The Theater Director, the Acting Coach, and the Actor’s Ego

by Vijay S.
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Introduction

“So, my dear student actor,

do you just want me to teach you

what YOU want me to teach you?

Perhaps, YOU want to first teach me WHAT

YOU think I must teach you

—and HOW!”

Many might have heard or read that charming, old Zen story about the cup being full. For those who haven’t, here is a short version:

A Cup of Tea

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!” “Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

I happened to watch a quirky and somewhat funny short film (of less than four minutes) that was made based on this story, and this short film had this interesting turn of phrase for one of its dialogs:

In theater and acting, much like in several other art-related fields, often does one come across young (and sometimes not-so-young) enthusiasts who are like the professor in the Zen story—except that the professor might be reasonably expected to have at least some substantial actual learning to back up his confidence with. Quite frequently, these enthusiasts are also like the young man in the short film, coming as they do with whimsical, arbitrary, and completely unrealistic expectations from the theater, and as an extension, from theater directors and acting coaches.

Sometimes, one wonders whether these enthusiasts have evolved a mental picture of theater and acting, theater directors, and acting coaches based on half-baked and caricatural representations of theater and its practitioners. The following are two such representations that immediately come to mind:

  • The eccentric theater director character played by Prathap Pothen in the yesteryear film “Varumaiyin Niram Sivappu,” directed by none other than K. Balachander

 

  • The equally (if not more) eccentric acting coach character played more recently by Guru Somasundaram in the film “Jigarthanda,” directed by Karthik Subburaj.

 

The irony is striking in both these cases because both Balachander and Guru Somasundaram are known to have had a strong background in theater before they came to films.

Perhaps based on such misleading representations of theater, theater directors, and acting coaches in popular imagination, the theater enthusiast-turned-aspirant assumes—on being allowed to be part of a theater group or workshop for the first time—that he or she may specifically pick and choose and order theater lessons and training experiences customized to his or her own starry-eyed whims—as if ordering a fancy dinner at a fine-dining restaurant à la carte—quite clearly not even considering the possibility that theater directors, acting coaches, and senior practitioners might, after all, have a more well-rounded and comprehensive understanding of the art form and, hence, know what is good for the novice.

This huge misconception—that one could dictate what, and how, one shall be taught—lies at the root of the common malady of many a genuine and otherwise promising theater aspirant not blossoming into a full-fledged theater artiste, as he or she should and could, but, instead, ending up as yet another lopsided, under trained, underdeveloped, insufficiently informed, but hugely opinionated and highly self-assured wannabe!

This essay attempts to throw light on some of the basic aspects of authentic and in-depth theater training, by way of elaborating on a few fundamental assumptions, ground realities, and approaches so that both theater enthusiasts and aspirants looking to enter the field and junior students who have just entered the field and are beginning to learn the ropes under an able teacher’s tutelage might benefit from the resultant clarity of perspective and, thereby, evolve the correct understanding about theater and theater training and have the right expectations right from the start.

The Theater Director

One of the ways in which the theater director’s job may be described and understood is that, at a high level, it is to ensure the intellectual, technical, and aesthetic unity of the play, by directing the energies of these discrete forces in a concerted and aligned manner toward the ultimate realization of the vision of the playwright.

Of course for purposes of both creativity and practicality, the word intellectual in this context must be understood in its expanded scope of meaning, which would include all dimensions and reaches of the human mental faculty—including considerations spanning the emotional, the psychological, the sociological, the moral, the religious, the philosophical, and even the spiritual.

Seen from this perspective and strictly speaking, contrary to widely held assumptions, it is decidedly not the theater director’s responsibility to be coaching actors on acting. He or she might merely harness, employ, and direct actors’ already developed abilities and skills toward the larger goal of the vision of the play.

That said, considering the ground reality of the state of theater in several parts of the world, surviving as it does by the tireless work of passionate “amateurs”—those who practice it not for the money, but for the love of it—it is not practically viable for theater groups to have dedicated acting coaches, as a result of which directors often feel obligated to double up as acting coaches. However, this is not an ideal scenario owing to the following reasons:

  • A director doubling up as an acting coach will necessarily take away from his or her focus on the job of directing the play under production.
  • The role of the acting coach is essentially different from that of the director, and not every director might possess the traits required to be an acting coach (and vice versa).

 

As a matter of fact, some directors work almost exclusively with trained, experienced actors so that they do not end up having to shoulder the responsibilities of an acting coach, as well, handholding and chaperoning the clueless-but-overenthusiastic (and also often pointlessly rebellious) tyros when they should really be spending their energies on more core directorial responsibilities, starting from ideation.

Considering all the above, theater aspirants and beginner students would do well to realize that they cannot realistically always expect that the director of the play that they may have been lucky enough to be cast in will provide them any acting training, per se. If the director doubles up as an acting coach, these students might do well to be smart enough to make good use of the learning, but they should still remember that the director will still likely be providing them only with whatever is required for the character in the play currently under production.

In one line, general actor training is not the director’s business; don’t expect the director to teach you acting. (By comparison, as you will see in the following sections, don’t expect the acting coach to teach you only acting.)

The Acting Coach

Enter …  (drumroll) the acting coach!

And things are no longer going to be the same—that is, if the student actor resists the temptation to teach the teacher what to teach—and how.

A director can afford to maintain a sort of aloofness and distance from the actors right from the start. In fact, being a director might even work better that way. Instructions stand a better chance of being carried out without question. A greater sense of order prevails in the rehearsal space, and an aura of general reverence for and unquestioning obedience to the director can also be built and kept intact.

Not so for the acting coach!

For an acting coach, everything is completely different. One has to be more open, approachable, and engaging on a personal level. After all, it is not just a mechanical skill that the acting coach is trying to impart in the student; it is, in its essence, almost like a spiritual initiation.

The acting coach has to get right down to the very building blocks of the student’s base personality—the upbringing; the socioeconomic background that the student comes from; the value systems and belief systems held; the complexes, fears, and delusions of the mind; and so on—so as to help the student break out of the constraining influence of the singular worldview that the base personality imposes on the student’s outlook. For example, a student from a family of super-rich entrepreneurs and a student from a family of working-class parents might understand the same script or the same character differently unless they are made aware of their own mental processes and the possible, resultant prejudices, biases, and blind spots. (This is why there can be no such thing as an acting coach teaching a student only acting. While helping the student actor work on his or her self, or ego—more of which is to follow in the subsequent section—a passionate acting coach can teach, if the student is ready, an entire gamut of things ranging from how to think to how to love to how to grieve to how to forgive.)

For student actors, developing an ability to reconsider, set aside, challenge, and even break out of one’s base personality is absolutely essential. Because the actor’s entire being—body, voice, mind, and intellect—is the instrument through which the art springs forth, there is bound to be an immediate and sharp resistance on the part of some student actors when a teacher draws close to examining, let alone challenging, the student’s base personality and closely held values and beliefs.

But any teacher worth the name cannot escape that responsibility. If this layer of resistance or defensiveness in the student is not molted or broken, the student will never blossom into a versatile artiste but merely continue to play himself or herself over and over again. Because the base personality has remained unchallenged and hence undeveloped or underdeveloped, it will keep on manifesting itself regardless of whatever character is given to it, also in the process inadvertently hijacking the vision of any play to serve the actor’s own narcissistic tendencies.

Here comes an acute dilemma for the acting teacher: Should he or she forcefully break this shell of resistance for the student or not?

Ideally not, because even that can adversely affect the student’s mind, which is part of the instrument to be used by the budding artiste in him or her. As they say, whether the egg is broken open from the outside or the inside can make all the difference between life and death! Another apt metaphor for the sensitive and intrinsically motivated student is the story of the boy and the butterfly. For this type of student, the teacher should ideally take a certain gentle, tender, and minimally intrusive approach.

Ideally, the teacher, through discussions over intense discussions, must just keep nudging and encouraging the student to break the shell by himself or herself. The teacher might help the student break it, but without the student’s genuine interest and active participation in the process, the exercise is going to go nowhere.

Also, students are of different types. In some instances, if the student is capable, willing, and ready to take a little bit of vehemence in force-breaking open the shell, the teacher may occasionally try to push the limits a little further, but even then, the vehemence of conviction might be misunderstood as just plain brute force by the student, and the student might shrink back forever or develop greater resistance to challenge or change.

Less frequently, if—and only if—the student is found to have what it takes to become a good actor, in terms of aptitude, but to be lacking in terms of the right attitude, strength, or will to break the shell by himself or herself, the teacher might rarely, even at the risk of being misunderstood or detested by the student in the short term, have to deal a few hard blows to the shell to develop fault lines so that the student can subsequently break the shell further by his or her own effort, and at his or her own pace. This is certainly not the easiest thing to do for most acting teachers, but is something that the teacher owes not even to the student but to the art form itself. The way the boxing coach, played by Madhavan, deals with a talented-but-flippant student in the movie “Irudhi Suttru,” makes for a very poignant parallel here.

This is where, and perhaps why, some acting coaches are tempted to take the relatively easier route and just play the role of a director, taking up a play, scene, or character and showing how to perform for that particular sample rather than helping the students turn inward and start work on the self so that they can subsequently shatter the hard shell of the ego and liberate the artiste trapped inside of themselves.

To sum up, a director can be anything between a boss and a leader. An acting coach, though, is a guru. A boss or a leader has a mission to be accomplished—very likely the current project, the play under production—through you, making use of you.

For a guru, you are the mission.

The Actor’s Ego

All other definitions of the word ego aside, this essay uses the word—and the associated phrase the actor’s ego—in a certain sense.

Right at the outset, do note that, in the context of this essay, the word is not meant to be understood in terms of its popular usage (which frequently has an associated negative connotation, such as what words such as egoism, egotism, or egocentric suggest), nor has it been derived from that famous triptych of Freudian psychology—Id, Ego, and Superego—although parallels, overlaps, and similarities are not ruled out.

An actor’s current personality, sense of self, or overall self-identity—including mannerisms, values, beliefs, outlooks, dreams, fears, quirks, idiosyncrasies, ideals, virtues, vices, and so on—may be collectively referred to as the actor’s ego, the actor’s I. This, in many ways, is the net result of all the decisions made for the person (either by himself or herself or, in early childhood and adolescence, made on his or her behalf by parents, siblings, relatives, neighbors, teachers, classmates, friends, society, the world at large) and the life experiences that the person has gone through from the time of conception up until the present moment.

A serious part of actor training involves helping the student actor realize that his or her current I is only one of practically infinite number of possibilities. If, instead of being born in a struggling middle-class family in Rameswaram in Tamilnadu, for instance, the person had been born just a few hundred kilometers south-east in war-torn Srilanka, he or she would have turned out—understandably indeed—to be a person with a completely different sense of I, with a correspondingly different worldview. It follows logically then that if an actor has to portray a character from war-torn Srilanka with any degree of truthfulness, it is not sufficient to research into the external circumstances that the character faced but also be able to chart the inner life of such a character. For this, an actor needs to be able to do two things, at will and on demand:

  1. Temporarily negate his or her own ego.
  2. Assume the ego of the character that he or she needs to portray.

 

Much easier said than done!

Before a student actor can be trained to assume the ego of a character in a play, he or she must first be trained to negate his or her own ego—at will, on demand, and whenever required.

While an intellectual understanding of the need for negating one’s own ego is understood relatively easily by any student actor of slightly above-average intelligence, putting this understanding into practice can be incredibly difficult, because the student’s psychological defense mechanism will kick in and put up an immediate and sharp resistance to the process, as has been pointed out in the preceding section. This is where the firm guidance of an experienced acting coach can become indispensable.

The way the acting coach might explain and proceed with taking apart the actor’s ego and the layers of resistance in the student may be explained allegorically, as follows:

Let’s liken the current state of the student actor’s ego to a child’s toy car made up of pieces from a building set. The parents of the child have gifted it with the building set, and the building set came in the form of a toy car, out of the box. The child has been playing with the toy car happily ever since, without ever realizing that the car is just one of the many possible shapes from the building set that it has been gifted with. Then, one day, along comes an older cousin and sets out to take apart the toy car, piece by piece. Initially, the child is bound to think that his or her toy car is being broken or destroyed. Obviously, the child will not cooperate but only resist! However, when the older cousin manages to explain, demonstrate, or otherwise convince the child that the gift that the child originally received was not a toy car but a building set with which one could fashion any shape, including but not limited to the car, the child slowly realizes the magic of the building set and then, willingly involves itself in the activity of taking apart the shapes of the building set, only to think of newer and newer shapes and possibilities. Once the child has learned that he or she could put together the toy car at any time, the child is no longer obsessively attached to it, but is actually now fascinated by the versatility of the building set he or she owns.

In the story, the pieces of the building set are rather limited and they are put together, physically, in a limited set of ways. The pieces that constitute the actor’s ego, though, are numerous, and when the actor temporarily negates the ego, he or she is, in essence, taking apart the pieces mentally, only to rearrange them—by employing the power of imagination—in one of a million ways in order to create, or assume, the character’s ego.

After the shows are over, the actor can always go back to his or her favorite “toy car”!

Conclusion

At the end of the essay, the following might be some of the takeaway points, at a high level:

  • The theater director and the acting coach are essentially different roles.
  • The two roles might be performed by the same person at different times, but still, when wearing the director’s hat, the person’s focus will be toward the vision of the play and not on training the actors.
  • Don’t expect the theater director to teach you acting.
  • Don’t expect the acting coach to teach you only acting.
  • For the acting coach, you are the mission.
  • The focus of the acting coach is to help you break the shell of ego and liberate the potential artiste trapped inside.
  • You need training to be able to temporarily negate your actor’s ego before you can assume your character’s ego.
  • Because students are of different types, from those who molt the layer of the actor’s ego smoothly to those who put up a hard shell of resistance, the acting coach will also have to choose an appropriate approach, in the interest not only of the student but also of the art form.
  • Choosing what specific theater lessons and training experiences each student actor needs is thus the prerogative of the acting coach, and the student does not get to pick and choose the what and the how—at least not in the initial stages or until the student has developed a basic sense of art.

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