Having worked with amateur group casts and professional pantomime actors, I’ve made a fair few mistakes in directing shows! Of course, that’s how we learn. I decided to put this blog together to try and help you stop making the same mistakes I did, and I’ve seen other directors doing a fair few of them, too. It’s a practical guide to being the best director you can.
Why it’s important to acknowledge and learn from our mistakes
When you’re working in a rehearsal room with a group of actors, you’re asking them to put themselves out there, try new things and potentially fall (metaphorically) flat on their face if the idea doesn’t work first time round. So why don’t we expect the same from directors? As a director, I often feel just as vulnerable and under pressure as many actors. I think this is because the weight of the success of the production can really play on my mind. But the moment that you remember that putting together a show is a team operation; it only works when everyone is on top form (including you as the director). So offer ideas and suggestions, but remember that they might not work. If you remind yourself of this, actors will buy into that idea too. If you do this, you’ll end up with a more collaborative rehearsal room, and a happier team. Acknowledging your mistakes and moving on is a great example to set, and you’ll gain respect for doing it.
1. Forgetting that actors are people
Sometimes when you’re up against a time limit, or a particular issue is persisting, frustration can set in and anyone on the team can begin to get snappy. It’s crucial that you remember that your frustration feeds the mood of the room, and the frustration of others, so try and keep it under wraps if you can. Actors are people too, they have their own fears, pressures and frustrations, so try and remember that in a crisis. It also works the other way, if an actor is proving difficult or seems off balance for some reason, remember that they could have something going on in their personal life, or they might be finding something difficult to overcome. A quick conversation and offer of support can often put everyone in the room back on the right track.
2. Not explaining why
Your cast and crew are not mind readers! If you want them to buy into an idea, you need to make sure you explain your reasoning. Taking them through some of your thought process will help them to come on a journey with you and come on board with your idea. If actors feel like you’re just telling them what to do without any explanation, you’re going to lose their confidence and trust. Just remember to always include the why and you’ll be just fine.
3. Pretending you know it all
There is a myth that the director of the production must know the answers to every possible question. If you subscribe to this notion, you are only setting yourself up for a fall. If we knew all the answers then we would ultimately just be lazily giving out replies without trying out suggestions and ideas that occur to us on the spot. Sometimes an actor will ask a question, or give a suggestion that you’re not sure about. I have a phrase I like to use in this situation. It’s an idea that works well because you’re able to continue to consider the question or suggestion without deviating from your current plan for the next hour or so. The phrase I use is “putting it on the shelf”. If you put something on the shelf, then you are filing it away for later. Often, these questions get answered by other work you’ve done in rehearsals, or by factors later down the line. If they’re not answered, then it’s worth taking them off the shelf to discuss them. Perhaps put them out to the room and see if others’ creativity can help find solutions. My shelf usually ends up overflowing, but rehearsals run smoothly and by production week most of the questions have been answered in the course of rehearsals. Why not put up a metaphorical shelf of your own?
Even if you’ve read this guide, you will still make mistakes of your own. The important thing to remember is to learn from them ready for the next time you take up the directing mantle. If you’d like to share with me your own ideas about how we can all avoid common mistakes, I’d love you to send me an email.