No, no, no. Hold your head like this, then go Waaah. Try it again.
November 28, 2012 9:35 AM   Subscribe

First rehearsal was last night. My cast member is already making me crazy. A little help?

I'm directing a local community theatre production. We had our first real rehearsal yesterday and we go up on January 11. I told my actors since we have such a short time for rehearsal, I'm going to ask them to try their roles a certain way and if it works, it'll be really good. If not, we need to very quickly find another way to do it.

All the actors save one were able to take this note and were able to give me back what I was looking for...and if I do say so, the concepts worked very well for the show.

The lone actor who didn't gave me some signals that troubled me.

When I gave my notes, he nodded the entire time for the most part, but when he played the scenes I saw nothing of what I had asked for.

I rephrased my notes and asked him to try again. Still the same.

I frankly started to wonder if he was gaslighting me as I not only did not hear what I was asking for -- I didn't hear any differences between his readings. I also didn't hear anything usable. It was all monotone or if a choice was being made, boring choices.

I intend to take this actor aside and tell him the above (minus the "gaslighting" and probably "boring" language) and ask if my notes were clear, and especially ask if he had a problem with doing it the way I was asking, and invite him to provide other interpretations which we might agree on, or maybe even "help me understand the choices you were making the other night." I can see how I might have come across as steamrolling and even if my interpretation was a good valid one, I know how steamrolling can prompt resistance.

But I wonder if I'm missing something. Another actor after my 5th or 6th time started giving notes -- I stopped that after a few sentences when I realized what was going on. I thought it was very inappropriate and it actually served as a signal to me to move on to other goals. However it also helped reassure me that I wasn't simply failing to hear the first actor's doing what I was asking for.

Have any of you encountered a situation like this? I don't want to come down on this guy. I prize open communication and good relations in this kind of situation, and hey, he's a volunteer as are we all. When directors have told me, "You're not giving me what I asked for," I don't experience it as an attack. But...I've never worked with this guy. I don't know how he's receiving me. What did you do?
posted by Infinity_8 to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you clarify a little more about this actor's background - how much experience he has with theater? I know that you probably haven't given the full context in this question, but it seems to me like you are jumping to a lot of conclusions about his motivations (that you're being gaslighted, that he feels like you're steamrolling him, etc). It seems possible to me, as someone who did community theater, that this guy just doesn't really know what you're talking about/looking for. The mechanics of turning 'choice' into output is not really something that comes natural to most people. If he's more inexperienced it's possible that he's ashamed to show what he doesn't know. I think you need to be prepared for the possibility that you need to slow it way down with this guy, or if that isn't possible cut him loose.
posted by muddgirl at 9:49 AM on November 28, 2012 [7 favorites]

Every performer has their limits on what they can do. Is it possible his talents are very limited and he really is doing the best he can? In the meantime, keep your actors from giving each other notes. Notes come from the director (and other relevant production team members) only.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:49 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I am struggling not to jump to conclusions, thanks, and I know it reads as if I already have. Just trying to work out the possible reasons. My head probably goes strange places. I'm not assuming it at all!

This guy is new to me but not to theatre. His resume has several years' worth of shows in roles of varying complexity. I saw him in one and he was presentable, but the show was so poorly directed that nobody (including some who are in my current cast) was able to show what they were capable of.

I've directed shows for several years and I think my concern arises because I've only ever had one actor who didn't seem able to respond to notes. She was a total neophyte and a child to boot...and her performance pulled down every scene she was in and other people still b*tch at me about casting her. :) I need to quickly determine if I need to direct *around* this guy or what his actual deal is.

Should I consider talking to other people -- mutual friends -- who have performed alongside him? That seems fraught with peril.
posted by Infinity_8 at 9:58 AM on November 28, 2012

I frankly started to wonder if he was gaslighting me as I not only did not hear what I was asking for -- I didn't hear any differences between his readings. I also didn't hear anything usable. It was all monotone or if a choice was being made, boring choices.

It seems hasty after one rehearsal to attribute his performance as intentionally undermining. Were you involved in casting, did you see this lack of affect in auditions? In rehearsal, were you seeing a lack of effort and energy or lack of skill? He may believe that he's giving you what you're asking for, or he's at least trying and failing. You may need to work with him one on one, but you should give him the benefit of the doubt that he's listening and trying.
posted by gladly at 10:00 AM on November 28, 2012

Response by poster: Oh, and last response for awhile -- slowing it down seems like a good idea. Others -- even those I've never worked with -- responded instantly and appropriately to the sort of shorthand notes I was giving them. It's unfair to expect that of everyone. Thanks. At least I have less work to do with those others and that gives me time to be patient with this guy.
posted by Infinity_8 at 10:00 AM on November 28, 2012

Nodding is not understanding. Try asking him to play back what you want. Then ask him to talk about how he'd execute that direction. Even if he understands what you want, he may not know how to deliver it. He needs to articulate that in his own words so he can internalize it. That's not acting specific, but it's a reasonable path anytime someone is repeatedly having problems executing.

My guess it that the other actor could see that he didn't really get it and was trying to help him understand. That's really not the best path but watching someone get the same direction over and over is frustrating.

Err on the side of giving him the benefit of the doubt especially in the early going. Gaslighting is a pretty strong interpretation of one bad rehearsal.
posted by 26.2 at 10:02 AM on November 28, 2012 [5 favorites]

Are you using pop culture references or analogies, or other jargon, to communicate? I've had directors try this with me, and frankly, I wasn't up on pop culture _at all_ (parents limited my movies when I was a kid, didn't listen to music, was never interested in the same things as other students even in college). In that situation, my choices were a) interrupt the director every five minutes to ask for an explanation (I have no idea what "gaslighting" is, will look it up after this), which was annoying and I guess slightly embarrassing, or b) to nod and hope for the best, but never really understand what was going on.

If you direct with Star Trek (original series) analogies, please let me be in your show :)
posted by amtho at 10:12 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Pull him aside (quietly) and work with him on a scene one on one. Or have the stage manager/assistant director (if there is one) work with him based on your notes. If he resists or continues not to respond to notes, he may just be "that guy" who thinks he knows best. And in a volunteer situation like this, there also isn't a whole lot you can do about that. Your energy is better spent on the rest of the cast who are responding to direction. I've spent a good chunk of my adult life working as a performer and stage manager in several productions (ranging from community level to equity houses) and there is always "that guy."
posted by picklesthezombie at 10:15 AM on November 28, 2012

This is a very difficult situation to diagnose without being in the room, having some idea of what sorts of notes you are giving, what your directorial style is and what you're going for.

Certainly it could be the case that he simply disagrees with your direction for his acting and character. In my field (opera) it is not all that unusual to encounter a situation where a director will ask you to do something that is not congenial with respect to a role you've done many times before. And in these cases, sure, one tried and true technique is to say "yes maestro" and do some version of what you were doing before.

It could also be that this actor is used to working in a more collaborative style and feels like he's not being engaged in the process.

Or it could be that he's either not that talented or not that technically accomplished and this is what he can do.

Or if could be that your notes aren't very good or aren't speaking to him.

Or many other things.

Definitely I would suggest taking some time aside with him and figuring out some way to say that you would like to figure out how to get more of what you're looking for out of his performance. If you gently praise his abilities as an actor and engage him in the process, you're more likely to get buy-in in the event that there might be some resistance towards what you're asking him to do. And, yanno, if it does turn out that he is actively resisting your directing and doesn't seem willing to play ball, I wouldn't hesitate to replace him as soon as you figure out that's what is going on.
posted by slkinsey at 10:25 AM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

There are a lot of actors who are simply not capable of responding to notes or changing their performance. The way they do it in audition is the way they do it in rehearsal is the way they do it in the movie or show.

I wouldn't assume maliciousness; some of the actors I've known who had this issue were the nicest people in the world. Being able to change a performance based on direction is a HUGE part of what separates good actors from bad ones. Don't assume he is malicious when he is more than likely just not that good of an actor. That said, your job as director is to help him do his best with his talent.

All I can think of is to try to shock him out of it: "Try it as if you were a Lizard Man from planet Googlezork" or whatever. That may a) Take away his inhibitions for a bit and make him feel free to try new things without being judged and, b) If he really is trying to challenge your authority, you'll find out, it'll be out in the open and you can deal with it.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:27 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

if he had a problem with doing it the way I was asking

I wouldn't phrase it like this, or even think of it like this btw. If you frame it was a power struggle, you may get his back up and make it worse. Try to think of it as a collaboration, more like "Let's figure out a way together that works."
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:30 AM on November 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Never ascribe to malice that which can be explained by stupidity bad acting. I see no reason to assume, at least at this point, that this is anything other than him simply not knowing what he's doing. I agree with others who said to work with him and/or him and his scene partners without the rest of the cast. He might just need more work and time for it to sink in.

It was all monotone or if a choice was being made, boring choices.

It's really hard to say without seeing him, but if this looks like what I think it looks like, I've seen directors have great success by asking actors to do everything BIGGER, like crazy exaggerated big. Sometimes actors think they're expressing all kinds of things but it's all inside their head, and this direction can force it out into the actual performance.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:41 AM on November 28, 2012

I have often found that actors sometimes fail to integrate notes until the next day. They just get locked into a performance and they have to sit on the note for a while for it to integrate itself. Particularly in community theaters, actors can have a lot of habits that they build up for years and just extensively rely on, and use over and over, and so that's what they are going to do for the first few attempts.

See how this actor is at the next rehearsal. You may see a very different performance. If not, they may require a little bit of individual attention.

Short rehearsal times are a problem in community theater, as I'm sure you already know. There are always going to be limitations with volunteer actors, and it does not help to have almost no time to iron out those limitations. Sometimes the best thing you can do is just find out what the actor is capable of and then working around that. If this actor doesn't seem capable of taking notes, you may have to find a way to work with what they've got.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:45 AM on November 28, 2012 [4 favorites]

I should add that almost all of the problems I have ever had with actors have come from them not knowing their dialogue. It's very hard to get a performance from somebody who is still figuring out what words needs to be said when. If they are not off-book, get them there as quickly as possible. I think you'll see that they take direction much better at that point.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:51 AM on November 28, 2012

Wanted to agree w/ DestinationUnknown - we usually tell people to blow it out, do it as big as possible - because you can reel it back, but it's so. much. harder. to drag that stuff out of people.

Also agree with Bunny Ultramod - in this situation they need to prioritize getting off book.

Good luck!
posted by Medieval Maven at 10:59 AM on November 28, 2012

It's very hard to get a performance from somebody who is still figuring out what words needs to be said when.

This plus 10!
posted by slkinsey at 11:10 AM on November 28, 2012

Some people interpret information as instructions.

Some people interpret instructions as information.

Your actor, assuming he has the capacity to perform to your direction, seems to fall into the latter category.

People like this fully understand what they are told but to them your instructions are just additional information to be considered, rather than a demand from you.
posted by trinity8-director at 12:41 PM on November 28, 2012

Best answer: Yes, this happens and you're not the only one. Here are some of the questions I've learned to ask myself in similar situations ...

Is he 100% off-book? Does he understand the actual words in the script? As others have noted, if these things aren't in place, they can really jam up the works.

Does he need time to think about and integrate your notes? Bunny Ultramod is right on: some actors need some prep time between rehearsals to show you the results you want, and piling more notes on them in the meantime will only muddy the waters. See what happens at the next rehearsal, then adjust your tactics accordingly.

Is he comfortable in the staging/blocking? Some folks have a really hard time going all-in if they feel uncertain about what to do with their bodies, or if their bodies are uncomfortable. If the staging isn't working, change it. If you can't change the staging, at least try rehearsing in a different physical position -- lying flat on the floor? moving around however the actor wants to? Just one successful rehearsal run can sometimes give the actor the sense of what it should feel like, and help them improve the following performances.

Is he sick, exhausted, or hungry? Is he stoned or otherwise chemically altered? Just asking -- it can be an actual problem sometimes. Especially if he was fabulous at the audition and is weirdly out of it now, it might be worth taking him aside and tactfully asking him what is up.

Is he being treated decently by the rest of the cast & crew? Does he have a feud with someone in the cast or crew? These things can be tricky and energy-sucking, and you may not be able to get directly involved without causing further problems. Would a general speech about respect/professionalism help? Can you find a trusted proxy (an AD? an SM?) to help smooth things over? Can you call a smaller rehearsal to minimize the number of conflicting parties in the room? Might you just have to suck it up?

Is he exhibiting signs of being anxious, stressed, or tight? Is it run-of-the-mill nervousness (you'll know because it'll probably go away within a couple of rehearsals if you don't poke it too much), or is it something more intractable? How you address this depends on the specifics of the individual & group dynamics. You can try group warm-ups or relaxation methods; you can try asking him to purposely exaggerate his performance ("Play with it! Be ridiculous! Be the biggest ham you can be!") one run-through and then dial it back from there; you can try working with him one-on-one; you can try reassuring him. All these tactics could backfire spectacularly if the chemistry between the two of you is bad. If you find that every interaction with him makes the situation worse, you might get better results by having him work with a trusted AD or SM or even a director friend that you bring in under the guise of "lending another eye" (it's not ideal, but sometimes it's the least worst option). If you feel like you're having general problems with stressed-out actors, check yourself. Are you coming in to rehearsal hungry, angry, tired, or stressed out? Fix that asap. You might also consider dialing back the whole "such-a-short-rehearsal-period-must-produce-perfect-results-the-first-time-through" thing. I have rarely found this approach to be effective; sometimes it actually causes the whole process to take longer (and yields worse results) than it would have if you'd allowed a little more time for actor input in the beginning.

Does he disagree with you about some aspect of the character or performance? In this case, you're going to need to find a way to understand where he's coming from and find a compromise. This may be best done in a conversation; it can also be done in the rehearsal room by playing with several different versions onstage. If he's being particularly resistant to any input by you, you might try the counter-intutive tactic of just saying "You know what? My way doesn't seem to be working. I'd like to see you do it however you want to," and then, when you see his version, just say "That was good, I like it," and don't give any notes. You can always give notes later, but sometimes just letting someone off the leash for a bit breaks through the resistance.

Are you stuck in a single framework for giving notes? Let the actors know you're going to be trying something different, and then try something different: different metaphors, descriptive language from theatre techniques you've tried or heard about, just something -- anything -- different than what you usually do. Have you tried phrasing your desired outcome as a physical adjustment? An emotional adjustment? An as-if? Have you talked about intention, spine, or objective? Have you been giving mostly affirmative notes ("I liked it when you did X!") or mostly negative notes ("It didn't work for me when you did X.")? Try the opposite. Have you been letting the actors play through big chunks before giving notes, or interrupting them with adjustments every few moments? Try the opposite. Have you tried asking your actors what they think? Do so. Have you made any silly noises yet while trying to explain what you're getting at? For god's sake, make some silly noises! If you don't have any different tools in your toolbox, then make something up, or find a book (for instance), or talk to another director friend who does things in a different way than you. Remember the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

If all else fails and it seems like the actor just doesn't have the capacity to do the role, then direct around him, minimize the damage, and accept responsibility for your mistake. If the situation is so bad that you have to re-cast him, then do it quickly, respectfully, and 100% above-board. Don't take it out on him, because it really is your mistake -- he was (presumably) your choice and you chose poorly. It's not the end of the world -- it happens -- but learn from it. One tip: this isn't going to help you at this stage in the game, but please, the next time you audition anyone for anything, ask them to change their performance in the audition. Even if they come in doing the role exactly 100% the way you want to see it on stage, give them a note and ask them to do it a different way. It's important -- maybe the most important thing in the audition -- because not just looking for somebody who looks the part; you're looking first and foremost for somebody that you can work together with on creative problems. An audition is your best chance to find out if you can work together.
posted by ourobouros at 2:20 PM on November 28, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Many, many thanks to all responders. I do see myself in many of the responses...I know I made mistakes dealing with him during this first rehearsal...*and* in auditions. I'm glad to see there are lots of opportunities to change/fix/work around that.

I'm at a point now where I'm not assuming/thinking he's uncooperative. That's the only situation in which I would recast so I'm happy to move forward looking to help make the best of his performance. I have 7 of 8 people who I know are going to do amazing things with their roles...and who knows, this guy could wind up being the best of them all.
posted by Infinity_8 at 5:16 AM on November 29, 2012

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