There are three ways to violate the principle of Staying In The Moment: Anticipation, Telegraphing, and I Don’t Believe It.
One way out of the cumbersome transitions I talked about last time is to anticipate what is coming next. It’s not a good way out, but it’s one actors often take.
Anticipating comes in two forms. One is doing the cumbersome transition (the one that takes several seconds rather than a split second), but starting it early, so that the flow of the play isn’t interrupted.
The other way of anticipating is doing the split second reaction, but doing it during your partner’s line, but before the pertinent information is revealed.
For instance, in Alan Ayckbourn’s Table Manners, there is the following sequence of lines:
Sarah: Annie! You’re getting dreadfully coarse.
Annie: Oh, you’re just a prude.
Sarah: No, I’m not a prude.
Annie’s line is not only in direct response to Sarah’s first line, it is in response to the LAST word in the line, “coarse.” Similarly, Sarah’s second line is in direct response to the LAST word in Annie’s line, “prude”. Neither actress can react appropriately until her partner’s line has been completed. Yet it’s very easy for an actress playing Annie to begin to roll her eyes in the middle of Sarah’s line, and for the actress playing Sarah to begin to be affronted in the middle of Annie’s line.
When you do that, you are receiving mail that hasn’t been sent yet. You are anticipating the word you know is coming. You know the meaning of the whole sentence, because you’ve got the script. You, the actor, know what’s coming, but the character doesn’t. The character has to wait for the clarity that comes with the important words in each sentence, “coarse” and “prude”. Only then can she respond, because without them, there is nothing to respond to.
Imagine if Sarah only said, “Annie, you’re getting dreadfully . . .” and didn’t finish the sentence. Annie might say, “Dreadfully what?” Or she might say, “Oh, you’re just a prude”, having figured out what the missing word probably would have been (she knows Sarah fairly well, after all), but it would have taken a moment or two for her to figure out where Sarah was going with the line.
Similarly, if Annie had said, “Oh, you’re just . . .”, Sarah might have said, “I’m just what? What am I? Go on, say it. You can’t start a sentence like that and not finish it! What am I?” But it is unlikely that she would have figured out that Annie had intended to call her a prude.
In order to avoid the anticipation problem, you have to figure out exactly when your character receives whatever message your character receives that makes her do or say whatever she does or says next and not let it affect you until that moment. In the case above, it happens at the very end of the cue line.
Imagine the dog above, waiting for its master to come home. A dog with expectations will hold its position until the expectation is met. So should you wait for the key words that move you into the next part of the play.
But let’s say you have a lengthy speech, and halfway through it, you say something that really irritates me. Now, you’re one of those people who knows how to keep talking in such a way that it is difficult for someone to interrupt you, so I keep quiet until you’re finished. Or perhaps what you say is so upsetting that I need the rest of your speech to figure out how to respond to it. Or perhaps I try to interrupt you without success. Whatever choice I make, the source of the irritation – the thorn in my side – shows up in the middle of your speech, and that’s when it has to begin to affect me – not at the end of the speech.
These are two different issues. The first example is one of anticipation; the second would be its opposite – to fail to react at the appropriate moment, but rather to wait until it’s my turn to speak. Both are wrong, but they have entirely different causes. I bring up the second to emphasize the real lesson here, which is to let things affect you at the moment that they hit you – not before, and not after, but instead at the very moment they enter your character’s consciousness.
In case you’d like to see how the actresses handle the moment, here’s the start of Table Manners. The lines in question show up around the 6:30 mark, but if you watch it all, I think you’ll see how they wait to receive the input from the other before they react. Sometimes the response is instantaneous, but it is never early.