I’ve experienced theatre in a lot of ways. I’ve performed, co-directed, stage managed, built sets, and of course, sat in the audience. Through these experiences, I’ve gotten to examine the role and impact of the director in a lot of different circumstances. I haven’t always liked what I’ve seen.
I want to present a few of the most profound theatre experiences I’ve had in terms of recognizing how critical the director is for the show’s success– though how the director helped or hindered these productions may surprise you.
Once, I saw a technically beautiful performance. It felt very well acted, the set and lighting design were gorgeous, the choreography was meticulous. It was polished, refined, in some ways close to perfect. But the actors on stage were miserable, and it showed through in every single scene, and I left the theatre put-off and a little upset knowing these actors had such an awful time performing that night. I asked some friends from the cast and crew whether they’d had fun: the unanimous response was raised eyebrows, a grimace, and sarcasm.
Another time I was performing in the ensemble of a talented cast with a well-respected local director, whose shows always impressed audiences. Throughout the entire show, I felt profoundly uncomfortable; every rehearsal I felt like an outsider, as though I were a little kid invited to a birthday party of a kid I wasn’t really friends with, whose friends didn’t like me. In later conversations, other ensemble members would express the same sentiment. The director and production staff adored their lead cast, and on more than one occasion lavished praise onto them directly before telling the ensemble we were ruining the show.
One time I was in a show with a production team I’d never worked with before. Some recent performing-related wounds inflicted by college had ruined my self-esteem where theatre was involved, so simply getting cast was a pleasant but daunting shock. Yet, through every step of the rehearsal process, I was encouraged, constantly built up by the staff. I left that show feeling fulfilled by a successful performance, sporting a big head and a full heart.
Honestly, I’ve never had a good experience with theatre when it involved a an less-than-encouraging director.
This isn’t to say a director should be endlessly, mindlessly encouraging. I want to be challenged. I want to receive honest feedback– even harsh feedback, if it can make my performance better. I’ve worked before with directors who only smile and nod throughout the entire production process, and this inevitably leads to nothing short of a disaster.
I wouldn’t hesitate, though, to say my experiences with un-encouraging directors were near-disasters as well. Maybe they looked good in the end, but if all of the performers had a terrible time, what’s the point?
Some of my favorite books about theatre are about directing. These books often shed a lot of light on the craft of theatre as a whole, besides just the singular art of directing. In A Sense of Direction: Some Observations on the Art of Directing by William Ball, Ball spends a lot of time– an entire chapter– on learning to relate to actors as the director. The recurring theme is encouragement. Ball says the actor will be fearful of failing because the actor will have worked with directors who berate, embarrass, and shame them for making mistakes. Ball says the director’s job is to always be positive and uplifting to alleviate these fears. Ball acknowledges that the actor, like nearly every human alive, is desperate for reassurance and kind attention. He says the director and actor alike will succeed if the director fulfills this need. Ball says the actor will inevitably disagree with the director at times, and that the director should encourage the actor to find a better solution. Ball says the actor will inevitably require forgiveness from time to time, and the least the director can do is provide it.
By the end of the book, it’s quite clear that Ball believes one of the best things a director can be is kind, collected, and supportive.
In Notes on Directing: 130 Lessons in Leadership From the Director’s Chair, legendary director Frank Hauser’s words are recorded by Russel Reich. They often ring with the same sentiments as William Ball’s. As Hauser states, “Always assume everyone is in a permanent state of catatonic terror”… chances are, the actor will appreciate the kindness and patience this affords. He also expresses the importance of lightening up and taking it easy on those around you when you can: “you can… enormously increase your effectiveness by adding, ‘I understand completely if it’s something you’re not able to do right now.'”
The fact is, no one performs their best when they are scared, uncomfortable, depressed, insecure, or feeling unsupported.
The difference between a truly great, inspiring show and one that only looks and feels soullessly correct is how supportive the director is. A director who is liberal with their encouragement will raise up every actor in their cast. Actors will strive to new heights with directors who make them feel like they can achieve more. Otherwise, they will languish in uncertainty.
Directors, take this message to heart: your casts need, require your support and unwavering encouragement.
Actors: Don’t bother auditioning for a director who won’t supply this. It’s just not worth it.
Note: the links to the books mentioned in this post are affiliate links through Bookshop.org. Purchasing via those links supports me! You can view the rest of the books in my specially-curated “affiliate bookstore” here.