Handling a theatre director you are working with can often be a tricky business. Fortunately, today, many theatre directors are less “old school” in their technique of working with actors – but ultimately they have a job to do, and they will do it by whatever means will make the finished production work.
So, how best to deal with the more difficult theatre directors? In truth, and I hate that I even have to write this (because let’s face it, nobody should just be given free opportunity to be a nasty piece of work), the best way to handle a difficult / obnoxious / nasty / awkward / (choose whichever shoe fits) director is: “with great care”.
Approach any director who exhibits signs of difficult behaviour with real caution and pleasantry. Keep smiling, (even if you are crying inside), accept offers (even if you completely disagree), be gracious (a thank you goes a long distance, even if it is undeserved). Essentially, be the very best person and performer you can be – and secretly gloat that you can treat another human being with a modicum of humility which they cannot.
Remember, your job on that stage is to serve the director’s vision and the audience’s expectation, but more specifically your entire duty is to serve the character and their story in the best possible way. So, if that means you are forced to grit your teeth and bear it then so-be-it.
At least your contact with most directors is short lived for the rehearsal run.
Try and be the Amenable One
To get the freedom to work with your character how you think you need to, it is important to work with the director of that production with a sense of duty, humour and desire to fulfil a vision.
Now it is always possible that the director doesn’t seem to know what a “vision” is, and you might feel like you are flapping in the wind desperately clinging to something that may (albeit barely) represent something of a playwright’s intentions.
Likewise, there are directors who are out there (and strangely have convinced producers and theatre companies that they know what they’re doing) who do not seem to understand or grasp a need for blocking, or even of what the playwright was trying to convey.
Their interpretive skills may be completely non-existent.
Regardless of how your director is coming across, you need to go about your job in as appropriate (and excellent) a process as you possibly can.
Your job is to act. To perform the role as instructed (even if instruction seems few and far between).
Your job is not to instruct no matter how hopeless the instruction coming at you may be.
Sadly, a director is well within their rights to stop you from telling them what “their vision” is.
Do your job. Do it well. Ensure your responsibility is to help support a smooth process from read-through to performance and with a well-rounded character development along the way.
Do Not Go Running to Mummy or Daddy
Now here, I don’t mean your actual parentage (you are well within your rights to go and seek counsel, advice, comfort in the form of a well-cooked meal etc from them). No, instead I mean running to the producers.
Why do I not advise this?
Ultimately, and rightly or wrongly, the performing arts industries are entirely beholden to reputation. Repeated work and employment relies on you building a solid reputation as a solid performer.
By all means, approach the director if you feel that you can. Or even talk to the producers about the overall ambition of the production.
But… do not speak ill of the process.
This is your subjective take on what is happening and it may be that you are the one who will look difficult (or awkward / obnoxious / nasty etc) to the production team.
Always be pleasant about what is going on in a process. This could serve you well with other directors later, especially if this is with the same producers who like your conduct (your professional attitude, your pleasant approach and your keenness to make a production 100% better!).
Remember, a producer has engaged a director for a specific reason – and they will (almost undoubtably) know the manner/approach of this particular director.
But… Know Your Own Mind, and Professional Values
Of course, if the process is anything akin to bullying/workplace prejudice or anything that could be an example of legally concerning, then you reserve absolute cause to raise alarm. Just be aware that, as in any work-related claim, you will need to evidence misconduct (gross or otherwise). This is vital to support you, and ensure you retain your professionalism.
Of course, most of the time this isn’t the case. It’s more that you are aware that this director is difficult for YOU to work with.
In this instance you must make decisions that will serve you best (while avoiding any damage to your reputation). However, this should always be a VERY LAST option…
If you are absolutely certain that you cannot work with the hopelessness that is your great and glorious director, then you need to find a way out.
Sure, providing your contract allows for any form of backing out, early on in the rehearsals (at the earliest opportunity really) you can suddenly develop a serious family problem/issue which need you to fully focus on them. This means you cannot dedicate your time to the production and you feel it would be more gracious to back out without causing any major difficulties to the production team.
This can only be done if your contract permits this.
Of course, everybody involved may absolutely know that you have exaggerated your difficult family life somewhat. They possibly even know why you have. But… And this is very important… Never let anyone involved in that production know the real reasons you are seeking to escape.
Now, personally, I am a believer in Karma. I wouldn’t do this myself as I’d be eternally worried that by using family as an excuse would mean that my family may well become horrifically struck with some form of problem or issue. That said, on a Karmic plane, I also believe any director who is so difficult will also receive their just rewards too. For me, I would just seek to use the contract to back out without reason (if I can).
Give Your Director Some Credit
Seriously though, these perceptions of a director usually come down to a crashing of style/taste/processes experienced/different attitudes or secret visions. It is not (and I trust for you) usually because of the director is inept.
It is perfectly plausible that a director (however minuscule the prospect seems at the time) may just know what she/he is doing. They might just know this play inside-out, back-to-front and have the deepest understanding of what they are trying to interpret.
But you just can’t see what they’re up to.
Let’s face it, they’ve been entrusted to captain a ship by the people flashing the cash – so something may be right here…
It is equally possible that you are possibly not the perfect dream of an actor that you think you are. Maybe you are the one being difficult after all – again usually because of resistance to this kind of work.
In other words, treat the director with the respect they deserve. Try your hardest to fulfil their vision (however difficult that vision may be to comprehend) and seek to impress at all levels.
A touch of humility never harmed any actor – and in a worse case scenario where the director is a tyrant, who should be removed from their ivory tower, then your humble behaviour only further enhances their faults.
Also published on Medium.