Who’s Right? The Director or the Actor?

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Photo by Sherise VD on Unsplash

Recently I’ve realized that I have, on different occasions, written contradictory statements:

The first was that the director has the last word.

The second was that the actor has the final say.

Even I can see that’s a problem! So what gives?

Sometimes the director and an actor are in conflict about the meaning of the play, the character — whatever. I’m talking major disagreement here, not the little stuff. The question is:  how does this get resolved?

The optimistic answer is, through honest and open discussion, wherein a happy medium is found or where one person convinces the other of the “rightness” of their argument. But truthfully, optimism does not always carry the day. People can be very good at digging in their heels, and I can tell you from experience that two directors can view the same play through radically different lenses.

I once worked with an actor who really knew how to chew the scenery. He was a smart, thoughtful guy, and very good as an actor when he stopped trying so hard, but he was inclined to think that he wasn’t interesting unless he went very broad (always in an unbelievable way). I directed him in a very funny “letter” play, and I really worked to get him to pull back to a “normal” over-the-top place. He grudgingly went along with me and delivered a wonderful performance, only to go slightly off the rails on closing night, when a rollicking audience laughed so much that he couldn’t stop himself from giving them more of what he thought they wanted. (Although I had “tamed” him enough at that point that even his “over-the-top” wasn’t quite so out of control as it usually was.)

Then I acted in a very challenging play with him, one which he interpreted his role in an entirely different way than the director (and I, in all honesty) thought the playwright intended; indeed, he’d found psychological subtext that was dark and humorless (and this was a comedy). He pontificated for quite a while on the elaborate meaning he’d arrived at while Charlie (the director) and I listened in disbelief (I can’t speak for the rest of the cast). Ultimately, Charlie refused to back down and the actor agreed to play it his way since he was the director. He never fully gave himself over to Charlie’s interpretation and the play suffered for it, but he respected that it was Charlie’s call to make and at least got himself in the ballpark of where he was supposed to be.

I would argue that this this is what you need to do. If you disagree with the director, it’s unfortunate, but ultimately, the director is the one who is holding the rudder and determining where the ship is headed, and you, as the actor, need to go on the director’s journey and not your own. The reason for this is that there are other actors in the play, and if THEY are going along with the director’s vision and you aren’t — well, that’s a disconnect, isn’t it? You matching the rest of the cast in terms of where they are going is less disturbing to the audience than you being “right” and everyone else being “wrong”. It’s the old story of the mother who told the colonel after a military parade, “My Johnny was the only one in step!”

But here’s what I’m going to suggest before you get to that point:

Consider the possibility that you might be wrong.

I know, that’s a painful thought. But stay with me. . .

First, operate on the assumption that the director has done his homework and might have a point. Put aside your own notions for the moment and consider the director’s points. Are they logical and justifiable? (Because people are such interesting creatures, it is possible that there are two ways to explain behavior, and you and the director might have separately latched on to these two possibilities for your character.)

Incidentally, that honest conversation with the director should be had as soon as the disagreement is apparent, and hopefully this is early in the rehearsal process. Don’t consider the director’s points on your own.  Dialogue between the two of you is really critical.

If you can answer “yes” to this question, then you might consider adjusting your own interpretation. But let’s say that despite seeing the director’s point of view, you can’t seem to modify your interpretation. Yes, the director’s choices are logical and justifiable, but they are still WRONG!

Now check out the other actors’ choices; are they in line with the director’s vision or your own? If you are the odd man out, then you should probably consider changing your own interpretation. “Right” is not the only consideration here; a coherent and consistent production is also important, and probably trumps your own needs.

I once directed a play in which one of the leads and I saw her character VERY differently. I loved her audition, which was SO on the mark, but in the first two weeks of rehearsals, she talked about the character in ways that were diametrically opposed to both what I thought about the character and what I saw her do in auditions. We had some conversations about this difference, and I thought we’d resolved them, only to have her, two weeks before opening, start making choices I found inexplicable and which had a very negative impact on the production as a whole. It was a very funny comedy, and her choices took much of the humor away. Nothing I did or said seemed to make a difference in her interpretation.

I got lucky in that production, because the actress had some actor friends who helped her work on the character in a way that I couldn’t, and she came to an interpretation that was very much in line with what I’d hoped for, but to which I had not contributed at all. I took from this that I failed as a director; actors are all so different that we spend a lot of time figuring out just how Actor A needs to be treated to get the best performance from him, and so on down the line for as many actors as you’ve cast. Usually we’re right about how they need to be handled, but not always.

But since I couldn’t seem to communicate effectively with this actress, that’s my bad. Still, I think that had the actress (who while blessed with a lot of natural talent, had only been acting for a couple of years and had things yet to learn) would have been better off (as would the entire show) had she been willing to engage in an open-ended dialogue that didn’t assume a “right” answer at the beginning.

Or was I the one who was unwilling? In this case, I don’t think so, but sometimes I am. Sometimes actors have a completely different take on something that absolutely works, a take I didn’t even see before they mention it. Sometimes we don’t come to agreement on small moments and I concede the point, because (after all), they are the ones in front of the audience! But I don’t think I’ve ever watched a performance and thought (aside from the over-actor mentioned above), “Gee, I wish they’d done it my way, it would have been so much better!” Their choices have ended up being just fine.

More About Speed . . .

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!

How Fast is Too Fast?

Traffic Light trails on street in Shanghai,China. Background photo created by fanjianhua – www.freepik.com

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 . . .

My, but it’s been a while!

One of this blog’s followers pointed out to me recently that it has been quite some time since I posted anything. Which I know. Various life events have taken me away from it, for SUCH a long period of time that I find that WordPress has dramatically changed how things look and behave, and I’m going to have to get to know it again!

For instance, it is currently telling me to “type /” to choose a block. Which would be fine if I had any idea what a block is . . .

But blogs, like theater, are always evolving and there are always things to learn.

Among the other things taking me away from this blog have been directing and playwrighting. Now, interestingly, both have provided me with fodder for new blog posts about acting, and I SWEAR I wrote those ideas down somewhere, but that list is not filed under the name “ideas” or “blog”, which you would think they would be. But not to worry! I trust that once I get back in the groove, those ideas will come flooding back. In the meantime, I found 5 posts half-written on WordPress, as well as a number of others in my ancient document of things to be posted, which was the long queue I used to make sure I didn’t lose sight of great ideas.

Among the 5 pending ones are: Who’s Right? The Director or the Actor? [Now THERE’S a post apt to stir up some controversy!]; Sometimes There Is No Subtext; Auditions and Adjustments; and Playing a Farce, Part 2.

I’d forgotten that I’d written Playing a Farce, Part 1, which was the result of my directing “Boeing Boeing”. I had all kinds of post ideas from that show, and I will endeavor to resurrect them.

But I suspect my next post will be “How Fast is Too Fast?”, which is my latest epiphany, a product of both my directing and writing. I hope you will find it to be as useful as I have. (And actually, it’s right in line with the farce posts!)

In the meantime, I’m going to try to figure out how to do bullet points and italics in the “new” WordPress . . .

It’s good to be back.

If you stumble across this blog

and stay for a bit, I’d love to get some feedback from you:

  • What made you stay and read more than a post or two?
  • Did you find what you were looking for?  If not, what were you hoping to find?  If yes, did you also find things that you weren’t looking for, but found useful?
  • Do you think you’ll visit again?
  • Is there something I could talk about that would make it more likely that you will visit again?

I write this, obviously, in the hope that people who don’t have access to what they need to grow as actors might find a little something that will help.  Or that they’ll realize that getting personal help, in the form of one of my workshops, is really not that hard or unaffordable.  I do this work for one reason only:  to give back to a craft, a medium, that has given me so much.  One of the benefits of age is that being altruistic in something like this becomes so very easy.

So if you’d like to give me some feedback — do!  And if not — thanks for the visit!

The Actor’s Minimum Requirements

This may seem like something that doesn’t need to be said.  However, in practice, I’ve discovered that it does.

Of all the things that an actor could or should do, there are two things that are the absolute minimum requirements for being an actor:

Memorize your lines.  Know where you’re supposed to be on stage, and when.

That’s it.

Notice I haven’t mentioned anything about the quality of your performance, your choices for the role, whether or not you stay in the moment, or any of the other things that we hope that you manage to do on stage.  I’m simply talking about basic, foundational needs.  If you do these two things, you can get through a play start to finish without major mishaps.

If you don’t do these things, then it doesn’t matter how well you know your character, whether or not you’ve made the most interesting character choices, or how effectively you deliver your lines.  If you can’t remember them to say them, everything else is irrelevant.  If you can’t remember where you’re supposed to be and now you have to leap across the stage in order to open the door for someone who the audience doesn’t know is going to be there, it will look contrived.  If you are supposed to cross left and you don’t, and you create a traffic jam instead, that’s a problem.

Please remember, the audience isn’t stupid.  They admire the fact that you can memorize all those lines, because they can’t, but because it is inconceivable to them, they expect it of you.  Paraphrase, improvise, and they probably won’t notice.  Drop a line and recover fairly quickly, and they’ll forgive and forget.  Drop a few, even if you recover quickly, and they’ll talk about it on the way home in the car.  Forget more than that, or forget them in a way that causes some obvious major problems, and they will be livid.  There is an unwritten pact with the audience, and that pact is that they will give you a few hours of their lives in exchange for you memorizing your lines and moving around the stage the way you’re supposed to.  Break that pact, and they will not only see you as unprofessional (whether you are an amateur or not, they expect you to behave professionally), but they will take it personally.

The bare minimum is that you should be completely, solidly off-book no later than two weeks before you open.  The recommended minimum is that you should reach that point no later than three weeks before you open.  If you can manage it earlier, it’s probably going to translate into a much superior performance than you would otherwise have had, and it’s also going to mean that you will be better able to bail out your fellow actors if they should go up on their lines.

Many years ago, I was in a six character play, and we were all on stage at the same time.  Five of us went up, and we had no idea where we were or what came next.  Fortunately for us, the sixth actor knew exactly where we were, because he really knew the play backwards and forwards.  I suspect he’d actually memorized most of it, but even if he hadn’t, he knew the flow of the play, what each beat was about and the material content and exposition in each beat.  He could have gotten us out of any jam that we got ourselves in, because he knew the play that well.

Because of that experience, I realized that MY responsibility as an actor is not only to memorize my lines for the audience, but to also memorize them so that I didn’t let my fellow actors down.  If I forget my lines, I put my scene partners in a difficult situation.  Not only am I asking them to bail me out, but I might go up in a section that makes it very hard for them to do so without it looking incredibly obvious to the audience.

And beyond that, I decided that I wanted to be that sixth actor.  I wanted some control of my own destiny, so that if someone else went up on their lines, I could not only bail them out, but I could make myself look good on stage.  In making them look good, I would also make myself look good.  After all, the audience doesn’t always know just which actor has forgotten their lines.  I wanted to be sure that they didn’t think it was me.

And perhaps most importantly, I recognized that we are all going to forget a line every once in a while.  We’re human, and it’s simply going to happen.  Better to be prepared, I thought, for that eventuality.  So I learned to make sure that I really understood the play, and why this thing had to happen before that thing, and why it was natural for this to follow that.  Why these lines belonged in this particular section.

As a result, years later, I was in a production of Woman in Mind, and the actress playing my sister-in-law walked onstage a page and a half earlier than she was supposed to. Bruce, the actor onstage with me at the time, and I had to go with my sister-in-law’s scene, and when she exited, I jumped back to the line we had left off on when she had wandered into the scene.  We played the page and a half, and then I jumped ahead to what happened just after she exited, and we were back on track again.

I could see the panic in Bruce’s eyes when she came on stage early, and the fear because he knew that we couldn’t lose the page and a half, from a dramatic perspective. There were important facts revealed in that scene. Fortunately, I knew the play well enough that I knew how to navigate our way, and he just followed my lead.  And in doing so, I paid an outstanding debt to that sixth actor so many years ago.

If you have trouble memorizing your lines, then you’d better start working on them from the day you get your script.  Check your progress against the calendar to be sure you know how you’re doing against the deadline you or the director has set.  Actively work on your lines, and don’t expect them to seep into your brain through osmosis or rehearsals.

Similarly, memorize your blocking.  This is something you need to work on at home, not just during rehearsal.  Do your homework and come to rehearsal prepared.  Respect your fellow actors enough to do that for them.

I once directed an actor who told me he hates blocking.  I’m sorry, but that’s not an excuse for not learning it early.  Memorizing your lines and your blocking are your primary jobs as an actor; don’t whine or offer excuses, just do it.  Or else don’t act.  These are not negotiable; they are the essence of what you are supposed to do.

Playing the Emotions

I just realized that when I talked about playing the verbs, I contrasted them with adjectives, as in, “my character is bossy”, as opposed to “I am bossing people around [tactic] because I need everything about the party to be perfect because it’s the first party my new in-laws are coming to, and I want to make a good impression, because I don’t think they like me.”

The verb in this instance would be, “To impress”.

But there is another, perhaps more common, route that actors go instead of using verbs (and I am stunned to realize I only vaguely referenced it in those posts.  Ah, I guess I’m human.  Or else my students at the time were really locked into adjectives.)

Once they move beyond the stereotypes of bossy, etc., actors tend to focus on their character’s feelings.  So, in this party example, my character might be frustrated, or angry, or anxious, or any number of other feelings.  Let’s say that this is a large lawn party, and I have a dance floor and want good music, and my cousin has told me he can be my DJ, and he’ll handle all matters about the sound system, etc.  An hour before the party, however, it’s clear that he is just a wannabe, he’s completely clueless and nothing is working, and I am upset.  Or angry.  Or frustrated.  Or anxious.  Or any number of other emotions appropriate to this circumstance.

And a lot of actors will focus on playing upset, or angry, or frustrated, or anxious.

Why doesn’t this work?  First, it’s just as generic as playing “bossy”.  Second, it’s arbitrary (my character is probably upset, angry, frustrated, AND anxious all at the same time, but if I choose one emotion, I’m only playing one and bypassing the others.)  And third (which relates to the first reason, but is really a separate item), it’s approaching the problem from the wrong end of the stick.

If I play “I want to host a perfect party because my in-laws think I don’t deserve their son, but if I pull this off, their attitude about me will change,”  I don’t have to think about whether I am angry or frustrated or whatever.  My lines in the play will lead me in the right direction.  If I really know who my character is and stick to my guns about what I want, the rest tends to fall into place pretty naturally.  (Okay, that may be a little simplistic, but it’s not far off from the truth.)

More importantly, however, the emotions that manifest themselves will seem perfectly natural, and not forced.  If main concern is making sure that the audience knows that I am angry or shocked or delighted, the degree to which I am any of those things is not necessarily in correct proportion to the scene.  It’s easy to (particularly) overdo the emotion.  When you focus on your verb for the scene — what you want and are working very hard at getting — the emotions tend to take care of themselves in absolutely the right way.

Focusing on the emotions rather than what you need also runs the risk of anticipating the “event” that triggers the emotion (often what someone else has said to you), and the split-second difference is enough to make the audience find the moment to be unbelievable.

Ignoring the emotions and just going after what we want with all the determination we can muster is so counter-intuitive to the human experience and our assumptions about what actors are doing onstage.  Emotions rule, don’t they?  Well, yes, they do.  But they are also sly devils that make their way into a scene whether you like it or not.  This is actually a blessing for the actor.  When you learn the lesson inherent in this (which is to focus on what you WANT in a scene), you learn that being open to whatever emotions arise in you when you rehearse is ALL you really need to do.  The rest takes care of itself.

 

To Use, or Not to Use (Stage Directions)?

So this farce I’m directing (I know, I owe you more posts on it, and I promise, I will deliver), is Boeing Boeing, and there is a scene in the second act which describes Robert, our leading man, going into the bathroom, washing his face, strutting around a bit, trying Bernard’s after shave, getting some in his eye, and covering his face with a towel while he tries to get the after shave out of his eye.

Actually, it says he covers his head with a towel, and how that is supposed to help his eye, I don’t quite know.

It also makes no sense to me that he goes to wash his face, because the audience can’t see into the bathroom, and they’re going to wonder what’s happened to him.  I’m also unfamiliar with after shave that comes in a spray bottle, but — that’s neither here nor there.

My actor has played the role before, in a production that was apparently very faithful to the 2008 Broadway staging with Mark Rylance, and the “strutting” was more detailed than that, which the script thankfully does not describe for us.  My actor says the shtick worked some nights and fell flat on others — which doesn’t particularly surprise me.

I had no intention of using these particular stage directions.  I made another suggestion, which ended up with Robert having his face buried in a newspaper, addressing the essential need of the scene — to have Gretchen not realize he isn’t Bernard.  I thought what my actor did with it was creative, truthful, and very humorous, but he’s uncomfortable with it.  Fine, I said.  Let’s look for something else to do, and if we don’t find it — quite honestly, I don’t care if all you do is come out of the bedroom, sit down, and read the newspaper.  That will be perfectly sufficient.

Now, as it happens, I have a copy of the original 1967 script (in such pristine condition that I am the one who has broken the spine), and so I decided to check out the original and see if the stage directions are the same.

They aren’t.

Guess what they are?

Robert comes out of the bedroom, sits down, and reads the newspaper.

Same script, albeit different translations — which just means that the “translator” of the new version has edited the original to make it a little more contemporary, a little shorter, and in a case or two, a little funnier.  I’m not sure that it is a genuinely new translation, because the original translator is dead and most of the lines are identical.  Where there are changes, there is no way that someone could interpret the words that differently.  No, I think they decided to revive the play and just needed it cleaned up a bit, and the estates of Marc Camoletti and Beverley Cross agreed.

So it is clear from this example that the stage directions in question were NOT written by the playwright, but were, indeed (as I have always argued most stage directions are) the product of the Broadway production stage manager’s script, which is the one which goes to the printer.  You simply can’t argue that they are the playwright’s intention, because they aren’t.  No, they are actions that were probably created by Mark Rylance and are tailor-made for him — and difficult for another actor to pull off as successfully.

So do I feel any obligation to use these stage directions?

Nyet.

The other reason I don’t want to use them is because they just don’t make sense to me.  Of all the things in this fabulous apartment that Robert wants to explore — the bathroom?  Which the audience can’t see?

And with all due respect to Rylance, I’m not sure that I agree with all of what I’ve seen of his performance.  I think Robert is a little more interesting than his portrayal.  So why would I want to be hemmed in by these actions?

Now, Rylance is a fine actor, and I didn’t see the Broadway production, and it is entirely possible that his interpretation is entirely valid.  I don’t happen to share it, and I’m not sure that my actor does, either.  That may be Rylance’s truth, but if it isn’t my Robert’s truth, then it has no place in this production.

Simple as that.

 

Playing a Farce, Part 1

I’m about to direct a farce, Boeing Boeing, by Marc Camoletti, translated by Beverly Cross & Francis Evans.  I thought I’d take you through the process and see what we can learn together about it.  These posts will be partly for directors and partly for actors.  Whichever side of the proscenium you’re on, it will all hopefully be a little illuminating for you.

The basic structure of a farce is always the same:  There’s the set-up.  This introduces the characters and sets up their relationships and the premise of the play.  It typically (although not always) involves at least one person (and often as many as possible) wanting to go to bed with someone they aren’t supposed to.

Once the set-up is complete — which unfortunately usually takes the full first act, which is always long — the ball really gets going downhill, and fast.  Their best-laid plans to have their affair are met with difficulty after difficulty.  Their secret is usually on the brink of discovery throughout the rest of the play.  At the end, all the loose ends are nicely tied up, the spouse(s) who has been cheated on (assuming that the bedding hasn’t been foiled, and it often is) is none the wiser, true love wins the day, and everyone lives happily ever after.  We presume.

The characters in a farce are typically broadly drawn, often to the point of being two dimensional stereotypes.  You’d think that with all of that set-up time, there’d be plenty of room to make the characters a little deeper and more interesting, but that’s the rare case.  Perhaps playwrights drawn to the form are really into plot and so pay little attention to rounding out their characters.

However, there is another possibility, too — the characters in farces are characters we like . . . up to a point.  They generally don’t have a good set of morals, after all — they are a selfish bunch who don’t perceive loyalty or fidelity or fairness to be particularly important guidelines to living.  We like them enough to not want them to be found out, but at the same time, if they should be?  Well, we’ll see that event as their just desserts.  In fact, in a farce where both the husband and wife have taken their lovers to the same hotel in the countryside on the same weekend, we’d be perfectly happy to have them both found out in the same moment.  Just as we would trust that they would manage to overlook each other’s infidelities and go back to marital bliss.

Because that is typically the ending of a farce — everyone lives happily ever after.  You’re not going to remember a lot about a farce at breakfast the next day, other than that you laughed a bunch.  Farces do not demand much thought, but do demand a substantial suspension of disbelief.  But the audience rarely has trouble doing this; they recognize very quickly that it is “silly” and not to be taken seriously; it exists only to put people into humorous, desperate situations that make us guffaw.

Farces are often called “French farces”; apparently, the French can be blamed for the fact that the set involves a lot of doors.  Doors which remain closed so as to hide what is happening behind them, but threaten to open at just the wrong moment so that those on either side can see each other and discover the shenanigans that are going on.  They are inclined to slam shut (with those offstage only occasionally wondering what all the ruckus is about).  As often as the playwright can manage it, one door will close at the precise moment that another is opening — one lover exits just as the second lover emerges, and the close call just ratchets up the tension and the fun.  It’s all completely unbelievable, but quite frankly, we don’t care.

The word “farce” comes from the Latin “farcive”, which means “to stuff”.  Farces are stuffed with characters, with sight gags, with slapstick humor, with doors that open and close so often they almost seem to revolve, with more exits and entrances than any normal play can tolerate, with the impossible piling on top of the improbable.  Done well, the audience should feel just as exhausted as the actors at the end of the evening, for we have owned our hero’s distress as much as he has — and in addition to the stress, we have laughed till our sides hurt!

So how do we make this happen?  Stay tuned for my thoughts as we move through rehearsals for Boeing Boeing — up next is an exploration of the matter of “how likable does a character in a farce need to be?”

Backseat Directors, Part 2

So you’re working with an actor who you think is usurping the rights of the director.  What do you do?

First, look at yourself:

Are you sure you are making an objective assessment?  Emotions and egos are always vulnerable in theatrical situations, no matter how confident you are in your own abilities and value.  If someone’s comments touch on your own your performance, it may be a little inappropriate, but you also may be overreacting just a little.  Another actor may simply be trying to help, not direct the show.  Their desire may be misplaced, but it comes from a good place.

Is the director aware of what is happening?  If she is, then you can consider it is sanctioned.

But let’s say that the actor in question believes they can do a better job than a perfectly competent director, is trying to make themselves look good on stage, or is threatened by how good your performance is and wants to take away your thunder.

My first response tactic?  Ignore it.  As far as I’m concerned, my acting choices are up to my director and me.  If the suggestion from another actor is made in such a way that I can easily ignore it, I will.  Even if they are a little pushy about it, I’ll ignore it when I can.  I’ll even nod and sort of shrug as if I’m legitimately considering it, but not change a thing.

Next?  Decline.  If the suggestion doesn’t make sense in terms of what I know about my role, I’m not going to do it.  “Thanks for the suggestion, but I don’t think it’s the right choice.”

I grant you that these are easy responses for me.  I know how good I am, I trust my choices, and I have the courage of my convictions.  I can politely and respectfully say “No” in such a way that no one will challenge me on it.  But that’s not in everyone’s skill set.

Next?  Throw it to the director.  “Hey, Director, Jane here has an idea for this scene.  [Briefly describe it.]  What do you think?”  (This is especially useful when the other actor is making a suggestion that benefits their own stage time more than it does the play.)

If for some reason this approach doesn’t work for you, talk to the director privately after rehearsal.  Tell him about the other actor’s suggestions and your concerns.  Odds are he’ll address it in the next rehearsal of that scene in such a way that it can’t be traced back to you.

If you’re really confrontational — in the nicest possible way, that is; there is no winning in the production of a show by getting into a fight with anyone else — and you can articulately justify your own choices and explain why theirs don’t work, more power to you.  I can do this because I’m confident I will usually win the argument, and if I don’t, then I have learned something that will help my performance.  But not everyone can do this OR is open to the idea that they might be wrong.

If an actor is proposing something that I really think is off the wall, or they persist in their ask of me, or they are just plain obnoxious, I go into my “dumb blonde” mode.  Having been a natural blonde all my life, this is a routine that I have found very helpful in a variety of circumstances.

Being a “dumb blonde” means not acknowledging their self-interest in any way, but focusing strictly on how their suggestion impacts my interpretation of my own role.  I “take it very seriously”, discussing the pros and cons, and end with, “I’m sorry, I’m sure it’s a great suggestion, but I just don’t think I can make it work.”

But again — if someone is being a pain during rehearsals, don’t stress about it any more than absolutely necessary.  The director is the only one you need to listen to, and the intensity of the rehearsal period is such that bad energy isn’t worth it.  Keep it light, let the bad stuff bounce off you, and move on!