Theatre Series: Direct

Surprisingly, as long as I have been in theatre, I never directed until this very semester. Not a thing. It wasn’t just that I had never had the opportunity (although I hadn’t), it was also that I had not felt compelled to direct. I was always the one acting, the girl who wanted (and occasionally got) the lead.

However, all of that changed when I enrolled in “Directing” at York College. The class was a requirement for my degree, so I knew I was going to take it, but I had no idea what a profound impact it would have on me.

The first major project we had was the direction of a ten minute play. I chose “Brother” by Mary Gallagher, and once I had my cast we were off. I enjoyed plotting out the movements and studying the dialogue, but there was one rehearsal—a week or so into the process—where a sudden realization hit me.

We were sitting in the basement of our theatre building—Gurganus Hall—myself and my two actors. They had been prepared to run through the show, but I had other ideas. “Let’s chat for a minute first. I have some questions for you.” I had prepared those questions earlier that day, and in asking them I hoped to lead my actors to understand their characters more fully. We talked for about half of our rehearsal period, and they came to some brilliant realizations. It was in that moment that I recognized the fragility of these people.

I held in my proverbial hands the very heart and soul of these freshmen actors. They wanted nothing more than to please me, to do what I wanted, and to be good. Every actor wants to be good. I know, from an acting standpoint, the deep and burning desire to hear words of affirmation from my director; but I had never been in those directing shoes before. I realized that with a single word I could smash their egos into the ground, or make them soar to even greater heights. It is a terrifying, but exciting, power.

Now, I had no desire to hurt my actors’ egos, but realizing the potential for that made me choose my words very carefully. If I had a critique, I put it as gently as I could. Not so gently that it was misunderstood, but gently enough that I didn’t sound more harsh than necessary.

I think every director, or at least every good director, realizes this strange power they have over the men and women who act for them. Many people see the director as a puppet master, pulling the strings left and right, up and down. But we are so much more than that.

A puppet master needn’t worry about the emotions of her puppets—they are inanimate, she animates them. A director realizes that she is molding real, live human beings; human beings with hearts and pride and such fragile self-esteems.

When I realized that, I looked back on what I had learned in the class so far with new eyes. Everything we were being taught was coming from a man who had been doing this for longer than I have been alive (or nearly so). My filter for his words was changed after that. I am no longer simply an actor trying to learn about directing; now I am a director who desperately needs the guidance and instruction of someone who knows more than I about this strange adventure.