Who Directs?

Posted on 26 August 2014

During rehearsals for one of my shows I heard an actor tell another actor that he had forgotten a line. Now I was 100% sure the one actor knew this. I was also 100% sure he wouldn’t do it again. So, nothing needed to be said. A sharp retort was made, and in my head I was thinking, “Oh no, World War 3!” I think the actors noticed me giving them that “Oh no!” look and backed down.

A number of poor practices have crept into theatre: directors abusing power, actors being encouraged to abuse themselves in the name of art. This gets compounded when financially lucrative actors and directors start claiming this is how things should be done. The aspirational then lap it up and pass on bad practice. Don’t go thinking gold is the determinant of lasting greatness. Ever hear of Dennis Wheatley…no? He wrote Twilight style occult bestsellers from the 1930s to the 1960s. How about This Is Cinerama, one of the highest grossing films in 1952, and its sequel Cinerama Holiday, one of the highest grossing films for 1955?

Being the director is not about bossing people around, and it’s not even about having a golden vision. The director is there to get the best performance out of all those who are collaborating to create a film or a piece of theatre, and to realise a script to its fullest artistic potential. A good director respects the artistry of each person involved in a production.

Nevertheless, the potential power aspect of directing causes many people to make a grab at doing a little bossing themselves. I have had family members think that because they are related to me, they get to tell my actors what to do. I have had stage managers decide that their power overlaps into telling people how to execute their performances. Probably the most destructive is when actors decide to attempt a little surreptitious directing.

Nothing causes in-fighting faster than actors trying to direct actors. This is precisely why conductors were invented. A group of musicians would vote one of their members to keep time and to keep the peace, and in that way avoid a critical free for all.

Another reason to let the director do the directing has to do with how many voices the actor ends up listening to. If an actor is listening to lots of different advice all at once, it becomes hard making authentic choices as a character on stage. The performance can become muddled. Only two voices count when an actor is rehearsing: their own voice and the voice of the appropriate director.

Eventually actors should know their characters better than the director. Then it becomes the role of the director to have an overview of the show. They need to ensure that the character’s relationships gel together appropriately and serve the plot. They need to make sure that what is created on stage will communicate correctly to the audience. And with small productions their role will continue to be one that involves diplomacy and keeping the peace among all involved.

The last thing anyone should want is an over-directed play. It takes all the joy out of the effort. When I was a post-graduate supervisor in creative writing I found when I laid too much critique on people too soon, they tended to rebel or give up. You have to let creative work unfold petal by petal. When you are a director, allow yourself to be surprised by the innovations your people will bring to a production. For me that’s part of the wonder of creating theatre. When you are an actor attend to your own characters, show them all the love you would your own children, then attend to the quality of their relationships with other characters, their circumstances, and their environment. In this way you are the writer/director of their world.

Theatrical ensembles tend to create the most memorable storytelling. Ensembles only happen when people are willing to do some power sharing, are respectful of one another, and are respectful of their own needs and skills. You don’t have to own the sun, the sky, or the grass for them to be beautiful. You don’t have to be the most prominent member of a theatrical troupe for your part to be important. Let go and enjoy.

Peace and kindness,


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