AACTFest 2015 Workshops

AACT stands for American Association of Community Theatre.  This terrific national organization holds two biennial gatherings (AACTFest) on alternate years.  In even years, it’s an international festival (this past June, in Florida), wherein amateur companies from all over the world are invited to bring their productions.  In odd years, it’s national, with select companies performing (usually about a dozen plays are staged at each festival).

In addition, workshops are given each year, aimed at various types of artists.  I am pleased and excited to announce that the AACT has selected me to give two of them at the 2015 Festival, which will be held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, from June 23 to June 28.  There are many reasons to attend the festival outside of my two workshops, but if you do come to the Festival, I hope you’ll stop by one of my workshops and say hi!

Playing the Verbs:  

The most-visited posts on my blog and the search terms used to get to them are about acting beats and how to play verbs.  Beats and Verbs are rehearsal concepts that many community theater actors don’t know how to use.  This workshop introduces the “how” in clear and simple terms, and gives actors a new way to think about their characters, one which lends greater dramatic impact and believability to their performances.

Great acting happens when you play the verbs, not the adjectives and adverbs.  How do you move from playing “I’m angry”, “My character is a silly person”, and “She is making me impatient in this scene” to something that is verb-based and much more compelling to watch?  We’ll examine how to choose the strongest verbs and then make the tricky leap to how to rehearse differently to take advantage of your great choices.  This is a hands-on, practical workshop — come prepared to play!

Blocking:  Creating a More Interesting Visual Presentation

Not every community theater director knows how to block a play to maximize dramatic impact and comedic effect and, even more importantly, to simply hold the audience’s attention.  Blocking the play is a creative opportunity too many directors miss, but it’s not that hard.  Blocking the play well is the single easiest and most impactful thing a director can do to improve the production.  There are some basic guidelines any director can use to create a more interesting visual presentation, and I share them all in this workshop.

The easiest way to improve the quality of a production is through good, creative blocking.  The stage directions in the script are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to blocking a play.   All comedy is physical, and most dramatic moments usually are physical as well.  We’ll discuss the difference between movement and activities; how to mine the script for hidden opportunities to add movement; how to heighten dramatic impact with your blocking; why blocking is not just for blocking rehearsals; and how to help your actors discover better performances through movement.

While the first workshop is primarily aimed at actors and the second at directors, the truth is that both artists can probably learn something from each of them.  Directors who understand acting verbs can help actors to a better performance, and actors who understand the principles of blocking will find that it helps to unlock their own creativity, not to mention speeds the blocking process.

I am so honored to be given this opportunity.  Stay tuned for more information about when my workshops will be held, as well as more information about AACTFest 2015!


Actor’s Etiquette: Working With Directors, Part II

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have a good friend who did a lot of acting for many years before deciding he wanted to branch out into directing as well.  We became friends when he cast me in his first directorial effort, Murder at the Howard Johnson’s.  MHJ is a very funny, physical comedy.  All three actors in the play had considerable experience and Charlie, being new to directing, gave us a good bit of latitude.  It was a very collegial environment, and as he felt his way through the complexities of directing (it’s harder than you think), he was very open to our ideas.  There was a lot of “group think” — real ensemble work — and the final product was something of which I remain very proud.  (The photo in this post is from that production.)

Several years passed, and we met up on stage again for Blithe Spirit.  Charlie had two other productions under his director’s belt, and had considerably more confidence in what he was doing.  But he had also reached the stage where he thought the director needed to control everything in the experience.  He came to rehearsals with distinct and largely immutable ideas about what needed to happen and when.  There was little room for flexibility in the blocking he had created.  Gone was the collegial atmosphere; instead, the cast was busy trying to give him what he wanted, sometimes sacrificing what we felt was true to our character in the process.

Another couple of years, another show:  the ambitious Woman in Mind.  Shortly after Blithe Spirit, Charlie had read and taken to heart Marshall W. Mason’s book on directing, Creating Life on Stage:  A Director’s Approach to Working with Actors.  Gone was the autocratic director; in his place was a director concerned with giving space and assistance to his actors to create more organically-driven characters.

Charlie and I still disagree about whether or not the stage directions in a script are sacrosanct, and have agreed to disagree on this particular point.  Despite this, while Blithe Spirit was a difficult experience for me, given my own approach to acting, Woman in Mind was very rewarding.

Charlie’s trajectory as a director is not unusual.  That middle stage is probably unavoidable.  As with most things in life, it’s difficult to know where “balance” is until you go too far and find yourself out of balance.  A director with self-awareness and a desire to improve will move out of the middle phase, but I’m sure there are others who remain stuck in that position.

So what are you, as an actor, to do when you find yourself working with a director who is in this middle stage, who perceives his role as The Decider, and tells you what to do when?

First, understand that he is learning his job just as you are.  You go through stages as an actor where you aren’t working to your full potential, because you’re still learning your craft, so cut him the slack you’d like yourself.  He is doing the best he can, and doesn’t yet see that controlling everything doesn’t produce the best result.

Don’t challenge his authority too directly.  Control is very important to him; honor that while expressing your own opinions and needs.

Genuinely try to make what he asks work.  Only ask to do something differently if you can’t.  If you do this, he’ll both see your efforts and feel your pain.

Be clear about why something isn’t working for you without making the director sound stupid or wrong.

Don’t demand — instead, ask permission to change something.  “May I . . .?”  “Would it be a problem if . . .?”  “It would really help me if . . .”  “I’m struggling with . . . do you have any suggestions?”

In other words, you can’t change the director’s approach.  You’ve got to figure out how to work within it to produce the best result with the least stress.  Accept that you can’t work in precisely the way you might like to, but negotiate courteously for the things you really need to be comfortable.

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 . . .

Actor’s Etiquette: Working With the Director

3623570766Directors come in as many variations as people do, which is to say that the nature of the experience isn’t going to be the same in any two productions you do.

Some directors do a lot of table work; some do none.  Some like to plan blocking ahead; some like to let the actors develop their own.  Some are very involved in what happens in rehearsal; some sit back and let the actors do their thing and nudge the train back on track when it diverts too far.

Whatever kind of director you have, it’s up to you to figure out how to get what you need from him.  It’s a relationship, and like all relationships, we give what is easy for us to give, or what we’ve been accustomed to giving in the past.  If your director doesn’t give you what you need, it’s up to you to ask for it.  Good communication between an actor and her director is critical, but it’s a two-way street.  Don’t expect the director to read your mind.  He’s got a lot on his.

Most directors don’t give enough positive feedback to actors on their work, mainly because actors can’t get enough!  Acting is so personal that even those of us with strong egos need to be reassured that we’re okay, that we’re moving in the right direction.  In addition, some directors may only feel the need to provide you guidance and not reassurance.  If you aren’t getting enough stroking from your director, be direct with him.  “Do you like what I’m doing???”

If you aren’t clear on what your director’s vision for the play is, ask.  Rephrase what he tells you in words that are meaningful to you in order to be sure you are both speaking the same language.  (This is called “mirroring”, by the way, and it is the only way to be sure communication is effective and accurate.)

If you need guidance about your character, ask for it early in the rehearsal process.  Don’t flounder on your own until you’re desperate for help.  I’ve seen directors put off steering actors onto the right track until very late in rehearsal process, and it’s really too late to do much about it at that point.  Remember that if you are struggling with a scene in any way, the director may not realize it unless you say something.  Let him help you sort things out.

This isn’t a test you need to pass.  It’s a work of art you are creating.  Admitting confusion and uncertainty is a healthy thing in the theater.  It’s how we find what works.

Most importantly, be open to what your director has to offer the production.  Remember that he sees things from the audience’s perspective.  If he tells you something looks a certain way, believe him!  He has no reason to lie to you.  If what you’re doing isn’t coming across the way you think it is, change it so it will.

It’s also important to let a director know if he is working in a way that bothers you.  Some directors like to demonstrate.  As an actor, I hate it, and if I see a director doing it with another actor, I’ll let him know (privately) at the earliest opportunity that I need him to not do it with me.  If I am his first “victim”, I’ll diplomatically ask him in the moment to find a different way to get his batman_and_robin_1966_action_figures_hot_toys_1point across.

Remember that while the director has many other concerns to deal with, helping you is still one of them.  Don’t feel that you can’t “bother” him, because “he’s got so much on his plate already.”  He signed up for this responsibility, after all; it’s up to him to figure out how to juggle his responsibilities successfully.  Take responsibility for your acting, but the director is your partner in crime.  Ask for anything you need that will help you produce your best work!

Actor’s Etiquette: It’s Not Your Scene

Etiquette-Book_webKnowing what to focus on and when is part of good storytelling.

Is your character the focus of the scene, or does it “belong” to someone else?  For instance, when one character has a long monologue, she is generally the focus of whatever is going on onstage.  That’s pretty obvious.  But all scenes have a focal point, and it’s your job to figure out who and what it is.  Focal points exist no matter how many people are on stage, and they often change throughout the scene.

For instance, there are a number of scenes in A Streetcar Named Desire that have Stanley, Stella, and Blanche on stage at the same time.  Stella is often a secondary character during them, although she has moments when she comes to the forefront.  The actress playing Stella needs to know when to “retire” to the background and when to insert herself into the action.

Having speaking lines doesn’t necessarily mean that you are the focus of attention, however.  Playwrights often have a primary character be silent during a scene, and yet all the attention needs to be focused not on the ones busily talking around them, but on the silent character.  How he is taking in everything that happens in the scene is the point of it.  For instance, when Prof. Higgins and Colonel Pickering ignore Eliza Doolittle in the scene after the ball in My Fair Lady, it is Eliza whom the audience needs to be watching.  The whole point is that the men are ignoring her, and she doesn’t like it.

Focal points can easily change multiple times during scenes.  Even if there are just two people on stage, one character is probably dominant at any given moment.  If you look at my beat breakdown for Moonlight and Magnolias, which you can find here, you’ll see that I list one character in each beat as being “major” and everyone else is “minor”.  Whoever is the “major” character is where the audience’s focal point will be, and the actors have to be sensitive to that.

The identification of where the focal point is in each beat was something I did as the director – that’s one of my jobs as a director, to make sure the focal point is clear.  However, the actors need to be sensitive to it as well.  It’s a dance.  Deferring to the “major” character in the beat is sort of like opening the door for someone.  Be gracious when it is someone else’s “scene”, but don’t be afraid to walk through the door yourself when it becomes yours!

What Kinds of Plays Need Extra Rehearsal Time? Part II

Blocking issues aren’t the only challenges that may add extra time to rehearsals.  Here are some other things to consider:

One or two roles that carry the lion’s share of the play.  This includes two-handers, star vehicles, and wordy plays.  Some plays just seem to have a lot more words in them than others, and even if there isn’t one character with more than anyone else, there may be several who have more than the lead in an average play.  Plays like these typically require an extra week, just for memorization purposes.

Complex characters.  Plays with one or two roles that are particularly complicated and challenging characters probably take a little extra time to allow for the actors to do them justice.  Conversely, a well-balanced play with straightforward characters and actors who seem to be typecast in their roles may require a little less time to rehearse.

A_Few_Good_Men_CostumesMilitary, period pieces.  Some plays require body movement that is different from what we ordinarily use in real life.  Plays like A Few Good Men, where the majority of the characters are in the military, means that the actors need to learn military bearing in how they stand, walk, etc., and to maintain that consistently throughout the play.  Similarly, the manners at the Elizabethan court in Mary Stuart as well as the difference in attire will affect how actors need to move.

Physical ailments.  An actor who needs to limp, pretend to be paralyzed, use a wheelchair, or make any other notable physical movement changes may need additional time to practice them.  Some modifications, such as Laura’s limp in The Glass Menagerie, may not need much additional time, as the actress playing Laura can work on most aspects of the limp privately in her own time.  However, the actor playing the title role in The Elephant Man needs to contort his body sufficiently that extra rehearsal time is probably required.

Mind-altering conditions.  Scenes where an actor is drunk, high, crazy, or mentally challenged may need some extra rehearsal time.

Playing multiple characters.  Some people are very skilled at this and don’t need any additional time to rehearse.  However, actors who need assistance in creating clear identities for multiple characters, or who need to switch between them within a single scene, such as in The 39 Steps, benefit from additional time.

39steps3Plays requiring perfect timing or which rely on speed.  Not only does this include farces, but it also includes episodic plays like The 39 Steps and The Front Page, wherein much the fun and humor is dependent on fast-paced timing, both of lines and physical action.

Love scenes.  In theory, this shouldn’t take any extra time unless the scene is lengthy and requires a lot of physical movement, in which case it is much like a dance.  However, some actors have more inhibitions about the level of intimacy required by a love scene than others, just as some plays are more demanding in this regard than others.  Bell, Book and Candle is a good example of a play that requires considerable highly-charged physical intimacy.  If the actors playing the lovers are at all shy about entering into the demands of the scene, rehearsing them early and often to allow the actors to achieve  familiarity with each other and comfort with the physical contact is the only way to make them believable.

Foreign languages, accents, or gibberish.  A play like Enchanted April, if you have a non-Italian speaker playing the role of the cook/housekeeper who only speaks Italian, may need a little extra time, although much of her work will be done outside of regular rehearsal time.  Plays where all the characters adopt an accent, such as British English (Received Pronunciation) may take extra time to teach the cast the rules of the accent and correct them when they go astray.  Plays like Woman in Mind, the opening scene of which is conducted partly in gibberish, take additional time to rehearse, to get the actors comfortable with what the gibberish is supposed to mean and how it is to be delivered.

Classics.  Playwrights like Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Moliere present their own performance challenges that might warrant an extra week of rehearsal.

Children.  Depending on the age of the children and their level of experience, it may take a little extra time to get them to understand what they need to do.


What Kind of Plays Need Extra Rehearsal TIme? Part I

Once you’ve figured out how many rehearsal hours your play’s length requires, the following issues may warrant adding some time.  How much extra time depends on the actors involved and the demands of the particular play.  Here are some blocking considerations you might want to think about when planning your rehearsal time:

fezziwigFights and Dances.  Be they swordfights, fist fights, wrestling matches, or slapfests, any “fight” needs to be choreographed and rehearsed like a dance.  As for dances, sometimes even straight plays will have a single musical moment requiring coordinated action (e.g. The Fezziwigs’ Christmas Party in A Christmas Carol).  Choreography takes repetition to become seamless and natural; the complexity of the physical action and the coordination of the actors will determine how much extra time is required.

High levels of physical activity.  Physical activity that involves lots of props, like setting a table for a formal dinner for eight, usually requires coordinating the activity with dialogue.  This is like rubbing your belly while patting your head, and so takes a bit of extra time to make it run smoothly.  Reasonably complicated physical activity that doesn’t involve dialogue, such as scene changes made by the actors or complex physical business that either moves the plot forward or else is used for comic relief, usually requires extra time, too.  It requires a memorization of movements that can really only be learned during rehearsals.

Crowd scenes.  Any time you have more than four people on stage, it’s almost a dance to move them around.  Even one scene with six to eight people moving around over the course of six pages can add enough complexity to require extra attention.

Farces.  Because of the number of slamming doors typically found in farces, as well as the need to have exquisitely timed entrances or other physical movements (double-takes, etc.), farces usually take at least one week longer than other plays.  Farces often are longer than two hours in playing time, as well, which also means extra time.

Miming.  Not everyone is good at mime, and even if you have some talent for it, you probably don’t do it much.  Or at least, you probably don’t usually mime whatever motions the play you are in requires.  Some of this is work you’ll need to do at home, but sessions where the actors get feedback on their miming is usually a good idea if you want to really make them completely believable.

gin gameCard games.  You might not think of a card game as requiring blocking, but it does.  Plays like The Gin Game and Born Yesterday have dialogue that refers to certain things happening in the card games the characters play.  Learning when to draw and discard, when to deal, and when to shuffle your cards around in your hand, all while saying your lines, takes repeated practice to make it happen effortlessly.  The challenge is made all the more difficult because the cards you are looking at aren’t going to be the ones that are actually in the character’s hand.  That is, you may call “Gin” when you don’t actually have “Gin.”

Sleight of hand.  Magic tricks, juggling, and other similar special abilities need extra rehearsal unless the actors cast are already skilled in them.  While the actor responsible will need to practice the skill at home, integrating it into a scene where other things are happening is an extra challenge.

wait until darkThe blind.  If your character is blind, as is Susan in Wait Until Dark, you need extra rehearsal time to learn to move around the set as if you can’t see a thing.  Wait Until Dark and Black Comedy also have scenes where the stage lights are completely extinguished, but the actors have to move around the stage and do very specific actions in the dark despite not being able to see.  It takes extra practice to get so familiar with the floor plan that you can make this sort of scene flow smoothly without hurting yourself.

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 . . .

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.

Stage Directions Aren’t Always Right — An Example

rainmakerThere may be no successful playwright who has written more stage directions than N. Richard Nash, the author of the wonderful romantic comedy, The Rainmaker.  (The 1956 movie starred Katharine Hepburn and Burt Lancaster.)  The Rainmaker is chock full of emotional and physical choices, so much so that the usual measures of timing (minutes per page) can’t be used in determining the running time of the show!

Below is a portion of the scene between Lizzie, the old maid daughter of a rancher, and the Deputy Sheriff she has had her eye on for years.  Read the scene through, including the stage directions, and visualize the scene in your mind’s eye.  The directions are so extensive that I hope you can get a clear picture of how it can be played if you stick to everything in the script.

Now I’d like to show you how there are alternatives that ought to be at least considered, and by considered, I mean tried in an actual run-through of the scene.  Because you won’t know if something works or not until you try it.

I’m starting the scene at Noah’s exit, in the middle of page 67 (here’s The Rainmaker Excerpt).

File (Going to the door)  Well –

“Well” might mean, “Well, I guess I’ll be going”, but it doesn’t have to.  Perhaps it means “Well, I’m not sure what else to say.”  And even if it does indicate a departure, that’s a very good reason to not move to the door.  When a character says he’s leaving and he doesn’t leave – or he moves his upper body as if to leave, but his feet stay planted – that’s a loud and clear message that his heart is still in the room.  That’s both powerful and interesting to an audience.

Lizzie (Afraid he will leave)  if File chooses to stay where he is when he says “Well”, perhaps Lizzie isn’t afraid that he will leave after all.  And perhaps Nash is wrong when he says that Noah broke the spell between them.  Perhaps he didn’t break the spell at all, and something monumental is happening between these two.

Lizzie (Snatching for a subject that will keep him here)  If the spell still has them in its hold, then she doesn’t have to snatch.  But more importantly – the topic of his divorce is huge.  You don’t just snatch for such a sensitive topic because you want to keep someone in the room.  You offer him a slice of pie to do that.  No, the better (that is, the more dramatic choice) is for Lizzie to mention the divorce because she desperately wants to hear the details about it.  For her, the divorce is what has kept them apart.  Now is her chance to clear the air.

File:  No – I wasn’t – (Then, studying her, he changes his mind.) – but I will.

The implication is that he is still at the door, ready to leave, until he studies her and changes her mind.  Except that he doesn’t have to.  He can still be standing stock still when he says “No, I wasn’t.”  And he doesn’t necessarily change his mind, he simply decides to tell her.  And that’s a very different thing for an actor.

Lizzie (Helping him to get it said)  Kentucky?

Maybe Lizzie IS trying to help him.  Maybe she is just trying to connect with him, to indicate her understanding.  Or maybe she is covering her own nervousness about the topic but saying something, anything.  Or maybe she is puzzled by someone from so far away stealing File’s wife – how did he come to be so far west?

File (A step toward her)  Yes, she was.

Lizzie (Her hopes dashed)

If File is moving toward her, why are her hopes dashed?  When the man you love moves toward you, it’s a positive sign.  It offsets the “Yes, she was”, or at least should cause confusion.  The moment is probably stronger if he stands still and watches her while she becomes a nervous wreck.

As for Lizzie’s next lines, I almost think the start of the word “afraid” is too much.  It’s implicit in the line and is overkill if she actually says it.  If I had written the play, I would have had her stop at “That’s what I w—“, or maybe even drop the “w”.  And rather than “catches herself”, I might have said “smiles”, as in that bright smile that covers the tears.  But even if we leave the line as written, the smile still works.

Lizzie (Drearily).  Why drearily?  And on her next line, why “Agreeing – but without heart?”  What if Lizzie sincerely believes that women with black hair are the most beautiful, and her mousey brown is unattractive?

File sits when he describes the schoolteacher.  But is there any compelling reason to?  I’d have the actor try it standing, try it pacing, try it with movement that isn’t pacing, AND try it sitting.  I can’t begin to guess which choice better underlines what is going on for File emotionally until I see what impact the movement has on how he behaves and says his lines.

File (Raging)  What if the rage comes between “No I didn’t” and “Why should I?”, instead of before both sentences?

Lizzie (Astounded)   The only problem with this adjective is that the word tends to indicate something big, and the italics in her lines that follow underscore that intention.  But what if she is a combination of exasperated and astonished on “Why should you?” and then goes very quiet and intense on “Why didn’t you?”  Or the opposite:  a very quiet “Why should you?” as if she can’t believe he even asks that, it’s so absurd, followed by a loud, berating “Why didn’t you?”

Lizzie (Desperately)  What if she isn’t desperate on this, but instead challenges him with this line?

I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my point.  Nash’s choices certainly work, but so do mine.  Only by trying them can you determine which works better.  Or perhaps find a way of combining the two!