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.  The actor onstage with me at the time and I had to go with her 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 the third actor’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.  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, 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?


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!





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.)