My favorite playwright these days is Lauren Gunderson. I’m especially interested in what she has to say because I am now writing plays myself, but the following comment has to do not with the writing of her plays, but the performance of them.
She has the opportunity to visit rehearsals of productions of her plays before they open. Of course, the actors become nervous and delighted that she’s there, and at the end of the rehearsal, they universally ask her the same question: “What can we do to better serve your play?”
And her universal answer is: “Go faster.”
When someone like Gunderson says this, I sit up and pay attention.
Why are actors not going fast enough? She’s not just talking about farces; I’ve come to realize that ANY play, drama, comedy, thriller, benefits from more speed. And why does it matter?
The answer to the first is probably that actors feel they are bringing more to the table when they slow down; that is, they are REALLY feeling it. Which says that REALLY feeling it may be over-rated. It’s not about what makes YOU feel good as much as it is about what works for the audience in terms of telling the story. And telling the story well is what it’s all about. We’re not actors, we’re not directors — we’re storytellers. And timing is essential to telling a good story. Ask any comic.
Which is the answer to question of “why does it matter?’
Sometimes, I think we all underrate audiences.
Playwrights underrate their ability to read between the lines, and so overwrite their plays.
Directors think that too much creativity in production will confuse or overwhelm the audience, and so they settle for ho-hum.
Actors think that audiences will miss subtlety, and so they get heavy-handed or superficial with their choices.
One of the things I talk to my casts about, as a director, is the need to make sure we don’t rush lines when they are important plot points. “Watch your diction on this, and don’t rush the line, we need to give the audience time to register what just happened.” That’s important, given how much new stuff gets thrown at an audience in the course of watching a play. But there’s a limited number of those occasions in your average play. Twenty? Maybe more, but twenty moments is not much in the course of a two-hour experience. Fifty “moments” aren’t much. The rest can fly by, and it will be just fine.
Think about how you function in your “real” life. New, unexpected stuff comes at you nearly every moment of every day. No matter how well we think we know the major players in our lives, they behave unexpectedly when WE least expect it. And we react, as they say, in the “flicker of an eye”. We don’t need time to think about it or feel it or experience it. We just respond.
Audiences understand this, because this is how their lives unfold. They can follow it perfectly easily as long as the emotional connection inside the actor is solid. If it is, go ahead and race at 70 mph; we’ll keep up!
Most people I know are ready to speak before the other person stops. Now, in real life, this isn’t always the best choice, but this is why playwrights often use punctuation to indicate where there is overlapping dialogue. It seems more real to the playwright, and they want to give the actors a leg up on how to perform their play well. But even when a script doesn’t note that, the brief space that typically happens between the end of one actor’s line and the next actor’s line doesn’t have to happen. Cut out that split second, without overlapping, and suddenly the script seems to fly!