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One discovery was how much actors appreciated me listening to their ideas. “Wow!” I thought, “Does that mean most directors don’t really listen to actors?” Then I remembered some of the directors I had worked with and realized that, unfortunately, that had been my experience more often than not.

By listening to actors’ interpretative ideas -- what they think about their characters, how they perceive their relationships, their suggestions for blocking – I saw an atmosphere of trust and respect being formed. And I began to notice that actors not only appreciated being listened to, but they seemed to feel freer to create.  

I think it’s important to remember that actors are at the very center of the creative process. Yet, sometimes during a production their input is diminished.  

What are some other ways a director can support actors and help them do their best work?

Make the actors collaborators  
For me, collaboration starts in auditions by talking to actors about how they see their roles.  At callbacks I’ll often have an actor I’m even a little interested in give multiple readings, and ask her to make adjustments to her reading.  This is also a good way for me to see how malleable she is and how well she takes direction – providing a preview of how she will be to work with in rehearsals.  Although there is often a need on the actor’s part to keep her reading similar to what she did before (understandable since that’s what got her the callback), I want the actor to show me something different.  And my experience is that a good actor will do just that.

After the first readthrough I will ask actors to share their view of the play, its theme and major action, and their characters’ wants and needs. Sometimes, at this point, actors want to know all the answers to objectives, tactics, obstacles, relationships and on and on. It is as if they think these answers are set in stone and never waiver. From my initial work on the script I’ll have some ideas about answers, but I don’t want to share all these ideas with the actors just yet. I want us to discover the answers together through rehearsing the play.

For me the most effective way to explore the play is to get actors on their feet, with book in hand, as soon as possible. Some directors disagree, but I don’t think it important for actors to get off book early. I just want them to really talk to, and listen to, each other. The time to do this work is early in the process before repetition has created ingrained line readings and de facto choices.  I want actors to really take each other in, and allow themselves to be surprised in early rehearsals.

After this initial stage I’ll block the show, then go on to moment-to-moment work.  This is the second opportunity for the actors and I to explore possibilities, and start to find answers, still in the spirit of discovery. During these rehearsals I’ll ask actors to play new objectives and tactics, and we’ll use improvisations to discover more possibilities. I encourage actors to let me know what they need during this period.  Do they think playing the scene with opposite motivations will open a door to some truth?  Will playing an “overdo” improv (where actors take each physical and emotional action to an extreme) help?

During this critical period in rehearsals there can be a lure to set things solidly in place because technical rehearsals are right around the corner, and then opening night.  However, there is still time for creative inspiration, and because the actors and the director know the play better than they did weeks earlier, there is more possibility for inspiration to occur.

Encourage actors and value their talent
I believe it’s important for directors to give actors as much encouragement as possible – because acting is hard!  Michael Howard, my marvelous former acting teacher in New York, used to say that acting was hard because of the many demands required of actors. An actor’s work is both immediate – it happens NOW every time – and direct – the actor faces a live group of people every performance. And if an actor is working creatively onstage and really listening to the other actors, taking logical actions (not just “acting”) and staying emotionally available to the events of the play, he puts himself in a vulnerable position.  As directors we should support actors’ emotional risk-taking in rehearsals so these rich moments show up in performance too.

As an actor I had always felt the pressure of how difficult acting was.  As a director that pressure was lifted, although for a long time I thought this ironic because I had much more responsibility as a director. Eventually I realized that I had felt pressure as an actor because I was, in a sense, ultimately and finally responsible to the audience. The director wasn’t up there on stage with me; neither were the designers, the stage manager, nor the stage crew. As the only participants in the theatre who have direct contact with the audience, actors are the immediate and final interpreters of a play.  That’s quite a responsibility! 

Actors should also know their individual talent is valued. A director should point out to the actor the unique qualities he brings to the role. I don’t mean insincere flattery.  I do mean it’s helpful and supportive to the actor for the director to actually say those things she may be thinking, but never says. For example, in a comedy a director might point out what incredible comic timing an actor has in an effort to get him to trust his instincts. By stressing an actor’s strong points, especially when struggling with a scene, the director helps an actor create confidence, and confidence encourages creative risk taking.

Help create a sense of ensemble
This one most of us know. The theatre is all about ensemble; by working as one cohesive unit a group of actors creates something larger than the sum of the individual parts. I know I have experienced this phenomenon many times, and I’ve found that most casts eventually create an ensemble among themselves.

However, a director should take the lead in creating an ensemble by setting up a sharing, caring atmosphere. This means insisting on mutually respectful behavior among the company. And it all comes from the top. The company will take the director’s cue. If the director has a commanding air and doesn’t treat everyone with respect some cast members won’t treat each other with respect. Just as in a classroom setting when, in the first few days, students size up the teacher to determine what the etiquette for the class is going to be, actors size up the director and see what the etiquette for the rehearsal process is going to be – and respond in kind. So, it’s important from the very beginning for the director to establish the sense that “we’re all important – and we’re all in this together.”

Ask questions to motivate, rather than dictate
Directors should also strive to ask questions of the actors, not just give directions. Asking questions opens up a world of possibilities and makes an actor justify everything she says, does and thinks on stage. 

In early rehearsals I will ask actors what is going on in the scene (given circumstances), what they want (objective) and what’s in the way of getting it (obstacle). As an actor describes his needs for the scene I continue to ask questions:  “How are you going to get that? Why do you want it? What will happen if you don’t get it?” I will continue to ask relevant questions throughout rehearsals, stopping actors in mid-scene when necessary, until they and I find answers that are rooted in truth and create believable, motivated behavior. 

Support actors in using themselves to create characters
I believe it vital that directors support actors in creating fully realized characters with specific physical and vocal qualities. A director should challenge actors to use their own voice and their own body for their characters, not just an “idea” of the character based on descriptions in the script or from watching other actors’ performances.   

In a production I recently directed at my university one of the actors was playing a middle-aged father. His character was an old fashioned guy who tried (not too successfully) to use some of the hip language his college-aged daughter used – and his attempts at humor would be considered by most to be pretty lame. I cast an actor in his early 20’s to play the role.  In his initial work the actor had a good sense of the character’s wit and constantly cracked everyone up in rehearsal. However, he was creating more an idea of a somewhat silly, middle-aged man than a real person. So, I asked him to use himself more fully; to stop pushing the jokes so hard, and to let go of the gruff voice and the self conscious, stiff walk.  These were all ideas of character.

Instead, I asked him to use his own personal traits in creating the role, to imagine how he might be walking, talking and reacting in twenty years.  After all, I reminded him, I had cast him because he was very much like his character in spirit, if not in age and appearance.

Although it was uncomfortable for him at first, the actor eventually started to let go of these clichés and ideas of character, and began to really use himself in the role. He relaxed physically and started to work on an injury the character had, by making it specific and placing it in a particular spot on his leg. This gave him a slight limp, and enough physical life to create a believable middle-aged walk and body. I also asked him to stop using an unauthentic character voice. He discovered that his own voice (which was actually quite mature sounding), when fully committed to the truth of the text, was enough. And instead of pushing the comic lines, he let the character’s silliness and lack of awareness speak for themselves.

He got one of his biggest laughs when his character is trying to be hip with his daughter’s friend by describing how delicious an anchovy pizza looks:  “Cowabunga, fishalicious!” he exclaims, while his daughter and her friend stare at him, stone faced. In early rehearsals he had played the idea of the character’s motivation by pushing the punch line, and using a character voice, rather than his own. When I asked him to play the character’s real intention (thinking that by using “cool” language he could better relate to the kids) the line came across simply and truthfully – and consistently got a great laugh. By not pushing and working with the character’s true intention, the actor gave the audience a real moment, not just an idea of one.  
He went on to give a funny, genuine portrayal of a middle-aged man – quite an accomplishment for an actor in his early 20’s.  
Be willing to work in the actor’s state of being
Another way a director can support actors is by working with them in a creative and emotionally vulnerable state. When I am working effectively as an actor this is the state I am in.  I am physically relaxed, I am emotionally involved with the scene (event), with the other actors (relationship) and with what I want to accomplish (objective). I am seeking connection to all these things and to my own emotions. I am necessarily in a very subjective state of being, and am not “social” the way I would be in most situations.  

When I am directing I tend to be in a very different state: I’m more emotionally detached, I’m looking at the big picture, and I’m seeking results.  However, because I also want to get the best results possible from the actor I want to enter her world too. This means that part of me must stay open and vulnerable, and sensitive to the actor. If she needs to try a different choice for a moment I’ll let her, if she needs time to just breathe and become more focused I’ll give it to her, if she wants to play something radically different from what I’ve given her – just to see if it works – I’ll take the time to see it.  And because I am relaxed and focused on the actor, I’m better able to emotionally connect to, and really see, what she is attempting in the scene.  When directors are lucky enough to have actors who work this way I believe they must fully support them. 

There will be times as a director (as there have been for me), when the pragmatist inside says “No, we don’t have time to try that, we’re on a schedule!”  However taking the time to try that new moment or choice may result in something wonderful and unexpected, a delightful surprise that makes the performance, and the show, better. 

Along this same line, a director should be aware of maintaining the actor’s line of concentration as much as possible.  For example, a director should be conscious of when a rehearsal is flowing, when the actors are focused and concentrated. These are often the moments when inspiration happens, when something is created purely in the moment, unconsciously. A director should be aware of not stopping the scene in these moments. He should let the actors go, even if there are mistakes like missed lines or wrong blocking.

These are the magic moments, a big part of the exploration process of rehearsals, and the director should be there for the actors when they happen.

Closing thoughts
Rehearsing in the actor-centered way I’ve been discussing can sometimes be a challenge for directors. There may be a temptation to skip the things we’re not good at, or don’t think we have time for. However, these are often the very things we should be working on with young actors – because they can create wonderful results.

I believe that by serving actors, the central participants in the theatre, we better serve the play. And by serving the play we ultimately satisfy, entertain and enrich our audience.

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Actor, Entrepreneur, Risk Taker - continued

KW: At a young age you were part of the puppetry team on Sesame Street. How did that come about?
JT: When I was 12 I wrote a letter to Jim Henson and almost met him twice. And then when I was 14 I wrote to Kevin Clash who performs Elmo on Sesame Street, and he called me one night and invited me down to the workshop to see the show. While we were hanging out I said, “Out of all the thousands of letters you get, why did you call me?” And he said because Jim had once mentioned me. So, I ended up doing these workshops that are basically 3-day auditions, and by 16 I was working with them.

KW: How long did you work on Sesame Street?
JT: About 12 years.

KW: Avenue Q was your first Broadway show. At the time, were you in the mindset of “I’m going to continue with puppetry and go that way,” or “I’m going be a Broadway musical performer?” How did those two worlds meet?
JT: I’d always wanted to do both. One of the composers of Avenue Q and Rick Lyon, who was my co-star in the show, knew that I had a musical theatre background as well as puppetry, so that’s why they thought of me. It was kind of kismet. I mean it was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime thing; a show that lined up so perfectly with the two things I love to do.

KW: Early on, did you expect Avenue Q to reach the heights that it did? Did you see something there?
JT: Oh God, no! No, no, no, no. Every step of the journey was always a surprise and kind of “I can’t believe that we’re going to go there now and do that.” I mean we hoped that we would maybe get a little Off Off Broadway run. We never thought we’d even be Off Broadway. We always called it “The Little Show That Could” because it was this little, teeny show out of nowhere that kept growing and growing.

KW: Your roles as Princeton and Rod earned you a Tony nomination for Best Actor. Was that a big turning point in your career?
JT: Oh absolutely, absolutely. I mean it changed everything.

“You have to know that this is what you want to do.”

KW: I’ve heard it said about the acting profession that if you have a fall back plan, you’ll fall back. Do you believe that?
JT: Yeah, I think that’s very true. I mean you have to have drive, you know. And I’ve met so many actors who are so very, very talented and they just don’t have that drive. You have to know that this is what you want to do. This is all you want to do. And you have to take the risk to do it. And I think when you put that kind of energy out there and you are throwing all your eggs in one basket, then you almost force everything to work for you. I know a lot of people who try to play it safe in this business and you can’t.

“I guess the smartest thing I have done is say ‘yes’ to almost everything.”

KW: What would you say are one or two of the smartest things you’ve done for your career?
JT: I guess the smartest thing I have done is say “yes” to almost everything. I’ve had the experience, literally, where an intern of a show who I was very kind to, or at whose concert I volunteered to sing ten years earlier, was suddenly a huge producer who remembered me and brought me in for something. Or I’ve done an appearance on the Today Show and been really nice. So when they were looking for someone to come back, they asked me.

KW: You also wrote the book for ImaginOcean which I thought was just a brilliant idea —
JT: — Oh thank you! —

KW: — a children’s musical that ran Off Broadway at New World Stages. You wrote a similar show for a cruise company and then some New York theatre people saw it and wanted to produce it. Most people in your position would be actively pushing that to make that happen, but it seems that it sort of fell into your lap. There’s a strong sense of serendipity here. Does that happen a lot for you?
JT: It does, actually. My stepfather, who’s probably my biggest fan in the world, always gets mad at me when I use the words “lucky” or “blessed” because he feels like I work very hard, and I do. But I also think that there are a lot of people out there who work very hard who don’t get a chance to pursue the things they love, to live their dreams. So I’m very aware that I’m lucky and a lot of things have worked out for me.

KW: Right.
JT:  … but it was serendipity. I saw ImaginOcean as this sweet little show for a cruise line, a first experience with theatre for a lot of kids. One of my co-producers wanted to invite some industry people from New York to come see the workshop. And I was like, “Why? We’re putting it on a cruise ship.” And he said it could have a life outside of the ship. So I said, “Okay!” And it was kind of phenomenal to watch how people reacted to it. It was pure dumb luck that someone saw where it could go.

“I think I stand out from the crowd a little bit.”

KW: You said other people you know in the industry don’t have that kind of luck, and they also work hard. Why do you think you have it?
JT: I think the biggest reason is, honestly, I bring something unique to the table. In the past 20 years, I can’t think of anyone who was a puppeteer and an actor, and known for both. Broadway has lost personalities. The great Broadway performers, Carol Channing, Ethel Merman, George Hearn, Angela Lansbury, were true personalities who all broke a mold and had something special about them. Not that I’m putting myself in that category, but if you look at my contemporaries, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Cheyenne Jackson, we’ve all done our own thing. And we’re hard to categorize. We all have our little something that makes us stand out. So I think that’s it. I think I stand out from the crowd a little bit.

“I really believe what you put out is what you get back.”

KW: I think you have an infectious energy which is very positive and connects with people.
JT: Oh thank you. You know, I’ve been accused of being annoyingly optimistic sometimes, and part of it is because I really believe what you put out is what you get back. I also think that you decide, you tell the universe what you want to be doing. It’s funny. I remember when The Secret came out, that book that was on ‘Oprah’ for a while. Everyone was talking about it. I had a friend who actually said to me, “You’ve been doing that for years!”

KW: If you could go back in time, are there one or two things you would change?
JT: Things I would change? Gosh. I mean there are lists. (laughs) I wish in some ways I had taken more advantage of the kind of pseudo-celebrity fame on Broadway I had during Avenue Q. When I probably could have moved to LA and made a much bigger deal, I didn’t. But that’s something I would change only because I would love to see what would have happened, not because I regret what has happened. I mean when I did Johnny and the Sprites a lot of people said “What are you doing? Why are you doing a children’s show? You should be moving to LA and pursuing movies and TV.” And the reality is that I could have done that, but it’s not really what my heart said to do. So now, looking back, I’m so happy I didn’t (laughs) because if I had I wouldn’t have had ImaginOcean, I wouldn’t have had Johnny and the Sprites, I wouldn’t have had a television show, I wouldn’t have had an Emmy nomination.

“I never fell for the words ‘you have to.’”

KW: Okay, last question. All of the statistics tell us that acting is an incredibly difficult profession, and at any given time there are far more actors out of work than are working. However, you’ve defied those odds. You’ve enjoyed quite a bit of success in your career. How have you done it?
JT: Oh God, if I really knew I’d be able to write a book and make a lot of money! I think the main reason is I never fell for the words “You have to.” I constantly hear my friends say, “You can’t sing that song at an audition,” or “You have to do this or you won’t be taken seriously.” And I’m constantly saying “Why?” I refuse to follow the “You have to” crowd. I went in and sang songs that no one else would’ve ever thought to sing for an audition. Because I didn’t sing 16 bars of a song that every young guy in his 20’s sings, I stood out.

KW: Right.
JT: Because I didn’t hide my puppetry like some people told me to on my résumé, I stood out. And I think that when you embrace those things and you make those choices and you’re not afraid to be different, then that’s when things start to pay off. So, if there is a secret, I think maybe that’s it. I would be foolish to say that’s exactly what it is. But that’s my guess.

Undoubtedly, things are working for John Tartaglia. So what are the actions, skills and beliefs that have led him to such a successful career?

He takes risks. John took a risk many wouldn’t. He turned down a full scholarship to college, and instead moved to New York. At 18 he had to pay bills, balance a checkbook and make his own way, alone. Years later John reached a level of success most actors only dream about when he earned a Tony nomination for the Broadway musical Avenue Q. He could have chosen the security of a long run in a hit show, but instead left. With no guarantee of work elsewhere, he once again set out to explore new possibilities.

He trusts his own instincts. Broadway success brought the promise of new career opportunities in Los Angeles, where many of John’s friends were encouraging him to go. However, his heart told him to stay in New York, so he did. That decision led to more opportunities, including an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series for Johnny and the Sprites.

He focuses exclusively on show business.. John talked about the power of “throwing all your eggs in one basket,” of making a full commitment to show business, allowing yourself no other choices. He made the decision at 12, when his letter to Jim Henson at Sesame Street (which was not answered but certainly not forgotten), led to his first creative endeavor, puppeteering, and later to a career defining performance in Avenue Q.

He graciously accepts every opportunity..John talked about return appearances on television shows, and auditions out of nowhere because he treated everyone with respect. His agent, Penny Luedtke, said “other performers have told me that he’s giving, and a dream to work with.” And when I asked Penny what part John played in the huge success of Avenue Q she replied “He did absolutely every single publicity opportunity that was suggested. He never slept. He was out selling the show whether it was on the street or at malls or whatever.”

He isn’t swayed by conventional advice. For auditions John “sang songs no one else would’ve ever thought to sing,” and long before Avenue Q he refused to hide his puppetry skills on his résumé.

He values his own uniquenss. John is truly unique; he acts, sings, dances and is a skilled puppeteer. He trusts who he is, has his own unique personality and shares it openly with everyone. Penny Luedtke says “He makes people feel at home. He’s a performer, an old-fashioned entertainer,” adding that John is very talented, but “talent is just a small part of it. It’s what you do with it.”

And finally there is the question of luck. John is the first to point to his amazing luck in show business. However, it seems to me John has created that luck through an unfailing commitment to his craft, talent and drive.

As John said himself,

“What you put out is what you get back.”

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Last Updated: March 14, 2014
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