Do We Have Enough Rehearsal Time?

calendarI’m going to address this simply from the point of view of community theater.  The time needed for college or professional productions probably differs.  I’m also starting with choices that are largely made by the director, but I’ll finish with how it impacts you as an actor.  If you can identify upfront that the director may not have given you enough time to rehearse, you can handle how you rehearse a little differently to overcome this deficit.

In community theater, time is your best friend, but I don’t mean just the number of hours you spend in rehearsal.  Yes, that matters.  But the number of weeks from the first reading to opening night matters as well.

Why?  Because it gives your subconscious time to do its thing.  This is what John Cleese talks about when he says the third requirement for creativity is Time.  Ideally, you want seven weeks of regular rehearsals and one week of technical rehearsals.  Let’s say it takes you five weeks to get off book.  That gives you one week to REALLY get off book; that is, to reach the point where the words come out without you having to think about them.  It gives you one more week to do the fine-tuning that can only happen once you are REALLY off book.  And it gives you the eighth week to adjust to technical issues.

If the entire cast can get off book in four weeks and you’ve got a compelling reason to not use an eight week period, then for an “ordinary show” (see below), you can shorten the rehearsal period to seven weeks.  However, it’s my experience that at least some of the cast will still be on-book in that fifth week.  But the theory here is that you should put the script down no later than three weeks before opening night in order to benefit from what I will call the “subconscious effect.”

Has there ever been a community theater production you’ve been part of that seemed to be noticeably better on the second weekend of performances?  If so, you’re looking at the “subconscious effect”.  Once you get off book and are “fine-tuning” your performance, your subconscious gets very busy and does work on your role that you aren’t aware of.  Even if all you do in the week after opening is look at your script three times and have one pick-up rehearsal, your subconscious is still working and getting more comfortable with your choices.  Magical stuff happens when you give it this time to work.  So if you can give it that extra week before opening night, you’ll get better buzz to help fill the house on the second weekend!

As for the number of hours you need, my general rule of thumb is that a production with no special needs that will run for 2 hours including one 15-minute intermission requires 54 hours of rehearsal time prior to Tech Week.  To get the most out of this time, you need rehearsals that last at least 2½ hours long, three or four times a week.  (Rehearse them more often than that, and they have no time to work on their part at home as well as do their laundry.)

If the play is longer or shorter than two hours, you can adjust the total rehearsal time up or down.  But length is not the only consideration in choosing the number of hours for rehearsal.  Special considerations can increase the amount of time you need to work outside of rehearsals as well.

What do I mean by special considerations?  I’ll talk about them next time . . .

Actor’s Etiquette: Tech Rehearsals

tea-etiquette-v2We hate them, but they are a necessary evil.

They are tedious.  They start late.  Everything stops while they fix a problem.  Couldn’t they have figured this out ahead of time?

It doesn’t matter.  It is what it is.  Take a deep breath and be patient.  Everyone is frustrated.  Stay attentive to what is being said by the director or the technical crew, so you can help them.  Don’t get so involved in conversations with other actors that you lose sight of why you’re here.  Be as helpful as you can by getting into position when they need you to be somewhere, and by running something as many times as they need to to get it right.

You’ve had a lot of rehearsals to get it right.  The crew gets one, and there are all kinds of other reasons you aren’t privy to that the Tech isn’t going smoothly.  Don’t roll your eyes or lose your temper.  It will all be over soon.  And don’t worry that you can’t do any decent acting at this rehearsal.  It’s not for you, it’s for them.  You can act in the dress rehearsal.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try your best.  No, you may not be able to sink into the character in this rehearsal, but the crew needs to understand the general timing and events of the show so they can match their cues to them.  Be sure you give them what they need.

The Stage Director as Film Editor

The stage director has a number of functions.

  • She chooses the tone of the play and makes sure that every aspect of the production supports that tone.
  • She identifies what she thinks the playwright is trying to say, and makes sure that all the actors’ choices are consistent with that point of view.
  • She is in charge of the mise en scene, and in that role plays traffic cop.
  • She is the Big Picture artist of the production.  Actors are little picture people.  She controls the scope and feel of the evening.  We are responsible for the moment-to-moment details.

film editorIn other words, she’s a film editor for the stage.

Having a strong sense of the big picture is an essential ingredient in a quality director.  The ability to attend to detail is an asset, but it isn’t critical.  You can be a very good director if you have people around you to handle the details.

The reverse is true for actors.  The more you can work with the minutiae of what happens in a single moment (giving oneself over to it without overthinking it, that is), the better your work is apt to be.  If you can also see the big picture, so that you can tailor your work to intentionally enhance the grand scheme and ease the director’s burden a little bit, then your performance is apt to scale some impressive heights.  But it isn’t necessary, because the director is your film editor.

Unlike a film editor, who works after all the filming has been completed, the stage director does her editing throughout the rehearsal process.  That means that you, as the actor, need to provide her with quantity of film to select from.  Take after take.  And each take should be a little different.  Each take should offer something slightly (or majorly) different to the director.  Your job is to provide choices.

Now, truthfully, you’ll do a lot of the editing yourself.  You’ll try stuff in rehearsal and realize this works and that doesn’t, and select accordingly.  But there will be times, as in The Rainmaker scene I’ve cited, where you may try two materially different approaches, and both seem to work on some level.  What to do?  Which to choose?  How do I know what’s right???????

You don’t have to.  The director will.

Isn’t this a beautiful system?  You don’t have to worry about it.  The obvious choices?  Go ahead and make them.  The ones that panic you so much that you think you have to make them early and often?  Let the director shoulder that responsibility.  That’s what she’s there for.

And this frees you up to try everything you can think of.  Because a good director will give you immediate and solid feedback about what works and what doesn’t.  Good feedback, I believe I said, speeds the learning process.  So you don’t have to worry that you won’t get it all done in time.  You will.

Actor’s Etiquette: Notes

Decorum-Dress-Etiquette-BookNotes are what the director gives the actors once run-throughs begin.  He takes written notes during the run-through and comments on the actors’ performances either after the run-through or at the beginning of the next rehearsal.

The purpose of notes is twofold.  First, it allows you to run scenes or acts without interruption.  Second, it is intended to be an efficient way of communicating what is necessary.  Once you get to run-throughs, there is usually less time for the director to talk because so much time has been spent actually rehearsing.  So the idea is:  convey the information and get the hell out of Dodge.

If your director gives notes at the end of the night (which is usually more profitable, since you’re more apt to remember what he’s talking about than you will at the next rehearsal), remember that everyone is tired and wants to go home.  This means that it’s not the time to get into a long discussion about anything.  Listen to the director, acknowledge what he is telling you, answer his questions briefly and clearly, ask questions succinctly if you are confused.

And leave it at that.  If you have a bone to pick, do it after the rehearsal has ended and people are free to head to their cars.

As I’ve talked about elsewhere, bones are best picked after you’ve had the chance to sleep on it.  It’s late.  You may feel differently in the morning.  And believe me, the director is tired, too.

It’s usually a good idea to write the notes down and review them before the next rehearsal.  No matter how good your memory is, it’s easy to forget a note, because (wait for it!) it’s late and you’re tired.

Notes usually involve fine-tuning issues, things you may need to think about before the next rehearsal, but which are easily fixed.  Notes about problem areas will probably be run several times in rehearsals, but if not, don’t be afraid to ask that some general rehearsal time be spent on them.

If you get the same note repeatedly, it means this:  “You aren’t paying attention to what I’m telling/asking you, because I keep having to say it.  It would be nice if you’d actually do something about the problem before we open.”  The first time it’s repeated (because you forgot it since you didn’t write it down), the actors will forgive you.  But after that, they are all thinking to themselves, “Would you just do it already, so we don’t have to listen to this note again, because (wait for it!) it’s late and we’re tired and we want to go home.”

Exploring the Subtext

rainmaker 2Let’s say that I try the scene from The Rainmaker the way Nash wrote it.  I try it with the alternatives that I’ve suggested, and at the end of the day, apart from the step File takes toward Lizzie, which I think makes no sense at all, I end up using Nash’s choices.

Doesn’t that justify just using Nash’s choices from the beginning?  Should I waste time trying things that ultimately aren’t going to work, that are going to be tossed aside?

First off, I don’t know at the time that I am exploring my options in the scene that I’m going to end up using Nash’s choices.  It’s just as possible that I will use my own.  The only way that I can be confident that his choices are the right ones is if I explore and dispense with any other possibilities.  The confidence I gain is worth the effort.

Second, I get a good deal out of exploring the options that I ultimately don’t use.  It’s called exploring the subtext.

Because we are often unable or unwilling (often out of fear) to be honest with each other, creating the confusion and conflict of good drama, the unspoken thoughts and feelings which make up the subtext are important elements for an actor.  To create a really rich performance, you have to know what the subtext is and play it accurately.

You don’t do that by saying “File and Lizzie have been in love forever, but File keeps resisting it.”  You do it by immersing yourself in the longing you have for the other person, the desire to touch them.  Once you’ve pumped up that desire to its max, you can now layer resistance on to it and the electricity in the scene skyrockets.  Without the intimate understanding of what the love File and Lizzie have for each other really feels like, you can’t know what it is you are resisting.  The audience needs to see not just the resisting, they need to see the love, too.  If you don’t show the audience the love, then all they see is resistance, and they don’t know how to interpret it.  Do they hate each other?  Love each other?  Or are they indifferent?  If you aren’t actively resisting something, it’s apt to come out somewhere in the middle, and that looks a lot like indifference.

It’s the push me/pull you relationship of the love and the “I can’t give in to this” (File) or “I can’t let him know how much I care” (Lizzie) that is dramatically interesting.  Play one without the other, and you’re missing half of the symphony.

So however you choose to stage this scene, you need to explore both elements, text and subtext.  By experimenting with the levels (how much love, how much resistance), you discover the most interesting and powerful way to play the scene.

In other words, when there is clear subtext in a scene – when your feelings are not aligned with what you say – your performance will ALWAYS be best served if you take at least one rehearsal of the scene and play the subtext as clearly as possible (even if it appears to categorically contradict particular lines you speak).

Oh, and the negative “can’ts” up above?  It’s okay to start with them as long as you translate them into positive verbs, as in “I must resist loving Lizzie” and “I must hide my love from File”.

I Don’t Know If I’m Supposed to Be Submissive or Aggressive in This Scene

Agnes_of_God_GozoAt first blush, you might think that the actress who said this hasn’t got a clue about her character.  I mean, these are polar opposites, right?  They can’t possibly both be right in the same scene.

Actually, her instincts are correct.  The scene is from Agnes of God, pages 23 to 25.  It’s a scene between Agnes and the Mother Superior, two years before Agnes’ pregnancy.  Agnes has stopped eating, because she believes saintliness requires her to be skinny, and she wants to suffer as the saints do.  The Mother Superior is worried about her health and wants her to eat.  Agnes is bound by her vows to obey the Mother Superior, who is also a surrogate mother to her.  But she also feels that she has been instructed by God to lose weight, that unless she does so, he will be angry with her.  She won’t let the Mother Superior overrule God’s instructions.

The actress playing Agnes sensed that she has moments of strength and weakness in the scene, but had trouble sorting out when to use which.  Despite the fact that she had only been working with me about a month at the time, with no prior acting experience, she had learned enough that when I replied by saying, “Submissive or aggressive?  I think you’re on the right track, the only problem is that th . . .”

“They’re adjectives,” she finished for me, shaking her head, vexed at falling into the trap again.

Listen, it’s okay to come up with adjectives and emotions when you are first talking about a scene.  That’s what we respond to as human beings.  The problem comes when we can’t move past them and we use them as the primary guidance for how we play the scene.  No matter how good your instincts are, unless you can build into those emotions by discovering the character’s history and what they want most, playing the emotions will be general and superficial.  You need to clearly understand why THIS particular character is [insert adjective] at THIS particular moment in her life.

So once you’ve identified the emotions or the adjectives that seem appropriate to you, simply translate them into verbs.  As I’ve mentioned before, you do this by asking, “Why would I be submissive?”  The answer?  “Because I’m a nun, and I have to do whatever my Mother Superior says.”  The verb?  To obey.

“Why would I be aggressive?”  “Because she is trying to make me do something that I know is wrong, that God would hate.  I can’t let her force me to eat.”  The verb?  When I asked the actress to tell me what the scene was mostly about for her, she named her verb in response to the idea of being aggressive:  To escape.

These are two strong verbs in opposition.  “To obey” implies, on some level, “to stay”, which is the direct opposite of “to escape.”

When you can find contradictory motivations like these, scenes can become electric as you go back and forth between two opposing needs in one person.  On the one hand, I have to obey her, on the other hand, I have to resist her power and do what I know is right.  The conflict is no longer just between Agnes and the Mother Superior, it is also within Agnes herself.  The tension of what is going on onstage just tripled.

Verbs and Beats — Moonlight and Magnolias

The Face-Off

The Face-Off

I’m posting an excerpt from my Beat/Verb List for “Moonlight and Magnolias”, by Ron Hutchinson.  It’s the only one I seem to have hung onto.  I directed this play, so I’ve included verbs for all of the characters in the beat.  My comments, for your benefit, are in red.

Beat 14 – “Fleming shows up” (Since they’ve been waiting for him, it’s more meaningful than saying “Fleming enters.”  Looking at it now, I wonder why I didn’t include the word “finally”!)

Major:          Fleming (to find out what Selznick wants and get the hell out of here) (As a director, I like to know who “owns” each beat.  I find the “Major” verb first, because that is the one I want to be sure the audience “gets”, and the character who deserves the most attention in the beat.  But if you’ve got a “Minor” verb in the beat, you still want to play it for all its worth.  It’s minor only in the grand scheme of things; not for your character.)
Minor:          Selznick (to tell Fleming what’s going on)
Minor:          Hecht (to fill in the missing pieces)
Minor:          Poppenghul (to do her job)

Beat 15 – “You fired the screenplay?” (This is a line from the play)

Major:          Selznick (to get Fleming on board)
Minor:          Fleming (to make sure he understands what’s going on) (I hate to use words like “make sure”, but I get lazy sometimes about finding a different way of expressing it.  I’m confident that I can play this choice with intensity, so I don’t worry about it.  But you might want to look for a more active choice.)
Minor:          Hecht (to fill in the missing pieces) (Your character’s verb might not change every beat.  Only one character’s verb MUST change.   If no one’s changes, you haven’t got a new beat.)

Beat 16 – “The Face-off” (This adds a physical element to the beat which I may or may not use in performance, but the sense of it should be in the beat when played.)

Major:          Hecht (to defend his abilities)
Minor:          Fleming (to convince Selznick it won’t work)
Minor:          Selznick (to keep the peace)

Beat 17 – “But I digress”

Major:          Hecht (to crack a joke)

Beat 18 – “The rest of the story”

Major:          Selznick (to tell the rest of GWTW)
Minor:          Fleming (to help tell the story)
Minor:          Hecht (to get the story beats)

Beat 19 – “Hecht Rebels, Part I” (Hecht rebels on several occasions throughout the play.  Originally, this was just called “Hecht Rebels” – until I came across the second occasion!)

Major:          Hecht (to convince Selznick he can’t make a movie of GWTW)
Minor:          Selznick (to convince Hecht that he’s wrong)
Minor:          Fleming (to keep things moving)

Beat 20 – “Pulling out the big guns” (This is a ratcheting up of Beat 19, and has an imagery that adds something for me, just as the “The Face-off” did.)

Major:          Hecht (to convince Selznick he’s crazy and will destroy himself)
Minor:          Selznick (to get Hecht to work)
Minor:          Fleming (to get Hecht to work)

Beat 21 – “How can any sane person make sense of it?” (This is NOT a line from the play, but it captures Hecht’s position in this beat.)

Major:          Hecht (to convince Selznick he can’t make a movie of GWTW)
Minor:          Selznick (to get Hecht to work)
Minor:          Fleming (to get Hecht to work)

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.

Harnessing Your Subconscious: Using Tools to Build Layers

LayersWhen you use a tool, you are putting down a layer of your character.  Tools need not be things you carry into your performance.  They usually aren’t.  I wouldn’t, for instance, suggest using the Open Door Reading tool in front of an audience.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a very useful way of exploring the character at certain points in rehearsals.  (I’ll talk about when to use these tools another time.)

This is a very different way of looking at rehearsals than you may be accustomed to.  Many actors I encounter in community theater see rehearsals as a means of reaching a finished performance.  Nailing down choices as soon as possible is the order of the day.

That’s natural.  We want to give a good performance, and we’d like to believe that it’s like putting together a barbecue grill.  You take the parts out of the box and lay them out, so you can be sure you have them all.  You follow the instructions, step by step.  And voilà, you have a barbecue grill that looks like the one in the store!

Acting isn’t like that.  You aren’t painting by numbers here.  You’re creating a characterization that is unique to you.  And every time you do a new play, you start from scratch.  You may develop skills to do this better and faster over time, but even when you become a technically proficient actor, you are still starting from scratch with a new play:  a character you know nothing about in a circumstance which is entirely new to you.

Acting is always a learning process.

Tools are ways to explore the character in all its diversity.  If used properly, they don’t require you to think excessively.  As with any new activity, you have to employ your conscious brain a bit more as you learn the technique, but the better you get at the technique, the less you’ll need to think about it. So please don’t look at the tools as handcuffs that will bind your creativity.  They actually free your creativity.

You don’t have to use all the tools I give you.  I suggest you try them with a certain amount of conscientiousness, simply so that you can understand what they are addressing and decide for yourself if they have anything to offer you.  You may not use them consistently over the course of your acting life; I don’t.  And you may find ways to achieve what they give you that are more effective for you as an individual.  However, doing them as I explain them and repeating them until you’re sure you understand them is a good way to understand the issues involved.

As Davina noted in class, it’s hard to speed up a scene when you’re still focusing on playing your verbs.  It’s hard to focus on playing your verbs when you are trying to receive emotional content from your partner.  It’s hard to do any of them when you are trying to remember your lines.

That’s okay.  That’s how it works.  Remember, your conscious brain doesn’t multi-task well enough to handle this, and in any case, trying to do them all at once means you don’t do any of them particularly well – at this early stage in rehearsals.  And by early stage, I’m talking about the first half of the rehearsal period.  Maybe even the first two-thirds.

“But I know this line should be said this way!”  No, you don’t.  You think you do.  But you’re forcing something on it.  Even if it IS the right choice, you shouldn’t force it.

If you are a very instinctive actor, as I am, it is easy to “know” early on what is right for your character, but the truth is you are only in the ballpark, not on base yet.  It is also true that you will not be correct 100% of the time.  Even if you have fabulous instincts, a good 10-20% of the time there is a much better choice out there waiting for you to discover it.  But if you stick with your “but I know this is right!” ego attitude, you’ll never discover it.

You can always come back to your “right” choice.  But if you’ve explored your other options, you’ll be sure it really is “right”!

To read Layering a Character, go here.

Harnessing Your Subconscious: Layering a Character

Okay, back to the acting tools.  At long last.

The recipe for this yummy lasagne can be found at http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/lasagna/

The tools I am introducing you to are simply ways to input good, focused, intentional data into the computer that is your subconscious.  Practical ways of using the open/closed modes of creativity.  Your subconscious, brilliant synthesizer that it is, discards what doesn’t work and keeps what does.  You don’t have to tell it what to keep most of the time, not that it would really understand anyway.  It just knows what works in context.

Give it plenty of data, and it will know what works in the puzzle that is your character and what doesn’t.

But remember, it does understand frequency.  It equates frequency with desire, and it considers your desires to be more important than what works.  So if you do a scene the same way every time, it will accept your choice.  It will try to compensate as much as it can for any choices that don’t work, but it has limited abilities in this regard, just as it does with your golf swing.  Make a lousy golf swing, and your subconscious can’t make it perfect.  It will just help to give you better results than you would have gotten if your subconscious hadn’t interfered on your behalf.

So how do you run a scene over and over in rehearsals without encountering the frequency problem?

Simple.  You keep coming at the scene from different angles.  You intentionally avoid doing it the same way every time during the first half of the rehearsal period.

If you can successfully “stay in the moment” – which, as I’ve said elsewhere, is much harder to do than you probably imagine – then by definition, what you’re doing will always be different.  But “staying in the moment” in the first rehearsals isn’t enough.  Later, yes.  But early on?  No.

A really interesting, creative, complex characterization is composed of “layers”.  When we talk about people being complicated, we liken them to onions.  Every time you peel away another layer, you find some different and unexpected aspect to their character underneath.

lasagne 4As an actor, you build a character in reverse, by putting down layer after layer.  You’re taking an unfinished piece of furniture and doing some complex faux finish work.  You sand it, you prime it, you sand again, you paint, you wipe, you paint again, you distress it, etc.  But you put down those layers one at a time.  You examine different aspects of your character’s relationships, needs, worries, desires, etc., individually – with your conscious brain (aided by your subconscious) – but you let your subconscious put the layers together.

When you are examining the components of a given layer, you are free to ignore the other layers.  When you are able to do this, you are giving high quality, focused attention to whatever you’re working on.  Whatever you’re ignoring this time, you’ll pay attention to some other time!

To read Using Tools to Build Layers, go here.