• Ollie Horsfall

Lessons in Directing (2)

As performers we are hardwired to please. We have an instinct that requires us to feel like we are doing the best job possible by being as entertaining as possible. An authentic performance isn't necessarily the most entertaining performance. There are separate schools of thought on what 'authenticity' means as an actor, but because we are hard-wired to please our audience, our directors and our selves, sometimes we miss the mark, because we can't adapt. As directors it's our job to work out the route to authenticity even when we have to take detours ourselves.

So, let's say you're in a rehearsal room and one of your actors seems to not be mentally present on that day. Perhaps they aren't in a good mood, perhaps there is something happening within the context of their lives that is none of your business, or perhaps they are having an issue with the text: what can we do to investigate this, and turn it into something useful?

It's often a good idea to confront these issues head-on with your actor, but not by asking the obvious questions: if we can find a way to come to a conclusion about how they are feeling together, without prying into their personal life, more's the better.

An actor/director relationship should be one of free communication, but due to the 'hard-wiring to please' that performers have, there's usually a lot of shame attached to admitting weakness. To be fair, this also applies to plenty of non-performers in a work environment too. A rehearsal room should be a place where shame shouldn't factor in, and it's your role to make this clear as early as possible. There are no stupid questions, there are no stupid exercises and being silly and stupid is perfectly okay within the context of the work. The rehearsal space should be one of freedom, of both thought and expression. A mistake people often make is to think that it is an obvious fact. It isn't. It needs to be stated by you, the person directing as soon into the process as possible.

So, the first step is to care. You have to genuinely care about the wellbeing of those you are working with. Start to notice when their energy is different, ask how they are. Pushing for an answer isn't necessary but you have to show your actors that you have their best interests at heart, even if it is just within the confines of the work itself. You are supposed to get the best out of these people, and the best way to do that is to build rapport with them. By the way, depending on the type of person you are, you may find it easier to keep the divide between director/actor wide, but (and this is just my opinion) it's important that you care about the people you work with in order to get the best out of the whole experience and, by proxy, yourself.

If you want to foster a space of honesty then you have to genuinely care about those that you work with. You should be able to tell your actor when they aren't doing a good enough job or when they aren't putting the right kind of energy into their performance. It should always come from a place of 'caring'. The best route to this is by establishing a space where they can disagree with you if they want.

The next step: find a way of exploring the negative energy in the context of the work. A pissed off actor is usually going to find it easier to find their emotional centre because they are already feeling something strongly. Anger, for example, is a feeling that is open to interpretation, so find a way of exploring that feeling within the text, or find an exercise where they can let go of this energy. You have many tools at your disposal from a simple conversation to full blown dramatic exercises. A rehearsal room should be a place where an actor can explore their insecurities without fear of shame or reprisal, and this includes their fear of not being good enough.

Next: establish that you have a connection with your cast as a whole at the start of every rehearsal. Don't just start and expect them to be ready to work with you, you have to connect with your people and they need to connect with you. Check in, see how they are doing, how lines are coming along, whether there have been any problems with the text. The biggest issue that directors often have is expecting too much too soon. Don't.

I have my own specific methods ion my rehearsal room, which include the premise that no idea is a stupid idea, and that everything should be tried if suggested. If someone feels strongly enough that their idea was worth articulating then it was certainly worth trying it. Like I was saying in the first 'lesson', you don't have to be a friend in the truest sense of the word to your actors, but you should at least respect them as artists, this will allow you to freely explore the best of them, even when they aren't at their best. Giving a person the space to express means that the negative energy that's there at the beginning of a rehearsal will have at least faded somewhat by the end of it.

Some of the best work I have ever created has been under stress, pressure or when I've been feeling like shit. An actor's negativity is usually just as valuable as the positive energy, how you choose to use it is on you, Director.

Let's say you've done all of the above and your actor still seems out of the loop, unenthused, or bothered by being in the rehearsal space. Wait until the end and have a conversation with them, away from the eyes of others, show willing and they will as well. If it's just a case of bad attitude, you may find that their heart isn't in the work anyway.

You have to lead, you have to take control and you have to be able to let go. That's it. If it's you who's in a shitty mood, it's your job to work it out so it doesn't impact on the people you're working with, your role is to direct and part of that is taking responsibility for your actions and your moods too, it's not on your actors to fix that for you.

You will get the best out of the rehearsal room as long as you care about those within it, occasionally allowing yourself to forget about the world outside it. It's about the work and those bringing it to life for you, it's not about you.


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