Here’s What Directing + Acting Have in Common

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As an actor, you may think there is a stark divide between what it is you do and what it is your director does. The truth, however, is that the two disciplines have much in common, and the better an actor understands that, the better their performances will be.

There is definite acting-directing overlap.
“While the idea of directing was always intriguing to me, I never thought it would be something I'd be able to do. It seemed like this overwhelming job that I'd only seen executed by people I considered to be creative geniuses. But not unlike acting, the key was just to jump in and do it, and fortunately I was gifted with that opportunity when my friend Bryan Enk offered me the director's chair for an episode of the serial ‘Penny Dreadful,’ which was being produced at the Brick Theater.

“Once I actually started thinking about things from a director's point of view, I realized that I did have some strong ideas, and that expressing them to actors and realizing them on stage was not some arcane art but rather a matter of clear and open communication, organized thinking, and an ability to stand firmly behind the concepts you have in your head and find a way to hold on to their core in an environment that is constantly shifting.” —Adam Swiderski, actor-turned television, film, and theater director

A good director welcomes actor contribution.
“[As the director], you feel you know everything about this character. You’ve probably written the screenplay and lived in her skin for several drafts. But you’ve got to be ready for an actor to come in and blow you away by bringing something to the role that you’d never even imagined. I worked with a director who said to an actor, ‘Tell me something I don’t know about this character.’ Don’t overdirect the scene so that the actor is boxed into a corner. Let them show us what they brought. Be ready for the ‘happy accidents.’ ”—Marci Liroff, producer, casting director, acting coach, and Backstage Expert

Actors should be collaborative while not working, too.
“You need to be collaborative. While it’s true that understanding what the show most needs from your portrayal is being collaborative, it also, crucially, includes your off-camera behavior as well. Are you trustworthy, generous, and overall upbeat? Would you want to work with you in stressful situations? Basic, political life skills should be consistently put into practice. Make people feel important. Overlook perceived injuries. Hide your fear and irritation, but share your joy and courage. Additionally, not only should you not undermine a project by causing trouble, you don’t even want to be around trouble. If someone is complaining, physically get away from them. If there’s a problem of any kind and you can avoid being associated with the bad luck of that thing having happened, don’t bring it up.” —Joanne Baron, actor, producer, and Backstage Expert, and D.W. Brown, acting teacher, actor, writer, director, and Backstage Expert

Actors shouldn’t step on directors’ toes, though.
“I want student actors to understand it’s not their responsibility to give other actors notes.... I, as a director, say I’m open to us building this piece collaboratively, so if you have an idea come and see me. Don’t go to another actor and tell them to do something a certain way. It’s important to me that actors learn it’s not about being dictatorial, it’s about [the director] being the clearinghouse of info to the actors. Actors shouldn’t be getting conflicting information.” —Dr. Christina Marín, program director of theater and film, Phoenix College

Film history is a tenet of both acting and directing.
“I’ve worked with several directors who are very visually creative and are driven by their ‘right brain’ and can’t actually tell you what they need from you. Many of them resort to using film references. If a director told you that he needs the enthusiasm and guilelessness of Warren Beatty in ‘Heaven Can Wait,’ would you know what he means? When a director and DP talk about the opening tracking shot from ‘Goodfellas,’ will you know what they mean and how to sustain your performance throughout?

“I’ve witnessed actors in meetings with directors (and at my dinner parties) who have simply wowed a director with their endless knowledge of film history. A vast knowledge of actors’ performances along with classic shots shows a filmmaker that you have been paying attention and aren’t just interested in yourself, but are drawing from the past to make inspired choices. When actor Dennis Christopher met with director Quentin Tarantino for ‘Django Unchained,’ they talked about film for hours.” —Marci Liroff

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