So how do you offer ideas if you aren’t supposed to do anything that another actor can interpret as you telling him what to do? Everyone talks about “Ensemble Acting” as if it’s a good thing to do. If I’m part of an ensemble, shouldn’t voicing my opinions about the play as a whole be acceptable?
Yes, and no.
First, ensemble acting primarily implies a certain equity among actors strictly in terms of their importance to the piece. In ensemble acting, there is no obvious “starring role”, and this equity carries into the way the actors work together, too. Actors accustomed to working together may be able to respectfully generate ideas in a brainstorming sort of way that offends no one, and if the ideas are offered up without any one idea being strongly advocated by an actor who isn’t the one enacting the idea, it’s all good. But that’s the sort of thing that comes over time, typically in resident companies.
But here’s the truth about ideas. If they do involve you, just do your part of it and the rest will come. If you throw something new and inventive to your partner, she’ll have the chance to respond to it in whatever way she likes, which may be better than your idea. Or maybe she’ll find your suggestion on her own, simply because you have given her something good to work with. That is all that is required most of the time. Experiment as much as you like, but don’t demand a certain response to your own behavior. Your own creativity encourages other people to follow you.
Sometimes an actor may be frustrated and be open to general help with his problem. In that case, you can perhaps gently say, “May I offer an idea? I don’t know if it’s any good, but . . .” or “I have a thought, but I don’t know if it will work.” If you are invited to give your thoughts, you may, but do so in such a way that it puts them under no obligation to take your suggestion. State it simply and leave it at that. Don’t argue on its behalf, and take its rejection gracefully.
Ensemble work also means being generous to the other people in the cast. But that’s another topic . . .