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Directing Exercises to use with Young Actors

Rob Watt is a critically-acclaimed director, dramaturg and facilitator who is currently the Artistic Director of Theatre Centre. We were lucky enough to be joined by Rob for a Webinar in April 2021, when he discussed his approaches as a Director and Theatre Centre's stunning production of Bird and Bees by Charlie Josephine. He also shared his four 'go to' directing exercises which he uses when working with young actors. In this Blog, I will share these exercises with you and have also created some accompanying templates and resources for you to use in your lessons.

Birds & Bees by Charlie Josephine.

Photo Credit: Helen Murray

Before taking on the role of Artistic Director at Theatre Centre in 2020, Rob Watt previously headed up the young people’s team at the National Theatre, was a Lead Artist at Lyric Hammersmith, an Artist Mentor at the Barbican and was Associate Director at Immediate Theatre. The exercises he shared are some of his 'go to' exercises which he uses in his work with both young people and professional actors. All four exercises can be used in school or when directing young people in more informal settings. His exercises and approaches have been developed and adapted from observing, and working with, other practitioners over time.

Rob says that, in the rehearsal room, he thinks of himself a 'conductor' rather than a 'puppeteer' and places co-creation at the heart of his work, emphasising the importance of both 'collaboration' and 'play' in his directing process. He is also keen to create transparency, by saying to his actors at the start of the rehearsal process, "I don't know all of the answers":

"What this does" he says is "open up the opportunity and the possibility that we, as a group, can go and create something. It puts the responsibility on everyone in the room."

Creating a Safe Space

Early in the rehearsal process, Rob outlines his four 'Principles of Working', which have evolved throughout his career and are now embedded in Theatre Centre's work. He says that he makes his best work when he creates a space "where artists can be vulnerable in a safe way" and that "listening is key". This 'safe space' is set up using the following four 'principles':

  • Openness

  • Kindness

  • Presentness

  • Boldness

These 'principles' are embedded into the language of the rehearsal room through discussion and used as a way to explicitly talk about the 'space' and keep 'testing' these values with the actors. It is important for Rob that these are also displayed visually in the rehearsal room too.

Introducing Text

Rob is keen to stress that on the first day of rehearsal he would never do a full read-through of the whole play text. Instead, he introduces text in 'chunks' and says that this works well with young actors in particular. Chunks of text (usually a page at a time) are projected onto the wall and the company read the extract spontaneously. Anyone can say a line, or phrase. Some may be spoken chorally and this may result in awkward pauses but he says this enables the actors to focus on the text, the punctuation and takes the pressure off students reading aloud.

Exercise 1: Being a Detective

I love this exercise as it makes 'Given Circumstances' totally accessible for younger students but is still rigorous. This is perfect to use with Key Stage 3 and above but, set up in the right way, it would also be used for Key Stage 2 students. Essentially, students become the 'detective' and 'investigate' the script or text they have been given using three key questions:

  • What did you notice? What are the facts?

  • What are your assumptions?

  • What questions do you have?

This works best when displayed visually in the rehearsal room. He suggests creating a wall with all three questions as 'headings' and using post-it notes, which should be constantly debated and moved around throughout rehearsals. 'Facts' must be explicitly evidenced in the text or they become an 'assumption'. The aim, throughout the rehearsal process, is to reduce the number of questions, so that they become facts. By the end of the rehearsal process, these answered questions provide the given circumstances for the actors to work with in performance.

Exercise 2: Circles of Influence

This exercise is based on the idea that a character has three layers:

  1. What the character presents to the world.

  2. What is going on underneath.

  3. The unconscious or subconscious. e.g. what has led up to the character feeling the way they do. WHY do they behave in the way they do?

The task is to write underneath a line of dialogue what the character is actually thinking. When the extract is read aloud, with one actor expressing their thoughts, they gain a much deeper understanding of the scene. The actor is able to reflect on what the character is feeling on the inside and therefore can really think about what they are presenting to the world or, more importantly, what they are hiding. Rob says he uses this exercise early in the rehearsal process if actors are struggling with a particular scene and need to look at it in a different way. Here is a modeled example of this exercise using an extract from Birds and Bees, with Aaron's 'thoughts' written in red and Leilah's 'thoughts' in blue:

Extract from Birds & Bees by Charlie Josephine.

Exercise 3: Listening & Reacting = Acting

Rob explains that 'listening' and reacting are integral to acting, yet it is often something which young actors don't do. In this exercise, he asks the actors to listen to the lines spoken by the other character(s) and repeat what they hear, in the form of a question. For example:

Extract from Birds & Bees by Charlie Josephine.

Rob says that this helps actors to see and, more importantly, to hear a scene in a completely different way. When they have spoken these questions aloud, it is important to ask them what they heard and what they felt.

Exercise 4: Points of Reference

"Seeing what you talk about will help us to see what you're talking about"

And finally, in this exercise, actors use a 'pointing' gesture every time they refer to something or somebody. For example, in the following extract the two actors would use a pointing gesture on the highlighted words:

This sounds simple but in fact allows an actor to explore how they feel about other characters, places, objects or concepts within the world of the play. For example, in the extract above, the actress playing Leilah could explore the words 'things' and how this is delivered. What are the 'important things' she is referring to? Does the pointing gesture used suggest 'things' outside of the space they inhabit or perhaps between her and Aarron?

I hope these are useful exercises for drama teachers, as we go into the summer term! There are PDF and Editable versions of accompanying resources. These include a 'Being a Detective' Template for Key Stages 3 & 4 and a 'Circles of Influence' template for GCSE and A-Level. All of the resources can be downloaded now, if you have already registered by clicking here: or you can register here:

FREE Birds & Bees Digital Package!

Theatre Centre are committed to supporting schools to deliver high quality teaching. In response to conversations with teachers, Theatre Centre are now offering their Birds and Bees Digital Package  FREE  to every state school  in the country until 23rd July 2021, and at a much reduced price for Independent schools. 

For more information about the resources, package options, cast and creative team, download the school information pack or visit Theatre Centre's Website.


I would like to thank Rob Watt for giving us an insight into his professional practice and generously sharing these exercises with us.

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