The Acting Coach: Teacher or Director?

I’ve been directing for over 40 years. And I’ve been teaching directing for about 20 years. And now, really for the first time, I’m beginning to look at the differences and similarities between directing and teaching.
This shift all came about after I audited several acting classes in search of an acting teacher who I feel is compatible and complementary to my way of directing actors. Besides the wide range of teaching styles I have experienced, I have noticed something very consistent: Many of these teachers will ‘direct’ the scene that has been presented in order to ‘teach’ the actors something.
Let me explain.
A scene has been presented in an acting class, an acting workshop. The teacher will give very specific directions as to how the scene ‘should have’ been played. The actors, then, will perform the scene again with these new ‘directions’ and (almost) consistently, the scene will improve. And also (almost) consistently, the viewing members of the workshop will be notably impressed with the improvements. My question is this: What have the actors actually learned?

The difference between teaching an actor how to become a better actor and directing an actor to give a stronger performance is a very fine line. There is clearly a lot of overlap between teaching and directing and they work hand-in-hand. So, “what’s the problem?” you may ask.

It’s not a problem. It’s a question. Let’s look at the different roles. The director’s objective is to make the scene work as best as he/she can envision. The teacher’s objective is to make the actor work in a way wherein he/she can become a stronger and more confident actor. And the scene presented is the testing ground, the display of the work, the laboratory within which we will experiment and explore. And if the teacher simply ‘re-directs’ the scene so that it will work better what have the actors learned? The actors now know how to do that particular scene in a more effective way. But have they acquired tools and techniques that they can then apply to other scenes, other situations? That is the question.

Wouldn’t it be better to guide the actors through a process where they could ascertain how to solve whatever problems there may be in the scene? (By ‘problems’ I mean flaws, inconsistencies, lack of character depth or arc, etc.) True, it is the teacher’s job to identify and pinpoint the problems so that the actor can perceive the work from another perspective. But now the actor has to learn how to address the problem in a constructive way. And if the actor is simply told ‘how to play it’ then a part of the actor’s process has been circumvented.

And this also brings up another question or concern. Dependency. As much as actors are dependent on the director for guidance in character and scene work, don’t we want the actors to be extremely independent in their own process? If the teacher can lead the actor through a series of steps that would lead to problem recognition and then potential problem solutions I think there is a greater chance for increased independency on the actor’s part.

Several of the teachers that I have observed are, in fact, excellent directors. And because of their strength and confidence in their directing I can see them falling comfortably into direction as a means of addressing the ‘problems’ in the scene. It’s a natural reflex. I know that I have it every time that I teach. I can feel the overwhelming urge to just step in and re-direct the scene – to show how it ‘should’ be done. So I know that I am as guilty of this technique as the teachers I am observing. (Not only when I am teaching directing but especially when I am teaching acting.) I think, perhaps, this is why the question has come up for me. I am aware that I am questioning my own process, my own approach .. my own ‘failings’ if you will.

Which leads to one more question, or situation. When I am teaching and I observe a scene that is not working as well as I can imagine, I will address the director and actors with several questions about their work. I know I am helping to lead them to discover new ways of looking at the work. But often I can see that I am not getting through. So I will choose to show them what I am talking about, to show them a solution. And often I see that look on their faces, which may be wonder or amazement, clearly also contains a modicum of “how did you come up with that?” And this only means that I was not successful in leading them to a process wherein they could find the solution on their own. And I feel, to an extent, that I have failed as a teacher. I succeeded as a director but failed as a teacher. Or, perhaps not. Perhaps this “show and tell” is all an essential part of the teaching and that I need to learn how to find the proper balance.

One thing I do know, though. The more I teach – the more I am the student. And, the more I am willing to be open and learn, the better teacher I will become.

8 responses to “The Acting Coach: Teacher or Director?”

  1. melanie chartoff

    What a humble and aware exploration. So glad you’ve taken it on.

    I’ve studied with many, from Stella Adler and Uta Hagen in NY, to Tom Todoroff and Harry Mastrogeorge, and only the latter has been a true teacher of the elementary craft of acting from a place of innocence. The focus is never on how it looks or comes across or honors the writer (that is the director’s field), but on experiencing a story from inside the pov of another human, another environment, another recent or remote past containing exhilaration and annihilation, joy and fear…and most importantly, love.

    1. markwtravis

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful reply. “Inside the POV of another human being” is such a clear way to put it, Melanie. Makes me think we should be addressing a more basic question, “What is Acting, really?” Thanks for you thoughts and stimulation. Cheers, Mark

  2. David O'Hara


    It is easier to make the scene ‘better’ than to make an actor better. For the scene to be at its best, the actors must ‘live’ in the imaginary circumstances of the scene. I’ve sat in a lot of classes and rarely heard the term ‘live in the scene’. It is not the easiest thing to teach, but it solves almost all the problems. When it happens, the audience is no longer watching a slickly done (or not) scene by slick (or not) actors, but gets personally involved in what’s happening with and to the characters. In the class I’m in now, we get absolutely cold scenes and monos. You can’t plan anything, you can only let the words and the other person affect you. Every Tuesday night more than a few actors take off on imaginary trips and it blows you away.

    1. markwtravis

      David, thanks so much for your thoughts and for writing a response. Sounds like you have a great Tuesday night group. I like your thoughts, very Meisner. And you’re touching on something that I feel is so important, the actor’s ability go ‘get out of the way of the character’ and stop trying to control the process. Thanks, again, Cheers, Mark

  3. Kate McGregor-Stewart

    Mark, your analysis and self awareness is so exhilarating to read! It is impossible to tell you how much I appreciate both you, and your choice to share yourself and your thoughts with all of us. Today’s blog, or essay or whatever we call it, really got me thinking. I definitely do redirect actors in my process, but only after asking numerous questions about their preparation, point of view and personal work. The answers {or non-answers) to those are what lead to the teaching part. Then they try it again. I often do a start and stop work through, although the actress in me winces at the inherent frustrations in that process. The final run is directed by me, based on the combination of the previous steps. It is a fascinating dilemma. I suppose my ultimate test is when my students audition without coaching. As long as they book like that, and get consistently good feedback and results, I have to trust that my “teaching” works. Cheers!

  4. markwtravis

    Kate, thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. And I deeply appreciate your willingness to share your own struggle with us. This is a very tricky process and too many in this business think they have the “answers” when there really aren’t any, there is only the process. Please stay in touch and I look forward to hearing from you again. Cheers, Mark.

  5. Jeanne Hartman

    Wow, I was just discussing this with another teacher.

    As I was reading your blog ,I thought of a Venn diagram version of this.

    Some teachers are good directors.
    Some directors are good teachers.
    BUT not all teachers are good directors
    And not all directors are good teachers.

    A director is focused on his or her project – the movie or the play. That is what he has to do but a teacher should be focused on helping each actor to be trained to use his tools helping him to be the character and do his job. Wow there is so much to say about this, hope we can discuss it some time in person.

    One more thing:
    I think it is good for students to see how there are different ways to get the performance that is believable and exciting to watch. I think it is great for them to see someone create their version of a monologue or scene. It reminds students that there is just not one right choice!!

    Hey I love talking about teaching and I love working with actors!


    1. markwtravis

      Jeanne, great comments. And I am sure we will find time to discuss this all in more detail. Cheers, Mark

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