Recently, I was working with a director and, if I’m honest with you, I was struggling. No matter what I tried in my performance, I wasn’t able to fully integrate their direction. If you can’t adapt your performance to fit the vision of a director, no matter how experienced you might be as an actor, you have missed the brief and chances are you won’t be cast again. In fact, being “talented” or “good” is only one half of the skill set of being an actor. Knowing how to take direction and work collaboratively with directors is equally as important.
Actors need to learn how to take direction, as this skill set will improve their performance and ability to operate as a member of a team on a film set or in a rehearsal space. Taking direction requires communicative skills, the ability to be flexible, conducting research around the director’s own work/process and integrating notes into your acting. The final point can be particularly challenging—nobody likes to think they’re doing a bad job! But notes are there to make you look good, not remind you of your failings.
There are many different viewpoints on this topic. Given how personal it is to take direction on your performance, I’d say every on of us in the acting game experiences it slightly differently. What I’ve compiled in this article are seven helpful reminders that get me through those tough days on the job, as well as some perspective from the other side of the argument… But before we jump in, I want to turn straightaway to a professional Director, to give us some initial thoughts on the topic:
From the Director’s Perspective
First off, let’s hear from the people actually giving the notes—the source of the problem lurking behind the monitor (just kidding, directors!) I spoke to Alex on the StageMilk team, who works as a professional director across theatre and film. He had the following things to say on the subject:
“This is a really important thing to consider as an actor. To get the doom-and-gloom stuff out of the way first: yes, you’re unlikely to work with a director again if you can’t take direction. This not because you’re not getting the scene right or asking for multiple takes, it’s because our notes are about keeping your performance consistent with the rest of the story, which is so much bigger than either of us. At the very least, think about the other actors you work with: if you’re not taking direction while the rest of the team is, you’re going to look out of step with the others. And this leads to good actors delivering stinking performances.
“Now for the optimistic bit: we get that acting is hard, and we respect how hard you’re working even on the days when nothing seems to be going right. What’s more, directors aren’t perfect. If there’s something that’s not working, and we can see you trying to work with us, we will usually do what we can to help convey this better to you, or even change our approach. This kind of communication can only be found in trust and respect. And that’s a two-way street. Finally, the reason we give direction is to make you look like the goddam stars you are. Trust us when we say our priority is to make you look incredible. Everybody wins!”
7 Ways to take Better Direction as an Actor
So we are all on board—actors and directors alike—taking direction is very important! Well, today I want to outline some thoughts on how we can improve in this area (and hopefully make some directors very happy during our careers):
#1 Listen (Understand the Director’s Vision)
Communication is key. Every director works differently; some are really open to your choices and others will be quite didactic and have a crystallised vision of what they want. This may leave you with absolute autonomy over your acting choices, or feeling like a glorified puppet. Most directors I find sit somewhere in the middle, but you have to be ready for all types. The key is to really listen and be responsive to their directing style. There are few truly great directors, but there are many very, very good ones. The sooner you let go of your own expectations of what a director should be and start working collaboratively with them, the better. You must be perceptive and try your best to understand their vision. This comes down to being incredibly present on the day, and listening, instead of imposing.
#2 Develop your Flexibility
As you continue to develop your skills as an actor, always make sure that flexibility remains a key tenant in your work. Walking into auditions or rehearsal rooms with a rigid idea of how you will perform will not serve you. Of course, you should make choices, but if you cling steadfastly to them, you will continually frustrate directors. Many actors see acting as a process of getting it “right”. This is rarely the case and being flexible and playful is really the way to success. So always try to develop your flexibility as an artist. This is something you should work on in formal training such as in an acting class, but also just in your own time. Work on scripts every week and see if you can do them faster, slower, in an accent, more high status, more vulnerably—you get the idea. It is simply a skill and the more your practice this skill the better you get.
#3 Consume Content like Mad!
A lot of direction is centred around references. There is a shorthand when working with directors and often you will hear direction such as “This character is a bit like John Cleese in Fawlty Towers!” or “We want a cringe comedy feel: think The Office?” This is why it’s so important to watch and read widely as an actor. Not only will watching content be a source of inspiration for your work, it will mean you can draw on the same cultural milieu as the directors you are working with. If your director has made content that is already publicly available, consider watching their past work as well. They probably don’t want you pestering them about their CV on the shoot day, but it might help you determine the kind of style they use, and get a feel for the tone of their work.
#4 Avoid Rigid Preparation
It amazes me that actors will just drill a monologue or scene over and over again, getting ingrained in the same choices. If you are about to do an audition or go on set, then practice in as many different ways as you can. Use your creativity to consider possible interpretations of the script and pre-empt that. Play with your character, and see if you can practice the script with all these different interpretations in mind. Having practiced this in advance, you will be much more calm and relaxed if the director does throw notes at you (and seem all the more brilliant when you nail a choice they just came up with, but that you actually prepared for!)
#5 Clarify Notes
Don’t be afraid to clarify notes. This is actually something Alex hints at in his above comments. Often, in our bid to look professional, we dive in before we have really understood what is being asked. Always make sure you really understand the notes that are being given. Sometimes just talking it out, or clarifying it back to the director, can get you both on the same page. However, in clarifying the notes, do your best to not be combative: it’s generally unhelpful to question the director as to why and having lengthy debates over every note can quickly frustrate the process. Try to avoid fighting back and always endeavour to make their suggestions work.
#6 Integrate the Notes
You may be able to take a note, but can you keep it? One common frustration for directors is actors disregarding or forgetting notes that they have already been given. Always find time to properly integrate the ideas. If you are in a rehearsal process, I would always set aside 10-15 minutes after finishing to review all the notes and make sure you have solidified them before moving on. Simply doing a bit of revision can go a long way.
#7 Always Stay Professional
There will undoubtedly be times where you and the director just can’t get on the same page. But if you remain open and earnestly endeavour to work together, you will maintain your grace and professionalism. Practice good film set etiquette. Try with all your might to not slip into resentment, or passive aggression. Always have integrity and try to keep a positive outlook. Eventually, if you can persist, something will click and you will find a way forward. Not every partnership between actor and director will be Spielberg and Hanks (sometimes they’re Herzog and Kinski). But I believe even the most creatively or personally disconnected duos can maintain respect and still produce a good end result.
It will take time to improve this skill set, but if you can get better at taking direction, it will benefit you throughout your career. It will also make the creative process so much more enjoyable. There is nothing worse than feeling stuck as an actor, and having the confidence that you can adapt to any direction will allow you to do much better work in all areas of your acting. Just keep reminding yourself that taking direction is a skill, which is to say it can be learned and improved. And if you’re looking for a particular challenge, you could even give directing a go yourself—just to see how it feels on the other side of the camera!
In the end, it comes down to communication and respect. So talk with your director, learn how to work with them effectively and remember that you’re all in this together.