Command the Stage – Every Director Needs to Act.

If I could emphasize one important lesson to those who intend to pursue directing, it would be that young directors must confront acting first as an actor.  The time I spent studying acting was perhaps the greatest insight I had in the challenges my actors now face in the work we pursue.

I am always able to remind myself of the courage it takes to confront a piece of dramatic material truthfully, and the very basic insecurities that acting requires of its participants.

Additionally, directing is a kind of performance.  When you engage in the activities of directing actors and directing the crew on set you are operating in a kind of mode where your behavior and your selective revelations of information influence the actions of everyone around you.

It is crucially important that directors approach their onset work with a mind toward how their attitudes and actions will be interpreted by everyone around them.

If you are fortunate in your experiences as an actor – you will perform a role that fulfills you.  You’ll have a moment on stage or in front of a camera where you feel that you were sincere and truthful in your performance.

Witnessing that truthfulness firsthand is, I think, a vitally important part of understanding how to seek out that truthfulness in your actors.  It is one thing to acquire a taste for identifying what that truthfulness looks like in the performance of your cast, but a very different thing to be able to relate personally to what the actor is experiencing in their pursuit of that truth.

One very positive aspect of directors learning to perform is the first hand realization of the embodied nature of performance.  Many directors I see working on the student level still grasp at performance as an exercise in external symbols.

While performance certainly does consist of a common emotional grammar, by facing the task of acting first-hand the director is forced to realize that external symbols are never sufficient for the audience to walk away with a truthful reading of the performance.  The exercise of symbols or tricks will only result in obvious cliches and a dissatisfied spectator experience.

Only by communicating the emotions of the scene organically through the embodied emotional experience of the performer can the performance avoid any trace of feeling synthetic or impoverished by falsehood.

There is no easy way to articulate this – but simply put – experiencing what that embodied organic emotional experience is like is the only way to fully appreciate the challenge posed by seeking it out.

If a director faces that challenge in his actors without having ever truly experienced what he is requesting of them he will easily underestimate the realities of what he may be asking of them and reach with terrible frustration the conclusion that there is little he can do to arrive at the result he is seeking.