Learn About Acting as a Director?

Douglas Clayton
Los Angeles; Colony Theatre reading series, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Mating Dance of the Werewolf

Before I began to focus on directing, all my background and training was in acting, including undergraduate and graduate classes. Perhaps surprisingly, my acting has improved more in my years as a director than it did in my years of training as an actor. As an actor, even with Meisner and improv-based training, I think my focus still remained on myself and what I was doing. This is a natural attitude to have as an actor, because in a production your authority ends with your own actions. Being too concerned or judgmental about the choices of the director or the other actors can be a recipe for unhappiness, frustration, and misbehavior.

Once I began directing, though, I became more fully cognizant that what is truly engaging is not the behavior of actors in isolation but the energy that exists between actors, or between an actor and the audience or the camera. When we watch two skilled actors working together but not trying to affect one another with their actions, the action is disengaging and reduced to artful pantomime rather than drama. It's when actors are really fighting for something they care about, and honestly trying to affect each other with their actions, that we lean forward in our seats and pay attention to what we're watching.

Somehow, before I saw this repeatedly as a director, I was able to fool myself in my acting that I was truly "engaged" or "living in the moment," when in fact my interest stopped two inches in front of my nose. With an outside perspective, I now see how much more dynamic a scene is, and how much more comfortable the actors are, when they get their energy off of themselves and try to elicit a specific, practical response from whomever they're talking to. It's thrilling.

Alex Kilgore
Artistic director of StageFarm, New York; the Vengeance series, Drug Buddy

I came from the acting side, so sometimes I feel like I know less about it now than I did before I started directing. I haven't acted in a play in four years. I think that unless you understand the mechanics of action and what's actable, and what will be of use to actors, you can't help them.

I had a thought recently: I was like, "Man, I need to act in a play again," because sometimes you lose touch with what that is, what that's like, and what's helpful to actors—what information can help them and what's a total waste of breath. I directed David Wilson Barnes in a series of plays we did at stageFarm called Vengeance. He had to leave for a week and we were going to replace him, and I thought, "I can just do it," because it was the easiest solution. So I did it, and it was scary and fun and humbling, but it was a great experience to try to put my money where my mouth was: to see if what I'd been giving David was of any use. It showed me the leaks in my direction. Once you get a little bit of distance from acting, it gets a little scarier to go back to.

Matthew Newton
Sydney, Australia; Three Blind Mice, Right Here Right Now

Simplicity and purity is something I really appreciate in actors now. I'm an actor as well. You want everyone to treat the film like they're the main character. You don't want anyone to walk in and be playing a type, because there are no types in life. The bus driver has a story. Even if he has only two lines in the film, that man has a story, and when you get on a bus, the real bus driver might be grumpy that day, he might have had a fantastic night, he might have met the girl of his dreams the night before—but he's alive. He's alive and his life goes on when you get off the bus. I think it's important that everyone plays from their own point of view.

I also think it's important that actors have a say, that they come and they defend their position and we don't homogenize the project by going, "Oh, okay, you're going to play that funny? Well, I'll play it straight." Because we don't do that in life. We do it subconsciously, I think. If we're at a dinner party and someone's being really, really loud, we might say, "Well, I'll be quiet." But it's never in the context of going, "Because this is going to make the dinner party more interesting." It's just your personal reaction. That's the most important thing I strove for in Three Blind Mice: to make sure that every character had a point of view and every character was alive. Actors give fantastic performances when they're given the freedom to be, as opposed to feeling like they're serving some kind of plot. Let the actors feel like they're free.

Burr Steers
Los Angeles; 17 Again, Big Love

I had heard it before, but I didn't realize how important being relaxed in front of the camera was. It changes everything. When you have that confidence in your ability, that confidence will be there when the camera starts. It's a terrifying thing to give up the line reading you've been practicing and be there in the moment, reacting off the other person. I try to keep as casual an atmosphere as possible, and I'm not in any way authoritarian. It's a collaboration and I'm there to work with them.

Reported by Sarah Kuhn; additional reporting by Jenelle Riley