Actor’s Etiquette: There’s a Director of This Play, and You Should Listen to Him

9780520267848Directors have a number of responsibilities regarding the production that are different from yours as an actor.  Among them is the responsibility (and right) to determine how to generally interpret the play, which includes his vision for it and the tone the production should strike.

You may not agree with his choices, but you have to make your way to being at peace with them, or the production will suffer.  You can discuss your opinions with him, if you differ in a material way.  You may find you aren’t really far apart; you’re just using different language.  Or you may find he’ll appreciate your input and adjust his vision in some way.

But you may just have very different views, and in that case, he wins.  Ties always go to the director.  This means that it is your job to listen carefully to what he has to say and to try to adjust your own thinking to meet what he is asking for.  Lecturing him on what YOU think is right is only going to create bad feelings.  Take it too far, and the director may wonder if he can ask you to do anything without you putting up a fight.  (I’ve seen this in action.)

Even differences of opinion about small character choices should be dealt with this way.  Yes, you know the character better than the director does.  Eventually.  A good director, if he’s done his homework properly, knows more about your character initially.  My actors start to overtake me in this department somewhere around the halfway mark.

If a director makes a suggestion to you about your character, listen with an open mind.  Trust that he has a reason for it, and that it has something to do with the fact that he is seeing how what you are doing is playing out in the house.

It’s not always easy to do this, I know.  When a director makes a suggestion to me, sometimes I immediately know that he’s right, and all is well.  Sometimes I am in a generally receptive mood and consider it and we have a nice conversation about it.  Sometimes it sounds to me like an idiotic idea, but because I am in a receptive mood, I do my best with it.  If it’s really idiotic, it will probably become apparently in playing it.  If it doesn’t and he still seems attached to the notion, we can now have an honest discussion about its merits and I can politely and reasonably defend my opinion.

And sometimes my worst self emerges and I have a kneejerk reaction that sounds something like this:  “No, my character wouldn’t do that.”

These are words that should never be uttered.  They will, and I’ll probably be one of the actors saying them.  But they shouldn’t be said.

Don’t assume that suggestions from the director are inflexible mandates.  They may be, but they won’t always be.  So go ahead and try what he suggests and see if there is any merit to it.  You’d want the same courtesy if you suggested something; extend it to him.

When my bad self rejects an idea, I always end up considering it later.  “Later” may mean five minutes, and if it does, I make sure I respond to the director before the rehearsal is over, and tell him that I’ll try his idea the next time we do that scene.  Sometimes I think about it overnight, and I’ll talk to him about it at the next rehearsal.  The important thing is that I get back to him about his comment.  Integrating it without acknowledging that is what I am doing isn’t enough.  I need to keep the lines of communication with my director open, and to show him that I respect his input.

Most of the time, I end up realizing that he has a point, and that whatever he is suggesting is more creative and interesting than what I’ve been doing.  It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, and he is throwing me a lifeline.  If I can’t come around to his way of thinking, the time between rehearsals gives me a chance to figure out how to explain my objection to my director, which may open up new possibilities for us.

The director’s “third eye” is critical to a good production.  Trust it.  At the very least, respect it.

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