Director's Diary: Words of Wisdom for my Teenage Self
GMT’s current production, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, sees regular cast member and film director Alasdair MacRae take the directorial reins for the first time in the theatre. In this fortnight’s edition of his rehearsal diaries, and halfway through rehearsals, he reflects on what he’s learned so far.
It was at the age of 17 that I pretty much decided I wanted to become a director. Now, on Whorehouse, I’m days away from watching the cast run the whole of Act I for the very first time, and I’ve found myself both looking back at how I got here, and considering how I can be a better director going forward.
Also, between rehearsals, I have been working on a time machine.
Picture this, but with a white Skoda Octavia.
You see, if I could go back and teach my 17 year-old self what I now know about directing, then I would suddenly get 10 years more experience overnight! Think of how much easier this would be if I had another 10 years of directing knowledge!
So while I’m waiting for the flux capacitor to warm up, I’d best get my thoughts together. Come up with some advice for my naive younger self.
1: Choose great people to work with, because you don’t know everything
OK 17 year-old me, listen up. You are going to have a whole bunch of bad ideas and make a load of mistakes - and sometimes you just won’t know what the hell to do next. I get that you’re a control freak. You still will be 10 years later. But the first lesson you’ll need to learn is that you can’t be a good director without a good team to direct.
On Whorehouse, I would be unable to make any informed decisions about the singing without the advice of Erik, my M.D., and I don’t know the first thing about dance so I entrust that to my Assistant Director and Choreographer, Emma. And if I was to focus on every little organisational detail myself I’d go mad, so thank goodness I have my producer Rachel to tell me to leave it alone, she’ll take care of it. Suffice it to say if I tried to do everything myself, I’d have a bunch of out-of-tune singers awkwardly dad-dancing, and we’d probably all be locked out of the studio.
2: Making mistakes is incredibly useful
There is nothing that makes me more nervous than coming into a rehearsal room and having twenty pairs of eyes on you, waiting for instructions. My first instinct is to waffle on, ask people what they would like to do, and end up apologising for wasting people’s time. I think the core of all that anxiety is the fear that whatever you settle on doing, the cast will think it’s wrong, and you worry you’ll look stupid.
Something 17 year-old me
clearly wasn’t worried about.
Here’s the thing; if you just get over yourself and do it anyway, someone will probably tell you why it doesn’t work or come up with another idea. That’s what rehearsals are all about. That’s the creative process in action. And don’t forget that the highly talented people you idolise are only good at what they do because they have failed, tried again, and learned from it. Love your mistakes, because you’ll become better, and have more stories to tell in the pub later.
3: Inspiration can’t be controlled, but environments can
I find myself constantly worried that my ideas are unoriginal, that I’m not being as creative as some other directors. Sadly, yeah, you can’t just come up with an idea out of thin air, but I find you can try and create the right conditions for inspiration to strike.
Knowledge of the script is a great way to start. Read it again and again. Write down every prop you’ll need for every scene - it sounds like production work but just doing these tasks will make you so familiar with the text. Also, communicate with your team. If your actors know exactly what you’re trying to create, and if they feel like you’ll listen, they’ll come up with good ideas for you. And finally--because if you had all the time in the world you would probably waste it--set yourself deadlines. Nothing galvanises the mind like the pressure of time. It worked for your S2 Geography project, it will work for you now.
4: Perfection is a myth.
Back when I was a fresh-faced film student, I would build a perfect vision in my head of what my movie should be, and then beat myself up when my film didn’t turn out exactly like I wanted. But I was wrong to even begin chasing this ‘perfect’ standard; life is chaotic and unpredictable, and it was arrogant to think that my work would be any different.
Budgets will be too small, time will run out, actors will have to leave your production at short notice… Even when your show gets to stage, lines will be fluffed and props will be forgotten, so stop obsessing over exactly what the audience will see and hear. Focus on how the audience should be feeling at any given point. You can’t control exactly how an actor will deliver a line, but as long as it feels right in rehearsals, it will likely feel right to the audience - and they won’t care about the rough edges.
Although there are limits.
Right then, I’m ready to go pass this article on to myself at 17... Oh, hang on. Someone’s at the door...
Bad news. That was Professor Brian Cox and he’s shutting my time machine down; apparently going to visit yourself in the past results in some kind of universe-ending paradox. I thought that was just something they made up for Back To The Future, but there you go.
I guess 17 year-old me will just have to learn these things the way I did, over ten years of mucking around in film and theatre. And 27 year-old me will have to stop looking for sci-fi themed shortcuts and just focus on the show that will be hitting the stage in… s-six w-weeks!
Well, he didn’t say anything about SLOWING DOWN time! Ha! Now, where’s my copy of Interstellar…?