Directing & Teaching: Two Sides of the Same Coin

"The chance to teach and, invariably, to direct consistently and constantly was exciting to me..."

director alex thompson
Alex Thompson is an Award-Winning Director & Teachers our Youth & Adult students

Teaching and directing actors have many things in common...

As a director, you're constantly tasked with getting everyone on the same page, or at least moving in the same direction. Whether this is known to all involved or not, what ends up on screen has to be unified. Teaching is much the same, but the excitement lies in all that space in between, the stumbling around in the dark that one necessarily doesn't get to see when watching a finished film. While teaching, stumbling may in fact be the best catalyst for good instruction.

Some background: I began directing at the age of eight. My father handed me the video camera that Thanksgiving and gave me a Pandora's Box of a screenplay prompt: anthrax, Osama Bin Laden, and two turkeys. I took and ran with it, premiering the memorable project, "The Great Turkey Escape." Little did my father know this film debut would not be the end of my love affair with film.

kelly o'sullivan
Still from the film, "Saint Frances", Directed by Alex Thompson

After directing everything from music videos to short films, I read first draft of Saint Frances, a wonderful screenplay by actress (& ATC Instructor), Kelly O'Sullivan. With some chutzpah and ignorance in equal measure, my producing team and I set out to take this story from script to screen.

Our friends, casting directors Mickie Paskal and Jennifer Rudnicke of PR Casting in Chicago, remarked early on in our meetings of a "perfect house" for a much needed shooting on location. The home is supposed to be warm, spacious and welcoming. This was ATC Founder, Carole Dibo's, house. Producer Ian Keiser and I quickly secured a tour of her house, and she agreed, with some generous trepidation, to let us film there. There was one stipulation -

I had to teach a class for her.

What Carole didn't know was that I was badly looking for work of this kind. Directing is nearly impossible to do all-the-time. Unlike a 2nd AD or a cinematographer who may bound from one project to the next as soon as the assistant director shouts "that's a wrap ladies and gentlemen", a director is often tied to the project from conception to premiere. It's a long-term commitment. The chance to teach and, invariably, to direct consistently and constantly was exciting to me.

If I could give actors one piece of advice as a director and as a teacher it would be to approach roles not with the end-goal of being word-perfect, but of being character-perfect.

Know those lines to the extent that you don't need to work hard to think about them anymore. Strive to arrive on set or in the audition room certain of who the character is and within what context they exist. For me, that glimpse of "reality" will shine brighter than a well-articulated, but flat monologue.

south by southwest film festival
"Saint Frances" took home the Narrative Audience Award at the South By Southwest Film Festival

I've been lucky enough recently to take Saint Frances from its premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival (where it won a Special Jury Prize and an Audience Award in our Narrative category), all the way to the Champs-Elysees Film Festival in Paris (where it won the Critics Jury Prize and an Audience Award in our Narrative category). Luckily, the most common feature of those we've met on our journeys has been a humility and earnestness about the craft and people. You really don't have to be a jerk, it turns out. It's also shown us what a special thing we have going in Chicago.

The inherent genius of my agreeing to work with Carole Dibo and the students of the Actors Training Center was that it was truly a "win-win" situation for everyone: Carole gets a teacher, I get a chance to do what I love for burgeoning artists.

So, a win-win, and an even bigger, "whoo-hoo" on top of it.

-Alex Thompson,

Award-Winning Director & ATC Instructor

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