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Strong Directors, Weak Directors

December 5, 2012

As the legendary Dame Lucy Van Pelt once said, “Listen, all of you! You’ve got to take direction! You’ve got to have discipline! You’ve got to have respect for your director!”

In my brief time as an actor, I have come to realize that what matters to me most in doing an improv show, play, or short film is the strength of the director. I’ve worked with about a half-dozen directors from anywhere from one day to four months each, and I have worked with one repeatedly. I have been lucky enough to like them all personally, but I’ve found big differences in their approaches and styles, which have impacted my performance and the overall quality of the work.

Unlike a lot of actors, I have absolutely no desire to direct. Though as a young boy I harbored ambitions of one day being president of the United States, I’ve discovered over time that I have very little managerial ability and I don’t like being in charge. (In fact, I’ve turned down promotions at my non-acting job for this reason.) I’m a great right-hand person to have around, but I’m not the guy to run the show — and I don’t want to.

One of the reasons why I’m a weak manager is the same reason why some of the directors I’ve worked with are, in my view, weak directors — difficulty in imposing discipline and in being able to assert authority, while still being fair and positive. A strong director, like a good boss, is not a tyrant. In fact, a tendency toward tyranny indicates a lack of confidence, not strength.

So what is a “strong director” to me? It is someone who has a clear vision and is able to unite the entire company — on-stage and off — behind it. It is someone who is able to facilitate differences between members of the team fairly, without favoritism. It is someone willing to entertain various points of view, but who, once a decision is reached, can enforce it. It is someone who understands that a final arbiter is necessary, and who can confidently be that person.

I have yet to encounter a tyrannical director. The “weak” directors I have worked with are, like me, people who find it hard to assert authority, and to focus on the end goal. In most cases, this has been because they are nice folks and don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But it has been detrimental. Weak directors I have worked with have let other actors “direct” fellow cast members — sometimes contrary to the director’s own instructions — and have left key decisions up to a vague consensus that has let the loudest folks win and produced a confusing hodgepodge onstage. Weak directors have complained about the lack of seriousness of some cast members, but then laughed along with their rehearsal-time jokes while those of us trying to work silently fumed. Weak directors have put off final decisions until late in the rehearsal process, or have failed to make decisions at all.

As a newcomer, I have quickly learned some personal rules that help me to work well with a director. These include showing up on time and being willing to do any job, no matter how small, without complaint. But most important has been to respect the director. Above all else, this means voicing concerns or complaints privately, one-on-one, not in front of everyone else, and acceding to the director’s final decision. I think this is one reason why the strong directors I have been blessed to work with so far have expressed the desire to work with me again — and why I will happily choose to do so.

Peter Sig

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2012 10:14 am

    This is a very intelligent piece. I learned a lot from it (being a director). I always ask my actors at the beginning of a project what they need from me and tell them what I need from them so we can work together toward our collaborative goals. It’s so helpful to read this from an actor’s perspective.

  2. The College Theatre Dork permalink
    December 7, 2012 11:29 pm

    I’ve learned a lot from Directing from sitting in on our Directing class every year (actually, that’s how I met The Crazy Theatre Artist!): watching the same scenes be directed by different student directors, listening to the professor explain directing and then actually being directed by the student directors has taught me about what kind of director I want to be when I take the class!

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