As with many of my articles… Starting off with a disclaimer. Directors are our leaders and the centerpiece of any good theatrical production. Afford them a huge amount of respect because they have to deal with everyone on the project at least a little bit. Mostly with the Actors but they have to coordinate with the designers, producers, crew and their name is just as much on the line as a performer’s when the audience shows up to judge the months of work that just happened.
When we walk into a rehearsal room the director gets a say in everything we do. It’s part of their artistic vision to see the production a certain way. So on some level every good director is going to be a little hard to cope with some of the time. And even the kindest one needs to know when to make a definitive ‘NO’ sound. After all, Theatre may be collaborative… But art is so individualistic that if we all had a say the production would be all over the place.
So with that in mind, again, how does one deal with a difficult director? Well, as stated previously they have to be hard on others sometimes. So take anything harsh that comes your way with dignity and do what you can to incorporate it. A bad director will be vague and, heaven forbid, give you line readings to get what they want but we as performers can still make it our own as much as we can. Justify their decisions as best as possible.
Also remember to take time outside of rehearsal to cool down. Sorry, but it’s going to happen that a director of any level is probably gonna upset you at some point. Whether it’s just being harsh because a scene isn’t coming together or because tech week is coming and stress levels are off the charts. Whatever the reason, remember that it’s okay to put down your work for a couple hours before coming back to it. Never let what the director says get you down. It’s being said for the benefit of the production.
Furthermore, harsh directors are usually the best at their job. They know what they want and they are not going to take the destruction of their art without a bloody fight. It takes a huge amount of moxie to argue for your decisions in front of entire casts of people or even a show’s producers (who sign the checks.) If you’re dealing with a director who is rough in rehearsal but will do anything to help the production then you’ve hit a gem. Learn from them, work with them, fight for them and their decisions because they are the paragons of our craft… even if they yell too much.
But what about a ‘bad’ director? They exist, it’s true. Well… what does a bad one do? Line readings are a prime clue – a good one will never tell you how to play the character, they’ll push you towards it. Yelling unnecessarily is another sign but can be easily managed during Lunch break or a ten by just taking a breath (you can rant when you get home). It’s probably the worst when a director won’t let the show get to its feet by nixing run-throughs or just won’t give notes for whatever reason.
I hate to tell you just to take it in stride, but honestly, that can be the best thing one can do in the rehearsal room. No one is stopping you from doing more work on it at home if it’s not happening in rehearsal… and it’s truly not worth just giving up. You have a reputation as a performer to make it as best as you can. Do as much as you can. Be graceful and polite in that room, because you may not enjoy the director but you don’t have to be their friend and if they like you then it’s more likely they’ll recommend you for future casting. At least, in that case, you have the ability to turn down an offer (again, being very polite about it!)
Theatre people are all part of a family and we need to get along for great work to ever get done. The director is the parent in this case. They have a reason for doing what they’re doing – even if it’s wrong at the moment, generally, they are trying their hardest. They’re being paid to make it a good show too, and their name is going to be on the poster too (and they’re going to be on the chopping block if the producer is unhappy.) Ultimately it is up to you as an artist to do what you can and make everything work as much as possible.
A director may be difficult to deal with – they might be bad, they might be harsh, they might be hard to understand, but they’re still the captain of the ship. If it goes down, they’re going down with it and we should attempt to respect that and work with rather than against them. Theatre folk are great at being extraordinarily kind and understanding of everyone else – so maybe afford that to the person in charge. Shows never last forever and the wounds (hopefully just mental) will heal over time.
And then you get to audition for them again the week after the show closes! Hurray for our cyclical business.
Brad Pontius is a 23 year old actor and playwright from Cincinnati, OH living in NYC. He has performed in various stage productions and has graduated from Indiana University of South Bend with a BFA in Performance. He has also trained with the New York Theatre Intensives and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Photo: University of Alabama