Exposing the Obvious
Looking at "What Is"


About us

Presented by Stephen Heatley and Ann Penistan at the Association of Canadian Theatre Conference, Dalhousie University, Halifax 2003

Copyright © 2003 by Ann Penistan, all rights reserved worldwide


Little has been written on the pivotal relationship between the actor and the director. We regularly hear about combative rehearsal periods where actors feels disenfranchised while the director feels frustrated at being incapable of making the actor understand. There has been nothing written on the actual experience of actor and director when they are in conflict.

Many rehearsal periods have been hijacked due to an assumption of understanding when none existed? At this point, the actors start talking among themselves and the creative process usually unravels. There is a prevalent opinion that a negative hierarchy exists between actor and director. Actors feel that the director has the upper hand, because (s)he apparently knows what (s)he “wants” and the actor doesn't. There is also a presumption that the one who “doesn't know” is in a weaker position.

However, the place where learning always begins is through clarity about what we don't know. In positive actor/director relationships, there is little experience of this hierarchy. Using case studies, our paper explores the differences between these two situations to examine the actual experiences in these difficult moments, as opposed to what is assumed is happening.

Canadian director Stephen Heatley and LearningMethods™ expert Ann Penistan will chronicle and report their findings. What are the inaccuracies that send the two parties into reaction so that the process ceases to operate out of the joy of creation and plummets into the uncreative depths of generality and misunderstanding?


Exposing the Obvious

When I was an apprentice director at a small regional theatre, my mentor told me quite bluntly that you cannot train to be a director. You either are one or you aren’t one. He made this pronouncement just as I was heading off to graduate school…to study directing. I didn’t believe him then and still don’t, but the question of what aspects of the art of directing are innate and what aspects can be learned has piqued me ever since. You certainly cannot train to be an artist if you have no instinct to artistry. But as both a student and a teacher of directing, I now know that you can open up questions that will sharpen a director’s thinking and encourage experimentation with how the art is practiced, especially when you become aware of habits that get in the way of the creative process. One major tool missing in my director’s tool kit that I became painfully aware of about seven years ago is an understanding of what I was doing that got in the way of my creativity and a free flowing collaborative relationship with actors. This was highlighted especially in moments where I was in conflict. This realisation has lead to this research and the desire to write about it.

Ann and I asked the question, what is missing in a director’s training that addresses the difficulties similar to those I had encountered? This paper introduces the foundations of our research and is our first step toward future writing and workshops. Our purpose is to offer a director an opportunity to clarify for themselves their struggles and difficulties in directing and, of equal importance, to bring clarification as to how things work when they work well.

The paper is divided into three sections. Ann will describe the evolution of her work known as LearningMethods™ followed by my own story of an actual experience as a director and the significant impact of LearningMethods™ on my work. In the third section we will chronicle the information gathered from actors and directors that lay the groundwork for further investigation. 

As an Alexander Coach with the Stratford and Shaw Festivals I worked with actors who brought their physical difficulties to me to get help. They would also bring their ideas about their difficulties. The context of our classes would cover many territories: from working on a scene in rehearsal, voice difficulties, physical demands of a show, basic tension or ongoing chronic problems, to the inevitable desire to find a way to do what their director wanted. We would work and they would leave with a greater sense of presence and wholeness. In most cases ease and creativity would prevail in their next few rehearsals.

With experience, I began to see more clearly that the difficulties I was being asked to help with were in people’s ideas not in their physical symptoms. For example, years ago, when working with an actress on a movement she was having difficulty with; she kept saying “I should know how to do this.” Each time she said this, her pattern of tension through her whole system would increase. She was getting more and more tense the more she was not getting the movement.

We began to explore her idea that she “should” know how to do this movement, and found she was trying very hard to get it and to get it right. She would focus in on a part of her body and try to make something happen at the same time as trying to do the movement. This was causing great tension.

In further exploration I asked her if she knew how to do the movement and she said “No. But, I have an expectation that I should know how to do it”. So there we were discovering that, with this idea, she was finding herself trying very hard to do something she didn’t know how to do! Her pattern of tension was the pattern of trying to do a movement she simply had no idea or experience of.

At this point, I invited her to make an experiment to find out what would happen if she accepted she didn’t know how to do this; to align with reality instead of with her expectation; that she had a clear intention of what she wanted, and to see what would happen. The moment she accepted she didn’t know how to do the movement, the pattern of tension changed completely to one of fluidity. She was suddenly finding herself moving in a very easy and direct manner.

The intention organised the movement. She was very aware that she could never have co-ordinated that movement herself.

The significance of this was not in the change from tension to ease, but in what she did differently for such a change to occur. In the actual moment of so much tension, she was able to change her idea from believing that she should know how to do this movement to accepting and aligning to the reality that she didn’t know.

It was so clear to us that her pattern of tension was organised by her expectation, and by her valiant pursuance of wanting to get it right.

For her, the movement had had a property of being difficult when she couldn’t get it. When she found herself moving so freely and easily the movement no longer had a property of being difficult. To her the movement was easier than she could ever have imagined. The idea of the movement being difficult was simply an experience of her own difficulty; conversely, the movement itself didn’t have a property called difficult or easy. The difficulty she experienced came from her ideas…and changed when those ideas changed.

I had seen many dramatic changes occur in a moment when working with people, but this was one of the first very clear indications to me, that her release from tension, and her frustration of what she couldn’t do, had nothing to do with a physical change and everything to do with her idea. It also had very little to do with me helping her to do something physically different. Her ability to accept what was real (that she didn’t know how to do the movement) and her clarity of intention, which organised such an enormous change.

This was confirmed in the next class when she said she was realising over the last few days how much she had been trying to get things in a scene. She had become aware that when she found herself getting tense, she was having thoughts that she should know more about this scene than she did. She was able to make an experiment; to not know what would happen with the scene. She found herself responding more easily and creatively with the text.

These kinds of fluid moments were not unusual to her, but what was unusual was that the easy and flowing times had always seemed like a bit of luck, and if there were difficulties they were things to be suffered through until the easy times came back.

What she found very constructive was that she now saw her tension not as something wrong and something that shouldn’t be happening, but as a guide to showing her what she was trying to do. She then had more information clarifying what she was doing in the moment of tension, and she cared less about fixing it. The tension was operating as a navigating tool revealing what she was doing. This was extremely practical and helpful.

It was examples like these that took me into the direction of exploring the territory of people’s ideas in the very real moments when they were experiencing difficulty. This was a direction away from working with their tensions as being the motivation for change. They had a greater understanding of how they were getting in the way of their own inbuilt responsiveness and ease. They were discovering tools to help them in these moments of powerful tensions. The implications of this were intriguing.

I soon accepted a job as Assistant Director to David Gorman who ran an Alexander Technique Training Centre in London where these ideas were being explored on a deeper level.

The timing of this position was fortuitous as I was also working closely with an actor in a leading role of a west end show in London who was excited to take our insights into performance and begin to experiment. He found the practical nature of the work readily accessible.  A whole new flow and ease began to move consistently into his performance. During the run of this physically demanding show he found himself becoming more responsive, and vocally easy.

A whole new way of working developed over these years which has had enormous implications and brought deep positive changes to many artists in Sweden, Canada, France and America. In the process, the work transcended the Alexander Technique and is now called LearningMethods.

I first met Stephen when I was invited to the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton to give workshops while this work was in its deepest developments. We worked on a particular problem he had recently experienced which had immediate and lasting changes for him. Last year we began to talk seriously about the implications of this work in training directors - how they may be able do things differently when they are coming up against their own struggles in working on texts and communicating with actors.

Here is my story: 

It is the fall of 1996 and I have been directing plays for 23 years. I am about to direct a production at one of our major regional theatres. As a director based in Edmonton, I had the idea clearly fixed in my mind that the rest of the country (read “Toronto”) didn’t take me seriously as a director. Here is my “Fixed Idea” number one – that everyone in the country is thinking there are important places to practise your art and there are unimportant ones. A major Canadian television personality has been hired to star in the show. The scenario becomes immediately clear in my mind. This star will come to Edmonton, work with this fabulous if unknown director, return to Toronto singing my praises and the next level of my career is “made”. Here is my “Fixed Idea” number two – “to make it” as a theatre artist in Canada means doing it in Toronto. My actual experience of being an Alberta-based director was that I was perfectly happy and quite successful. This fixed idea I became caught in, of becoming a “big league director” somewhere else, blurred my actual experience.

This is a key concept in our research. What happens when directors get caught in a fixed idea of how things are supposed to be rather than relying on their experience of what is actually happening? Fixed ideas can take on many shapes – mine was thinking about outcomes rather than focussing on the work at hand. And do you notice a problem in the production scenario? There is no discussion of what this actor would need to assist him in playing this demanding role in a tricky performance space, or how to help him make the transition back to the stage after an absence of several years. The director’s focus is on something other than the work at hand.

I had successfully directed something in a similar style three years prior but with actors that all knew my work and trusted me. In that production, the staging was quite difficult to sort out but once it was, we had experienced a great joy playing within it. Since this approach had worked before, I decided we should start this new production the same way. So, famous tv star arrives, and we begin rehearsals. The first two days go by prosaically but in the middle of day three, the tv star stuns me by stopping the rehearsal cold. He announces that he is so bored that he cannot stand another moment of it, that he is feeling absolutely uncreative and that the production doesn’t have a hope in hell of succeeding. I sit mouth agape for a few moments before saying, “well, let’s take a break”. I thought that in my 23 years of directing I had seen and heard everything. After the break and a lot of deep breathing, I asked the actor how he wanted to proceed. He said he wanted a lot more freedom to experiment, so we started over again.

I confess that I was shell-shocked by that day’s events and was never really on my game with that actor for the rest of the rehearsal process. Every time he spoke I felt nervous and uncomfortable, fearing there was going to be another conflict. Here is another key point in our research – I had gone into reaction around this actor and therefore was incapable of seeing what was actually happening with him for the rest of the rehearsal period. In my mind, he now had a property called “difficult”. I just wanted the experience to be over. I realise now that my habit when dealing with “so-called” difficult people is to shut them off, to drop them. So, to survive this situation, I had dropped him. But we still had three weeks of rehearsal remaining.

As the show was about to open, this actor suffered a major crisis of confidence. I had essentially left him alone to do whatever he wanted, assuming that he had everything under control. But on opening afternoon, he was apoplectic. “You haven’t given me a note in a week. I don’t know if I’m doing this right or not and frankly, I think I’m terrible in it.” I was stunned again. After our rocky beginning, I had had no desire to wade in with him if I didn’t have to. It never occurred to me that he might need me to reinforce his work. Although in my mind I was perfectly justified in treating him with deference, the fact that I went into reaction had not allowed me to pay attention to this actor’s actual experience. I never asked him how he was doing and, unfortunately for him, he never asked for my help until the 11th hour. It would be easy to say “it served him right”. It did not, however, serve the production right.

My learning experience in this production was compounded by a second actor who had no interest at all in the freedom desired by the tv star. He wanted to be told everything. Despite the frustration with his lack of participation, I did not drop this actor. I actually met the pressure he put on me to “tell him everything”, and eventually his resistance began to dissipate. He began to respond with ideas and suggestions of his own which contributed a great deal to the production.

In the end, despite my four weeks of nightmares, the show turned out very well. In fact, it was nominated for four Sterling Awards. But I was left shaken and questioning my ability to work with actors. This was a very big deal as I loved directing, my work was successful and my career had been developing very well. Another experience like this one could have ruined my passion for something I liked best in the whole world...

Enter Ann Penistan. After the show opened, I attended a series of professional development workshops in which Ann was introducing her work to the Edmonton theatre community. When she asked us about our “issues in the theatre”, I was quite anxious to address this recent set of rehearsal problems. It was a tremendous relief to explore the inner conflicts I had experienced. We looked at how I had been caught up in my fixed idea about becoming a “big league” director and my very different reactions to and assumptions about the two very different situations regarding the two very different actors. The work we did together revealed the habits that were deeply ingrained in me and allowed me to look at my work afresh.

As a result of our work together, my approach to rehearsals changed significantly. Eighteen months later I was slated to direct another big star from Ontario. This actor had a long-standing reputation for being “difficult” and I know I felt trepidation about working with her. But, I had no idea what other people’s difficulties were with her. I realised I was basing my worries on other people’s experiences which I actually knew nothing about. So this time, instead of getting caught in the fear, I met the actor directly. In a telephone conversation before rehearsal, I asked her how we could best support her in this large and difficult role and promised that her working needs would be our primary focus. She was very concerned that the character had to “look fabulous” and I assured her we would do everything possible to achieve this. She didn’t know me from Adam, but I gained her trust, we had a wonderful time together and she was excellent in the role. My experience with this actor was completely different than others had experienced.

I have had many more experiences since, of taking the tools I have learned from this work into moments of teaching and directing. When I began teaching in the graduate directing program at the University of British Columbia, I realised again how little is written that sheds light on the actual moment-to-moment thoughts and feelings of both people, the director and actor. It is these real experiences that hold the information about when this relationship is flowing and when it is stuck.

We began our research by asking what is happening in the field between actors and directors. What are the experiences in their relationships and do they think the investigation into them worth exploring? The answer was a resounding, “YES”! Much of the information we received was general. These generalisations reveal a lack of clarity for many actors and directors about this territory. This feedback has helped us to pinpoint where some of the most common problems lie; that is, what people are coming up against but are not clear about. What follows is a distillation of some of this information.

1. Assumptions that are treated as realities:

“Directors don’t know how to talk with actors”.


Well, which director and which actor are we talking about, since they are all different? This is a sweeping statement. If it is true in some cases, we can address the question, “how can the director learn to communicate constructively? Interestingly, we didn’t hear from directors that actors don’t know how to talk with them. That is not part of the framework for the directors we asked.

“I have to protect myself from directors.”

What are they protecting themselves from? Do they know it’s true with the director they are in communication with? Directors have not volunteered that they need to protect themselves from actors.


2. Generalised Directing:

Here are some generalised notes from a director to an actor:

“You need more edge.” “Could you play higher stakes in the second act?” “You need to be louder.” These generalised directions often cause an actor to seize up. An actor in this state needs to sort out the specifics on his own. This becomes a problem when there are two different ideas of what “edge, higher stakes, or louder” mean. The actor does one thing but it is not what the director thought they were asking for. There is a leap of assumption that the actor had understood, but the director does not enquire as to how the actor understood the direction. Confusion inevitably arises. “I thought that’s what I was doing.”


3. Directors’ questions that are often voiced yet rarely fully explored

“How can I make the actor do what I want?”

This is a common question. It is posed without the input of the actor. To be able to explore this question right in the middle of rehearsal gives an insight into intentions, communication and collaboration. Two people are involved with the intention as related to the text, instead of the actor “doing” the director’s vision.

“How can I be sure to have a happy and comfortable rehearsal atmosphere?”

Can one be sure? Is it even possible that every show will have this ideal? If there are tools to meet incompatibilities constructively, does it matter?

“What are the conditions that allow for an in depth exploration of the text, unfettered by unspoken questions, fears and judgments?” 

This is an invaluable question and is the underpinning of our research. It requires each director to ask the question and take the time to find out for themselves out of their actual experience.


4. Assumptions Based on Hierarchy: 

The following are fixed ideas that sustain the impression of the negative hierarchy in the theatre:

“I won’t be hired again if I’m not good.” “I can’t ask question in case he thinks I’m stupid or being difficult.” “It’s the director's show.” 

When caught in these thoughts, the actor is not free to ask questions or explore his ideas about the text. He finds himself with less information than he needs, and does his best to satisfy his director under these less than ideal conditions.


5. Struggles: 

“I need to be director proof.”

Many actors express the need to be “director proof” yet they are still having struggles working with directors. But how many variations of “director proof” are out there? And how does this affect a director?

“I don’t get to explore my idea. I have no chance to show the director what I mean.”

When a new idea is introduced, it can take a bit of time for it to integrate. When a director gives little time for an actor to integrate the idea it can cause the actor unnecessary and frustrating reactions.

Often the excuse is given that there is not enough time. However, if the time is taken to understand how quickly an idea can be integrated (usually three or four times), then a director can use his own informed criteria for how long he will allow something to be explored. Here’s one director’s approach to exploring the actor/director relationship: 

“I've thought about it a lot over the years, but mostly not very constructively, as most of the thinking was from within the context of trying to win some sort of struggle that had developed between me and whoever.”


6. Unfinished sentences:

“The key is trust.”

Trust in what, trust in whom? What do you mean by trust? Are the director’s criteria and the actor’s criteria for trust the same? Each person has their own criteria for what “trusting someone” means. A director trying to gain the trust of an actor is battling on delicate ground if he doesn’t know what the actor’s criteria are for trusting his director.

The above are all points that are rarely looked into and clarified. There are many more. Questions that appear rhetorical, when treated as questions to be answered, are often filled with vital information. A director’s question like “when are they ever going to learn their lines” is treated rhetorically. If actually addressed to the actors, who are the only ones with this information, instant clarity is provided for the director. They know where the actor is in their process and can guide the next step from there.

Generalisations cause confusion, yet they are part of everyday language.  Being able to recognise a generalisation can reveal foggy thinking. The director says “more energy”, catches it as a generalisation and can ask himself,“how can I be more specific?" Instead of going into reaction and thinking, “I shouldn’t have said that”, he can actually use his experience to reveal where he needs to be clearer and navigate toward specificity. It is a brilliant learning system all inbuilt.

In conclusion, we know the learning of a play is a great experience when a cast is not clouded by foggy thinking, confusions, assumptions and generalisations; yet it is considered a fortunate experience, one of those special rehearsals that are all too rare.

Problems will always occur. However with more tools to meet them, the joy of directing will not be squashed like in my story. Simply they are seen as an opportunity to learn and grow. Knowing how things work when they work well is also an important tool in rehearsal. When things are working well, the director is in a relationship of discovery with their actors and the text. Insights are guiding the rehearsal process. The actor and director are solving the problems of the play rather than the problems of their relationship.

Since the director is at the helm, the next stage of the research is to provide the opportunity for them to take the time in rehearsal to explore their approach in depth. What happens if they explore and clarify the fixed ideas and assumptions that they learn to recognise they are caught in? What can directors do differently to get out of the way and let the work happen? The information is inbuilt. When a struggle occurs within them, the director does not have to go any further than his actual experience to gain clarity into his own work.

Copyright © 2003 by Ann Penistan, all rights reserved worldwide

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