How the Open/Closed Modes Work for Actors

John Cleese talks about open and closed modes, which I’ve noted is what I’m talking about when I say “trial and error.”  (I haven’t been able to find the source for this terminology, if it was originated by someone other than Cleese.)  The modes are very useful in terms of understanding how trial and error works, especially for an actor.

While you don’t want to start rehearsals by saying, “I should do this here!”, it is perfectly okay to say, “Let me try doing this here.”  That’s an open mode decision.  You’re open to possibilities when you say “try.”  Failure or success is not the issue.  We’re just trying something.

Classical_Brainstorming_and_Double_BrainstormingOpen mode is about figuring out what to try.  Brainstorming.  Think of ad execs, sitting in a conference room, throwing around every idea they can think of, many of them stupid, while trying to get pencils to stick in the ceiling tiles.  Saturday Night Live writers toying with skit ideas until they find the ones with the most potential for this week’s show.

That’s what the cast and director should be doing at early rehearsals.  (You can also do some brainstorming on your own time, and bring your ideas of things to try into rehearsals.)

In closed mode, you take the idea you came up with in open mode and take them for a test drive.  (If you’re an SNL writer, this is when you sit down and turn the skit idea into a script.)  You give it the old college try, fully committing to that choice when you run the scene.  Then you go back to open mode, and say, “In what way did that work?  In what way did it not succeed?  What else can I try?”

Note that you haven’t said, “Yeah, I think that works.  Next?”  Instead, you’ve said, “Okay, I know what impact that has.  What else can I try?”  Now you go back to closed mode with the “what else”.  You try as many alternatives as you can think of, and each time you’ve completed the scene, or beat, or whatever, you go back to open mode and evaluate it for pros and cons.

You may not be able to try all the ideas you’ve got for a scene in a single rehearsal.  You have to try out your ideas within the context of how your director wants to use the time.  If you are very confused about your options and want to go through them all in one night, tell your director.  He may be able to accommodate you.  If not, you just try them out as you have opportunities to run the scene.  You’ve got plenty of time.

Once you’ve tried out all the ideas you can think of, you have good information on which to base a decision.  You can choose one of the alternatives, or you can say, “Well, this is the best one I’ve got so far, but it’s not as good as I’d like.  Maybe I’ll find something better down the road.  I don’t really have to choose yet, so I’m going to just put this on the back burner for a while and see if my subconscious can do anything with it.”

Even if you do choose one of your alternatives, keep an open mind.  Something better might pop up, even if you aren’t actively looking for it.  Just be open to it in case it does come knocking.

There is another sort of “openness” you need to maintain even in closed mode, and that is the openness related to staying in the moment.  It’s an ability to recognize when something new and unexpected has arrived, and make room for it and respond to it.  That particular gate needs to always be left open.


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