People Buy The Why (Or… Watching Our Lives On Stage)

Many years ago, I was directing a high school play and was one cast member short. That Fall there just weren’t enough boys who auditioned, and I needed a strong actor to fill a role.

After school ended on the day the cast list went up, a freshman who was interested in the part came to my office. After asking, "Well, why didn't you just come to tryouts yesterday?" and hearing the usual crap, I said, "Well, audition for me now." 

"Right now?" he asked.

"Yeah. Now." 

He did, which I thought showed some gumption, and didn't do too terribly bad for someone a bit surprised to be auditioning at that moment.

The next day, no one else came to try for the role, so I gave it to him. He assured me he had had TONS of other acting experiences (in middle school and elsewhere) and had worked with directors other than his immediate eighth grade teacher. I had no reason to not believe him, so I handed him a script.

The first day he was on stage, he just stood there for most of the first half of rehearsal. Frozen. When I asked him what was up, I was pounded with the usual excuses of homework, blah, blah, blah. Then, he tried the whole, "I was added after everyone else in the cast"! I just laughed and said, "You received your script 24 hours after they did. If they were all already off book, then I'd say you have some work ahead of you, but they aren't, and you STILL have to work. Don't try that excuse again."

Now let's just stop and talk for a hot second about directing style. 

I believe a director's job is to mold what the actor brings to the table. We owe it to the playwright to bring the script to life as best we can. So I am all about the actor's creation, imagination, and experimentation. Yes, there will be times when I will say to you, "On this line, I'd like for you to move to the couch." Or, "How about you try the line as if it were a joke instead of a cry for help." And things like that. BUT… if the script says that your character is to open the door after saying a line, then I'm not going to tell you to go open the door. Nor am I going to talk you through when you should be "preparing" to do so. Do what makes sense.

Actually, one time, after seeing one of my musicals, a reviewer wrote, "The whole cast looked so natural up there. It looked like all the characters knew each other, and we were just watching their lives. I don't think they blocked the show at all. Why wouldn't you spend time blocking a show?" HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! The cast and I got a HUGE kick out of that. One cast member said, "Wow! I feel bad for what that guy's seen up till now." Then another said, "What I feel bad for is what he actually thinks THEATRE IS! Shouldn't he just be 'watching (our) lives' up there?"

Anyway… back to the day-late-and-dollar-short freshman actor story. So the kid said, "What should I do?" and I quickly replied, "Just go sit in that chair over there."

"Which one?"

"Which one what?" I asked.

"Which chair?" he asked — seriously not even looking over either one of his shoulders.

The other cast members, in unison, pointed to the chair behind him, and yelled, "THAT ONE!"

Rehearsal continued.

About four pages of script later, I yelled cut, and sighed heavily. Captain Tons-of-Experience was STILL IN THE CHAIR! When asked why and what for, he replied, "Well…. You haven't told me to move yet."

Yes, it was only day two of rehearsal, but the rest of the cast knew that this was not the best thing to say. "May-beeee," said one of the cast members, "but she's going to ask you, 'What do you think your character would do?'"

Then he said, "Oh, I don't know. Isn't that the director's job to tell me?"

I got to thinking about that. 

What is our job as actors, and what is our director's job?

A popular advertising phrase is that “people buy the why.” So in creating your character – be it one written for you, or the total performer you’re working to become, WHO is creating your why?

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