The Business of Show Biz: Director Scapegoats
Thursday, June 19, 2014
By Velina Brown
Q: Just curious what you think about this: Over the years (and many, many productions) I've noticed that frequently directors tend to focus negatively on one person in the cast whom they may perceive, either accurately or inaccurately, as the weakest link, and will overcriticize or even be abusive to that one cast member. Usually, it seems, they are taking out their anxiety and frustration from the production and focusing it all on the one scapegoat. I have seen this happen to others, and have also been the baffled recipient of this kind of attention. Have you ever seen this phenomenon, and do you have any suggestions on how to deal with it? A confrontation with a stressed director can be a delicate operation.
Actor and career consultant Velina Brown.
A: Often actors are so terrified of "burning a bridge" that when they experience bad treatment from someone they perceive as having more power than they do, they lose their ability to respect their own boundaries. Suddenly all kinds of inappropriate behavior are accepted that would not be accepted anywhere else. But each person's limit is different. So I've decided to be very frank and share the instance in which the scapegoat was me.
How did I deal with it?
But first I tried to grin and bear it. I tossed and turned and lost sleep over the situation because I was so miserable and didn't know what to do. Finally, I decided to speak with the director privately with the intention of either sorting the situation out with her or resigning, because one way or the other it had to stop. So, on a break, once everyone had left the room, I took a deep breath and asked if I could speak with her.
She said, "Yes, what is it?"
I said, "This is really hard for me, but I need to let you know how uncomfortable I am in rehearsals now. It seems like everything I do or say irritates you. I feel like I'm constantly getting on your nerves and..."
"Well, you do get on my nerves!"
"Oh, (deep breath) okay, what is it that's so annoying about me?"
"Your questions annoy me. They are impatient."
"I'm sorry. I wasn't feeling impatient. I thought I was just participating in the conversation and asking questions about the script."
(Note: This director was also the writer of the piece. I later realized my questions freaked her out because they were regarding sections of the piece that she had lifted from a book someone else had written. Coincidentally, I'd received the book for Christmas. I knew that those sections seemed familiar to me, but I wasn't trying to ask "gotcha" questions. But I guess that's how they felt to her. So, from the moment I asked that first question about the plagiarized monologues, she despised me.)
"I really don't mean to upset you...," I continued.
Her eyes widened. "I am not threatened by you! Who do you think you are?"
"Wait, wait." I said, "I don't mean to upset you now. And I don't mean to threaten you."
She repeated, "Well, you don't threaten me!"
At that point I was done. If no matter how carefully I chose my words she was going to translate them into insults, I was doomed.
I said, "Well, I think it's best for me to just bow out so that you can find someone less irritating."
That's the only time she shifted gears, really looked at me and said in a softer voice, "Don't be hasty. Sleep on it. Then see how you feel. Will you do that?"
I agreed. But I knew I was done. I just didn't want to seem rude.
Velina Brown is an actor and career consultant. Send her your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
First thing the next morning, I called Equity to find out the protocol for resigning. Then I called the artistic director and asked to meet with him. I explained the situation to him, gave him my resignation letter and explained that I expected no further compensation and that I was willing to assist in any way I could in finding a replacement but that I had attended my last rehearsal. He was disappointed but didn't appear angry with me. I have worked with the company since. But I thankfully haven't seen the director again.
I said all that to say this: Sometimes you have to burn a bridge. Life is too short.
But talking with the director is an important step in seeing if you can sort it out.
However, if you don't want to do that, then ride it out. This too shall pass.