I will start by boring you with autobiographical details. Philosophies about directing vary widely, so without understanding the kind of person I am -- and how my prejudices and aesthetics congealed into their present state -- my advice will be an arbitrary list of techniques.
By knowing something about the person behind those techniques, hopefully you'll be able to position yourself in a meaningful relationship to them, even if you wind up saying, "Well, I'm not going to work that way, because I'm trying to create a very different sort of theatre than he is."
With that in mind, please note that I'll let my prejudices fly from here on out. I don't think my tastes are better than anyone else's, but they are the metrics I use in my own work. They inform everything I do, as your tastes should inform everything you do. It would be a boring world if every director worked the same way.
I apologize for the length of this. If you get bored reading the biographical and "philosophical" sections, feel free to skip down to the section called "THE SCRIPT." From that point on, I discuss the nuts-and-bolts of how I direct plays -- the actual techniques I use. But I think they will make more sense when viewed through the lens of the previous sections.
ME! ME! ME!
I've been directing plays for about 27 years, first in my college dorm ("Hey! You wanna put on a show?"), then as a theatre major at Indiana University. In the dorm, I was groping my way to a result, with no real plan of action, other than some basic aesthetics about what I liked and disliked. In the theatre department, I got my first formal training in acting theory, script analysis and how to work with designers. I then transferred to New College of the University of South Florida, which didn't have a theatre department, so I went back to "Hey! You wanna put on a show?" I wound up creating an unofficial theatre program there, and I even got permission to teach some for-credit acting classes. After that, I got my MFA at Ohio University's Professional Director's Training program.
While in these various schools, I took time off to do internships. I assistant directed at the ASLO theatre in Florida, in various other regional theatres, at NYC's Circle in the Square and at the BBC in London, where I helped out with a TV-adaptation of Arthur Miller's last play, "Broken Glass." I learned way more assistant directing than I learned in any of the schools I attended. I didn't do much -- I mostly took notes for directors and got them coffee. But I got to observe how they worked from start to finish. I got to watch good directors and bad directors, and I thought hard about which of their techniques I would steal and which I hated and would do differently.
After college, I moved to NYC with my wife, an actress, and we co-founded Folding Chair Classical Theatre (www.foldingchairtheatre.org), which I've run for the last ten years. For Folding Chair, I have directed plays by Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Webster, Aeschylus, David Mamet, Connor McPhereson, Michael Frayn, Timberlake Wertenbaker, and others. Folding Chair is what we colloquially call an off-off Broadway theatre. This means we produce plays under the Actors' Equity (the stage-actors' union) Showcase Code, which allows us to cast union actors without paying them, as-long-as we follow certain rules. I could make a whole other post about the economics and politics of producing plays in NYC, but here I'll stick to aesthetic concerns and practical rehearsal techniques. (It sucks that I can't afford to pay my wonderful, hard-working actors. But I'm in the same boat as them. I don't get paid, either.)
THE BIG EVENT
The last thing I want to tell you about myself concerns The Big Event that occurred about 20 years ago -- the one that made me into the kind of director I am, and the one that informs all the choices I make in rehearsals.
As a young theatre student, I was in a crisis. I kept wondering, "Why am I studying theatre? What's the value of theatre for a director? I understand why actors love it, because they get to perform in front of a live audience. But for me, I get fewer resources than I would as a movie director. And if I directed movies, I'd have way more control. I could get everything exactly the way I want it, film THAT, and it would be locked in an ideal state forever.In the theatre, even if I get something right in rehearsal, it can drift away from that in performance."
Several times, I thought about switching from being a theatre major to being a film major. I mostly didn't due to inertia. I was comfortable around theatre people, because they were the people I knew. And I was scared of having to start from scratch in a whole new discipline and community. But I was lost. I had no idea of how to direct plays or why I even should be directing them. To me, they seemed like watered-down versions of movies. Anything I could do on stage, I could do better on film.
The Big Event was seeing Andre Gregory's "Uncle Vanya" project. It was Summer, and I was researching my own production of "Uncle Vanya," which I was slated to direct once the school year started again. I went to NYC to see a few productions of the play that happened to be on at the time. Then a friend called me and said, "I got invited to this rehearsal of a play Andre Gregory is directing. It's by-invitation-only. But I can't go. Would you like to take my place? It's 'Uncle Vanya,' and I know you're researching that play." Of course, I jumped at the chance.
What I saw that night was the best production of the play I have ever seen, before or since. There were no sets or costumes or lighting changes. The actors just wore their street clothes and sat on rehearsal chairs. They drank their "vodka" out of paper cups. But they were so in-character that, within seconds, I stopped noticing their contemporary clothing and could have sworn they were dressed as men and women in turn-of-the-Century Russia. In fact, that is how I remember what I saw, even though that memory is a fiction.
Note: there's a movie version of this production, called "Vanya on 42nd Street." It's really good, and I urge you to rent it. But it's quite different from what I saw. The movie was directed by Louis Malle, not Andre Gregory. On the surface, it appears to be a documentary of Gregory's production -- as if Malle just set up a camera and filmed it. But Malle and Gregory had quite different agendas. Gregory's play wasn't called "Vanya ON 42ND STREET." It was just "a rehearsal of Chekhov's 'Uncle Vanya'." Malle was interested in the tension between the early 1900s play and the modernly dressed actors. His movie forces you to think about this collision by including closeups of actors drinking "vodka" out of "I HEART NY" cups. Whereas in the production I saw, those anachronisms faded into the background. What I saw was all about Chekhov's play. (I am not belittling Malle's movie, which I love. It's just different from what I saw.)
Why was Gregory's play so good? Well, he'd assembled a really good cast of actors (Julianne Moore, Wallace Shawn, etc.) and worked with them for FIVE YEARS. They were all movie actors with busy careers, so they didn't work constantly for five years, but whenever they found themselves in New York together, they would meet up and work on the play. They had no plans to officially open it. It was just an ongoing workshop and, every once in a while, they would invite a small audience -- about 20 people -- to watch a run-through. The production was great because the ensemble knew each other and the play backwards and forewords. After five years of intense work and study, they probably knew it better than Chekhov did. Every nuance was thought through and multi-layered.
But this wasn't The Big Event. This was "just" a really good production. It was so good that I HAD to see it again. The next night I went back and, with great hubris, begged Gregory to let me watch it again. I made such a nuisance of myself that Gregory finally let me in, adding an extra chair to the audience for me to sit in. I'm sorry I bothered him, but the result changed my life.
What I saw that night was UTTERLY different from what I'd seen the night before. It was the same play, of course, and the actors hadn't changed any of the lines, but almost every moment was changed -- but changed in a way that was equally true to the source material as what I'd seen on the previous night!
I'll give you one example: in the play, Sonya begs the (possibly) alcoholic Doctor Astrov to stop drinking. After she pleads with him, he says, "Alright! I'll stop drinking. I give you my word!" And he doesn't touch another drop of alcohol until the end of the play, when he asks for "a little vodka." (That's always an interesting moment, and I look forward to seeing it whenever I watch a production, because Sonya is on stage. She doesn't have any lines, but it's interesting when the actress playing Sonya sees that he's going back on his promise to stop drinking -- it's interesting to see how she reacts. Does she glare at him? Shrug it off? Curse to herself? Laugh?)
The first night I saw it, the scene played out as it usually does: Sonya begs Astrov to stop drinking, he does, and he stays sober for the rest of the play. The SECOND night I saw it, she begged him, and he said, "Alright! I'll stop drinking," but whereas on the first night, he said this as if it was a serious vow, this night it sounded like he was humoring her. And three minutes later, IN THE SAME SCENE, as he was talking to her, he absent-mindedly poured himself another glass of vodka and drank it. Sonya had no lines to react, but BOY DID SHE REACT WITH HER EYES! And it colored the whole rest of the play.
Now, we know, from the end of the play, where Astrov asks for "a little vodka," that he's not going to stick to his sobriety vow for life. He's a drinker at heart, and Sonya's idea that she can change him is a silly, romantic notion. So the question isn't IF he'll go back to drinking but WHEN, and in my view, both choices that the actor made -- not until the end of the play or almost immediately -- are equally true to what Chekhov put on the page.
Remember, this is just ONE example of the many, many differences I saw on those two nights, and even though the two performances were so different, what I saw both nights was 100% Chekhov's play. The actors knew the play so well that they understood its POSSIBILITIES. They knew how to mine every moment for its plasticity. They also knew what would be going-too-far -- what would pervert the play into something it was never meant to be.
If you'd been watching me during this second performance, you'd have seen a comic-book lightbulb appear over my head: "the major difference between theatre and film is that a film is always the same, each time you watch it, and a theatre piece is different in each performance!" I know that sounds obvious, but I don't think many people follow that "obvious" idea to it logical conclusions.
Since there's NO WAY to pin a piece of theatre down so that it's the same each night -- and since there's no way to make a film vary each time you show it -- that aspect of both, variability from performance to performance, should be seen as fundamental to both mediums. It is the STRENGTH of both mediums! What's great about film is that it can crystalize a director's vision. A director and his team can tweak a film until it's a perfect recreation of what's in his mind. What's great about theatre is that it can explore all the nuances of a piece of writing -- never stagnating into just one version.
As an artists, one's job is always to work within the strengths of one's medium, exploiting them to their fullest. And I now understood MY job. My role as a theatre director is twofold:
1. I must know the play SO well that I understand what MUST be played the same way in every performance. What aspects of, say, "Romeo and Juliet" are "goal posts," without which the play ceases to be "Romeo and Juliet"? This is a personal, subjective decision, but it must be a CLEAR decision. I must make sure that the actors always "hit those notes" in every performance. So in addition to getting clear in my own head what the rules of a play are, I must make them crystal clear to my collaborators.
2. I must know the play SO well that I understand its possibilities, and I must work to get the whole team to understand those possibilities. When the actors are playing the moments between the "goal posts," I must urge them and help them to work like jazz musicians -- to improvise as much as possible -- while always returning to them to the melody when necessary, so that we don't lose track of what the song is. Jazz isn't fun if it's free to the point of total chaos. And it's also not fun if it's regimented to the point of note-by-note fidelity to a score. What's amazing about Jazz is the tension and interplay of rules and between-rule-freedom.
My job as a director is more like that of a football coach than an ballet choreographer. I am not trying to get the actors to do the same thing every time. I am trying to create an environment of excellence. I am trying to help everyone do their best work within the boundaries of some simple rules. But unlike football, where everyone knows the rules (or can look them up), the rules of theatre change from play to play. "Hamlet's" rules are not "Macbeth's" rules. As director, it's my job to figure out what the rules are and what the wiggle room is between them, and to be equally passionate about rule-following and wiggling.
Any stage director who is trying to get the actors to do the same thing in each performance is working against-the-grain of theatre. He's not necessarily a bad director, but he should be working in film, where such an approach is an asset. In theatre, such a director is not engaging with the strength of the medium he's working in.
I DO IT MYYYYYYY WAAAAAAYYYY
But I took things further. It became really important to me that I explore the unique properties of theatre. What can theatre do that film can't? I knew I wanted a career in the theatre that was all about THIS -- all about what makes theatre special.
If you're watching, say, a sci-fi movie and a special-effect looks fake, that seems like an mistake. If you see that the spaceship is hanging by a string, you may enjoy it for its camp value, but you won't take it seriously. Our expectation, when seeing most movies, is that we'll see stuff that looks real, as if someone took a camera into outer space and just started filming what was there. There are exceptions to this, but they're hard to achieve. If you want a movie audience to accept something fake-looking and to take it seriously, you need to really work hard as a filmmaker.
On the other hand, we've all seen plays where -- for instance -- a simple chair "becomes" a throne. Peter Pan can fly, even though you can see the wires. We have totally different expectations of "reality" when we go see a play, and we'll "suspend our disbelief" a lot more easily during a play than during a film. Again, I think this is a strength of theatre (and the opposite is a strength of film), and I decided I wanted to capitalize on that strength.
I love the opening of Shakespeare's "Henry V," where the narrator comes out and says, essentially, "Sorry. We don't have real princes and battlefields and castles, so you'll have to use your imagination." To me, THAT'S the essence of theatre. And the amazing thing is that you don't have to use your imagination when things go well. If they actors are totally committed to what they're doing, they can make an audience believe almost anything!
(I am puzzled by the fact that both Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh thought "Henry V" would make a good movie. I like both versions for their performances, but I'm always a little confused when -- especially in Branagh's version -- you see the narrator scream "Work your thoughts! WORK!" and yet you don't have to work your thoughts at all, because you're actually SEEING a battlefield with explosions and spurting blood.)
So I started stripping away all the trappings of conventual theatre, and today I've moved towards a very "minimalist" style. Typically, I produce my plays on a bare stage. Often, I have no set at all. If the play calls for it, I will throw in a few simple props and furniture pieces, but that's all. I keep my actors in simple, contemporary ("street") clothes, no matter what period the play is set in, and I allow no lighting changes to take place: just lights on for the entire show. In my view, what theatre is chiefly about is people in a room, talking and relating to each other, using LANGUAGE as their principle tool. That's what I'm most interested in exploring in theatre -- that's what I think theatre does best -- and so that's what I do.
I should state here that, of course, my approach works best on character-based plays. I am not a skilled director when it comes to genres like Theatre of the Absurd. I am not the best director at big pageants. I like "simple" character shows.
While I don't have any desire to see all theatre directors working the way I do (how boring!), and while I can enjoy a big, lavish production as an audience member, I wish more directors would try, once or twice, working the way I work -- not allowing themselves sets or costumes or lighting effects to help tell their stories, making do with just the actors and the playwright's words. Because I often find that that stuff -- the acting and the attention to the script -- gets lost in big productions. I see these beautiful-looking shows, directed by people I won't name (*cough* Julie Taymor *cough*), with amazing sets and costumes, but in which the actors don't seem to know what they're talking about. I suspect that all the direction they've received is "stand over there... now cross over to the edge of the stage ..."
I don't want these directors, who are much more visually gifted and creative than me, to give up making amazing-looking shows. But I would like, while I'm dazzled by their visuals, to also believe in what their actors are doing and saying.
So if you're looking for tips on how to stage big spectacles, I apologize for making you read what I've written so far, but I can't help you out. It's not what theatre is to me.
I should also point out that I'm totally uninterested in doing "concept shows." As has been pointed out to me many times, "not having a concept is itself a concept." And in theory, I agree. But what I mean is that I'm not interested in PUSHING a concept. I will never do "'Hamlet' on the moon" or "'Romeo and Juliet' in war-torn Bosnia" or whatever. I have no desire to use plays as mouthpieces for my political agendas. I would rather present stories as simply as possible and let each audience member relate to those stories in his or her own way.
My goal, when using contemporary clothes in a period show, is not to -- Louis Malle-like -- make some sort of statement about modernity clashing (or meshing) with history. Rather, I am trying to make the costumes and vanish as much as possible. I am purposefully try to make them so boring that, after five minutes, the audience forgets about them and focuses on the plot, the characters, the relationships and the words. Film can do sets and costumes better. So I want my theatre audience to focus on the words being spoken NOW, by the people IN THE ROOM with them.
I never let my actors wear shirts with big Nike logos on them or drink out of "I HEART NY" mugs. I keep my props and costumes extremely neutral. That's what I mean by "not pushing a concept."
Okay, now that I've bored you with my background and aesthetics, I'm finally reading to explain what I actually DO when I direct a play. And maybe what you should do, too.
- the first time you read it
The first time you read a script, read it as quickly as possible and write down your simple, gut reactions. Don't write down grand, thematic statements. Don't write down staging ideas. Write down things like, "It made me sad when the hero died" and "I don't understand how he got from the kitchen to the bathroom so fast." This first read is the closest you'll ever get to the state of a virgin audience -- an audience that walks in to see your play with no previous knowledge about it. One of the hardest things about working on a play is that you can never get that feeling back. It's very easy to lose sight of what's confusing to an audience once you're no longer confused by it yourself.
- owning the play
Now read the play over and over, until it's "by you" instead of by the playwright. You need to know it like the back of your hand, because you're the only person involved with the production who will bother doing this. Each actor may know his particular part really well, but you will be the only person overseeing everything.
I have had the embarrassment of being three-weeks into rehearsal, having everyone wearing shorts and t-shirts, and only THEN noticing a line in which someone mentions it's "December!" Ugh! Shame on me!
Many directors, including me, can't "own" the play by simply reading it over and over. I tend to zone out when I do that -- "reading" but not REALLY reading. I might read the word "December" ten times but not really think about it. To compensate for this, many directors have come up with tricks to get themselves better acquainted with the script. Here are some that I've tried:
1.Copy out the entire script by hand -- longhand, not typed. We're all so used to writing emails, we are able to zone out while we type.
2. Read the entire script out loud, slowly, both words and punctuation: "TO. BE. OR. NOT. TO. BE. COMMA. THAT. IS. THE. QUESTION. PERIOD." and look up ANY word you don't 100% understand. Often, I sort of understand words via their contexts, but when I take the time to actually look them up, I discover they don't mean exactly what I thought they did.
3. Sort every word in the play into categories. In other words, go through the play slowly, writing down all the words you read. Put them in categories like "love," "time," "family" or whatever is appropriate. You won't wind up using this list for anything, but it will force you to think about each word.
4. Memorize the whole play. (I have never done this. What a monumental labor! I hear that Branaugh did it when he directed "Hamlet," and my hat is off to him. I am terrible at memorizing lines, which is one of the reasons I became a director and not an actor. But I have to admit, this does sound like the best way to really "own" the play. One day I'm going to do it!)
- focus on the plot
In literature classes, which is where most of us first learn to think seriously about narratives, plots are out of vogue. Focusing on plot is considered, in academia, to be a simplistic, not-very-interesting way of analyzing literature. But it's the audience's most immediate way in.
Make sure you really understand the plot. Describe it to someone. If you're doing a lot of "Oh, wait. I forgot... before he goes to France, he has this big fight with his sister," you're not there yet. In each scene, what happens? And how does that event cause the next event? Get to know the plot as well as you know the route from your home to the corner store.
- focus on the arcs
What is the big change in each scene? I find it useful to write a one-sentence summery of each scene, that focuses on how it moves from A to B: "this scene is about how Bill and Max start out as total strangers and wind up as friends." You should also be able to describe the whole play this way: "this play is about how a group of disparate people become a family."
Stay away from thematic statements. When analyzing on this level, the play is not "about oppression" or "about the power of love." Think plot, plot, plot.
This is vital, because it will get lost in rehearsal. Most rehearsals are about focusing on minutia: "at this particular moment, should the actress cross right or left?" Everyone -- including you -- will be forced to attend to these details. It's very easy for everyone to forget the big, unifying element that the AUDIENCE WILL NEVER FORGET, because they're NOT thinking about all those little details. And that element is the plot. What happens first? What happens after that? And what's the end result.
Stephen Spielberg once said something along the lines of "directing is about stepping in and stepping back, stepping in and stepping back..." I agree. This is a hard skill to master, but it's one of the director's main jobs! "Sweat the small stuff. Then step back and sweat the big stuff!"
This connects to what I was saying earlier about about goal posts and the wiggle-room in between. Often, the small stuff is the wiggle room. "Are we mining each tiny moment in the play for all its possibilities?" Then, after helping the actors wiggle, step back and look for the goal posts: "Are we still telling Shakespeare's story? Is this still 'Macbeth'?"
- focus on the characters and what they're trying to achieve
Almost all modern actors are trained in some variant of Stanislavsky's acting system. You need to learn it and you need to look at scripts from a Stanislavskian point-of-view, or you won't be able to speak to actors in their own language. In addition, if you get into doing this, you'll learn all sorts of useful things about storytelling. And you'll learn tons of useful directing techniques.
Here, I'll give you a very brief overview of Stanislavsky's system, but I HIGHLY URGE YOU to read a book or four. I recommend "A Practical Handbook for the Actor" to get you started. Among its many merits, it's short. You can read it in an hour or two: http://www.amazon.com/Practical-Handbook-Actor-Melissa-Bruder/dp/0394744128
The basic idea is that a character must, in each moment of the play, WANT SOMETHING and be trying to ACHIEVE SOMETHING. And I don't mean some nebulous goal like "being happy." I mean some simple task that could be achieved RIGHT NOW, IN THIS SCENE. Most of the time, it should involve the other characters who are on stage at the same time. And it's a good idea to phrase this objective in the form of a verb.
For instance, in a given scene (or part of a scene), a character's goal might be "to seduce the girl" or "to convince everyone he's not a thief" or "to find a way to pay the rent." Sometimes these motivations will be obvious, from reading the script. Sometimes they won't be. Sometimes you'll just have to make them up -- keeping them plausible in terms of the script.
Actors need these goals, because the alternatives are either that they just stand there reciting the lines or, worse, that they "emote" -- that they try to "be happy" or "be sinister" or "be sexy." They will wind up being cliches.
In theory, it's the actor's job to figure all this out on his own. But often they will have trouble doing it in certain moments, and you should be able to step in and help them. You should at least be able to intelligently discuss character motivation with them. I will have more to say about this, below, when I talk about working with actors, but for now just note that you should have at least a rough idea of what each character's goal is in each moment. (You and the actors may come up with different goals. That's fine. Don't forces your goals on them if they're doing a good job. The point is to be able to step in and help them if they're stuck.)
Another great book for this stuff is "Working on the Play and the Role," which analyses an entire play and gives suggestions for what each character might be trying to achieve in each moment: http://www.amazon.com/Working-Play-Role-Stanislavsky-Characters/dp/0929587936
Be especially aware of when you have trouble thinking about a character this way. I ran into this problem recently with Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Traditionally, this character is thought of as a "trickster" -- as an imp-like fairy. He certainly is that, but that's not much for an actor to build a performance on. I was really stuck, because I couldn't think of anything Puck might want or need. He seemed to finish the play pretty much the same way as he started it.
Usually, the answer has to do with how a character relates to other characters. After doing many close readings, I noticed that one of Puck's first lines -- which I had glossed over in the past -- was "I jest to Oberon and make him smile." In other words, his JOB (at least as he sees it) is to be a sort of jester or stand-up-comedian who makes Oberon laugh. What's interesting is that, though Puck says this, you never once see Oberon asking him to do it. Instead, Oberon treats him like a servant, making him do all sorts of menial tasks. Gradually, I (and the actor playing Puck) used this observation as a scaffolding to build a rich characterization, in which Puck's issue is that he's starved for attention from the man he thinks of as a father. And most of his actions in the play are attempts to get strokes from Oberon.
(I should point out that "to get attention" is moving in the right direction, but it's not refined enough to be really helpful to the actor. It's nebulous, like "to be happy." Character goals need to be much more concrete than that. What specific sort of attention is he trying to get, and how will he know when he has it? Does he want Oberon to praise him? Laugh at his jokes? Kiss him on the forehead? The actor needs something ACHIEVABLE to play.)
In case I've confused you, let me be clear that there's aren't right and wrong answers, here. These goals are not secrets that playwrights have hidden in their plays. You often have to make them up, out of your own imagination. The point is to find something that works with the story and is also playable by the actor. Along the same lines, you can read the script for a sci-fi movie a zillion times, trying your darndest to find a complete description of the alien. But it may not be in the script. You and the art department may have to make up what it looks like. In doing so, you want to come up with something exciting and BUILDABLE that doesn't conflict with the script.
You are also NOT trying to come up with goals for the audience to understand. These are tools to help the actor do his job -- not items to by communicated to the audience. Often a goal might be a secret between you and the actor. They audience may never know. What, exactly, is the goal of the bartender in "The Shining"? I'm not sure. What I AM sure of is that he seems to have SOME goal, and that makes him thrilling to watch.
The other major facets of Stanislavsky's method (that you need to think about) are obstacles and tactics. Okay, a character has a goal. What tactics does he do to try to achieve it? And what are the obstacles in his way? "My goal is to seduce Laura. To achieve it, I first compliment her on her looks. Then, when that doesn't work, I play hard to get, then... The obstacle is that Laura is in love with Bill and thinks I'm childish..." Obstacles can be external or internal. "I don't ask Laura on a date because she refuses to listen to anything I say" (external) or "I don't ask Laura on a date because I'm scared of rejection" (internal).
How does this mini-story (the character trying to achieve one of his goals) end? Does he achieve it? Does he totally fail to achieve it? In either of those cases -- a total win or loss -- the character must then have a new goal. Otherwise, he has no purpose in the play any more. (Why is he staying in the room?)
Sometimes a scene will end before a character wins or loses. That's fine. Just be aware of whether this is the case or not.
A good question to always ask yourself and your actors is "Why is THIS character saying THIS line right NOW?" And I don't mean from a expository level ("because the audience needs to know he's scared..."). I mean on a goal/tactic/obstacle level ("because his goal is to pay the rent, and he can't do that unless he convinces Fred to give him a raise...")
Beware of thinking in terms of traits or emotions. This is the way most of us think of characters, and it's fine for audiences to do this, but it doesn't work well for directors who have to work with actors. "Your character is supposed to be sad now" isn't helpful. Nor is "Your character is a trickster" or "Your character is sexy." Goals! Goals! Goals! "Your character is trying to get Mary into bed..." (Think "base" motives, because they are often relevant. Sometimes characters have lofty goals, but more often than not, they are trying to get sex, money, power, food, etc.)
Finally, think about stakes. WHY is it so important to each character that he achieve his goal? If you come up with a goal and realize that the character will be okay whether or not he achieves it, it's not a very good goal. It's not one that will help the actor turn in a riveting performance. What will happen to Kelly if she asks Ted out and he rejects her? She won't care all that much? No! Then that's not a good goal for her (if she asks him out in the play, but it doesn't seem that doing so is all that important to her, she's probably doing it as a tactic to achieve some other goal -- asking him out problem isn't her goal. It's a means to some other end.)
The biggest complain that I hear from actors about directors -- especially directors with a background in film -- is that they don't care about this stuff or don't understand it. All their directions are either visual (stand over there, raise your arm...) or trait/emotion-based (be more happy, be sexy...)
The BEST directors (even in film) have all been well versed in Stanislavsky's techniques, and that's how they got such great performances out of their actors. If you read up on Kubrick, Scorsese, Coppola, etc., you'll find out that they all know/knew how to talk to actors in terms of character motivation.
WORKING WITH DESIGNERS
Some of the most talented people I've ever worked with have been designers, even though (to my regret), I don't get to work with them much these days, due to the "empty stage" style of theatre I've chosen to do.
Talented as they are, they tend to work from the gut. This isn't a bad thing, and it can lead to all sorts of interesting discoveries that would never occur to them if they worked in a systematic, logical way.
In my experience, what they most need is help (a) understanding the story the playwright is trying to tell and (b) understanding your (the director's) relationship/take on that story. So make sure you're able to make this very, very clear to them in a pithy, evocative way.
Pithy, because a good design is not likely to emerge from a complex, wordy statement. Evocative because you want to excite them to the point where they surprise you, adding an element to the production that you wouldn't have come up with on your own.
I usually give them two sentences (these will be useful for the actors, too). The first starts with "This is the story of..." and the second starts with "It's like..." and goes on to evoke the spirit of the play using a simple, sensual metaphor.
For instance, "This is the story of two young women who topple an entire government. It's like watching an ant bring down an elephant!"
Many designers try to tell the whole story through their designs. For instance, a costume designer may feel it's his job to convey each plot point via some sort of costume change. Watch out for this. It often throws redundant, overly-obvious elements into the mix. It's the entire production's job to tell the story -- it's not each element's job to tell it. Each element (costumes, acting, lighting, etc) should do its part but not ALL the parts.
I once worked with a designer on a play in which a character seems to start as a bad guy -- as a member of a brutal police force in a totalitarian regime -- but then goes over to the side of the heroes and winds up helping them. The designer wanted to start him off in a very militaristic uniform but gradually have him loosen up his clothing, until, by the end, he's no longer wearing the uniform at all.
I totally understood and respected this urge, and it would probably work. But my feeling, which I explained to the designer, was that "the actor will already be telling that part of the story through his acting. We don't need to tell it with the costumes, too. From a purely logical point-of-view, since the play only takes place over the course of a few hours, the character wouldn't likely have time to change his clothes, anyway."
The designer said she understood my point, but "couldn't we at least have him loosen his collar or something? Maybe we could then see just a splash of color showing through -- like he's this guy who wears an army uniform, but underneath he has on this colorful shirt that you don't see until he loosens up..."
I agreed this was a cool idea, but I thought it would be more interesting if he kept his army uniform from beginning to end, even as he was undergoing a huge change of character. To me, it's more interesting to see a play in which sometimes people's insides don't mirror their outsides than a play in which dress and inner character are always totally in sync. This can be a hard sell to designers, because -- understandably -- they tend to think through the lens of their contribution. But it's worth sticking to your guns.
The biggest problem with design is that, in most professional theatres, it is locked in way before the play is even cast. This has to be the case, because fabric needs to be purchased, sets need to be built, etc. The design team can't wait to start until you've been rehearsing for two weeks. This is unfortunate because you'll make all sorts of discoveries in rehearsal that may be counter to your thoughts in early design meetings, and by then it will be too late to change the designs. Sometimes an actor will take a character in a totally surprising direction -- a direction that is better than what you originally cooked up with the designer. It will no longer make sense for her to wear a miniskirt. It's now pretty clear that she's more of a sweatpants sort of girl.
In cases like this, do what you can. Be very apologetic to the designer, but do what you can to find out if it's possible to make a change at this late date.
Sometimes it's not. Then you're left in a terrible spot, and I see productions all the time that are in spots like this: either you have to force the actor to play the part as it has been costumed or you have to let the actor and the costume go in two contradictory directions.
I take the cop-out solution by doing all my plays in "street clothes" and without sets. I don't advocate this for everyone. It would be a boring world if everyone did this. But do give the matter some thought from the outset. Think about the CHARACTER complexity of the play. Is it more like "Private Lives" or "Hamlet"? Noel Coward's play takes place is a very specific (upper-class British) environment, and it's unlikely the actors will rock that world in any major way. So you can probably let the designer get very specific. But there are a million ways to play Hamlet. Do you really want to hem the actor in by a decision made before you've even cast him?
A designer can't design a nebulous costume. He must choose fabric of a specific type that's a specific color. But there are some clothes that are much more suggestive than others. If you think your play may evolve a lot in rehearsal, try to move the designer towards something simple and as "neutral" as possible.
(To a good designer, who has spent years studying fashion or interior design or whatever, there's no such thing as neutral. To him, EVERY choice is very suggestive. So you may have to help him out. The truth is, to most people in a audience, a simple black tunic will be less suggestive than a suit of armor.)
There are two major ways I see directors hold auditions, and neither of them work well for me. Which is not to say they're mistakes. They just don't give me the information I personally need in order to intelligently cast my shows.
Method one is to ask actors to perform prepared monologues. My problem with these is that I don't know how long actors have had to prepare them. A mediocre actor can sometimes perform well, if he's had a year to rehearse a one-minute speech. Actually, that's not true. If he performs it well, it means he's capable of excellence. But I generally don't have the luxury to work with actors who need a year to ramp up to excellence.
Method two is the cold reading. Actors walk in and are handed a script they've never seen before. Some actors are naturally good at this. Others aren't. And many of the ones who aren't are excellent actors. They just can't instantly pull a performance out of a hat when they haven't even had a chance to read the script through.
Here's my method: I find (or write) a scene that's similar to the one I'm casting, but is NOT the one I'm casting. I make it as obscure as possible. If I'm casting a Shakespeare play, I might use a scene from a little-known Elizabethan play -- one that the actors are unlikely to have worked on before.
I ask actors to come in for an hour. When they first get there, I hand them the script and ask them to go out into the hall (or somewhere else away from the audition room) and read the scene through. If it's appropriate, I partner them up and have them work on the scene in pairs.
I have them check in with me after about 20 minutes, to see if they have any questions. I don't want them to be blindsided by some word they don't know, when there's no way they can even look it up, since they didn't bring a reference library with them. I ask if they have any questions about the plot of the scene, and if there's any special thing I'm looking for, I tell them about it. I then give them another ten minutes or so to work on the scene before they present it to me. I wand to see something in-between a prepared monologue and a cold reading.
Then I call them in and watch them do the scene. Before they start, I tell them we'll go through it twice, and that the first time doesn't count as the audition. It's just a warmup. This tends to relax everyone.
After the two performances, I always give the actor a surprise direction. One that forces him to change what he's doing on the fly: "That was great. Now I'd like to see you try it one more time. This time, do the whole thing sitting down. And imagine that your wife is sleeping in the next room, and you don't want to wake her up. Still, it's just as important for you to achieve your goal as it was when you were able to play the scene shouting and storming around the room."
My goal here is to see how well he can adjust to directions and how good he is at working on-the-fly. If he's not good at this, I might still cast him -- if he's a good actor in general. But it will be useful information for me all the same.
Obviously, if you're auditioning 500 people, you won't have time to do all this. You may HAVE to rely on short, prepared monologues. That's fine. Maybe my technique will be useful for you in callbacks, when you've narrowed your search down to a few key people.
Here are some additional casting tips:
-- You need a "flake-o-meter" with you at auditions. You want to work with talented actors who are also mentally-stable people, and unfortunately the two traits sometimes don't go hand-in-hand. If you're considering casting a talented flake, think really hard about whether it's a good idea or not. Sometimes it's worth it, if an actor is nuts but super, super gifted. But usually, if you have to choose between super-talented-and-nuts and just-regular-talented, the better choice is the latter. Think about the damage that the nutcase can do to the ensemble. Think about the fact that everyone in the cast and crew will be trapped with this person, possibly for months.
I have a pretty good internal flake-o-meter, but it sometimes gets turned off when I'm auditioning people. There are only so many mental balls I can juggle at once, and it's hard for me to think about what best serves the script and what best serves everyone's sanity at the same time.
So I use my wife as a flake-o-meter. She's also my co-producer, so it's appropriate for her to come to auditions. She has a 6th sense when it comes to people. If she gets an uneasy feeling about an actor, I don't cast him. I've ignored her hunches in the past, and each time I've paid dearly for my folly -- as has the rest of the cast and crew. If you have someone like her in your life, invite that person to auditions and LISTEN to what he or she has to say.
-- Most actors will either perform in auditions as if they're playing in a 2000-seat amphitheater or in a tiny black box. Once you've seen them do it one way, ask them to switch: "I'd like to to try it again. This time, say it directly to my assistant. In fact, I'd like you to sit down next to him and play the entire scene sitting in those two chairs. I'll move really close to you so that I can hear anything you say. You don't have to project. You can even whisper if you want to. Make sure you make lots of eye contact and really talk and listen to your scene partner. Don't worry about "playing out."
"Now try it again, this time as if you're standing on one side of the grand canyon and the person you're talking to is on the other side. Don't scream the whole thing. But bring everything up a few notches -- your projection, your gestures, etc."
-- Make sure YOU control casting. Make sure YOU and ONLY you control casting. If you lose control of that, you are not the director. The most major decision you make as a director is who you cast. If you're offered a directing gig with the stipulation that you don't get to cast the play, back out if you possibly can. If a producer wants to sit in on auditions and have say over who you cast, refuse.
This may be impossible advice for you to follow. Just be aware that if you give up control of casting, you are majorly crippled as a director. And if people start meddling at that stage, it's usually a sign that they'll continue to meddle all the way through.
I have a firm rule that the ONLY people allowed at auditions are people I invite there. If someone offers me a gig, I say that up front. "I'm flattered you want me to direct your show, and I'd love to do it. Before I accept, can we discuss the casting process? I have a very specific way I like to hold auditions. I need to be in the room alone with my actors and my assistants. It's nothing against you. I make the same stipulation for every producer I work with. I'll understand if you don't feel comfortable with that. If you can accept my casting decisions, I'd be happy to direct. If you don't trust me to cast the show well on my own, I'm probably not the right person for the job."
-- I am really bored with how many directors (especially directors with a film background) cast their shows. They tend to start with a list of (usually physical) traits: "I'm thinking of someone with red hair..." or "I see Ophelia as really short and fragile looking." And what they wind up with is a show that is never surprising.
(I am not a fan of Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" movies. I know most people love them, so by admitting I don't, I may be destroying my credibility. But my problem is that everyone Jackson cast looks EXACTLY as I imagined those characters would look when I read the books. And not just the actors. To me, the design looks like every Tolkein calendar that's been made in the last 30 years. The movies NEVER susprise me.)
I recommend thinking this way: before auditions, go over each character and ask yourself if there are any absolute physical requirements, e.g. Falstaff MUST be a fat guy. And then go over these requirements and ask if they are impossible to fake. You can put an actor in a "fat suite," but you can't put one in a short suite. So if the script calls for someone who is 5'2"", you'll have to cast a 5'2" actor. But if the script calls for a fat guy, you can cast the most talented person who shows up, whether he's fat or not. I have LITERALLY heard directors say they can't cast a women because she's blonde and the character is a brunette. WHAT? There are wigs in the world! There's hair dye!
Aside from those absolute physical requirements, I believe you'll wind up with a much more interesting production if you give up all your "I see the character as..." feelings. Can you cast a 5'4" Romeo opposite a 6'1" Juliet? Well, do tall girls ever fall in love with short guys? Yes. That means you can!
-- What do I chiefly look for in auditions? These things: is the actor believable or does he seem to be faking everything he does? is the actor exciting to watch? is the actor playful (this tends to be a good meter of how generally creative he is)? does he seem to have an understanding of the play's environment -- can you imagine him fitting in with an upper-class British world or as a cowboy? Can he handle the physical and vocal needs of the part? Does he seem like an easy-going person or a flake? Does he take direction well? Does he surprise me?
I almost never ask "Does he have red hair?" or "Is she feisty?"
-- Some good actors won't work in certain parts because those roles clash with their personalities. In my experience, it's hard for someone to fake extreme intelligence. Most smart actors can play dumb, but few averagely intelligent ones can play brilliance. (And some really smart actors CAN'T play dumb.) If you need to cast someone as Einstein, and they don't convince you that they're brilliant when they walk in the room, they probably won't convince an audience, either.
-- Keep an eye on social class. Some good actors can't play working-class characters; some can't play aristocrats.
-- It's almost impossible to fake sexual chemistry. If an actor has to play a seduction scene, make sure you make it part of the audition. It's not about what he looks like with his shirt off. In fact, make him keep it on. Some people have great bodies but give off no HEAT. If you need to cast Cleopatra, and you have to choose between a gorgeous actress and a plain one, choose the one who gives off the most HEAT. If that's the plain one, she's the right choice.
-- Keep an eye on age. There are plenty of young actors who can play characters way older than themselves (and vice versa), and there's makeup that can help out with aging and youthening. And, in the theatre, audiences tend to forgive skewed ages. Personally, I'll watch a 30-something Juliet if the actress is really good.
So I'm not talking about actual age. Some actors are "old souls" and they simply can't play youthful characters. Others are naive and can't play a character who has been around the block a few times.
Really, this is less about age than sophistication. Some actors just can't convincingly play that un-jaded fellow from the country. Others can't for the life of them play the guy who has been to 'Nam and seen friends die. It doesn't mean they are good or bad actors. Everyone has limitations.
(Did you see that awful televised production of "South Pacific" with Glenn Close in the lead? Close is one of my favorite actresses, but she was wrong, wrong, wrong for the part. And it's not because she's too old. Yes, she was middle aged the the character was supposed to be 20-something. But they changed a few lines, and it would have worked if, say, Diane Keaton had played the part. But Glenn Close is just not "as corny as Kansas in August!")
-- Keep an eye on the "Orson Welles" factor. Some actors naturally dominate. If you put them on stage, the audience won't be able to pay attention to anyone else. These folks are really valuable. But you HAVE to cast them as the king. If you cast them as the spear carrier, no one will pay any attention to the king.
WORKING WITH ACTORS
I had a directing teacher who taught a class called "Directing 101." There was no 102 class, and he said that, in his opinion, that's because there's no 102 to directing. It's all basic stuff.
I agree and I think the same is true for acting. In THEORY acting is very simple. There are a few basic rules. You just need to learn them and apply them. What complicates everything is that it's hard to learn the rules and even harder to consistently apply them. That's because (a) you can't LEARN the rules just by understanding them and (b) even after you've learned them (by practicing them over and over), there are all sorts of internal and external forces that will keep you from consistently applying them.
The acting rules are these:
1. Make sure that for every moment of the play, you are "playing an action."
2. When your scene partner(s) are talking, really listen to them.
3. Make sure 1 and 2 make sense in terms of the story.
"Playing an action" is the technical term for the goal stuff I talked about above. An action is what-the-character-is-trying-to-do: seducing, stealing, fleeing, etc.
So the actor needs to DO SOMETHING -- he needs to use some tactic to try to get what he wants (in order to achieve his goal) -- and then listen (and watch) for the response. When the response comes, he has either achieved his goal or not. If he has, then he has won that moment. What's next? He must now have some new goal to strive for. If his tactic failed but there's still a chance of achieving his goal, he must try a new tactic.
This sounds so simple, but it's anything but. So your main job, when working with actors, is to keep them steadily on the action track. Note that actors don't always consciously think through all their actions. If you ask them to list a bunch of verbs, they may not be able to. And that's fine. Its fine -- and often better -- if they're running on instinct. Only bring this stuff up if there's a problem: if some part of an actor's performance seems boring, not believable or out-of-sync with the story.
Here are some common problems and possible solutions:
1. An actor seems to be just reciting his lines. Maybe his voice sounds lovely, but it's almost like he's reading a poem rather than acting. He doesn't seem to be playing a real person trying to achieve somethings.
Ask him what his character is trying to achieve in that moment. "What is your action here?" Not all actors use the term "action," so switch to "goal" or "intention" if necessary.
If his action makes sense, ask him to specifically tell you what tactic he's trying in order to achieve his goal. Sometimes actors will say that their action is "to seduce." That's fine. That's a good goal. But what EXACTLY is he doing in order to meet that goal? What is he doing IN THIS MOMENT and how is he using the the playwrights words to help him achieve it? Is he sweet-talking, grabbing and kissing, flattering, bargaining, pleading... ?
Sometimes the actor will be able to cough up a good answer, but it won't be what you're actually seeing him do. This may mean he gets it on an intellectual level but he's not throwing himself into the task. Tell him you agree with what he's playing but that he's too subtle. Ask him to really hurl himself into the task. Many actors are scared of over-acting and being accused of hamming it up. Relieve them of this fear by promising to tell them if they've gone to far. "It's easy for me to pull you back if necessary, and I promise I will. So go ahead and go a little further with it than you think you should."
By the way: don't put actors on the spot as if they're in school. Don't drill them on their actions in front of their peers. It's best to pull them aside and talk about this stuff privately.
2. Sometimes an actor will be clearly playing an action, but ... it will just seem somewhat boring. This usually means that the stakes aren't high enough for him. Yes, he's trying to convince his scene partner to loan him a hundred dollars, but he's not really GOING AT IT.
Talk to him about the stakes. "You know, I see that you're trying to get money from him, and I think that's right. That makes sense. But it doesn't seem like it's all that important to you. If we're going to ask an audience to watch this, it aught to be a life-or-death situation -- or at least a really, really important one. Why do you think it's so important to him that he get this $100. What will happen to him if he doesn't?"
This is often when it's useful to use analogies. Sometimes it's possible to intellectually understand the stakes without really feeling them, because the character's needs are too remote from our own:
Director: I can see that you're trying to cover up your crime. But you're not really going at it gung-ho. Maybe the stakes aren't high enough. Why do you think this is so important to the character?
Actor: Because if he gets caught, they'll hang him.
Director: for stealing a loaf of BREAD?
Actor: Well, nowadays we wouldn't do that, but back when this play is set...
Director: Ah, I see. So maybe it's like when you're in school, and you do something relatively minor, like going to the bathroom without asking permission, and you get into huge trouble...
In these situations, it can also be helpful to really flesh out the time and place where the play is set and to talk about how it was different "back then" -- making this talk as emotionally evocative as you can.
Director: Why do you think stealing a loaf of bread was a hangable offense?
Actor: Well, this play is set in the middle of a famine. There's not much food to go around.
Director: Yeah. Have you ever been really, really hungry -- like starving?
Actor: No. Not like for real, but once when I was in college, I ran out of money and didn't eat for three days.
Director: What if during that time, someone had offered you a slice of pizza?
Actor: Oh, MAN!
Director: But what if before you could eat it, your roommate snatched it and gobbled it down.
Actor: I would have KILLED him!
Director: What if it was the other way around. Your roommate hadn't eaten in three days. He finally got ahold of some pizza. But he made the mistake of turning his back for a second and someone snatched it. It wasn't you, but he thought it was you! You see him coming after you, demanding to know why you ate his pizza!
Actor: Oh, MAN! "It wasn't ME! I SWEAR!"
Director: Okay, try the scene now...
3. Sometimes actors (and directors) simply can't figure out a good action. It's not as if most playwrights have actions in mind while they're writing. Because they're writing drama, it's usually not too hard to come up with actions that fit the story, but this isn't alway the case: "I know I'm supposed to be playing an action, but -- honestly -- according to the script, my character just comes in, says he's having a nice day, and leaves just as happy. He doesn't seem to want anything..."
The first thing to remember is that if it ain't broke, don't fix it. If the scene is interesting and the actor is exciting to watch, there's no problem. He isn't required to come up with an action as in some school exercise.
But if you have a gut feeling that the actor is missing something (if the scene is boring), you need to help him find an action.
Okay, the play doesn't suggest any obvious choices. But what if, even though the character is himself happy, he wants EVERYONE to be happy. Maybe he's trying to cheer everyone up. He can play tactics like joking, teasing, flirting, etc.
Or maybe the so-called happiness is cover. Maybe he's miserable but trying to convince everyone he's happy.
Don't get caught here in "But how are we going to convey that to the audience?" Actions aren't for conveying stuff to the audience. That's what dialog is for. Actions are to give the actor something he can play on stage. The point isn't to get the audience to understand that the character is just faking happiness. They'll get this or they won't. The goal is to help the actor do something INTERESTING on stage.
I often tell actors, "If you play that action, the audience may or may not understand what you're trying to do, but they won't be able to take their eyes off you!"
4. Actors sometimes lose sight of "given circumstances" -- usually societal constraints. These usually take the form of internal obstacles, which are much harder to play than external ones.
For instance, Bill's character wants to seduce Amy's character. Bill understands this and he is totally into the stakes. So he rushes over to her, grabs her and kisses her. That might work in a Sam Shepherd play, but it seems totally inappropriate for this play, which is set in the drawing-room society of Victorian England.
You may need to talk about internal obstacles: "What would stop a Victorian man from just grabbing a woman and kissing her, even if he was pretty sure she wanted to be kissed?" As always, it's helpful if you can come up with a modern analogy that works on an emotional level: "Did you ever try to kiss a girl while your parents were watching? What about in church?"
5. An actor must EARN each moment. Sometimes he doesn't do this and yet the play moves on anyway, because the next moment is "in the script." Consider this scene:
Bill: Come over here and kiss me.
Mary: No, Bill. We can't. It's wrong!
Bill. Don't worry. It will be okay. No one is watching.
Mary: Okay. [She walks to him and kisses him.]
In PERFORMANCE, Mary has to kiss Bill, because that's what's in the script. But given that her character is scared to do so in the beginning of the scene, it doesn't make sense for her to do it unless Bill REALLY calms her fears. He has one line to do it: "Don't worry. It will be okay. No one is watching."
In rehearsal, when you hear Bill say that line, do you believe it would work? Does he convince you? If you were Mary, would YOU kiss him?
If he hasn't earned that kiss, call him on it. "You know, I don't think you earned that kiss. If I was Mary, I would still be too scared to kiss you. You need to really look her in the eyes and CALM her. Mary, I know it says in the script you're supposed to kiss him, but for now, just in rehearsal, don't go to him unless he really makes you feel safe..."
Blocking is the technical term for "working out movement." Who crosses where, why and when?
The first trick with blocking is to see how little you can get away with. Play this game with yourself: knowing that the audience will get bored if two characters just stand still and talking to each other for the whole play, how long can you keep such a scene going? In other words, how long can you generate excitement and drama just from the words the actors are saying, the enthusiasm with which they're saying them, and the effect their words have on each other? Block as little as possible, and makes sure that when someone finally moves, it's because he MUST.
Movement is essentially about attacking and retreating. It should come out of character motivation. Don't just tell an actor to cross left. Say something like, "It seems like your goal is to accuse him, so walk up to him and get right in his face!" or "Don't you think it would be a good idea to get some distance between you and him right now?"
Watch actors' feet. Sometimes you'll tell an actor to stand in a particular spot and deliver a speech. He will attempt to follow your direction, even if he has an impulse to move. But if you watch his feet, you may see him take a baby step at some point during the speech. This means he had an impulse to move but stopped himself from going with it.
You need to deal with that somehow. That doesn't necessarily mean you need to let the actor move. You can say, "I think you had an impulse to move when you said that thing about his mother. That makes sense to me. But can you try really planting yourself there and delivering the whole speech? Then, when you're done, follow that impulse." But often actors are on the right track. Consider whether their impulse makes sense. Maybe it's worth letting them move when he felt like moving.
Blocking is scalable. If an actor really needs to move but you don't want him to, say, "You know when you have that impulse to move away from him? How about if you just stand in the same place but lean back a little, as if you're worried he might hit you?" The same is true the other way around: "You know when you took those two steps towards him? Go ahead and walk right up to him!"
There's a saying that if two actors stand close together for too long, they either need to kiss each other or hit each other. This isn't always true. For instance, it makes sense for co-conspirators to huddle and work out a plan. But it's often the case. Actors sometimes forget how often in real life, people talk to each other from across the room. "I love her, so I feel like I should walk over to her when I tell her how I feel."
"That makes sense, but, you know, sometimes I tell my wife I love her, even when she's on the other side of the room from me. Can you tell her with your words instead of walking over to her?"
Sometimes actors want to flee too early. "He just insulted me, and it hurt my feelings. I feel like I should cross to the other side of the room and get away from him." That might be the case, but in real life, saving face is important to most of us. When someone insults us, we tend to not flee right away, because it makes us look weak. "Your impulse to get away makes sense. But don't let him know he's getting to you. Stand there for another couple of lines and then nonchalantly stroll away, as if you're moving because you feel like it, rather than because he upset you."
The best blocking is often a compromise. It's letting the actor do what he wants (or needs) to do in the way you want him to do it. Try not to squash his impulses. Instead, try to redirect them. "Yes! That cross you did was great. But can you do it to the left instead of the right?"
Most crosses TO can be rethought as crosses AWAY, and vice versa.
"I think I should go to him and give him a piece of my mind!"
"How about instead, you back up away from him, so that you have the entire room to play in? By taking over the space, you'll be better able to lecture him!"
You can't create an interesting "stage picture" (an interesting visual arrangement of human bodies) with just two actors, so don't try. If it's a two actor scene, the blocking should be 100% about how the characters are relating to each other.
It's only when three or more people are on stage that it's worth bothering with things like triangular arrangements and composition.
RANDOM BITS OF ADVICE
-- Don't "be creative" and stop your actors from "being creative." Your job is to tell the story, not to impress the audience with how clever you are. If the audience leaves talking about you ("Wasn't it cool how the director made a castle out of chairs!") you've failed, because "the director" isn't a character in "Hamlet." Always come back to the story, the story, the story.
ESPECIALLY don't get clever with the ending. I don't know what it is with endings and (usually) young directors, but I've seen many plays ruined by a huge, needless special effects or twists at the end. THAT'S usually where directors most feel like they have to "put their stamp" on the play. Remember, the end is part of the story. You don't get to suddenly depart from the story at the end.
The most obvious example is Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew." People are (understandably) bothered by the fact that it's a sexist play. So they tack on these weird endings where, after delivering her long speech about wives obeying husbands, Kate turns around and winks at the audience or whatever.
I'm sorry, but the play is called "TAMING of the Shrew." If there was ever a play that wore its theme on its sleeve, it's that one. TELL THE STORY.
Or don't. If you find that play offensive, don't direct it. There are lots of other plays.
-- When you read the script, highlight key information the audience MUST hear in order to understand what happens next. No one will concern themselves with that if you don't. Sometimes I have to say to an actor, "Don't mumble 'your majesty,' because if the audience doesn't understand that he's the king, they're not going to understand the next 20 minutes of the play."
-- Stud your play with surprises. I often direct the entire play in the most conservative way I can. I just make sure that I'm telling the story as clearly and simply as possible. Then, after this "draft" is done, I go back and see where I can add in little surprises and twists. I don't want to do anything that clashes with the story, but often I can find little alternatives to people's expectations that STILL tell the story.
For instance, in that scene where the lovers finally kiss, what if instead of kissing her on the lips, he kisses each of her elbows, then her fingers, one-by-one -- and only THEN her lips?
What if the murderer, instead of grabbing his knife and leaving the scene of the crime, grabs his knife ... pours himself a whole glass or water, drinks it down ... and THEN leaves the scene of the crime?
This stuff may or may not work. And it's the icing on the cake. You don't NEED it. But play around with it. I have a secret goal of putting some weird little twist like this -- just one -- in every scene. I can't always managed it. I will absolutely NOT do it if it's gratuitous or muddles the story. But if it tells the story in an interesting way, I'll see if I can get away with it.
-- Collaborate! I am not that smart, and I often get stuck. Luckily, I work with really smart actors. I frequently say things like, "I don't understand why he tells her that long story about his boss. Do you guys get it?" and "I think we're going to need to get you onto the other side of the stage for this next bit, but I can't think of a reason why you'd cross over there. Can you?" Utilize the brain power that's in the room with you!
-- Read these self-help books:
"Games People Play": http://www.amazon.com/Games-People-Play-Transactional-Analysis/dp/0345410033/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1302725969&sr=8-1
"You Just Don't Understand": http://www.amazon.com/You-Just-Dont-Understand-Conversation/dp/0060959622/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1302725996&sr=1-1
"Just Listen": http://www.amazon.com/Just-Listen-Discover-Getting-Absolutely/dp/0814414036/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1302726012&sr=1-1