Who’s Right? The Director or the Actor?

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Photo by Sherise VD on Unsplash

Recently I’ve realized that I have, on different occasions, written contradictory statements:

The first was that the director has the last word.

The second was that the actor has the final say.

Even I can see that’s a problem! So what gives?

Sometimes the director and an actor are in conflict about the meaning of the play, the character — whatever. I’m talking major disagreement here, not the little stuff. The question is:  how does this get resolved?

The optimistic answer is, through honest and open discussion, wherein a happy medium is found or where one person convinces the other of the “rightness” of their argument. But truthfully, optimism does not always carry the day. People can be very good at digging in their heels, and I can tell you from experience that two directors can view the same play through radically different lenses.

I once worked with an actor who really knew how to chew the scenery. He was a smart, thoughtful guy, and very good as an actor when he stopped trying so hard, but he was inclined to think that he wasn’t interesting unless he went very broad (always in an unbelievable way). I directed him in a very funny “letter” play, and I really worked to get him to pull back to a “normal” over-the-top place. He grudgingly went along with me and delivered a wonderful performance, only to go slightly off the rails on closing night, when a rollicking audience laughed so much that he couldn’t stop himself from giving them more of what he thought they wanted. (Although I had “tamed” him enough at that point that even his “over-the-top” wasn’t quite so out of control as it usually was.)

Then I acted in a very challenging play with him, one which he interpreted his role in an entirely different way than the director (and I, in all honesty) thought the playwright intended; indeed, he’d found psychological subtext that was dark and humorless (and this was a comedy). He pontificated for quite a while on the elaborate meaning he’d arrived at while Charlie (the director) and I listened in disbelief (I can’t speak for the rest of the cast). Ultimately, Charlie refused to back down and the actor agreed to play it his way since he was the director. He never fully gave himself over to Charlie’s interpretation and the play suffered for it, but he respected that it was Charlie’s call to make and at least got himself in the ballpark of where he was supposed to be.

I would argue that this this is what you need to do. If you disagree with the director, it’s unfortunate, but ultimately, the director is the one who is holding the rudder and determining where the ship is headed, and you, as the actor, need to go on the director’s journey and not your own. The reason for this is that there are other actors in the play, and if THEY are going along with the director’s vision and you aren’t — well, that’s a disconnect, isn’t it? You matching the rest of the cast in terms of where they are going is less disturbing to the audience than you being “right” and everyone else being “wrong”. It’s the old story of the mother who told the colonel after a military parade, “My Johnny was the only one in step!”

But here’s what I’m going to suggest before you get to that point:

Consider the possibility that you might be wrong.

I know, that’s a painful thought. But stay with me. . .

First, operate on the assumption that the director has done his homework and might have a point. Put aside your own notions for the moment and consider the director’s points. Are they logical and justifiable? (Because people are such interesting creatures, it is possible that there are two ways to explain behavior, and you and the director might have separately latched on to these two possibilities for your character.)

Incidentally, that honest conversation with the director should be had as soon as the disagreement is apparent, and hopefully this is early in the rehearsal process. Don’t consider the director’s points on your own.  Dialogue between the two of you is really critical.

If you can answer “yes” to this question, then you might consider adjusting your own interpretation. But let’s say that despite seeing the director’s point of view, you can’t seem to modify your interpretation. Yes, the director’s choices are logical and justifiable, but they are still WRONG!

Now check out the other actors’ choices; are they in line with the director’s vision or your own? If you are the odd man out, then you should probably consider changing your own interpretation. “Right” is not the only consideration here; a coherent and consistent production is also important, and probably trumps your own needs.

I once directed a play in which one of the leads and I saw her character VERY differently. I loved her audition, which was SO on the mark, but in the first two weeks of rehearsals, she talked about the character in ways that were diametrically opposed to both what I thought about the character and what I saw her do in auditions. We had some conversations about this difference, and I thought we’d resolved them, only to have her, two weeks before opening, start making choices I found inexplicable and which had a very negative impact on the production as a whole. It was a very funny comedy, and her choices took much of the humor away. Nothing I did or said seemed to make a difference in her interpretation.

I got lucky in that production, because the actress had some actor friends who helped her work on the character in a way that I couldn’t, and she came to an interpretation that was very much in line with what I’d hoped for, but to which I had not contributed at all. I took from this that I failed as a director; actors are all so different that we spend a lot of time figuring out just how Actor A needs to be treated to get the best performance from him, and so on down the line for as many actors as you’ve cast. Usually we’re right about how they need to be handled, but not always.

But since I couldn’t seem to communicate effectively with this actress, that’s my bad. Still, I think that had the actress (who while blessed with a lot of natural talent, had only been acting for a couple of years and had things yet to learn) would have been better off (as would the entire show) had she been willing to engage in an open-ended dialogue that didn’t assume a “right” answer at the beginning.

Or was I the one who was unwilling? In this case, I don’t think so, but sometimes I am. Sometimes actors have a completely different take on something that absolutely works, a take I didn’t even see before they mention it. Sometimes we don’t come to agreement on small moments and I concede the point, because (after all), they are the ones in front of the audience! But I don’t think I’ve ever watched a performance and thought (aside from the over-actor mentioned above), “Gee, I wish they’d done it my way, it would have been so much better!” Their choices have ended up being just fine.

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