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Where Actor Meets Director

Every time I decided to audition for a new stage production, I would start my preparation by reading the script and making notes about the character that I hoped to play, the stage directions, and my character’s wants and needs. Then, during the audition, the director would ask me to do something I hadn’t planned for. If it was something that I felt was inconsistent with my “analysis”, I would want to argue and resist – which probably didn’t add anything to my chances of getting the part.

If I still managed to be selected as one of the actors, it would seem that the “do something different” would continue during the rehearsals. I would frequently allow my irritation to diminish the joy and satisfaction of being part of the project.

I was failing in a key part of Michael Chekhov’s core principle, quoted in the picture at the top of this post: my acting passion was definitely burning inside, but I was not managing much outer ease.

I read a lot of books and watched many videos that only confused me more. The great actors would speak in terms of being “an instrument of the director” and “If you can say it, you can see it.” The great directors would praise those actors who came fully prepared and with their own, original ideas.

Where does the actor meet the director in the process of creating a memorable dramatic performance? How do I blend my preparation and emotional passion for my character with the the vision of the director so that we can truly be partners in this creative endeavor?

A recent workshop helped me to gain a lot more clarity about these important questions.

Michael Chekhov was the nephew of Anton Chekhov. His teacher, Konstantin Stanislavski, said he was his most brilliant student. He fled to Germany when Stalin came to power, then to England where he established The Chekhov Theatre School. With the start of WWII, he moved to the US and recreated his drama school there. Some of his students were Clint Eastwood, Yul Brenner and Anthony Hopkins.

The workshop leader, Carolyn Morrow, saw limited value in discussing theory and acting techniques and far more value in creating our own experiences. To this end, she asked us to each bring some object that had emotional significance to us to the workshop. We would use these as a way to begin exploring how we activate our emotions through sensory memory and deep, detailed imagination.

We began by sitting in a circle. Each person would show the group their object and say something about why it was important and special for them. It was a great way to get to know and trust each other, and it was opening the way to our  emotional treasure house. The stories were very different, yet the laughs and tears were the same for us all – and we all could often recognize similar emotional experiences from our own lives.

Sharing our stories about something that was special to us

After that, we got up and started moving silently around the room, being aware of our bodies and those of the others. At some point we started playing tag, but always in slow motion and not saying a word. We were reaching, avoiding, and trying to hide behind each other – and it became steadily more intense as Carolyn steadily moved the boundary chairs into an ever smaller circle. Little mini-dramas appeared spontaneously between the participants without a single word being said.

Playing slow-motion tag in a small space created a new awareness of our bodies and released a lot of emotion.

Then we moved on to the next exercise. Most of us sat down to be the audience and one person was selected to leave the room for a moment with Carolyn. She gave the actor a tiny prompt about “where” they were (in the upcoming scene) and “what” the situation was, then returned to become part of the audience. After a brief moment for emotional preparation, the actor re-entered the room where the special objects from the morning had been laid out on a small table.

The actor used those objects and anything else on the “stage”, together with their movement and silent actions, to communicate to the rest of us who they were, what their relationship to the room and other (absent) characters was, and their wants and needs.

It was amazing how clearly I experienced the circumstances and emotions that the actor was portraying – and even more astounding that others experienced different stories with equal clarity. Then Carolyn would slightly change the reason for them to be coming into the room and suggest a slightly different need before inviting them to repeat the “scene”.

The clarity of the difference between the two performances was staggering. A bell rang loudly in my head as I realized I had just witnessed the actor “meeting” the director and, out of that synergy, creating something completely new and authentic.

Entering a room with intentionality and a clear emotional state gave the silent movements
credibility and communicated a great deal to the audience.

In the next exercise we were paired up and invited to create a scene where we had a bit of text that we could put together into whatever story we chose – but we could only use that text and nothing else:
Actor A: I can’t believe it
Actor B: I know
Actor A: I can’t believe it
Actor B: I know

We had a handout with a few questions that could activate our emotional imagination but, as usual, Carolyn just encouraged us to get started with the exercise and not spend a lot of time with the theory. Since there were no clues to any of the questions from the text alone, we clearly had to play both the role of the director (who are we, where are we, what is our relationship to each other) and actor (what do I want, what am I feeling about my partner, what is my relationship to my partner). The diversity of our final scenes was simply staggering. (I’ll leave it to your imagination where and how the text lines were spoken and the emotions that it engendered in the audience.)

Coming down a steep, snowy mountain slope on a sled, just before the crash.
Opening and reading a long-expected letter announcing acceptance to graduate school.
A beautiful woman offers to dance with a lonely, old man at the bar.

Carolyn would then make a few “directorial” changes, invite the actors to consider other possibilities for their emotional imagination, and then ask us to repeat our scene with the changes. For me, the repetition was very useful. I discovered that not only could I (and the others) make those changes on the fly and still be completely authentic, but also that the different perspective of the director was essential to producing the best work.

Although there was no intention that our various scenes would be linked together to make a longer play, I couldn’t help but notice that such a thing could have been done with the three scenes illustrated above. The director’s vision for the “play” would have been essential to accomplish this and it would have been the actors’ responsibility to find the necessary emotional states to make that vision a reality.

Then we formed new pairs and repeated the exercise with a slightly more complicated script that actually had a stage direction in it! (Spoiler alert: it didn’t help at all.)

The script lines were:
A: You know I love you, right?
B’s only response is having an emotional reaction
A: Right?
B: You love me to the moon and back
A: That’s right. So – you do know
B: I know.

There is no way I will let you leave me for that other woman.
Meeting in a restaurant to announce the end of a marriage but not of the friendship.

There was more intense coaching this time, challenging us to activate emotional states within ourselves in a real, lived and felt way.

The scenes that each group created were as different as they were in the first exercise. My partner and I experimented with a number of different settings, wants and needs. Just before our preparation time ended, my partner used a heavy scarf to mime strangling me at the end of the scene. It was dramatically different from anything we had tried before and we would have played with it a bit more if we had had more time. As we were going to the front of the room to perform our scene, I asked my partner if he wanted to throw caution to the wind and just go for it: I was dying and his strangling me was an act of love and mercy.

It was such a beautiful example of the basic guidelines of Improv – say “yes, and…” and make your partner look good. We let all of our emotional responses flower and merge with each other and with the audience. In an unbelievable coincidence, at the very end of the scene as I let my “lifeless” hand and arm fall to the floor, the nearby church bells started to ring.

Carolyn was very pleased with it all and, in a constructive way, suggested that there were a few times when I resorted to inauthentic (and unnecessary) gestures. “So, just trust the audience more?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “include the audience in your emotional experience.” I had no idea at first what that could possibly mean – then it hit me: it wasn’t about my “trusting” the audience, it was about my trying to control their response. I wasn’t letting the audience be my “improv partner” to whom I could also say “yes, and…” and make them look good as well.

There were so many special moments from the workshop day, but this insight was particularly powerful. It inspired me to create a short story from the scene, and in that process I discovered that my readers are my improv partners in this sense as well. I can write how my character is feeling about something (‘he was angry about the result’) or I can make the effort to capture his emotions and reactions in words that will, perhaps, evoke real emotions in my reader. The former is largely dead and uninteresting text while the latter is real, alive and present for the reader.

My, oh my, it’s a brave new world!

Photos provided by Simon Purslove and Susan Voight

4 thoughts on “Where Actor Meets Director”

  1. Pingback: Acting is Us – E-motion: Energy In Motion – Voight Post Script

  2. What a wonderfully led workshop run by Carolyn who clearly knows what she is doing , I agree with her methods 100 percent , Carolyn has the skill to get to the real actor, without overwhelming people with this and that technique!! The results are clear good job well done

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