Let's Talk About Directors

Alexa Juno

  • OnStage New York Columnist

adjective: collaborative
produced or conducted by two or more parties working together.
"collaborative research"

For as long as I've studied theatre, one of the main points reiterated by professors and artists alike is that theatre is a collaborative art form.

Driven by spirit of collaboration, one of the foremost principles of creating theatre is to foster a generous, respectful, and inclusive environment in which artists can safely come together to produce a cohesive vision.

The nucleus of this vision is the director. The captain of the ship. The Skipper. Head-Bitch-in-Charge. This person is called upon to build the creative framework upon which their fellow artists will create. However, the function of a director is not limited to visual and emotional aesthetics. In fact, the bulk of a director's job is to coordinate professionals across many different disciplines and to work with them in a way that is fair and thoughtful to execute an artistic objective. 

When talking to a friend this week about his current project, he had some choice words about a director he is currently working with. Through his frustration, he vented to me about being given line readings, followed by nit picky notes about the specific inflection of the line reading, compounded by relentless repetition of said line until the actors met the director's exact specifications. As if that weren't bad enough, he then regaled me with the horrors of micromanage-y "gesture blocking", the public belittling of cast members, loud complaining about having to "simplify blocking" for one actress, and an overall condescending, tyrannical approach with his actors. 

This is not the first directorial horror story I've heard and surely won't be the last. Let's face it, we've all worked with bad directors before.

My own, personal history includes one director who would meanly berate me so often that my fellow actors began to joke that, "Alexa never does anything right." His normal behavior included (but was not limited to): openly making fun of line readings and replacing them with his own, frequently lambasting the company, and ruling with an iron fist. He even once shut down an actor's query about the direction of a scene with the words, "Trust me, I'm a professional." The implication there being that the actor in question was not a professional (or as much of a professional that he seemed to think he was) and that even the slightest questioning of his vision was inappropriate. The experience was traumatic at best, and at its worst, reduced me to regular panic attacks throughout the process. 

It does not take a genius to figure out that this is a horrible way to run a show. But what shocks me most is that while this issue is so hugely prevalent,  many actors, presumably unwilling to risk job security, rarely speak up about such incidents. 

Maybe it's that the education in directing programs focuses mainly on the craft but not the community. Maybe these are not "people persons" (in which case, 'the hell are you doing in theatre?) Maybe some people become directors to satisfy some of their more Napoleonic tendencies. I don't know. The point is, this type of behavior directly contradicts everything we've been told about the nature of collaboration.

In the theatre, the first thing we strive to create in a company is a sense of trust.  We explore, we play theatre games, we bond. We take time and great care to fortify our relationships because at the end of the day, we are putting ourselves in each others hands. The director should be the nerve-center of this trust building process. 

When a director undermines his actors by doing things like giving line readings, he or she is directly subverting the trust we strive so ardently to build.  In so many words, phrases, and actions you are telling an artist that you don't respect or trust them enough to carry out their own interpretation of a character within the larger scheme of your vision. 

The best rehearsal rooms I've ever been in were the ones where exploration was encouraged and rewarded. These environments are also conducive to producing the best work possible. Directors like the ones I refer to come to the room with a fully assembled vision, having given no thought to the fact that there will be other artists present for this process. When an actor is denied even the remotest artistic autonomy,  they stop being the vibrant personalities you fell in love with in the audition room and start being chess pieces; stiff, lifeless, and shuffled around from place to place with no real intention of their own. Additionally, in denying your actors the opportunity to explore, you are also cutting yourself off from what could be invaluable contributions from the people who have done hard work to fully understand the characters they are portraying. 

And if you think this sort of behavior is only damaging to an actor's enthusiasm for the work, it can also harm them emotionally. Artists, as we know, are incredibly passionate people, and actors specifically have trained to keep their emotions accessible. The uncertainty of working on a new piece can often be an anxiety-ridden exploration.  Each actor comes with their own experiences, history, triggers, and process. It is imperative that a director be able to navigate these variables with understanding. When a director is emotionally abusive or unnecessarily brash, it can and does take its toll on the emotional and mental well being of their actors. This will not only affect the work they do for you, but can have longstanding effects on an actor's confidence long after the curtain has come down.

And so, I think it is important when choosing the path of "director" that these artists be well-versed in not just the craft of theatre, but the emotional intelligence necessary to navigate the many personalities found in a rehearsal room and the democracy of art. And if you don't want to take it from me, here's a quote from one of the most respected directors of our time, George C. Wolfe: "I love talking to actors, and I like actors...To be really honest with you, there are two schools of directing. You stand where you are and demand actors come to you, or you go to where they are and you charm, seduce, empower them to go on the journey in the direction that you think is correct."

At the end of the day, we are all people, we are all professionals, and we are all trying to do the best job possible. So, directors, get out there. Seduce, charm, empower, and most importantly, TRUST. Your company and the work will thank you. 

Photo: vt.edu