“Use your words” is a phrase we hear often in preschools. It’s a way of reminding children that acting out is not always an appropriate way to make their point of view clear. We tell kids it’s better to say, “I’m mad at you!” than hit someone.
Similarly, directors sometimes need to be encouraged to use their words too, since we all have a tendency to “act out” whatever we’re trying to communicate. We are an impatient bunch, and often it seems easier and quicker to physically show an actor what we are asking for – to move to the left, to turn around, to lean in closer – than it is to patiently explain while using our words. And we are often in such a gosh-darned hurry, we resort to doing it ourselves, acting it out for the actor. And if, in our impatience, the actor doesn’t respond quickly enough, we may even push, pull, or otherwise put them where we want them.
But that is demeaning to them. It is belittling their craft. Actors are not puppets for us to maneuver, they are people: incredibly creative people who have prepared the scene in their own way, just as a director prepares in his or her own way. We would be fools to not welcome their insights and idiots to treat them like chess pieces.
Part of the problem is that we’re prescribing how we want them to move, how we want them to physically navigate the set in a pre-marking rehearsal. That’s because we’ve imagined the scene in our heads and now we want the actors to duplicate our visions. But if we would let them feel it out themselves, we could incorporate their brilliant ideas! And then, if we need adjustments, for camera or lighting, or just to simplify the blocking – often to get the scene on one axis instead of two – we can request changes, using our words. I call it the “nudge, nudge, nudge” method of directing. We acknowledge the actors’ contributions, we incorporate them, and then, if necessary, we nudge them ever-so-slightly toward something that may work better for us. One nudge at a time, we can work through a scene, paying attention to the intention that the actor is illustrating, forming and molding the blocking to become an amalgamation of their ideas and ours. “I see you have the urge to move there on that line. Great idea! Maybe we could do that, but let’s try going this way instead. Just turn left instead of right. Let’s see how that works.” We collaborate to create the fullest expression of that scene. But we respect our actors, try to have a little more patience, and use our words.