Giving Notes?

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Alex Burns
New York; "Henri Gabler"

Giving notes to actors is a craft unto itself. It's about efficiency and timing. Knowing how and when to give a note is sometimes more important than the note itself. The best approach varies depending on the actor. Some actors thrive when constructively criticized, others only after they're praised, and the most challenging are those actors who need to be indirectly led to the note so that they feel like they've made a self-discovery.

In rehearsal, I find it's always better when notes remain part of a larger creative dialogue about the production, play, or character. I work to establish a relationship of trust and mutual respect between myself and the actor, which allows me to make clear, concise observations that guide the actor and provide him or her with an honest outside perspective. This makes the actor seek my feedback as opposed to me imposing upon his or her creative process. All the notes I give help to empower the actors through clarification, refocusing, or reinforcement of their work.

I do not believe in asking questions as a method of giving notes. Even the best actors are looking for a director to lead them and for answers. I enjoy giving written notes, and they're highly effective at making large philosophical shifts in a scene or in the arc of a character, but they take a great deal of time to write.

In previews and performances, I prefer doing all note sessions at the bar over a Guinness or glass of red wine.

Bart DeLorenzo
Artistic director, Evidence Room, Los Angeles; "The Receptionist," "Voice Lessons"

I try my damnedest not to give notes. I do this by working to know the play as well as possible before I cast it, so that I get that part right. That eliminates a whole mess of notes right there. I then like to go through the play pretty minutely, moment by moment, with the assembled cast, asking lots of questions, so we're all on the same page—or at least share the same mysteries.

And then I try to establish the right feeling in the rehearsal room—the right mood or right sense of humor or whatever—so that the actors are exploring, on their own personal paths, the reality of the play and are, ideally, becoming inspired by each other and by the evolving sense of the whole. (In the rehearsal room, a collective laugh or a gasp can do more than a verbal note.) And I try never to give a note that I believe an actor will better figure out on his or her own—or even better, just suddenly do, without figuring out.

When we start run-throughs—which I usually like to do a lot of, because I think they're when we all learn the most about the play—I'll talk more, sharing my impressions from my privileged position in the audience. And then I'll try to give notes only to the whole assembled group, so that we're always together, reiterating themes, drawing out connecting thoughts, defining our common task.

And then I love to let the audiences take over a bit, throwing in their second-by-second critical commentary. You can learn a lot about a play just by feeling how an audience breathes. And then my notes become a kind of filter between the actor's and the audience's experience. My mission's accomplished when the actors no longer need my notes.

Katherine Dieckmann
New York; "Motherhood," "Diggers"

I rehearse however much I can rehearse, based on the budget of the movie I'm doing. I meet with the actors and we talk about the scenes, and then when we come in on the day, I really am a strong believer in just letting the scene run and letting the actors block it. I don't usually have a predetermined idea about blocking. I let them work the scene out and figure out where they want to be and light accordingly. So I wouldn't even necessarily give notes at that stage. I really only intervene when I feel that someone's heading down a wrong path, and then it's very gently.

Good actors can take a really simple note and they know exactly what you're talking about. You don't need to oversell your idea to them. You can just say something very small and simple and they'll go, "Ah, okay," and correct. Other actors, you have to be careful, because if you give a note in a certain direction, it might make them feel insecure, and then the performance becomes like a runaway train in a different direction. I really think, for me, the main thing in directing actors is you're like a diagnostician: Every person is different, because everyone's psychology is different. Your job as a director is to know what that psychology is and respond accordingly.

Jay DiPietro
New York; "Peter and Vandy"

I come from an acting background, so I know how easy it is to screw up an actor with "notes." There is only one note that I want to be giving an actor, and that is: "That was great. Keep going." I write and prepare and cast to make sure that I'm giving that note as much as possible. When you give that note to actors, you're making the scene theirs and giving them confidence—and that makes them come alive. And an actor coming alive on camera is what it's all about.

Of course, sometimes an actor may need an adjustment, and I try to do that with actions or particularizations. I don't give line readings, but I will act out the behavior with different text. You have to be open to different actors. Some actors come alive when you break down the logic of the script. Some actors come alive from knowing backstory. Some come alive just because they know you trust them. And when an actor is in a really bad place with the material, that's the worst. You just try to simplify. As a director, you need to be on your game in those moments to get them back on their game.