Backseat directors are typically other actors in the show who decide, for any of a variety of reasons, that they need to give advice to other actors in the show.
The most frequent reasons?
- The director is a novice or otherwise incompetent. This happens especially in community theater. Someone is directing their first show, which can be very overwhelming, and they are doing the best they can, but they are living in a blur and can’t see/fix everything. Or the director is just clueless and the experienced actors want to save the show because, after all, they are in it and they don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their friends come performance time. This can be a good thing. Not always, but often.
- They are mentoring a newbie. Sometimes (again, especially in community theater), an actor is doing his first or second show and is really a fish out of water. An experienced actor sees this and wants to help them, especially if the director is not spending enough time helping the newbie. This is often good. “Here’s how to time your entrance.” “Don’t be afraid to touch me if you feel that’s what your character would do.” “Just remember to not turn upstage, but to always turn downstage.”
- They think they have a lot to offer other actors. This can be a good thing or a not so good thing. Mostly a not-so-good thing.One of my students, a woman who had never acted before taking my class, was cast in a show at the local community theater. The lead actor in the show had a business performing one-man shows based on historical characters (like Mark Twain) at venues around the country (libraries, etc.).
Actually, he was the inspiration for my post, “The Difference Between Acting and Impersonating,” which is the single most popular post I’ve ever written. (I’m still puzzled about that.) I forget the details now, but he gave my student advice that was in direct contradiction to what I had told her mattered in acting, and so she asked me about what he’d said to her.
It was this conversation with her that made me understand that what I was doing in acting class was really different and effective. If it hadn’t been, she would never have questioned what he was telling her.
But the bottom line was that his advice wasn’t useful. He thought it was, because he’d made a living as an impersonator, and he mistakenly thought he was acting, not impersonating. But all he was doing was encouraging a fellow actor to go down the wrong road. Fortunately, she figured this out herself and was just confirming it with me.
But if you’re lucky enough to have an experienced actor take you under his wing and to speak on your behalf to the director in a way that you wouldn’t be courageous enough to, that can be a very good thing.
If you’re in this position, just look at what the actor in question is doing. If it’s believable, then the advise is probably good. If it isn’t believable — smile, say thank you, and do what you think is right.
- They have ulterior motives. This is a nice way of saying that they want to control what you are doing, often to the benefit of their own performance, although sometimes it is just ego on their part.
Before I expand my thoughts on this last point, let me say this: I love the theater. And I love the people that create theater. But the nature of the beast is that theater attracts, among others, some creative types who are insecure, who need lots of stroking, who boost their own self-esteem by stepping on other’s, and who aren’t particularly self-aware. This is okay — we’re all on the same journey as people, and we all learn what we need to about being human in our own way, on our own schedule.
So it’s important to remember that the people who resort to some immature behaviors are nevertheless doing the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt. To cut them some slack, and actively hope that one day, they will learn to love themselves just as they are, to make the most of their peculiar and individual talents, and to not see the rest of us as a threat to their existence.
But in the meantime, we’ve got to deal with the way they are playing their hand.
I’ll go into more detail on this last group next time.