‘The mistake is to pretend you have all the answers’: Richard Eyre on what makes a good theatre director

What makes a good theatre director? How do you learn to be one? What do you do on the first day of rehearsals? Sir Richard Eyre reflects on the director’s elusive craft in his foreword to a new book, Drama Games for Actors by Thomasina Unsworth…

Most of us have an indecent curiosity about what other people do in private. Sex and tax, for instance: ‘What do you do in bed?’ and ‘How much do you earn?’ are the questions that underlie all profile journalism and most biography. My own particular corner of prurience concerns the working habits of directors: I’m inordinately fascinated by what they are. Directors are not very gregarious creatures, at least among their own kind, and if you were to search for a collective noun for them it would probably be a ‘solitude’. When we do gather together, we’re wary of discussing each other’s work, and warier still of asking how it was achieved. Rehearsals are a private province; no one likes to be observed, so it’s hard to see enough to imitate, even if you have a model to follow.

Directors are often self-effacing, often surprisingly lacking in the gift and appetite for self-promotion, and, in spite of a high estimation of their own importance, are often reluctant to capitalise on it by making public pronouncements on their craft. It’s all the odder therefore that directors occupy such an elevated status in contemporary mythology, often, like conductors, placed somewhere between the maestro and the magus, when in fact they’re more like teachers or doctors. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that it’s better to be more like the pupil or the patient than the teacher or the doctor. The mistake is to pretend that you have all the answers.

Which is one of the reasons that I’m consistently reluctant to recommend my ‘process’ to any director, and suspicious of any young director who asks to be an assistant of mine in order to learn about it. If I chose to rationalise the way I work I suppose it would amount to a ‘process’, but it is so idiosyncratic and personal that I wouldn’t dignify it with that description.

A rehearsal has to be a time when actors can experiment, invent, explore, discuss, dispute, practise and play, and it is the job of a director to create a world – private and secure – where this activity can go on without fear of failure. There is no method that guarantees a good rehearsal. It’s as hard to know why some highly articulate, learned and intelligent directors seem unable to animate a cast of actors, as it is to understand how the same orchestra can be inspired by some conductors but seem commonplace in the hands of others.

Richard Eyre directing Liolà by Luigi Pirandello at the National Theatre in 2013. Photo by Catherine Ashmore.

If you ask me, ‘What do you need to be a director?’ I’d have to say this: you need to be somehow assertive and yet self-effacing, to be dogged and yet pliable, to be demanding and yet supportive. And if this sounds like a prescription for a perfect marriage partner, it’s because directors are ever hopeful of making a successful marriage of actor and character, of text and design, of play and audience, so perhaps, if they look hesitant, doubtful, and diffident, it’s because they know just how difficult it is – as in real life – to make a marriage work.

And if you ask me, ‘How do you learn to be a director?’ I’d recommend a poem called ‘Garden Hints’ by Douglas Dunn, which begins with the line: ‘Only a garden can teach gardening.’ Directing is like that: only working with actors in a rehearsal room can offer a real insight into the craft.

The start of most rehearsals resembles others more than it differs from them. Rehearsals have to begin somewhere – usually it’s a meeting of the cast and a reading of the play. The director stands like a heron, rigid with anxiety, talks a little – or a lot, depending on temperament – and his or her words drift like incense over a group of actors who, regardless of their mutual familiarity, are united only in their nervous anticipation and social unease. It never works to give the actors – who are always numbed to deafness by nerves – a lengthy lecture about the background to the play and its meaning: it doesn’t encourage actors to be made to feel that the director holds all the cards and they hold none.

So how do you start rehearsals? It’s always a problem: how do you get a disparate set of individuals to work as an ensemble within a few days? British actors are good at this, but you still have to find means of mutual familiarisation, ways in which they can legitimately sniff each other out. I change my approach for each production. Sometimes we just sit around a table and I encourage everyone, regardless of experience and size of part, to talk about the play, about their parts, about themselves. Sometimes we do physical and vocal exercises. Sometimes we do improvisations connected with the play. And sometimes we even play games – and many of them are in Thomasina Unsworth’s new book, Drama Games for Actors. In it, Thomasina gives you a mass of invaluable ideas for drama exercises for all ages and all types of actors, amateur or professional. It’s hard to imagine anyone involved in theatre who wouldn’t find it useful.

The above extract is reproduced from Drama Games for Actors by Thomasina Unsworth, out now from Nick Hern Books.

This dip-in, flick-through, quick-fire resource book offers dozens of games to serve as a rich source of ideas and inspiration for all actors – and those teaching or directing them.

To buy your copy with a 20% discount (just £7.99), click here.

Alongside the bestselling Drama Games series, Nick Hern Books also publishes a wide range of titles for aspiring and emerging theatre directors, including So You Want To Be A Theatre Director? by Stephen Unwin, Getting Directions by Russ Hope and The Actor and the Target by Declan Donnellan. All available with a 20% discount from Nick Hern Books.

Sir Richard Eyre is a theatre, opera and film director, and was Artistic Director of the National Theatre from 1988 until 1997. He is the author of several books, including Talking Theatre and What Do I Know?, both published by Nick Hern Books.

Photograph of Richard Eyre by Andrew Hasson. Photograph of Richard Eyre directing Pirandello’s Liolà by Catherine Ashmore.

Thomasina Unsworth: ‘peeling off the labels’ – why I wrote Becoming an Actor

Photo of Thomasina Unsworth Thomasina Unsworth teaches at Rose Bruford College, one of the UK’s leading drama schools. In this blog piece, she explains her frustrations at the labelling of students, and how that inspired her to write her enlightening new book.

My youngest daughter came home from school the other day in a miserable state. During swimming lessons her class had been divided into three groups: Jellyfish, Dolphins and Sharks. The Jellyfish, a shivering clutch of four sub-standard swimmers, were left in the shallow end to learn the basics, while the other children bobbed and ducked in the deeper water, superior species. Afterwards all the talk was of Jellyfish, Dolphins and Sharks. My daughter, hair still dripping from the pool, dripped too with shame.

Why do we have to label our children? What good does it do to attach titles to things? The jellyfish tank is my absolute favourite exhibit in the London Aquarium. The water glows pink and blue and one can be mesmerised by the slow clenching and unclenching of frondy tentacles. However, to a child who is battling for self-esteem and a place in the group, being labelled as a jellyfish may not seem so appealing.

Labels stick. Labels define. I spend my days teaching people who come wearing their labels to classes. ‘I’m slow’; ‘I don’t feel things intensely’; ‘I’m an extrovert’; ‘I’m a clown’; ‘I’m a bit mad’; ‘I’m a good girl’; ‘I’m a troublemaker’. The list is endless, but in that roll call of behavioural attributes my students lay out their perceived inadequacies and in doing so they shore up their limitations. How can they be open to an exercise when they know that they ‘over-think things’? How can they relate to that character when they know that they ‘would never behave that way themselves’? Get rid of the label and you liberate the student.

I am fed up of an education system that increasingly marginalises the arts. The arts feed imagination. They allow one to go beyond oneself, and do not concern themselves with the reductive policy of nailing things down in order to be neatly labelled. I am fed up of league tables and target ladders and numbers that tell someone how they are doing rather than words. I am fed up that in actor training we are now expected to grade our students, to attach a number to a name so that that person leaves thinking that they are worth 52% as an actor. What good does this do? It is a nonsense, a damaging nonsense.

An actor is not just a jellyfish.

I see the damage more and more in those I teach. They are fearful of getting things wrong. They care more for a number than a comment. They arrive ossified by their past experiences of school. Over the years I have noticed that the actors I train are, by and large, becoming increasingly result-orientated. Doing it ‘right’ is valued more highly than the simple experience of engaging in the ideas and exploring the possibilities. They have become attached to their labels, they are confused by open-ended questions, they want to know exactly what they should do to be good next time, as if actor training can be reduced to a set of equations: N+1=great acting.

Training to be an actor can be a bewildering time, even without this set of obstacles. When I went to college I felt unprepared, and I wished that I had been better informed. I arrived with lots of preconceptions about what the experience would be and was confused initially by how different the reality of the training was in comparison to my fantasy version of it. Had I been better informed I think I might have got a lot more out of my training. With this in mind, I set out to write a book that would help any aspiring actors to negotiate the obstacles – both those that face you at drama school, and those you will encounter in your first year as a professional actor.

The resulting book, Becoming an Actor, is intended as a handbook to accompany your training. It also contains a lot of exercises that will be useful not only for acting students, but also for teachers. I wanted to offer both actors and teachers a simple set of exercises together with the thinking behind them, uncomplicated by jargon or constrained by dogma. Training to become an actor is a valuable, important process, worth engaging with for its own sake. I hope the book will encourage actors to value their life experiences, and to hold on to what interests and fuels them, throughout those potentially dark days of unemployment.

The exercises in Becoming An Actor are varied. I do not believe that there is only one way of doing things, and hopefully actors and teachers will be able to be selective as they go through them. There is a great deal of emphasis put on working to release the actor from self-consciousness. Practitioners such as Meisner, Bella Merlin and of course Stanislavsky crop up regularly. However, Becoming An Actor also looks at ways of exploring extensions of, and departures from naturalism. The second half of the book concerns itself with auditioning and professional preparation and life beyond drama school. I hope that all this will provide the reader with a straightforward guide that asks them to engage in ideas before looking for results. I hope that it is both practical and thought provoking.

Becoming an Actor, £10.99

Becoming an Actor, £10.99

Above all, I hope that this book goes some way towards freeing those actors from the labels that have been attached to them, so that they can be as fluid and flexible in their responses as the movement of those frondy tentacles attached to the body of that jellyfish.

NHB are thrilled to publish Thomasina Unsworth’s Becoming an Actor. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

For more information on Rose Bruford College, click here.