You probably won’t believe me, but you can’t go too fast onstage.
Okay, you can (see below). But otherwise, I dare you to try. I’m not a betting person, but I’d put money on this, and I think my bank account will be pleased.
A few years ago, I directed Boeing Boeing. It’s a farce. Farces, by definition, need to fly by. They aren’t funny otherwise. So I hit the “go faster” director button at every rehearsal at least once. I’m sure the actors got tired of hearing it, but at the end of the rehearsal period, they had gotten the hang of it, the play soared, and the audience roared.
When I think farces, I think of slamming doors. If you aren’t going at a speed where three doors slamming in quick succession would be hysterical, then you aren’t going fast enough. Even when the doors aren’t slamming.
Still, it was just because it was a farce that I was hypersensitive about the speed. But here’s the other thing I learned by directing my first farce: speed only works when you are completely emotionally invested in your character.
This is why comedies, and farces in particular, are so difficult to do. It’s not just about saying lines in a way that is funny. Let me say this again, because it’s really important: going super fast ONLY works when you are really emotionally connected to your character’s needs and wants. If you aren’t, speed just highlights how superficial your acting is. Farce is difficult because you’ve got to take broadly drawn caricatures and somehow make them seem human WHILE running at breakneck speed. Tough stuff.
Ten years ago, I saw a summer stock show at a theater that played three shows in repertory. Two of the actors from the musical appeared in Chapter Two as the leads. They were experienced professional actors, they were glib and knew where the laughs were, and it was an entertaining show. I also didn’t believe for a minute that either of them were anything but actors. They timed the jokes appropriately and played it quickly; they just weren’t believable as human beings. Their performances were good, but superficial. The play would have been much funnier if I had believed they really were those characters.
The memory of that show comes back to me repeatedly, reminding me that there is a fine line between what is “real” onstage and what is simply “technically proficient”, and that makes the difference between good – even very good – and great performances. I’ve used that show ever since as a bar in my head against which I measure what I’m directing. (“Does this succeed where Chapter Two failed?)
For now, let’s assume you are fully connected to your character’s reality and talk about speed.
By speed, I mean how quickly you say your line and pick up your cues, how long your pauses are, etc.
After I directed Boeing Boeing, I directed a 1932 play called The Late Christopher Bean. This was an 80th anniversary revival of the play that had kicked off the theater’s existence. I didn’t know the play, and when I read it, I thought it was alright, but not a play I’d have personally recommended. Working on the play, as so often happens, gave me a deep appreciation for how well-written it really was. Sometimes plays you dismiss turn out to be hidden gems once you start uncovering their secrets in rehearsal.
I was a fill-in director and didn’t have much time to prepare for this particular show, but it was clear that it was essentially a screwball comedy. For those of you who don’t know what a screwball comedy is, may I recommend the films It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey, and His Girl Friday?
It also occurred to me that screwball comedies were close relatives to farces, and so the idea of running as fast as you can applied to both. I continually harped on speed from the beginning of rehearsals. Once we started run-throughs, I gave the cast time frames: “The first act ran 60 minutes, but it should run 50.” (Don’t ask me how I know how long an act should run, I just do.)
The actors worked their tails off and really tried to speed things up. Things were progressing marvelously. Still, two weeks before opening night, I told them, “We still need to cut 10 minutes out of the show.”
They looked at me incredulously. They had cut the show to the bone; no self-respecting actor could play it any faster and still retain believability! I understood their pain, but held firm. “I know you think I’m crazy, but I really think there are ten minutes that could be cut.”
The following Tuesday (during Tech Week), I clocked the show, as usual. And I delivered the good news: “You cut that 10 minutes I asked for. The show is perfect. You should be very proud.” They were (as well as astonished that they had found that elusive 10 minutes!), and our audiences were very happy.
This really got me thinking. I had directed two shows in a row where I had demanded speed, and the results were undeniable. Was it just the farcical nature of them? Would it work with other comedies? And how about dramas?
Stay tuned for Part 2 . . .