A Golden Rule of Theatre: Don't Direct your Fellow Actor

Don’t direct your fellow actor

Written by on | Acting Tips StageMilk Acting Blog

It was one of the platitudes that was engrained in my mind at drama school “Don’t direct your fellow actor”, and I’ve tried to live by it ever since. However, since being in the industry, I have noticed that even in professional environments this old theatre no-no has a way of creeping into rehearsal rooms.

When I was first reprimanded for directing another actor I didn’t really get it. Up until drama school, acting had always been collaborative. There had often been exchanges between actors like “try this” or “I don’t like that” and so on. This is mostly because in acting classes or amateur productions you are often left by yourselves to prepare a scene or “workshop” an idea. However, in a professional setting, you have a director. If yours is a good one, they will lead the production towards a cohesive vision, and will work with the actors to make sure they feel supported and confident in their work. The onus is not on you to create an engaging scene, but on the director.

Of course actors individually have to be creative and offer ideas, which sometimes involves the other actor: “how about we try both entering together on this scene…” or “would you mind if we held off on the embrace until this moment?”. These sort of ideas are vital to great theatre making, and are fine as they go through the director.

directing a professional play

Depending on the culture of the rehearsal room, an actor may be given a great deal of freedom to offer ideas. In rehearsal rooms with very seasoned actors directors sometimes seem to do almost nothing and the actors are encouraged to follow their instincts, which are usually pretty good. This kind of a rehearsal room is what every actor desires, but even when you are given a lot of freedom, the director is still there to steer the play from the sidelines. Creating a collaborative environment in my experience always results in a better play.

The problem is when actors take it one step further and put on the director’s cap themselves. When you cross into that territory, you are taking yourself off the even playing field actors of all levels stand on when working together on a production. There should be no hierarchy amongst actors once you step on the rehearsal room floor.

Even if you are working with Meryl Streep, she knows that for the scene to work, you have to let go of your egos and work together as equals. Not in the context of the scene, character rules that dominion, but underneath the characters both actors must work together for a scene to thrive. By telling the other actor what to do, or directing the other actor, you are fundamentally breaking that bond. You are saying I know more than you. You are limiting their choices, which are as valuable as yours, all because you feel you need “more” from the other actor.

What it comes down to is allowing each individual in the process of producing a play to use their skill set. A director is hired for their ability to direct and work with actors; and an actor is hired to perform a character in a play. If you feel a scene isn’t working, look inward before you start telling other actors what to do.

Directing your fellow actor when rehearsing a play is poor form, but it is even more problematic on set. Time is much more limited and sometimes you may be working with an actor you have no relationship with. In this setting, I would under no circumstances tell the other actor what to do. Even if they are giving you absolutely nothing to work with. If you have a major issue pull the director aside, but to be honest I would only do this in the most extreme cases. As an actor you need to start getting used to working opposite bad acting. It will happen pretty often.

Acting is reacting. Remember that other famous acting adage? We all know how helpful it is working opposite a great actor, but if you aren’t – work with it. By working with what is in front of you, you may be surprised by what happens to the other actor’s performance. If you play off their choices and live in the reality of the scene, they are often brought back to life and start giving you more. You can enhance the scene by what you are bringing to it, rather than by telling your fellow actor what to do. Or worse still, what not to do.

If you have a good relationship with the actor you are working with and you feel they are open to suggestions, by all means, work with each other. But even then tread lightly. Always do it in the spirit of a offering an idea, rather than a direction. For example, “you could maybe try this…” or “I had an idea, would you mind if I suggested something?” and so forth.

If you’ve been the recipient of this, you know how frustrating it can be. It can make you feel like your choices are invalid and bring a self consciousness into your work. It also disturbs the the process of rehearsal and can muddy the storytelling if you are trying to take on direction from many angles.

Directing another actor is a habit best avoided in almost all acting scenarios. It is better to work on yourself first, see if perhaps it’s your work, not the other actor’s, that is making the scene fall flat. Try to let go of the responsibility of the whole production; you are one part in an ensemble of other actors, designers, producers, and stage managers.

It can be quite liberating to surrender to what you are getting from the other actor in a scene and work with it as best you can. This is one of the golden rules to live by in your acting career and it will serve you well in many a rehearsal room: Don’t direct your fellow actor.

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About the Author

Andrew Hearle

is the founder of StageMilk. Andrew trained at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and is now a Sydney-based actor working in Theatre, Film and Television.

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