Lessons in Directing (1)
Updated: May 22
When I was little (as all good blog posts start) I was already a performer. I didn't enjoy toys, action figures, dolls or the like, my toys were always based around performance. I asked for tape recorders with microphones so I could sing Whitney Houston in the back of my mum's car and record my own radio shows. I wanted to play instruments, I got a drum kit one year, a guitar the next, a camera the next... I used to busk for charity in my hometown, for fun to complete strangers, and when I took to the stage no matter how small my part was, people remembered me. Performance was and still is my life.
I consider myself a live performer first and foremost because there's no better rush to me than the connection one has with an audience, the beautiful energy exchange from writer to director to actor to audience. I have been extraordinarily lucky to work with some great directors as an actor of the stage, but also to work with some great actors as a director. Directing isn't just a thing anyone can do. If you have an idea, and you wish to implement it, and you bring some people together in order to do so then yes, you have the ingredients to make something work, but just like any recipe: if you don't know how to mix those ingredients and then cook them, the likelihood is they aren't going to turn into the result you had initially intended.
A lot of people have the energy to start a project for sure, but often get bogged down by obstacles, insecurities or just plain bad habits. You can't just direct because you think you'd be good at it. Directing, like any art, takes a certain degree of skill, talent, and drive to prove yourself. A lot of people think that it's as simple as being bossy, or just having a clear vision, and I have worked with directors who are far more reliant on the actors skills than their own to carry through a project, and this isn't always a terrible plan, if you are still able to take control when it is necessary.
My own experience of directing theatre has always been about the learning experience and the connection I can create with an actor. Getting the best emotional performance from an actor is about patience, it's also about understanding that they need to find their own path to a character before you can start moulding them. A lot of new directors make the mistake of thinking they have all the answers and an actor should be able to just manifest their vision without question, if they can't then this is the actor's failing. I have learned to invite questions, even if they aren't exactly the questions I expect or want to be asked. You cannot expect the best from people if it's only on a scale you choose. To get the best from people, you need to focus on their needs first. I guess it's a bit like being a parent, a gentle nudge will go much further than a forceful hand.
As an actor, I like opportunities to play with a role, and usually will have a strong vision of who I want to be in my head. This used to be about the voice to me and where some people start a character with the shoes, some with the body, some start with the head: I used to be very head oriented... Start with a voice, move in to the body naturally, and then find your feet. I guess the only part of me that has changed now is the part of me that feels like I have to prioritise the body a bit more so this has started to reflect more in the way I approach characterisation when I direct.
The performer in me, while separate from the director in me, gives me an advantage when it comes to direction. It's a different process for everyone. It's a vastly different learning curve too. The best tip I can give anyone starting out in direction is PATIENCE. Broad brush strokes are a great way to start and then you can get down to the finer points of details once the foundations have been laid. If you have had a hand in every aspect of a project, and any director worth their salt should have had at least one point in their career, then you'll know how many directions you have to walk in to reach your destination. Not all actors are easy to work with, not all members of your production team are going to see things the way you do and you can't please everyone, but your job is to focus on the end result and not the minor details or interpersonal relationships that may or may not be cultivated in the process. You're not in it to make friends, you're in it to create the best art possible. Don't forget that usually you will have picked these people for a reason, because you saw something in them that they didn't see in themselves, you put trust in them to achieve so let them achieve it and don't lose sight of it. If they let you down, it's not on you in that case, it's on them. Have faith in your faith... if you see what I mean?
Your actors are relying on you to pick them up when they slip, to find the nuances when they've only just scratched the surface, to burst a bubble when they become too inflated, but most of all to guide them so that your vision and their vision can mingle into a beautiful show designed for an audience.
YES, we cannot forget the audience. A theatrical show doesn't always have to prioritise an audience, much of the avant-garde doesn't for example. Theatre is an art, a nuanced and occasionally mechanical art with a variety of styles, each of which has its own language, and while we don't all speak it, but we can learn to speak it. An audience can never be expected to speak the same language as a director, but they can at least understand some basic phrases, some universal truths of storytelling that are necessary for performative work.
We often talk about the exchange between the audience and actor, but we rarely think about the fact a director's role is to facilitate this exchange. There's no greater joy than having an intention felt by a member of an audience of a show you have directed. I guess that's why I love it so much.
The conclusion here, is that patience and a solid end-goal are great starting points if this is something you're interested in trying. You will have your own style, so allow every experience in the rehearsal room to be a learning experience. Trust me, you're never going to have all the answers, and you're not always right just because you think you are.