Getting Adjusted: Dealing with Directors

The actor director-relationship is important. Possibly not essential in some cases, but exceptionally vital in others. I have been on set and have received NO direction over three days (aside from “please stop with the ad libs.”), and have been in stage productions where I have been over directed and have received confusing, contradictory, and inexplicable “direction.”

As an actor, I believe our job or our task is to serve the intentions of the script. In order to serve the script, we need to know: how to read a script, break down scenes, emotionally invest, be text detectives, and collaborate with our director. Usually, that collaboration is a joy. However, there are times where you might find yourself at a loss when trying to incorporate a note or take an adjustment from a director. I remember one show where the director said “it’s not my job to motivate your shit!” Now, in a sense, that is true. However, confrontations like these often reveal a real communication breakdown.

I don’t know what defines a great director, and, certainly, the criteria is different in film and theatre. I do know that I appreciate a director who speaks my language and knows how to talk to an actor. Not that actors are hostile animals with a different language, but good actors think and act in terms of actions/wants/needs/objectives. We can certainly deal with adjustments that are physical (“could you do that over there…a little closer to the lamp”), but when directors start offering result oriented direction (thank you, Judith Weston), watch out and know how to interpret the notes.

Now, this blog is not some missive hoping to discredit directors or directing. Its intention is to support the actor who is dealing with a director who does not communicate well and to offer a few suggestions so actors are more able to quickly assimilate challenging direction.

If you have ever had the note, “could you be angrier?” then you have experienced result oriented direction. When directors are adjusting us and telling us how we should feel or are looking for more of an emotion, we need to hear the note, then transmute the direction so we can make an active choice. Actors cannot play emotions – “be sadder, be happier, etc.” Sometimes, I have heard, “be more upset,” and what I end up with is loud acting. Oy! Emotions come out on their own when actors’ experience living life and playing the actions required of the scene. When we succeed, we are joyful. When we are thwarted, something else happens. An actor’s emotions are fueled by her imagination, preparation, sensitivity, and ability to pursue tasks required of the scene. I am sure I am preaching to the choir here…

It is equally important to remind actors that directors are under so much pressure to produce a product, and often ill-equipped to really help us, so the notes we get are well intentioned, however mystifying they might be.

Another frustration is getting no direction, which is often more palpable when rehearsing a stage play. If nothing else, I think a director *should* give reinforcement to an actor’s choices if no adjustments are desired. I worked on a short film recently where the young director offered more than one “atta boy” during my takes, and I tell you what, It. Felt. Good. Especially on a film set, getting that confidence boost is very good for the actor.

One final thought before I publish: If you are ever receiving frustrating direction and you don’t have time to get resolution before the next take (I am talking to you, film actors), take a DEEP breath, gather your thoughts, and play the scene as truthfully and as boldly as you can. I have seen my friends bring frustration into a take, and it ain’t pretty.

Thanks for reading!

~ DSH

8 thoughts on “Getting Adjusted: Dealing with Directors

  1. Could you address the reverse? What could directors do to get the most out of their actors? What advice would you give a director to achieve the results they wish? I understand “Be more upset!” is terrible direction, but what would be better? Good post!

  2. I have been commented out of order, so my reply to the Directing Actors goes with this Post too. I have to disagree a little with you David. I DO think we as Actors need Directors. Otherwise we would all be doing one woman/man shows or throwing together films with our buds and not have an outside view of how FAB or how FLOP our performances are. I did write in the other post about how there are some “bad directors” and some “bad actors” out there. Either way, I think, as an Actor, I want to know if I am giving you the shot, telling the story or am I fired and never gonna work in this town again… hope not. However, I do agree with your last statement, if you do have a frustrating Director and are confused, without feedback and feeling lost. ALWAYS best to be truthful.

    • You must have misread the post, as I would never say directors are not needed. Most of this material is directed at actors, however, so if the posts come off as “director-lite,” it is only because I am reaching out to my peers and helping them navigate through the biz.

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