How Do You Get the Best from Theatre Students? [video]

This week on Behind the Curtain, we talk to Atlanta theatre director Amanda Farnsworth about how to get the very best from students during a production. Amanda discusses her process in length—how she involves her cast members on a deeper level, helping them to first understand and then believe in the story being told on stage. Amanda has a fascinating perspective on acting, and how teachers and directors can create an environment where their students can avoid pretending and really slip into the skin of their characters for a theatrical show.

Video Length: 3:15 (3 minutes, 15 seconds)

QUESTION: “As a theatre director, how do you get the best from students?”

AMANDA: “To me, I give my best when I believe what I’m doing—when I believe what I’m saying.

I don’t get the best out of myself by telling myself to be perfect. That doesn’t work for anyone as far as I know. That results in nervous breakdowns and a lot of stress—and that happens in theatre a lot. Because we’re striving for perfection as artists, that happens in art a lot. But what I’ve learned in theatre specifically as a director is that the best comes out of my students, my cast, when they believe in the story they’re telling. When they believe in why their character is doing what they’re doing. If they care about it.

So I do a lot of things in my process to bring it up in conversation a lot. Instead of just directing where to go and how to say and doing line readings and things like that, I want to talk to the person and say, ‘Well if it was you, how would you feel about that?’ And usually we have to stop, and go ‘If it was me?’ There’s a stop, a recalibration that happens. Instead of acting, you are digging into an experience of compassion for a person that is going through that. So instead of pretending like you’re going through that, you have a connection to your character now or a connection to the story you’re telling. And that, in my experience, brings the best out of an actor on stage.

Also, it’s important to dig into the story before you start telling it. Understand why you picked the show. The cast needs to understand why you picked the show. You could have picked the show because you only have seven boys and fifteen girls. [laughs] And that’s fine. But then you have a responsibility as a director to read that show and find in that show what is going to speak to those seven boys and fifteen girls. So that when they hear the story, they can be like, ‘Oh, that was fine’ or they can be like ‘Oh, I love that story’ or ‘I love that character.’

Sometimes we do a thing with scripts where they (the actors) read the script before the auditions. And say ‘Which is your favorite character and why’ or ‘which character would you be? Not for the sake of a role, but which character do you like the best? Which character would be the most fun to play? Which character would be the hardest to play?’ And start to talk about the nature of the people in the story, as opposed to the nature of the role on stage. That to me brings the best out of people! Because then there’s nobody who says, ‘I’m sad because I didn’t get the lead because I wanted the lead and I deserve the lead.’ Instead you have someone who’s in the chorus but believes that their character is every bit as important as the person who is playing the lead. That’s really important to me as a director. So that we’re telling a story together, and it’s not just me that tells the story and you that do what I say. [laughs] I’ve had directors like that. [laughs] And that’s fine, everybody does it their own way, but that’s mine.”

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