On Directing (And Other Theatre Tangents) Vol. 3

The most fundamental difference between stage and screen is where the responsibility for quality, if not brilliance, falls. On screen, the actor is front and centre – quite literately. The close-up is the most revealing image of all images and it never lies. A bad performance on screen and the actor is vilified, is rebuffed, shunned even. There is a certain expectation of the actor on screen that he or she should have the ability to produce one perfect take in any given series of attempts. After all, they are being paid a fee that in effect amounts to the work of five specialist physicians. The director avoids a great deal of the blame. Actors, as we all now, are difficult creatures and a director can only do so much.

On stage, however, the tables are turned completely. The actor, while expected to deliver a grand, booming, and commanding performance, is not held to the same standard as his or her on screen counterpart. There is an inherent intellectual and fundamental acknowledgement, a grace if you will, on the part of the audience that the actor is only human and in a live performance, mistakes can, and almost always do, happen. Perfection is not a requisite or even a casual expectation of the stage actor. Within the urgency and immediacy of the anxious and unpredicatable reality of the live performance, there is a certain acceptable margin of error or deviance (that varies from theatre to theatre) in which the actor can find some comfort.

Not so for the stage director. The stage is an oddly autocratic, authoritarian, and undemocratic environment. The end credits of a film scroll for tens of minutes, but the stage billings occupy often no more than a single page. There is an acknowledgement of the director’s singular leadership that permeates through the entire collective. His is the final word and, while there may be discussion, there may be consultation, there may be collaboration, there is no consensus. The director steers the ship. Alone. The rest are but crew, worker bees, who must twist and bend into the most inconceivable shapes without protest.

Rightly so does the judgement fall on the director’s shoulders. He takes the blame, despite the hack talent, despite the blown calls by the stage manager, despite the old man coughing in the fourth row, despite the entire company being overworked, underthanked, and underpayed. It’s his show, his vision, his life on the line.

So, to return (finally) to the point, the director must be more than a tweaker, more than a tinkerer, more than a choreographer or a ringleader. He must be a visionary. He must see the final product from the first read-through and have the uncompromising, stubborn, self-important, and self-aggrandizing quality to take it there, despite the obstacles, despite the protests, despite the doubts.

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