the scene (depending on the suggestion), but it also gives everyone in the cast a chance to further understand the setting, the character or the plot.
And it's at this point a couple of things become crucial: directors need to love their actors enough to know how to say no diplomatically. If not, actors won't offer ideas for fear of retribution. But directors also have to avoid wanting actors to love them, or they'll never know how to say no to an actor with a bad idea, and then everyone suffers.
But in the end, whether a good idea or a bad one, thanks are due to actors. Because that process is the way you make a good play great.
LAYING THE GROUND RULES
Now lest you think rehearsals should devolve into a free-for-all “sharing time,” I should point out ideas are solicited only at certain times in the process:
1. Creative input falls mostly in the beginning of the rehearsal schedule. Group discussion is good. And this is also a great time for the Director to underscore the story arc of the play, the scenes, the characters.
2. When we begin to run scenes at rehearsals, actors are asked to hold their ideas until the next break - and then share it only with the director.
3. Another important rule: Actors don’t get to suggest what other actors can do. Ever. They can ask why another character does something, but... that's it.
Every actor must be entirely focused on their own character/s, their actions, feelings, backgrounds, etc.. This is the process professional actors use, and I love bringing it to community theatre, because, when actors take this to heart, shows get reviews worthy of professional productions (Think I'm lying? Check out RRRtheatre.org reviews).
And when an actor is completely focused on developing their character in a scene, it often leads another actor to have a revelation about their own character. But - without exception - actors should never simply tell another actor to “do it this way" or "try it this way". That would be called directing.
THE GRANDE FINALE
In the end, there is solid success in the "Do what I tell you" approach to directing: learning and doing a task well gives actors a sense of accomplishment and the applause is gratifying. But in the end, those actors will make the required effort – and often very little more. They won’t challenge themselves to think about their choices or the process, or engage their own creativity. And they know that the same director can do the exact same show with another group of actors the next year, and it'll look and feel just the same and get the same applause. They never get to own the show. They only... borrow it.
But when actors make the show their own, the audience immediately knows it. The nuances are there: these aren't people pretending to be someone, they're real - real three-dimensional characters, and relationships, tensions, actions - all real. And that's the ultimate audience reward.
Then when the actors walk away, they know there will NEVER be another show like the one they just created. They own it and it will always be theirs. Theatre magic.
I learned how to direct from producing dozens of shows with various directors using many techniques. But I learned the most from the best directors in the Loudoun / DC area: Dolly Stevens, Tim Jon and Tom Sweitzer. They start with respect and end with actor ownership, and now I just can't see directing any other way.
Meredith Bean McMath is the Managing Director of Run Rabbit Run Productions, Inc. She has books and plays, awards and degrees. She is grateful but sometimes she wishes writers and directors were paid a little more.