Acting in Dubai: On actors as directors, technique and the director’s influence

As someone who’s acted with directors from various levels of experience, I have to say the one thing that’s most thrilling about getting involved in a new theatre or film project is the vision of the director. I’ve just been cast in a Dubai Drama Group community theatre production of a Hungarian short play called “A Matter of Husbands.” The director is a woman who’s just moved here from Hungary and used to act and direct in the theatre there. After she told me about herself on the phone, choosing her words carefully in her thick accent, I was reminded of some of the teachers and directors I’ve trained with or been directed by and how varied their styles were due to where they came from. One was German, another Polish, a few Canadian or Indian, and my first highschool teacher was of Polish-Canadian upbringing. Their schools of thought all differ and they have new expectations of each actor. It’s always, always a challenge. Lately I’ve also craved getting back onstage, especially after watching a ton of plays from friends at the Short + Sweet Theatre Festival in Dubai and because I’ve had only on-camera roles in the past year and a half. All of it has been for fun and with friends…but I’m ready to do some time on a stage! As my friend put it, I can finally “scratch that itch.” This is actually a phrase I would never myself use because I don’t like the idea of scratching itches, it makes me think of the kneecap-sized mosquito bites I picked up recently. Itches also suggest skin issues and I don’t really want that. Then again, I should stop thinking of things so literally and then writing about them in public spaces.

Anyway, in regards to this short play, the fact that the director has an acting background, with a penchant for Stanislavski, also makes me curious to see how much I can learn from her in the next few months.  I recently directed a play for the first time and think my acting training helped a lot. It was a 10-minute comedy for Backstage, another community theatre group I’m involved with in Dubai. It was totally new for me. I’d never directed anything and I honestly didn’t recognize the value of my efforts until the moment I saw it live, with an audience, lights, and no incessant interference from me. I remember feeling a bit like my mother might have when she first watched me sing.

Actors as directors

I think some actors direct other actors by putting themselves in the cast’s shoes and then taking themselves out of them. Someone asked me recently, didn’t you feel like re-enacting for your actors what to do when they were performing? This was absolutely correct. For the 2 months of rehearsals, I constantly stopped myself from performing it for them myself. The point is that the way I did it was never going to be the right way. I also despise it when directors do this for me. It’s the easy but incorrect way out. In every single case, an actor must be acting out a character in their own way and what’s natural to their impulses as the character they’ve constructed. As Sanford Meisner said, it is important for the actor to “live truthfully under the given imaginary circumstances.” I think, therefore, that my goal was to help my actors understand their circumstances and objectives better in order for them to be that character themselves. I was really proud of their performance in the end and it got the kind of audience response we wanted.

On the director’s influence

I’ve recently started recognizing the extent to which a director’s vision influences the final outcome of a project. If that’s not understood, and if the director doesn’t develop on the characters’ objectives and history, then it’s likely the final product will come off as weak and incomplete. If you’ve ever met an unfinished human being then you’ll get what I mean:P That’s what an undeveloped character is. I’m not a pro on this, especially since I don’t consider myself an obsessive film or theatre-goer, but I think I get people and human behaviour and that reality defines my expectations. My worst acting is when I’ve been left to my own devices, which means the absence of a directorial vision. My best acting has been with directors who are exacting and know exactly what they want and how to coax it out of me. It’s not a matter of just knowing what you want and asking for it, it’s about being patient with an actor and willing to work with them so closely that each detail is tweaked. Often when we see bad acting, as it’s referred to, it’s a matter of bad directing.

On camera, this may come down to facial expressions in a close up. For the director, this could mean ensuring the intention of a deliberate pause is completely clear to an audience, and for an actor it means that even the biting of a lip is intentional. This is all meant to casually flow out of a scene as with any script. Some would say these kind of details are important only on camera, since the viewer sees these things more closely. On stage, it’s the way the voice and body are used and how much space a person inhabits. If they are meek, they are small even if they’re of an average build. If they are glamorous and exaggerated, they can be a midget and take over the stage and the whole room. It may feel as though they are sitting on your lap in the audience. A director is meant to help draw out all these nuances among the characters to create the required synergy. Oh, the nuances. So important!

Acting schools of thought

One thing I’m both curious about and a bit apprehensive towards is acting from different schools of thought. In acting there are three approaches I’ve been exposed to — Stanislavski, Meisner and method acting from Strasberg, the latter two of whom have roots in practices originating with Stanislavski. Everyone knows method acting — Christian Bale does it for roles and it’s what many say led to Heath Ledger’s death after he played the Joker from the inside out. Method requires actors to live the character they’re portraying on and off the stage and to tap into emotional and sensory memory at all times, often to the detriment of their psyche. The truth is, though I’ve been taught Method in my theatre minor, I’ve never practiced it. I unintentionally did use memory and emotion similarly for one on-camera scene and I don’t think I can handle it for a full play or film. I’ve been trained in the Meisner technique, which is where you don’t think as much about your personal experiences and react to the circumstances according to the objectives of the character you’re playing. In a way it’s a lot less conscious.

I guess what I’m most pumped about is that someone with intensive training from another setting and lifestyle is going to be telling me what to do. What an opportunity!

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