The Director-Actor Dance

Imagine, no more ‘directing’ and no more ‘acting!’

With Mark W. Travis

As far as relationships go I propose the one between actors and directors is one of the most challenging. It is extremely demanding and often misunderstood. Just think about it. A director gets a script that is full of complex characters and the director needs actors to portray those characters. No problem. There are thousands of available actors from which the director can choose. But … once the selection has been made the trouble begins. It’s like dancing a waltz and both you and your partner are trying to lead. Or, perhaps a more accurate metaphor: you think it’s a waltz and your partner is convinced it’s a tango. (And we won’t talk about what music the writer or the producer thinks the band is playing!)

Actors expect most directors to be ‘result’ directors. Not that that is what they want, but it is what they expect. They anticipate the director to communicate only how he/she wants the scene to be played as if actors can flip switches and push buttons until the prescribed performance comes out. The reason most actors expect result directing is because most directors are result directors. Hey, it’s the easiest way to direct. It’s like going to MacDonald’s: You tell you what you want and they put it in the bag.

The actor/director relationship is a ‘dysfunctional marriage’ (and curiously co-dependent) from the start. Not because of any malicious intent but rather because the two species have never really learned how to communicate effectively with each other. Take a look through all the literature on acting and directing, search through all the finest acting and directing schools and see how little is written or taught regarding the communication between actors and directors. Regardless, it’s very clear that all actors and directors have the best of intentions of making this relationship work. I have not met a director who did not have a clear idea of what he/she wanted. And every actor I have worked with has an intuitive instinct for their character and how a scene can be played. Why then does this relationship so often begin to fall apart when they begin talking to each other? What’s missing?

The missing element is the understanding that if this process is going to work there must be collaboration. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “We collaborate. We work together. We talk to each other.” And you’re right, of course you do. But are you clear on what the job is and what each of your bring to the table?

Way too many directors think that it is the director’s job to tell the actors what they want and too many actors believe that their job is to give the director the performance that is requested. With this co-dependent formula the final product is destined to be limited to the imagination of the director and most of the potential creative input from the actor will never be exposed.

In this challenging relationship there is a third entity – the product of this union, the child if you will – the character. In fact the primary reason for this ‘marriage’ is to create the offspring. Can you imagine raising a child when you and your partner have two totally different ideas of how to nurture it? One of you (the actor) wants to infuse the child with certain emotions, habits, attitudes, fears and dreams. And the other (the director) has very clear ideas how that child should behave under certain and specific conditions. But who is there to advocate for the child? Is anyone even listening to the child? Is anyone truly interested in what the child might want, what the child might need?

The essential job of the actor and director relationship is to create a character of such depth and authenticity that it can be ‘released’ into any scene without prerequisites of ‘acting’ or ‘performance’. What the director or the actor believes the character wants or needs pales by comparison to what the character truly wants or needs. How we imagine the character would behave under certain circumstances may have little to do with the character’s own intuition and instincts. Create the character and then let the character breathe.

Here’s a thought. What would happen if directors stopped ‘directing actors’? By this I mean, what if directors abandoned the idea of demanding a certain performance, or controlling the behavior of the actor/character? What if the director actually allowed the actors, as the characters, to find their way through each scene?

And, what would happen if actors stopped ‘acting’? What if they gave up the practice of shaping, defining and controlling the behavior of their characters? What if they just allowed their characters to exist authentically and purely? What if they let their character carve his/her own way through each scene, through each moment of the character’s life?
Imagine, no more ‘directing’ and no more ‘acting!’
Imagine a world of storytelling where each character was free from the constrictions and restrictions of actors and directors.
Imagine the actor/director relationship that has evolved into a creative relationship full of wonder, joy, creativity and parental pride.
It is possible. All it takes is the willingness to explore new ways of working together. All it takes is the courage to relinquish those old traditional controls and roles and immerse yourself in a world of exploration and discovery.

Mark W. Travis
Sunland, California



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