The Actor-Director and Patient-Therapist Relationships: A Process Comparison

By Weiner, Sydell | American Journal of Psychotherapy, Winter 1997 | Go to article overview

The Actor-Director and Patient-Therapist Relationships: A Process Comparison


Weiner, Sydell, American Journal of Psychotherapy


Stage directors are involved in a process similar to psychotherapists. They empathize, stimulate emotional recall, deal with conflict, encourage risktaking, build confidence, establish a supportive environment, and create a sense of family. This paper presents a comparison of two processes-directing and treating-that rely on the skill of trusted facilitators.

The relationship between the actor and director, like that of the patient and therapist, relies on intense emotional involvement. Both demand sensitivity, reciprocity, and a deep understanding of human behavior.1 Because dramatic action is created through the continuous conflict between characters, actors must explore not only their actions, but the reactions of those with whom they are relating. The process of therapy is equally interdependent. Just as the actor works to influence the behavior of another character, in real life we seek responses from others in an attempt to resolve conflict and affect change. The patient-therapist relationship is a means of facilitating change and providing a context in which to work through these conflicts. Human behavior and human relationships are indeed the focus of both psychology and theatre. They are creative processes in which patients and actors explore their actions in a supportive environment. This paper will present a process comparison of the actor-director and patient-therapist relationships by assuming that both are art forms that rely on the skill of a trusted facilitator.

The most constructive attitude directors can strive for is identification with their actors. Directors' true success is measured by the extent to which they enable actors to realize themselves in creating characterizations.2 This often involves reflecting actors' individual qualities without their even being aware of it. As Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, a disciple of Stanislavsky, wrote:

to be able without inflicting humiliation but with love and friendliness to mimic: "this is how you are doing it; is that what you intended?" so that the actor may see himself face to face, as in the mirror3 (p. 157). This approach seems very much like reflective listening, the technique whereby therapists mirror their patients' responses in an attempt to understand their frame of reference and develop a relationship.

In addition to mirroring, the director can build a relationship with actors by treating them with enough respect to allow them to discover things for themselves. Feeding actors line readings, for example (i.e. speaking a line and expecting them to repeat it with the director's intonations), is contrary to the creative process. Actors' responses should be internalized for them to ring true to the audience. Mimicking the director imposes an external interpretation that may be true to the director's experience, but not the actors'. If the director respects the actors' creative abilities, chances are greater that they will discover them for themselves. According to Stanislavsky:

The actor has to work out these suppositions for himself and give them his own interpretation. If the director tries to force them on him-the result is violence. In my way of doing, this cannot happen because the actor asks the director for what he needs as he needs it. This is an important condition for free, individual creativeness4 (p.287).

George Bernard Shaw, the great English director and playwright, agreed:

These rules are founded on experience. They are of no use to a director who regards players not as fellow artists collaborating with him, but as employees on whom he can impose his own notions of acting and his own interpretation of the author's meaning5 (p.9).

The healthiest approach is for actors and directors to look for the interpretation together. Not only does this imply respect for the actors, it also fosters a relationship based on trust. Under these conditions the actors are free to grow. This implies that directors, too, are in a creative state of "I don't know," so that their minds are open to possibilities that may be obscured by first impressions. …

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