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The Craft

How Do You Handle It When You Disagree With Your Director?

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When an old colleague of mine, Jon Riggs, was a young actor, he was directed to start off a play by bouncing out of bed "stone-cold naked on a tiny stage," as he describes it. He wondered, "Do I really trust this director's instincts? Should I argue my way out of this?"

Conflicted, he nevertheless complied, and at a certain point he had an insight. "I'd been taught as an actor to go to dangerous places where I wasn't comfortable," Riggs says. "As soon as I realized it was my own fear that was at the crux of the issue, I decided to move through it."

Appearing nude on stage or screen is an extreme example, of course. But at any time, actors can find themselves disagreeing with the director's requirements, for any number of reasons. What do you do in such a situation?

Plan Ahead

You don't have to accept any project you're offered, points out San Francisco Bay Area actor Beth Wilmurt. She often asks directors a few questions about their viewpoint on the script before she signs on to a theater project. She wants to be sure the director sees the script basically the same way she does. "Sometimes I only see it one way, and I hope they see it that way too," she says. "But rather than hope, I have to ask."

Look Within

As Riggs discovered, if you don't like a piece of direction, you need to make sure it's not your own fears that are interfering. Los Angeles actor-director Scott Paulin remembers rehearsing John Steppling's play "The Shaper," which the playwright was also directing. Steppling said to Paulin, "Would you mind doing a little psycho dance as you cross the stage?" Paulin hesitated. "There was no indication in the script, no reason in the world to do it," he says. "I wanted to say no. I was embarrassed that I was going to do this silly thing in front of the cast."

But Paulin knew that embarrassment is the enemy of the actor. "A lot of us get into acting in general partly because we're shy and embarrassed people," he says, "and working onstage is a great way to liberate yourself from that." So he cast self-consciousness to the wings, so to speak, and plunged in, doing a strange, spastic, seizurelike dance while crossing, then resumed his normal behavior on the other side. That moment gave him his entire character. (And the play was a big success.)

Go for Broke

Paulin's example leads to the next helpful hint: Whatever the director suggests, try it fully. Director Richard Seyd recommends giving it 125 percent. "If I make a suggestion and the actor really does it fully, the chances are I will also see that it's not working," he explains. "After that, if I say it was great and the actor still feels internally that it's not right, I'm much more likely to be able to listen to their response if they've tried it fully."

Los Angeles actor Tony Amendola confesses, "I've been guilty of not trying it and arguing. It served no purpose, and occasionally you can be surprised. You can find something you hadn't considered." It's only after you've tried it fully, he notes, that you have something concrete to evaluate and discuss. New York actor Marsha Mercant agrees. "I think to be truly creative oftentimes requires the artist to step out of his or her comfort zone and see what there is to see there," she says. "There may be brilliance or there may be disaster, but you won't know until you try."

But, cautions stage and film director Amy Glazer, don't be passive-aggressive about it; truly commit. "My favorite actors aren't afraid to try it even if it's not right," she says. "They'll explain why it doesn't make sense, but then they'll try it. I prefer less talk and more exploration. Linguistics fail us often in that dynamic. It's better just to show me. I like actors who are not afraid to swing big, try something, and have it not work." She adds, "Often I'll give a direction that we're not necessarily going to end up with. It's all a part of cracking open the text."

Negotiate

"If an actor has ideas, it should be a two-way street," says Amendola. "The director should say, 'Show me.' " Glazer concurs: "When they say, 'This doesn't work for me,' oftentimes I'll go, 'You're right.' "

Seyd points out that actors should view directors as colleagues rather than as authority figures. And it's also important, he says, to realize that the director has an objectivity about the whole picture that the actor necessarily lacks. Yet the actor can have a perspective from the character's point of view that's as valuable as the director's objective perspective. So when an actor tells the director that something is not experientially authentic, it's important that the actor make it clear that this concern is coming from a personal, subjective stance. That way, says Seyd, "it will be easier for even an obstinate director to hear the feedback."

Actor and director always have the same goal, adds Wilmurt: for the moment to succeed. Sometimes it turns out that she simply didn't quite understand the direction. "I explain what I thought, and we come to a verbal agreement," she says.

Do It Your Way

An anonymous film actor on the Back Stage message board wrote about a lesson learned after following bad direction and later having viewers agree that it was indeed bad direction: "Now, if I totally disagree with something, I go in the direction the director wants a little, but I still do it mostly my way, and if the director has a problem, I claim I am doing my best. Never again will I get caught on camera acting badly." Another actor confessed to following his own instincts during the run of a show rather than the overly rigid direction, and clashing with the stage manager over that.

So try these tactics at your own peril. You certainly wouldn't want to sabotage any of your fellow actors.

Banish Your Directorial Mind

Some actors have trouble letting go of their innate directorial eye; others see things only from the perspective of their character. For an actor to have a directorial eye can sometimes be a good thing, sometimes not, says Seyd. He advises that if you're the type of actor who can't help but see the whole picture and you're arguing with the director about a choice, be sure the director understands where you're coming from at that moment: an external (directorial) perspective or an internal (character-based) perspective.

Wilmurt often has to remind herself of her role before entering a project—that she's an actor, not the director or dramaturge, and that her job "is to follow the vision of the director." Says Glazer, "Sometimes the director has to make choices that are better for the story or the payoff of the play. Good actors understand where they fit into the narrative. They trust that I'll protect them, help them find something that will keep them in the moment."

Defer to the Director

Uta Hagen writes in "A Challenge for the Actor" that the actor "should always remain flexible and look for the things that will bring his view into line with that of the director." She uses a nautical metaphor, saying that the director is the captain, and while crew members need to know about currents, weather conditions, dangers, routes, etc., they must trust the captain's decisions and assume responsibility for assigned tasks. No mutiny on this Bounty!

Finally, Wilmurt puts a different light on things when she says, "Whether I've been given direction that doesn't feel right or I'm trying to re-create something that worked last night, those two things feel identical. It's the same energy; you have to create a moment no matter what. Sometimes it feels equally hard to re-create a good moment as to make a bad moment good. The task is to make it come alive every night."

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