Ah .. the comfort zone. The place where some actors will stay unless pressed to break out. It’s that safe place where you walk in a way that feels ok, talk in your own voice or one you’re familiar with, interact with other actors in a non-threatening manner.

It’s a safe, comfortable place to be. But it isn’t ever enough. Whenever you start to feel slightly embarrassed, uncomfortable, vulnerable or just plain scared, that’s when you’re breaking the comfort barrier. And this is good!

Get a good game going to loosen up the the 'comfort barriers'
Get a good game going to loosen up the the ‘comfort barriers’

Analogy: Your body is remarkable. Your brain has a memory of every muscle you possess and knows exactly how far that muscle can stretch. When it reaches the stretch barrier your brain says ‘no, that’s quite enough stretching, thank you, this is where I’m staying.’ Pretty clever, keeps you safe. It bases this limitation on factors like how much you use the muscle and physical and emotional truama that have affected the area. You have a ‘range’ of movement that becomes normal for you. If you want to go beyond it, you’ll have to practise and reset the brain/muscle controlled barrier. So when you decide to take up yoga (for example) or any other stretching exercise, you have to repeatedly work on stretching your ‘normal’ range of movement until it is gradually increased. If you only do this once a week your progress will be very slow. The more you practise, the more you change.

Now think of theatre. The moments of embarrasment when you have to expose yourself emotionally a bit more than you would like. The moments when you’re asked to ‘try something out’ and you don’t know if you can. Much safer not to try, to carry on operating in comfort. But, if you don’t stretch yourself out of the comfort zone you won’t improve your skills. However comfortable it may feel, it won’t excite or reward you much. You won’t feel any different, you haven’t grown. You absolutely need to break out of the comfort zone and it’s partly down to the director to take you to the limit of your ‘zone’ and push you beyond. It is the job of the actor to be willing to go there!

Acting out a physical part alone on stage can be daunting - give it a go and everyone is rewarded!
Acting out a physical part alone on stage can be daunting – give it a go and everyone is rewarded!

How can you do this? Sensitively! In the early days of directing your show you don’t try. You watch each person and assess how they learn individually. Some people will need to spend time alone before they try something challenging. Some people just need a good reason and others will go willingly. Very often though, even experienced actors will play safe unless the director points them in another direction. It’s hard for an actor to step outside and see what needs to be done. Their world is fairly internal – they need you to watch out for them. I try to encourage all my cast to ‘try things out’ early on. I make it clear I have no place I’m trying to get them to initially – I want us all to experiment. This is getting outside the ‘comfort zone’ or ‘outside the box’ if we’re referring to stretching our minds as well as our behaviour. Worth noting here that actors don’t choose consciously not to stretch, they simply operate within ‘normal limitations’. It’s just who they are. Everytime you act in a play (or direct or anything else) you’re stretching and changing who you are.


  • Watch first and get a feel for each cast member. They will all learn and interact differently.
  • Make warm up games a part of the process – choose something that challenges them
  • Be VERY aware that rehearsals create vulnerability within your cast – don’t expose or humiliate them by trying to get them beyond the barrier too fast
  • Know in your own mind where you would like your actors to take their characters – talk to them about your ideas and designs. Ask them to think on the character, to practise things at home and to have ideas of their own.
  • Try different tactics as rehearsals progress and they start to feel more confident
  • Understand their fears, but don’t support them.

TACTICS – there are so many things you can do – these are just a few ideas

  • Try it as if ….. Get your actor to try the line, entrance, walk, scene – as if they are ‘at a funeral/completely preoccupied/insanely happy – whatever seems appropriate! DON’T say ‘do it like this’ and proceed to show them so they can copy. That is a soul-destroying way to direct because what you are actually saying is ‘look at me, I can play your part’.
  • Introduce lots of different ideas for getting your cast moving around the stage. People get really hooked on the ‘where do you want me to stand’ blocking. That will come, but don’t imprison your cast in the early days. Ask THEM to say when they think their character should move/sit/stand etc. Get them thinking about who they are. You might suggest they do a speech walking around, sitting on a chair, standing on a stool – try it and see what works!
  • I often try and become the energy I want them to have. I don’t play their part – I play mine – but in a style. Anger is a good example. Suddenly bursting into an angry barrage of directing observations can shock the cast, but it allows them to engage with the energy. Don’t just do it for anger though – try loads of different feelings out, be prepared to go there yourself but NOT on stage or in character – just as a director saying ‘this is where I want you to be right now’.
  • Have a quiet word with each actor after rehearsals (if you can – I also use messaging/chat to talk over ideas), give feedback. Best if individual feedback is not public. Give them a new goal to work on.
  • Keep raising the bar. Even something as simple as volume levels needs constant attention. Not loud enough – get them louder … louder … louder. Get them to a point when they start to laugh. Yep – we’ve reached a barrier. Great, now go beyond that and see what lies there. Of course, next rehearsal the volume will be back to ‘normal’ so keep up the pushing!

Be creative. Know your cast. Be open to ideas. Don’t imprison them in a straitjacket of early blocking and ‘do it like this’ instructions. Be brave. Have fun. Get outside your own box and your own comfort zone. I always know when this is happening – I get decidedly uneasy about the process. I start thinking ‘I wish I hadn’t started this’. Then I know I’m working at it! I never, ever regret a show.

Next one … Offbeat Directing 9: Populating the Stage

Offbeat Directing Ideas 8: The Comfort Zone

2 thoughts on “Offbeat Directing Ideas 8: The Comfort Zone

  • Avatar
    October 11, 2013 at 11:48 am

    ‘Whenever you start to feel slightly embarrassed, uncomfortable, vulnerable or just plain scared, that’s when you’re breaking the comfort barrier’

    Oh dear. I don’t experience any of the above. What does this mean? Please reply Guru Barbara!

    Great words/thoughts/observations as ever.

  • Barbara
    October 11, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Dear humble student
    a. You’re far too comfortable
    b. Your comfort zone has expanded to include all known activities/situations known to humankind. Breaching it would send you into another dimension (or have you been there too?)

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