17 April 2013

Reflections On Directing: Actors

by Kirk Woodward

[This is part three of Kirk’s advice to new directors.  Please read parts one and two, “Helping” and “Staging,” before proceeding to “Actors.”  Then return to ROT for part four, “Tech,” on 20 April.]


If you have never directed, you may not have given much thought to the question of how a director works with actors. On the other hand, so much information is available now about what goes on in theatrical and film productions that even non-directors may be much more familiar with issues of directing than people used to be.

Many actors don’t like to waste time doing anything that’s not a play. They have a point. An actor’s job is to act. The job of an actor in a play is to act a role in the play.

Presumably you, if you’re the director, cast the actors in your production because they know how to act. The director’s job is not to teach them. (Bertolt Brecht, who had strong ideas about acting styles, apparently never mentioned those ideas at all when directing.)

Of course, maybe the actors do need teaching – that depends on your cast, and on the amount of time you have available for rehearsals. But there’s never enough time available for rehearsal. (Stanislavski is reported to have said, “No matter how long you rehearse, you always need two more weeks.”)

Spending time on anything other than the play itself is risky, and for at least some actors it will be a morale problem. As much as possible, the “extra” work you do in rehearsal should point directly to the play.

Sometimes starting rehearsals with “exercises” are worthwhile if they help the actors relax and focus.

Basically there are two enemies of good acting: tension, and focusing on the wrong thing (for example: the audience, somebody I want to impress, how loud my voice is, my collar doesn’t fit, they don’t think I’m good, I’m having a horrible time at home, etc.).

A successful actor is an actor who is relaxed and focused – relaxed physically, and focused mentally on the appropriate parts of the play. You, the director, are responsible for making those things possible, and exercises may help.

An exercise during rehearsal should be presented in as calm and businesslike a way as possible, and you should tell the cast how they’re linked to the work they’ll be doing on the play.

Relaxation exercises help with focus, and focusing exercises help with relaxation.

I sometimes use a form of meditation as a relaxation exercise. I have the actors sit comfortably in chairs, close their eyes, and focus on their breathing. Then I ask them to “take a tour of their body,” visiting it slowly, from head to toe, experiencing as they do the places where they have tension.

I warn them not to try to eliminate the tension, because really it can’t be eliminated just by wanting to. So I tell them just to note where the tension is. When they’ve finished the “tour” top to bottom, I tell them to reverse the process, from toe to head, again just noting where any tension is.

Then I ask them to return to focusing on their breathing. Maybe that’s the end of the exercise, or maybe I’ll ask them to focus on the sounds they hear . . . or the feel of the clothes they’re wearing . . . or to picture where they were at ten this morning, or what their kitchens looks like . . . .

Then I invite them slowly to open their eyes again, and quietly get them started on the rehearsal.

Focus exercises can sometimes be taken from the show itself. If there are fight or chase scenes, these can be used as opening exercises, perhaps in slow motion. Or the cast can be invited to visualize the setting of the play, not as a set, but as it would be in real life.

There are endless variations on this approach. And in a musical, of course, singing a group number or two is an excellent warmup in several senses.

It’s not possible to overstress how important relaxation and focus are for helping an actor to do a good job on stage.

One of my own frequent approaches when working with actors on a play is to tell them not to act.

But they’re supposed to be acting, aren’t they? Why tell them not to? Because, in the sense we’re discussing it here, their job is not “to act.” Their job is to live on stage under the circumstances of the play.

George Bernard Shaw put it slightly differently: he said that the actors’ job is to make the audience believe that real things are happening to real people.

The best known director I’ve heard of who understands this is Clint Eastwood. According to William Goldman in his excellent book on the movies, What Lie Did I Tell?, Eastwood is known for saying to actors something like “Just run your lines while we set the cameras up.” The actors will run their lines and, unknown to them, he’ll be filming them. When they’re through he’ll say, “Okay, next shot.” The actors haven’t strained, haven’t given phony line readings – they’ve just been behaving, and that’s what he wants.
For years now I begin the first rehearsal of a play – always a ghastly experience, with a toxic atmosphere of bravado and fear – by telling the actors, “I don’t want you to act at all today. Just read.” Not everyone agrees with this approach, but I find that for me it gives the best results.

I keep this going as long as I can, not only throughout that rehearsal, but through subsequent ones. As we block the play, I say, “Don’t act, just read it” and “Don’t act, just say it for the sense.” I never tell them to start acting. Eventually someone will ask when they can, and I say, “Never.”

But by that time they are acting. They’re just not emoting, indicating, or doing the other phony things actors do when they’re not secure in their relationships on stage. And they don’t feel they have to “perform.”

While they’re “not acting,” they’re listening, letting the play get through to them, and working out in a sometimes unnoticed way what’s going on in the play.

But, you may ask, aren’t I afraid they won’t ever reach the peak needed for performance? No, for the simple reason that actors will never let that happen. They have ferocious instincts for self-defense.

If given no direction at all, they will come up with something. If allowed to grow in the role, explore it, find the reality in it, they will take the ball and run with it.

If they’re not “acting,” what should they be doing? They should be listening.

They should be listening to what the other actors say, before they speak. (In this way they learn to really hear their cues.)

They should also be listening to what their own roles say to them, as they give the play a chance to open up to them.

This process can’t be forced. It’s a matter of patience and faith – patience with the process, faith that it’ll end up in the right place. It will.

The characterizations that develop will always be more interesting than those that actors come up with when they feel they have to think of something. They’ll almost certainly be more interesting than what you thought of, too.

I studied for years at the HB Studio with a wonderful teacher named Elizabeth Dillon. The first time I called her for a scene assignment, she said to me, “All I want you to do is four things:
  • Talk
  • Listen
  • Know what you want
  • Have some physical life.”
Talking and listening – genuinely speaking to the other actor, and really hearing what the actor is saying – are the foundation.

Out of that comes knowing what the actor, as the character, wants at a given moment. 

You, the director, supply the physical life by setting up the physical relationships in the play.

No acting. Lots of purposeful doing.

Another important technique in working with actors is to keep them from doing the same things over and over.

But isn’t repetition how actors learn their lines? No, it’s not. Actors learn their lines by understanding them, and they understand them as you, the director, help them make the connections to their characters and to the other actors, based on what’s happening in the play.

When the lines are connected to actions and the actions are connected to the whole play, lines are easy to learn. Homework can almost always take care of the rest.

Obviously the play continues to be rehearsed. But it should never be repeated. As a director you must have new goals for each rehearsal. You might tell the actors what those goals are, you might not. But you need to have them, and they need to be creative ones, goals that will stimulate the actors and help them to grow a bit in their roles.

The director should also encourage the actors to have a new individual goal every time they do a section of the play, even if it’s something as simple as just to “sit down a little differently this time.”

If theater were about repetition, robots could do it. Theater is about growth. A cast has to grow in understanding the play, in talking and listening to each other, in trying to find out and reach for what their characters want.

Whatever techniques a director uses in rehearsals, actors need to be treated with respect. Remember this exchange in The Producers:

Leo Bloom: Actors are not animals! They're human beings!
Max Bialystock: They are? Have you ever eaten with one?

Well, not only are actors human beings, but they’re the people the director’s reputation depends on. They, and the play, are the director’s materials. (And so are the technicians.)

There are times when you, as the director, have to be severe with an actor. Those times should be private, personal, out of the hearing of anyone else, and they should happen as seldom as possible. I’ve violated this rule more than once, and have regretted it every time.

Actors should not be addressed as though they’re unruly fifth-grade students. They are not. They are people risking a great deal for the success of the play – and ultimately the only standard of success for the play will be how well they succeed. Handle them with the courtesy and thoughtfulness they deserve.

Again, I’m not saying that the director should not deal with problem personalities or situations. You should – you have to. I’m saying that the attitude has to be that of a helper.

Think about this: actors spend years training themselves to make creative use of their minds, bodies, souls. Then they get cast in a play and someone called a “director” tells them everything they’re supposed to do!

Why all that training, all that work, in order to have so little of it used in a show?

And while we’re talking about respect, may I suggest that the director make a deliberate effort to show the same respect to the crew of the show – the people who do the lights, sound, costumes, set. All of them.

Don’t forget the stage manager – one of the most important people on the show, and probably the one who will get the least credit for its success.

So often in theater we see a two-class system – actors and “techies.” Down with the two-class system! There aren’t two plays going on, there’s only one.

What’s more, the technical people know at least as much in their fields as the actors know in theirs. So thank them, recognize them, know their names, embrace them. Your success depends on their success, as well as on the success of the actors.

Two stories: A friend of mine, on the national tour of a major musical, was the only one of the leads not given a body microphone, and he was straining his voice badly. The Famous Actress he worked with noticed this and told him she’d take care of it.

The next night he had a body microphone. My friend mentioned this to Famous Writer, who was along on the tour, and Famous Writer said to him, “What makes you think they’ll turn it on?”

On the other hand, I saw the singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen perform in the huge space of Madison Square Garden in New York, and the sound quality was so good that I could hear every word he sang as though he were standing next to me.

When it came time for Cohen to introduce the band, I saw one reason the sound was so good: he introduced the sound crew. He also introduced the light crew, the stage crew, the rigger . . . He treated them all as colleagues.

They are colleagues. They are our colleagues. We’re all in the same boat. Give them all a chance, and they’ll help bail.

And sometimes, the best directing technique, believe it or not, is to give the actors a day off.

Isn’t it true that there’s never enough time in rehearsals?

Yes, but here’s one of the most important things about directing: the director is responsible for the actors’ time. It’s up to you to be sensitive to how things are going.

Actors, the actors’ union, keeps a close eye on rehearsal hours in professional productions. If yours is a non-Equity production, you are the one who will have to make sure the actors’ time isn’t wasted sitting around, having to be at rehearsals for no useful purpose, or having too many, or poorly planned, rehearsals.

Incidentally, how does one know if rehearsals are accomplishing their goals? Believe it or not, a rough rule of thumb is that if after a rehearsal you feel good about it, it was probably a good rehearsal. If you don’t, something’s probably wrong.

I know that sounds simplistic, but it’s usually true. You may consciously feel that you have achieved all your goals for the rehearsal, made all your points, moved things ahead, but if you aren’t really happy about it, there’s probably a problem somewhere.

It may be an important problem, like a misinterpreted scene. It may be something as simple as hunger, boredom, or too many rehearsals in too short a time.

And if rehearsals are dull, if they seem like a duty, if you’re yawning over your script, then consider giving everybody a day off.

Tell the cast to use it to go over their lines, to see a movie, to play with the kids. Tell them you’re so confident about them that you feel great about giving them this little surprise.

And sometimes there’s no guessing about it – you know perfectly well that you’re banging your head against a wall. The show, or a scene in it, isn’t getting anywhere. Everyone is frustrated. What not to do is to say, “We’re going over this until we get it right!” They won’t.

Bernard Shaw, who directed his own plays and who knew acting inside out, describes this situation and says, in a statement I’ve never forgotten (and don’t know where to find), that when he finds this is happening, “I suggest golf and a holiday.”

They call it a “play” for a reason. When it’s no longer play, tell them to go out and play.

And if you’ve just plain scheduled too many rehearsals – which can happen, depending on the skill level of the actors and the quality of the play – then cancel one or two. You are responsible for not wasting their time. If you don’t need a rehearsal, don’t hold it.

Looking at the advice in this piece, I see that so much of it involves simple consideration of other people. In that sense, I suppose, working with actors is like anything else!

[The last installment of Kirk’s “Reflections On Directing,” “Tech,” is coming up on 20 April.  I hope you’ll come back then and read the conclusion of his advice for beginning directors.  I know you’ll find it worthwhile and valuable.]




  1. On 6 October 2016, Kirk e-mailed me about some observations he'd made while directing rehearsals for Neil Simon's 'The Odd Couple.' His remarks were so apt that I suggested adding them here as a Comment following the part of Kirk's series on "Reflections on Directing" that concerns actors, and he agreed. The best way to pass on Kirk's thoughts, I decided, is simply to post his e-mail:

    "We had a good 'Odd Couple' rehearsal last night. I hope the trajectory continues. I am more convinced than ever of the utility of two directorial procedures:

    "1. When something new is introduced -- I'm thinking of 'lines due,' for example -- don't do anything else, just let the actors get through it. Give only the minimum necessary notes, let them concentrate on that task. The rest of the work will fall back a bit that rehearsal anyway. Just let it happen. ... I'm pretty sure I got that from Lee [Kahn, our college theater teacher and director].

    "2. Give actors objectives for each rehearsal -- and what they're not, as well. Last night I told them, 'We're working on two things -- being aware that the important words are often at the ends of sentences, and any suggestions I give you about lines.'

    "It seems to me that actors get a sense of security from those two things -- in particular, from not being asked to do things they can't do. Martha [an actress friend of Kirk's] had a rehearsal for a different show last night where lines were due, and the director nevertheless kept directing. The basic result was confusion."


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    1. Mr. Rafay--

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  3. Thank you very much, Muhammad. Best wishes, Kirk