Dealing With Outsized Personalities

December 22, 2010

Let’s face it. It’s the theatre. You’re going to run into some big personalities. Students and colleagues are going to be crazy, there will be drama.

With students, you’re going to need to rein things in the same way you’d do it in the classroom. This isn’t the place to talk about good classroom management, and frankly, I’m not the person to talk about it; my classroom management has always been poor. But if you don’t put any boundaries on these kids; if you take the position that this is the outlet for kids to be outside the box, you’ll run into a problem like this:


I was music directing Brigadoon at a conservative Christian school, and the kid playing Jeff was a real card, always ad-libbing and making everybody laugh. Nobody stopped him, this was the only place this kid could ‘be himself’. But what you do in rehearsal, you do in performance; it usually gets crazier when you’re in front of an audience, not tamer. So it should have surprised nobody when, on opening night, he ad-libbed the following pickup line: “If I told you that you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?” Everyone was aghast! But we hadn’t reined him in at all during rehearsals. We got what we had coming to us.


Yes, the theatre is a place for freedom of expression, but there need to be boundaries, and it’s your job to set them. The job of a director is not to let kids do precisely what they would do in your absence. You have to provide them direction. Take a kid aside and have a strong conversation with consequences and then follow through. In my junior year of high school, my choral director kicked our best tenor, a senior, out of the choir because of his terrible attitude. We may have missed his beautiful voice, but it was a net gain for the director to remove him, because it allowed us to find our focus again. Don’t let a talented kid hold you hostage.

With adults, you’re on a more difficult road. Sometimes you’ll find a colleague who will lose their cool and explode. There is a way to recover gracefully from that.


My collaborator and I had written a very complicated scene into our new opera. It was a French farce with a lot of running around, mistaken identity, and confusion in the last scene. The climax of this completely underscored scene involved a cardboard cutout being moved at just the right time, and actors who have been running around the whole theater being at just the right spot at this particular point in the music. We had perfectly planned the underscore for this particular theater, timing with a stopwatch how long it would take to get from the backstage to the back of the house in the outer hallway, how long it would take to run down the house right aisle, etc. It had taken a long time and much effort. Unfortunately our director ignored all our stage directions and staged it in a way that not only didn’t do what we wanted, it didn’t have the final climax which solved the main problem of the show and allowed it to end. I think it’s safe to say that my collaborator can be an outsized personality. He had been stewing about this situation for weeks, and now, in the last days of tech, he was a ticking time bomb. After yet another run at the scene which wasn’t working, he finally exploded, calling the director every name in the book and demanding that he leave. It was a spectacular display, and it sucked all the oxygen out of the room.

After the explosion, there was a deathly silence, and I said, “Okay. It’s obvious this situation isn’t working. What is the last tableau we need in the scene, according to the script?” We set that tableau. Then we went backwards 16 bars and set that point, and ran the section, and so forth until I had reblocked the whole scene. Somehow the tirade had reset everything to zero. My collaborator deflated like a balloon.


Now, luckily, we were in a professional situation. (although we weren’t really behaving professionally) In a school situation, this thing would have been very serious indeed! People could easily have been fired. But 2 things might have moved this problem in a more constructive direction:

1) I should have seen this coming and pushed for us to confront the director before it got to the boiling point. If you have a person on your team with a legitimate beef who might ‘go rogue’, you should really try and address the problems constructively before it gets out of anybody’s control.

2) Give people time to cool off. Allow for a frustrated adult to leave for a while, while you work on something else.  Don’t confront the angry adult in front of the kids.

3) And if you’re the angry adult, cool off and have the courage to confront your problem constructively. Dallas Willard says something to the effect of, “There isn’t anything you can do angry that you can’t do better when you’re not angry” I think he’s right. Everything I’ve ever said while angry I have regretted the instant I cooled off, and the angrier I get, the more foolish the things I say. But on the flipside,  if I try to ignore the things that are bothering me,  my anger will start to show up in ways I am unable to control. It takes guts to confront the thing that’s making you angry without losing your cool. But you must do it!

Finally, when an outsized personality takes over the proceedings in some way or another, or if a normally sized personality (whatever that is) loses it and blows up, it’s really important for everyone else not to lose their cool, and for someone to come in and bring focus back to the room. And then when things have cooled down, it’s important to find the time to talk it out and find a solution that addresses the issues involved.



  1. I’m only going to comment on the first situation. I feel like there needs to be a conversation between you and all of the students to express why straying drastically from the script is a bad idea. How getting really out of style/out of character can destroy that gentle balance a play write tries to build. It’s tough to explain that to kids. Theatre’s live and things are going to be different every night. It’s also important to have fun and keep the show’s energy alive. However, make the distinction between little accidents and purposely changing lines to beef up your part for laughs. Talk about how counter-productive it is. After it became obvious that student was trying to stand out, I suppose a three strike system should be implemented as well as a potential understudy. Thoughts?

  2. Amen to Dave. My biggest headache is the myth of “joke night” which preceded me at my school. Every year, I try to appease the tradition without straying from the script and keeping the kids in check on closing night. Because if I didn’t let them do SOMETHING, they’d just go nuts on their own! Oy!

  3. Terrific blog, seriously enjoying & totally rings true.

    A variation on this one: 30 years ago or so I was in McNally’s Bad Habits and essentially brought on strapped to a wheelchair, “sedated” and left at stage left for the bulk of the act.

    My comedy training and habit said “if you get no notes, make it bigger” so I did, night after night in rehearsal. Opening night I was a huge distraction, to the point that offstage company members asked the director “What’s he doing up there?”.

    To her credit she said “Nothing he didn’t do in rehearsal” and gave me a note and I toned it down.

    The moral is: watch ALL the actors, not just the principals.

  4. Drat, forgot to ask for email follow-up.

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