"You may have people in your life who don't expect much from you — who do not value your potential and your input, just because of your age. I am not one of those people." If you’re a young actor who’s been in one of our theatre productions, you've probably heard me say this at our very first rehearsal. From the first day, I tend to speak to young actors as though they’re professionals, with opinions and ideas that matter. And, if all goes well, by the end of rehearsals, the actors will own the show as much as I do, because that's when the magic happens.
I’ve seen the other approaches. Heck, I’ve TRIED the other approaches - the ones where the director has the young actors do exactly what he or she says. And if that director is brilliant and creative, the show will shine, and the cast will feel great about being a part of a great production.
But I want them to do more than mimic my intent, because I want them to take it further than they thought they could. So I'll start them off with a concept for the character, and ask them to develop their character/s from the text and the show’s concept and make those characters their own. From the star of the show to a member of the chorus - every one of them should present fully-developed characters, with their own way of walking and talking and their own traits and intentions.
BUILDING THAT PLAY ONE CHARACTER AT A TIME
While directing, I provide all the tools professionals use, i.e. Method acting, emotional recall, etc. Then, as rehearsals progress, I solicit their input and ideas. If the idea serves the character and story, develops the relationships within the play or furthers a plot, then I’m going to want to try to work it in. When you let young actors approach a play in this way, actors start finding relationships and scenario possibilities that I, as director, might have missed.
And if they’ve come up with an idea that just won’t work, I'll say so, but I’ll say WHY… And I still want them to know the suggestion was respected and appreciated. When I became a published author years ago, I had to defend my story choices to an editor. And if I couldn’t explain why something was there, I knew I had to let it go -- this is what the publishing world calls, “being willing to kill your babies.” 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 should let it die. Same rules apply on the stage. Clearly this requires your director to know the play inside and out. But if a director doesn’t prepare and has a tiny ego, they’ll be the first to snap at an actor with a good suggestion. Yes, I've also seen that plenty of times. I have to be confident of my choices as a director but I also know I may not always have the best idea in the room. Yes, I have a creative brain. But why wouldn’t I want to take advantage of a much larger creative brain? A group of brilliant young people working together? And the big payoff of this "Corporal Brain" process is actor and cast ownership. But wait... there's more
WHO'S IDEA IS IT, ANYWAY?
Another lovely byproduct is that talking through an actor’s idea leads to further understanding for everyone, i.e., my telling an actor, "Yes, that’s a great concept. I can see it builds on the 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.”
Now if it’s a truly great idea, then maybe as a director it’s at this moment I put my ego in check and realize this hilarious idea SHOULD be used and it should replace the absolutely hilarious thing I came up with for the second scene (See above). And if I’m really, really tired after a long rehearsal, I’ll sometimes ask the cast for suggestions on how best to work in this idea.
But when I'm right - and I'm usually right on this Rule of Three - and I have an obstinate soul who is so certain they'll get a laugh that they "take my advice" and then do as they wish on the stage? Well, they discover the rule in practice. The audience is dead. And a little bit of the whole show dies. And as Director, I die a little too, because I blame myself for not getting through to the actor. Sigh.
THE METHOD IN THE MADNESS
But, before you think my rehearsals devolve into a free-for-all of emotional "sharing time,” I should point out ideas are solicited only at certain times in the process. Creative input falls mostly in the beginning of the rehearsal schedule, and actors know to share their ideas only after we run a scene or an act.
Another important rule of thumb: actors do not get to suggest what other actors can do. Every actor should be focused on their own characters and the actions, feelings, background, etc., for their character. Focus on their own characters may lead an actor to suggest a new concept for a scene with another actor, but they should never simply tell another actor to “do it this way.” That would be called directing. So I encourage actors to tell me if they want to try something new with their scene, and we might give it ago. And sometimes I insist they tell me, because for a play to work, everyone has to be on board. Every. One. Why? Because the audience does not remain focused on the lead characters. If they're having a very good time, as they should, they trust that wherever their eyes roam, they will find delight... as they should! And thus every actor should be in the scene and in their own character 120%. That's when I scene is polished to perfection. That's when the ovations happen... and great reviews.
SO... "DO WHAT I TELL YOU" or "DO WHAT YOUR CHARACTER TELLS YOU"?
In the end, the "Do what I tell you" approach to directing gives young actors a sense of accomplishment in learning and doing exactly as the director tells them. But that asks them only to make the required effort and nothing more. They don't need to challenge themselves to think about their choices or the process, or engage their creativity. And they know the same director can do the exact same show with another group of actors the next year.
But my goal is have actors walk away knowing they own that show - they put themselves into that show - and the parts of a scene changed because their character saw something new in it. Their character became more interesting, because they found something no one else had found before. And, in the end, there will NEVER be another show like this one, because they came up with that concept, they made those choices, they earned that characterization, they came up with that idea, and those scenes belong to them. In fact, they own that play.
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.