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Monday, October 28, 2013

Notes on directing for the stage

Very few people are capable of being a good director. Very few! Students may eventually become very good actors but effective directors are few and far between. No matter how intelligent, clever or well educated, you need to be a certain personality type to be able to direct effectively. If a student has a talent for directing, that ability can be developed over time and become stronger. A student without inherent directing talent will unfortunately never become good at it and will end up leaving the actors with little guidance and no clear direction, causing uncertainty and stress.

So … if this is not your strong point, focus on the things that are and enjoy doing those! I can’t do maths or fix a car or write a computer program to save my life … and it doesn’t bother me … I stick to what I can do and leave those tasks to others!

There is so much to be said about directing a stage production! One can never really give enough guidance to the student actor / director and can only hope that the general guidelines will be further explored in such a way that the student can find his or her own style that works. Through years and years of being involved in theatre, I’ve learned how things should be done in order for a rehearsal process to run as smoothly as possible, without unnecessary waste of time and in order that the company can work for the best possible end result.

As a director, you need to understand that human beings (all of us!) have been wired to get what we want, when we want it. The human being is essentially selfish, narcissistic and unconcerned about other people’s troubles! Not a pretty picture, but there you have it! Acting students, especially, will manipulate, use blackmail (emotional or otherwise), employ the blame game – will in fact do anything and everything in order for things to work out the way we want them to. We wish to be part of the project in order to be in the limelight … but on our own terms. If we don’t get what we want then anger, negativity, gossip, bad vibes, talking behind the director’s back in order to get others on the band wagon and gain leverage, tantrums, playing on your feelings with a sad little face and a small little voice, etc., will all be employed to shift your requirements to suit the individual. If you allow this to change your path you will be in hell for the entire rehearsal process, so don’t! Ignore these attempts and, if it starts affecting the project, get rid of the guilty company member soonest … if possible without having to cancel the show. If most of the company members are doing this, cancel the whole thing before having to pay lots of money and wasting your time for nothing!


First of all, the rehearsal process has to be handled correctly. If this is not done, problems and difficulties will occur as a result.
1.       A definite, written rehearsal schedule needs to be provided to all company members - preferably for the entire rehearsal period. If the schedule needs to be worked out monthly for valid reasons, it has to be given to the company at least a week before it comes into play. This schedule will never be changed. Company members need to adjust their lives to fit in with rehearsals. Rehearsals are not to be adjusted to fit in with individual company members’ lives. In order for this to occur, company members need to know when rehearsals will take place in order to organise their lives around the schedule.

2.     Actors need to understand that, even though dates on which they are not available (due to work responsibilities or university tests and exams only – no social activities!) have been requested, they are not entitled to get that time off. It is not their right – it is a generous privilege to be granted if at all possible. Nobody will ever ask an actor whether or not it suits them to work on a certain day in the professional industry. You’re either there or you’re out.

3.       If the above is not done, the entire process will become problematic. Confusion, looseness of form and lack of structure and control will result. Informing company members when they are to be available on a week by week or rehearsal by rehearsal basis results in chaos. They will complain that they’ve already arranged this or that for that day and cannot change it. They will expect the arrangements to be adapted to suit them, causing more work for whoever is in charge of the schedule. If they have to change their other plans they will become annoyed and negative. This is unfair and unworkable. Chaos!!

4.     Since acting is an ensemble art form, working with only one person in a scene that requires four actors or working with some of the actors in a scene - but not all - is a pointless exercise in futility. This is never even to be contemplated. Actors need to rehearse with those they play the scene with – not with a stand-in or a stage manager reading the lines. They have to hit the ball back and forth with the actor playing opposite them and nobody else. Don’t even consider rehearsing a scene without everybody there! If you want to work on certain performance issues with an individual actor, this rule does not apply.

5.     Exercises to overcome speech patterns (staccato or sing-song, meaningless delivery) are done with the entire group in a specific scene. It would be pointless to work with one or some of the people in a scene. Everyone involved must be there. Focusing on daily activities and sense memory work should help the actor to get rid of speech patterns also, but then it needs to be done with focus, awareness and attention and beginner actors may find this difficult.

6.    Blocking and daily activities that are worked out with some scene partners absent has to be repeated, wasting everybody’s time and energy and causing negativity. In order for integration to take place everyone needs to be there!  In order for the final product to be successful, analysis, performance and work choices, characterization, etc. need to be worked on with all actors in the scene present. A loose, out-of-control rehearsal schedule as discussed above will make this difficult if not impossible to attain.


7.     Method actors are never without daily activities – never! Actors cannot stand around doing nothing, staring into space. This causes tension, lack of focus, speech patterns, indicating and bad work. Activities that are boring, unmotivated and repetitive are pointless though. Directors are to assist actors to think as the character to find several possible motivated and logical activities that will assist in the performance being real and believable and are things the character would logically do. Activities must add to the characterization. Beware of actors running around the stage like chickens with their heads cut off though. Motivate and justify activities.


8.     Your main concern once the blocking and daily activities have been set is acting. This is an acting school so we need to see real, believable acting. In order for that to happen the performances need attention and devotion. Directors need to assist actors (especially the beginners) to find the right work choices. You stop each time an actor needs to fly in new work for an emotional shift or new beat. The actor needs to stop and say they need time to bring in new work. The others continue working on their Method while the actor does relaxation and sense memory for the new work. When s/he is ready (and only then), the cast continues with the scene. This is the only way. If this is not done during rehearsal actors will simply indicate. This is a breeding ground for speech patterns and bad acting.

9.    In order for this work to be done enough rehearsal time needs to be allowed when working on a scene. Jumping from scene to scene quickly in order to get the technical aspects right is not enough. At least two hours need to be allowed for each scene in order to work on performance if it is a short scene and more time must be scheduled for a long scene. This work on acting dare not be left to the last few rehearsals! It is of paramount importance and enough time should be spent on it. By the time the show is performed for an audience the actors must be so comfortable with doing the sense memory work that it almost comes automatically and that they can get and keep the work easily, no matter what might go wrong on stage. This demands doing it over and over and over again.

10.   Light and shade and speaking like a real human being, as well as getting the actor to think about what s/he’s saying and why s/he’s saying it, is essential. Actors need to listen and speak to each other, responding in the moment and hitting the ball back and forth. Actors also need to know who the character is. In order for this to occur, specific character choices need to be made based on the text, with the help of the director. They need to play the intent! It is the director’s job to make sure that this performance work is done and that there is enough time spent on doing it, with the director’s input and guidance and assistance.


11.  The director needs to have a vision – ideas about what s/he would like the end-result to be – and needs to work towards attaining that vision. The vision might change over time, but there must be one! In order to achieve that vision the director must have a plan. You need to know what you want to work on before you go into a rehearsal and you must be flexible, think on your feet to find solutions and have plans how to achieve the results you wish to set in place. You cannot leave your actors rudderless by walking into a rehearsal not knowing exactly what you are going to do / what you wish to achieve during the time scheduled / how you are going to work towards achieving it. You cannot expect of the actors to come up with the solutions to blocking / daily activities / acting problems because you are not providing leadership and you don’t really know what you want or how to get there. The actors cannot direct themselves. Listen to their ideas and implement their solutions if these can work, but the ultimate responsibility is yours. You need to be in charge of and lead the process.
12.  In order for you to be capable of the above, you need to be a creative thinker and problem solver as well as a strong personality. You also need to be capable of seeing / hearing when an actor doesn’t understand or “get” the character, doesn’t have work, has the wrong work, is not thinking as the character, is not in the zone, has a speech pattern. You then have to be capable of working with that individual to understand who the character is, find the right work, get the work, think as the character, get in the zone and lose the speech pattern. This is your responsibility and you have to actively do this job. This means you need to be involved while planning each rehearsal and every moment during a rehearsal – thinking, judging, creating, finding solutions, working on problems until they are solved - actively working with actors by talking them through challenges, etc.

13.  The fact that few directors in this industry work this way doesn’t mean that you should follow their example. Looking at the results they achieve when it comes to performance means that they are not doing what they ought to do. Working with good professional actors will make the process easier than working with inexperienced student actors who still need to learn, but your job remains the same.

Written by Stephanie van Niekerk, Director, Method Actors' Training Centre

28 October 2013


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