Successful RehearsalsKnowing Your Vision

A director must have a clear vision of the show before beginning the rehearsal process. This does not mean that a director should push actors to match a specific vocal pattern or refuse to listen to the impressions and ideas the actors have regarding the piece. It simply means the director needs to know what the heart of the piece is and ensure that every decision serves that vision.

The best way to help get actors on board with a director’s vision is to constantly ask questions. No matter how much table work or deep analysis of the script has been done, it will not matter if the actors cannot internalize and portray those intellectual ideas. The best way to connect an actor to an idea is to ask the right questions about the character they are playing.

Creating Chemistry

Always encourage actors to act with each other rather than at each other. If they are actively and intensely engaged with one another, chemistry will happen naturally. Often, choices actors make when portraying a character are reliant on the choices of other actors. They must collaborate with one another, and the director must never be afraid to ask for more intensity.

Chemistry between the actors and the director is also vitally important to the rehearsal process. A director must be aware of the energy he or she is giving off. The director’s energy level, intention, and disposition must be carefully crafted to pair with that of the cast. If a director overwhelms a brooding actor with high levels of cheerful energy, the actor may retreat like a turtle. Conversely, if a director approaches a scene calmly and quietly while the actors are bursting with vivaciousness, the actors may feel under-stimulated.

Providing Feedback

The rehearsal process is designed for trial-and-error. Actors should always be encouraged to make different choices, more choices, and ultimately better choices. A director must, therefore, be conscious of how risky that venture can be for an actor and be respectful of it. Many choices will not work, and most actors genuinely wish to know when they don’t. However, the director should provide this feedback delicately, in a way that still allows them the freedom to fail. The best method for accomplishing this feat is by letting actors know what impression they have given you throughout their performance.

For example, rather than saying, “No, that doesn’t work, you’re acting stupid and she’s not stupid,” a director should say something like, “When you play up the flirtatious energy of your character, I get the impression that she is not seriously in love; that she’s silly and maybe a little dumb.” The actor will likely absorb the feedback in a way that allows them to consider how to correctly portray the character. By using this technique, you are not telling an actor that what they are doing is just wrong; you are telling them what they are doing so that they have the resources to self-correct it.

Directors are mirrors. They validate actors; attempts, letting them know how their acting was successful (e.g., By doing a, it worked to make me think x.), as well as letting them interpret how to correct it (e.g., If I do b, they will think y, which is what I want.). Ultimately, it’s recognition that there is no bad acting or bad choices, and once you agree on what to communicate together, it won’t take long to figure out how.

Directors should also keep feedback as simple as possible. When directors give too many notes, especially really specific notes, actors can feel overwhelmed. A laundry list of corrections is not going to help anyone improve. An overall impression, on the other hand, can help fix the things a director noticed and also the things that may have slipped his attention. For example, rather than saying “On this line, I wasn’t sure what your face was doing,” and “On this line, you had a weird expression,” something like “There are some instances when your face is communicating something I don’t understand. Be clearer about your intentions.” is much more helpful.

It also helps for directors to pace themselves with notes. A director should peel away at a project layer by layer. There are going to be levels of depth that an actor can’t reach in the first week. Be conscious of that and parcel out corrections at a steady pace. If something isn’t working and your notes haven’t helped, it can help to leave it alone for a bit and return to it later. Then, the next time a fix is initiated, you can try something new.

Playing

Make sure that the actors understand that the rehearsal process is “play,” in a literal sense. They have the privilege of making choices, trying new things, and finding their way into a script. Acting is not a chore and should not be similar to heading to the office. If actors become too comfortable, as one may do in an office setting, they will stop connecting to the project and begin phoning in their performance. This should be avoided at all costs.

Another helpful tip for a director to give an actor is not to play a genre. Hamming up a comedy or weighing down a drama should be unnecessary; actors should always search for a truth. If that truth is funny, the audience will laugh. If the truth is tragic, the audience will cry. When an actor forgets about searching for the truth and plays a genre, audiences can easily become bored.

The truth that the actors find ought to be shared with the director throughout the process. It should be part of the vision and should be clear and consistent. If an actor believes that a secret they are revealing is actually a lie to manipulate the person they are talking to, but the director believes that the moment is one of truth and vulnerability, the scene is likely never to satisfy either one. This is a problem for two reasons. First, it usually interferes with the overall vision of the show that the director controls. Second, it shows a lack of communication between actor and director. The director should know what choices the actor has made as well as how and why the actor has come to those choices.

During rehearsal, it is common for a director to stop an actor to talk through certain choices. How and when a director does this is a matter of instinct, but an important one. Sometimes, it is better to let an actor finish a beat, a moment, or a scene before jumping in to attempt to fix it. Other times, it might be necessary to stop them in the middle. In order to avoid frustrating a focused actor, the director must carefully read the actor’s cues to know when the best time for them to communicate.

Working in Tandem

Part of appreciating an actor’s perspective and delivering notes in a digestible way is giving one non-conflicting note at a time. Telling an actor to do two things at once, like “Play it naively, but also wise,” for example, is like asking them to walk a tightrope without a safety net. Working against their intentions by giving directions like “Make it deeper” when they have made a choice that their character has already moved past the circumstance at hand is going to frustrate both of you.

Directors should ask themselves what an actor is bringing to a scene, and then work within those guidelines. If you know the actor has made the decision that their character has moved past the sexual abuse she is discussing, but you want more depth to the moment, acknowledge that, and then communicated what you noted about the scene. For example, what’s the trigger for the memory? What’s the one thing will bring her back to that time and circumstance when it wasn’t ok? Is that in this scene? Is that why she is choosing to discuss it here?” Usually, introducing this type of logic to the actor’s own choices will help them stay true to their instincts while still moving in a direction that better satisfies the director’s vision.

If actors disagree with the director, or insist on playing a scene differently than the director wants, it’s ok to allow it. There may be something the actor needs to discover before feeling comfortable adjusting their intentions. The argument can be revisited in a later rehearsal, allowing the director to clarify with them that even though their performance is already good, you’d like to try to make it better.

Getting Past Nerves

Every actor has tell-tale mannerisms, or tics, that become obvious during the rehearsal process. Getting the actor to shed these physical manifestations of nerves is not easy. If a director is too forceful or direct about these mannerisms, pointing them out whenever they occur, they could easily end up making the actor even more self-conscious. Some other actors, however, want and need to be told every time it happens. The best way to get rid of a tic is to find its root. If an actor crosses his arms during the most emotional moments, he is usually subconsciously comforting himself from the emotional turmoil. This is a lovely sign that the actor is well-connected to the material, but you will have to find a way to make him accept the vulnerability he is being driven to in order to get him to naturally open his frame.

Working Separately

As the director, actors should be allowed to work individually with you. This allows them a greater freedom to experiment and to reach levels of emotional vulnerability that they wouldn’t feel comfortable with in front of fellow actors. More importantly, it allows the actors to keep certain secrets from each other; the intentions actors bring to a scene should sometimes surprise the other actors. Often, this allows each performance to have greater depth and truth.

Feeding off of the actors’ work, whether in reality or simply fabrication, is an excellent way to boost a sense of collaboration. Using phrases like, “Based on what I just saw you do…” or “Your performance excited me and I’d like to try something now,” makes actors feel that the risks they take are worth it, and that they are inspiring greater things. Directors can also let actors know that they are playing in rehearsals as much as the actors; they can try ideas out that may not work, but are worth the actors trying.  The more willing you are as the director to admit that your own instincts could be wrong, the less worried the actors will feel about their own choices possibly not working out.

Directors should never be afraid to praise an actor, because a confident actor usually turns out better performances. However, doing so away from the other cast can prevent the jealousy that all-too-often plagued productions. Also, remember that these private rehearsals must be kept private. As with doctors or psychologists, actors may reveal things to you that they do not want publicized. Directors must always respect the power of art and the nature of acting, and not speak about private rehearsals with outsiders, no matter the situation.

Creating Rituals

Creating rituals can help actors feel supported. Whether each rehearsal begins with a warm-up and ends with a hug, have pre-curtain chants, speeches, or inspirational activities, or whatever else it may be, actors like the structure and familiarity rituals provide. Connecting these rituals to the heart of the piece can help the actors maintain focus and not become complacent. For example, if a piece is about American politics, beginning each group rehearsal by asking what political news struck the actors’ ears that day can focus their attention on the ultimate vision for the rehearsal.

Rehearsals are also a good time to remind the actors that you are available to them. They should feel comfortable communicating with you about how they feel throughout the process, the show, and life in general.

Working with the Script

It is important to remember that a script is a breathing form of art. It begs for the talent of others to bring it to life. Stage directions certainly never need to be followed, but can be an interesting clue into the vision of the playwright and/or the show’s original director. Lines must be read as they appear, but not as they are written. In other words, a line written as, “But Charles! How COULD you?!” can also be directed or acted as “But…Charles? How could you.” The actual words must be said, but the intention and the timbre and the tone are open to interpretation.

Letting Go

At a certain point, you, as the director, must be willing to step back and see the show as a whole, and not discontinuous parts in need of attention. Let it breathe, let it be, let the actors play inside it for a while, and then re-determine priorities rather than constantly trying to fix things that may not be wrong. Realize that every action you take is being interpreted by the actors as a form of direction; your facial expression, your scribbles, and the volume of your voice, are all clues to an actor about your satisfaction (or lack thereof) regarding their work. Allow yourself to just sit back and smile from time to time, and let them know you are proud to be a part of the show.