Acting is a collaborative process. Doing a monologue by yourself in your bedroom is fun, and useful practice too, but at some point you are going to have to be on set, on stage, or in audition room, working with another person. Usually a director. This means you are going to have to learn the skill of taking direction: hearing a note, and actioning it in your performance. Now, this sounds super-duper simple, right? Someone tells you to do a thing and, low and behold, you do it! But, my friends, let me assure you it is anything but. Taking direction—taking a note on board from someone else and actioning that note instantly—can be incredibly challenging. However, your ability to collaborate in this fashion is going to be a key factor in booking a job and returning to work again. Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty of how to make this happen!
Actors are professional communicators and collaborators. In order to be a great actor you have to be a great listener. The skill of the actor as a collaborator comes down to your ability to interpret information from a director and a willingness to throw yourself into their vision, whether you agree with it or not, with a sense of authenticity and vulnerability that makes their vision into your choice.
Different Types of Directors
The first thing to understand is that directors are not a homogenous group. They come from a wide range of backgrounds and this directly affects the way they communicate with actors. In film and television, directors can come from being Cinematographers, 1st ADs, Producers or writers. Often in the commercial world, the director would have come straight from an advertising or marketing background. Some are occasionally trained directors from reputable drama or film schools. But the best, in my opinion, are former actors turned directors, because they really understand our lives and process. The latter are quite common in theatre.
Think of the following examples: Kriv Stenders was a camera operator, George Miller was a doctor who took a film workshop, Edgar Wright has a degree in Audio-Visual design, Jane Campion has a degree in Fine Arts, Chloé Zhao studied under Spike Lee at NYU, Ron Howard was on an actor on Happy Days. My point is that all of these directors are going to communicate with you differently due to their experience, background, communication style and priorities.
You might find that a director who has a background as a cinematographer is going to be a lot more concerned with how you look as opposed to what you are feeling or thinking. An artist might be all about the frames composition and your inner life, a commercial director might just give you single words to hang your hat on or a dramaturg might want to chat through the social structures of ancient Rome for two hours. For the actor, it is about learning how the director communicates, asking appropriate questions to clarify and interpreting and actioning those notes instantly. I am going to go through a few different techniques to do this below depending on the environment you are working in.
How to Take Notes in an Audition
The first step in successfully being able to take a note is in the audition room. In some ways, this is the hardest place to do it. The biggest battle here is with anxiety and nerves that get between you and what the casting director or director is trying to communicate with you. Often, actors can come into the audition room with a rigid idea of what they want to do with a scene: they have thought about it in-depth at home, rehearsed a bunch of times and have a firm strategy for each section and how they want to execute it. The difficulty comes when the director or casting director has a totally different idea, or access to context that the actor does not, which can completely change your perception of the character and the scene.
For example: I was auditioning for a part on a television show; I was going for the role of a nerdy guy who was talking to his friends about this girl he liked. It was clear by the subtext of the scene that he was really in love with this woman. In the audition room, the casting director revealed that the woman in question was employed by these friends of my character, in order to humiliate him—the whole relationship was in fact a joke on my character. I had no idea about this and once it was revealed to me in the audition room, it completely threw me off my performance. I was unable to alter my performance accordingly because I was so set on my idea of the character’s reality.
It is great to come into an audition with a clear idea of how you want to approach the character or the scene, but keep in mind that you have to be flexible. You have to be prepared to completely ditch what you thought about a moment or a relationship as soon as you get new information that might contradict it. You have to be ready to spin on a dime and change the work you have put in, to suit the information you have been given.
In acting school, one of my legendary teachers said ‘Hang on tightly, let go lightly’ and I think this is incredibly applicable here. Improvisation skills are so important in the audition room. Your ability to hear what has been said, think about it, think about how to apply it and then ask any clarifying questions is vital. Keep in mind that auditions are always under time pressure, you will only have max 15 minutes here and you want to spend it acting, not talking.
So be really clear with your questions. I like to follow up a note with an action, say the director wants a moment to be ‘a little softer’ I might follow up by saying ‘In terms of volume or showing my empathy for the other character more?’ Interpreting generalised information and making it specific for yourself, but trying to avoid getting bogged down in the detail is paramount here, and honestly that only really comes with experience. So the best thing you can do is get out there, get a few auditions and start honing these skills!
How to Take a Note for Theatre
Okay so, you did the audition thing, right? You nailed it through a couple of rounds of auditions and callbacks and booked the part in a play! Love this for you. Now let’s talk about rehearsal. I freaking love rehearsal. I really do, in some ways, like it more than performance, because rehearsal is all about discovery. We are all just trying to figure this thing out, take what the writer has given us, unpack it down to its bones and then slowly rebuild it from the skeleton up, adding ourselves seamlessly into the flesh of it and creating a beautiful Frankenstein’s monster of artistic endeavour and emotional vulnerability. It’s a red hot vibe, you guys.
However, as red hot as the vibe may be, you are going to have to work closely with a director and take on a range of notes as well as play in the space and figure stuff out. You are also going to need to collaborate with different types of actors here too and just like directors, actors come from a range of different backgrounds and approach the craft somewhat differently.
There are actors who like to do the vast majority of their work at home and come into the room with a honed idea of what they want to do, there are actors who seemingly do next to nothing at home and feel their way through it on the floor, there are kinetic actors who need to be touching props, playing with costumes and sets before it starts to make sense to them, there are the academics who need to completely understand the historical context before they can put anything up on the floor.
Me? I am a prepare at home, put it on the floor and see what happens kind of actor. I love seeing what the other actors have to offer and then putting my own stank on whatever we are working on. I am much better when I am working from my instincts, but know that I need a solid grounding in text analysis before this can be effective in rehearsal. For you, it is going to be different, and you need to spend some time in rehearsal just noticing how the other actors are working and seeing how best you can help accentuate that.
There are a couple of practical things that can really help you take a note from a director in rehearsal too. The first is blindingly obvious and it is this: Write it down. Whatever the note is, write it down in a notebook! I like to ‘book’ my scripts. That means, when I get a role, I print the whole script, and glue each page of the script on the right-hand side page of a notebook (I find the spiral-bound type is best) then whenever I get a note from a director, I write it down on the blank left hand side page of my notebook, next to that page in the script. Then I review those notes before we do the scene again so the notes are fresh in my brain and I do my very best to take them from the page onto the stage.
Always and forever, use a pencil to write your notes down. This is because these notes may change as you all learn more about the play, the scenes and the characters. This is particularly appropriate in theatre, more to come on film below!
Once you have been given a note from a director, try your very best to do as they ask! You will be amazed once you start watching other actors get a note, for example, ‘Can you try it with a bit more anger this time?’ The actor enthusiastically agrees, and then the performance is… exactly the same as previous to the note. When the director asks you something like that, just like in the audition room, take a second to process the information, you can also ask some questions and have a quick discussion about why the character is angry, contemplate if you have ever felt similarly and why, try and find what it is in the text that is making them feel that rage, and tap into your own reserves of it.
In rehearsals, you can go as hard as you like; however, it is always better to go too big with a line or a moment than something smaller. If the director needs you to reign it in, you have to trust them to say so! And you may well be surprised that your version of 100% is actually a directors version of 50%, and and a moment can be pushed much further than you think! Again, it is all about listening, interpreting and having the confidence to try something out—even if you feel like it isn’t going to work. It is the directors job to direct, it is your job to try out that direction!
How to Take a Note for Film and TV
Film and television present different problems for actors taking notes from directors. Primarily the incredible lack of rehearsal. Rehearsals for film and television production basically don’t happen. On some larger projects potentially, major films in particular, there might be a budget for it. Definitely, for action sequences, intimate scenes or fight scenes there will be extensive rehearsals. But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of a dialogue scene between two or more actors, the most likely thing is that the first time you rehearse it will be onset, while the camera team is setting up the shot to shoot it. You might get a read through and a note or two from the director, but then wham-bam we are shooting!
Filmmaking, unlike most theatre, is mind-blowingly expensive to do. Wildly, crazily, hugely expensive. One of the first things a production team can do without is extensive actor rehearsals before a production takes place. The expectation, particularly in network television or streaming services, is that the actors will turn up on set and nail it in one or two takes, three maximum. This time pressure often results in performances that are, to be frank, not great. You can tell the difference between shows that have the budget and the time to rehearse with the actors and shows that do not.
However, for the actor heading on set and getting ready to do their scene, they must be super-duper-monumentally prepared. Film and TV is an absolute pressure-cooker situation, and the whole machine of between 30 and 200 people, cast and crew, is waiting on you to hit your marks and say your lines. For film and TV, I do not book my script, simply because it is so subject to change, including on the day I am scheduled to shoot. Additionally, you may not get the full episode script to work from: you might just get your sides (scenes), so that becomes tricky too. Instead, I might put my scripts in a ring binder file, or just take in the stapled copy to work with. I still scribble in the margins in pencil, and know that I have to be specific and relaxed when interacting with the director.
Directors in film and TV are under more pressure than an industrial diamond. They are the apex of responsibility for both performers and crew. They have so much on their plate and constant challenging decisions to make that by particularly late in the day they might be a little… frazzled so to speak. When they do give you a note, make sure you are really listening, I will sometimes repeat it back in my own words to ensure I have taken it in and am on the same page. Also, physical action and eyeline is so important here, ensure you are doing what is required and looking where is required too! As an example:
Director: ‘Pat this time, make sure you pick up the pen in your right hand and look over to Marie on camera left. Also with the line, make it a bit more fearful right? She’s your boss so…’
Me: ‘No worries. Pen in the right, Marie on the left and really find that terror in Marie’
Director: ‘Perfect. You got it. Let’s go for a take please!’
How to Action a Note
The most difficult notes to deal with are the nebulous, unclear or generalised ones. Things like: be more sad, or can you pull this face? Or do what you did in the audition! Direction like this is distinctly unhelpful. I have often found this sort of thing on commercial sets where a director has come through an advertising agency, not a creative background. Regardless, the best way to manage this is to take what the note was and make it into an action.
Actions are doing words, and they are a great way to hone something generalised and make it specific. We have a great article on actions here at Plotting Actions for Objectives. As an example, if I got the direction to be more confused, I might play the action of: ‘I unpick you’, or ‘I clarify you’, or ‘I unstitch you’. Anything that puts your intention on the other actor and helps drive the motivation to be confused.
It’s one of those things that is really common when a director is focused on how something looks, not how it feels. The actor needs to take the physical appearance described in the note and turn it from appearance into feeling. Another thing that I find helps, is clarifying the subtext with the director. When they say, can you look more confused, I might respond with ‘yeah like, I am really trying to unpick what the hell they are talking about?!’ and see if that description resonates with the director. This takes the note and turns it into something you can use, that the director feels collaboratively involved in and more importantly that you the actor understand their vision for the moment in question.
Taking Notes: Dos and Don’ts
Okay, look: the first thing to know is that a note is not a personal attack. Do not take the note personally, everyone is working towards the same thing here which is a great performance and a great show! Don’t think because you got more notes or fewer notes than somebody else that you are in any way better or worse than them. Notes are not a competition. They’re a note! That is all. They’re a method for a director to communicate what is working and what needs adjustment, not a popularity contest.
Also please, please, please take the note. Do not argue with the director about it in front of cast and crew. Do not say ‘I was doing that!’ or ‘I was doing what you told me to do!’ Don’t be a petulant child about it. Just take the freaking note. Write it down and move on. The director would not give the note if it didn’t need to be given! Write it down. Take it on and if you need to clarify with them, find an appropriate moment to do so. This might be after rehearsal or at a different time. If you constantly question notes you receive, word will get around that you are difficult to work with. Take the note and action it.
That is not to say that you cannot have an opinion on the work you are doing. And of course, you can agree or disagree with a director’s point of view. But what I am saying is that there is a time and place for that discussion and it is not in front of everyone involved, casting aspersions over the director’s ability and driven predominantly by an actor’s ego.
From the Director’s Perspective
Hi all: director, here! Pat asked me to jump in and give a few thoughts from the other side of this topic. Everything he says is 100% true and helpful, but I did want to offer this one important thing to consider:
Directors aren’t perfect. No matter what we tell you. We are in charge, we do deserve your respect and we do have a lot of things to keep in our heads on set or in the rehearsal room. But just as you might step into an audition with one characterisation in mind—only to find it changed radically with a single note—directors can have the exact same experience, except it’s not just a character that changes but the entire design or conceit of a production. It’s high stakes, nerve-wracking stuff.
When directors give notes, we’re not just thinking about your individual performance, but how that note might lift the overall character/scene/project. We also have to be ready to make mistakes and and refine or walk notes back; sometimes you even get ahead of us and know that we’ve given you a bum steer! But bear with us: remember that we’re working through a creative process just as you are, and that always requires trust and respect. The best way to illustrate a bad note has been given is to do it exactly as instructed. If it jars as much as you think it would, we usually get the message.
Finally, if you want some more experience on this topic, the best thing I can suggest is giving directing a go yourself. See what it’s like to be in charge of performance/s, and how giving notes is just as much a skill to be learned as taking them (we’ve written more on this process elsewhere, just don’t let the title fool you). The best actor/director relationships I’ve enjoyed are built on respect for each other’s process—paired with the understanding that we’ll both get things wrong sometimes. Directors are only human. No matter what they tell you.
So there you have it, a rundown of the different types of directors and their approaches, different types of situations where an actor needs to take a note and some practical tips about how to go about it for auditions, theatre, film and TV. If you have no experience at all and this has all been really overwhelming, or you’d just like to practice taking feedback on board and actioning it, you should join the StageMilk Scene Club!