Theatre: An Actor’s Medium

I have been directing shows in much the same way for the last 2 years.  It’s a system that works for Heads Up.

The actors come to rehearsal memorized for whatever scene we’re working on that day.  I give the actors a list (on a yellow sheet of paper) of things they need to include in that scene (the color purple, a 15 second pause, a unison action, a change of tempo, a visual quote, etc.) and a time limit based on the scene’s length.  Then I walk away.

It is the actors’ job to stage the scene and include the items on the list.  After the time is up, I watch the actor’s proposition.  Then I give feedback and ask questions to help them probe deeper into their work.  In this way, I consider myself an editor rather than a “director.”

I like working this way because it acts as a tool to build an ensemble very quickly and allows for more interesting discoveries.   Most importantly, it places the actor back in the center of the creative act.  Too many directors get in the way of the actors, treating them like puppets who they can move around the stage at will.  For me, the actor is more than a partner.  I am there to support the actor’s work.  When it’s all said and done, the actor is the one who, according to Grotowski, “makes a total gift of himself.”

But, as many of you know, over the last year I’ve been obsessed with “finding my roots.”  As a theatre artist working in the western tradition, that means studying one guy: Stanislavski.

Stanislavski is the first person to dedicate his life to investigating the actor’s craft.  His influence can be felt reverberating from Meyerhold to Grotowski to Boal to Chaikin.  He is known as the father of modern acting technique.  He is also known, erroneously, for creating “Method Acting.”  This error occurs because in the midst of his research he and the Moscow Art Theatre came for a visit to America.  Americans were so struck by the performances that we clamored to know how they were created.  Always hungry for an easy fix, Americans got their answers and began touting they had “The Method.”  They held onto this technique with an iron fist.  Nobody seemed to care that Stanislavski never stopped expanding his system.

In the fall, I began to explore Stanislavski in Rehearsal, a book written by an actor who worked with Stanislavski during the last 3 productions of his life.  This book outlines the processes he was developing leading up to his death- The Method of Physical Actions and Active Analysis.  This spring, I presented a research paper I wrote about the book.  My paper breaks down the methodologies and presents exercises for directors to use in rehearsal to explore their main concepts.  At their heart, these complimentary methods are holistic approaches to help the actor create a performance based on a logical sequence of actions and their own creativity.

Our work on The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh is connecting us with our Stanislavskian roots.  We are using The Method of Physical Actions and Active Analysis to create this performance.  (Or two-thirds of it. There are a few aspects of this show that lend themselves to a different kind of exploration.  One in which we are using masks.)

So far, it has been difficult.  This process requires us to flex different kinds of artistic muscles.  The actors are being challenged in ways that knock them off balance.  After his second day of working, TJ had an explosion where he wanted to quit.

Instead, I ended rehearsal early.

I need to push myself to push the actors.  Usually I challenge the actors as an ensemble.  Now, it’s time for me to approach them individually.  It means we’re going to encounter blocks, insecurities and weaknesses that will prevent the actor from performing the role and living truthfully onstage.  Instead of avoiding them, we must confront, wrestle with and redefine them.  Only this way can the actor be disarmed enough to make a “total gift.”

 This is where the real work begins.

-Benjamin Rexroad
Artistic Director



  1. […] referred to in Managing Artistic Director Benjamin Rexroad’s essay, Theatre: An Actor’s Medium, Heads Up is an artist-centric organization – placing the actor at the heart of the creative […]


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