Teaching Acting On SetWhether or not to teach acting on set is a question that arises for many film directors.  The information here is designed to help you decide, if this is a route that might be suitable for you to take when shooting your film; and if so, how best to go about doing it.

To begin with, I will look at some of the reasons why you might feel that it is necessary to teach acting on the set of your film and describe some effective techniques that can be used to do this.  I will also examine the barriers which may arise if you decide to teach acting on set and how these barriers can be overcome.  Finally, I will look at steps you can take when trying to persuade actors to rehearse prior to shooting a film.

Reasons you may need to teach acting on set

One of the main reasons it would be necessary to teach acting on set, would be if you employ inexperienced actors or non actors to play the roles in your film. In my opinion, this is a bad idea from the beginning.  While some of the very experienced actors such as Sidney Lumet and Ang Lee may get away with teaching acting on set, these directors have a level of experience, skill, passion and belief in their own ability; that  takes many years to cultivate.

When Ang Lee worked with semi-professional actors in his early films “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat, Drink, Man, Woman”; he put the actors through rigorous acting lessons and was described by one of the actors, Winston Chao, of being “as stern as a schoolmaster”.  If you wish to teach acting on set, you may expect some degree of confrontation, and while experienced directors such as Lumet and Lee may get away with this; directors with less experience may not.  One of the best ways to avoid having to teach acting on set is to employ experienced, accomplished actors.

Another reason, you as a director may feel it necessary to teach acting on set is to ensure that the right emotions are created and portrayed to make the film authentic to the viewer.  If you intend to do this, you need to be very clear on what you wish to achieve, and what methods you intend to use.

It is advisable to stick to one technique such as breaking down what needs to be done into verbs (intentions or objectives), or asking the actors to act “as if…..” or “It’s like when….” . Lumet teaches actors how to “play intention”. He describes this as   getting down to the verb, so that you do something; because the doing is what creates the performance.”

Techniques that may be used to create the right emotions

There are situations where the use of improvisation or certain rehearsal techniques may be useful in helping to create the desired emotions for a scene, in order to ensure an authentic viewing experience for the audience.  I was once present at a rehearsal scene where an older character was mentoring a younger woman.  The initial suggestion was for the older woman to imagine that she was giving advice to her younger self.

However, while the idea was deemed to be a good one, it did not transfer to authentic portrayal of the required emotions. I then suggested that the older woman take the time to really remember what she was like at 19; to visualise her appearance, her face, and her dress sense and to remember her hopes and aspirations; her enthusiasms and follies. I asked her when she had captured these memories, to then speak out loud giving advice to her younger self, before seamlessly moving into the lines of the scene.  A very expressive and moving scene was created in this way.

Barriers that may arise

If you feel that it is necessary to teach acting on set, it is important that you are aware of the barriers which may arise and how best to deal with them.

Whether it is your intention to directly teach actors or to use warm up rehearsal techniques as described above, which also may have the feel of an “acting class”, it is important to remember that the actors may not always be amenable to this. The actors may feel that the director is treating them as if they are not professional.

I believe that having actors warm up and rehearse in this way, has nothing to do with being “professional” or “unprofessional”, but it is rather that acting is more of a physical than a mental process. However, if you wish to get the best results for your film, it is important to keep the actors on side.  For this reason, it is recommended that if you intend to use any form of teaching acting on set, that you consult with the actors and explain your reasons for doing so.

Another barrier which may exist in trying to persuade actors to rehearse is the level of your own experience.  As a director, if you are not experienced in directing professional actors, it is inadvisable to attempt to do so.  If an unskilled director tries to enforce his ideas on a group of actors without having a high degree of knowledge and a very clear vision of what he hopes to achieve, not only will rehearsals be ineffective, they may even be detrimental, as this can cause disharmony between the director and the actors, which is something to be avoided at all costs.

Getting actors to rehearse

The actor Eric Stoltz, believes that most actors would be happy to do warm up scenes even if they are not getting paid for it.  He says “the more we know before filming begins, the better prepared we all are and the better the work is.”  However, in my experience, it is often difficult to persuade actors that rehearsal time can be useful and necessary. If you are to have any success at this, it will first be necessary to be able to prove to the producer and actors that the rehearsal time will be used effectively and will be beneficial.

There are a couple of things you can do here,  the first is to persuade the actors that in rehearsal you will be free of other distractions, and can therefore give them your undivided attention, thus ensuring the value of the rehearsal.

The director David Green recommends utilizing a familiar and reliable crew on set, so that you are free to give your attention to the actors without having to worry about what is going on in the background.

If you do get the agreement of the actors to rehearse, it is essential that you respect the time given and treat it as sacrosanct.  If you are to maintain your credibility, you must ensure that there are no interruptions during rehearsals.

Summary of important points

  • Use experienced actors in your film.
  • Consult with the actors if you intend to teach acting on set.
  • Use one technique to teach the acting.
  • Have a clear vision from the outset of what you wish to achieve.
  • If you are not experienced at teaching acting, do not try to teach professional actors their own job.
  • Treat the actors with respect at all times.