Congratulations! You have been cast in a play. You have two months to prepare before rehearsals begin. By the time you’re on the floor you have spent hours working on the script; you’ve made a range of bold choices; you know your character and their journey back to front; you stand in front of the imaginary audience and speak the speech trippingly on the tongue… and then, well, then you get direction. Ouch! Now, you have a choice. You can respond with aggression or disinterest because your ego has taken a beating. Or, you can breathe, listen, and interpret the direction.
I confess I have done both. But I have recently realised that taking direction with ease and composure is an incredibly important skill for actors. A skill which, in the end, will serve the story much more than your stubborn rejection of the directors suggestions.
So let’s have a look at how to take direction like a pro.
Don’t Take it Personally
As an actor, you wear your art on your sleeve. So when it comes to taking direction, it’s really hard not to take it personally. The way I like to think about it is: all of the choices I make are based on my interpretation of the story, which is valid because stories are subjective.
Any direction I receive is based on the director’s interpretation of the story, which is also valid if slightly different to mine. The production itself will always be a compromise between everybody’s reading of the story, and the practical realities of budget and human resources. So next time you take direction, try not to take it personally. It’s just the director trying to help you see their version of the story.
See it as an Opportunity
Direction is an opportunity; a chance to step outside of your existing performance and try something new. Being given direction can make you feel like you’re doing something wrong; that you’re a bad actor. Instead, think of direction as an opportunity to explore your character in more detail. You might just discover something extraordinary.
I have been stuck in my performance on several occasions thinking “This is my character, I know him. This is it.” Then after receiving direction I have unlocked a whole range of new possibilities for my character. For example, even the suggestion of “playing the opposite choice” can help you realise the presence of vulnerability in anger, the sexuality in sadness. Try and see direction as an opportunity to explore your character. The director has asked it of you so you have nothing to lose.
Cohesion is King (or queen)
Amateur or early-career actors often misinterpret the idea of a need for conflict between characters as a need for conflict between actors. The opposite is true. That’s not to say actors shouldn’t disagree. A rigorous discussion about the story is incredibly important. But those conversations all serve one purpose: making sure everyone is telling the same story. That’s what rehearsal periods are for; that’s what a director is for.
The most successful pieces of theatre are those where the entire production has an air of cohesion. That everyone is telling the story together. We’ve all seen those plays where one of the actors looks like they’re in a different world… Don’t be that guy! Listen to your director, and do your best to take on their suggestions. They are trying to bring your performance in-line with the rest of the show.
One more thing; the director is human. They are just doing their best to get the best out of you. Be kind and open. We’re all just trying to tell great stories.