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The Blue Collar Director's Notebook

by Mike Polo

Blue-collar director. Calls up mind pictures of a longshoreman in a director's chair, doesn't it? Some guy with a fat cigar stub stuck in his face and dirty fingernails leering at actresses while maintaining a running commentary on the quality and timber of his flatulence. Not quite.

So, what is a blue-collar director?

I have no formal training, never worked anywhere except in community theater, never studied acting or directing. I am a blue-collar director.

Is this a philosophy?

Not on your life… Think of it as a notebook with a couple of good ideas for dealing with people.

Will this make me a better director?

Won't hurt.

Okay, so what's it all about?

It's about working with people. Take your ordinary community theater production. You generally have a mix of experienced and inexperienced actors, a tech crew in the same boat, and only a few weeks to put together a quality show.

bullet It's about trust

Theater is about trust. When an actor steps on the stage for a performance, he is laying his ego on the line. He is exposed to the audience. If he screws up, they will know and he will be embarrassed. He has to trust the other actors, the crew and the director. Especially the director.

He has to believe that the director isn't going to make him or let him look bad. After all, the director is looking at the show from the audience's perspective. You, as the director, have to earn that trust.

bullet Yes, no, ask me tomorrow night -
Answering Questions

I've worked with a lot of directors and gotten a lot of different answers - most of them unusable. As an actor, I hate that… as a director, I won't do it. There are two basic kinds of questions in theater - one is interpretive, the other simple (by simple, I mean a yes/no answer is needed). A director who can't answer or discuss interpretive questions should turn the show over to the A.D. and go home. It's the simple questions that get directors in trouble.

I can't count the number of times I've asked a simple question and gotten a long-winded, philosophical reply, which translated, means "beats me." Or worse, the famous, "I'll have to think about it." That one is usually followed by no reply at all. Give me an answer I can use and I want it right now!

Okay, how about "yes," "no" or "ask me tomorrow night." As an actor, I want to know that my director isn't going to leave me in the lurch… in other words, I want an answer now. However, as a director, I know a director doesn't always have an answer right away. So I came up with three basic answers for all occasions (yes, it's a Hallmark moment).


"Yes" covers everything from "let's try it and see what it looks like" to "great idea, go with it!" This is probably the most popular choice of the three.


This one's self-explanatory and the easiest of the three.

Ask Me Tomorrow Night

Now we come to the tough one. Directors are the focus of the entire rehearsal and sometimes, especially during tech week, suffer from information overload. This one's the cop-out, designed to handle just such a situation. This is the equivalent of "I need to think about it," but puts the onus on the actor. Before everyone starts squawking, let me explain.

It's tech week (affectionately known as Hell Week around these parts); the lighting director has problems, the stage crew isn't clicking, the set needs to be finished, the décor people are fussing and the costumer has a bad cold. One of your walk-ons, you know the one (all experience ten years ago in high school, which was the creative high point of his/her life, and therefore he/she has been analyzing his/her five lines as if they were to be uttered by Hamlet), has a question about blocking. "Not now" won't do. You have to take the time to answer the question. But, the blocking in question could throw off the entire scene, yet he/she might have a point (see Collaborative Directing). You don't have the time or patience to deal with this now. "I'll have to think about it," you say. You are busy, things are hectic and you don't write it down. Will you remember? Probably not. Tack on "Ask me tomorrow night."

This gives you time to think, and puts the remembering problem on the actor. Yes, it's a cop-out, but you've got ninety irons in he fire, scattering your efforts across half the theater. Your questioner has five lines to remember, as well as working on not bumping into the furniture. And it was his/her question. Realistically, it buys you time, sets up a reminder and temporarily satisfies the actor. And it works. Most of the time, it'll be the first thing that actor asks at the next rehearsal - before you've been bombarded for a couple of hours.

Try it.

bullet Collaborative Directing

If you know everything about acting, directing, lighting, stage management, and the author's play, please leave the room now. There is a cult waiting to make you a god.

Are they gone? Good. The egos were becoming stifling. Okay, for the rest of us mortals, directing should involve input from everyone, cast and crew. I know, it sounds like a madhouse, but trust me.

Everyone working on a show has ideas. Some are good, others might inspire a better idea from you or someone else, and a few are just bad. Even those have a place. Bad ideas are teaching fodder. Directors have to be teachers, too. Help people learn from their mistakes, and their bad ideas. I even encourage people to argue with me. They learn, I learn, and the show is that much stronger because of it. And the next time they audition for you, they will be better and you will have a stronger cast.

If this sounds like direction by committee, it's close. It's not a democracy, though, it's benevolent dictatorship. Remember that "benevolent" part, it's important. As long as people feel comfortable bringing you their ideas, it'll work. Tell them up front that you want to hear from them, encourage them to talk with you, and remember to credit the person who came up with the idea when you use it. But - and there's always a "but" - the director has final say, no matter what.

If you're going to call the lighting director a "moron," you'd better know what you're talking about...

Collaborative directing means you're going to get input from all over, including from your tech crew. This is a good thing. Some of them have probably seen more shows and worked with more directors than you have. And some of their advice will actually be about the technical aspects of the show. Of course, what the tech crew wants to do and what you want for your show may be very different.

You need to know how to express what you want in terms that your tech crew will understand. If you're directing, especially in community theater, without any technical experience, get some. Now! And do it in the theater where you direct. (See The Director's Bootcamp for more)

If you understand the limitations and possibilities of your theater and its equipment, you will be a much better director. Yes, I know that's the technical/lighting director's or stage manager's job, but you'd better know what you want, how you want it, and be prepared to offer suggestions to help those people deliver what you want. Which brings us to why…

bullet "That's not right… change it" isn't enough

As a director, it's not enough to know what isn't right, whether it comes from your actors or your tech crew. You have to explain why it isn't right, and explain what you want. They don't read minds. It's your vision, don't make them guess… explain it to them. Basic, right? Hah!

How to avoid the pain of beating your head against the wall

We've all had them - the actor that just doesn't "get it." What do you do? Well, if you keep beating your head against the wall, several things happen; you get a headache, brick prints on your forehead, and the actor gets frustrated and difficult to work with. There's got to be a better way.

As a director, you have to understand that no two people are alike and you can't tackle everyone the same way. Anecdotal evidence: I had an actress who couldn't or wouldn't get angry on stage as her character demanded. I tried telling her she had to get mad. She said, "I am." It wasn't working. So I pulled her off stage and started yelling at her (see Directing As Performance). I was totally out of line, and it pissed her off. She started yelling back. I stopped, smiled, and said, "That's what I want you to do on stage in this scene." And off she went. She was wonderful.

Unfortunately, I tried using the same technique on a different actress in a different show who was having the same problem. She dissolved in tears, and I had some serious 'splainin' to do. I also had to come up with another way to get my point across.

If at first you don't succeed, try another way. Don't hammer an actor with the same stuff over and over again, come at them from different directions. Change your approach, try something different, find out how to reach your actor. It's far easier for you, as one person, to alter your approach than it is for a cast and crew of however many to alter theirs to suit you.

The art of compromise

Politicians have given the word compromise a bad name lately. But, sometimes, a director has to compromise. The promising actor that gave you that special something in audition just isn't measuring up. You took a flyer and missed. Now, you have figure out what to do with this part. You can beat the actor up endlessly and hope for the best, but often this just demoralizes the actor and the rest of the cast. Bringing the characterization in line with the actor's capabilities is a good compromise. After all, if there was something there in auditions, the actor can't be THAT far off. Modify your vision of the character to play to the actor's strengths and minimize the demands on the actor's weaknesses and you'll have a compromise that everyone can live with… especially the audience.

bullet Directing as performance

In some ways, directing is just another acting job… it just has a more critical audience - actors.

Getting their attention

The first thing you have to do is get and hold a cast's attention. Sometimes this is difficult, because actors are gregarious by nature and would much rather talk than listen. Counter this by putting on a little show of your own.

Don't direct from a seat in the house. Get off your butt and get down where they can see you. Movement holds attention much more than speech, no matter how good you are. Stand in front of the stage and talk to your cast. Get passionate about your notes, use your body to explain, not just your voice. Don't act out what you want them to do, act out the way you feel about what you what them to do. If they see you being passionate about the show, they will start to feel that way.


Don't ever let a cast know that you're angry. It scares them, and diminishes their trust in you. Take a walk, let them go early, get away from them. Let the anger run its course. THEN yell at them. All right, who said, "Excuse me?" in such a sarcastic tone? It does make sense. It's about control.

Directors who lose their temper are not in control - of themselves or their show. They say things that are counterproductive and create an atmosphere of rancor and distrust. However, sometimes you have to "lose it" to get their attention. Note the quotation marks.

If you feel you need to get their attention through a display of temper, be an actor. You know, fake it. You get to shake them up, yet you are still in control. You can measure what you say, temper it with the positives that keep a cast from turning on you, and retain the trusting relationship necessary to putting on a good show.

bullet "But last night, you said…"

I was wrong.

Three simple words that can be the hardest to say. Practice them. You'll need 'em. Sometimes a director tries something that looked and sounded better in their head than it does on stage. Don't let your ego get in the way… admit that it doesn't work, fix it and move on. Your cast will understand that you are not going to let them look bad, no matter what.

bullet Protect the bookholder

"Line, dammit!" "Give it to me!" Ah, the sounds of frustration. First night off book, and nobody's happy. But, it isn't the bookholder's fault. Don't let your cast take their frustrations out on the bookholder. On the first night out of book, introduce the bookholder and explain to the cast that the only word they need is "line." Nothing more. Your bookholder will appreciate it, and your cast will reap the benefits of a happy bookholder.

bullet My stage manager, right or wrong

Introduce your stage manager to the cast with "This is the stage manager. When he/she tells you to do something, you do it. If you think he/she is wrong, do it anyway, then see me after the show. I will deal with it after the performance. Until then, the stage manager is always right."

Arguments backstage are bad. Period. This is where the collaborative director model breaks down. Once a show goes into performance, the discussions are over. It is a true dictatorship and the stage manager is the director's second-in-command. Discussions will take place after the fact, no matter what.

The stage manager is the only person who has a pretty good overall feel for the show. He or she knows where the actors are, what scene it is, what's upcoming, and what's going on in the light booth. Even if the stage manager makes a mistake, no one has the time or the overall view of the show to argue with them at the time. Save it for later. That goes for the director, too. If you can't trust the stage manager, don't work with them.

bullet Booze

Before or during rehearsals and performances, alcohol is forbidden. No questions, no exceptions. Sounds basic, but it isn't. Theater and alcohol seem to synonymous. The appropriate time for alcohol is afterwards.

I'm not a temperance advocate. Someday, I'll tell you about the Palm Tree Incident. But alcohol and stage lights don't mix. The heat from the lights and the pressure of a performance can exacerbate the effects of even one drink. Worse, other cast members will smell it and will worry about the reliability of the drinker. It comes back to trust. If a cast member has had even one drink, can you trust them to do the right thing? To get themselves or their fellow cast members out of a jam? To stick to their character? No. Therefore, no booze… until the cast party. Make sure everyone knows it up front. And the rule applies to directors, crew members, and anyone else working directly on the show.

bullet Opening night, my job's over, right?

The crowd arrives, the lights go down and you've turned things over to the stage manager. It's time to sit back and relax.

Don't even think it. In some ways, your job just got tougher. Now you go from being a taskmaster to a cheerleader. You've worked for weeks to get your cast ready for opening night, you can't just abandon them.

There are several things you can do as a director to keep your show running like a swiss watch during performance.


Get to the theater early and spend time with your actors and crew. Gauge their mood. Opening night they're going to be wired on adrenaline. That's easy to deal with. Second night, depending on how opening went, they may be mellow and cocky. That could be trouble. You know as well as I do that the second performance is much harder to get "up" for than the first. If your show starts out flat, without the energy and the pacing you had opening night, it's very difficult to bring things up. You can start adjusting their energy levels here with a joke or two, get them talking among themselves, etc.

About ten minutes before curtain, I like to gather my actors in a circle in the green room and give a little pep talk. I adjust what I say based on the prevailing mood of the night. If the actors seem over-confident, I tell them about second night let down. If it's the weekend after the reviews have come out, I tell them that the audience is now expecting a good show (provided the reviews have been good, otherwise I tell them the reviews don't matter, the audience still came to see a good show and they deserve our best efforts.) I always try to make the pre-show pep-talk match what they need to do on the stage in order to get them ready to face the audience. It can be a little tough to make this talk fresh, especially when you're working with people you've worked with for years... they've heard all your best schtick.


So where are you watching the show from? I know, you've just sat through weeks of rehearsals and, after all, there's nothing you can do now, is there? It's up the cast and the crew now, right?


By watching the show, you know where the pacing's dragging a bit, which actor's having a down night, or who's rising to the occasion. Armed with this information, you can walk down into the green room and fix things... gently, positively. This is no time to be negative. Be positive, get your show back on track. One word of caution: don't try to do this backstage. Bad place, bad timing. Do it in the green room or the dressing room, where you've a little more time, a little privacy, and you are not in the stage crew's way. I make sure my stage manager knows that he (or, more often, she) can throw anyone out of the backstage area, including the director.


Okay, intermission... whatever.

Your cast expects a report on the show. After all, they've relied on you to tell them how they're doing from the first rehearsal. Don't let them down now. Get them ready for the second act. And let them know how the audience is taking the show. Especially if it's a drama. It's fairly easy to gauge an audiences reactioin to a comedy from the stage; if you're holding for laughs, they like it. But, in a drama, it isn't as easy. If you have time, hang out in the lobby for a couple of minutes and see what you can overhear. If you've been working in a particular theater for awhile, the audience will know you, and many will stop to let you know how it's going.

Curtain Call... Now am I done?


These people just laid their egos on the stage. Go back and tell them they did a good job! And remember to thank the crew.

This is also the time when you may have to deal with the actor that didn't have a good night and is upset. Remind them that this is live theater and things happen. It isn't the end of the world, and the next performance will be better. Besides, they ain't the only one it's happened to. Personally, I try not to tell "old theater tales" because they take forever, but sometimes I can't help myself. If you're going to, keep it short. There's celebrating to do!

bullet But all of this just seems like common sense…

Sure. It is. But it's amazing how many directors forget all of this in the heat of the creative moment. It's easy to get caught up in the motivations of your main character while forgetting the needs of the actor or actress playing the part. Blue-collar directing is about keeping the cast and crew on your side.

Literate flames and arguments welcome… Mike Polo.
Repetitive profanity and stream of consciousness flames should be sent only to politicians.

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