Working in the theatre requires a level of trust.
As actors, we are asked to be completely vulnerable to a room full of strangers and to do this means we need to completely trust our fellow cast members, our directing staff, our writers, and ourselves.
As directors, we need to trust our intuitions to believe that we are making the best choices, we need to trust our producers that they are doing everything to ensure a successful production, and we need to trust our actors that they are going to take our direction and be the vessels that we need to communicate the story. We trust our costumers to help us create a vision of our characters. We trust our builders to keep us safe, we trust our designers to create the atmosphere, and we trust the audience to suspend their disbelief for a few hours to hear our tale.
If at any time this trust is compromised, our work will suffer.
As a director I have one rule: I never ask an actor to do something that I myself am not willing to do. Now, I fully admit to asking my actors to do things that I CANNOT do. I ask my actors to sing notes I cannot sing. To dance steps my body cannot dance. To tell stories I cannot tell. But I never ask them to do something that I am not willing to TRY to do. I have climbed on every set piece, contemplated every costume, debated every fight sequence to determine if I would feel comfortable using these elements as an actor. I find that my actors are much more likely to trust me if they know I that I'm only asking them to give exactly as much as I am willing to give. And I have high expectations. I am willing to give a lot to my productions. And my actors always rise to the challenge.
So what happens if an actor doesn't trust their director? The answer - nothing good.
If you work in the theatre long enough, you will encounter a director who you do not trust. You don't like their vision for the production, you don't agree with the characterization they've created, you hate the concept for the set or the costumes. Something about this director rubs you the wrong way. And that's okay! You don't have to like every production you do. But you do need to give as much of your energy and talent to the bummer productions as you do to the ones you love. If you want to be a professional actor, you need to behave professionally in every production, regardless if you are getting paid or if you are paying to play. This can be counter-intuitive. Many actors and their families feel that they are entitled to a certain experience if they are paying for it (especially in a university setting). Let me assure you that this entitlement is toxic to a creative environment and must be avoided at all cost.
If a director asks you do something that you don't agree with, stop and ask yourself why you disagree.
1. The direction is threatening to my vanity. Meaning, you are being asked to look silly or unattractive and your actor self is worried about how the audience will see you. If this is the case, you need to remember that acting is not about being pretty. Try to get out of your head, stop thinking about how you look, and be present in the character and tell the story.
2. I question whether this direction is in keeping with the integrity of the script. Meaning, you are worried that the direction you are given is in opposition to the story or how the character is written. If so, speak up. But do so in private, not in the middle of rehearsal. And always do what the director asks first, just to give it a try and see how it feels. If after rehearsal you still fee unsure about that choice, approach the director to discuss. But go into that conversation with the intention of doing what the director has asked but needing some clarification. Don't approach the director with the intention of changing her mind about the choice. You need to trust that if the direction isn't the right one, your director will see that in rehearsals and make a change. And you need to trust that the director and creative team are able to see the show as a whole and are privy to the story in a way that you are incapable of understanding since you are on stage and unable to see the show from the audience's point of view.
3. I question my safety. If so, discuss with the stage manager and director. Performance demands a certain level of spectacle and at times that means actors are asked to climb to great heights or simulate intense fight sequences in the efforts to shock and awe the audience. In professional settings, there are unions and agents to help ensure all safety precautions are being taken but often in community or youth theatre, the actors need to trust the efforts of the designers and crew to keep them safe. A conversation about safety concerns can often go a long way to ease an actor's mind.
If you follow these steps, you will most likely find yourself respecting the direction you are given and enjoying your experience in the production. I would like to add one more thought on trust:
Our actor egos are fragile. We are vulnerable when we are working and we need to remember that when we speak, our opinions carry great weight. If we grumble about our costumes in the dressing room, or roll our eyes to our cast behind the stage manager's back, we are posing a threat to our production. We are compromising the circle of trust that exists within the cast and the creative team. We owe it to our fellow actors to build each other up and avoid any negativity in the rehearsal space. A positive attitude and a willingness to trust one another will ensure a great experience had by all.
Take risks. Be willing to look ridiculous. Stay humble. Dream big.
Working in the theatre requires a level of trust.