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Getting Better as a Director: Learning How to Talk to Actors

01.4.12 @ 5:23PM Tags : ,

This is a guest post by DP and filmmaker Randolph Sellars.

I’ll be talking about working with experienced actors and feeling a little uncomfortable or inadequate as a director. The lack of confidence when directing actors is an embarrassing secret many directors share that’s not often discussed.

There are quite a few experienced directors, even in Hollywood, who are much more comfortable “directing with the camera” than they are working intimately with actor’s performances.1 Many directors tend to rely on casting reputable actors and then leave them to their own devices when it comes to performance. We’ve all seen their movies — full of hardware, explosions, pulsing soundtracks, kinetic camera movement and frantically paced editing. There’s nothing wrong with a visually visceral film – but during the moments when true human emotion needs to be expressed, the film often falls flat because the great performance just isn’t there. The truly great directors excel at directing actors and directing the camera.

So what’s the root cause of this phenomenon? I believe that it stems from the fact that many filmmakers don’t come from an acting or theater background. Accomplished filmmaking requires proficiency with many other artistic disciplines: writing, acting, design, music, etc. And many filmmakers don’t have any of that past experience. The average DIY filmmaker starts with a camera, editing software, and their friends as actors. Nothing wrong with this approach, except that often filmmakers are slow to graduate to working with experienced or professional actors.

Understanding the language of actors

It’s “safe” to work with friends as actors. You can order them around and “get away with it” because they possibly know less about acting than you do about directing. It can be very intimidating working with “real actors” because they start asking difficult questions using their own jargon. What’s my character’s spine? Through-line? Super objective? Scene intention? It can sound like a foreign language if you don’t understand these terms. Although the cliché, “what’s my motivation” sounds like actor BS, it’s not. Trained actors desperately need this information to create a competent performance. If you can’t give them this information in a language they understand, they may start to tune you out. They may still try to listen to you, but they’ll make up their own answers and start to direct themselves “out of protection.”

Take an acting class

So what’s the solution to becoming a better “actor’s director” if you don’t come from an acting background? I have two specific pieces of advice and the first one may scare the hell out of you: Take at least one acting class! I know, you’re not an actor and the idea makes you very uncomfortable – that’s why you are working behind the camera. I say get over it! It’s not going to kill you, although your ego might feel like it’s dying! But if you have the courage to try it, I guarantee you’ll learn something as a filmmaker and also have a personal growth experience. Think about it honestly; how can you possibly learn how to direct actors with any expertise without ever walking at least “a mile in their shoes?”

Separate yourself from filmmaking for a moment. Look at other art forms or athletic endeavors. How many virtuoso orchestra conductors have never played a musical instrument? How many great basketball coaches have never played the game? I’m sure that there are exceptions, but if you think that you are one of them, it’s probably your fear causing you to rationalize – so you don’t have to face something difficult. If you want to be a great director that has excellent rapport with actors, how can you ask an actor to do something emotionally difficult that makes them incredibly vulnerable, like performing a nude love scene? Is that artistically justifiable when you’re afraid to take a beginning acting class?

You don’t have to commit to becoming an actor or ever accomplish any degree of competency at acting. You just need to commit to the experience and try your best. You have to be brave enough to open yourself up to the experience and move past all of the awkwardness and embarrassment that comes from acting in front of others. Start at the beginning –- take baby steps. When I first came to the realization that I needed to do this to become a better director, I chose to take my first class at a community college. There were several advantages. First, I didn’t expect to see any other adults my age that I knew. Second, it was one of the cheapest acting classes I could find. You can do the same. The quality of the instruction of your first class is not nearly as important as the commitment and experience of just doing it.

My first class turned out to have several surprises. My instructor was actually a very skilled actor himself and he worked us hard. Surprisingly, after a while I was a much better actor than I expected. One of the things that really helped me was my attitude going into the class. I knew that I sucked as an actor. My experience in filmmaking was being a DP. I never claimed to be a good actor or have any idea what I was doing. By honestly accepting that I sucked and that I would probably continue to suck, I took a lot of pressure off my artistic ego to perform well. I took the approach that I would boldly try anything and just laugh at myself. My motto was “dare to be stupid” – and I was!

It was very liberating to let go of any expectations of doing well. Ironically, that allowed me to actually progress. My instructor even challenged me to try out for the college production of Equus. I was scared shitless at the audition and I thankfully didn’t get the part. But the experience of auditioning and my class time gave me increased confidence and a real respect for actors and an “understanding” that wouldn’t have been possible any other way.

In my next post, I’ll give you my other piece of directing advice as well as some practical tips for helping actors to turn in better performances.

Randolph Sellars, Director of Photography and Filmmaker, has over 30 years of experience photographing a variety of projects in 11 countries around the world. He has shot 23 feature films, including The Juniper Tree, which was a Grand Jury finalist at the Sundance Film Festival and was singer/actress Bjork’s first feature film.

[stage photo by thisisbossi]

  1. Gene Hackman once blew up and yelled at me on a set where I was the “B” camera operator. He was playing a very intense character and I was definitely intimidated! Even though the situation was not my fault, I still felt pretty small and there was a big lump in my throat when I had to respond to him. I’m not going to advise you about how to handle extreme situations like Christian Bale going off, just dealing with actors in general without being intimidated. []


We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

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  • Totally agree. New DIY filmakers are more interested in move the chamera or edit some cinema style than in real stuff. I become director after 8 years of actor’s carreer, and those skills are best ever!!

    • While I agree with the article, I think your (Umatr1n) characterisation of camera moves and cinematic style as not being “real stuff” is… strange. Perhaps it was lost in translation. My point, anyway, is that all of this stuff is important. It’s a visual format, and the actors aren’t the only visual element in a shot. Everything’s important.

      • While camera movement/placement/editing and all other elements are of course vitally important, I think his point was that this stuff can all still be there but if the performance is empty, the film isn’t worth a damn. This may sound like a huge generalization, but if the audience is constantly distracted by a poor performance, they will not believe the story or care about the characters or their outcomes at all.

        I think performance is paramount, and many filmmakers often forget that in lieu of looking good and doing fancy camera moves. I’ve seen countless wonderful films that have raw, real, uncompromising performances and completely minimal, no-frills camera work (the collective works of Michael Haneke, for example). The characters and performances should always be number one. I can’t say it enough.

        • Panasonic AF300 S35mm on 01.4.12 @ 10:56PM

          You are totally right. I agree with you. Today with all those pseudo filmmakers and camera that are getting cheaper . Anybody calls himself director. But be able to get a true performance from actors is one of the most important thing a real diector should be able to achieve.

          • equally, if you have a great performance but poor composition, lighting, camera movement etc, the audience might be just as distracted and not able to connect with the film

  • This is very good advice. I went to film school at a community college, and toward the latter part of my studies decided to take an acting class just so I could meet actors. It changed my life and I went on to get a Bachelor’s in Theatre. For me, picking up the technical side of filmmaking was easy, but helping craft a true performance is where the real magic is, and the most difficult part. Stepping inside an actor’s shoes is the most important thing any fledgling director can do improve their craft.

    • Right on. Went thru the same sort of epiphany myself, wound up doing a bunch in theatre as well as learning filmmaking. Great way to go, IIMHO. Cheers, Luge

  • Working with actors to craft a performance is the part of filmmaking I’m still the most nervous about. I read similar advice years ago and started taking improv classes, which has allowed me to meet some fantastically talented performers and experience a little bit of the magic of performing for myself.
    That said, I think once you’ve taken the step of walking a mile in an actor’s shoes, you need to think seriously about how you’ll approach working with actors, especially on a set. During the first short film I directed for film school, I faced time constraints and availability issues between myself and one of my key actors. If I could go back, I would definitely make more time before we got on set to talk to my actors.

  • Michael Locke on 01.4.12 @ 10:16PM

    Ladies and Gentlemen,

    RELAX! As an unknown, frighteningly serious actor for a decade or so, I can tell you: We WANT to please directors. The problems come when the director doesn’t really know what they want, just what they don’t like (think producer-issues). And expect actors to work entirely differently from one another (I have to). Each production is an experiment of one, and may not work that way next time.
    My advice?
    A director should be a master story-teller: Do your homework! If you understand the world (setting) of the story (as detailed as any story you’ve lived), you’ll begin to understand the people (characters) that live there. Then it’s just what they do, how they do it, and why. When your vision is crystal clear, actor “jargon” shouldn’t matter- they should be able to communicate with you. If your focus is soft however, that’s when we start to fill in the blanks. Lastly, just be honest with us if you don’t know. Actors typically care about the projects they want, so they’re rooting for you. Keep their faith…ML

    • Lachlan Huddy on 01.5.12 @ 6:58AM

      Absolutely wonderful sentiments, Michael. It’s one of those things that should be obvious but it’s too easy to let ourselves forget. Actors are there to help. They want to help. They will. Gotta love these guys.

    • Michael, thanks for sharing your perspective as an actor. From my experience, I agree with your statement that most actors really want to please their directors. Problems usually only arise when actors feel disrespected or that their ideas are not being considered at all. As Michael says, when a director has a clear vision and is communicating with honesty and respect, most serious actors will gladly “walk through fire” for their directors. It’s my belief that even “difficult actors” can be won over by a patient director who is skilled, well practiced, and committed to the relationship.

  • David Komer on 01.4.12 @ 10:46PM

    Yay! More articles like this please!! Not to be crude Koo- but there are tons of sites out there which deal with cameras and gadget tests. The creative side of filmmaking needs more representation, though I love your site either way ;)

    Thanks for putting this article up!

    @Michael Locke – I think your advice is fantastic. Though I do think understanding actor “jargon” is a major step in understanding story. In other words- one might not deeply think about the character’s motivation(s) at a given place in the story, unless they’re used to looking at it from the character’s point of view. Both a screenwriter and director should be doing this of course- but the actor’s training of constantly thinking like this would be a great help I imagine.

  • Having gone to several film schools in LA back in the 1990s – USC, ULCA, LMU and Art Center making over 12 student films with both amateur and pro actors, here are a few tips.

    1. As a Director you must have a vision, like a writer, how the scene is to be played. Rehearse it off camera days before shooting starts until the scene works.

    2. Cast the best actors that you can. Work a casting call. Start by letting the actor bring you his / her interpretation of the scene. Then see if they can repeat it (Watch out for Method actors, as many can not repeat a scene as they are in the moment to moment and respond from the other actors.) NOTE – if we saw METHOD ACTOR on their resumes, we usually did not call them in. Method actors will cost you lots of time and money in order to get a performance. That’s fine in Hollywood, where you shoot 1-3 pages or minutes a day, it’s not for a student filmmaker who needs to shoot 5-10 pages a day. Like the old saying stay away from Children, Animals, and Water FX – they are costly and can lead to long delays and problems – like Water World.

    Also see if the actor can take Direction, like the opposite of what they just did. Do it over the top. Do it small like in a close up. Show me some anger, rage, sadness, loss… those are actors you can work with. Also, most actors at least in LA are flakey – more than 50% do not show up for auditions and or are late. I would find actors that you can trust and trust you over more talented actors who are flakey, late to call or have an ego.

    3. Actors are looking for direction (not to direct themselves with a self proclaimed – I’m a bad directer do your best). The top Hollywood directors give them direction and vision. Saying you don’t know how to direct or giving an actor control will end in disaster. There are many examples of STARs getting wimp directors so that they direct their own movies, it doesn’t work.

    4. Yes, listen to actors – maybe even give them a take with their own direction. But you must know when they are taking your movie in the wrong direction – too serious, too funny, or just boring. Only the Director and Editor can really create the character ark (change) in a movie from an insecure boy into a warrior and help the actor know where he needs to be for that scene being shot out of sequence. The same scene – say a fight scene with a bully will be totally different from the opening sequence or the Final Climax – the actor needs help in playing that – Am I scared, insecure, cocky, confident, over confident, humble, calm, stubborn (Rocky), etc.

    You are the Director – you must direct the ‘emotional journey’ of the characters throughout the movie and scene to scene. You must learn to break down a script like an actor in terms of motivation. You have to be a friend and also a Father or Mother figure for them – or sometimes use a trick or too. Your puppy just died to get child actors to cry on set was a horrific example.

    I had such a tired actress with no energy left at 4am that we not only feed her candy, but in order to get her to react to the scene in a close up – I yelled at her and asked her to respond naturally – and that’s what it took to get the performance out of her. Note, unlike some directors, I told her that I was gonna yell at her… others like Hitchcock dropping his pants as the actress opened the door and screamed – not so nice but he got the horrific scream that he wanted.

    Great Actors do their homework and Stars, well, they play themselves as Stars – but most real actors need the guiding hand and care to craft a great performance with a good script in a safe environment. There are many big directors who yell and treat actors as sheep (read some bios) and others mostly actor or writer turned directors who know how to talk and make actors feel confident in a performance or not.

    LOL – Oliver Stone made Michael Douglas insecure on his Gorden Gecko speech… even though Michael Douglas knew he was great, just to make him work even harder and thus win an Oscar… but ethically how you manipulate actors is up to you.

    Lastly, if you do not like working with actors, save everyone the time and money and NOT make movies. Shoot car commercials, Dog ads, or work with National Geographic. Making movies is very long and hard work, that is why so many Directors work with the same crews and actors that they got along with to avoid the dark politics that go into making a movie. Best of Luck…

    Oh and I do miss working with actors and crews, but then again shooting a beach sunset all alone can truly be inspiring, cheaper and way easier.

    • Wow. Thanks for that great bit of insight Greg. This information really sparked a few thoughts in me. Great stuff.

    • David Komer on 01.5.12 @ 4:00AM

      Wow Greg, thank you- your comment was one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a while!

    • Greg, excellent comments. Thanks for your all of your great advise and insight. I do respectfully disagree with just one of your statements about not hiring method actors. While I understand your concerns about the difficulties of working with actors that are inconsistent with their performances, I would not encourage directors to automatically eliminate actors from auditioning based solely on reading the term “method actor” on their resume. Since nearly every “trained actor” in the US has been taught or uses some form of “the method,” it seems a bit prejudicial to not at least see the actor in action before making any negative judgements about their performance. I also believe that the majority of so called “method actors” have received a bad rap based on the over indulgences of a few extremely self absorbed actors who call themselves “method actors.” I would advise directors to see all potential candidates and then test them in an audition using any of the valid techniques that you describe. Otherwise, you might be missing that magical actor who is perfect for the role!

  • I like this guy!

  • Great article, great comments. Keep em coming!

  • I’d say one of the best things you can do as a director besides casting well is simply sitting down and talking to your actors well beforehand about the story and their characters. Easy, not scary, and probably one of the most useful things you can do that will also cut down on conflicts on set.

  • I’m in a bit of a strange position as I actually moved from being on stage and in front of the camera to being on set and behind the camera. I can definitely affirm that all the of the rough rough experiences that I went through as an actor made me a MUCH better director.

    You CANNOT know, and i repeat CANNOT know what an actor is trying to do until you have tried it yourself.

    Learn to love acting and develop a keen interest in it. It doesn’t have to be theater acting (i know this turns some people off from it as they don’t like the idea of being “larger than life”), but it needs to be a place that pushes your comfortable boundaries. It is the first thing they will teach you in any acting class: forget yourself, stop being self-conscious, and pump up your imagination.

    Most people don’t want to try acting out of fear; and it is frightening the first few times you are on stage; but you need to understand and overcome that fear yourself in order to at least have a basic understanding of what an actor on YOUR set is trying to accomplish.

    From here, you can develop and really understand what it means to give a “real” performance. It is extremely difficult and it’s even more difficult to understand how difficult it is until you’ve tried it yourself; trust me. I got plenty of “acting can’t be that hard.” and it’s not. Great acting is. Those same people tried acting later in life and told me, “I had no clue.”

    So, great advice. Go be an actor (so you can be a much better director)

    • Brennan, it’s great to hear from an actor on how important it is for a director to have the experience of acting themselves. It really is essential! As someone without an acting background, I didn’t realize how important it was until I experienced it first hand. Thanks for the positive reinforcing comments.

  • I very highly recommend Judith Weston’s books “Directing Actors” and “The Film Director’s Intuition” for great advice on working with actors. She also does workshops for directors in LA, so if you’re there you can work with her in person. I also spend time working as a director with a theatre group, as it forces me to really focus on acting and staging instead of camera and computer technology. The best thing you can do as a director, I think, is get over your fear of saying “I don’t know” to your cast and crew. Nothing communicates confidence more than being able to admit with a smile that sometimes you don’t have the answers at the exact moment you need them. It lets everyone on set relax, and gives them permission to be real with you as well — they can just admit when they don’t understand what’s happening instead of posturing and making you crazy. It also opens the door for good-natured collaboration. Actors are a uniquely fabulous breed of human; no need to be afraid of them.

    • Kelli, you beat me to the punch. I highly recommend Judith Weston’s books and classes as well! I planned to mention her training in my next post. The combination of reading her books and taking several of her workshops changed my whole approach to directing actors. Great advise about not knowing all of the answers!

    • Excactly what I was going to recommend as well:) Haven’t taken her classes (not living in the US, so it is too costly), but her books have been invaluable. I also agree about working in theatre. If the level of amateur or community theatre in your area is fairly high, I’d recommend to get in touch with them and work with them. I have worked with a theatre group for a few years now and have been able to do some acting, with both professional and non-professional directors. A good professional director can bring out in you something you had no idea you had in you, but even a lesser director can teach you a lot: when you’ve once felt the frustration as an actor when the director isn’t explaining himself to you, you will probably not repeat his/her mistake when directing yourself;). And excellent article, Randolph.

  • As an actor myself and someone who has directed actors, I fully stand by the recommendations here. Something to remember well is that most good actors are not going to be jerks, and they aren’t going to need a lot of pushing and prodding. If you feel you are at risk of an actor blowing up in your face, and they aren’t a big name, replace that actor immediately. Don’t let them get away with that stuff. Put your foot down. Nobody on a movie set is more important than anyone else, and some actors need a reminder of that sometimes.

    At the same time, good actors want to be collaborative. They don’t want to be told what to do, but they don’t want to have to do it all themselves. A good back and forth with an actor about what you want and what they will be able to do is going to get you the best results. Let them play a little, let them try different things. As long as you have what you wanted in the can, let them experiment. You can get some amazing results from playing around a little.

    I’ve been directed by bad directors and good directors, and the difference has always been that good directors help you find something great and truthful, and bad directors just tell you what to do without listening to your input, or don’t tell you anything at all.

    I’ve never really posted here before, but I’m preparing to do some short films after being mainly a theater guy and the information I’ve gotten from this site is beyond helpful. Thanks to everyone that posts here!

  • Great article and discussion. Please post more pieces like this!

  • Good article.
    I agree with most of the people here and their comments. We would appreciate more articles like this. We already know about the ‘mechanics’ of shooting and more gear news is a bit ‘old’ if you will. However those news pieces have it’s place and appreciated.

    As a director am always learning about actors and trying to help much as possible to bring out the ‘character’ I need for their part. BTW, A.Hitchcock did not instruct nor directed actors is what I read so far in many publications. It appears he was more involved with the ‘mechanics’ of the shoot then about the actors. IE: See the drawings he made for a single scene in North by NorthWest cornfield :)

  • “It was very liberating to let go of any expectations of doing well. Ironically, that allowed me to actually progress.” This quote is more powerful than you know, and applies to all areas of creativity. I only recently figured this out myself. Preach brother! lol

  • Thanks to everyone for all of the great comments – whether you agree with me or not. I just finished two long days of work and came home pretty tired. I forced myself to check all of my email etc. What a surprise to find all of these comments. I wish I could reply to them all – but that would get pretty boring for you to read. I’ll start writing part 2 of directing actors (including some specific directing tips) as soon as possible. It seems that there is some interest in this subject.

  • Ross Brannigan on 01.7.12 @ 4:05PM

    Great article and inspiring discussion – thanks, can’t wait for the next instalment. My experience straddles the acting/directing line with much more acting than the hard stuff (a few films, short films, 50 eps of TV, 30 stage). A few years ago I was lucky enough to do one of Judith Weston’s classes when she came down to New Zealand – and her approach is so sensitive to the actor’s craft and to the integrity of the story. Nadia Tass came over from Australia and I worked as an actor on her directing workshop. She stressed how important it is to convey the director’s vision to the actors & crew. Check out her film Matching Jack for an example of how a sensitive director can get great performances from stars, kids and regular collaborators. One thing I’ve found over the years is how vital it is for actors to trust their director and to be relaxed enough to not be objective and self conscious when performing. A director who can give clear, playable direction and who can be trusted to keep going til they are satisfied with the performance (and who knows what is good) and who communicates that to the actor – is on the money. Someone who asks the actor to “be more sexy” is asking them to be objective – this is destructive although many actors are used to such inept direction and translate it into something playable. Far better to say “seduce her”. That is somewthing you can DO. It doesn’t take you out of the moment and is likely to yield a more truthful and visceral performance. Randolph’s advice to take acting classes is so valuable and I wish I’d heard his advice to let go of trying desperately to be good all the time when I was a student! As for acting jargon – I wouldn’t stress about it too much. Directors pick up lots of common terms and actors use a variety of techniques and terms. Many don’t stick slavishly to a particular school of acting and learn as much on the job as they do in classes. If you use terms specific to one technique or another you might end up scaring an actor whose experience doesn’t encompass that particular theoretical approach. Get an overview of techniques and terms by all means but don’t feel you need to be an expert to understand what makes an actor tick – a sensitive approach to people will give you that. Most directors have that already in my experience.

  • Great post. I’ve also noticed many directors apparently lacking even an abstract kind of respect and understanding for the art. I kid you not, I heard someone say: “Hmmm, that scene isn’t working. We need to make it more dramatic. Could you, um, cry?” Really?!
    Even if you don’t want to take an acting class, at least imagine yourself in their shoes from time to time, and please read. I highly recommend Judith Weston’s book ‘Directing Actors’, which is like my bible now.
    Maybe your focus *is* action, explosions, effects – but keep in mind that if your actors work for free, they need to at least get footage to put on their reel, and it would be unfair to them if you didn’t prepare.

  • Thanks for the article Randolph. I finally bit the bullet and did an acting course. You can read part one of my report here:

  • Hi Randolph/Koo – I’ve been writing posts on what I’m learning as a director taking acting classes. The whole experience is proving incredibly useful, and has started to breate new life into my writing too. If you’re a director who has filled to bursting with technical knowledge I’d really recommend it- it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Latest article here (if it’s useful):

  • This series has definitely been a big help to me in working with my actors. Thanks for the great articles.

    • Craig, that’s great. Glad that the article could help in any way. I hope that you’ll continue to read the series. A new article just posted yesterday about gaining actor’s trust. If you like this stuff, you really must read Judith Weston’s book “Directing Actors.” It is a real treasure of information.

  • I honestly don’t think a “Meryl Streep” who having read the script and transformed into her part would ever walk on a set and say “What’s my scene intention, super-objective, or character’s spine?” That sounds like stuff we young and inexperienced directors might throw at them…lol

  • I desperately want to disagree with this.
    But it makes so much sense.
    We have a very good drama program at the University I live near.

    For the record, a combo of agoraphobia and a consuming passion for filmmaking can be a real pain in the ass.

  • Alright alright, I have grudgingly added the words “take an acting class” to my Wunderkit to-do list. I’ve known for a while that it was going to get to this but it is scary and dreadful, and have I mentioned scary? this post has convinced me that it’s not optional though. and oh, I will definitely “dare to be stupid”, no problem there ;)

  • I agree as well. Communication is vital in any undertaking, and in order to communicate well with actors you have to understand where they are coming from. So it’s a really good idea to take an acting class, even if you have no plans of being an actor. Aside from gaining insight into the mind and method of actors, you can get a lot of other benefits from acting classes as well- boosts of confidence, refined communication skills, etc. so really, entering an acting class would be a win-win for everybody.

  • may be i am a late entrant, but you have mentioned :
    “In my next post, I’ll give you my other piece of directing advice as well as some practical tips for helping actors to turn in better performances.”

    has the next post been published on the net?

  • Hiya
    I’m wondering if anyone else has had this experience.. I’m an actor and a director in theatre, not film. I’ve been directing a lot but tonight, I was in a staged reading of a play. About halfway through, I found myself thinking about the guy I was talking to, ‘gee, I wonder if he’s loud enough?’ I feel like my director self showed up all by itself, and that’s never happened before. I was wondering if this has happens to other people a lot.
    Thank. Enjoy your posts.

  • Thank you…. just thank you!