Directors:How do You Solve a Problem without Knowing what the Problem is?

How do You Solve a Problem without Knowing what the Problem is?

When you first start screen directing, you know there’s a problem but you can’t put your finger on what it is – so you can’t solve it.

Here’s a little check-list to help you identify what the problem might be…

Symptom: The actor is rushing/leaning forward/looks uneasy.

The actor probably IS uneasy. Trying to deal with the lines & the nerves is making the actor come forward to feel safe, rush the lines to get through it, tense shoulder and neck, stop breathing.

Rescue remedy: Relax the actor.

Ask them to sit back, look around the imaginary environment. Remind them what they want. Get them to shut their eyes and put a picture in of something to drive the scene – e.g where they’ve come from, who they are talking about, the prize they want etc. Or tell them to see something in the room relevant to their needs or relationship.

If very tense or emotional scene, get them to sit back, shut their eyes, put hand on belly and ‘breathe into hand.’

Watch for tense shoulders, high tense breath or collapsing forward while they work. If they do any of these things, they won’t have free ‘channel’ to emotions and will feel nervous.

Tell them to look around the imaginary environment,go again in their own time,and to take all the time they need.

Symptom: The actor is pushing, showing lots of facial movement, working too hard, looking down a lot.

The actor is probably trying hard to perform – OR has an imaginary audience -OR is trying to make it interesting/please you/is nervous. Looking down is usually a symptom of hiding from the camera.

Rescue remedy: Remove the audience and the responsibility/Relax

Remind them the camera is a super powerful observer of the soul and there is no audience. Put in something they can rely on, some muscle memory. Do a quick impro of a key moment in their past relating to this scene. Or get them to impro the moment just before they entered the scene. Or do a physical metaphor. Remind them what they want. Get pictures in their heads by asking specific questions: e.g. Where did you meet? What is your (the role’s) daughter’s name? what colour is her hair? which cafe? which mountain? Choose a place/person you know. (If this is emotionally difficult – like dead mother etc, – choose an actor or someone else you know to visualise) If other roles share same place or person, choose someone/somewhere everyone knows – it really makes a difference!

Are they aware of environment – are there other people who may be here (office/cafe/ etc.) Have they been here before? Is it their partner they are talking to? Like life, we use shorthand with people we know – shared references. How much would actor need to look at them in life? We also look away from the other person as we get a new thought or picture in our heads,

There are no lines – only thoughts which sometimes provoke speech.

If they are in second language get them to improvise/paraphrase scene in first language. This is usually more organic and connected up. (Second language can be head-bound – self censored) Then go back to second language.

If they want something – ask them to keep checking on the other’s reaction. Are you getting what you (the role) want? (This gets energy outwards and away from self-absorption or nerves.) Also guide them against too much looking down or blinking – this usually means shyness or not connected to text.

Try to get them ‘centred’. Check shoulders aren’t up, not leaning forward (which blocks emotional channel) and is on relaxed breathing.

Again: Get them to sit back, shut their eyes, put hand on belly and ‘breathe into hand.’

Symptom: Underenergised/dull/quiet/self-indulgent.

The actor hasn’t made it important enough to themselves, still remembering lines, trying to play a ‘character’, not communicating with the other person/people/situation in scene.

Rescue remedy: find a way to identify with role/up the stakes.

Start by moving the actor from saying ‘him’ or ‘her’ to ‘I’. Help them to find the reality of the situation and the specifics of the life they lead – not a generalised emotional colour. Remind them – it is YOU-AS IF…Try improvisations, physical or mental metaphors/images. Check the relationship is important enough – e.g. If the scene is breaking up do the impro of falling in love, (remember these actors have had no rehearsal and probably never met before) get the actors to hold each other and say why the fell in love – what they love about each other. Then – if they are now no longer in love – what they don’t like. Then get them to pull apart and start the scene again. (If this is too confrontational, they can stand back to back feeling the warmth). If they are too quiet – get them to speak as themselves about anything – e.g. where they are going later – then when voice is full, move back to text.

Make sure the temperature is up on the inside – even if they wouldn’t show the other role. Inside they are angry because…this is the sixth time it has happened etc. desperate for job because…about to lose home etc. Dream of this person every night. Other role reminds them of dead brother. And so on.

Actors often engage with themselves when on text rather than with the other person. Get them to press against a wall – feel strength in abdomen & take energy into scene (or hang them over, do press-ups, breathing exercise, run round room etc.)

They don’t look like they belong there…

Somehow you can’t visualise them in this place/situation/state of mind.

Takes are getting stale…

remind them where they have come from/ what they need/what is driving them

Remind them – they have never said it before, never heard it before. Anything might happen!

Rescue Remedy: check the logic of the situation, does everything match?

Simple things first – are they outdoors in winter without a coat? Coming home without a handbag or purse? Wearing trainers in court? Climbing a mountain too easily?

If in close-up – does their body match their energy/needs? Some actors work from head only instead of engaging whole body – even if it’s out of shot.

If they are a barman, can they mix a good martini? If a plasterer – can they do it? Our work lives shape who we are and what senses we use.

Does the voice match? Technical speech can sound like nonsense unless actor is specific about what it means & says it over & over again until second nature. Names of loved ones often sound odd – get used to saying them, Voice might not be centred (breathing again) or accent wrong, or too careful.

Remind them about the specifics of role and situation.

If this is an alien world or a strange situation, different time or culture – understand the logics of that world – even if not the same as ours or the one actor is used to. Iron out inconsistencies – so actor can believe in new environment.

Symptom: Over emotional/stays on one emotional note/no sparkle

Actor is playing a mood, character, has made decisions on ‘how’

Rescue remedy: Find the life they lead, bring back unique life.

Instead of letting actor (or you) describe role as ‘shy’, ‘sad’, ‘weird’ etc. paint them a picture of the life they lead…’Shy’: ‘You go to parties but don’t leave the drinks table. You like the comfort of the wall behind your back and a glass in your hand. You prefer to observe and hope no one notices you…’ ‘Sad’: ‘You can’t sleep since your wife died. You get up at two in the morning and take the dog for a walk in the park, looking up at the few lit windows and wondering what the people inside are doing…’ ‘Weird’ ‘You don’t understand other people. You find you see things differently People often tell you things are ugly that you find beautiful. You can’t breathe in the house so you sleep in a tent in the garden…’and so on…

Say – ‘Don’t view the role from outside. Jump in the magic circle – it is YOU as the role – dealing with these circumstances – this situation. YOU with all your life/humour/wisdom who happens to have led this life and now are dealing with the present – moment to moment.’

Help them turn off the ‘director’ in their heads – take some lines for ‘circling’ (repetition) to change patterns, impro at top of scene, feel safe to be brave.

What senses do you use to deal with?

Have you a hidden animal inside?

Breathe, look, listen, anything could happen…

Find Time to tell them they’re doing a great job!
©Mel Churcher 2017


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About Mel Churcher

I am an acting coach, voice coach, actor and director.