The Worst (And Best) Direction I Ever Received

Directing actors can take many different forms. On the most basic level, it’s about getting actors to do and say things in the way that the director wants them to. But there’s a huge amount of nuance to be had in the specifics of how directors interact with their cast (and crew). It’s about forming an understanding between director and actor that will hopefully translate to an understanding between actor and audience; about finding, together, the most effective way of communicating character, story, relationships, and action. A director can do that in any number of ways, from lengthy heart-to-hearts to open-ended suggestions to tough questions to prescriptive instructions.

The best piece of direction I ever received did none of this. And yet, it didn’t have to.

It was on a children’s play – specifically, a touring children’s play, aimed at children between 5 and 8-ish. I was being directed by the notoriously no-bullshit Dan Bain, and though Dan was already a friend and colleague of mine, this was my first professional show as an actor; though we’d worked together a lot as improvisors, this was the first time he had directed me. I was acting opposite extremely experienced co-stars, and I desperately wanted to do a good job. I can’t remember the scene or line or action the direction referred to, but I remember the direction:

Can you do it again, but better?

By any conventional wisdom, and in most situations, this would be a terrible piece of direction that would make even George Lucas cringe. It emphasises repetition instead of exploration. It prompts the actor to flail about in a futile search for the “better” approach. In stating that there is a “better” way to do things, it implies that the actor has been doing things in a “worse” way – and it gives no indication as to what that “better” way is. It should have sent me on an emotional spiral of self-loathing. It should have made me second-guess all my choices and if not give a worse performance, give one underpinned by fear (not a great driver for a silly children’s play).

But it didn’t. I felt empowered by it, and I’ve spent years thinking about why.

Ultimately, it comes down to the relationship between the actor and the director. “Can you do it again, but better?” wasn’t delivered to me in a vacuum. It was built on previous direction, and moreover, it was built on a broader working relationship. When you work with someone a lot, as I did with Dan through the 2010s, you inevitably end up building an understanding of each other’s tastes and capabilities, and if you’re lucky you end up using a kind of shorthand in your work. In this case, Dan had taught me an immense amount: about physical comedy, stagecraft, character-building, how to maximise timing and clarity in the pursuit of both storytelling and comedy, and more.

In that context, and delivered knowingly, “Can you do it again, but better?” isn’t the words of a director exasperated with their actor. Well, it is – I’m as prone to complacency and slacking about as anyone else – but it’s a host of other things, too.

It’s a statement of trust that you know what “better” means.

That the director knows you know that.

That you’re on the right track.

That you will get there.

And that you will take the direction in that spirit.

Most importantly, it’s an assertion that you don’t need to be spoonfed specific directions in order to get where you want to be. It trusts the actor to know what “better” means based on previous input, and push harder towards that input. It’s the kind of direction you can only give once you have a rapport and a shared understanding; a relationship with less trust in it would require more precise directions, or God forbid, a line reading from the director.

I felt like I’d turned a page on getting that direction. I’d turned a page with Dan as a collaborator, and I’d turned a page as an actor. In that moment, the crippling impostor syndrome that vexes all artists melted away. I emerged feeling like I was part of the club now, capable of figuring my own shit out. We’d end up working like this a lot, and we made a lot of really strong work together. It’s been a while, thanks to a range of unfortunate and cruel happenings in the Christchurch theatre scene, and I miss working like that. The feeling of working together toward a common creative goal, ideas firing out from everyone in concert, is a thrill like little else.

Can you do it again, but better? isn’t a great piece of direction by itself. But it’s a reminder that the directing process is a collaboration and a relationship. And when the director and actor are fundamentally on the same page, they can create something great. Again, but better.

Dan’s book, These Are NOT the Rules of Improvisation, is available now.