Every actor should try their hand at directing. Setting aside the discoveries you’ll make working with other actors and examining your craft from a fresh persepctive, being a director is extremely rewarding: it’s exciting, it’s challenging, and it’s up to you to shape the audience’s experience of a story as you exercise total creative control. Of course, this isn’t to say the job is an easy one. All too often, less experienced directors get so caught up in the multi-faceted nature of the role (liaising with department heads, making creative decisions, honing their “vision”), they can lose sight of the core skill set required: working with actors to bring a text to life.
In this article, we are going to discuss the process of directing a single scene—film, television, theatre, any medium you can conjure. If you’ve grand designs for the director’s chair, we guarantee that this is the best place for you to start. Start with a scene, make it sing. The rest will fall into place from there.
#1 Know The Material
The very first thing you’ll need to do is study the script. Over, and over, and over. Learn what you can about the characters, the context, the world of the story—anything that might help you determine what the writer intended and how the scene should be played. Take extensive notes, write down your discoveries and any questions you might want to bring to the rehearsal room for the actors. If the scene is from a larger work, track down and read the entire script; it is horrifying how many actors and directors skip this vital step! Always give yourself the added advantage of contextual knowledge.
Don’t panic if you end up with more questions than answers at this stage; at some point, your actors will step into the room with their own ideas/theories/questions and you can compare notes. But know that there is a difference between being undecided and unprepared. Most actors can sense it immediately—as we are sure you have with directors in the past…
#2 Read With Your Actors
Once you have your actors in the room, read the scene together at least twice before you start any discussion. How does the piece sound aloud as opposed to how it read on the page? Are the characters different to how you imagined them? Is anything more or less clear? Have any of your burning questions been answered?
As soon as you’ve read the piece through, ask your actors for their opinions on the scene and their characters; this is also the perfect time for you to discuss any questions that have arisen up to this point (for yourself as well as the actors). You are going to learn a lot of valuable titbits doing ‘table work’ of this kind; however, the most important thing you should be striving to establish is an objective for each character that relates to their scene partner/s. What do each of these characters want, and what will they do to get it? Finding this will give the scene its conflict—the essence of all good drama.
#3 Block the Scene
The trick with blocking—the planning of actors’ physical movement and positioning in the scene—is to not overthink it. Block so that the audience/camera can see the action, and in a way that enhances the drama of the scene but never gets in the way of performance. If you’re unsure of where your actors should be standing or what they should be doing, try giving them free reign for a run of the scene: often, in walking and interacting as their characters, they will come up with naturalistic blocking that suits the requirements of the piece perfectly.
And a note on big print/stage directions: this is something of a contentious topic. Some people like to follow them to a tee, others disregard them either as means of opening the scene up to other creative possibilities. Sometimes, a stage direction may not be physically possible to complete—such as a scene written for two actors on horseback if you’re in a horseless rehearsal room. When it comes to which directions you follow and disregard, it is up to you to decide which parts will help or hinder the performance. This will be especially true in the case of film scripts, in which the ‘big print’ in the scene may be more visually descriptive and therefore less vital to your actors’ success. In any case, do think about why an author has included a particular stage direction; there may be an intention behind a seemingly innocuous action that is crucial to a character’s objective.
#4 Plotting Actions
Once the scene has been interrogated, discussed and blocked, it’s time for your actors to start running it. This is the point in the process where a lot of first-time or inexperienced directors trip themselves up by trying to tweak and shape the scene too much—or at least too much too quickly. Try to limit your notes to the end of each run, always speak to your actors as valued colleagues and never offer a reading of a line. If the actor’s not saying something the way you’ve imagined it, it is never their fault: find a way to articulate your intention so they understand.
The best tool you will have in shaping a scene in rehearsal is to suggest and plot actions. Actions bring the how to an objective’s what, and even a slight substitution from one to another can modify and enhance a scene in exciting ways. Actions are succinct units of direction, and often illustrate your point without robbing an actor of all control. If you tell an actor whose character wants to borrow money to “intimidate” rather than “beg”, you are suggesting a more aggressive stance without ever saying “Get angry!”. In fact: avoid directing with emotions all together. Any actor told “this is the part where you’re sad” without provocation will look like they’re playing make-believe. Emotions are the by-product of a well-chosen action.
#5 Giving Feedback
This relates to the above step, but is important enough to warrant its own section: be polite, encouraging and respectful as a director. Begin each note with positivity, and then pivot to a suggestion that will help build on the actor’s work already there. This acknowledges the effort they are making in doing their job, regardless of whether it is the best thing for the scene. Compare the following directions:
“Trudy, your character needs to be angrier in this scene. Really attack your sister for missing your birthday.”
There’s some good points in this: “attack” is a strong action, and it’s tied to an intention that may or may not be in the scene—Trudy’ sister missing her birthday. But it’s a little direct. It punishes the actor for not creating the emotion, rather than offer up why that emotion should be there.
“That was a great run! I wonder if Trudy could try attacking her sister more in this scene? It occurs to me she’s probably feeling some anger at this point because of her birthday being missed. Don’t be afraid to hold back on that.”
In this direction, we start with some praise, followed by the suggestion of a new action. Notice how it’s posited as a suggestion for ‘more’ of something, rather than being there or not? This allows the actor to feel as though even though a change is needed, they’ve contributed something to the piece already that is working well. Emotion is still discussed, but within the context of the action. And finally, you give the actor the note to really let themselves go and try the action with total safety. It is always easier to dial a performance back than it is to wake a sluggish actor up.
#6 Adapt to Discoveries
A crucial mistake made by directors starting out is the assumption that they need to have every answer to a question in a scene. This is not true. Often, the most difficult aspects of a scene relating to from character to plot to objective to action will be solved by the actors up on the rehearsal room floor. Learn to identify a good offer, and adapt to the discoveries you will make with a good team who feel as though their opinions will be valued. While the director may not need to have every answer, they will need to make every final decision: gather the best ideas from your cast and they will respect you for giving them some input and their opinions the time of day. Ultimately, they’ll respect your final say all the more if the process values their contributions.
#7 Challenge Yourself
Whether it’s the telling of stories, or the working with great people, or the alluring power of the position: you’re likely to want to direct again after your first try. And you should. It’s a lot of fun! Each time you direct something, challenge yourself with a more difficult task. Find other scenes from unfamiliar work, or a scene from something you’ve always hated. If you’ve worked with a larger number of actors, consider a two-hander or even a monologue. If you’re very courageous: direct yourself (of course, that is its own article and then some…)
Eventually, you’ll work your way up to a more substantial project: a play, a film, perhaps a cabaret or a showcase? But never lose sight of the things you can glean from focusing on a single scene of intriguing material with actors you trust. Hone your skills, work on your craft as a director—which is to say communicating with others and making their work look and sound its best. Enjoy the simple pleasure of helping craft a story well told.