Saturday, May 12, 2012

Actors Are Not Dogs

I got drunk with this director. It happens now and then. Around 1:30am, when we were both deep in our cups, he confessed to me what he really thinks of actors.

"An actor's job," he said, "is to follow the director's orders."

If only actors would do the things directors tell them to do -- learn your lines, project, move as directed, pick up cues and pace and energy, pursue your objectives -- then a show would be fine.

Dogs can be taught to follow commands -- why not actors? Come to think of it, in the shows I am now in I sit, heel, beg, roll over, play dead and stay. Why, actors are just a fancy breed of dog that speaks Shakespeare! All they need are the commands of a firm but loving master.

This director is utterly wrong because he misses the essence of acting. I am convinced, after 40 years of acting, being in plays in New York and LA, studying four years with a hard-core Stanislavskian, reading a shelf full of books and contemplating for hours, that acting is about finding a personal response to the lines. (If you want to know more about this theory, read the best book on acting ever written, How to Stop Acting by Harold Guskin.)

This essential act cannot be done by a director's orders any more than an editor can dictate what words a novelist should use in his first draft. Like the fiction writer, the actor must get his personal response from his subconscious mind. The results will often surprise, and they cannot be dictated or anticipated, not even by the greatest director in the world. Like the editor, the director at most can only say "This does not work. Find something else." (And that editorial function is important.)

When a director concludes that obedience is the most valued aspect of an actor, then it is all too easy for him to conclude that he must intimidate and frighten the actors into obeying his commands. He creates a climate of fear. Thus creativity dies.

As William Ball writes in A Sense of Direction,

Fear is the primary enemy of creativity. When an actor approaches his role, it is always with some degree of fear. One of the jobs of the director is to encourage the actor to overcome his fear. Every director will find different techniques to supersede fear, but the most effective technique is for the director to assure the actor by what is said and done that they are allies; that the work will proceed on the basis of two people working toward a mutual goal.

The actor will learn to relinquish his fear when he sees that the director never causes another actor to be frightened. If the director terrorizes, victimizes or humiliates someone else in the cast, an actor will automatically deduce, "That may happen to me one day," and his guard will be up perpetually. So it is important for the director to have tremendous self-control. He must never send messages of derogation or contempt to any member of the cast. It is essential for the director to be the actor's ally, and each director must develop techniques that send messages quickly about that alliance -- the kindness with which he speaks to actors, the way he touches them, the way he praises them, the way he always has time for their questions, the way he overlooks their mistakes. Fear has to be supserseded if the director expects to get the best out of an actor.
(And it does not help if the director plays good cop while his surly production manager plays bad cop.)

When a director establishes a climate of fear, then the actors stop contributing. They do the safe thing: sit back and wait for orders. They're a little like the good Nazis -- you can't blame me, I'm just following orders.

Actors who do nothing but follow a director's orders are bad actors. They are not doing the important work, which is finding the values in each line and finding their personal response to those values. There is a lot more to acting than just playing dead.