Advice · Theater

It’s Not Acting, It’s Cooperating

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Public domain from Pixabay, courtesy of binpage.

All of us, at one time or another, wish to take earlier versions of ourselves firmly by the shoulder and administer the death grip. “No, self, don’t do that, do this, and while I’m at it, for god’s sake get rid of those shoes, they’re doing you no favor.”

In this case, I’m speaking of my late acting career.

Okay, career’s a strong word for doing massive quantities of community theater, but still, I persist. If I am retired from it—and I am—I must have had something to retire from.

It wasn’t much of a career, I admit. I did well on getting juicy rolls in elementary school, but was marred mid-stride by a middle school theater troop whose main casting requirements were the financial contributions of the parents. In high school, I got lines but not limelight, character parts rather than the heroines or heroes or villains or, really, anyone that wasn’t the random comic relief in act two.

Some people would be glad; I wasn’t. At a certain point, I realized that my last four characters had been old ladies, and I decided that I was done. Done with playing old ladies at age seventeen, done with adults in charge who screamed and shouted, done with rolling my eyes at bad stage directions and worse executions.

Naturally, I moved to directing. And that’s where I learned all the things I wish I’d known, not only as an actor, but as a teenager.

First I leaned that all my earlier grumbling was justified: my instincts on staging and tone and lighting were correct. I did, in fact, know how to run a rehearsal that was succinct and useful. I could coach actors into clear delivery. All good stuff.

But in some ways, all my grumbling had been quite wrong, because you know what? There is nothing worse than an actor who thinks they have nothing to learn. Nothing.

There’s one in every show, or more often half a dozen people who think they know better. Sometimes they do, but most of the time, if I find myself constantly butting heads with them, it’s because they don’t. Because they’re not directing.

Some actors are clever about their dislike of orders: they try what you want them to and then revert when you take your eye off them.

Some are obstinate, arguing again and again that their way is the best.

Some are rude, and screw it up on purpose until the director’s forced to change it.

Some merely cannot deliver the same line the same way twice and so it doesn’t bloody matter what you tell them or what they want anyway.

The motives are all the same, though. They want to do what they want to do, because they think they know best, and they won’t be told otherwise.

I know exactly what category I was in, way back when. I was the clever type (didn’t say intelligent, did I?) who snuck my own interpretations in when I was certain I wouldn’t be caught. Most of the time, I wasn’t. I don’t pretend that’s anything to do with my own skill, rather with harassed directors who had more to pay attention to than the comedy relief in the second act.

Unfortunately for both the actors who seek to thwart me and my own sanity, I do notice. I always bloody notice. And so I look back on my previous directs, many though their faults were, and think to myself: I think I know why I got smaller parts than I felt I should.

If two actors do their part wrong every single time, but one of them is making an honest effort while the other makes life a pain, I’m going to go with the honest effort. Wrong is wrong, and I may as well make life easier on myself. Because directing is nice, but by god is it work.

I’m pretty happy with my switch from acting to directing. Gone are the days of memorizing speeches and standing on stage for an hour at a time, bored out of my mind while someone else is lectured. These days, I get to lecture people, and coach them, and make a vision come to life with their help. And so this is my advice to anyone acting—anyone in a group project—anyone whose work depends on more than themselves:

Yes, you might be better than this. But if you make me want to kill you with a spoon every time you open your mouth, it’s amazing how quickly the people in charge will make sure they don’t have to spend time around you.

Oh, past self. So close, so far.

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