Actor’s Etiquette: Make Your Entrances On Time

Etiquette-Design-5The last community theater production I was in, no less than four actors completely missed their cues to come on stage during Tech Week.

By completely, I mean everything came to a halt while they were located.  In one instance, I was about to go off stage and drag them on after improvising for about two minutes when they finally showed up.  This was only five minutes into the play.  In the other two cases, there was nothing to be done but stop the play while the actors, who were deep in the dressing rooms, were found.

Thankfully, we had no such incidents during the run, although we did have one actor come on stage a page early.  This called for some quick thinking and readjustment on our parts after the actor exited, so we could pick up the dialogue we had missed due to her early entrance and then jump forward to the scene after her exit.  Those of us onstage were pulled out of the moment a bit, but the audience remained ignorant of the problem.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever been in a play when this happened before.  Oh, sometimes an actor spaces out and comes running on stage a second or two late, but never more than that.  These occurrences, however, were pretty egregious, and two of them happened with experienced actors who should have known better.

Pay attention.  Make your entrances on time.  Don’t leave your fellow actors hanging on stage.


Actor’s Etiquette: I Haven’t Heard My Line Yet

il_570xN.227565305Many actors are a bit casual at memorizing the actual lines in the script.  This is not only disrespectful to the typically absent playwright; it also usually hurts the play.  If you’re one of these actors, there is little I can say to convince you to handle the matter otherwise, and I’m not going to try.

But when it comes to another actor’s cue, be sure to give the cue line verbatim.  Tiny little things can throw an actor off, and if you start messing with your word choice when delivering a cue, you can, at best, take an actor out of the moment, and it will take him a half page to fully integrate himself with the play again.  At worst, you will cause him to forget his lines.  He is memorizing not only his own lines, but his cues, and he isn’t memorizing what you say in rehearsal, but what is in the script.  (Probably in the vain hope that you will someday stick your nose in it and figure out that you’re saying the line wrong.)

So be courteous, and deliver the cue lines as written.  Every time.

Actor’s Etiquette: Being Creative in an Ensemble

etiquette_thingsyouneedtobetoldI hope that my recent posts on creativity indicate that coming up with ideas and trying them out in rehearsal is a good thing and to be encouraged.

So how do you offer ideas if you aren’t supposed to do anything that another actor can interpret as you telling him what to do?  Everyone talks about “Ensemble Acting” as if it’s a good thing to do.  If I’m part of an ensemble, shouldn’t voicing my opinions about the play as a whole be acceptable?

Yes, and no.

First, ensemble acting primarily implies a certain equity among actors strictly in terms of their importance to the piece.  In ensemble acting, there is no obvious “starring role”, and this equity carries into the way the actors work together, too.  Actors accustomed to working together may be able to respectfully generate ideas in a brainstorming sort of way that offends no one, and if the ideas are offered up without any one idea being strongly advocated by an actor who isn’t the one enacting the idea, it’s all good.  But that’s the sort of thing that comes over time, typically in resident companies.

But here’s the truth about ideas. If they do involve you, just do your part of it and the rest will come.   If you throw something new and inventive to your partner, she’ll have the chance to respond to it in whatever way she likes, which may be better than your idea.  Or maybe she’ll find your suggestion on her own, simply because you have given her something good to work with.  That is all that is required most of the time.  Experiment as much as you like, but don’t demand a certain response to your own behavior.  Your own creativity encourages other people to follow you.

Sometimes an actor may be frustrated and be open to general help with his problem.  In that case, you can perhaps gently say, “May I offer an idea?  I don’t know if it’s any good, but . . .” or “I have a thought, but I don’t know if it will work.”  If you are invited to give your thoughts, you may, but do so in such a way that it puts them under no obligation to take your suggestion.  State it simply and leave it at that.  Don’t argue on its behalf, and take its rejection gracefully.

Ensemble work also means being generous to the other people in the cast.  But that’s another topic . . .



Actor’s Etiquette: There’s a Director of This Play, and You Should Listen to Him

9780520267848Directors have a number of responsibilities regarding the production that are different from yours as an actor.  Among them is the responsibility (and right) to determine how to generally interpret the play, which includes his vision for it and the tone the production should strike.

You may not agree with his choices, but you have to make your way to being at peace with them, or the production will suffer.  You can discuss your opinions with him, if you differ in a material way.  You may find you aren’t really far apart; you’re just using different language.  Or you may find he’ll appreciate your input and adjust his vision in some way.

But you may just have very different views, and in that case, he wins.  Ties always go to the director.  This means that it is your job to listen carefully to what he has to say and to try to adjust your own thinking to meet what he is asking for.  Lecturing him on what YOU think is right is only going to create bad feelings.  Take it too far, and the director may wonder if he can ask you to do anything without you putting up a fight.  (I’ve seen this in action.)

Even differences of opinion about small character choices should be dealt with this way.  Yes, you know the character better than the director does.  Eventually.  A good director, if he’s done his homework properly, knows more about your character initially.  My actors start to overtake me in this department somewhere around the halfway mark.

If a director makes a suggestion to you about your character, listen with an open mind.  Trust that he has a reason for it, and that it has something to do with the fact that he is seeing how what you are doing is playing out in the house.

It’s not always easy to do this, I know.  When a director makes a suggestion to me, sometimes I immediately know that he’s right, and all is well.  Sometimes I am in a generally receptive mood and consider it and we have a nice conversation about it.  Sometimes it sounds to me like an idiotic idea, but because I am in a receptive mood, I do my best with it.  If it’s really idiotic, it will probably become apparently in playing it.  If it doesn’t and he still seems attached to the notion, we can now have an honest discussion about its merits and I can politely and reasonably defend my opinion.

And sometimes my worst self emerges and I have a kneejerk reaction that sounds something like this:  “No, my character wouldn’t do that.”

These are words that should never be uttered.  They will, and I’ll probably be one of the actors saying them.  But they shouldn’t be said.

Don’t assume that suggestions from the director are inflexible mandates.  They may be, but they won’t always be.  So go ahead and try what he suggests and see if there is any merit to it.  You’d want the same courtesy if you suggested something; extend it to him.

When my bad self rejects an idea, I always end up considering it later.  “Later” may mean five minutes, and if it does, I make sure I respond to the director before the rehearsal is over, and tell him that I’ll try his idea the next time we do that scene.  Sometimes I think about it overnight, and I’ll talk to him about it at the next rehearsal.  The important thing is that I get back to him about his comment.  Integrating it without acknowledging that is what I am doing isn’t enough.  I need to keep the lines of communication with my director open, and to show him that I respect his input.

Most of the time, I end up realizing that he has a point, and that whatever he is suggesting is more creative and interesting than what I’ve been doing.  It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, and he is throwing me a lifeline.  If I can’t come around to his way of thinking, the time between rehearsals gives me a chance to figure out how to explain my objection to my director, which may open up new possibilities for us.

The director’s “third eye” is critical to a good production.  Trust it.  At the very least, respect it.

Actor’s Etiquette: There’s a Director of This Play, and It Isn’t You

51V3ETWY0FLIt is always very bad form to direct another actor or to otherwise ask another actor to do anything for you.

It doesn’t matter if the director isn’t very good.  Or if he seems to have trouble communicating something and you think you know where the disconnect is.  It’s not your show.  Keep your mouth shut.

You undoubtedly have plenty of work to do on your own role.  That’s where your attention should be.

I once watched an actor who wasn’t hired until halfway through rehearsals start directing his scene partner ON HIS VERY FIRST DAY AT REHEARSALS.  My jaw nearly hit the floor.  The director was gracious and let him speak, and the actor to whom he was speaking was so green that he didn’t realize what a faux pas Mr. Newcomer had made.  I probably would have slapped Mr. N. upside the head.  (His behavior only confirmed my feeling that he was a bit full of himself, and it will probably always color how I view him.)

I’ve also seen an actor ask another to alter the timing of his entrance, which was prescribed by the text, because the way he was doing it (at the director’s instruction) “is throwing me off.”  This was even more egregious because the moment belonged to the entering actor, not Mr. Sensitive (see a future post called “It’s Not Your Scene”).

If you genuinely think you can help the director and feel compelled to do so, do it in private, after rehearsal is over.  This gives the director the opportunity to either listen without you undermining his authority in front of the cast or else tell you to mind your own business without making a scene.

Your job is to simply receive and respond to what you get from the other actor, not to demand what he isn’t giving you because he’s not good/clever/insightful enough to give it to you.  Even if you’re asking for the right thing.

Even if the other actor is upstaging you in the worst way and you have every right to be upset, don’t challenge him on it directly.  Let the director know and let him deal with the problem.  He can handle it better than you can.  You risk making the other actor hate you on some level (theater people are not always mature and professional), and it will make the experience miserable for you both and affect the play.

This doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for you to make suggestions in the moment that you think might be helpful to the production, but they should always be made to the director, not to the other actors.  Phraseology matters, too.  “Could we try . . .?”, “I wonder if it might work if we . . .?”, and “Might it be even better if . . .?” leave open the possibility that you’ve just come up with a terrible idea and give the director the ability to turn it down politely.  Creativity in a play is a group activity, and you are a full player in that.  But you aren’t in charge.

And if you aren’t involved in the scene in question, I don’t care how great the idea you have is.  Keep it to yourself and share it with the director privately, after rehearsal.  It’s not the last time the scene will be worked on; it can wait. Never butt in with your two cents on someone else’s scene unless the director expressly asks for suggestions from the cast as a whole.

In brief:  Don’t make the people you work with look stupid or incompetent.

Actor’s Etiquette: Memorize Your Lines

charm-school-for-business-etiquette-6-5-20121I once directed a play with a cast of experienced actors.  At the first rehearsal, I gave them my usual spiel about memorizing lines (you can’t do any real acting until you are off book; the earlier you memorize them, the better your performance will be; I suggest you aim for three weeks before opening; don’t try and go off book until you really are off book, because it’s a waste of everyone’s time and I won’t permit it).

Some directors set “deadlines” for the acts to be memorized, but really – there’s nothing we can do if you miss the deadline, is there?  It’s not like we can send you to bed without supper (not that I think negative reinforcement is a particularly influential approach.)

The actors nodded at me as soon as I began speaking.  As experienced actors, they knew exactly what I was talking about, and three of the actors in this show had a ton of lines each, so they knew what they were facing.

Three weeks before we opened, none of them had come close to memorizing their lines. I hadn’t really focused on this fact.  Yes, I knew they were still carrying scripts around, and yes, they seemed to rely on them more than I thought they should be at that point, but these guys had been around the block more than a few times.  They knew what was required.  They were pros, they’d get it done.

Also, different people handle memorizing differently.  I’ve worked with actors who made me unsure they were ever going to finish memorizing the script, but came in Tech Week solid in their lines and doing some remarkable work.  I hadn’t really worked with two of these actors before.  What did I know about their process?

Three weeks out, it finally occurred to me that I had to bring the obvious to their attention:  “Uh.  You guys might want to think about memorizing your lines.  We open soon.”

I could tell by the expressions on their faces that they hadn’t fully registered the gravity of their situation until I brought it up.  They began to work in earnest on memorizing from that point on, but two of them never really got solid and we had one performance that took a big hit as a result.

As a director, the one thing I DON’T worry about is whether an actor has memorized their lines.  It’s not my butt up on stage, and the one thing the audience won’t blame me for is an actor who forgets his lines.  I have always figured the potential of public embarrassment is sufficient motivation for an actor to hit the books and get his lines down.

I was wrong on this particular point.

I can’t memorize your lines for you.  I also don’t wish to be a nag; it’s an unpleasant role to have to play.  In the future, I’ll remind my casts each week of how far we are from opening and note where I think they are in terms of memorization, but I’m not going to do more than that.  You’re responsible for yourself.

Memorizing your lines is a basic element of being an actor.  Do it early so you are sure to get it done.

Actor’s Etiquette: Read the Script

HT_BehaveIt is not sufficient to read the play once and then to work on scenes as if they are separate entities.  Everything in the play informs every other moment in the play.

This happens particularly in scene class, but I’ve seen it happen in regular rehearsals, too.  In class, I assign a scene of two to three pages.  The actor gets the script and reads it.  Now he knows the gist of what happens in the play and has a feel for who are the bad guys and who are the good guys.  He has a visceral response to what sort of person his own character is.  Fine.  That’s enough, right?  Now he’ll just work on the scene.

Sorry, but it isn’t nearly enough.

Working on a single scene requires a lot of the same investigation into the character and his background that working on the entire play demands.  You can’t understand your character in isolation.  You’ve got to know what happened in the scene before the one you’re playing before you can begin to understand how he feels in this scene.  Background information that is revealed in scenes before and after yours may help to explain something that happens in your scene.  A comment made in Act II sheds light on something he said in Act I.

As for rehearsals for a full production, it’s not enough to encounter the play when you are working on it with the rest of the cast.  It’s not enough to read it for the purpose of memorizing your lines.  Plays are littered with clues that help you to understand your character, and at some point I’ll talk a bit about how to find them and put them together.  The point is, you have to look for the clues, and you can’t do that particularly well when you are running a scene or memorizing your lines.  Yes, you’ll discover some things when you do, but it won’t be enough.

When I act, I am actively mining for information about my character throughout the rehearsal process (and throughout performances, for that matter).  By “actively mining”, I mean that I am paying close attention to everything that is said, and everything that I read, to see if I can understand it on a deeper level.  There isn’t a magic number for how often you should read a play, but I probably read the ones in which I have a large part at least 80-100 times.  You don’t have to read it that many times, but I hope it suggests that more than a half dozen times is required to really get the most out of it!



Actor’s Etiquette: The Actor’s Job

18th-Edition-Cover-WO-428x487It’s all on your shoulders.

The quality of your performance is determined by three things:

  • How much talent you possess (This is a fixed element.  Training can bring out hidden talent; it can’t create it.)
  • How much time you put into the work, especially outside of formal rehearsals
  • How effectively you know how to use your personal and formal rehearsal time

There is no substitute for time.  There are no real short-cuts in acting.  Yes, good technique speeds things along and allows you to accomplish more as a result, which leads to better performances.  But good acting still takes plenty of time, it’s just that now you know how to use that time to maximum effect.

Being a good actor is, as with most things, a matter of taking responsibility for your own stuff and not expecting someone to hold your hand through the process.  If you’re reading this blog, you’re either an adult or you’re going to become one.  That means determining what kind of actor you want to be and making sure that you do whatever you need to do to achieve that.

I’ve been doing this a long time.  When an actor shows up at rehearsal or to class, I can tell whether he’s done any work on the play since I last saw him.  I can tell whether it was work done earlier in the week or hastily done this afternoon.  I can tell what kind of work he’s done – whether he’s just been saying his lines or if he’s dug into the character, and if the latter, what kind of digging he’s done.

Whether I’m directing or teaching, there is a limit to what even I can do with you if you aren’t bringing something to the table.  THAT’S what you’re responsible for, as an actor.  Like me in that play I talked about in the last Etiquette post (when I was playing adjectives, by the way – that much I can recognize in hindsight!), you are only going to be as good as you can be at this particular moment, and that is PERFECTLY ALL RIGHT.  It’s where you are right now.  It’s the best you can do.

But it’s ONLY the best you can do if you are really putting in the time and effort and doing everything you know how to do at this moment.  That’s something the director simply can’t do for you.  We might be able to nudge you in the right direction now and then.  But we can’t do the work for you.


Actor’s Etiquette: The Director’s Job

etiquette word in letterpress typeI think I’ve alluded to this in some posts, but let me now be quite direct about it.

The director’s job is NOT to get you, the actor, to give a better performance.

That doesn’t mean that directors will not help you turn in a better performance.  Hopefully, every director you work with will contribute something that improves the final product, whether it be a rehearsal environment that is conducive to your best work, a well-timed question about your character, or a creative idea that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself.  All I’m saying is that it isn’t their job to do that.  And even if it were, most of them can’t.

Many years ago, when I was young and loaded with lots of natural talent and good instincts but little technical prowess, I did a professional production that had a scene in which I apparently stunk.  So badly that I was essentially “kept after school for extra help.”  The director, who was also a very fine actor, did his best with me.  We spent an hour together, with him trying to explain what he was looking for or what I was supposed to do that was going to fix this dreadful scene.

I had no idea what he was talking about, and I could see him getting more and more frustrated with my inability to give him what he wanted.  I felt terrible about my obvious inadequacy, even if I had no idea in what way I was inadequate, but had no ability to express my confusion or to interpret anything that he said in a meaningful way.

I think he eventually just accepted that I wasn’t going to be able to do it well, as I don’t remember a lot of additional work on the scene after that.

A director like me (a good, articulate actor who is also a teacher by nature) can help you deliver a better performance than you can get to on your own.  As one of my actors said, “You really teach when you direct, don’t you?”  (Although most of what I teach in rehearsals can’t be retained long-term, due to volume.)

But really, I’m the exception to the rule.  If an excellent director and actor like Lee couldn’t do anything about my sad portrayal, despite the oodles of talent that had gotten me the job in the first place, then most directors without his understanding of acting aren’t going to be able to help you, either.

So don’t expect them to work miracles.  You are the only “saint” you can depend upon for this.  That means putting in the time, both in rehearsals and out.

The Actor’s Etiquette Posts, and Why You Should Read Them

etiquette JapanA few years ago, I toyed with the idea of getting a degree in Accounting.  I already had a B.A., but I was taking some Accounting courses and wondered if a degree in it would be useful.  (The answer turned out to be “No,” but that’s not the point.)

One of the degree requirements was a Business 101 course.  As far as I was concerned, this was a waste of time.  I’d been working in business for nearly thirty years in a variety of capacities and had learned a lot about how business functions.  This was a course that would be useful for twenty-somethings, but not for me.

Oh, I was so wrong.  I learned a surprising amount from it and am very happy I took it.

I’m going to write a series called “Actor’s Etiquette” which will appear every Friday and which covers things that seem to me to be obvious or common sense, and yet I encounter both experienced and new actors who don’t understand the concepts behind them.  Or at least, don’t practice them.

They are things that are so basic that those of us who have been living them for years forget that they aren’t part of everyone’s vocabulary.  We get jolted in rehearsal when we see these behaviors.  The words, “You’ve got to be [expletive] kidding me!” may even pass through our heads, although we are typically wise enough to not say them.

All of them are, on some level, about an actor’s responsibilities to the play or the class, and to your fellow artists or students.

Please don’t assume that you are “beyond” these posts.  I’m going to flag them all as “Actor’s Etiquette” posts specifically because I want to draw your attention to them.  I know you aren’t going to read every single post I write, and that’s fine.  But when I preface the title of a post with “Actor’s Etiquette”, that’s my way of saying, “If you read nothing else, read this one!”