How to Do the Actor-Director Dance

Guest Blog: Imagine a world of storytelling where each character is free from the constrictions and restrictions of actors and directors

As far as relationships go, I think the one between actors and directors is the most challenging. It is simultaneously demanding and misunderstood. 

Think about it: A director gets a script that is full of complex characters, and he needs actors to portray those characters. Okay — that seems easy enough. There are thousands of available actors from which a director can choose.

Getty Images

But once the selection has been made, the trouble begins. The actor-director relationship is kind of like trying to dance a waltz and both parties are trying to lead. Or, perhaps more accurately, the director thinks it’s a waltz while the actor is convinced it’s a tango (and we won’t begin to discuss what music the writer or producer thinks the band is playing).

The unfortunate truth is that actors expect most directors to be ‘result’ directors, meaning that they expect the director to communicate only how he wants the scene to be played — as if actors can flip switches and push buttons until the prescribed performance comes out. The reason most actors expect result directing is because most directors are result directors. Hey, it’s the easiest way to direct. It’s like going to McDonald’s: I tell you what I want and you put it in the bag.

Not to mix metaphors, but this ‘marriage’ between the actor and director is dysfunctional (and curiously co-dependent) from the start. Not because of any malicious intent but rather because the two species have never really learned how to communicate effectively with each other.

Take a look through all the literature on acting and directing, search through all the finest acting and directing schools and see how little is written or taught about the communication between actors and directors. Yet it’s very clear that actors and directors all have the best of intentions for making this relationship work. I have not met a director who did not have a clear idea of what she wanted. And every actor I have worked with has an intuitive instinct for their character and how a scene can be played.

Why, then, does this relationship so often begin to fall apart when actors and directors begin talking to each other? The answer is quite simple: different languages and different ideas of how this relationship should, or could, work.

What’s missing? The understanding that if this process is going to work there must be collaboration. Okay, I know what you’re thinking. “We do collaborate. We do work together. We do talk to each other.” And you’re right — of course you are. But are you clear on what your job is and what each of you brings to the table?

Way too many directors think that it is the director’s job to “tell the actors what you want,” and too many actors believe that their job is to “give the director what he/she wants.” This is their collaboration. And with this co-dependent formula the final product is destined to be limited to the imagination of the director, and most of the potential creative input from the actor will never be exposed.

So, what is the shared goal of the actor and director, and what is it that they are missing?

In this challenging relationship there is a third entity – the product of this union, the child, if you will – the character. In fact, the primary reason for this ‘marriage’ is to create the offspring. Can you imagine raising a child when you and your partner have two totally different ideas of how to nurture it? One of you (the actor) wants to infuse the child with certain emotions, habits, attitudes, fears and dreams. And the other (the director) has very clear ideas how that child should behave under certain and specific conditions. And who is there to advocate for the child? Is anyone even listening to the child? 

The essential job of the actor/director relationship is to create a character of such depth and authenticity that it can be ‘released’ into any scene without prerequisites of ‘acting’ or expectations of ‘performance.’ What the director or the actor believes the character wants or needs pales in comparison to what the character truly wants or needs. How we believe the character would behave under certain circumstances may have little to do with the character’s own intuition and instincts. Solution: Create the character — and then let the character breathe.

Here’s a thought: What would happen if directors stopped ‘directing actors?' By this I mean: What if directors abandoned the idea of demanding a certain performance or controlling the behavior of the actor/character? What if the director actually allowed the actors, as the characters, to find their way through each scene?

And what would happen if actors stopped ‘acting?' What if they gave up the practice of shaping, defining and controlling the behavior of their characters? What if they just allowed their characters to exist authentically and purely? What if each actor let their character carve his/her own way through each scene, through each moment of the character’s life?

Imagine it — no more ‘directing’ and no more ‘acting.’

Imagine a world of storytelling where each character is free from the constrictions and restrictions of actors and directors.

Imagine the actor-director relationship evolving into a creative relationship full of wonder, joy, creativity, exploration and parental pride.

It is possible.

All it takes is the willingness to explore new ways of working together. All it takes is the courage to relinquish those old, traditional controls and immerse yourself in a world of exploration and discovery.

Just imagine.