A Few Thoughts on Blocking

You-Cant-Take-It-With-You-5281-701187I just got back from AACTFest 2015 and am reflecting on a couple of questions a director from Rochester asked me after the Blocking Workshop I gave on Friday:

  • Is it wrong to have an actor move when someone else is speaking?
  • What if you need an actor to move, but you have no good reason for him to move?

The questions arose, in part, in response to comments I had made about not moving when it is someone else’s “scene” and the need to have a reason to move, be it emotional or practical.  Let me address them in reverse order.

Anyone who has directed a play has encountered a moment when you realize that Actor A needs to be in Position B for one line and Position C for a line that follows, but you have no good way of getting him there.  You backtrack to see if there is another way to block the scene to eliminate the problem.  You try three different options, but none of them are satisfactory — either none of them solve the problem, or else you lose more than you gain.  There’s no real choice — Actor A has to move on another actor’s line when he has no real need to move.  What to do?

In a perfect world, you want to find a reason for him to move, because people just don’t move without a reason.  But the reason doesn’t have to be important or even material to the play.  Have you ever spotted a pin or a penny on the floor and picked it up?  Found something in your pocket you want to throw out and walked to the wastebasket to do just that?  No reason why you can’t have your actors do that.  Adds a bit of verisimilitude to the scene.  Done slowly enough and with minimal motion, it shouldn’t disrupt the scene, especially if the actor is carefully paying attention to what is being said at the time.  His focus on the speaker while he moves actually redirects the audience’s eyes back to the speaker.  Clearly, they think, the speaker must be saying something important!

But let’s say that there is no wastebasket and bending over would be just a little too distracting at that point in the play.  It’s not unheard of for someone to take a step or two for the simple reason that they are tired of standing in one spot.  Even without the excuse that the character wants to lean against the piece of furniture a few steps away, moving just to physically change position is fairly normal.  Is the speaker saying something that Actor A needs to consider?  Sometimes pacing helps people to think, and taking a few steps while pondering what the speaker is asking looks entirely believable to the audience.

Worst case, have the actor slowly sidle to the new location.  It’s unlikely the audience will notice it happening unless he is standing directly behind the speaker.

Which brings us back to the first concern:  is it a bad choice to have an actor move on anyone’s line but his own?

Well, there are times when it is entirely appropriate to do so.  Say there are five of us in the room plotting a bank robbery.  We’ve been going through a dry run, and the lady of the household arrives home with the groceries.  I’m the leader of the gang, and I start shouting out orders, telling everyone what to pick up and where to hide it, so she won’t know what we’re doing.  Everyone should be moving while I speak in that scenario.

But let’s say it’s a domestic scenario with a husband and wife.  Here’s my rule of thumb about virtually everything that happens on stage in a realistic play:  Does it happen in real life?  That is, in real life, do people walk when other people are talking?

Of course they do.  If it happens in real life, it can happen on stage.  Do it in a very real, natural way that does not distract from the important stuff in the play, and it will probably enhance the believability of the scene.

Having said that, there are times when you shouldn’t walk on someone else’s line.  I’m sure it’s not a comprehensive list, but here’s some examples:

  • Important plot points are being revealed.  For instance, in a murder mystery, you want to make sure the audience hears the red herrings.  Don’t do anything to interfere with that.  On the other hand, feel free to muffle the real clues just a little by some sort of sleight of hand — tossing it off as entirely unimportant or covering it with some sort of distracting physical action — not enough so the audience doesn’t hear it, but enough so they don’t think it matters.
  • Very dramatic or very funny moments.  Someone is telling you about their rape twenty years ago?  Don’t move a muscle.  There’s some funny shtick going on?  Keep still.  Someone is giving the punchline?  Hold your breath until two seconds after it’s finished.
  • When your action is big.  A simple short cross is often not a problem.  Nor are physical activities (business) that make sense for your character.  But anything too involved will draw the audience’s focus.  Make sure that whatever you’re doing is less interesting than what the speakers are doing and saying.  That way, if the audience looks at you, they think, “Oh, that’s believable” and not “Wow, that’s a lot more interesting than what the leads are doing!”

When should you walk on someone’s line?  Draggy scenes or extended exposition.  If these have stayed in the play to publication, it’s probably because no one — neither the playwright nor the original director — could figure out how to write the play without them.  Kind of like you with the actor stuck behind the chair when you need him over by the table!  Bail the playwright out by providing visual interest so the exposition won’t go down like bad-tasting medicine!

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.


Actor’s Etiquette: Speed

0958_MA_49_Set EtiquetteFootball season is upon us.  Success in college football does not guarantee success in the NFL.  Why?  Speed.  The NFL game is faster.  Why?  The NFL has the crème de la crème.  It’s spread out in college, but the quality of the players is more concentrated on the professional level.  As a result, everything is faster and sharper.

Understand that speed, in acting, has nothing to do with pauses.  Eliminating pauses does not contribute the kind of speed I’m talking about.  Speed can shorten the pauses without taking away their power, but speed never means cutting them out entirely.  It means not being self-indulgent about our “moments”.  It means interrupting on time, not a beat too late.  It means entering promptly.  It means speaking more quickly than you might ordinarily.

Speed can be a reflection of high energy, but they are not identical and you can’t substitute one for the other.  Speed means that the audience can feel the momentum of the piece.  It’s like wanting to get a drink from the kitchen while you’re watching TV.  Do you wait for the next commercial, or do you think  you can get in and out of the kitchen without missing much?  (In a world without Tivo, that is.)

Speed means that things are going quickly enough that you would indeed miss something if you went to the refrigerator.

Speed, Energy, and Volume ARE interrelated.  If you don’t have energy, your volume will be down.  Try to intentionally pump up your volume, you’ll automatically increase your energy.  If you don’t have energy, you won’t have speed.  Intentionally increase your speed (you may feel like you’re forcing it, but that can be okay), and energy will follow.

Actor’s Etiquette: Energy

etiquette_class_book2Every show you do requires high energy.  That’s obvious (I hope!) for a show like The 39 Steps or Noises Off.  It’s less obvious for Waiting for Godot or Our Town.  If you don’t bring your best energy to a performance, it will suffer.  Low energy is contagious and will infect the rest of the cast.  It will infect the audience, too.

The reverse is also true.  An audience that arrives tired will not respond well and that will affect the performance, since actors and audience work together to create the experience.  But you can’t do anything about what the audience brings.  You can, however, be sure that you bring your best energy.

Good acting can be tiring – for you, not for the audience!  When acting, we ought to be operating with a heightened awareness of what is going on, and that requires unrelenting attentiveness.  Let your focus drop for a few seconds, and it takes longer than a few seconds to get it back.  This kind of attentiveness has a palpable energy to it; it gives power to your performance and keeps the audience involved.

Life on stage is NOT ordinary, nor should you treat it as such in the name of “believability”.  “Naturalness” on stage is not the same thing as “casual”.  Even film acting, which requires you to be much “smaller” about what you do since the camera can get right in your face, needs to be supported by a strong and consistent “electrical” current (if you will).

high voltageHow can you be sure to bring your best energy on stage?  Alan Alda does about two minutes of some sort of aerobic exercise just before he goes on stage, and there is scientific evidence that this helps you to perform any physical activity (and acting should be very physical) better.  For one thing, it engages both sides of your brain in synchronicity.  For another, it gets your blood pumping and wakes up your body.

It’s difficult to bring energy on stage with you if you’ve just spent fifteen minutes sitting in your dressing room or the Green Room.  If you’ve ever been to a performance that took five or ten minutes to get off the ground, low energy is probably the culprit.  Better to warm up your engine off stage, before you meet the audience.

How can you best do this?  Obviously, you don’t want to get yourself winded (unless that’s appropriate for your “moment before”.)  Being in good shape physically will make it easier to engage in physical activity that will “wake you up” without leaving you breathless, but if you aren’t, use your own judgment.  Dancing, shadow-boxing, and jumping jacks are some choices that can rev your engine in limited space.

It’s not just about what you bring on stage when you enter, however.  You’ve got to retain that energy throughout the performance, and that requires vigilance, especially on the days that your fellow actors seem drained or you yourself are.  I know there are times when I can’t seem to get my engine past 55 mph, metaphorically speaking, when I really need to be flying at 70 or 80 mph (for comedies in particular)!

When that happens, you have to keep pushing yourself, and remember what the experience is like for you when you DO have the right level of energy.  By recollecting that and measuring tonight’s performance against it, you have something clear to drive toward – even if I can’t quite make it to 70, I can usually get myself above 60 through sheer will . . .

The matter of energy is tied in with speed, which I’ll talk about in the next Actor’s Etiquette post.

Actor’s Etiquette: Deliberate Practice

10648110-got-etiquette-shirtDeliberate Practice, done in solitude, creates elite performers, says research psychologist Anders Ericsson.  What does that mean to an actor, who mostly performs with at least one other person on stage?  How can we, as actors, use Deliberate Practice outside of the classroom?

The fact that athletes in team sports also often spend unusual amounts of time in solitary practice caught my attention, because it’s the most comparable situation to an actor’s.  Yes, a violinist in an orchestra is working on a “team”, but he can practice his part in solitude more effectively than an actor can.  How what he does blends with the rest of the orchestra is secondary to what he does alone.

In football, wide receivers are dependent on their quarterbacks to throw them the ball, but that doesn’t mean that they can only get better by working with their QB.  Jerry Rice’s off-season workouts are legendary; Cris Carter last caught a ball in the NFL in 2002, but he’s caught thousands of them off of automatic throwing machines, and can still catch them one-handed (either hand).  Both Rice and Carter did an extraordinary amount of Deliberate Practice.  Which is one reason why they are in the Hall of Fame.

Monologue work is an obvious choice.  They are incredibly difficult to do well, as I’ll discuss in some distant future.  We do not ordinarily talk to ourselves in the way characters talk to themselves.  When we talk to ourselves, we mumble, or half of it is verbal and half in our heads.  None of which is interesting to watch on stage.

Monologues delivered to the audience are also tough, because they tend to become speeches.  We don’t speak to audiences the way we speak to best friends, and yet that is often exactly what is required.  Learning how to achieve this sort of natural behavior in a very unnatural circumstance is difficult and takes a lot of practice.

If you can learn to do it, however, you’ll find there is a lot of transference to your group acting skills.  The one clue I’ll give you is that the primary question I ask myself as an actor these days is, “Did I just sound like a human being?”  Often, in monologues directed to the audience, there are particular lines that just sound unnatural, and I have to work hard to overcome that.

You can see why casting directors like monologues.  They separate the men from the boys, as it were.

Monologues can only do so much, however.  There are a lot more of them available now than there was when I was growing up.  In fact, I don’t think I did much in the way of monologues until I was a teenager looking to audition.  So what was my form of Deliberate Practice, growing up?

I’ve read a lot of plays.  I mean, A LOT of plays.  Wanting to act is something I was born with, and once I discovered that there were plays out there, I got my hands on every script I could find, largely through libraries when I was in school.  Once I branched out into community theater, I discovered that there were playscripts I could borrow from friends or perhaps find in used bookstores.  Once I had more discretionary  income, I started buying scripts.

I didn’t just read them.  I read them over and over.  I identified characters in them (not always female) that appealed to me, and analyzed them, tried to figure out what made them tick, practiced their lines, tried to make them sound as natural as possible, while still being interesting.  I spent as much time with them as many actors do with their characters in rehearsal.  Enough time that I could see the links between the line in the third act and something that happened in the first.

I read old plays and new plays, classics and predictable modern comedies.  I read bad plays and good plays.  I learned why the good ones were good and the bad ones bad.  I figured out what playwrights had done to give me good material, and what was missing when they hadn’t.  I thought about how I could help disguise their lack, and how I could dig further into the complex characters so that I could show all of their complexity.  I worked to go beyond the obvious and find original ways to present my characters while staying true to them.  I learned how to read the text and let it speak to me without laying my trite perceptions on it.

I played hundreds of characters in my bedroom.  My first readings were about showing off and enjoying whatever attracted me to the character.  But I got pretty serious after that, working on the character as if I was actually going to play it, and doing all the work I still do in rehearsals.

Over and over again.

My sense is that many of my students, even the more ones, often don’t read a lot of plays, much less do the rest of what I’ve just described.  That’s unfortunate, because I think studying scripts is a huge part of actor’s form of Deliberate Practice.  Yes, I was born with a certain instinctive ability to sense what is going on with a character, but the work that I’ve described has most definitely helped me to become the actor I am today.

As with anything you want to do well – there are no shortcuts to putting in the time.

Actor’s Etiquette: How Do I Get Better?

But I want to be great!  Shouldn’t director help me get there?

Let me circle back through the last two posts and revisit the issue of young (or old, or anywhere in between) actors learning their craft.

You don’t learn it on the job.  All right, you do, because if you are paying attention and working hard, every bit of practice you get is going to help you to be better than you were yesterday.  (Entirely possible to practice and not get better, as we’ve talked about and which I’ll touch on more down the road when I talk about overactors and underactors.)

But the rehearsal hall isn’t the primary place you will learn your craft.  I’ve written about this in the past, but it bears repeating.

A craft, according to Merriam-Webster, is something requiring special skill.  Now, craft originally referred to making something with your hands, like woodworkers, silversmiths, and potters.  Think of any artisan – it takes a lot of practice to get good at that skill.  Bricklayers make it look like the easiest thing in the world, but if you’ve ever tried to build a wall yourself, you’ll realize that theirs is an ease borne of laying (and relaying) thousands of bricks.

Move into the arts, and you will see similar repetition.  Painters don’t just have a vision they want to commit to canvas or paper – they need to learn how to use the brush, which one to use when, how to mix the colors, etc.  A violinist has to learn how to bow, how to pick, how to find the right place to hold the strings (violins have no frets), etc.  Watercolorists throw out a lot of paper while they learn to blend washes, and musicians play a lot of scales in practice, not just concertos with the orchestra.

In other words, they have a myriad of skills they must acquire in service of creating the final product.

The fact that we are human beings and know how to walk and talk doesn’t mean that we automatically know how to act on stage, although I think some people imagine it does.  Acting is a craft, too, and requires special attention simply because the most obvious “skills” it uses are walking and talking.

I’m reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and she talks about Anders Ericsson, a research psychologist who studies “how . . . extraordinary achievers get to be so great at what they do.”  Solo violinists, grandmaster chess players, elite athletes – they all spend unusual amounts of time in solitary practice.

“In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement.  When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly.  Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful – they’re counterproductive.  They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them.”  [Quiet, p. 81.)

So what is Deliberate Practice for actors?

It’s not going to rehearsal.  In rehearsal, you are only focusing on getting this character in this play right – you aren’t identifying what you aren’t good at and trying to get better at it in a global sense.

Because acting is largely a group activity, we use technique and scene classes as a means of working on our skills and developing a craft, and I strongly recommend them to you, in whatever form you can find them.  Even working on scenes with a fellow actor with an eye to developing your skills is going to help, if classes are not available in your area.

So what is Deliberate Practice for an actor, done in solitude?  Stay tuned . . .

Actor’s Etiquette: Getting What You Want

etiquette-logo1The real question, Milo, isn’t “why don’t directors give you more”, but rather, “what can you do to get what you need from a director?”  The only way to change the director’s behavior is to change your own.  (By the way, this is true of absolutely every relationship you will ever have throughout your life.  A problem you have is never someone else’s to solve; it is always your responsibility.)

Your question, “How was that?” is a close-ended question.  Close-ended questions are those which can be answered by a single word:  “yes”, “no”, “perfect.”

(Incidentally, you weren’t necessarily “perfect”, but it’s a great way of saying, “I have what I need,” while stroking an actor’s ego.  All actors, no matter how emotionally secure they are, like to be stroked.)

So if you want a different response, you have to rephrase the question.

“Did I make you believe that I haven’t eaten in two days?”  “I was trying to gradually build to ‘this’ moment, to keep escalating my panic.  Did that come across?  Were there any drops in the build in tension that I need to address?  And did I end high enough, or do I need to be even more stressed?”  “How did I make you feel in that scene?”

[I know, “panic” and “stressed” are adverbs, and I haven’t said a word about my motivation and how to play the verbs in this imaginary scene!  Breaking all my own rules!  I’ll explain why in another post.]

The first two questions can be answered in one word and so are essentially closed questions, but asked in context, they indicate an awareness of what you are trying to do.  That alone encourages a director to answer more thoughtfully, and gives him something very specific to respond to.

Generalized questions are tough to answer, because as a director, I don’t really know what it is that you’re curious about.  Were you trying something in particular, and you want to know if it worked?  Without knowing what you’re striving for, I can’t tell you if you succeeded or not.  Are you asking me if you understand the character properly?  Is there a part of the scene you’re uncomfortable with, and you’re wondering if I noticed?  Maybe you can’t put your finger on why it’s a problem for you, and you’re hoping I’ll spot it and let you know what it is?

Trying to read anyone else’s mind is a waste of time.  I’ve spent years trying to do it and have come to the conclusion that I will always fail.  Human beings are too complex.  So as a director, I expect you’re going to show up and do your job, and if you need something from me, you’ll ask me for it in a very specific way.

(Okay, that’s not true for me, personally, but I’m talking about directors in general.  I work with amateurs.  I can clearly see their process and where it isn’t working, and I can help them over the humps.  Directing, for me, is a forum to teach them to be better actors.  In the professional world you aspire to, however, that is not how directors work.  It is expected that you know your craft.  More on that in my next post.)

Even if the specific questions above can be answered in one word, the director will elaborate if he thinks there is room for improvement.  The way you have posed the question tells him what you understand about your own process and shows your willingness to work on it.  He can tell you the moments in which he was unaware of your hunger (or you can probe to find out which they were.)  He can identify the moments when his belief was suspended.

Still, identifying the moments that aren’t working isn’t the same as pulling a great performance out of you.  If you don’t know how to improve the moment, now is the chance to ask the director for help.  “I’m having difficulty with this part of the scene.  It doesn’t feel to me like it’s working as well as it could.  Would you agree?  Can you help me find a way to make it more effective?”

This is what I mean when I talk about the actor’s responsibility in Working with the Director.  Asking your director for some generalized help and putting the responsibility on him to make you good isn’t going to get you far.  Help your director help you by being clear about what you are trying to do and having specific questions to ask.

But as I indicated above, Milo, I have a little more to say . . .