Backseat Directors, Part I

One of my readers has asked me to talk about backseat directors, and since I am all about giving you what you want, here it is!

Backseat directors are typically other actors in the show who decide, for any of a variety of reasons, that they need to give advice to other actors in the show.

The most frequent reasons?

  1. The director is a novice or otherwise incompetent.  This happens especially in community theater.  Someone is directing their first show, which can be very overwhelming, and they are doing the best they can, but they are living in a blur and can’t see/fix everything.  Or the director is just clueless and the experienced actors want to save the show because, after all, they are in it and they don’t want to be embarrassed in front of their friends come performance time.  This can be a good thing.  Not always, but often.
  2. They are mentoring a newbie.  Sometimes (again, especially in community theater), an actor is doing his first or second show and is really a fish out of water.  An experienced actor sees this and wants to help them, especially if the director is not spending enough time helping the newbie.  This is often good.  “Here’s how to time your entrance.”  “Don’t be afraid to touch me if you feel that’s what your character would do.”  “Just remember to not turn upstage, but to always turn downstage.”
  3. They think they have a lot to offer other actors.  This can be a good thing or a not so good thing.  Mostly a not-so-good thing.One of my students, a woman who had never acted before taking my class, was cast in a show at the local community theater.  The lead actor in the show had a business performing one-man shows based on historical characters (like Mark Twain) at venues around the country (libraries, etc.).

    Actually, he was the inspiration for my post, “The Difference Between Acting and Impersonating,” which is the single most popular post I’ve ever written.  (I’m still puzzled about that.)  I forget the details now, but he gave my student advice that was in direct contradiction to what I had told her mattered in acting, and so she asked me about what he’d said to her.

    It was this conversation with her that made me understand that what I was doing in acting class was really different and effective.  If it hadn’t been, she would never have questioned what he was telling her.

    But the bottom line was that his advice wasn’t useful.  He thought it was, because he’d made a living as an impersonator, and he mistakenly thought he was acting, not impersonating.  But all he was doing was encouraging a fellow actor to go down the wrong road.  Fortunately, she figured this out herself and was just confirming it with me.

    But if you’re lucky enough to have an experienced actor take you under his wing and to speak on your behalf to the director in a way that you wouldn’t be courageous enough to, that can be a very good thing.

    If you’re in this position, just look at what the actor in question is doing.  If it’s believable, then the advise is probably good.  If it isn’t believable — smile, say thank you, and do what you think is right.

  4. They have ulterior motives.  This is a nice way of saying that they want to control what you are doing, often to the benefit of their own performance, although sometimes it is just ego on their part.

Before I expand my thoughts on this last point, let me say this:  I love the theater.  And I love the people that create theater.  But the nature of the beast is that theater attracts, among others, some creative types who are insecure, who need lots of stroking, who boost their own self-esteem by stepping on other’s, and who aren’t particularly self-aware.  This is okay — we’re all on the same journey as people, and we all learn what we need to about being human in our own way, on our own schedule.

So it’s important to remember that the people who resort to some immature behaviors are nevertheless doing the best they can with the cards they’ve been dealt.  To cut them some slack, and actively hope that one day, they will learn to love themselves just as they are, to make the most of their peculiar and individual talents, and to not see the rest of us as a threat to their existence.

But in the meantime, we’ve got to deal with the way they are playing their hand.

I’ll go into more detail on this last group next time.

 

 

The Difference Between Impersonation & Acting, Part 2

This is not really a post, but a question:  hands down, the most popular post I’ve written is the one on this topic.  If you have found this “Part 2” post while searching for it, I’d love to hear what made you look for a good explanation on the internet!  Please feel free to comment on this post or email me separately (see the Touch Base page.)

Words as Music: Rhythm and Why it Matters On Stage

oddcouple_3216976bI’m reading Neil Simon’s memoir/autobiography, Rewrites.  He talks about doing The Odd Couple with Jack Lemmon:

“Jack Lemmon is a director’s dream, a writer’s savior, and a gift to the audience from a Harvard man who decided to turn actor.  I never once saw Jack argue with a writer or a director.  Conversation, yes. Suggestions, yes.  Fights, not that I ever saw.  If some dialogue or a scene wasn’t working, Jack assumed it was his fault and made it his business to make it work.  He rarely failed.”

This is important.  An actor needs to be curious about almost everything — not the least of which is, “Why did the playwright write it this way?”  But too often, I see actors assuming that whatever is challenging them is the playwright’s fault, not theirs — and they move to this position pretty quickly, before they’ve had the chance to explore all the different ways of saying the line that they hate.

Sometimes they paraphrase the line.  Sometimes they leave it completely out.

I’m pretty perceptive and have an instinctive understanding of the general intent behind dialogue, but sometimes I can be incredibly dense about the meaning of a line.  There have been times when I have gone through three weeks of rehearsal struggling with a line until I finally have the courage to admit that I simply am clueless about what it means or how I should be saying it.  More than once, the rest of the cast knew exactly what it meant and were surprised that I didn’t, and they enlightened me.  I fleetingly felt a little stupid, but I was sure glad to have it clarified.

There have been a couple of occasions where I never cracked the nut on a given line, but whatever I was doing was not, I assume, too offensive, or the director would have said something.  But I was never comfortable with the line and never felt that I delivered it with emotional honesty.  HOWEVER — I still assume the error was mine, not the playwright’s.  If I believe in and trust the rest of the play, and there are just one or two lines that I am struggling with — well, the odds are good that I’m the one at fault.  As a playwright, I can tell you that I don’t write anything that sounds discordant in my head.  There may be different ways of reading a given line, but there is always at least one good way to read a line — because that’s the way I heard it in my head.

So as an actor, I assume that if I’m missing the mark, it’s because I’m not creative enough to figure out what it sounded like to the playwright when it was written.

Simon continues.

“He is also appreciative and complimentary to the written word, and if he doesn’t like it, he will play it full out anyway and let you pick up that it doesn’t work.  He once said in an interview, ‘Neil writes in definite rhythms and as in music, you can’t skip any of the notes.  If his prepositions and conjunctions, such as but, if, and, or, and it are left out, the music is wrong.’  When I heard this, I was taken aback for a moment.  I was unaware that this was true.  I never said to an actor, ‘You left out the but in that sentence.  I need the but.’  It was the actors themselves who felt they had skipped a beat.  In one play I did, the leading actress came to me during previews and begged me to take out a line.  It was not the first time she had brought this up, and I kept saying, ‘Let me think about it.’  Then one night she was adamant.

“‘Neil, please take it out.  It’s only a short sentence but for me it interrupts the flow of the speech and takes the emphasis away from the point the character is trying to make here.’

“I liked the line but I trusted her instincts and without any fuss, I finally agreed that she could drop the line.  She hugged me in gratitude and went out onstage that night and did the speech.  But she did not omit the line.  Puzzled, I searched for her when the act was over and asked, ‘Did you forget to leave the line out?’

“‘No,’ she said.  ‘Just as I got to it, I knew I needed it.  There would have been a big, empty hole if I left it out.  But thanks, anyway.'”

Imagine if a song was missing some notes — you would notice that, wouldn’t you?

It’s more obvious in a song, but it’s just as true in a play.  I’ve talked before about the fact that altering lines by just a word can affect the humor in a comic line.  You may not think that the presence (or absence) of a conjunction can completely change its humor, but it absolutely can.  That’s why some people can tell jokes and you’ll laugh, and someone else can tell them same joke and it will fall flat.  Humor is very musical, and if you get the rhythm or the lilt wrong, it ain’t funny any more.

Even if it isn’t a joke, every character has their own cadence, their own way of speaking.  Tossing out (or even worse, adding) what seem like inconsequential words — connectors, like and and but, or articles (the and a), delaying words like well and um — changes the music of the line.  An actor can use the jazz riff emotionally, but you’ve got to be part of the symphony orchestra when it comes to the words.

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When the Stage Directions Matter

Cinderella wedding

The inspiration for my play, Happily Ever After, came about because I started thinking about the fact that all fairy tales end with the wedding, and so kids who grow up reading them know how to aspire for a wedding, but have no real understanding of what happens next or how to navigate the next 50 years.  The emphasis on courtship over marriage has probably led many couples into a morass, pre-marital counseling notwithstanding.  I had no idea where I was going to go with it, but that was what put my seat in the chair.  What followed wound up being more layered and philosophical than I had anticipated, or even than I knew prior to attending the rehearsal of it.

While watching the rehearsal, I put on my director’s hat, contemplating how I would deal with the issues the director was facing if I was in his shoes.  As a result, I had to analyze my own play in a way that I hadn’t done, and so I learned some interesting things about it!

It was in analyzing the play that I finally figured out why I was uncomfortable with the changes made to the stage directions that end the play.  It turned out that the changes left the audience with two messages that were both in direct contradiction to what I had been trying to say over the course of the play.

Surprising that movement could have such a dramatic effect, huh?

Without reading the play, you may not fully understand why this is, but I’ll give it a stab anyway.

Here’s the original stage directions (remember, this is the continuation of the fairy tale — in this case, Cinderella).  I should say that the dialogue that precedes the stage directions makes it clear that, in the privacy of their bedchambers, the Prince invites her to dance.

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance.  They start to waltz, and one of them — it doesn’t matter who — starts to hum.  Da-de-da.  It doesn’t matter whether the one humming can carry a tune.  It may even be better if they can’t.  Now they are both humming.  They may even laugh at how bad they are, which only emboldens them to sing louder.  As the song goes on, they gradually move closer together.  And eventually, they are kissing.  Not the chaste sort of kiss as at the beginning of the play, but the happily-ever-after sort of kiss.)

Now, here’s the changed version:

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance as an orchestra begins to play.  They waltz a few steps.  She stumbles and nearly falls, but he catches her.  She looks up at him, and there is a spark.  She grabs his head and pulls him to her, planting a firm kiss on his mouth.  He sweeps her into his arms and carries her into the bedroom.)

Without knowing anything about the play, there are five distinct differences between these two descriptions:

  1. In the original, there is no orchestra, or else it is too faint to be heard, and that is why they start humming.  In the revision, we clearly hear the full orchestra.
  2. In the original, there is a shared experience which has nothing to do with kissing or sex (humming while they dance, in a silly sort of moment between two people who barely know each other but are going to be spending their lives together).  In the revision, this is replaced by her stumbling as they waltz.
  3. In the original, the kiss is a gradual melding as they begin to relax together.  In the revision, there is sudden switch that goes off in her head that provokes the kiss.
  4. In the original, the kiss is mutual.  In the revision, she clearly kisses him.
  5. In the original, there is a blackout on the kiss.  In the revision, he whisks her off of her feet and takes her into the bedroom.

Without having the entire play to view it in context, #1 can fairly easily be dismissed as not being critical.

The other four may be critical.  First off, the original seems to emphasize the romantic over the passionate.  Sexual desire is clearly at play in the revision.

Secondly, the original has the shared moment of non-romantic, non-sexual silliness, and the revision doesn’t have a comparable moment.

So what can we take away from this?

Before changing stage directions at the beginning or end of a scene or play, you need to carefully study them in the context of what the playwright was trying to accomplish or is trying to say.  Opening moments set a tone, and closing moments — especially at the end of a play — are the playwright’s final word on the subject.  You want to make sure that you are, up to the end, telling the playwright’s story, and not your own.  Also, when the stage directions are more than the minimal (he doffs his hat and exits), they are effectively substituting for dialogue and so probably deserve a similar fealty, at least in terms of intention.

Understanding the playwright’s intention is critical in changing stage directions that are more than simply practical (she sits down; he pours a drink; they turn out the lights and exit upstairs).  If the director had kept the sexual overtones out of it and found a comparable non-sexual moment to replace the humming and laughter, I might have been disappointed (or not, if he found a better way of accomplishing it than what I wrote), but I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with it.  He would clearly have gotten the point of what I was trying to say and simply found an alternative way to say the same thing.

I could have written the “la-di-da” into the dialogue, and probably will so that future directors will understand that it is a non-negotiable element of the play.

So here’s my argument for why the changes reversed the intended meaning of the play:

I associate the sexual desire and attraction between a new couple with the fairy tale story; while critical to beginning a happy ending, it is insufficient in and of itself.  Love and friendship are the more important elements.  By removing the humming, you remove the friendship; by dispensing with the gradual, mutual kiss, you remove the love; and in its stead, you’ve got passionate desire on both sides (her kiss, his carting her off to the bed).  A misplaced emphasis on sex has ruined many a marriage, and that was part of why I wrote the play.  When you end on that note, you are saying, “This is a fine way to go about it.”

The director said he chose to have her initiate the kiss because she had been avoiding it up until that point.  That’s fine, but if I wanted that 180 degree turn, I would have written it that way.  Making her the aggressor makes her a very different girl (and him a very different man).  Before you make a 180 degree change, you need to be sure the script supports it.

He also said, “she stumbles and he catches her before she falls, as he will for the rest of their lives”, and it’s a sweet, if traditional concept.  However, it plays into the old-fashioned myth of the fairy tale — the white knight who will come along and save the damsel in distress and make everything perfect forever — that I had spent ten minutes unraveling and arguing was not going to produce a healthy marriage.

So change the stage directions if you have a really good reason to (I’m still not sure why they decided to change mine), but if you must, please make sure that you are being fully faithful to supporting the playwright’s intention and theme.

Hoisted On My Own Petard, or What About Those Stage Directions?

ArrowsI’ve taken to writing plays lately (not really the reason I haven’t posted in a while — my life has been somewhat tumultuous for months, but is returning to normal).  One of them, a short play called Happily Ever After, is about to be produced.  The director invited me to a rehearsal.  Most of what they are doing is just fine; some of it misses the mark, but I also think playwrights have to accept that.  However, the ending of the play is not dialogue, but rather stage directions, and the director and cast decided to change them.  I noted the change, wondered about it, was disappointed in it, but it took a good 24 hours to fully understand why I was uncomfortable with it.

If you’ve read my posts on stage directions, you know that as a director and an actor, I largely believe in disregarding them.  For the most part, I figure that if the stage directions are really good ones, I’ll find them myself in rehearsal.  I believe in hanging on to stage directions that are needed to make the play comprehensible (e.g., he hides the gun under the seat cushion).  I believe in hanging on to the stage directions of complicated business — the climactic fight scene in Wait Until Dark not only has plot points, it is well-crafted.  The nature of Wait Until Dark is that you can’t really use a set that is much different than the original, so the fight scene can’t be much different than what Frederick Knott wrote.

I believe in hanging on to stage directions that help to indicate what I should be striving for in a scene.  Eric Coble wrote a wonderful satire, Bright Ideas, that I badly wanted to stage once upon a time.  (I still do, but directing doesn’t seem to be in the offing right now.)  There are a number of scenes where the stage directions help to clarify the playwright’s intention.  I wouldn’t blacken those out, but would keep them to remind me of what he was going for.  I might end up using his ideas, or I might come up with something more clever, but in the same vein.

For instance, Coble has a scene that involves using puppets in the way that child psychologists use dolls to help children talk about the scary things in their lives.  I may not use every puppet move he suggests if I can find a different movement that is funnier, but I’ll keep his stage directions in my script to give me a framework within which I can be creative.

The scenes that end each act also have a good bit of business that I remember thinking might need to be modified in some way, given the theater I was doing the play at.  We were a very low-budget company that rented a stage for Tech Week and the duration of performances, and so needed a very easy set that could be loaded in in a matter of hours.  I hadn’t come up with a solution by the time the production was cancelled, but I remember thinking that I needed to find a way to accomplish what Coble wrote without spending the money that it would require.  The set changes would have meant some small tweaks to the stage directions.

(If you haven’t read Bright Ideas, you should.  Coble is a very talented writer.)

So back to my play, Happily Ever After.

Some of my plays are pretty straightforward.  Happily Ever After is a play that requires a bit of thought, and I sat in the rehearsal and tried to figure out what I would say to the cast if I were the director (it was an early rehearsal, so there were still wrinkles to be ironed out.)  I realized pretty quickly that I needed to understand what it is about.  Surprised by that?  Playwrights don’t always know their play as well as you might think.  They know it works, but a certain amount of it may happen so instinctively and fortuitously that they don’t fully comprehend its idiosyncracies unless they choose to dissect it as a director or scholar would.  I put my director’s hat on with Happily Ever After and understood what I’d written as a result.

So I realized that there is yet another situation in which a director (and the cast) should at least be cautious about changing stage directions.  But I’ve reached my word limit, so that’s for the next post!

My Most Popular Posts: Rehearsals, Part 1

Rehearsal PicWordPress, my website platform, affords me a number of interesting statistics about my blog posts, and I recently checked my “most popular” list.

Over time, this list has changed, but I’ve got to think that the posts that are most popular reflect something about the major concerns of my audience.  So I thought I’d look deeper into their topics and see what I can find that might be helpful.

#1 on the list is “What Are Play Rehearsals For, Part III”.  Yes, it’s a three-parter, but this post gets to the nitty-gritty and outpaces Part I and II considerably in terms of views.

I suspect that Part III doesn’t address the problem as much as readers might like — it makes the general theory clear, but really, we all want even more practical advice.  This website is about giving you as clear an understanding as mere words can accomplish (which admittedly isn’t enough — my workshops are much more useful).

So let’s try to dig a little deeper into this and see if I can give a more detailed response.  Which means, as you’ll understand if you’ve read much on this website, taking a bit of a circuitous route and more than this one post.  The number of posts in this series is as yet unknown, even to me . . .

Maybe I should start by saying that the original posts on this topic are about simplifying the matter as much as possible.  I have discovered that both acting and golf (remember, I’m a golf pro as well) can be looked at in the simplest of terms, or you can make them as complicated as you like.  In fact, I’ve come to believe that we need to make things complicated, to understand them in their complexity to at least some degree, in order to really trust that the simple route is comprehensive.

Learning to do something well is, to a certain extent, about learning to strip away all the unnecessary things that we once thought were so important.  In golf, this means (among other things) to learn to use only the muscles that you need to use to get the job done and to let the others take the day off.  It means shutting down your brain from judging everything you do and learning to not overthink things.

There comes a moment when you say, “Oh!  It’s that easy, isn’t it?”

Yes, it is.  Or at least, it can be.

One of my jobs as an acting teacher and a golf instructor is to help my students focus on the most important elements and let go of the other hundred that they are worrying about.  One of the purposes of this blog is to try to help you understand which are the important elements.  Focus on them and most of the rest will naturally take care of themselves.

So if you look at the original post, the first half of rehearsals is about figuring out what to practice and the second half to practice it.

Of course, this is an 878 word post and can’t say much more than that.  I hope that there is enough material scattered throughout this site that helps fill in how you figure out what to practice, although there is more that can be said about it.  I’m not so sure, however, that I’ve really said much yet about the second half of rehearsals.  That is one of the things I’ll attempt to do with this series.

All rehearsal periods will be a little bit different.  How they go depends, in large part, on who the director is and what his style is.  As an actor, you don’t have much control over that.  You can ask the director for the things you need, but a director is not likely to change their stripes stylistically, even if they are willing to accommodate your requests as much as they can.

Who the other actors are is also going to have an impact on how the process unfolds.  Some actors are into exploring everything in a group; some actors hold their cards close to their vest, but are attentive and receptive to what you give them and give in return; and some operate in their own little world and what you do has little impact on their own line readings and movements.

Nevertheless, we can make some generalities.  Some directors start with table-readings.  Table-readings can be a waste of time.  Reading the script out loud once before starting blocking is generally a feel-good event for the actors, although it can give the director a sense of where the actors think they are going.  It’s an opportunity for the director to note the red flags so they can be addressed early.

On the other hand, there are directors who do multiple table-readings.  I know a director who spends a good week or two exploring the characters in depth through table-readings, and then sends the actors off to memorize their lines.  Only once their lines are memorized do rehearsals begin again and  then she put the show on its feet.

There are two arguments to be made for this unorthodox approach to community theater (or any theater.  Some professional theater operates this way.  And in some professional theater, you don’t even get to the table-reading without your lines memorized.)

One argument is that the better you understand your character, the more your emotions and motivations will drive your movement on stage, and so your blocking is apt to need less fixing than it does if you go into it cold with only the director’s best guess as to what you should be doing.

The other is that since you can’t do any decent acting without being off book, you don’t waste your rehearsal time with early run-throughs that don’t allow you to really connect with the other actors.  You’re more likely to stay in the moment at an earlier part of rehearsals.  Even in your table-readings, because you only have the words to worry about, and you aren’t distracted either by your need to cross to pour a drink without blocking Susan, or by the knowledge that there is a proscenium to which you need to be attentive.

After table-readings come blocking rehearsals, where we try to build a skeleton on which to hang the flesh of the characterizations.  Who goes where and when?  How can we use physical action to underline the important elements of the play, to support the emotional truth of the characters?

Then there is a period of letting the actors get comfortable with the blocking, while they are memorizing their lines.  This is where early run-throughs tend to enter the picture.  As I’ve said elsewhere, they are useful as a check-in every once in a while, but can be deadly if over-used this early in rehearsals, depending on the group of actors involved.

Once everyone is off book, the serious work of relating to each other, staying in the moment, and discovery enters the picture.  Note that I said, “everyone is off book”, because if one of you isn’t, you’ll hold everyone else back until you are.

And then you’ve got tech week.

My argument throughout this website is that you need to do more of that serious work that typically occurs in the week or two prior to tech week earlier in the rehearsal period.  Throughout the rehearsal period, really.  If you aren’t already doing that, then I strongly suggest you explore it.  Most of my posts tackle aspects of how and why you need to do that.

And you can do it, despite the director that you have or the actors you are working with.  Even if everyone seems to be operating differently, you can still do the work properly yourself.  Or at least, as correctly as the limitations of your circumstances allow you to.

Next time, I’ll take off my acting hat and put my directing hat on, and see if I can provide some enlightenment from a different direction.

 

On Staying in the Moment

http://www.vulture.com/2016/01/roundtable-interview-with-the-cast-of-hamilton.html

Hamilton The Musical is my current obsession, and so I came across the above interview with five of the cast members.  Scroll down and you’ll find Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, talking about the moment every night when Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, hurls the insult that causes Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel and ultimately, to kill him, simultaneously ending his own political career.

“Every night, I’m looking for it in his eyes — I want him to make different decisions. I want it to end differently.”

When you are so in the moment and caught up in what your character is feeling that you actually want what your character wants, hope for it to be so, even though you know it can’t happen any other way — that is truly being in the moment.

Also interesting to note:  how they deal with the different energies that audiences bring with them to the performance, and how they continue to develop and understand their characters over time (and they’ve been working with the show for at least a year now).