Playing the Emotions

I just realized that when I talked about playing the verbs, I contrasted them with adjectives, as in, “my character is bossy”, as opposed to “I am bossing people around [tactic] because I need everything about the party to be perfect because it’s the first party my new in-laws are coming to, and I want to make a good impression, because I don’t think they like me.”

The verb in this instance would be, “To impress”.

But there is another, perhaps more common, route that actors go instead of using verbs (and I am stunned to realize I only vaguely referenced it in those posts.  Ah, I guess I’m human.  Or else my students at the time were really locked into adjectives.)

Once they move beyond the stereotypes of bossy, etc., actors tend to focus on their character’s feelings.  So, in this party example, my character might be frustrated, or angry, or anxious, or any number of other feelings.  Let’s say that this is a large lawn party, and I have a dance floor and want good music, and my cousin has told me he can be my DJ, and he’ll handle all matters about the sound system, etc.  An hour before the party, however, it’s clear that he is just a wannabe, he’s completely clueless and nothing is working, and I am upset.  Or angry.  Or frustrated.  Or anxious.  Or any number of other emotions appropriate to this circumstance.

And a lot of actors will focus on playing upset, or angry, or frustrated, or anxious.

Why doesn’t this work?  First, it’s just as generic as playing “bossy”.  Second, it’s arbitrary (my character is probably upset, angry, frustrated, AND anxious all at the same time, but if I choose one emotion, I’m only playing one and bypassing the others.)  And third (which relates to the first reason, but is really a separate item), it’s approaching the problem from the wrong end of the stick.

If I play “I want to host a perfect party because my in-laws think I don’t deserve their son, but if I pull this off, their attitude about me will change,”  I don’t have to think about whether I am angry or frustrated or whatever.  My lines in the play will lead me in the right direction.  If I really know who my character is and stick to my guns about what I want, the rest tends to fall into place pretty naturally.  (Okay, that may be a little simplistic, but it’s not far off from the truth.)

More importantly, however, the emotions that manifest themselves will seem perfectly natural, and not forced.  If main concern is making sure that the audience knows that I am angry or shocked or delighted, the degree to which I am any of those things is not necessarily in correct proportion to the scene.  It’s easy to (particularly) overdo the emotion.  When you focus on your verb for the scene — what you want and are working very hard at getting — the emotions tend to take care of themselves in absolutely the right way.

Focusing on the emotions rather than what you need also runs the risk of anticipating the “event” that triggers the emotion (often what someone else has said to you), and the split-second difference is enough to make the audience find the moment to be unbelievable.

Ignoring the emotions and just going after what we want with all the determination we can muster is so counter-intuitive to the human experience and our assumptions about what actors are doing onstage.  Emotions rule, don’t they?  Well, yes, they do.  But they are also sly devils that make their way into a scene whether you like it or not.  This is actually a blessing for the actor.  When you learn the lesson inherent in this (which is to focus on what you WANT in a scene), you learn that being open to whatever emotions arise in you when you rehearse is ALL you really need to do.  The rest takes care of itself.



Playing a Farce, Part 1

I’m about to direct a farce, Boeing Boeing, by Marc Camoletti, translated by Beverly Cross & Francis Evans.  I thought I’d take you through the process and see what we can learn together about it.  These posts will be partly for directors and partly for actors.  Whichever side of the proscenium you’re on, it will all hopefully be a little illuminating for you.

The basic structure of a farce is always the same:  There’s the set-up.  This introduces the characters and sets up their relationships and the premise of the play.  It typically (although not always) involves at least one person (and often as many as possible) wanting to go to bed with someone they aren’t supposed to.

Once the set-up is complete — which unfortunately usually takes the full first act, which is always long — the ball really gets going downhill, and fast.  Their best-laid plans to have their affair are met with difficulty after difficulty.  Their secret is usually on the brink of discovery throughout the rest of the play.  At the end, all the loose ends are nicely tied up, the spouse(s) who has been cheated on (assuming that the bedding hasn’t been foiled, and it often is) is none the wiser, true love wins the day, and everyone lives happily ever after.  We presume.

The characters in a farce are typically broadly drawn, often to the point of being two dimensional stereotypes.  You’d think that with all of that set-up time, there’d be plenty of room to make the characters a little deeper and more interesting, but that’s the rare case.  Perhaps playwrights drawn to the form are really into plot and so pay little attention to rounding out their characters.

However, there is another possibility, too — the characters in farces are characters we like . . . up to a point.  They generally don’t have a good set of morals, after all — they are a selfish bunch who don’t perceive loyalty or fidelity or fairness to be particularly important guidelines to living.  We like them enough to not want them to be found out, but at the same time, if they should be?  Well, we’ll see that event as their just desserts.  In fact, in a farce where both the husband and wife have taken their lovers to the same hotel in the countryside on the same weekend, we’d be perfectly happy to have them both found out in the same moment.  Just as we would trust that they would manage to overlook each other’s infidelities and go back to marital bliss.

Because that is typically the ending of a farce — everyone lives happily ever after.  You’re not going to remember a lot about a farce at breakfast the next day, other than that you laughed a bunch.  Farces do not demand much thought, but do demand a substantial suspension of disbelief.  But the audience rarely has trouble doing this; they recognize very quickly that it is “silly” and not to be taken seriously; it exists only to put people into humorous, desperate situations that make us guffaw.

Farces are often called “French farces”; apparently, the French can be blamed for the fact that the set involves a lot of doors.  Doors which remain closed so as to hide what is happening behind them, but threaten to open at just the wrong moment so that those on either side can see each other and discover the shenanigans that are going on.  They are inclined to slam shut (with those offstage only occasionally wondering what all the ruckus is about).  As often as the playwright can manage it, one door will close at the precise moment that another is opening — one lover exits just as the second lover emerges, and the close call just ratchets up the tension and the fun.  It’s all completely unbelievable, but quite frankly, we don’t care.

The word “farce” comes from the Latin “farcive”, which means “to stuff”.  Farces are stuffed with characters, with sight gags, with slapstick humor, with doors that open and close so often they almost seem to revolve, with more exits and entrances than any normal play can tolerate, with the impossible piling on top of the improbable.  Done well, the audience should feel just as exhausted as the actors at the end of the evening, for we have owned our hero’s distress as much as he has — and in addition to the stress, we have laughed till our sides hurt!

So how do we make this happen?  Stay tuned for my thoughts as we move through rehearsals for Boeing Boeing — up next is an exploration of the matter of “how likable does a character in a farce need to be?”

Backseat Directors, Part 2

So you’re working with an actor who you think is usurping the rights of the director.  What do you do?

First, look at yourself:

Are you sure you are making an objective assessment?  Emotions and egos are always vulnerable in theatrical situations, no matter how confident you are in your own abilities and value.  If someone’s comments touch on your own your performance, it may be a little inappropriate, but you also may be overreacting just a little.  Another actor may simply be trying to help, not direct the show.  Their desire may be misplaced, but it comes from a good place.

Is the director aware of what is happening?  If she is, then you can consider it is sanctioned.

But let’s say that the actor in question believes they can do a better job than a perfectly competent director, is trying to make themselves look good on stage, or is threatened by how good your performance is and wants to take away your thunder.

My first response tactic?  Ignore it.  As far as I’m concerned, my acting choices are up to my director and me.  If the suggestion from another actor is made in such a way that I can easily ignore it, I will.  Even if they are a little pushy about it, I’ll ignore it when I can.  I’ll even nod and sort of shrug as if I’m legitimately considering it, but not change a thing.

Next?  Decline.  If the suggestion doesn’t make sense in terms of what I know about my role, I’m not going to do it.  “Thanks for the suggestion, but I don’t think it’s the right choice.”

I grant you that these are easy responses for me.  I know how good I am, I trust my choices, and I have the courage of my convictions.  I can politely and respectfully say “No” in such a way that no one will challenge me on it.  But that’s not in everyone’s skill set.

Next?  Throw it to the director.  “Hey, Director, Jane here has an idea for this scene.  [Briefly describe it.]  What do you think?”  (This is especially useful when the other actor is making a suggestion that benefits their own stage time more than it does the play.)

If for some reason this approach doesn’t work for you, talk to the director privately after rehearsal.  Tell him about the other actor’s suggestions and your concerns.  Odds are he’ll address it in the next rehearsal of that scene in such a way that it can’t be traced back to you.

If you’re really confrontational — in the nicest possible way, that is; there is no winning in the production of a show by getting into a fight with anyone else — and you can articulately justify your own choices and explain why theirs don’t work, more power to you.  I can do this because I’m confident I will usually win the argument, and if I don’t, then I have learned something that will help my performance.  But not everyone can do this OR is open to the idea that they might be wrong.

If an actor is proposing something that I really think is off the wall, or they persist in their ask of me, or they are just plain obnoxious, I go into my “dumb blonde” mode.  Having been a natural blonde all my life, this is a routine that I have found very helpful in a variety of circumstances.

Being a “dumb blonde” means not acknowledging their self-interest in any way, but focusing strictly on how their suggestion impacts my interpretation of my own role.  I “take it very seriously”, discussing the pros and cons, and end with, “I’m sorry, I’m sure it’s a great suggestion, but I just don’t think I can make it work.”

But again — if someone is being a pain during rehearsals, don’t stress about it any more than absolutely necessary.  The director is the only one you need to listen to, and the intensity of the rehearsal period is such that bad energy isn’t worth it.  Keep it light, let the bad stuff bounce off you, and move on!





The Difference Between Impersonation & Acting, Part 2

This is not really a post, but a question:  hands down, the most popular post I’ve written is the one on this topic.  If you have found this “Part 2” post while searching for it, I’d love to hear what made you look for a good explanation on the internet!  Please feel free to comment on this post or email me separately (see the Touch Base page.)

Words as Music: Rhythm and Why it Matters On Stage

oddcouple_3216976bI’m reading Neil Simon’s memoir/autobiography, Rewrites.  He talks about doing The Odd Couple with Jack Lemmon:

“Jack Lemmon is a director’s dream, a writer’s savior, and a gift to the audience from a Harvard man who decided to turn actor.  I never once saw Jack argue with a writer or a director.  Conversation, yes. Suggestions, yes.  Fights, not that I ever saw.  If some dialogue or a scene wasn’t working, Jack assumed it was his fault and made it his business to make it work.  He rarely failed.”

This is important.  An actor needs to be curious about almost everything — not the least of which is, “Why did the playwright write it this way?”  But too often, I see actors assuming that whatever is challenging them is the playwright’s fault, not theirs — and they move to this position pretty quickly, before they’ve had the chance to explore all the different ways of saying the line that they hate.

Sometimes they paraphrase the line.  Sometimes they leave it completely out.

I’m pretty perceptive and have an instinctive understanding of the general intent behind dialogue, but sometimes I can be incredibly dense about the meaning of a line.  There have been times when I have gone through three weeks of rehearsal struggling with a line until I finally have the courage to admit that I simply am clueless about what it means or how I should be saying it.  More than once, the rest of the cast knew exactly what it meant and were surprised that I didn’t, and they enlightened me.  I fleetingly felt a little stupid, but I was sure glad to have it clarified.

There have been a couple of occasions where I never cracked the nut on a given line, but whatever I was doing was not, I assume, too offensive, or the director would have said something.  But I was never comfortable with the line and never felt that I delivered it with emotional honesty.  HOWEVER — I still assume the error was mine, not the playwright’s.  If I believe in and trust the rest of the play, and there are just one or two lines that I am struggling with — well, the odds are good that I’m the one at fault.  As a playwright, I can tell you that I don’t write anything that sounds discordant in my head.  There may be different ways of reading a given line, but there is always at least one good way to read a line — because that’s the way I heard it in my head.

So as an actor, I assume that if I’m missing the mark, it’s because I’m not creative enough to figure out what it sounded like to the playwright when it was written.

Simon continues.

“He is also appreciative and complimentary to the written word, and if he doesn’t like it, he will play it full out anyway and let you pick up that it doesn’t work.  He once said in an interview, ‘Neil writes in definite rhythms and as in music, you can’t skip any of the notes.  If his prepositions and conjunctions, such as but, if, and, or, and it are left out, the music is wrong.’  When I heard this, I was taken aback for a moment.  I was unaware that this was true.  I never said to an actor, ‘You left out the but in that sentence.  I need the but.’  It was the actors themselves who felt they had skipped a beat.  In one play I did, the leading actress came to me during previews and begged me to take out a line.  It was not the first time she had brought this up, and I kept saying, ‘Let me think about it.’  Then one night she was adamant.

“‘Neil, please take it out.  It’s only a short sentence but for me it interrupts the flow of the speech and takes the emphasis away from the point the character is trying to make here.’

“I liked the line but I trusted her instincts and without any fuss, I finally agreed that she could drop the line.  She hugged me in gratitude and went out onstage that night and did the speech.  But she did not omit the line.  Puzzled, I searched for her when the act was over and asked, ‘Did you forget to leave the line out?’

“‘No,’ she said.  ‘Just as I got to it, I knew I needed it.  There would have been a big, empty hole if I left it out.  But thanks, anyway.'”

Imagine if a song was missing some notes — you would notice that, wouldn’t you?

It’s more obvious in a song, but it’s just as true in a play.  I’ve talked before about the fact that altering lines by just a word can affect the humor in a comic line.  You may not think that the presence (or absence) of a conjunction can completely change its humor, but it absolutely can.  That’s why some people can tell jokes and you’ll laugh, and someone else can tell them same joke and it will fall flat.  Humor is very musical, and if you get the rhythm or the lilt wrong, it ain’t funny any more.

Even if it isn’t a joke, every character has their own cadence, their own way of speaking.  Tossing out (or even worse, adding) what seem like inconsequential words — connectors, like and and but, or articles (the and a), delaying words like well and um — changes the music of the line.  An actor can use the jazz riff emotionally, but you’ve got to be part of the symphony orchestra when it comes to the words.


Hoisted On My Own Petard, or What About Those Stage Directions?

ArrowsI’ve taken to writing plays lately (not really the reason I haven’t posted in a while — my life has been somewhat tumultuous for months, but is returning to normal).  One of them, a short play called Happily Ever After, is about to be produced.  The director invited me to a rehearsal.  Most of what they are doing is just fine; some of it misses the mark, but I also think playwrights have to accept that.  However, the ending of the play is not dialogue, but rather stage directions, and the director and cast decided to change them.  I noted the change, wondered about it, was disappointed in it, but it took a good 24 hours to fully understand why I was uncomfortable with it.

If you’ve read my posts on stage directions, you know that as a director and an actor, I largely believe in disregarding them.  For the most part, I figure that if the stage directions are really good ones, I’ll find them myself in rehearsal.  I believe in hanging on to stage directions that are needed to make the play comprehensible (e.g., he hides the gun under the seat cushion).  I believe in hanging on to the stage directions of complicated business — the climactic fight scene in Wait Until Dark not only has plot points, it is well-crafted.  The nature of Wait Until Dark is that you can’t really use a set that is much different than the original, so the fight scene can’t be much different than what Frederick Knott wrote.

I believe in hanging on to stage directions that help to indicate what I should be striving for in a scene.  Eric Coble wrote a wonderful satire, Bright Ideas, that I badly wanted to stage once upon a time.  (I still do, but directing doesn’t seem to be in the offing right now.)  There are a number of scenes where the stage directions help to clarify the playwright’s intention.  I wouldn’t blacken those out, but would keep them to remind me of what he was going for.  I might end up using his ideas, or I might come up with something more clever, but in the same vein.

For instance, Coble has a scene that involves using puppets in the way that child psychologists use dolls to help children talk about the scary things in their lives.  I may not use every puppet move he suggests if I can find a different movement that is funnier, but I’ll keep his stage directions in my script to give me a framework within which I can be creative.

The scenes that end each act also have a good bit of business that I remember thinking might need to be modified in some way, given the theater I was doing the play at.  We were a very low-budget company that rented a stage for Tech Week and the duration of performances, and so needed a very easy set that could be loaded in in a matter of hours.  I hadn’t come up with a solution by the time the production was cancelled, but I remember thinking that I needed to find a way to accomplish what Coble wrote without spending the money that it would require.  The set changes would have meant some small tweaks to the stage directions.

(If you haven’t read Bright Ideas, you should.  Coble is a very talented writer.)

So back to my play, Happily Ever After.

Some of my plays are pretty straightforward.  Happily Ever After is a play that requires a bit of thought, and I sat in the rehearsal and tried to figure out what I would say to the cast if I were the director (it was an early rehearsal, so there were still wrinkles to be ironed out.)  I realized pretty quickly that I needed to understand what it is about.  Surprised by that?  Playwrights don’t always know their play as well as you might think.  They know it works, but a certain amount of it may happen so instinctively and fortuitously that they don’t fully comprehend its idiosyncracies unless they choose to dissect it as a director or scholar would.  I put my director’s hat on with Happily Ever After and understood what I’d written as a result.

So I realized that there is yet another situation in which a director (and the cast) should at least be cautious about changing stage directions.  But I’ve reached my word limit, so that’s for the next post!

My Most Popular Posts: Rehearsals, Part 1

Rehearsal PicWordPress, my website platform, affords me a number of interesting statistics about my blog posts, and I recently checked my “most popular” list.

Over time, this list has changed, but I’ve got to think that the posts that are most popular reflect something about the major concerns of my audience.  So I thought I’d look deeper into their topics and see what I can find that might be helpful.

#1 on the list is “What Are Play Rehearsals For, Part III”.  Yes, it’s a three-parter, but this post gets to the nitty-gritty and outpaces Part I and II considerably in terms of views.

I suspect that Part III doesn’t address the problem as much as readers might like — it makes the general theory clear, but really, we all want even more practical advice.  This website is about giving you as clear an understanding as mere words can accomplish (which admittedly isn’t enough — my workshops are much more useful).

So let’s try to dig a little deeper into this and see if I can give a more detailed response.  Which means, as you’ll understand if you’ve read much on this website, taking a bit of a circuitous route and more than this one post.  The number of posts in this series is as yet unknown, even to me . . .

Maybe I should start by saying that the original posts on this topic are about simplifying the matter as much as possible.  I have discovered that both acting and golf (remember, I’m a golf pro as well) can be looked at in the simplest of terms, or you can make them as complicated as you like.  In fact, I’ve come to believe that we need to make things complicated, to understand them in their complexity to at least some degree, in order to really trust that the simple route is comprehensive.

Learning to do something well is, to a certain extent, about learning to strip away all the unnecessary things that we once thought were so important.  In golf, this means (among other things) to learn to use only the muscles that you need to use to get the job done and to let the others take the day off.  It means shutting down your brain from judging everything you do and learning to not overthink things.

There comes a moment when you say, “Oh!  It’s that easy, isn’t it?”

Yes, it is.  Or at least, it can be.

One of my jobs as an acting teacher and a golf instructor is to help my students focus on the most important elements and let go of the other hundred that they are worrying about.  One of the purposes of this blog is to try to help you understand which are the important elements.  Focus on them and most of the rest will naturally take care of themselves.

So if you look at the original post, the first half of rehearsals is about figuring out what to practice and the second half to practice it.

Of course, this is an 878 word post and can’t say much more than that.  I hope that there is enough material scattered throughout this site that helps fill in how you figure out what to practice, although there is more that can be said about it.  I’m not so sure, however, that I’ve really said much yet about the second half of rehearsals.  That is one of the things I’ll attempt to do with this series.

All rehearsal periods will be a little bit different.  How they go depends, in large part, on who the director is and what his style is.  As an actor, you don’t have much control over that.  You can ask the director for the things you need, but a director is not likely to change their stripes stylistically, even if they are willing to accommodate your requests as much as they can.

Who the other actors are is also going to have an impact on how the process unfolds.  Some actors are into exploring everything in a group; some actors hold their cards close to their vest, but are attentive and receptive to what you give them and give in return; and some operate in their own little world and what you do has little impact on their own line readings and movements.

Nevertheless, we can make some generalities.  Some directors start with table-readings.  Table-readings can be a waste of time.  Reading the script out loud once before starting blocking is generally a feel-good event for the actors, although it can give the director a sense of where the actors think they are going.  It’s an opportunity for the director to note the red flags so they can be addressed early.

On the other hand, there are directors who do multiple table-readings.  I know a director who spends a good week or two exploring the characters in depth through table-readings, and then sends the actors off to memorize their lines.  Only once their lines are memorized do rehearsals begin again and  then she put the show on its feet.

There are two arguments to be made for this unorthodox approach to community theater (or any theater.  Some professional theater operates this way.  And in some professional theater, you don’t even get to the table-reading without your lines memorized.)

One argument is that the better you understand your character, the more your emotions and motivations will drive your movement on stage, and so your blocking is apt to need less fixing than it does if you go into it cold with only the director’s best guess as to what you should be doing.

The other is that since you can’t do any decent acting without being off book, you don’t waste your rehearsal time with early run-throughs that don’t allow you to really connect with the other actors.  You’re more likely to stay in the moment at an earlier part of rehearsals.  Even in your table-readings, because you only have the words to worry about, and you aren’t distracted either by your need to cross to pour a drink without blocking Susan, or by the knowledge that there is a proscenium to which you need to be attentive.

After table-readings come blocking rehearsals, where we try to build a skeleton on which to hang the flesh of the characterizations.  Who goes where and when?  How can we use physical action to underline the important elements of the play, to support the emotional truth of the characters?

Then there is a period of letting the actors get comfortable with the blocking, while they are memorizing their lines.  This is where early run-throughs tend to enter the picture.  As I’ve said elsewhere, they are useful as a check-in every once in a while, but can be deadly if over-used this early in rehearsals, depending on the group of actors involved.

Once everyone is off book, the serious work of relating to each other, staying in the moment, and discovery enters the picture.  Note that I said, “everyone is off book”, because if one of you isn’t, you’ll hold everyone else back until you are.

And then you’ve got tech week.

My argument throughout this website is that you need to do more of that serious work that typically occurs in the week or two prior to tech week earlier in the rehearsal period.  Throughout the rehearsal period, really.  If you aren’t already doing that, then I strongly suggest you explore it.  Most of my posts tackle aspects of how and why you need to do that.

And you can do it, despite the director that you have or the actors you are working with.  Even if everyone seems to be operating differently, you can still do the work properly yourself.  Or at least, as correctly as the limitations of your circumstances allow you to.

Next time, I’ll take off my acting hat and put my directing hat on, and see if I can provide some enlightenment from a different direction.