At AACTFest2015, I gave a seminar on Blocking which was attended by both actors and directors. One of the directors stayed after the seminar was over. She said (quite firmly!) that when she directs, it’s her show, and her actors have to do what she wants them to. Then she said, “but I encourage them to be creative and offer ideas during rehearsals.”
You can’t really have it both ways.
Any time (in life) we offer contradictory instructions to those around us (and yes, this is a very human thing to do and a good thing to keep in mind when you’re acting), one of those instructions will be followed and one won’t. And guess which one wins?
The one that is most negative.
No one wants to be punished or yelled at, least of all actors who are inclined to have fragile egos. So we take the conservative route and listen to the negative rule; in this case, “what I say, goes.”
As a director, you can only expect creativity and daring from your actors if you give them the space to be creative and daring. That means letting them explore and suggest, and if you decide to not go with their idea, letting them down in the easiest way possible.
The more space you give them, the more they will offer you. This means that the precedent you set in the first two weeks of rehearsal determines how creative they will be in the rest of the rehearsal period. Exploration is like a snowball rolling downhill. It’s small at first, but give it some time, and it becomes huge.
As a director, this means actively encouraging the actors’ input until they start responding and praising the input, even if it doesn’t work. Do that enough early, and they start to feel comfortable that their ideas will be thoughtfully considered.
And “thoughtfully considered” is the key.
I often work with inexperienced actors, and I encourage them to offer any ideas they have despite their inexperience. (The newbies often think that I am giving that freedom only to those with plays under their belt, but I work hard to make sure everyone knows that the invitation applies across the board.)
I do this for several reasons: one, everyone in a production needs to be “equal”, even the actor with four lines. Two, because I trust that human instincts are good, and so the idea from someone who has only done one play may be just as good as the idea from someone who’s done ten. Three, because that’s how you learn, and I want every actor to leave my production with more skills than she entered it with.
Because what I’m doing in the first weeks of rehearsal is blocking, it’s an easy time to invite actors to participate:
“You look uncomfortable there. Are you? What would make you feel better?”
“No, that isn’t working, because we need to get her to the couch on that line. Anyone have any ideas?”
“We’ve ended up with everyone on one side of the stage. Let’s figure out how to get you more balanced.”
“Joe, you’re blocking Sally from this side of the audience. Can we find a reason for you to move somewhere else?”
As I look back at these comments, I realize that I use the word “I” as infrequently as possible. Putting on a play is a “we” activity, and I use that pronoun repeatedly to make sure the cast understands that we are all in this together and that good ideas can come from anywhere, not just me.
I’ve done shows where an actor offers an idea that I know won’t work, and in the interest of saving time, I’m tempted to say so and move on to something that will. Instead, I say, “Sure, let’s try it.” When it doesn’t work, I try to tweak the idea to find a way to make it work. I give it up only when I’ve exhausted its possibilities. And I always explain why it doesn’t work, so they understand why we can’t use it.
Occasionally, the tweaking is successful and results in a pretty good idea, which in and of itself is a good reason for trying even bad ideas. Or it buys me enough time to think of a better one. But even when it isn’t successful, the effort I’ve put toward it shows that I respect the actor who offered the idea and consider him a full partner in this venture. That one act is often all it takes to get the entire cast to realize that I mean what I say, and that they should pipe up every time they have something they want to try.
I never want an actor to feel that she offered a “bad” idea. There are ideas that work in the context of what we are trying to do and ideas that don’t (or don’t work as well as we want them to — whenever possible, I will characterize them in this way). The only ideas I will characterize as “bad” are my own.
“Remember when I said you should do X? I was wrong. It doesn’t work at all. Let’s find something else.”
“Eh — it doesn’t really work, but I have no idea what to do instead. Let’s do that for now so we can keep moving, and we’ll find something better down the road.”
By admitting my own failures, I make it clear that I don’t have all the answers and that I’m open to suggestions. And that it’s okay to not have the answers now, that answers will show up eventually. When it is clear that I am exploring, the actors are more likely to explore.