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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Actor’s Etiquette: Oh, Do You Have a Line?

etiquetteIf you’re sloppy with how you memorize lines, it’s very possible to find that you’re talking when someone else is supposed to be talking.  This is annoying on a number of levels.

I did a show once with an actor who decided to run two of his lines together, which meant that saying my line (which was only a single word:  “No!”) muddied things a bit.  He had an emotional reason for making this choice, even if it was a bit misplaced.  I ended up cutting my line out, because the way he was handling the scene just made it seem messy and as if someone (me, probably) had screwed up a line somewhere.

I had plenty of lines in the show, so losing a word was hardly a problem.  However, the lines were written as they were to produce a laugh, one we never got because of how the actor was playing the scene.  All the more amusing, really, since the actor in question considered himself to be a comic.  But I always felt badly about it, because it was the audience who lost out.  (And no, the director did nothing to fix the problem.  C’est la vie.)

Overlapping dialogue is fine, even when the playwright hasn’t written it to indicate overlapping.  It makes things more realistic, and sometimes helps to convey urgency or passion on some level.  It’s nothing that you want to do too frequently, because the other actors may start to feel that you are “all about you”, and not about the play.  Nor do you want to overlap more than a word or two.

You also want to be sure that you aren’t overlapping any important information or emotion.  Never step on another actor’s moment.  And never kill a laugh intentionally, as my scene partner did.  Audiences love to laugh; give them every opportunity!

Also, be careful in doing this when the line you’re overlapping belongs to someone who has a small part in the play.  If it is really necessary and appropriate, that’s one thing, but do remember that actors with small parts relish every word and moment they get on stage.  Let them have them!  If you’re the lead and they have twelve lines, you won’t endear yourself to them by stepping on one of them.

If you find yourself talking at the same time someone else is speaking, go back and check the script.  Make sure you’re handling your end properly and that you haven’t misunderstood the scene or memorized it incorrectly.  If the problem turns out to be your scene partner, have a word with your director in private.  With any luck, he’ll fix the matter, and if he doesn’t, do what I did in the above instance:  make your best judgment about what you can do that will best serve the play in this instance.

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: 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.

Why the Playwright’s Words Matter, Part II

Second, lines with clear rhythm.  Tempo.

This is particularly important with verse plays (Shakespeare, Moliere), but applies to lyrical or poetic plays, too.  Change a word in Equus, which is very poetic, and you mess with the character, with the meaning of the play, with the rhythm (and therefore magic) of the piece.  Plays which weave a spell around the audience do so in large part because the writing permits it.  Change the writing, and you may break the spell.

Remember, I said that studies have shown that when the spell is broken, it takes up to five minutes to get an audience connected back to the play?  Changing the words can break the spell.  Do it at your peril.

Third, playwrights use literary techniques just the way novelists and poets do.Books

Literary devices like onomatopoeia.  Assonance.  Alliteration.  Parallelism.  Etc.

If a sentence has a staccato feel to it, that is probably intentional on the playwright’s part.  It may reflect a character’s jitteriness, for example.  A sentence with powerful, active words may be spoken by someone in anger, someone who expresses themselves very physically.  Change a word, and you may limit your ability, as an actor, to express a character’s emotions, because you’ll be disconnected from what the playwright actually wrote.

For instance, let’s say you have the line, “He blasted into the room,” or perhaps, “He burst into the room.”  Change the line to “He came into the room” or “He rushed into the room” or even “He pushed his way into the room”, and you’ve changed the feel of it.  The plosive “B” in the first two matches the feel of a door swinging hard against the wall as it is thrown open.

Playwrights are just as prone as novelists and poets to spend days agonizing over the choice of a single word.  I’ve seen actors change the way a line is worded because “it feels more comfortable.”  Because “I think this is how he’d say it.”  Because “this makes more sense to me.”  Quite frankly, this makes me want to scream just a little bit.  The actor has probably only worked with the script for a few weeks when he casually makes this decision.  Forget the fact that the playwright lived with the play for months, maybe years.  Forget that the playwright may have once written the line exactly as the actor is proposing, and changed it because he decided the word he replaced it with was a better choice.

Bottom Line:  If you think you know better than the playwright, it probably means you haven’t studied the script enough.

See Part I here.

Why the Playwright’s Words Matter, Part I

I’d like to give you a few more examples of why changing the playwrights’ words can be very problematic.

First, the easy one.  Jokes.  Punchlines.

Change one word, one simple innocuous word, and you might find it’s no longer funny.

Add a word, or two, or three, and you throw the joke off entirely.  It’s not the gist of the thing that makes it funny.  It’s the way it’s phrased.  Take a word out, you run the same risk.

sunshine boysA rule of thumb in vaudeville (see The Sunshine Boys) was that words with the “K” sound are funny, those without it aren’t.  And it’s true.  “M”s and “L”s just aren’t funny.  Harder, more plosive sounds are.  Substitute a funny word with an unfunny one, you ruin the joke.

Johnny Carson’s rule of thumb was that three is funny, four isn’t.  Talk about “She took my house, my car, and my parakeet”, and it’s funny.  (Notice that parakeet is funnier than dog; it’s got a K in it.)  “My house and my car” – not so much.  Even “my house and my parakeet” isn’t as funny as when the list has three items.  And add a fourth to the list – “my house, my car, my parakeet, and my shopvac” – it’s too many.  We start to lose interest before we get to “shopvac”.  (Take out house, and it becomes much funnier.  Two Ks, plus the unexpectedness of both the parakeet and the shopvac.)

In other words, our attention span only goes so far, and comedy is light, a fourth item weighs it down.  We’re looking for the punchline after three.  But you need three, not two, to set up the joke.  Don’t leave one of the three out!  And don’t add a fourth for any reason.  (Sometimes the playwright has added the fourth.  Sadly, that’s his mistake and you have to live with it.)

If you aren’t a natural comic, you might not understand why this matters.  The meaning is still there, right?  And isn’t it the meaning that is funny?

No.  Not all by itself.  Trust me on this.  Say the line as written.

And if you do consider yourself a comic, and you break these rules, the lines won’t get laughs, or you sure won’t get the kind of laugh the line deserves.  You’ll spend the run of the play wondering why the audience has no sense of humor, when in fact it is your editing of the playwright’s words that is ruining the joke!

See Part II here.

Word Choice, Memorization, and Script Analysis, Part II

Let’s examine a few related words to see what I mean:  cute, attractive, pretty, and beautiful.  And let’s do it with some of the cast of Glee.

glee-emma-pillsbury-290x400“Cute” is the pert girl with the dimples, a ready smile, and a bubbly personality.  She’s attractive, sometimes very attractive, but her features are probably not classic, and her beauty is as much a function of her effervescent personality as it is her physical appearance.  Think Jayma Mays (Emma Pillsbury).

glee brittany“Attractive” is a girl who is pleasant to look at, but who probably isn’t going to turn a lot of heads, or not for very long.  She’s probably got a feature which isn’t classic, but it doesn’t disturb the whole visage enough to make her unattractive.  Think Heather Morris (Brittany S. Pierce).

glee quinn“Pretty” is the stereotypical blonde cheerleader with the chiseled features.  Think Diana Agron (Quinn Fabray).

“Beautiful”?  Well, I’m not sure there are any real beauties on Glee.  No dogs, just no one who meets this high bar.  Let’s just say Giselle Bundchen.  Brooke Shields.  Cindy Crawford.

You’d never use the words “cute”, “attractive”, or “pretty” to describe these supermodels.  If you did, there’d be great confusion and a lot of misunderstandings.

Change a word in the script, and you can cause equal confusion without even realizing it.

I’ve had occasion, in writing these posts, to look for synonyms, and am surprised by how difficult it is, in the language that has more words than any other, to find good substitutes when I want to say something without using the same word I did in the previous sentence.  There aren’t many true synonyms which can be used interchangeably without altering the meaning of the sentence materially.

“Oh,” I hear you say, “that matters for a lot of lines, but not for many of the simple, throwaway lines.”  Okay.  Let’s look at a simple exclamation:  “Oh my god!”  Here are some logical alternatives:  “Oh my goodness!”  “Oh my lord!”  “Oh my gosh!”  “Oh Christ!”  “Oh lord!” and “Omigod!”

I’m not trying to get religious on anyone here, but I would suggest to you that seven different people would use each of these expressions in the same situation.  That even “Oh my god” and “Oh my lord”, while probably the two most similar phrases, nevertheless reflect a different relationship with their Maker.  That “Oh my god” and “Omigod”, while technically the same phrase despite a different pronunciation, nevertheless would come out of two very different mouths.

First, you have to respect these differences.  The playwright chose the words he chose for a reason.  Trust that, even if you don’t understand the reason initially.

Second, use these differences to help you understand your character better.  When we talk more about script analysis, you’ll see why this is useful.

See Part I here.  See Memorizing Your Lines Part I here.  See Memorizing Your Lines Part II here.  See Why the Playwright’s Words Matter Part I here.  See Why the Playwright’s Words Matter Part II here.