An Actor’s Guide to Suboptimal Directors

If you’ve been acting for longer than a minute, you’ve realized that a director’s style sets the tone for the entire experience. And there are as many styles as there are directors. Obviously, while I hope your director is a collaborative, encouraging leader who trusts you with the creative process all the while guiding the entire operation within the bounds of her artistic vision… unfortunately, that is not true of every director. For our own sanity and survival, and the success of the entire experience, we need to learn how to collaborate with directors who aren’t helping everyone achieve their greatest potential. Below are, in my opinion, the three most common types of difficult directors and–more importantly–how to boost positivity under their directorship.

The Hands-Off Director

director-shrugThe Hands-Off Director will not interrupt the run of the scene, and will have very little to say about it afterwards. She views the rehearsal process as the chance for the actors to discover their own characters, motivations, and blocking. This might be very freeing for some actors, but before long, most will be starved for some affirmation, recognition, and new ideas. If you find yourself under such a directorship, communication will be your best tool. After rehearsal (or, preferably, after running a scene), ask some open-ended questions about specific moments in the scene about which you would like more feedback: “How is it coming across to the audience when I…?” “What’s your vision for the moment when…?” “How effective is it when I…? Really press for a thoughtful response. If, after you have tried these prompts, you still haven’t received the direction you have been craving, you may approach your cast mates (they likely have some ideas). You will have to convince them that your feelings won’t be hurt, and you will appreciate any feedback they offer (they will be hesitant). You owe it to yourself and the play as a whole to be the best you can be.

The Micro-Managing Director

director-puppetmasterThe Micro-Manager has such a clear vision for the play that she considers herself the expert on your character, even down to how a line is supposed to sound. This in and of itself is not a bad thing, provided the director is willing to adapt her vision to the choices you are making. However, if you hear more “No, I really see it this way instead,” then your willingness to try new things will quickly diminish. You will begin to feel like nothing more than a warm body on stage at best, a puppet at worst. But you are more valuable than that! You have more to contribute! Don’t stifle your initiative! If you strongly disagree with a particular direction for your character, nod your head anyway, say thank you, and do it once. Next time, don’t do it. If the director questions you, you can respectfully explain that it’s not feeling comfortable to you (Don’t play the “My-Character-Wouldn’t-Do-That!”-Card… remember, this director probably thinks your character would do that). The director will likely want you to feel comfortable with your actions, and the door to further communication can now be opened.

The Demeaning Director

director-yellingI am aghast at how often I hear actors talk about horrible experiences working with a director who swears at them and calls them stupid for forgetting a line or blocking in a rehearsal or show. There’s never an excuse for this!–especially in community theatre, where this should be a fun, spare-time activity for everyone involved. My advice in this situation is simple and two-fold.

  1. Communicate (you see how strongly I feel about this in all circumstances). Be gracious but firm. “Excuse me, the way you’re talking to us in rehearsal is bringing down morale, and we can’t give you our best stuff. Please try to lighten it up, because some here can’t continue like this.” Then, if nothing changes…
  2. Leave. “But Mike! I’m not a quitter!” I know. You are a faithful actor and you don’t want to let the show down. But you need to take care of you. The rehearsals and the show will be over soon; the emotional scars from verbal abuse will linger indefinitely. A friend shared her story of dealing with an abusive director. “He would yell and swear every rehearsal. One night, I had to leave the room. I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to the restroom. If he’s still yelling when I get back, I’m quitting.’ Sure enough, when I came back, he was still yelling at people, and I grabbed my things and quit. That was the only show I’ve ever walked out on.” Leaving an abusive situation does not speak poorly of your character. Quite the opposite; it displays your strength and professionalism. And you never know, your bold exit may be the inspiration others in the cast need to escape their own abuse.

Again, I hope these directors form the vast minority of your theatre experience. When you do find yourself in the midst of a difficult process, though, I encourage you to be the agent of change and the catalyst for respectful communication. You enjoy theatre far too much to passively allow a director’s stubbornness or a cast’s grumbling to dampen a couple solid months of your life. You can make a difference. And maybe even a new ally as well.

In a desire to keep the comments section positive, what specifically has a director done well to encourage creativity and collaboration in the cast?


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