In my training as a director, I read lots of books, I saw lots of shows, I sat in on rehearsals (still love doing that—let me know if you’re rehearsing something and wouldn’t mind an observer!), I learned about text analysis, I had endless theoretical conversations with teachers and mentors. By the time I was 25, I felt like I had received a fantastic education in directing.

But a few years ago, in the space of only a couple months, I several things happened that my training had not prepared me for—honestly, hadn’t even mentioned as possibilities:

  • I worked with an actor whose chronic mental health challenges made it difficult for them to do the work. I didn’t know what to do to help them. If an actor has a movement disability, I know how to safely accommodate them; why didn’t I ever learn how to support someone with ongoing mental illness?
  • Another actor had an acute trauma response to the material in rehearsal. It wasn’t a violent or sexual scene; just something about how their scene partner gestured or moved or said their line that triggered a trauma response they weren’t ready for. While I might have been more prepared if we had been rehearsing something traditionally triggering, I was completely caught off-guard.
  • I myself had a trauma response to a piece of stage violence. This was another surprise; I watch a lot of choreographed fights and nearly always feel fine about it. The actor was fine. Nobody was upset but me. When I thought about it later, I wondered, What should I have done? How should I have processed it with the other people who were in the room, the next day? What should I do if that happens again?

I identified this as a deficit in my training—and not just mine, but everyone’s. I’m not saying that my training failed me; I still believe that my teachers were excellent and taught me everything they could. This just was not part of the conversation, when I was in school. I’ve asked a lot of directors about this, and so far, I haven’t met any who received specific training in how to support the actors, designers, and technicians on whom our work depends. We might be encouraged to study various acting methods so we can understand how a particular actor is working, but we don’t get any guidance about how to support people’s emotional health. Even though their emotions are our canvas.

This is beginning to change. A little. Five years ago, nobody knew what intimacy direction even was. Now, it’s everywhere. There’s a wonderful movement in the professional world toward “no more 10 out of 12s.” For those who don’t do professional theater, a 10 out of 12 is a tech rehearsal where everyone is working for at least ten hours out of a twelve-hour day (the other two hours are for lunch and four or five short breaks, generally). They’re unsafe and exhausting, and sometimes schedules require a few of them in a row. Industry professionals are asking, “Do we do this because we’ve always done it? Is there a better way?”

The change isn’t enough, though. I still hear stories, regularly, of directors and teachers demanding that actors use their own real-life trauma as material for the work, so that it will “feel real.” This is as dangerous as asking people to do a real slap instead of a safely choreographed one. Actors tell me about directors screaming at them, and then they say things like, “But it’s okay because his work is really good.” When we show directors in movies or plays, they act like this. Being a real director means tearing people down, emotionally manipulating them. Whatever they do is fine because the show is so innovative.

No piece of theater could ever be worth the suffering I have seen actors endure.

Darren Nichols, pretentious director from the TV show Slings and Arrows, saying, "Lasers"

Actors carry pain about their bodies because some agent told them, “You’re too tall/short/fat/plain to fall in love, you should stick to ‘best friend’ roles.” They believed and accepted and internalized this because the agent said they had the actor’s best interests at heart.

I once had another director tell me that I must not be that good “because actors really enjoy working with you.” He hadn’t ever seen one of my shows. He just didn’t believe that it is possible to get good work out of people without traumatizing them.

This stuff happens to other people who work in the theater, too—it’s not just actors who have people tell them that they are really inconveniencing everybody by getting sick or starting a family or wanting anything in their lives besides theater. Actors aren’t the only ones who hear, “You aren’t hungry enough.”

But actors bear the worst of it, because their bodies are their art. They have to live out and live with whatever theater throws at them, and take it and smile because they want to be “good to work with.” I love actors, and I can’t stand that these are the conditions they work under.

People rearrange their whole lives to give everything they have to an art form that tells them, “Everyone is replaceable.”

I am utterly furious about this.

In searching for tools to better support my collaborators, I have spent the past year and some more talking with mental health professionals, directors, stage managers, designers, and of course, actors. I’ve developed some basic principles and some concrete tools.

2021 is the biggest opportunity for rebirth that the theater has had in literally hundreds of years. This is our opportunity to say no to the scarcity model that makes actors put up with directors who scream at them, who throw things at them, who belittle them. This is our opportunity to make a better industry.

To that end, I’ve put together a workshop that is designed to give people who are leaders in the room better tools for creating brave spaces for all our partners.

Look! NTWF made me a cool graphic and it looks all fancy and official!

I’m teaching it in the fall for Directors Gathering, on September 12, and for the National Women’s Theater Festival on July 20. More info on the DG one when it gets closer, but you can sign up for the NWTF one here. I hope you’ll join me. It’s time to change.

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