Director's Diary: Pretending Not to be Scared of Actors
GMT’s current production, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, sees regular cast member and independent film director Alasdair MacRae take the directorial reins for the first time in the theatre. In this fortnight’s edition of his rehearsal diaries, he discusses the art of working with actors with Kelly Johnston and Ciadhra McGuire, who play the newest whores at The Chicken Ranch, Shy and Angel.
ALLY: So we got to meet Shy and Angel earlier this week in our Character Profile, and I think it’s fair to say you’re both playing a bit against type. How are you getting on with these characters?
KELLY: I guess in the eyes of our regular audience members they will see me as being cast in a part that they aren't used to. I normally get cast as the sassy character with a sharp tongue - It will be strange to not have to go on stage with three layers of fake tan, massive eye lashes and the most back-combing you have ever seen on one head of hair. I'm happy for a little change... as are my roots!
CIADHRA: When I played Rapunzel in Into The Woods, I was playing a meek, stunted adolescent with an overbearing mother whose first real act of rebellion was getting a boyfriend, before then going a bit crazy. As Gloria in Flashdance, I was playing a naive, slightly damaged person whose aspirations for fame leads her to be seduced into dancing at sleazy night club and developing a bit of a drug habit (this is me trying to put the substance in 'substance abuse').
It is sort of the reverse for Angel: when she first turns up at Miss Mona's, she comes across as hard faced and crass but as the show progresses, it becomes apparent that this is just a persona she adopts to get by and that she has a more gentle and nurturing side. I am enjoying playing with the tension between trying to appear tough and self assured- I haven't had much chance to do that in previous roles- while actually being a bit vulnerable. It's been great- my roles have been becoming progressively more edgy and risque - it's like up till now GMT have been easing my granny into seeing me play a foul mouthed street whore.
If anything, Ciadhra, dearie, you weren’t foul-mouthed ENOUGH!
KELLY: In Whorehouse, the role of Shy immediately grabbed my attention. She isn't a dark character as such but she has a very dark past, which I wanted to explore. I love characters who have a lot more depth to them than they first seem to. I spend time getting to know my character, mentally putting myself through their drama. This way your own emotions start to take over and you can understand a little more of why the character is the way they are, how she would react in certain situations and what little characteristics she might have. For example, I see Shy as being very young but even younger in her head; she’s a kid and when she is sitting down she swings her legs back and forth or from side to side.
CIADHRA: It's great watching Kelly in her more naive, innocent part, and it's interesting to interact with her since we are both in such different roles as we have been previously. I'm finding that even in the scenes with no dialogue, Kelly and I are finding ways to act off each other - whether it's me miming showing her how to stand for the Aggie Boys coming to the house, or us looking for each other in the chaos of the scene after that.
ALLY: That’s really what I find is the most useful thing; there’s just no way I could keep all these different characters’ thoughts and behaviours in my head at once, so it’s best to just trust you guys to go away and become ‘experts’ in the person you’re playing. That way, instead of me struggling to tell actors what to do, they actually come up with their own ideas and surprise me, which is a lot more fun!
Fun, or with some actors, terrifying.
ALLY: A big challenge for me as a new director has been getting the balance right between providing enough instruction so the actors know what to do, while still allowing you to interpret the scene and characters in your own way. What are your thoughts on this? How much should a director ‘interfere’ with the actors?
CIADHRA: Warning: this answer is going to contain such wanky terms as ‘vision’ and 'thought processes'.
CIADHRA: It can be hard: sometimes a director's ideas about a character might be different from how you interpret it, and I guess it's about working together to find a way that is both best for the director's vision for a show and still feels honest for you to act.
I think a director's role is to step back and let the actor get to know their character and their thought processes (and experiment with different ways of playing things). When starting a new scene, it's helpful for a director to let the actor know how they want the scene to unfold but not to tell them how to deliver lines or what they should be thinking - I think it's important to let an actor grow into a role rather than to prescribe to them how they should say or do things before they've even started. Well, except maybe 'Don't deliver your lines to the back of the stage' and 'Don't come in from there, that's not even an entrance'. Those are always pretty useful.
Also useful: “Cheryl, can you get off Dave’s shoulder please?”
KELLY: Yeah, I don't work very well with being told exactly where to stand and how to stand and how to say a line. I prefer to be drawn a rough guide of how the scene should go, with three main points of direction - my start, middle and end points, with everything in between left a bit more free for movement, with room for the characters to develop themselves. I feel the director should point out when actors are overdoing the scene or under playing it, but I don't think it is their place to say what my character should be feeling.
ALLY: Good points. I used to do more of that, but these days I tend to give suggestions, see how the actors respond, and play things by instinct from there. And of course, highlight parts of the text which might prompt certain reactions from the character. I’ve also seen that there can be thought-processes going on inside the actors heads but that might not be coming across to the audience. However, I’ve learnt to ask ‘what are you trying to express?’ or ‘how do you think your character feels about that?’ in those situations, since it’s just going to piss people off if they’re going through loads of emotional beats and then get accused of doing nothing.
CIADHRA: Yup, I think both the actor and director need to have a lot of patience and tact when dealing with one another; if you can get to show week and no one winds up dead, you're doing well.
ALLY: Glad to say that things are going fine for us, right?
CIADHRA: Well, there are still three weeks to go...
KELLY: [cracks knuckles]