Bringing Out an Actor's Best by Meredith Bean McMath
Some of the best actors I've ever had the pleasure to work with - experts at developing characterization: L to R, Sue Derrow, Maddy Curtis Vencil, Garrett Milich, Christopher Saunders and Suzy Alden (now a regional theatre actor) - rehearsing THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, 2013.
Meredith Bean McMath - Photo by Craig Thoburn
"You may have people in your life who don't expect much from you — don't value your potential or input — for whatever reason: too young, too old, too inexperienced? I am not one of those people."
If you’re an actor who’s been in one of my theatre productions, you've heard me say something like the above... on the very first day.
And as rehearsals progress, you've probably also heard my favorite mantra:
"That was perfect! Now do it again."
When I direct, I tend to treat young actors like they’re adults and all actors like they're professionals - each one of them with opinions and ideas that matter. And if all goes well, by the end of a production the actors own the show as much as I will... because that's when the magic happens. I learned how to direct from being the Producer for dozens of shows and watching our different directors use their unique techniques. Some had held BA's, some held Masters and some had learned by the seat of their pants.
Some liked to have the actors do exactly what they say. And, hey, if a director is brilliant and creative and can get actors to actually DO exactly what they say, the show will shine (But if the director is not brilliant, well...). Me? I want actors to do so much more than just mimic my intent or the meaning of the play.
Some directors spend most of their rehearsals doing "acting exercises". And if the actor is able to fight the boredom, they''ll make it to Opening Night. I like exercises but believe should be done at home. Actors desperately need time to build the scenes themselves... together.
And then some directors do all their work in casting and just expect the actors to show up with their lines memorized - ready to go. This is actually almost all professional theatre... and it only works in professional theatre.
So for several years I watched all those directors apply their styles and techniques and picked three to study intently - best community-focused directors I've ever seen: Dolly Stevens, Tim Jon and Tom Sweitzer. All three start with actor respect and end with actor ownership, and I cannot see directing any other way.
Characters in A MUSICAL LITTLE WOMEN. Each actor had a personality to play out: the March sister who knows she has a prize, flanked by a scheming girl at left and a sweet, enthusiastic friend at right.
BUILDING A PLAY ONE CHARACTER AT A TIME So, about those professional actors who just show up ready? Yes. I want actors to internalize the process like professional actors do - with things they would have learned in drama school. So I'll start them off with the my Director's character concept, but then ask them to read the script and make that character their own.
I encourage full character development, even if they have no lines or are a member of the Chorus. As we go along, I'll teach Method Acting, which involves improvisation and emotional recall, and then go over how they might best learn a script: audio, visual or movement - whatever helps them get where they need to be.
And as rehearsals progress, I'll start soliciting their ideas. And if their idea serves to: 1. Further the plot, 2. Reveal more about their character, or 3. Set the audience up for a pay off (in this scene or a later one), then I’m going to try to work it in.
When actors of any age approach a play this way, they start finding relationships and possibilities that as director I might have missed. And I will always want to be open to their idea, because amazing things might come of it.
BE WILLING TO KILL YOUR FABULOUS IDEAS When I became a published author years ago, I had to defend my choices to an editor - based on the same three rules above. So what if I spent five hours crafting that paragraph, or thought I had the most clever conversation going? If it doesn’t develop a character or relationship, further the plot, or provide a payoff, I had to be willing to let it die. Note: clearly this requires the director to know the play inside and out, because if you haven't prepared yourself, you're going to get defensive. Add a really tiny ego, and you just... might... SNAP.
So in my directing world, I have to come in prepared and confident... but also realize I might not have the best ideas in the room. Yes, I know I have a creative brain, but why wouldn’t I tap into a larger creative brain if I had the chance? Actors have more time to dive into these characters. Give them the space, and they're going to find things there I didn't see. And as all the actors do the same, relationships and situations things are going to happen - good things: "If she's going to react that way because of what happened earlier, as her sister I would know that, and that completely changes the way I should react..."
The stellar cast of Run Rabbit Run Theatre's TAMING OF THE SHREW
And, as a result of all of the above, actors begin to take ownership - of their characters, a scene and the play itself. And this is where the magic begins.
So even though this will replace the absolutely brilliant idea I had as the Director, well... gulp... let's do this instead. And the audience will thank you for it... literally.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE REALLY BAD IDEAS... Okay. What if your actor comes up with an idea that just won’t work? Is truly horrible? Makes no sense to the character's history, etc.? And they present it to everyone before I've heard it.
Then I have to thank them for the idea, say No, and tell them why. Why? Because 1. I want them to know suggestions are respected and appreciated, and the next one they have may be perfect (and often are), 2. Explaining why it won't work helps everyone understand more about the character, the plot or the scene mentioned, and 3. An explanation gives everyone in the cast a chance to further understand the setting, the character or the plot of the whole thing.
Obviously at this point a couple of things are crucial: a directors needs to love their actors enough to know how to say no diplomatically or actors won't offer ideas for fear of retribution. But directors also need to avoid wanting actors to loooove them, or they'll never know how to say no to a bad idea, and the whole cast and the whole play will suffer.
But, in the end, whether a good idea or a bad one, thanks are due to actors. Because their process and commitment is how a good play becomes great.
LAY DOWN THE GROUND RULES Lest you think rehearsals should devolve into a free-for-all “sharing time,” I'll point out ideas are solicited only at certain times in the process:
1. Creative input falls mostly in the beginning of the rehearsal schedule. Group discussion is good. And this is also a great time for the Director to underscore the story arc of the play, the scenes, and the characters. 2. Then when we begin to run scenes regularly, actors are asked to hold their ideas until the next break - and then share those ideas only with the director. 3. Crucial to the entire process: actors do not get to suggest what other actors can do. Ever. They can certainly ask why another character does something, but... that's it.
Simple reason: every actor must be entirely focused on their own character/s, their actions, feelings, backgrounds, etc.. This is the process professional actors use, and I love bringing it to community theatre, because, when actors take this process on, shows get reviews worthy of professional productions (Think I'm lying? Check out Run Rabbit Run Theatre reviews).
And when an actor is completely focused on developing their character in a scene, it often leads another actor to have a revelation about their own character.
Lastly - without exception - an actor should never simply tell another actor to “do it this way" or "try it this way". That would be called directing.
Cast Bows at THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST (2013). L to R: Caroline Pennington, Maddy Vencil, Garrett Milich, Sue Derrow, Suzy Alden, Christopher Saunders, Penny Hauffe and Phil Erickson.
THE GRANDE FINALE In the end, there is solid success in the "Do what I tell you" approach to directing: learning and doing a task well gives actors a sense of accomplishment and the applause is gratifying. But in the end, those actors will make the required effort – and often little more. They don't want to rock the boat, so they won’t challenge themselves to think about their choices or the process, or engage their own creativity. And they know that the same director can do the exact same show with another group of actors the next year, and it'll look and feel almost identical - with the same applause. They never get to own the show. They just... borrow it for awhile.
But when actors have a chance to make the show their own, the audience immediately knows it. All the nuances are there: they aren't pretending to be someone, they're real - real three-dimensional characters, with relationships, tensions, actions - all real. And that's the ultimate audience reward. And that's professional acting at its best: when every actor - young and old - walks away knowing there will NEVER be another show like the one they just created.
They own it and it will always be theirs. And that's theatre magic.