Someone recommended Jon Jory’s book to me, Ideas for Directors. On the one hand, I had been taught, by a certain mentor who shall remain nameless, to smile derisively at the notion that books had anything to teach about the art of directing a play. And to some extent, that’s actually a healthy attitude. To the extent that directing (or acting) can be taught at all, such teaching depends on the right-here-right-now immediacy of the classroom, and no matter how good a book is, it can’t give you that.

That said, I did encounter William Ball’s book A Sense of Direction a few decades ago, and I learned a lot from it. I still didn’t find much in it that in any way communicated what I had learned from the great classroom experiences I had had, but I did discover some new perspectives on things that had never really been a part of my classroom directing experiences. It was, in fact, extremely valuable. So when someone suggested Jon Jory’s book, I decided to give it a look.

I haven’t read it cover-to-cover, but it’s not really designed to be read that way, I don’t think. It’s more like a loosely organized compendium of brief meditations on various aspects of a director’s work. One distinction that I came across that resonated with me was his notion of “working loose” versus “working tight”.

Working loose means giving the actor input that helps her get oriented towards a scene, such as important aspects of the circumstances, or significant objectives that they might pursue as the character in the scene. The idea is that the actor will take this input and then explore it in rehearsing the scene, without any fine-grained, moment-to-moment, line-by-line input from the director. As the director, you’re directing the actor’s attention to certain key elements, and then letting her run with those. Ideally, much of the rehearsal process would get accomplished in this way, with the director providing input about creative priorities, and the actor exploring and discovering through the process of rehearsing.

Working tight means rolling up your sleeves, as a director, and giving actors that fine-grained direction that you avoid providing when you are working loose. “The important word in that line is xxx.” “Don’t turn back until you have finished saying xxx.” “Let him have it with that line!” “You don’t need a pause there.” While it might sound intrusive, Jory points out that when it is done well, most actors actually appreciate this kind of input. It’s almost a type of grooming, and most actors know that a director with a good eye and a way with words can help them in ways that they can’t do themselves.

Directing is different from teaching, but there is an analogous distinction in the acting classroom. In my Essentials class, I don’t actually “work tight” with students at all until the second time they put a scene up. The first time they put their scene up, I grill them (yes, grill them) on the given circumstances of the scene, and on what they have found to pursue as the character, based on those circumstances. Usually, this amounts to exposing (kindly and respectfully) holes in the student’s preparation (hey, if there were no holes, they likely wouldn’t need the class). The hope is that once the student fills in those holes, through a closer look at the text and the application of imagination in the appropriate ways, the next time they bring in the scene, the closing of said holes will have made a significant difference in their work.

Sadly, this is rare. The first time through the class, students don’t really know, yet, what it means to have something to pursue, what it means to actually pursue that something, what “throwing the ball” or playing an action means, how to sustain the playing of an action rather than simply following the vicissitudes of the dialogue, the difference between responding and reacting, the importance of eye contact, etc. Without all of that information, it’s very difficult (though not impossible, with heart and effort), to begin to know how to apply the insights gained when getting up the first time, the insights about the circumstances and what the actor needs to pursue in the scene, the “working loose” insights.

Even students who are not taking the class for the first time, or students in my advanced class, often have a hard time taking the “working loose”-type insights and translating them into choices about the scene, and then fulfilling those choices. The ability to move from understanding to action involves quite a few different skills, and if one of those skills is still undeveloped, then this will likely be a barrier to translating that understanding into implementation, into choices and fulfillment of choices. So why bother with working loose, in classroom setting? Because to do otherwise would be an injustice to the actor. It’s important that they begin to build some skill in understanding where strong choices come from, and how a text can be successfully mined for these choices, even if they still have lots of practice (and failure, what Wittgenstein called “bumping one’s head”) ahead of them before they can do that mining successfully and translate it into strong choices that they can actually execute and fulfill. Working tight with them without first teaching them at least the basics of where to find the insights that are foundational for their work amounts to spoon-feeding, and while it may lead to results more quickly, it leaves the actor with little or no understanding of how those results came about. The experience of doing good work, of fulfilling a scene, is powerful, and not to be dismissed. But in the best of circumstances, the student has that experience AND gains some understanding of where the thinking that underlies that good work comes from, so that they begin to be able to do some of that thinking themselves, and can start to see how that thinking (the framing of the scene based on circumstances) enables them to do the good work they are doing.

Call it playing both ends against the middle. With time and practice, those ends get less and less far apart, and the student actor, nourished by both approaches, can perhaps find true freedom in the craft.

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