Actor’s Etiquette: Getting What You Want

etiquette-logo1The real question, Milo, isn’t “why don’t directors give you more”, but rather, “what can you do to get what you need from a director?”  The only way to change the director’s behavior is to change your own.  (By the way, this is true of absolutely every relationship you will ever have throughout your life.  A problem you have is never someone else’s to solve; it is always your responsibility.)

Your question, “How was that?” is a close-ended question.  Close-ended questions are those which can be answered by a single word:  “yes”, “no”, “perfect.”

(Incidentally, you weren’t necessarily “perfect”, but it’s a great way of saying, “I have what I need,” while stroking an actor’s ego.  All actors, no matter how emotionally secure they are, like to be stroked.)

So if you want a different response, you have to rephrase the question.

“Did I make you believe that I haven’t eaten in two days?”  “I was trying to gradually build to ‘this’ moment, to keep escalating my panic.  Did that come across?  Were there any drops in the build in tension that I need to address?  And did I end high enough, or do I need to be even more stressed?”  “How did I make you feel in that scene?”

[I know, “panic” and “stressed” are adverbs, and I haven’t said a word about my motivation and how to play the verbs in this imaginary scene!  Breaking all my own rules!  I’ll explain why in another post.]

The first two questions can be answered in one word and so are essentially closed questions, but asked in context, they indicate an awareness of what you are trying to do.  That alone encourages a director to answer more thoughtfully, and gives him something very specific to respond to.

Generalized questions are tough to answer, because as a director, I don’t really know what it is that you’re curious about.  Were you trying something in particular, and you want to know if it worked?  Without knowing what you’re striving for, I can’t tell you if you succeeded or not.  Are you asking me if you understand the character properly?  Is there a part of the scene you’re uncomfortable with, and you’re wondering if I noticed?  Maybe you can’t put your finger on why it’s a problem for you, and you’re hoping I’ll spot it and let you know what it is?

Trying to read anyone else’s mind is a waste of time.  I’ve spent years trying to do it and have come to the conclusion that I will always fail.  Human beings are too complex.  So as a director, I expect you’re going to show up and do your job, and if you need something from me, you’ll ask me for it in a very specific way.

(Okay, that’s not true for me, personally, but I’m talking about directors in general.  I work with amateurs.  I can clearly see their process and where it isn’t working, and I can help them over the humps.  Directing, for me, is a forum to teach them to be better actors.  In the professional world you aspire to, however, that is not how directors work.  It is expected that you know your craft.  More on that in my next post.)

Even if the specific questions above can be answered in one word, the director will elaborate if he thinks there is room for improvement.  The way you have posed the question tells him what you understand about your own process and shows your willingness to work on it.  He can tell you the moments in which he was unaware of your hunger (or you can probe to find out which they were.)  He can identify the moments when his belief was suspended.

Still, identifying the moments that aren’t working isn’t the same as pulling a great performance out of you.  If you don’t know how to improve the moment, now is the chance to ask the director for help.  “I’m having difficulty with this part of the scene.  It doesn’t feel to me like it’s working as well as it could.  Would you agree?  Can you help me find a way to make it more effective?”

This is what I mean when I talk about the actor’s responsibility in Working with the Director.  Asking your director for some generalized help and putting the responsibility on him to make you good isn’t going to get you far.  Help your director help you by being clear about what you are trying to do and having specific questions to ask.

But as I indicated above, Milo, I have a little more to say . . .

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2 thoughts on “Actor’s Etiquette: Getting What You Want

  1. This is really helpful. I see what you mean about asking better questions. I never thought about it that way. Sometimes I think of directors like my teachers at school and figure that they should be teaching me something. I guess that is how we see most adults other than our parents. I’ll try to ask for better feedback in the future.

    • That’s very insightful, Milo, and one of the reasons you have a serious shot at this business.

      I didn’t think of it in those terms, but yes, it makes perfect sense that you look to adults for guidance, because they’ve been doing that for you most of your life. You’re an oddity (not in any negative sense) in that you operate in a mostly adult world when you do theater or film. To some extent, both sides pussyfoot a little around each other, not quite sure how to handle the other age group. The director may be accustomed to dealing with adults and feel like a fish out of water when dealing with anyone under the age of 18.

      No promises, but I can tell you that when I run into someone like my exceptional 9-year-old golfer who I can deal with on a more adult level, I’m happy to go there. (His parents have the burden of keeping him grounded!) Ditto for my interaction with you, because I know you’re serious about your work and art and can understand what I’m talking about. Not every director will find that appealing, but most will probably respond well to your overtures. Almost everyone is flattered when they are asked for help or advice!

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