January 3, 2012

Directing actors during rehearsal.

If an engaging performance is dependent on effective communication between director and actor, (let’s ignore the actor’s own skills for now) then studying what an actor needs communicated to him by the director will ensure the actor understands the director’s vision, goal and will thus be able to deliver an engaging performance. Firstly we have to understand the actor’s world better. These are some of the most popular acting techniques:


Konstantin Stanislavsky’s method is based on naturalistic, psychological acting. He uses the “what if technique.” Stanislavsky believes actors should develop emotional triggers that they can recall to create a desired emotional effect. Actors imagine themselves in a given situation and feed on the emotions the situation awakens within them. The actor then draws from a personal experience in his or her past that is similar to the called for situation. This is used to invoke the same emotional response from the actor and is often called “sense memory.”

“An artist does not build his role out of the first thing at hand. He chooses very carefully and culls out of his living experiences the ones that are most enticing. He weaves the soul of the person he is to portray out of emotions that were dearer to him than everyday sensations” -Stanislavsky, K

Some say that this is the most effective ways of acting, but in modern cinema this techniques has often been described as “dangerous” to the actor’s mental health. This is because the actor creates a new character by using his own experiences and reawakens emotional trauma that is part of his own life, and not that of solely the character.

The following exercise allows the actor to focus their senses to become more receptive to “sense memory.”

The actors should begin by focusing on the three dominant senses: sight, sound and touch. The actor should then choose an object that appeals to these senses and start to explore it intensely. The actor should become aware of which sense is the most dominant and record the finding to discuss afterwards.

Next, the actor should assume a comfortable position and focus all attention on a single stimulus such as a colour, sound, texture etc. This should carry on for about 5 minutes, after which the findings should be documented and discussed.

These exercises are useful if performed before rehearsals by only the actor. The experiences the actor gained through these exercises should only be available for recall during rehearsals. It is not important for the director to know how or where the actor pulls the emotion from within their personal lives. The actor should also not think about the personal events that caused these emotions. The actor should simply remember how they felt during these exercises and apply that to their performance.


Judith Weston is an advocate of Experimental Direction, as opposed to Result Orientated direction. She develops the internal life of the character, for the actor, every step of the rehearsal process. It is important for her to approach the characters with enthusiasm for the actors to find something to identify with. Result directing initiates a guessing game between director and actor. The actor thus starts to become self-conscious and this absolutely kills a performance.

This style of directing forces the actors to react, opposed to act. Thus the characters become more real to the actors. The performance is not merely dependant on delivering the lines, but the actor is now forced to interpret the character based possibly on other techniques, backstory or direction.

The director should set up a scene with a fact driven situation for the actors to respond to. One actor can be given scripted action, goal or lines, while the other is either only given a character need/want. Actors should not discuss the subtext or direction among themselves since it will spoil the reaction to the unknown direction. This allows interesting responses to develop naturally, and the actors can find their own character’s essence.

Combining this technique with the Meisner technique can be effective if the performance seems “cliché.” Directors can take this a step further by giving the characters “needs” that are opposite of what has been scripted during rehearsal. It is important to keep the direction simple and playable when giving direction in this context.

This exercise gives the characters insight into each other’s lives. In the past it has allowed me to “workshop” a beat in a screenplay that was not translating very well to the screen. It is my favourite technique to use for on-set improvisation since it forces the actors to think like their characters, thus bringing them into character, and solving acting problems that result from over directing or over analysing the subtext as an actor.


The Meisner approach is one of the most popular today. It relies on a repetition technique where actors know the lines so well they can repeat it over and over. The actors will repeat the lines until it becomes mechanical, from this point onwards small changes to the delivery should affect how the other actor reacts. The actors are thus forced to truly listen to one another and react opposed to simply delivering lines without listening to the other actor.

The rehearsal process

Lenore DeKoven, author of Changing Direction and Terry Schreiber, author of Acting. Advanced Techniques for the Actor, Director and Teacher. Describe the rehearsal process in detail in their books. Both agree that a great deal of planning and work is necessary prior to each rehearsal. Schreiber states that an actor must create a “roadmap” before the rehearsal. This includes: 1) A “working title for the character in the scene. 2) an objective for the character. 3) Beats outlined. 4) Actions or intentions, often for each beat. 5) Givens or background from the entire text.

The “working title” describes what kind of scene this is for each character. Example: A drowning scene, a manipulation scene, a seduction scene etc. DeKoven has a similar model that includes: 1) Life needs. 2)Scene needs. 3) Actions.

Schreiber’s “The working title for the character in the scene” can be directly compared to DeKoven’s “Scene needs”. Schreiber’s “objective for the character” can be compared to DeKoven’s “Life needs.” And Schreiber’s “actions” and “beats outlined” can be compared to DeKoven’s “Actions.”

The Life need or character objective is the character’s main goal. This must be very clear. Schreiber states the character must find a one sentence objective that starts with “I must…!” DeKoven feels that each human being is motivated by a few basic needs. These needs depict how the actor will respond to any situation. DeKoven states that we should break this down into very basic needs so that they can be expressed with words to trigger emotions in the actor. “To prove one’s worth” is an example which I recently used, other options given by DeKoven are: To free oneself, To get rid of guilt, To get love.

Schreiber states that the actor must “…really go after your Objective, you will get out of your head, give up control and be 100 percent involved in obtaining your goal.” This is exactly what you should want as a director: The actor should be able to play without intellectualising on set.

Over-analysing and intellectualisation of the script should be left to rehearsals and should serve as the base from which a performance is drawn on set.

The “Scene need” or “Working title” are very much the same as the “life need” of an actor. The only difference is this need is immediately fulfilled to fulfil the “life need” according to DeKoven. Schreiber states that it is important to remember that each actor will have a different “working title” for the scene and that the actors should never share this ahead of time. It is interesting to note the similarities between Schreiber’s approach and Weston’s approach. Both of them find it important to isolate the goals of the actors to maximize conflict. The more in opposition each character’s scene need is, the more conflict will be generated through the performance. This is by all means the screenwriter’s job, but the director can control these variables to maximise audience engagement.

Schreiber continues to stress the importance of the “working title.” She argues that it should be chosen from the top of the scene. Example: If the character goes out onto the porch at a party and kisses a girl, the need is not necessarily “to kiss/ to find love.” Simply because this is the action in the scene doesn’t make it the correct “working title.” In this case it could be “To escape.” The character escapes from the party to the porch and shares this with the girl he kisses. The “working title” or “scene need” never changes during the scene, it always stays the subtext, and if the subtext does change the scene is finished and lacks conflict.

One can now go one step deeper and assign a “need” or “action verb” to each beat and action. The life need can be explained as the overall character development, the scene need as the crux of how the character will try to achieve the life need within the scene. The action verb describes how each action tries to fulfil the scene need, which in turns tries to fulfil the life need.

“The Actions are the verbs the actor is playing to fulfil the Objective” according to Schreiber. He assigns an action verb to each beat in a scene. She argues that it is paramount for the actor to know the beats since they encapsulate the development of the character. Once the actors know these beats, the transitions between them will become much clearer.

It is essential for a director to understanding these building blocks in a scene. It allows him to quickly make changes within a performance without giving result directing. Working with the actors on their scene and life goals during rehearsal is an effective way to communicate with actors in a language that everyone understands.

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