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?
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.
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.
no, ask me tomorrow night -
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
"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
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
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.
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
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!
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.