Today’s blog topic is for directors. I recently got this question:
“As a Meisner trained director would it be understood that no two people will play a role exactly the same, as they shouldn’t because that would not be living truthfully into the role. So as a director, if acting is living as truthfully as one can under imaginary circumstances, is it simply mostly in the casting? What do you do as the director without stepping on craft? What do you direct?”
You’re right. No two people are going to play the role exactly the same. But as a director, you have a vision. If you have two actors and you have them playing the same role and every other night you’re going to switch them off, but it is clear who the character is and you give a nice blueprint for both of them marching forward, you’re absolutely right. Every night it would be two different experiences, but it shouldn’t be wildly different if you’ve done your job as the director. They should be close, but they’re going to act from who and what they are. One person may be a little more free or more alive, and so it’s going to color that performance, no doubt about it.
Is it simply “mostly in the casting?” The answer is YES. I learned something interesting from reading a book this summer on Elia Kazan. He rarely read actors for his lead roles. You know what he would do? He’d call them in his office and he’d just talk with them and if the lead role required somebody to be really passionate and intense, he’d want to get them talking about something they were passionate and intense about, just to see if they had that level, the natural characteristics.
He wasn’t interested in having actors stretch and grow into a role that they’re not right for. His attitude was (especially at the top of his game) that ‘I can have anybody, so I want someone that is the perfect fit naturally for this role.’ I’m not saying that’s the best way to do it overall, especially because so many of us have invested so much in craft and training and we feel capable of stretching ourselves quite a bit. But that’s the importance of having range, right? So that you’re not one note and you’re able to play more than just yourself over and over, but that you have range. From great passion and great love and everything in between, and you can dial that down and shape it to be able to give the director what their vision is.
But with that said, casting is critical to going after what it is you’re looking for.
What do you do as a director without stepping on craft? First of all, ask them their process, ask them how they like to work. You need to find the language that can work for them. If you’re coming from Meisner training, we certainly have a language. I’ve found when working with people that are not Meisner trained, it’s just talking them through it, “What’s going on in this scene? Tell me what you want in this scene,” and really getting clear about what the stakes are and then ask them, “Have you ever had a time in your life when you felt that way?” Try to get them to personalize it, again, if these are people that don’t have much craft or training.
This is a way of bridging that gap. In my years I’ve only had a few directors that were, in my opinion, really talented and were really an ‘actor’s director.’ They’re sensitive, they know what it’s like to do this and they know how to talk to you. Another thing I think that’s really important as a director is to be as positive as possible, especially in front of cast and crew after each take. It may not be what you want, but be positive. Actors want to give you what you want; they are dying to please you, they are. But they’re also very fragile, and I’m not talking like they’re some neurotic bunch, but on a set it can be very delicate.
So after each take I find it so important to go to the actor right away and say, “Way to go. How did that feel, what did you think about that one?” Now you know perfectly well that it’s not even close and they say, “Oh, it was okay,” and you say, “Ok, well, we’re gonna go again. It’s building and growing. Let’s try this, though,” or another way is to say, “What do you think about this?” and basically plant the seed and so it’s almost as if they’re coming up with it as well. I’m not saying to be manipulative, I’m just saying to co-create so they feel a part of it, so they feel honored. And they are going to help with that process, and it raises their confidence as well.
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