20 April 2013

Reflections On Directing: Tech

by Kirk Woodward

[This is the final section of Kirk’s “Reflections On Directing,” “Tech.”  I trust readers have found the advice useful and edifying, and if you have, please pass the post along to anyone who’s just starting out as a director or who’s curious about how the job works within a production.]


In this series of articles on directing, we’ve been looking at the various issues a director faces while staging a play. This particular article focuses on some very particular directing techniques. It may not have general interest. On the other hand, it may be interesting to non-directors as an illustration of what can be involved in directing.

Know when the actors should move

Suppose that, for some or for all of the play, you as the director are going to stage it in the traditional way – by working out your blocking in advance and giving it to the actors in “blocking rehearsals.”

So you cut out your little pieces of paper with the characters’ names on them, you tape them on coins or chess pieces or whatever you use, and you set them on a diagram of the stage. You’re ready to figure out the actors’ movements.

When should they move?

Directing books tend to give answers that amount to, “The actors should move when their characters are motivated to move.” This answer never satisfied me. I was sure there was some more fundamental principle behind the question of actor movement, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I found the answer in a book called Thinking Like a Director by Michael Bloom. I have met Mr. Bloom once, and if I ever meet him again I will have a lot to thank him for, because he gives exactly the right answer. Here it is:

Regardless of a play’s style, one way to ensure that the staging reinforces the action (unless there is a special reason to contradict it) is to punctuate each new beat with business, activity, or movement. (p 143)

Thank you, sir. I am forever grateful.

You probably know, or if not you should, that in standard American practice, the director (and the actor) divides a play into “beats,” small sections, usually a few lines long.

The word “beat” is said to have come from the wave of Russian directors in the early Twentieth Century, who were saying the word “bit” in heavily accented English.

Whether that’s so or not, the idea is to divide the play into small sections (bits, now “beats”) that begin and end when a change occurs in the flow of the play – an entrance or an exit, a new thought, a new topic, a new strategy on the part of one of the characters . . . anything that changes the way the play is going.

The director or actor draws a horizontal line across the page where one of these changes takes place, and another horizontal line at the next change. The section of the play between those two lines is a beat.

Unless there is some reason not to, make some business or movement happen when the beat changes.

There is no science to this; it’s an art, and depends on your taste and judgment. People may argue about where a beat begins or ends. It doesn’t matter; you’re the director, and the definition of beats only needs to be useful to you.

As for the choice of activities, the decision on what happens at those places, those like every other decision are a matter of your talent and ability. No need to second-guess yourself – make the best decisions you can, and see how they work out when actors put them on their feet.


Paraphrase is having the actors say their lines using their own words, rather than the words in the script, as part of the rehearsal process. This may not sound like a sensible approach. We want the actors to learn their lines correctly, don’t we? How does it help to encourage them to use their own words? Aren’t they doing that enough anyway?

Maybe so. You want to use this tool carefully. But used in the right way, it can be useful.

I always, without exception, use paraphrase early in rehearsals when doing a play by Shakespeare. In order to paraphrase Shakespeare, you have to know what he’s saying. This may sound obvious, but I’ve seen plenty of Shakespeare spoken where the actors literally had no idea what many of the words meant.

Paraphrase is also useful when a scene is jammed, when it just won’t work no matter what. The problem is that the farther along the play is in the rehearsal period, the more difficult it is for the actors to get away from the words they’ve already learned.

If the actors are too wedded to their lines to paraphrase effectively, you may want to design a slightly different scene that works the same way as the scene in the play – a similar situation, but not the identical one. In other words, actually, an improvisation.


Improvisation – basically, making up scenes from scratch – has become associated with comedy. As a result, many actors see it as an instruction, or an invitation, to show off. And there’s a related problem –

Many actors hate improvisation, especially during rehearsals.

For these reasons, directors have to be extremely careful about how they use improvisation.

Years ago, in a production of Promises, Promises, Dan Brambilla, a fine director, used improvisation with as much caution as I can imagine anyone using.

He explained to the cast his trepidation about the technique; he dimmed the lights so they were almost out; he had the two actors involved (I was one) sit and just talk to each other; and he defined the situations of the improvisations so closely that they were extraordinarily easy to accomplish. I remember that he had us talk quietly about our hopes (as characters) for the future.

There was something funny about how protective Dan was toward his actors (and he knew it), but he was right. He set limited goals for the improvisations, based on specific needs he saw in the play. He made them easy for the actors to achieve, and he limited the improvisation to those results.

In summary, don’t use improvisation unless you need it; if you do need it, think hard about the best way to do it.

A useful technique for starting an improvisation with beginning actors (borrowed from creative dramatics) is to have the actors arrange themselves in a “still picture” of the opening moment of the scene. They arrange themselves as though they were a photograph of that moment

The director says, “Ready, FREEZE” and the actors are motionless. Then the director tells the actors, “When I give the signal, continue the scene until I stop.” The signal can be clapping, rapping a pencil on a chair . . . some easy to hear sound.

This and similar techniques are probably unnecessary with more practiced performers.

However, just because they’re more practiced, they may not want to do improvisations at all. A director should use improvisation only when it’ll help.

“Crazy” rehearsals

Basically, at a certain point in rehearsals the director may feel that the work isn’t advancing. The actors are feeling stale, they’re bored, they’re not listening to each other. It’s time, maybe, for a crazy rehearsal.

There are many kinds of crazy rehearsal, and you want to pick the kind (or kinds) that will get the results you want. Some are specifically aimed at increasing the actors’ understanding of the relationships in the scene.

Some are designed to help the actors physicalize what’s happening in the play. Some are just, well, crazy, and, one hopes, fun.

Use the lines from the play, but there’s no need to use one of these crazy rehearsal ideas for a whole rehearsal. You can apply them to a scene or even a beat.

So, short or long, here are some ideas, and there are plenty of others.

Have the actors:
  • Touch the person they’re talking to, in a way appropriate to the line, at least one touch for each line.
  • Verbalize what they as the character want, just before they say each line of the play.
  • Sing the lines.
  • Do the lines very slow, as though in a film that’s been slowed down.
  • Do the lines very fast, as though in an old comic film.
  • Do the scene in mime, imagining that the entire audience is hearing-impaired
  • Whisper the lines, or speak them as though afraid of being overheard.
  • Do the lines at the farthest possible physical distance from each other.
  • Do a scene to music you play to create a mood
  • Reverse the characters – playing each other’s roles
  • Do the lines in different general styles – melodrama, farce, etc.
  • Breathe – inhale and exhale – before each line.
  • Do the lines sitting back to back.
  • Do the lines as different kinds of animals.
  • Narrate what they’re going to do, just before they do it – for example, “Now I’m going to scare the life out of you!”
  • Do the scene in the dark.
These are enough suggestions to give the idea. Different approaches give different results. Keep the mood light – let the exercises feel ridiculous – but also encourage the actors to keep in their performances anything they find that’s useful.

When used at the right time, crazy rehearsal ideas can lead to increased physicality, more solid interrelationships, and new understanding of the scenes. They can also reduce tension and help remind the actors that a play is play.

Alert the actors

Alert them of what?

There are certain things a director knows, that actors may forget. For example:
  • Alert them when a rehearsal is going to be bad.
How can you know that in advance? Very simply, every time something new is added to a show, it will fall back at least a few steps, for at least one rehearsal.

The first time memorized lines are due, the first time with lights, the first time with costumes, the first time with an audience . . . every one of those “firsts” will send shocks into the subconscious of the actors, alarming them and throwing them off their game. Anything new will.

  • Alert them in advance. Tell them that you don’t expect full-out acting at this particular rehearsal – that you just want them to adjust to the new circumstance, whatever it is. (If you give them this permission, the right not to act 100%, they will in fact perform better than they would otherwise, since they know they won’t be judged.)

If the play is a comedy, alert them, unless they’re very experienced, about the way to handle laughs – waiting until the laughs have crested and are just starting to die, then coming in with the next line.

This advice becomes second nature (as much as anything about comedy ever can) to actors who’ve worked with it a while. If they haven’t, they need the advice or they’ll start their lines that follow laughs either too late or too early, leading to the laughs stopping altogether.

Alert actors in a comedy, if necessary, that laughs will seldom come in the exact same place or at the same strength in two different performances. The cast must not count on the identical reaction each performance, because that won’t happen. 

  • Alert them also that an audience that laughs loudly may actually dislike the show, but that a silent audience may think it’s wonderful. The cast’s job isn’t to guess “how it’s going,” but to do the play they’ve rehearsed.
  • Alert a cast that complains about a particular audience that the audience paid its money and doesn’t owe the cast anything. We’re entertaining them; they have no obligation to entertain us.
  • Alert your actors that they ought to read their scripts once every day, as long as they’re part of the play! Yes, every single day, even after they have their lines down cold.
If you play piano, you may know what it’s like to return to a piece you’ve memorized and try to sight-read it. It looks very different than you remembered. Actors should continually reconnect with what the playwright wrote, not just with what’s in their heads. They’ll also find that their accuracy with the lines vastly improves.

  • And alert the actors not to let their own assessments of their performances guide them.
Actors can be the worst judges of their own work. When they think they're awful, it may turn out that from out front, they've been wonderful; when they think they've been brilliant, they may not have been. Especially while the actors are performing, their perception may be skewed. Alert them to let the director decide what’s working and what needs notes.

If a director’s job is to be a helper – and it is – then helping the actors by reminding them now and then of the results of experience is a valuable thing to do.

[In the longer version of “Reflections On Directing" he called The Director’s Book of Weird Ideas,” Kirk included a list of “highly recommended books on or related to directing:”  I’m appending these references here, with Kirk’s annotations on the books’ usefulness and benefits; I may also add one or two titles of my own. 

·   Bloom, Michael. Thinking Like a Director. Faber and Faber, Inc., New York. 2001. Calm, practical. A book that lives up to its title. Any director will find many useful things in it; the beginning director will find both knowledge and reassurance.
·   Brecht, Bertolt. Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic. John Willett, editor. Hill and Wang, New York, 1977. Heady stuff for a director. Brecht’s ideas on theater, like Brecht himself, are slippery, contentious, sometimes devious, and hard to pin down, but the director who spends some time with them will at a minimum feel a new sense of purpose, even if it’s not necessarily the purpose Brecht has in mind.
·   Brook, Peter. The Empty Space: A Book About the Theater: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate. Touchstone, 1995. A book that has opened doors for many directors since it was first published in 1968. Brook’s vision of theater goes back to the basics, tearing down many obstacles in the process, and starts to build it back up again – as he has also done in his productions.
·   Clurman, Harold. On Directing. Touchstone, 1997. Harold Clurman was a charming and fascinating person and his book is charming and fascinating, but it’s also practical, an exposition of the best of standard American directing practice.
·   Grotowski, Jerzy and Barba, Eugenio  (ed.). Towards a Poor Theatre. Theatre Arts, 2002. Like Peter Brook’s book, this collection was first published in 1968, and like Brook’s book, it led directors across the world to rethink their principles and the ways they were working. It still can.
·   Shaw, George Bernard. Shaw on Theatre. E.J. West, editor. Hill and Wang, New York, 1967. This collection would be invaluable if it only included “The Art of Rehearsal,” a letter Shaw wrote to a friend who asked him how to direct a play. Shaw told him, giving advice that may sound old-style but is smart and tough. Shaw knew theater inside and out, and everything he writes about it is worthwhile.
·   Spolin, Viola. Improvisation for the Theater. Northwestern University Press, 1999. For many the Holy Grail of books about theater improvisation, and a source of exercise after exercise designed to build the participants’ skills and their ability to perform. Spolin also provides solid instructions on how these exercises are to be coached and led.
·   Way, Brian. Development Through Drama. Humanity Books, 1967. For me, an eye-opener to the potential of creative dramatics, both as an activity in itself and as an asset to theater. Brian Way was both a theater worker and an educator, and this brilliant book is a bridge between the two.

[Kirk added that there are numerous textbooks on directing on the market. “Rather than survey the field,” he wrote, “here are two that I’ve found to be solid and useful”: 
  • Hodge, Francis. Play Directing: Analysis, Communication, and Style. Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1971.
  • Vaughn, Stuart. Directing Plays: A Working Professional’s Method. Longman Publishing Group, White Plains, N.Y. 1993.]
[I can’t improve on Kirk’s selection of titles for this list, except to tout a book by a friend that I think is very interesting: Kazimierz Braun, Theater Directing: Art, Ethics, Creativity (Edwin Mellen, 2000), but I’ll reinforce some of his choices.  The single most useful book on directing I’ve ever read is Clurman’s On Directing.  If any book gives a clear and practical explanation of what a director does, that’s it.  Grotowski’s and Brecht’s theories (I might add Vsevolod Meyerhold’s Meyerhold on Theatre to this short list, but that is getting out to the fringes a bit) are provocative and imagination-prodding, as is Brook’s Empty Space, which startled me when I first read it because it seemed so obviously true  and yet so unexposed.  Spolin’s theater games and exercises are classics and deserve to be because they capture the very essence of theater as play.

[In that longer version, Kirk recommends that directors take an acting class “to know as much about how [actors] function as you can.”  In that spirit, I strongly recommend that incipient directors (as well as experienced ones and all other theater artists) read Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).  It’s the single best book on acting that I’ve read (though there are lots of others by renowned actors and acting teachers, and sampling some by Stella Adler, Sonia Moore, Robert Lewis, or Michael Chekhov—many of whom were also directors themselves—can’t but help directors understand actors and acting better).  I have two copies of Respect because my first one got so thumb-smudged, annotated, and high-lighted I couldn’t lend it out anymore.  (I also have two copies of On Directing because my original one, with all its marginal notes and comments, had been used so hard, it finally fell apart.)

[It should go without saying, but probably won’t, that no theater artist should get far into the profession without a familiarity with the ideas if Konstantin Stanislavsky, the father of modern western acting.  I’d start with his autobiography, My Life in Art (Routledge, 2008), and then delve into his so-called ABC’s: An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role (all Theatre Arts Books, 1989).  (Jean Benedetti has published newer translations than these original classic editions by Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood; the first two original volumes are combined into An Actor's Work, Routledge, 2008, and the third is retitled An Actor's Work on a Role, Routledge, 2009.  I’m familiar with the criticisms of Reynolds’s  mid-century renditions, but I don’t know the Benedetti versions; Benedetti is, however, a much-published authority on Stanislavsky and I have read others of his books and translations.)]

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