Directing Actors as a Case Study in Personnel Management

Introduction

The lights go down and the curtain rises, and the audience witnesses the telling of a story, conceived by a playwright, brought to life by actors. The actors, strutting and fretting their hour upon the stage present us (hopefully) with a seamless interpretation of the playwright’s words, but they did not get there on their own. Somewhere between the playwright and the actor, the director’s hand guides the spectacle. The problems facing a director are virtually the same as those facing any other manager. How does one motivate a disparate group of individuals to work together toward achieving a common goal? Actors generally do not want, nor can they handle, maximum autonomy. They need direction, someone to set conceptual goals and, if necessary, provide them with the tools to achieve those goals. The most effective directors are those who use the actors’ talents efficiently. After a brief discussion of management techniques in general, the management styles of four individual stage directors will be analyzed.

General Management Techniques

In 1961, Rensis Likert characterized management styles as either authoritarian, consultative, or participative. In 1989, Maurice P. Marchant and Mark M. England recast these labels slightly by combining consultative and participative, Which they describe as fostering . . . "free communication up, down, and among peers, with extensive, friendly interaction; and cooperative teamwork in setting goals, making decisions, and evaluating performance" (p. 8). In most management situations, the authoritarian style is considered old fashioned, if not completely obsolete. When dealing with actors wrestling with the creative process, it is wholly inappropriate.

The essence of acting is communication. Actors must communicate the playwright’s words and ideas to the audience. Communication is also the key to the rehearsal process. In order to be effective, a director must communicate with the actor. Actors need to know the director’s overall concept of the play. Also, a negotiation process must take place between the actor and the director regarding how the character should be played. While the director has the authority to tell the actor exactly how to play the character, this is not an efficient use of the actor’s talents. The actor may not be able to exactly mimic the director’s idea of the character. More importantly, the actor probably has the capacity to create a more powerful characterization than what the director has pre-conceived because the actor is "in the moment," interacting with others on the stage in real time, one step closer to the intention of the playwright. This is not to say that the director has no role in developing the character. Rather it is the director’s role to help the actor create the character. To accomplish this, the director must engage in two-way communication with the actor. According to Barbara Conroy and Barbara Schindler Jones (1986), "People communicate better if they are working in a climate of confidence, mutual understanding and a strong sense of common purpose" (p. 66). The lack of such a supportive climate is a barrier to effective communication between actor and director, and will ultimately prevent the director’s vision from being realized to its full potential. Again according to Conroy and Jones (1986),

Perhaps the very best climate a manager can develop is one that gives employees enough freedom and sufficient resources to be creative, almost as if they are working for themselves. The main components of this kind of managerial climate are (1) supportiveness, (2) participative decision making, (3) trust, (4) confidence, (5) credibility, and (6) openness and candor. Notice that all of these components are bound up in and are products of the manager’s style and system of communication (p. 76).

A typical barrier to effective communication between actor and director is ego. Yes it is true, both actors and directors have been known to possess big egos. "The quality of decision-making is always hindered when personal egos take precedence over rational thoughtfulness" (Marchant, 1989, p. 4). While Marchant and England advise that "inclusion of egocentric individuals in planning groups should be avoided if possible" (p. 4), this sadly cannot be applied to theatre, where the biggest talents are often accompanied by the biggest egos.

One measure of managerial talent that lends itself to a discussion of theatre directors is the three-skill approach outlined by Robert L. Katz (1974). Katz theorizes that being an effective administrator requires the use of three developable skills, the technical, the human, and the conceptual (p. 460). Technical skill is defined as understanding and proficiency in the specific methods, procedure, processes or techniques of the profession. For the stage director, such technical skill would include the ability to manage the basic stage movement of the actors, including when to enter and exit the scene or when to sit, stand, or cross from one point to another. Other basic technical skills would include watching the actor’s position relative to the audience to ensure that the audience can see what the actor is doing and to monitor the actor’s vocal projection to ensure that the actor can be heard. To be sure, these things are primarily the responsibility of the actor, but the director is in the best position to monitor the performance and to provide the actor with feedback. Human skill is the ability to foster cooperative effort within the group. This includes working "to create an atmosphere of approval and security in which subordinates feel free to express themselves without fear of censure or ridicule, by encouraging them to participate in the planning and carrying out of those things which directly affect them" (p. 461). For the director, this would include working with individual actors, helping them to create effective and believable characterizations. Conceptual skill is "the ability to see the enterprise as a whole" (p. 463). The stage director must ensure that all the actors’ characterizations work together and that the production remains true to the playwright’s intention. Also, the director must oversee the artistic contribution of the sets, lighting, costumes, and sound. In short, the director is responsible for the overall look, feel, and soul of the entire production.

Management Style of Individual Directors

As alluded to earlier, it is the actor’s job to create a character based on the dialogue and description of the playwright and to communicate that character to the audience. The director should facilitate this communication, but it is the primary responsibility of the actor to see that it takes place. Successful communication between actor and audience is often the end result of successful communication between director and actor during the rehearsal process. The director acts as the surrogate for the audience, and as such is instrumental in reflecting the success or failure of the actor’s communication of the character to the audience. The performance of four different college faculty-level stage directors will be analyzed from the perspective of an (occasionally disgruntled, marginally skilled) actor and evaluated primarily on the effectiveness of their facilitation of character development.

The first director had little background in theatre, having earned an MFA degree with an emphasis in concert piano performance. This director’s management style is purely technical in the Katzian sense. Actors are instructed when to come on and off stage, where to move to on the set, and when to sit and stand. Little concern is shown as to whether or not these movements are motivated, or called for, by the story, dialogue, or individual characterization. As portrayed in the movie Tootsie, this is the kind of director that would instruct the actor playing the dying Tolstoy to get up and walk to center stage so the left side of the house can see him. This director’s primary concern is that actors not turn their backs on the audience, often resulting in actors having to walk backward from one spot to another. Actors would receive some feedback on their characterizations; usually more positive than negative and either way always vague, but would be given little help in developing these characterizations. In fact, this director would cut short any discussion of characterization issues, often reacting to any questions as if those questions were a personal attack. There was never any discussion of conceptual issues, even indirectly; suggesting that little or no consideration was given to these issues. This director’s style can be described as focusing on the technical to the exclusion of the conceptual, with minimal attention paid to human relations.

The second director had a master’s degree in communication studies, presumably with emphasis in theatre. This director claimed to have had professional acting experience but was vague and elusive about what that experience actually was. Though concerned with purely technical aspects, this director also considered the actor’s motivation behind movements, once having commented that the best kind of actors are those who can motivate any movement they are directed to make. Presumably, these actors were preferred because they made the director’s job easier by finding ways to smoothly accomplish movements that served no purpose other than the technical. This director routinely engaged in favoritism, singling out certain actors for special consideration and private consultation while simply telling others "I don’t like what you’re doing, do something else." Any questions raised were not viewed as opportunities for discussion but rather were viewed as things to be opposed, by sarcasm if and when reason fails. This kind of behavior was extremely damaging to the spirit of teamwork. While technically competent and mindful of the conceptual, this director failed miserably in the area of human relations.

Director number three apparently had no college degrees related to theatre, but did have extensive, verifiable professional experience, primarily as a dancer but also as an actor. This director was primarily a choreographer who physically demonstrated most of the actor’s movement and body language much as a choreographer would show steps to a dancer. This was attention to the technical taken to the extreme. For an actor who builds a character from the outside in, starting with movement, gestures, and voice, this approach was not bad. It provided a solid starting point for building a character that was consistent with the director’s overall concept of the show. But to a method actor, who builds a character from the inside out, starting with feelings and emotions and ending with physical movement, this style of directing short-circuits the process, interfering with character development. However, while the method actors may have grumbled and complained they still had freedom to work because this director was not such a taskmaster as to demand complete and total mirroring of the movement he demonstrated (though he had been known to throw shoes during run-throughs of production numbers). This director was simply more proficient at communicating instructions through movement rather than verbally. He knew what he wanted to see and led the actors there in the best way he knew, through individual character movement. Once that baseline movement was established, the actor was allowed to grow into the role, modifying the original movement to conform to the emerging character. Despite the occasional shoe throwing, this director was more of a patient teacher than an authoritarian taskmaster.

Finally, the fourth director had an extensive background in directing, in the University setting as well as the professional stage. This director would block out basic movement, entrances and exits, and then allow the actors to change that movement as their characterizations evolved. During the rehearsal process, actors were instructed to move when they felt that movement was necessary or motivated, and were encouraged to make counter movements to compensate for the unexpected movement of other actors. The goal was to develop the movement patterns organically throughout the rehearsal process, with those movements becoming set well before dress rehearsals and opening night. The director would speak to the whole cast about conceptual issues in the play, during which sharing was encouraged, and also would work with individuals and small groups on specific characterizations and scenes, but was equally accessible to all members of the cast. There was never any sense that this director was playing favorites. Specific direction was given through discussion between the director and actor, who would reach a consensus on what should be portrayed. Often the emphasis was placed more on thoughts and feelings than on physicality. What is the emotion of this character at this moment? It would then be up to the actor to find that emotion and incorporate it into the characterization. The director would provide specific technical acting advice if such advice was requested.

Conclusion

The third and fourth directors described above were the most effective, despite the fact that their directing styles were almost diametrically opposed to one another. The key to their success was their use of human skills. Both provided an atmosphere in which actors felt free to be creative without the fear of being arbitrarily overruled or ridiculed. They made the most efficient use of the skills that their actors possessed. One director began with a complete picture of the character and allowed the actor to modify it, and the other began with a blank canvas and allowed the actor to fill in the picture. But both had a strong concept of where the production should end up and effectively used the actors by allowing them to get there on their own.

Once the show opens, the director’s work is done. If it is done well, the audience is rewarded with a quality production. If it is done poorly the production may suffer, but even if it does not, even if the show is a success, the actors will look back and say "if only . . ."

References

Conroy, B., & Jones, B. (1986). Improving communication in the library. Phoenix, AZ: The Oryx Press.

Katz, R., (1974). Skills of an effective administrator. In B. Lynch (Ed.) (1985). Management strategies for libraries: A basic reader. (Pp. 459-480). New York: Neal-Schuman.

Marchant, M., & England, M. (1989). Future trends in public library administration. Journal of Library Administration, 11 (1/2), 1-27.

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