ashland.news
June 13, 2024

Sage on Stage: Moving from center stage to offstage

Caroline Shaffer and Helen Sadler in "unseen" at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. OSF photo by Jenny Graham
March 1, 2024

Why actors make the move from being the vision to shaping the vision

By Jessica Sage

Dear Jessica,

I often notice actors, once established in their careers, moving in new directions as directors, artistic directors, and others. Can you address, at least from your own perspective, the motivation to move from center stage to offstage, so to speak?

Frances B.

Hi Frances,

Jessica Sage

I really like this question, because actors becoming directors is particularly prevalent in theater. I believe that directing is an extension of acting, and in my experience the best directors are also actors. I think this is because actors must exercise two important muscles: empathy and transformation. When they bring those qualities into their roles as a director, it makes for richer and more meaningful working relationships and can translate to a deeper experience for the audience. Additionally, actors who direct know that an actor’s most crucial role onstage is to reveal a truth to the audience. Directing allows for a more significant role in shaping the overall creative vision of a project, and it challenges artistic boundaries. It provides an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of all aspects of theater-making, including interfacing with the various designers involved in the project.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that acting roles for women become fewer as we grow older, so turning to directing is a means of expanding and extending career opportunities.

I’ve asked several friends who direct with Rogue Theater Company this question for a broader perspective. Grab a cup of coffee, because they have a lot to say on the subject!

Caroline Shaffer

I think directing was a natural progression for me. I assume many actors arrive to this place similarly, but here is my perspective.

To start with, I use the word progression, but only because I came to directing through acting. They are complimentary and overlapping disciplines but not entirely the same. Nor is one “higher” on some theatrical evolutionary scale. 

Caroline Shaffer

I love stories. I love participating whether as a listener, a creator, a conduit, a facilitator. One of the challenges (for me) with acting is that I am fundamentally shy. I don’t like calling attention to myself. It takes effort to immerse myself in story to the point where, on stage, I am so fully committed to the world of the play that I no longer feel the eyes of the audience on me. Actors always bring self — we always bring our own truths — but when personal truth becomes embedded in the truth of the story, it becomes about a collective “us” and not about “me.” (This is my own pathology, I’m not suggesting everyone is this way, nor am I suggesting I am better than, or beyond ego, or anything. It’s just what I’ve learned about myself over the years.) 

As an actor, there is the joy of solving the puzzle of a piece through the eyes of a single character. You get the given circumstances, the details of the who, what, when, where, and how that cannot be changed, and then you find the one truth, the “only” true way for you to inhabit the character’s words and actions. Satisfying.

But as a director, you effectively get to play all the roles. As a woman (of any age, really) the roles tend to be scant and the breadth of human experience you get to inhabit is limited. When I direct, I am afforded the satisfaction of participating in the imaginary discovery of characters and story that I would otherwise not be able to access. And it’s all in the relaxed environment of the rehearsal room and without the effort and sometimes repetitive discipline of performing.

I also love working with actors. As actors, we rely on each other to lift and pique each other’s imaginations on stage. We must juggle the energy and the story together without dropping the ball. But as a director, I get to listen and watch actors and filter their work through my own imagination, my truth, and help focus that for an audience. And one of the puzzles I enjoy is figuring out how, how much — or even if — I want the audience to experience what I do when I see and hear something. In other words, how much do I need to control, and how much do I want to leave open for all the other imaginations in the room, audience and actors alike.

I also think actors understand how actors think. So an actor/director understands all the balls the actors juggle in performance and what they need to do to support various choices the director asks them to make. I always appreciate when I am directed by an actor/director.

— Caroline Shaffer

Michael Hume
Michael Hume

I segued into directing in my mid-20s, having been in plays, amateur and professional, since I was 10. I suppose my big eye-opener as to the possibilities of directing occurred while I was at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, and was able to work with/observe two masters of the form: William Ball, whose approach was totally theatrical, joyous, and challenging, and Allen Fletcher, whose work was instinctive, internal, seemingly effortless, but quite deep. It’s a dynamite combination! I was a founding member of an “avant-garde” summer stock company in the Catskill Mountains when I moved to New York City, acting in four to five different productions per season, started directing two-character one-act plays with pals, rehearsing at midnight and beyond. Basically, (because as the song goes from “A Chorus Line,” “I Can Do THAT!”) I think most thespians who begin directing will tell you that the desire was to work in intricacy with actors, moment-to-moment, that the success of a production depends on the strength and honesty of performances. That is a tad chauvinistic. On the flip side, other starters may come in with great visions of lighting, Philip Glass-ian soundscapes, radical movement, leaving the actors to fend for themselves as “expressions of the “Director’s Vision” — likewise, not ideal. And, once again, a dynamite combination! Through trial and error, successes and failures, a young director will discover (hopefully!) that his primary function is to create UNITY onstage, a shared common vision of cast, design team, and text. And sometimes ya got it: sometimes, ya ain’t.

— Michael Hume

Terri McMahon
Terri McMahon

I have always been interested in the big picture of a play, the structure, how the writing can blossom a world and habitat to play in. As an actor, I have been more than willing to be a part of someone else’s thinking and point of entry. But when I am the director, the leader of the piece, I am overjoyed to be the inventor of the angle we are pursuing. I adore the added responsibility and courage it takes to then articulate that message so that everyone — actors, designers, production and ultimately audience — understands and can come along for the ride. It’s not just about being in charge. It’s about influencing through great communication, trust, and collaboration with everyone touching the play. My job is to serve. Bottom line: To serve — The play, the artists, the theater, and the audience!

Theater lovers, what would you like to know about theater, acting, stagecraft, etc.? Send your questions to contact@roguetheatercompany.com. In the meantime, bring up the houselights, and lets have some fun!

Jessica Sage is artistic director of Rogue Theater Company. RTC’s 2024 season opens March 13 with Robin Goodrin Nordli and Michael Elich in “Off Peak.”

Picture of Bert Etling

Bert Etling

Bert Etling is the executive editor of Ashland.news. Email him at betling@ashland.news.

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