Thoughts About the Open Door Reading

Open DoorIt’s difficult to do initially.  It’s uncomfortable.  It’s unnatural.  We don’t listen particularly well in real life.  As soon as someone starts to talk, we start forming our response.  We’re only half paying attention to them.  We’re busy figuring out what to say and looking for a pause we can enter to speak our opinion.

The Open Door Reading, however, encourages you to pay attention to your partner.  If you resist the temptation to look at your script (so that you’ll be “ready” when it’s “your turn”), you have nothing to do but pay attention to what your scene partner is sending you.  After all, you haven’t memorized your lines yet, so you can’t prepare them if you aren’t looking at the script.  Since you don’t have the freedom to improvise a response, you just have to wait until you can look at the script.  So you might as well use that time to notice what your partner is doing and saying and to let it affect you.

Taking time is an essential part of the equation.  If you shortcut any of the steps I listed in the post on how to do the Open Door Reading, you will not experience what the exercise can do for you.  Only by allowing silence and trying to not fill it intentionally will you create space that emotion can flow into.  Only by allowing silence can you begin to receive what you are getting from your scene partner rather than putting up walls and anticipating what you are going to get.

And once it is time for you to talk, if you resist the temptation to look at your speech in its entirety, to notice its arc and to prepare for the powerful line at the end by setting up the lines at the beginning in the “right” way, you’ll give more attention to words and phrases that you otherwise might dismiss as being unimportant, instead of being open to the possibility that they are, in fact, important in unexpected ways.

Our instinct to make the scene “flow”, and to make it understandable to anyone listening is fairly strong, so it requires a good deal of self-discipline initially to stick to the plodding process as I described it here.  Because it is plodding.  Stilted.  Boring.  Occasionally hard to follow.  Tedious.  Long.  But since at this point, you don’t HAVE an audience that cares about it flowing or being understandable, you can ignore your instinct and use the exercise to discover what it has to teach you about this particular play.

Because that’s the point.  The exercise is only about what you, the actor, gets out of it.  It’s not for the director or an audience.  There are no rights or wrongs in terms of what shows up for you.  It’s simply information.  Data for you to consider down the road in rehearsals.  To use or not use, as you see fit.  But like a statistician, you need to collect all the available data before you start evaluating it.

Hopefully, you will have moments in the Open Door Reading when emotions show up with unexpected force, and frighten or surprise or delight you.  Equally hopefully, these moments will convince you that there might be something to this process.

Most people need a teacher watching them the first few times they use the Open Door Reading technique.  Without that, most actors will cheat.  Not intentionally.  They just don’t realize that they aren’t being faithful to the process.  A teacher can help you get the most out of the experience, which in turn helps you to recognize when you’re doing it properly down the road, with another scene from another play!

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The Open Door Reading — How to Do It

WelcomeI’m going to call this exercise we are doing in class the Open Door Reading.  Meisner calls it the Working Reading, and other teachers may have other descriptions for a similar process.  But I like calling it the Open Door Reading, because I hope it better communicates that we are using the reading simply to open an inner door to emotional possibilities.

First, let me reiterate the practice:

Keep the script in your lap or on the table in front of you.

Look down at the script and gather as many words as you can remember, or perhaps just a short complete phrase.  Don’t read ahead in your script to remind yourself of where the scene is going.  Just gather the words you can remember, and look up at your scene partner.

Take two seconds before you speak to contemplate the words you are about to say.  This doesn’t have to be an active, intentional contemplation.  Just let them sit in your head before you let them out of your mouth.

Say the words to your partner.  Don’t try to force anything on them in terms of how you say them.  If there seems to be a clear intention behind them, go ahead and use it.  If you just say them as ordinary, boring words, with no particular opinion about them, that’s fine, too.  There is no right or wrong about what comes out, as long as it isn’t forced.  If you’re uncertain what to “do” with them on any level, just say them simply.  “Do” something with them only if it feels right and true.

Continue to look at your partner for three seconds after you have finished speaking.  Watch your words “land” on your partner and notice if your partner has any reaction to them.  Notice how you feel about what you’ve just said.  Sometimes what you say will make emotions come up in you.  Sometimes knowing what you’re about to say makes those emotions bubble.  Sometimes nothing will seem to happen.  It doesn’t matter.  Just let whatever happens, happen.

Look down at your script and gather the next bunch of words in your head.  Repeat the above steps, until you have completed your speech.

Once you have reached the end of your speech, continue to look at your partner.  He will eventually figure out that you aren’t going to say anything more.  Let him figure it out in his own time.  He may be processing emotions, so don’t rush him.  He’ll eventually get to his lines.

Don’t look at your script while your partner is talking.  Keep your attention focused on him.  Receive whatever he sends your way:  the words, the way he says them, the way he looks at you.  Receive it with curiosity and openness.  Don’t evaluate it.  Just try to receive it without opinion or judgment.  Don’t modify it in any way.

Let whatever you receive work on you.  Don’t rush it.  Don’t force it.  Don’t raise an eyebrow because you think raising your eyebrow will be very effective in performance (it’s one of the things you noticed when you first read the play, and you know the audience will laugh when you do.)  If your eyebrow raises on its own, that’s fine.  But don’t make it do that.

When you receive whatever your partner is sending you, you may find emotions bubbling up in you that seem inappropriate.  Something tickles your funny bone, but it is ticking the actor’s funny bone, not the character’s.  Or so you think.  That’s okay.  If you feel like laughing, laugh.  Don’t censor what happens because it is “wrong” for the scene.  You’ve got weeks of rehearsal stretching ahead of you, and plenty of time to censor as you need to.  Right now, don’t censor anything.  Let any emotion that rises up in you out, no matter how uncomfortable or embarrassing or “wrong”.

It is difficult, at first, to identify when you are letting emotions flow naturally and when you are intentionally gravitating toward what you instinctively feel is right for the scene.  That’s okay.  Just keep trying to keep your brain from being too active, to not let it share its opinions, and just let your heart talk instead.

Just feel what is happening in you.  Hold the door opening to your feelings, and welcome them to the party.  The good, the bad, and the ugly.

When your partner clearly has no intention of saying anything more, assume that it is your turn.  Look down at your script, and go back to the beginning of this list.  Keep repeating the process until you reach the end of the scene.

See The Hardest Part of Acting here.  See Act Without Expectation here.

The Actor: The Playwright’s Co-Creator

Last week Paul identified the actor as a “co-creator” with the playwright.  I’d like to take that a step further and say that the playwright tells a story with words, while the actors tell that same story with emotions.  The actors illuminate the playwright’s story by attaching emotions to what are otherwise two-dimensional sentences, and thereby give real meaning to the play.  The job of the director is to edit the options the actors present him with so that the choices they make create the strongest, most interesting story possible.

In other words, it’s not just about saying the words.  Anyone can do that.

As long as you make choices that don’t violate the script’s text, the choices are valid and fairly represent what you have to bring to the work as a creative artist.  You and I will give entirely different performances as the same character simply because we each have our own unique perspective, and that perspective tends to guide our choices.

However, we also have to recognize that our perspective is just one of many billions of perspectives, and that our characters may not share them.  What we think we know about our character isn’t necessarily right.  We are inclined to make many decisions about our characters within the first few readings of the play, but those are always made within the context of our unique perspective.  When we do, we usually shut the door on the more interesting and creative choices.

I’ve lived with my husband for 19 years.  He continues to surprise me, no matter how well I think I know him.  How can I possibly think I can understand a character I just met, about whom I only have 70 pages of dialogue as clues, in less than a week?

That’s why I won’t tell you what play your monologue is from yet.  If I do, you’ll start making assumptions about your characters.  As long as you know nothing about the play – including your character’s name – it’s easier to be open-minded.  And so I can use this early time – I think you’ll start working with scenes from full plays that I will let you read in Week 5 – to demonstrate how many more interesting options you have when you suspend judgment, as well as to introduce ways of using space and time to unleash the power of your subconscious.  My guess is that none of you use your subconscious as much as you can, and that is where true creativity lies.

I hope these tools will prove to be very helpful when you start working on 5 minute scenes (standard length for scene study).  The rest of the tools I hope to share with you, I’ll introduce within the context of those scenes.

For those of you who were at tonight’s class (9/17), here’s the assignment for next week.  If you weren’t with us tonight, you can prepare the second part of the assignment below if you have the time, but you don’t have to prepare it, either.  If you only do the homework from the 9/10 class the next time you come, that’s just fine.

I realize that we didn’t do anything with your “memory” homework tonight, due to time.  We may get to them next week.  Or maybe not.  However, you’ll find that if you keep practicing with finding new memories, you’ll become more familiar with what it feels like to search for memories, the right words, things that are difficult to say, etc.  If you know what it feels like for YOU to search for them, you can transfer that experience to your character.  When the same sensations come up for you as the character searching for the details of a memory as come up for you when you do the exercise, you know you’ve hit paydirt.

So, it’s a two part assignment:

  1. Work on your monologue in light of the experiments we did with it in class.  Feel free to try as many different approaches as you can imagine, just to see what the effect is.  Remember, you’ve got no way of knowing what the “right” choice is, so just examine your options.  Try the options that seem to be completely wrong, and see if you find anything good in there.  Finally, choose an activity that supports whatever choices you do end up making, and do both at the same time.  Run it at least three times to see what happens depending on how much attention you give to your activity.  Bring the props for your activity with you to the next class.
  2. Identify the “important” lines in your monologue vs. the “unimportant” ones.  By “important”, I mean plot points, big emotional moments, when your character makes an unsignaled left turn, etc.  By unimportant, I mean the lines that if the audience doesn’t hear, it’ll be okay.  Do this with pencil initially, until you’re happy with your choices.  Then you can highlight them if you like.  This will give you a monologue that looks like a tiger standing on its head.
    Once you’ve made your choices, practice walking around the stage on your unimportant lines, and standing still on your important ones.  You’ll do this in class as well.

And then it’s on to an active monologue (not a memory monologue).  From there, we’ll progress to really clever two person scenes that will hopefully change how you listen on stage.  Which is probably the hardest acting technique issue there is!

A Few Exercises

If you weren’t at tonight’s class (Sept. 10), disregard the following.  It will apply to you after you attend your first class session, but it is nothing you need to do before that.

If you don’t have time to prepare all three things, then prepare them in the order they appear.

1)      Prepare an activity.  Something simple, like peeling carrots.  Playing solitaire.  Shining your shoes.  Practice it at home at least three times.  This may seem silly, but trust me, it makes a difference.  Do not “write” lines to say.  Speech is not forbidden, but also should not be prepared beforehand.  It should be used only if it arises spontaneously (e.g., if you cut yourself with a knife, you might say “Ouch”, among other things.)  Do not create an imaginary scene partner; the activity is solitary.  The “setting” for the activity should be your home.  The “character” is the real you.  And the activity should last for about 2 minutes.  Bring whatever “props” you need to do your activity (carrots, a peeler, a dishtowel, a bowl, a garbage can or paper bag, a cutting board, etc.)  Do NOT mime any of your actions.  Do NOT use a cell phone, IPad, or any other form of technology as one of your props.  And avoid activities requiring fine motor skills.  It is very difficult to thread a needle on stage, no matter how young your eyes are.

2)      Memorize the monologue I gave you in class.  Resist the temptation to memorize “line readings” with it, but instead just memorize the words as words.  Yes, inflections and rhythm can be helpful in memorizing lines, but doing so limits your performance in ways that are very difficult to overcome.  You will know you’ve really memorized the monologue when you can say the words without stopping except to catch your breath.

Feel free to “think” about your character, but ONLY think about it.  Resist the temptation to “prepare” the monologue out loud in any way other than to memorize the lines.  Remember, while your monologue is from an actual play, you don’t know what that play is or anything about your character or the circumstances that surround your monologue, so you can’t make good “choices”, you can only make some intelligent guesses based on limited information which may or may not pan out.  Instead of making choices, simply explore ALL the possibilities.  For instance, what if your monologue is intended to be humorous?  What if it is intended to be dramatic?  What if you play it as if it is incredibly important?  What if you say it as something very off-hand?  What would be different about it, depending on which choices you might make?

Identify the possibilities, just don’t choose from among them.

Don’t feel like you have to do anything OTHER than memorize your lines.  You don’t.  But if you can’t stop yourself from doing more, then why not challenge yourself to find as many different possibilities as you can?

If yours is a longer monologue and you don’t have time to memorize it all, just memorize the portion that you can.  The length, quite honestly, is fairly arbitrary.

3)      Practice telling your “personal memory”, the one you used in class.  You don’t want it to last longer than 1 or 2 minutes.  Edit it to eliminate repetitions or extraneous information.  Stick to the critical points.  Tell it out loud at least six times, to real or imaginary people.  Feel free to “tell” it to family and friends; just don’t let them give you ANY feedback other than to answer the following question with one word:  “Did it feel to you like I was remembering it for the first time?”  Be prepared to tell it in class as if we have never heard you tell it before.  The idea is to make us believe that you never have told it to anyone before.  I don’t care if it is interesting or funny or has a point.  This isn’t a class on improv or playwriting.

As much as you can, put yourself back into the memory.  Take time to just THINK about it, REMEMBER everything you can about it, before you tell it again.  On your first retelling, describe your surroundings in as much detail as you can.  Colors, shapes, density.  Can you remember any sounds that might have been part of it?  The sound of a passing train, the whoosh of the wind through the trees, the high pitch of your brother’s whistle?  Can you remember what the apple felt like in your hand?  Was it a red delicious so big that your 8-year-old hand could barely hold it, or was it a rotten half-grown crab apple that easily fit in your hand?  Was it soft or hard, smooth, wet, slimy?  Could you smell what Mom was cooking?  Can you identify what she was cooking by smell, rather than simply remembering the menu?  And most importantly, can you remember how you FELT about the moment?  Did it make you happy, scared, ashamed, silly, resentful, etc.?

If you find staying silent for 30 seconds while you try to get in touch with these details difficult, I understand.  But all the more reason you should try to sit still and pay attention for at least 15 seconds.  Trust me (sorry, Troy!), that’s where the magic is.

After this first retelling, which can take as long as ten minutes if you like, you’ll have a much better sense of what is important and what can be edited out, and then you can start practicing the short version.

See if you can find at least ONE SENTENCE in your “personal memory” that you can get in touch with this level of detail.  Just ONE moment like this is sufficient to give any monologue real power.