To the Actor #19: No.

December 24, 2014

huckleberry_trilife_02Here’s a true story. I was once in a production with a Tony award winning director. I was in a supporting role in the play. However, since this was a Shakespeare production, there was a lot of scholarly speculation around the character I played and his place in the story. Another actor, a colleague of mine, was also in a supporting role and it turns out there were hints in the research that suggested our two characters probably had a ‘past’ – and not a good one. So anyway we came up with this really cool idea to stage about a 90 second fight near the end of the piece when everything was going to hell and a hand-basket. We brought our ideas to the director, including all of our research and thoughts on what we could do.

He told us to work up the fight.

We did and it ended up being in the final production.

It was a 2 1/2 hour play that came to a stop in the last 10 minutes so two hyper-creative actors could have their little fantasy moment. It didn’t add to the production (if memory serves the production was generally panned but to our credit our little scene went unnoticed) but given that it was during the climax it most certainly detracted from it.

Why am I bringing this up? As an actor, you have a job, duty and love affair with your character. This is absolutely essential for you to create something you genuinely feel inspired by. Your imagination should run unhindered. It should soar as high as you can take it and delve as deep as the abyss will let you fall. That is your craft and your calling.

As a director, my job, duty and love affair is with the story. All of it, the tale to be told, even if it is by an idiot (that’s a hint). The characters to unfold. The images to capture, the sounds to release. I see the dance belonging to it all. I watch your character step into the realm of the new world and as she begins to meet other characters, who coincidentally each have their own dreams and desires, I try to cultivate everything to reveal the unique story we all tell together.

But sometimes, not often mind you, the director must say ‘No.’ This, for some unknown reason, is a word many actors (even so far as to say many artists) have a problem with. I have never understood why. Yes, it stops something, it ‘closes’ something. But if we can drift back to the above production I’ll highlight why it is emphatically necessary. The reason that production was pretty much panned is because it was an unmitigated mess. It was all over the place: production design, direction, adaptation, acting). There was nothing cohesive about the world. It was like giving a bunch of two-year-olds buckets of paint and a room and telling them to have fun. And we did, we all had fun, but there was no ‘direction’. So in the end what you got was basically smeared paint that was mostly brown because nobody gave a rats ass about painting over someone else’s crap-fest they were making and it all just smeared together into a big steaming pile. And before some smart ass comments on abstract art, I will lay odds if you ask an abstract artist how they work, you’ll find that it isn’t just “I get a bunch of paint and just throw it on the canvas.”

As an actor, when you create, much like I do as a director, you should feel the unbridled urge to go anywhere. To those who are unused to such lavishness this can often lead to self-indulgence. Have you ever seen a performance that made you cringe? It often times happens when actors resort to anger or tears as their ‘go-to’ means of expression. More often then not this was an actor that didn’t have guidance (they might very well be brilliant otherwise). But, there will come a time, whether it be stage or screen, where the director will bring in (gasp) another actor that you must work with and explore with. And maybe even another. And another. It is here, that it becomes necessary to have a confident hand who can begin to shape and guide everyone into the unique piece that this Group, and this group alone, are creating.

As a director, I try rarely to say ‘no’ because it’s a powerful word. Usually I’ll offer alternatives, potential strong choices. When this engages the actor I know we’re moving in the right direction (see To the Actor #8: What Ifs.) When I say engage I don’t mean they have to take my ideas. I mean they start to make ‘other’ choices and start throwing out their own ideas that are different from the one I wanted to steer them from.

But sometimes, for whatever reason, an actor can’t do it. ‘No’ becomes necessary for the overall good of the film. As an actor, if you trust your director, you need to understand they aren’t doing it to limit you, they’re doing it to make the film better. And if the film is better that should equally reflect on your ability and talent.