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The Green Room: What do you look for in a director?

Dominic Cooke. Photo: Manuel Harlan Dominic Cooke is one of the theatre directors admired by our panel – but what are the qualities that actors look for in their directors? Photo: Manuel Harlan

Meet our panel: We have given our panellists pen-names and used stock images but their biographies reflect their real career details…​​​​​​

Albert_Parker

Albert Parker is 60 and has appeared as a regular in soaps, two BAFTA award winning sitcoms, theatre and TV

Keith Simpson is an actor in his early 20s. Since graduating from drama school in 2016 he has worked on national tours and in rep

Adam Lovett, 45, has appeared in Oscar-winning films, on TV and in theatre at the RSC, National Theatre, and the West End

Ros Clifford, 30, is currently a deputy stage manager, she has worked extensively in London and regional theatre for nine years

Annie Walker is 25. Since graduating from drama school, she has worked predominantly in regional theatres and is also a writer and street performer

Peter Quince, 72, works in theatre and television

Jenny Talbot is 39 and has 20 years of experience in West End and touring musical theatre with occasional forays into TV, film and plays

Beryl Phoenix is in her 40s. She has played leading roles at the RSC, worked on new plays, and toured nationally and internationally

 

Jenny Work. I’m hilarious I know.

Annie Vision. And bringing biscuits.

Beryl A sense of humour.

Jenny Yes Beryl. It’s all just pretend at the end of the day.

Peter Someone who challenges you to think beyond the obvious but doesn’t destroy your confidence.

Adam You want a balance between someone who can allow for discovery but also ultimately shape and give direction to the piece.

Peter Someone who isn’t afraid to say they don’t know.

BerylYes, the ability to not know everything at the start. I don’t mean being clueless, obviously, but so there’s room for discovery together.

Albert I want someone who understands the process of what I do, and yet knows how to push me to do more and surprise myself.

Ros I want to work with a director who has respect and understanding for each and every role within the process.

Beryl I like it when a director enjoys collaboration and gives the actors in the room a voice while running a safe room.

Ros A director who includes me within the room also wins brownie points. So often as a deputy stage manager, you aren’t seen as creative or someone who has valid input.

Adam Just don’t play power games, be mean or snipe at people unnecessarily. Amazing how few of them pass this test.

Keith Clarity, honesty, confidence.

I don’t like my ears being assaulted by flowery language and academia. It’s usually camouflage for bullshit

Jenny I don’t like my ears being assaulted by a load of flowery language and academia. It’s usually camouflage for bullshit.

Keith There’s nothing worse than working with a director who isn’t honest about someone’s performance, and then makes you second-guess if what you’re doing is effective or naff.

Jon Maybe I’m neurotic, but for me it usually boils down to someone who can help me feel I’m being good. I don’t really understand directors who work by ‘breaking actors down’.

Adam You’ve got to feel that they are down in the hole with you; that your problem is their problem.

Albert I was once in a play directed by an actor who gathered a fabulous cast, then proceeded to make them feel vulnerable, limited and unappreciated. In the end we rebelled and the artistic director took over. Think he’s gone back to acting now.

AdamThere’s a story about Sam Mendes early on in his career. He would make notes on a run, then go home and write them out again, making each one something that the individual actor would respond to. Because he knew how actors worked and that he needed to speak their language. Everyone needs a different style.

Peter I don’t like notes by email.

Annie That’s great about Mendes. Ugh, email notes!

Adam Just to clarify, he’d then deliver the notes in person the next day. He wasn’t transcribing them for sending. Lest I slander Sam Mendes!

Albert Email notes are okay because you can always not play them – then if questioned say: ‘They must have got sent to my junk folder.’

Annie There should be an overall vision of what the finished piece should look like, and yet an openness to explore ideas.

PeterI need to be able to trust their judgement.

Annie In the audition, I can normally tell if I want to work with the director by whether or not he/she communicates their ideas and is also willing to hear mine.

AdamIt’s interesting we’re talking about theatre directors, because, with rare exceptions, directors on TV and film are much, much worse. The technical demands of the medium are so strong they barely have time to direct actors.

Peter In many cases, screen directors hardly know the actors.

Jon My dad was a telly director and things have changed so much since his day. He used to have weeks in a rehearsal room. Weeks!

AdamI hate notes that begin: “He’s like this…”. I want to say: “I know what the character’s like, I just can’t find a way to do that yet.”

Annie I had a director constantly come to see the show and give us notes immediately afterwards, always insisting: “The way you did it before was much better.” It meant I had no chance to blossom into the piece.

Peter A director needs to treat actors as adults rather than talented children.

Jon Yes. I want to be persuaded, not told.

Annie Notes should be a discussion.

Jon Increasingly, directors seem to stress over time, and pass that stress on to the cast.

Keith It’s also frustrating when a director has misused their time and then stresses out towards the end of the process. I worked with a director who spent the early stages of the rehearsal process telling us anecdotes and chatting generally, and then as time ran out got really stressed with the cast.

Annie Oh God, I don’t want to hear your anecdotes about who you worked with in the 1990s. I’ve definitely experienced that.

Jon There’s a tricky balance between creating a room where everyone feels empowered to speak and ask questions and one where everyone’s just chiming in all the time and nothing gets done.

Adam Exactly. It’s difficult to create a benevolent dictatorship.

Annie I like the director to take charge of the room and say: “Let’s get on with it!” when it’s time to crack on and do the work.

Adam Who would you say is the best director you’ve ever worked with?

AlbertHoward Davies, without a doubt.

Annie  Gemma Fairlie is my fave. Sonia Fraser. And Alex Clifton, he’s a legend.

Peter Howard Davies, certainly. Also Sarah Frankcom and Andrew Hilton.

AdamDominic Cooke, without any doubt for me. Head and shoulders above the rest.

Jon Nice to end on a positive note.

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