Theatre Information

Let Notes Be Notes

By • Mar 2nd, 2011 • Category: An Actor's Advice

One of the worst things you can do as a community actor is to justify yourself during director’s notes.

This is nothing less than an epidemic among community players, and it is one that quickly goes from a minor nuisance to a full-blown obstacle, especially as one nears the opening of a show. If you are at all concerned with conducting yourself in a professional manner, don’t be caught doing this.

No matter what your reasons for it, protesting or even trying to qualify a note you are given wastes time. Other people are in need of their notes as well, but they will not get them as early if you make commentary on each note you receive from the director. And if more than one person in a cast is providing a commentary, notes can take hours. They should never take hours.

The fact of the matter is, you are going to sometimes get a note from a director that may not apply directly to something that you did or did not do. It may have been the fault of the lighting person, or someone else in the scene, or any other of a million things. You are the one who got the note. Take from it what you can take from it, and allow the director to move on. Protesting that, “It wasn’t my fault. If XYZ had happened, then…” makes you look like a pompous ass.

Also avoid the ever so popular, “I thought I already was doing XYZ.” Maybe you were and maybe you were not. But at that moment the director did not happen to notice it. The director may have made a mistake. They may have been wrong about what they saw you trying to do. But do not point that out during notes, because that is not your personal time. It is time that belongs to the show, and you mustn’t monopolize it. Once again, take what you can from the note, applying it if possible, and disregard the rest to the best of your ability.

Now, sometimes there will be legitimate problems that need to be resolved during notes. Sometimes a note is unclear. In such a case it is your right as an actor, even your responsibility, to ask the director if they could clarify to what they were referring. This is an acceptable use of time during notes. But if confusion remains, or if disagreement arises between you and the director, wait until rehearsal is complete, and then ask the director if you may have a moment of their time. You can then explain, with all the decency you would show anyone else with whom you had a concern, why you think their note was wrong, or what it is about the suggestion they made that you find problematic. It is, after all, the director’s job to make sure you as the actor is most able to present your character.

But when you insist on making comments, asking a thousand questions, or defending yourself during notes, you are failing to acknowledge that there is more to a director’s job than helping you. They must help each member of the cast. Not to mention techie issues, board meetings, taking the notes in question, production design, scheduling, and any number of other things. They like anyone else signed up for it, it is true, but that’s no reason for you to monopolize their time, and the time of the show with concerns that are mostly just your own.

One final thing to consider when receiving a note you don’t understand or like is that perhaps the director is seeing something you do not see in yourself. They are watching from a distance, as they should be. And just as they are not going to understand all of what you are trying to do with your character every moment, you are not going to understand everything that they are hoping to accomplish. I maintain that actors need to retain most of the influence over how they present their characters, instead of directors taking that power. But at the same time, each actor has to consider that they are unable to see the big picture and the broader experience of the entire play.

I promise you that not every note you get from a director is going to be correct, helpful, or fair. That’s how it is in a collaborative art such as the theatre. But I can also promise you that pointing out the difficulties you have with each note, (or its cousin, responding to everything with “I know, I know, I already know that”) will set you apart from the rest of the cast and crew. And not in a flattering way.

Let notes be notes, and address your problems with them privately.

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is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs (for theatre related thoughts) and (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

3 Responses »

  1. Well said! And, I hope that every actor who reads this takes it to heart. There is nothing worse than sitting through hours of notes, after 3 hours of rehearsal, while a handful of “explainers/questioners/describers” take up time. And, especially in a facility that is being rented by the hour! (This is coming from one who is not only a performer but a treasurer as well).

    Thanks for bringing this item to the forefront.

  2. And we have Directors who give 3 hour notes, just to hear themselves talk. I have experienced directors give a single 20 min. note, WITHOUT the actor interjecting anything. That too for me is a waste of my time. Please don’t give me the same note a dozen times by saying it a dozen different ways, I heard you the first time.

  3. Well said, especially: “But at the same time, each actor has to consider that they are unable to see the big picture and the broader experience of the entire play.”

    As a director, I expect each actor to be most concerned with their character. It’s my responsibility to be concerned with the big picture. I’m the editor. It’s my job. It’s not unusual for really terrific ideas to be rejected because they don’t fit the big picture.