One of my mentors at Yale, now a prominent New York director, once confided in me that it took ten years out of grad school before she got to the point where she didn’t have to live in terror every day about what aspect of one actor’s work in whatever show she was working on would deteriorate that day.
I knew that terror well. Helping an actor to develop a performance in which every word they say and everything they do issues from a visceral need is no mean feat. Many actors and directors never come anywhere close to this. But let me tell you, there is nothing more heartbreaking for a director than getting an actor to that point, where you actually see them do deep, compelling work, and then having to watch the show with an audience when the actor, for whatever reason, does not deliver that work that you have seen them do, that you helped midwife and that you KNOW they have in them. It is a very, very bitter pill.
Acting is a uniquely difficult pursuit in that if you are watching yourself do it, YOU’RE DOIN IT WRONG!!!! Sure, there will always be a part of the actor’s awareness that is not totally absorbed in the scene, but ideally, most of the actor’s faculties are involved in the world of the character. This fact about acting, that you can’t successfully watch yourself do it, makes it difficult for the actor to have a real sense of how it’s actually going. I have seen actors after a show in states of high elation over how it went, and then I have seen the same actors on different nights feeling badly about what they did, and often, I see very little difference. It’s just the nature of the beast.
So it’s important that actors work very, very hard at developing their skill. It’s one thing to truly connect with the need at the core of the character, and to learn to play the scene from that place. But it’s quite another to be able to do that consistently. It’s a real tightrope act. On Friends and Family Night in the class, I am never really sure what I am going to see, because I am working with people who are learning the process. That’s a big part of why I have them do the scenes that night for me once before the guests arrive: they can warm up the scene, and I can take an inventory of what they have managed to hold on to and what they need to be reminded of.
It’s also the director’s responsibility to create a safe, sane environment of support and encouragement that allows the actor to develop her work on the role in a way that promotes mental equilibrium and readiness. Directors who terrorize or bully are doing a disservice to everyone involved, and the actors can’t be faulted for inconsistency under such circumstances.
Work hard, actors, and stay in trim. We need you to be able to renew us, inspire us, to bring us to life.