On Staying in the Moment


Hamilton The Musical is my current obsession, and so I came across the above interview with five of the cast members.  Scroll down and you’ll find Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, talking about the moment every night when Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, hurls the insult that causes Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel and ultimately, to kill him, simultaneously ending his own political career.

“Every night, I’m looking for it in his eyes — I want him to make different decisions. I want it to end differently.”

When you are so in the moment and caught up in what your character is feeling that you actually want what your character wants, hope for it to be so, even though you know it can’t happen any other way — that is truly being in the moment.

Also interesting to note:  how they deal with the different energies that audiences bring with them to the performance, and how they continue to develop and understand their characters over time (and they’ve been working with the show for at least a year now).



Pacing: Speed vs. Connection

I went to see a new play this weekend, a respectable work a friend of mine was in.  The cast, while largely amateurs, were talented people with respectable acting resumes.  It was an enjoyable afternoon.

Still, I left the theater wondering whether a different cast would have erased some of my concerns about the play.

The play, in parts, was a little more about telling than about showing.  The good news is that the telling was pretty interesting (which doesn’t mean that it was the best choice dramatically-speaking).  But I couldn’t help but wonder if greater connection between the characters might have made me less concerned about this aspect of the play.

I actually have greater success working with new actors than I do with actors who have experience, because actors assume that because they have done ten plays, they are good at what they do.  Why would they continue to be cast if they weren’t?

Why?  Because they audition better than everyone else.  Or because while they are still falling short, they have enough natural talent that, in community theater, they are still better than the competition.

Don’t get me wrong — there are some FABULOUS actors in community theater.  I grew up in NJ community theater and can attest to that.  And the people in the show this past weekend are all talented actors.  But being a talented actor doesn’t mean you know how to make the best use of your talent.

And unfortunately, talented actors who don’t know how to make the best use of their talent will resist the notion that they have something to learn until something causes them to wake up.  For me, back in the days when I was a young actor going to professional auditions, it was a callback audition where I felt outclassed by the competition.  Finally, I had encountered people who not only were more skilled than I was, but who I was willing to acknowledge were better than I was.  For me, in that moment, the obvious question was, “How do I get to be that good?”  (And the obvious answer was, go to school.)

But okay, not everyone is ready to do that.  FIne.

disconectedLet’s talk about the most common “miss” I see from talented actors:

It has do with pacing.

Directors usually harp on their actors to “pick up the pace.”  With good reason; actors can be self-indulgent.  The trick, as an actor, is to tread the fine line between feeling connected to the moment and keeping the play moving.

Rehearsing is breaking the scene down into slower moments so you can get in touch with what is going on emotionally, and then speeding up that experience as much as you can while staying connected to the emotion as well as your scene partners.

The problem comes in that most actors are doing the serious work on these moments at home, without anyone to disturb them.  As a result, the work becomes a solo act, not a scene between two characters.  Each actor walks into the rehearsal room with some pre-conceived ideas about what should be happening in this scene.  And that is where the scene stays, for them.

It looks pretty good.  And it sounds pretty good.  It really does.  But the problem is that there is nothing really happening between actors (and therefore the characters) onstage.  So the story is well told, but no one’s heart is moved.  In order to move an audience emotionally, you must directly connect with your scene partner and let the audience join in that connection.

That connection comes in the spaces between the words.  Pacing is all well and good, but when the spaces are full of emotion, they don’t slow down the play.  Too often, I see good actors rushing through a scene.

To connect with your scene partner in a way that electrifies an audience means listening to and receiving the emotions your scene partner is sending your way.  Really receiving and reacting only to what you receive.  And vice versa.  It means living those spaces, not speeding through them at 70 mph.

This is why I ask all my actors to do the Mystery Play exercise.  It forces the actor to listen and react.  If you’re paying attention, you can clearly understand the difference between what you’ve been doing and what really moves an audience, and why rushing, no matter how well orchestrated, is insufficient.

2015 Actor’s Renaissance Season: Top 5

From an actor at my favorite theater in the world. Given that we’ve been talking about script analysis lately, check out #3 for a good example of how lines in different parts of the script impact each other and how even good, trained actors don’t necessarily see the connections immediately.  This is also an example of Diamond Lines.  Isn’t it funny that you can have Diamond Lines that you somehow completely miss?  It’s a V-8 moment when the penny finally drops, and you are so grateful!  And oh, yes — read the rest of the post, too. Worth your time!


The Actor’s Renaissance Season is an experience unlike any other in the American Theatre, both for the audience and the actors involved in creating it. Eleven actors. Five plays. Three months. Zero directors.

The 2015 Actor’s Renaissance Actors featured these plays:

  1. THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by William Shakespeare (1591)
  2. THE ROVER by Aphra Behn (1677)
  3. THE WHITE DEVIL by John Webster (1612)
  4. EVERY MAN IN HIS HUMOR by Ben Jonson (1598)
  5. MOTHER BOMBIE by John Lily (1594)

In the Actor’s Renaissance Season, there are two levels of “Staging Conditions” applied to the plays. The first level relates to performance:

  • We perform with the lights on, so you can see other patrons, and the performers can see you
  • We perform in a thrust at the beautiful Blackfriars Playhouse, so you can sit right on stage
  • We use cross-gender casting, and all actors plays multiple characters in the same play
  • We…

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Actor’s Etiquette: When Things Go Wrong (and They Will)

10648110-got-etiquette-shirtThings don’t always happen the way they are supposed to on stage, beyond the matter of whether or not you remember your lines.  Props don’t get placed, or they’re in the wrong place.  Things break.  Sound cues go awry.  What’s an actor to do?

The first thing, as with dropped lines, is not to panic.  There is always a way out or around the problem, even if it’s not ideal.  It’s easier to deal with than dropped lines or forgotten entrances, because you can generally speaking stick fairly close to the script without anyone suddenly feeling lost.

Here’s a common one that often is mishandled:  Something falls to the ground:  an earring, a potato chip, a pencil.  No one retrieves it, because (a) it’s not in the script and (b) they’re afraid of disrupting the play, because they have to move several feet out of position to retrieve the object.  They might have to move on someone else’s speech, and they want to be polite to their fellow actors.

If you don’t retrieve it, the audience will obsess over it:  “Are they going to pick it up?”  “What if someone steps on it accidentally?”  “Why aren’t they picking it up?

Why, indeed?  Wouldn’t you pick it up if this was real life?

I rest my case.

In reality, moments like these are great opportunities to show that you really are “staying in the moment” and add a degree of verisimilitude to the scene.  Don’t let them pass you by!  Take the challenge!

I once played Madame Arcati in Blithe Spirit.  The “seance” scene requires a certain number of chairs, and one night, I realized in the middle of the scene that we were short one.  Not a problem:  I suggested to my host that we needed one more chair given how many people we were, and perhaps he’d be so kind as to fetch an extra from the dining room.  I filled the gap when he went to fetch the chair with some plausible conversation, and the very practical problem was addressed without the audience being aware of any problem.

Need to pick up that earring?  You can do so while still staying in character and listening to what’s going on in the scene.  If it’s your line, that’s even better.  Covering unusual moments while you are the one speaking gives you full control over the situation, and you can add dialogue as necessary to make it seamless and get yourself back into position.

But what about things that are material to the plot that go wrong, things over which you have no control?  Missed sound and light cues, for instance?

The doorbell is supposed to ring, and it doesn’t?  How about, “Did you hear something?  It sounds like there’s someone outside.”  Say this while being generally puzzled and concerned about why there would be someone at your door who isn’t ringing the bell, and the audience will never know the sound cue was missed.  (These are adjectives, but the underlying verb might be something like “to worry about one’s security at home.”)

Does the phone ring too early?  Not a problem, answer it, ask the party to hold, and finish the necessary lines before beginning the phone call section of the script.  Does the phone not ring when it should?  Call the other person yourself, or create dialogue or activity that will wake up the sound booth, if only by the fact that you’re doing something that isn’t in the script.  Or, if you can, find a way to incorporate the information conveyed by the phone call (“By the way, I spoke to Joe earlier today, he said he’ll be here around 3:00, which is in ten minutes.”)

Of course, sometimes things just go wrong, and there is nothing to be done except to pretend that the mishap didn’t occur.  Does the gun not go off?  Just pretend it did and fall down dead.  The audience knows we live in an imperfect world and that this is, after all, a play, not real life.  It may deflate the drama a bit, but they’ll forgive you.  As with the missed line issue — audiences appreciate the professional effort to deal with the unexpected.


The Triumverate of No-Nos: Anticipation

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are three ways to violate the principle of Staying In The Moment:  Anticipation, Telegraphing, and I Don’t Believe It.

One way out of the cumbersome transitions I talked about last time is to anticipate what is coming next.  It’s not a good way out, but it’s one actors often take.

Anticipating comes in two forms.  One is doing the cumbersome transition (the one that takes several seconds rather than a split second), but starting it early, so that the flow of the play isn’t interrupted.

The other way of anticipating is doing the split second reaction, but doing it during your partner’s line, but before the pertinent information is revealed.

For instance, in Alan Ayckbourn’s Table Manners, there is the following sequence of lines:

        Sarah:  Annie!  You’re getting dreadfully coarse.

        Annie:  Oh, you’re just a prude.

        Sarah:  No, I’m not a prude.

Annie’s line is not only in direct response to Sarah’s first line, it is in response to the LAST word in the line, “coarse.”  Similarly, Sarah’s second line is in direct response to the LAST word in Annie’s line, “prude”.  Neither actress can react appropriately until her partner’s line has been completed.  Yet it’s very easy for an actress playing Annie to begin to roll her eyes in the middle of Sarah’s line, and for the actress playing Sarah to begin to be affronted in the middle of Annie’s line.

When you do that, you are receiving mail that hasn’t been sent yet.  You are anticipating the word you know is coming.  You know the meaning of the whole sentence, because you’ve got the script.  You, the actor, know what’s coming, but the character doesn’t.  The character has to wait for the clarity that comes with the important words in each sentence, “coarse” and “prude”.  Only then can she respond, because without them, there is nothing to respond to.

Imagine if Sarah only said, “Annie, you’re getting dreadfully . . .” and didn’t finish the sentence.  Annie might say, “Dreadfully what?”  Or she might say, “Oh, you’re just a prude”, having figured out what the missing word probably would have been (she knows Sarah fairly well, after all), but it would have taken a moment or two for her to figure out where Sarah was going with the line.

Similarly, if Annie had said, “Oh, you’re just . . .”, Sarah might have said, “I’m just what?  What am I?  Go on, say it.  You can’t start a sentence like that and not finish it!  What am I?”  But it is unlikely that she would have figured out that Annie had intended to call her a prude.

In order to avoid the anticipation problem, you have to figure out exactly when your character receives whatever message your character receives that makes her do or say whatever she does or says next and not let it affect you until that moment.  In the case above, it happens at the very end of the cue line.

Imagine the dog above, waiting for its master to come home.  A dog with expectations will hold its position until the expectation is met.  So should you wait for the key words that move you into the next part of the play.

But let’s say you have a lengthy speech, and halfway through it, you say something that really irritates me.  Now, you’re one of those people who knows how to keep talking in such a way that it is difficult for someone to interrupt you, so I keep quiet until you’re finished.  Or perhaps what you say is so upsetting that I need the rest of your speech to figure out how to respond to it.  Or perhaps I try to interrupt you without success.  Whatever choice I make, the source of the irritation – the thorn in my side – shows up in the middle of your speech, and that’s when it has to begin to affect me – not at the end of the speech.

These are two different issues.  The first example is one of anticipation; the second would be its opposite – to fail to react at the appropriate moment, but rather to wait until it’s my turn to speak.  Both are wrong, but they have entirely different causes.  I bring up the second to emphasize the real lesson here, which is to let things affect you at the moment that they hit you – not before, and not after, but instead at the very moment they enter your character’s consciousness.

In case you’d like to see how the actresses handle the moment, here’s the start of Table Manners.  The lines in question show up around the 6:30 mark, but if you watch it all, I think you’ll see how they wait to receive the input from the other before they react.  Sometimes the response is instantaneous, but it is never early.



A Word About “Staying in the Moment” Onstage

Writing about acting is challenging.  It is difficult to be precise enough to be sure you’re receiving what I’m trying to communicate.  In trying to write the final posts on the topic of “How to Use the Tools”, I keep finding things that I think you need to understand first if I can hope for you to really “get” what I mean about the tools.  So please forgive me if I take another detour for a few posts.

What I really want to talk about is rehearsals, but I think what I have to say might have a little more clarity if I first talk a little bit more about the concept of “staying in the moment.”

I think both of these concepts are easily misunderstood, albeit for slightly different reasons.  Shifting your perspective from what you are “sure of” is necessary if you’re going to improve as an actor, but it’s a very difficult shift.  And here’s why.

child“Staying in the moment”, whether it be as an actor or an athlete or anything else you may do, is very difficult.  Heck, it’s supremely difficult to do just as a human being.  People spend years studying Buddhism, in part, to learn to do just that.  It’s a lifetime journey, and it’s still difficult to do it consistently at the end of it.  But it is what produces quality work (or a quality life) of any kind.

Why is it so difficult to do something that came so naturally to us as very young children?  Well, that’s a topic for someone else’s blog, and a lengthy one at that.  Let’s just accept that after a certain, far-too-young age, it uniformly is.  We may think we are in the “Now”, but we’re usually in the Past, or the Future, or both, occasionally flickering through the Present, but never for very long.

I know many people who tell me they’ve tried to meditate, but they just can’t seem to do it, to “stop thinking”.  Well, those thoughts all belong to the Past or the Future, not the Present.  A clear indication that you can’t possibly live in the Now very much.  In fact, it’s been suggested that we spend 95% of our time OUT of the Now!

Because we aren’t very good at staying in the moment in our real lives, most of us don’t possess the natural ability to do so on stage, either.  A few lucky ones do, right from the beginning.  They are exceptionally gifted, although I will wager that over time, they will start thinking a little too much and will have to learn how to be in the moment all the time.  But because they are gifted, they will be able to learn this fairly quickly.

A slightly larger portion of the population can stay in the moment sporadically despite having no training.  I’m in that group.  When I was younger, I gave performances when I was in the moment, and performances when I wasn’t.  And while I knew which performances were more successful, I had no idea why, and I certainly had no control over when it happened.  Sometimes I got lucky, and sometimes I felt like I was in a paper bag, trying to push my way out.

I learned how to control it one night in scene class.  I had done the scene the week before, and I had nailed it.  My scene partner hadn’t, though, and so we worked on it for another week.  And this time I was awful.  I was trying so hard to recapture my brilliance of the previous week (my first mistake) and was failing miserably.  It wasn’t a terrible performance, in the grand scheme of things, but it utterly lacked the spontaneity and charm of the previous week.  Afterward, my teacher explained to me what had happened, and I suddenly got it.  I had the ability to put two performances of the same scene side-by-side, and to compare what was going on internally in each.  I suddenly not only understood the difference between a perfectly serviceable but uninspired performance and a great one, I also knew what caused each and how to actively pursue the great one.

But most of the population who acts for fun or profit does not, at least initially, have the ability to stay in the moment, and your ability to learn how to do this on your own is limited.  The odds are very good that you need at least a little assistance in this regard.

ChairWhy?  Because we have dualistic brains.  We know what we know because we can compare and contrast it with other things.  A chair is not only a chair because it is like other chairs, it is a chair because it is not a table.  Because it is not a teddy bear.  Or a paper clip.

So it’s difficult to know what “staying in the moment” is like if you can’t compare it to “not staying in the moment”.  If you’ve never had someone do you the favor my acting teacher did for me that day, and say (effectively, although in much kinder terms), “What you did last week was fantastic, but this week was crap,” you may only be able to have a general sense of what “staying in the moment” might mean.  But not a real understanding.

I think I’ve told you that I have occasion, now and then, to chat with fellow actors about acting, and if the phrase “staying in the moment” comes up, they will nod sagely, as if they not only know precisely what it means, they practice it conscientiously every time they are on stage.  And I know they sincerely believe this, but I’ve also seen their work, and so I also know that they manage to dance through the moment periodically, but to never stay there for any period of time.

Not their fault.  They really think they’re working correctly, and until they decide that there might be a better “them” yet to discover, they won’t learn what “staying in the moment” really means.  Because it doesn’t mean concentrating only on what is happening on stage, without regard for your shopping list or the fact that you forgot to pick up your dry cleaning this afternoon.

“Concentrating” and “staying in the moment” are not the same thing.  It is perfectly possible to fully concentrate and still be completely focused on yourself and your own performance.  It is perfectly possible to look your scene partner in the eye without wavering and still be completely focused on yourself and your own performance.  And when you are focused on yourself and your own performance, it is nearly impossible to stay in the moment.

To read What Are Rehearsals For? Part I, go here.  To read Part II, go here.  To read Part III, go here.

Act Without Expectation

I found this quote from Lao Tzu, the author of the Tào Té Chīng, on a t-shirt at Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario, Canada.  It captures all that we are talking about in terms of feeling your emotions without censoring or judging them, and responding to what you get from your scene partner.

The exercise we did in the last class of 2013 – reading from “sides” – is all about acting without expectation.  All you knew was the name of your character and her relationship with the other character (“friends”).  You knew nothing about the play – what it was about, where the scene was taking place, what had preceded it in time.  You knew nothing about your character – her age, her wants, her background.  All you had were her words, but even those were a surprise to you as the scene went along, because I didn’t let you read them ahead of time!  You had no idea what the other character was going to say to you, because sides only show you your lines.  And so you couldn’t form expectations in advance, although you probably were quite busy making them as the scene progressed!

You began the exercise just trying to say your lines on time, but by the end had begun to listen to your partner speak.  I hope that part of what you got out of the experience was a sense of how much you can learn about a scene from what you get from the other person.  Because you didn’t know what was coming, you had to pay closer attention to what you were getting from her.  Not only did you listen to what she was saying to you, suddenly how she was saying it became more important.

Why does the “how” matter?  Let’s say that you’re walking across the street and someone pushes you from behind, so firmly that you stumble forward several steps before you can steady yourself to turn and see who it was who gave you that shove.  You are probably a little irritated that you’ve been shoved, but you can’t really know how to respond or to whom your anger should be directed until you turn around and evaluate the situation.

If you turn around and see someone you’ve never met grinning with an evil look, because he pushed you just for the hell of it, you’ll feel one way.  But if you see your long lost brother, who was simply trying to get your attention, you’ll feel another way.

If you discover there was an out-of-control skateboarder who came out of nowhere, and the person behind you was just shoving you out of the way, you’ll feel a third way.  But if you see that a brutal fight erupted between two gangs and you were knocked by one of the fighters, you’ll feel a fourth way.

Until you know what you’re getting from the other people on the street, you can’t know how to react.  The emotions that arise in you as a result of that shove don’t come with the shove – they come after the fact, once you are able to put the shove into context.  On stage, how words are said puts them into context, and you must let how they are said “land” on you.  In other words, you must “receive” before you can “react”.  Most untrained actors skip receiving and move directly to reacting.

Of course, it’s easier to wait to get input in real life, when the future is unknown.  On stage, you’re at a disadvantage.  Not only do you know what happens next in the scene, you’ve rehearsed it many times.  You have to train yourself to stop thinking ahead and instead pay attention to what you are ACTUALLY getting from your scene partner – NOT what you got from him the last time you did this scene.

lao tzuWhen you listen not just to the words someone else says, but also to how they are saying it, you have something to react to.  You react to their emotions, their needs, their demands on you.  You empathize or dismiss them; solve or ignore; acquiesce or deny.  But whatever you do, whatever you say and how you say it, it is directly related to what you are getting from the other people in your life, right at that particular moment.

There is more to be said about this, but now is a good time to remember that very helpful guideline when it comes to acting:

Don’t do anything or say anything until a need arises in you to do or say something.  And if that means waiting for that need to arise in you – do!

See The Hardest Part of Acting here.  See The Open Door Reading here.

The Hardest Part of Acting

As with most complicated activities, acting can be distilled into a few simple concepts.  If we could only fulfill these simple requirements, 90% of the job would be done.  Well, 80%, anyway.

The easiest thing to do is to play the verbs.  It’s very challenging in the beginning, but far and away is the easiest thing to learn.  Once you get the hang of it, it’s very freeing and very easy.

The next easiest thing to do is to allow emotions to flow through you without constraint and without censoring them.  It’s about a willingness to leave the door open to whatever emotions may arise in the course of a play, to give them freedom to exist fully, and to allow them to dissipate naturally.  And to let them be no matter how personally uncomfortable they may be.  It’s an art learned over time.  (More on this in another post.)

But the third concept, hands down, is the toughest to do:  to react ONLY to what you receive from your acting partners.

Reacting means giving up complete control of what comes out of you, and to let it be guided strictly by what you receive from whomever is in the scene with you.

No one wants to do this.  We ALL want to control our own destiny.  We want to actively create our performance.  We have all sorts of ideas about what we should be doing when.

Throw them out.  All of them.  (Well, not all.  But for our purposes right now, yes, toss them all.)

Portrait of the young woman blindfoldYour job is to listen to your scene partner as if you’ve never heard these lines before, as if you know NOTHING about what happens in the play.  Stop looking at the play as if you are an English student  writing a paper on it.  Pretend you know nothing about the other characters’ motives or what happens later in the play.  Let yourself be surprised by whatever they do, and react to what you get.

It’s a difficult task, but not impossible.  As with all new activities, it won’t happen overnight.  Be grateful, initially, if it happens a few times during a scene.  That’s a huge accomplishment, it really is!  As you practice it, you’ll find it happens more and more frequently.  And you’ll gradually learn how to put yourself into a state of mind that makes it easier and gives you the best shot at doing it throughout a scene.  When you’re in “the zone”, listening and reacting mostly takes care of itself.

But initially, you need a third party – a teacher or a director – to help you identify when you are reacting to what you are getting from your scene partner as opposed to when you are controlling the scene.  Actors are often convinced they are listening and reacting when, in fact, they aren’t.  They don’t realize the extent to which they are anticipating the next moment until I point it out.  The first time they look puzzled, but do the scene again.  The second time they give a guilty giggle, as they recognize what I’m talking about.  The third time out, they start to see just how hard this is to do, and I see the “Oh my God, this is really hard!” flicker through their eyes.

It is.  Just not impossible.

See Act Without Expectation here.  See The Open Door Reading here.