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Directing the novice actor

A teacher speaking to a group of three students who are gathered around her.

Teachers and students alike are sometimes beginners

By Laura Lewis-Barr

Acting requires tremendous openness and vulnerability. Those of us who direct young, beginning actors face a particularly daunting challenge. Most importantly, we must protect our students. Ethically we cannot ask them to reveal their most private selves, or to convey character truthfully, unless we create a psychologically safe environment. If we are unduly harsh or unpredictable, our casts will not perform well. They will reject conveying emotion to an audience. Without an honest commitment, their acting will be stiff and cliched.

During my years as a student of drama therapy and a practicing massage therapist, I became more sensitive to my feelings and how these manifested themselves physically. Specifically, I learned to be attentive to changes in voice, posture, gesture, movement, bodily conditions (pains, dizziness, etc.), or daydreams—aspects of personality that telegraph unconscious thoughts and fears. This knowledge later became a powerful directing tool that I could use to confront the veiled obstacles within my cast and myself.Learn theatre games to better use them in response to your beginning actors’ various needs. (Don Corathers)

Throughout my academic studies, I never encountered a directing class that addressed the insecurities of the director or the cast. Perhaps this topic seemed too subjective, but I believe it is the primary issue in actor training and in directing shows with novice actors. All performers and directors need to be aware of the subtext of their internal and external interactions. Without such knowledge, it’s impossible, or at least difficult, to harness the creative energy needed in rehearsal. Instead, we will be subject to the powerful unconscious emotions within the cast and ourselves.

Whatever vulnerability we might have as performers can be useful to us as directors. I never felt comfortable on the stage, but my perceived humiliations have given me valuable insight into the beginning actor’s process and a respect for the challenges of this art. Intuitive actor-directors, who most likely haven’t learned to dissect the craft into teachable skills, sometimes scold beginners or dazzle them with a brilliant demonstration of a scene. However, beginning actors—the majority of whom do not possess natural acting instincts—need a patient and compassionate teacher who can separate craft from impulse. A director who remembers what it was like to be a beginner is better equipped to do this than one who hasn’t been on stage.

Ideally, a director strives to create the most conducive atmosphere for the best work. The factors that create this environment are easier to identify than to implement. Such a setting honors sensitivity, promotes freedom of expression, encourages trust, and upholds the significance of the work. Because it is our responsibility to nurture this safe and productive atmosphere, as directors we must diligently model these positive behaviors. If I ask my actors to fully commit themselves in their every moment onstage, I must commit myself to every moment in rehearsal. If I consistently start on time, treat each actor with respect, and say what I mean, mean what I say, and only speak when I have something insightful to say, I am well on my way to creating a serious context for our playful work.

When directing beginning or young performers, promoting a habit of working seriously is perhaps the most difficult task. As a director, I have agonized over my stern reactions to irresponsible or irreverent behavior in rehearsal. But after twelve years of enforcing quiet, focused rehearsals that start on time regardless of who is present, I have found that casts appreciate high expectations. They want serious play.

Start on time

I learned a great deal about training young actors from directing shows at community colleges. In 1998, I directed The Magic Box, a company-created show based on children’s stories, at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines, Illinois. Most of the six student actors had never performed before, and this was an extracurricular activity. My green cast had to learn how to act while we collaboratively invented a show. The biggest challenge was to teach them an actor’s discipline. They were a lively, imaginative group—perfect for the show but taxing on me as a director.

After weeks of evening rehearsals, our first weekend rehearsal presented a crisis. As usual, I started on time with the actors who were present. On this morning, a few of us warmed up by performing slow-motion movements to exotic music. As I watched the time tick away I grew concerned. Finally, other company members joined us. They had been waiting at the wrong room.

But as we started to work on blocking, Lance, the actor with the largest role in the ensemble-driven production, still had not arrived. It was Saturday morning. He had bragged about his Friday night drinking habits. Thankfully, his part was minimal in this section and my assistant director was happy to fill in. I was lucky: my assistant, although new to the group, performed the role expertly. The cast enjoyed their new blocking.

Then, with only half an hour left in that morning’s rehearsal, the cast saw Lance through the windows. I instructed them not to stop their work but to practice their focus. The atmosphere was tense. We kept working as Lance cautiously entered. The mood in the room intensified as rehearsal continued. When we had finished, we discussed costume choices. Then I asked the cast if they minded ending rehearsal a bit early so that I could speak to Lance. The group left, stunned. My focus on the work and refusal to rage at him disoriented them. Lance’s cocky demeanor disappeared and the color drained from his face. After the others had left, I spoke to him respectfully but firmly. I would accept no excuses. If he missed again, he was out of the show. Lance nodded, relieved to get a second chance after seeing how well rehearsal was going with someone else playing his role.

I was fortunate this time. Circumstances allowed a productive rehearsal and Lance learned an important lesson about an actor’s responsibility. Sometimes merely threatening an actor with expulsion doesn’t work, and he will test your resolve much later in the rehearsal process, when taking him out of the show is more difficult and painful. Lance, I think, sensed my commitment to the show and to his education as an actor. If he missed again I would have to remove him so that he would learn. Moreover, by refusing to stop rehearsal to reprimand, I communicated to the entire cast my dedication to a serious work ethic.

Aside from the lessons for the extremely tardy actor, this incident demonstrated my determination to start rehearsals on time. A director should be prepared to work immediately even if only some actors are present. I have learned to have several warm-ups handy, including one or two that will work with a single actor. The first warm-up should be one the cast would hate to miss, an easy way to encourage punctuality. Waiting for latecomers is the surest way to inspire tardiness. Starting promptly, on the other hand, is the first step to creating a serious, respectful work environment.

Play games

Mastering theatre games and exercises is difficult. Using them poorly—or, worse yet, not at all—is far too easy. We learn games and exercises not only through books but also by experience. Therefore, I think directors should participate in theatre game workshops whenever the opportunity arises. Practicing, as both a leader and a follower, teaches us how to facilitate. I’m sometimes tempted to simply explain an exercise, but instead I always demonstrate difficult theatre games to my novice performers. Just like my students, I must be willing to make mistakes and risk foolishness if I expect liberated action from them. Only with daring are freedom and invention found.

A group of adults participate in a theatre exercise. In the foreground, a woman lays on the back of another woman, who is crouching to hold her up..Trying the games and exercises in advance also helps us recognize which activities promise success for the novice performer. These are the only ones we should use, because a poorly constructed game teaches beginners that they are likely to fail. Well-designed ones, such as those developed by Viola Spolin or the Open Theatre, create a structure to guide the action. Side-coaching and repetition are all that is needed to help build the actor’s skills with these games. (See the sidebar on page 11 for a list of game and exercise resources.)

A director needs a vast arsenal of exercises from numerous sources to serve various functions. More than simply warming up the cast, exercises can teach about vocal production, movement, development of character, sense and emotional memory, style and genre, spontaneity, listening, and learning to work in an ensemble. Games can prompt the neophyte actor to escape from over-analyzing a role. Many theatre games can help actors to embody themselves and their roles, freeing them to trust and act with their entire bodies, not only their heads.

A director should be able to identify and respond to the diverse needs of her actors, who require various prods at different times. Games and exercises can be altered or invented to suit rehearsal needs. Mime can encourage an actor who needs to be silent, a mirroring game can stop an actor from anticipating, or visualization can instill fresh images. Improvising around an actor’s resistance builds excitement in the rehearsal process. Actors may continue to resist—by withdrawing emotionally, claiming they are unable to do something, refusing to project or speak clearly, breaking character, etc.—but they will also appreciate a director’s ability to induce their growth through improvisation.

Teach focus

Another challenge from my Magic Box cast occurred the week after Lance’s tardiness. I was feeling under the weather and they were bouncing off the walls. I was short-tempered, trying to rein in their rowdiness so we could get the work done. Afterwards, though, I felt terrible. They probably deserved to be yelled at but perhaps my physical discomfort diminished my sensitivity to their needs.

I vowed to listen and watch more closely during the following rehearsal. To say that the company was unruly is an understatement. They talked, sang, danced, and gazed away while I tried to cajole them to listen to blocking or notes. When one person was finally quiet, the other five started. Although I was grateful for their energy and creativity, by the end of the night I felt like a trampled grade-school teacher.

I promised myself that I would never again go through such a frustrating rehearsal. However, I also felt glad I had given them some space. Being stern with rambunctious beginning actors is likely to dampen their energy. I obviously needed to find the balance necessary for a disciplined yet creative rehearsal environment. I had to teach my actors to focus.

At the start of the next rehearsal, I directed the cast to a room with the furniture arranged as a maze, and signs posted throughout. The signs suggested being silent, going within, confronting their fears of going deeper, and staying in character. The cast members stopped to read each one as I reminded them to stay silent and focused. The last sign instructed them to sit, listen, and count the number of sounds they heard. The exercise lasted for about ten minutes, although other groups may be able to maintain quiet for longer.

As the rehearsal proceeded, I continued to challenge my actors’ lack of focus and discipline. I felt nervous that they would resent my choice of a non-verbal warm-up: Spolin’s “Transformation of Objects,” in which an ensemble stands silently in a circle and one person begins to mime using an object. The actor then transforms the object into something entirely different, briefly mimes using it, and hands it to the next person, who takes the object and uses it before transforming it and handing it off to the next actor.

The exercise challenged my cast to silently focus on the action and to not goof off, while the mime allowed them to be creative and interactive, and to act as an ensemble. We were heading toward run-throughs and I needed all these qualities without the group’s manic energy. I was worried that the exercise might fail because they wouldn’t want to be non-verbal and wouldn’t achieve the concentration I was requiring. Moreover, I wasn’t confident that I could inspire them with my own skills in transforming invisible objects. I was tempted not to demonstrate but forced myself to do so. I needed to demonstrate my own concentration while insisting on theirs. The activity, surprisingly, worked and we learned about focus.

New exercises are always a risk. But I sensed that the actors appreciated my effort to design activities specifically for them. And even if in their resistance they decided that an exercise was “dumb,” I found that when they participate, even “dumb” activities could create significant changes in the cast’s skills and mood.

Give notes honestly

Promoting trust within the company requires first that the cast trusts the director. One of the primary ways of earning trust is to avoid gossip and to speak the truth at all times, even when it means diplomatically saying something confrontational or negative. For instance, it is possible to be candid, fair, and respectful while telling Ted that you will not tolerate upstaging his castmates. Or repeating to Debra that you still can’t understand a word she is saying.

Remember, the whole company is watching you. If they note that you aren’t speaking the truth to one cast member, they will be skeptical when you speak to them. As they see you correct other students, they will recognize the truth in what you say. They will realize, yes, it is true—we can’t hear or understand Debra. She will have to take the leap and speak up.

The more the cast sees the truth in your notes to others, the more they will trust you, if the notes are given assertively but not aggressively. A director who is too tentative loses credibility. If she is too stern, the cast loses confidence and faith in their abilities, then refuses to take risks. However, a director who responds honestly and diplomatically will nudge the cast toward their full potential without pushing them too hard.

Use resistance

Directing beginning actors requires the endurance and tenacity to educate rather than blame them when their work is not up to our standards. One teaching tool is deciphering our students’ reactions to our directions, other cast members, and the rehearsal process in general. We should note when they are tired, frustrated, angry, defensive, cocky, distracted, afraid, or inspired. Then we quickly decide what tactic to pursue, what game to play, or what tone to use to make the rehearsal productive. If we accept whatever the actor is giving us, the work will move forward. If we allow the actor’s stubbornness to engage us, the work will stop.

For example, my peerless teacher, who was also a drama therapist, took each of my defensive maneuvers in stride. She expertly used them as an entry into my psyche. Once, as I stood stuck onstage in rehearsal, she instructed me to verbalize each thought and sensation as it came into my head. Gently, compassionately, she sought me out of my hiding places while respecting my essence. Her expert work allowed a greater depth of exploration for both of us.

I was on the other side of the situation with The Magic Box. Carl repeatedly pulled himself out of the scene, looking at me for approval and breaking the fourth wall. Other times, as he exited the stage, he would sheepishly shrug his shoulders to apologize for his performance. He wanted to be an actor but he didn’t want to give up control of his habitual self. I decided to try to work with his resistance after rehearsal. I wanted to help him contact a truthful moment, to experience a sense or emotional memory. I knew I was asking him to plunge into the unknown.

A teacher, sitting down and with his hands in the air, instructs a student standing at the front of the classroom. Students sitting in desks watch from behind the teacher.I asked Carl to close his eyes. He kept opening them, smiling, asking me to define what I meant, what I wanted. I repeated my instruction to close his eyes. I asked him to imagine being in a very loud room and to say “It’s too noisy,” which was one of his lines in the show. Each time he said it without conviction, in a singsong way, then opened his eyes.

Perhaps he was hoping that if he played defense long enough I would give up on him and let him act falsely. I wouldn’t. It was late, I wanted to get home, but he needed to experience a moment of truth. He again opened his eyes. I again explained what I’m looking for and then he sat quietly for a full five minutes. I believed he was still testing me. I could wait. He opened his eyes and asked for further directions.

Remembering my own anxiety when I started acting, I figured that he must have been frightened. I again explained the exercise, hoping my actions would clarify the situation—it would be easier for Carl to simply try than to continue to resist. He tried again but the avoidance remained. As we continued, I complimented him on what he was doing well. With that praise, I saw him physically relax. He then said he wanted to do the work. I believed him.

Although an actor’s transformation from undisciplined student to focused and complex character may not be obvious, it will occur as many small discoveries accumulate. Any thoughtful, honest interaction within a rehearsal process will be effective. Carl, like all the actors in the Magic Box cast, improved throughout rehearsals and performances. By being attentive to the internal states and the subtle, shifting energies of our actors and ourselves—and responding with an appropriate balance of compassion and discipline—we can better serve our student actors, who in turn can better serve the audience.

Resources for theatre games and exercises

Theatre games and exercises can be used as warm-ups and as productive responses to the obstacles a cast of beginning actors may face in rehearsal. Here are resources that describe these activities. Remember to try them yourself before you decide to use them, and demonstrate them for your actors.

  1. Improv!, by Greg Atkins, Heinemann, 1993
  2. The Actor and the Text, by Cicely Berry, Ap-plause Books, 1992
  3. Games for Actors and Non-Actors, by Augusto Boal, Routledge, 1992
  4. Truth in Comedy, by Channa Halpern and Kim Johnson, Meriwether Publishing Ltd., 1994
  5. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, by Keith Johnstone, Theatre Arts Books, 1979
  6. Improvisation for the Theater, third edition, by Viola Spolin, Northwestern University Press, 1999


Laura Lewis-Barr is a freelance director and playwright in the Chicago area. She is currently forming a theatre company to explore the use of theatre as a spiritual discipline.


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