I just got back from AACTFest 2015 and am reflecting on a couple of questions a director from Rochester asked me after the Blocking Workshop I gave on Friday:
- Is it wrong to have an actor move when someone else is speaking?
- What if you need an actor to move, but you have no good reason for him to move?
The questions arose, in part, in response to comments I had made about not moving when it is someone else’s “scene” and the need to have a reason to move, be it emotional or practical. Let me address them in reverse order.
Anyone who has directed a play has encountered a moment when you realize that Actor A needs to be in Position B for one line and Position C for a line that follows, but you have no good way of getting him there. You backtrack to see if there is another way to block the scene to eliminate the problem. You try three different options, but none of them are satisfactory — either none of them solve the problem, or else you lose more than you gain. There’s no real choice — Actor A has to move on another actor’s line when he has no real need to move. What to do?
In a perfect world, you want to find a reason for him to move, because people just don’t move without a reason. But the reason doesn’t have to be important or even material to the play. Have you ever spotted a pin or a penny on the floor and picked it up? Found something in your pocket you want to throw out and walked to the wastebasket to do just that? No reason why you can’t have your actors do that. Adds a bit of verisimilitude to the scene. Done slowly enough and with minimal motion, it shouldn’t disrupt the scene, especially if the actor is carefully paying attention to what is being said at the time. His focus on the speaker while he moves actually redirects the audience’s eyes back to the speaker. Clearly, they think, the speaker must be saying something important!
But let’s say that there is no wastebasket and bending over would be just a little too distracting at that point in the play. It’s not unheard of for someone to take a step or two for the simple reason that they are tired of standing in one spot. Even without the excuse that the character wants to lean against the piece of furniture a few steps away, moving just to physically change position is fairly normal. Is the speaker saying something that Actor A needs to consider? Sometimes pacing helps people to think, and taking a few steps while pondering what the speaker is asking looks entirely believable to the audience.
Worst case, have the actor slowly sidle to the new location. It’s unlikely the audience will notice it happening unless he is standing directly behind the speaker.
Which brings us back to the first concern: is it a bad choice to have an actor move on anyone’s line but his own?
Well, there are times when it is entirely appropriate to do so. Say there are five of us in the room plotting a bank robbery. We’ve been going through a dry run, and the lady of the household arrives home with the groceries. I’m the leader of the gang, and I start shouting out orders, telling everyone what to pick up and where to hide it, so she won’t know what we’re doing. Everyone should be moving while I speak in that scenario.
But let’s say it’s a domestic scenario with a husband and wife. Here’s my rule of thumb about virtually everything that happens on stage in a realistic play: Does it happen in real life? That is, in real life, do people walk when other people are talking?
Of course they do. If it happens in real life, it can happen on stage. Do it in a very real, natural way that does not distract from the important stuff in the play, and it will probably enhance the believability of the scene.
Having said that, there are times when you shouldn’t walk on someone else’s line. I’m sure it’s not a comprehensive list, but here’s some examples:
- Important plot points are being revealed. For instance, in a murder mystery, you want to make sure the audience hears the red herrings. Don’t do anything to interfere with that. On the other hand, feel free to muffle the real clues just a little by some sort of sleight of hand — tossing it off as entirely unimportant or covering it with some sort of distracting physical action — not enough so the audience doesn’t hear it, but enough so they don’t think it matters.
- Very dramatic or very funny moments. Someone is telling you about their rape twenty years ago? Don’t move a muscle. There’s some funny shtick going on? Keep still. Someone is giving the punchline? Hold your breath until two seconds after it’s finished.
- When your action is big. A simple short cross is often not a problem. Nor are physical activities (business) that make sense for your character. But anything too involved will draw the audience’s focus. Make sure that whatever you’re doing is less interesting than what the speakers are doing and saying. That way, if the audience looks at you, they think, “Oh, that’s believable” and not “Wow, that’s a lot more interesting than what the leads are doing!”
When should you walk on someone’s line? Draggy scenes or extended exposition. If these have stayed in the play to publication, it’s probably because no one — neither the playwright nor the original director — could figure out how to write the play without them. Kind of like you with the actor stuck behind the chair when you need him over by the table! Bail the playwright out by providing visual interest so the exposition won’t go down like bad-tasting medicine!