The Battle Against Fear

“I need you to look out for me.”

With Mark W. Travis

I’m looking into the eyes of a very talented, very famous, very angry actress. I am her director and we are at a crossroad. It’s only a few days until the opening of the play that we’ve been rehearsing for weeks and my Emmy-winning actress is having a meltdown. She’s looking to me to make everything right. The problem is, I’m not sure what’s wrong. Of course we’ve had our differences during the rehearsal process, that’s normal. But at this moment the only thing I see panic is in her eyes, I see rebellion, I see fear.

The working relationship between actors and directors is challenging at best and is frequently fraught with misunderstandings, suspicions, resentments, distrust and even hidden accusations. One of the biggest challenges for any director is to see beyond what is on the surface, to see what is really going on inside this complex human being called an actor. This is difficult enough under most conditions but when the clock is ticking, the sun is going down, opening night is around the corner, or the producer is breathing down your neck, this is almost impossible. So sometimes all you can do is gird your loins, take a big breath and plunge ahead praying that you will magically discover the problem, or the storm will pass and sunlight will cut through the thunderclouds.

Working with actors. You’ve gotta love it no matter how much you might hate it.

Working with Actors – a series of blogs

I am going to post a series of blogs that will explore what we as directors and actors need to know about each other and about ourselves so that we can begin to better understand and appreciate the complexities of this delicate relationship. I invite you to join me.

I look into my actress’ eyes and all I can see is panic, rebellion and fear.

Fear is a powerful obstacle in any relationship. It can cripple the best of us. Every actor is afraid, whether they’ll admit it or not. So is every director. The problem is, we are all pretty good at hiding it.

Actors have a wide range of fears: fear of disappointing the director, the producers, or the writer. Fear of doing a bad job. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of not being up to the task. Fear of the other actors and most importantly – fear of themselves. Actors are often their own worst critic. Directors are no better. We suffer the same fears, apprehensions, and moments of anxiety and panic.

But when these fears and doubts enter the actor/director relationship they can quickly erode whatever confidence or trust has been established and leave the artists grasping for safety lines and rushing to their comfort zones.

As I am looking into the eyes of my very rebellious and very determined star I can see her fear. I can almost smell the panic and I can sense that she is looking for a great place to deposit all the blame in the event her creative world begins to implode. And that place would be me.

My first instinct is to, once again, explain or clarify why her performance is fine, why the creative choices we’ve made will work, or something complimentary and empowering such as how she is inspiring and challenging all the other actors and actually helping elevate the play way above my own expectations. This all sounds good but in that moment I know it won’t work. Because that is not the problem. In fact, talking about her performance may only serve to exacerbate the problem, fuel the fear. Addressing her fear directly could be the worst idea.

I take a deep breath, look into her eyes again and say, “When I was a little boy I was bullied by the other boys and teased by the girls. I was miserable. I truly thought that nobody liked me. Finally I got the courage to tell my Mom. And do you know what she said?”

I wait a moment and I can see my actress waiting. She’s probably wondering why I’m telling this story or where I am going. Truth is, I have no idea. I press on.

“She said, ‘Mark, the reason the boys bully you is because they are jealous. They know they are not as good as you. And the reason the girls tease you is because they like you but don’t know how to say it. All you have to do is walk away knowing you are admired and loved.”

Now my actress is motionless. I wait, unsure of will happen next. After a moment she looks back at me, rests her hand on my arm and simply says, “You had a great mom. That’s the kind of mom I wanted to be.” Her eyes have softened, the rebellion has slipped away. And as she leaves she says, “Thank you.”

In that moment I wasn’t totally sure what I had done. Something told me to tell her a story. Something told me to tell her a story about my mom and me. Something told me that my actress was as afraid as I was when I was bullied in school. I was operating on pure instinct, and somehow it worked. By the way, she gave an award-winning performance every night of the run and at the several awards ceremonies she graciously thanked me for helping her navigate one of the most difficult roles in her career.

Working with actors is arguably the most difficult, challenging and important aspect of the director’s job. I am calling this series of blogs “Working with Actors” for an important reason. Here’s another title I could have used: “Directing Actors.” Do you see the difference? Take another look: Directing Actors vs. Working with Actors. The first is a dictatorial relationship: Directing Actors. The second is a collaboration: Working with Actors.

Unfortunately most directors are trained and encouraged to believe that their job is to direct the actors. By ‘direct’ I mean, to tell them what to do, tell them how to perform, tell them how to behave.

Concurrently most actors are trained or believe it is their job to act. And by ‘act’ I mean, to pretend to be the character, pretend to be experiencing certain emotions, desires or fears.

When directors ‘direct’ and actors ‘act’ then we get performances, not authentic behavior. Performances which have been requested by the director. Makes me think of trained animals at the circus.

The actor’s real task is to become the character, and the director’s real task is to create an environment, an energy, an exchange between artists that will stimulate the character to emerge authentically. It takes specific detailed and conscientious collaborative work from both sides.

We will continue this discussion in the next blog.

I look forward to hearing from you. I look forward to your comments, ideas, input, questions and challenges.


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