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.)
“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.
“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.
I’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!
WordPress, 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.
Hamilton The Musical is my current obsession, and so I came across the above interview with five of the cast members. Scroll down and you’ll find Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, talking about the moment every night when Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, hurls the insult that causes Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel and ultimately, to kill him, simultaneously ending his own political career.
“Every night, I’m looking for it in his eyes — I want him to make different decisions. I want it to end differently.”
When you are so in the moment and caught up in what your character is feeling that you actually want what your character wants, hope for it to be so, even though you know it can’t happen any other way — that is truly being in the moment.
Also interesting to note: how they deal with the different energies that audiences bring with them to the performance, and how they continue to develop and understand their characters over time (and they’ve been working with the show for at least a year now).
My favorite show on Broadway right now is “Hamilton: The Musical”, which my cousin happens to be in. Not that her presence sways me, I’d be madly in love with the show anyway. So I am very much on the alert for articles about it. Here’s an article that speaks to something directors ought to be concerned with:
At AACTFest2015, I gave a seminar on Blocking which was attended by both actors and directors. One of the directors stayed after the seminar was over. She said (quite firmly!) that when she directs, it’s her show, and her actors have to do what she wants them to. Then she said, “but I encourage them to be creative and offer ideas during rehearsals.”
You can’t really have it both ways.
Any time (in life) we offer contradictory instructions to those around us (and yes, this is a very human thing to do and a good thing to keep in mind when you’re acting), one of those instructions will be followed and one won’t. And guess which one wins?
The one that is most negative.
No one wants to be punished or yelled at, least of all actors who are inclined to have fragile egos. So we take the conservative route and listen to the negative rule; in this case, “what I say, goes.”
As a director, you can only expect creativity and daring from your actors if you give them the space to be creative and daring. That means letting them explore and suggest, and if you decide to not go with their idea, letting them down in the easiest way possible.
The more space you give them, the more they will offer you. This means that the precedent you set in the first two weeks of rehearsal determines how creative they will be in the rest of the rehearsal period. Exploration is like a snowball rolling downhill. It’s small at first, but give it some time, and it becomes huge.
As a director, this means actively encouraging the actors’ input until they start responding and praising the input, even if it doesn’t work. Do that enough early, and they start to feel comfortable that their ideas will be thoughtfully considered.
And “thoughtfully considered” is the key.
I often work with inexperienced actors, and I encourage them to offer any ideas they have despite their inexperience. (The newbies often think that I am giving that freedom only to those with plays under their belt, but I work hard to make sure everyone knows that the invitation applies across the board.)
I do this for several reasons: one, everyone in a production needs to be “equal”, even the actor with four lines. Two, because I trust that human instincts are good, and so the idea from someone who has only done one play may be just as good as the idea from someone who’s done ten. Three, because that’s how you learn, and I want every actor to leave my production with more skills than she entered it with.
Because what I’m doing in the first weeks of rehearsal is blocking, it’s an easy time to invite actors to participate:
“You look uncomfortable there. Are you? What would make you feel better?”
“No, that isn’t working, because we need to get her to the couch on that line. Anyone have any ideas?”
“We’ve ended up with everyone on one side of the stage. Let’s figure out how to get you more balanced.”
“Joe, you’re blocking Sally from this side of the audience. Can we find a reason for you to move somewhere else?”
As I look back at these comments, I realize that I use the word “I” as infrequently as possible. Putting on a play is a “we” activity, and I use that pronoun repeatedly to make sure the cast understands that we are all in this together and that good ideas can come from anywhere, not just me.
I’ve done shows where an actor offers an idea that I know won’t work, and in the interest of saving time, I’m tempted to say so and move on to something that will. Instead, I say, “Sure, let’s try it.” When it doesn’t work, I try to tweak the idea to find a way to make it work. I give it up only when I’ve exhausted its possibilities. And I always explain why it doesn’t work, so they understand why we can’t use it.
Occasionally, the tweaking is successful and results in a pretty good idea, which in and of itself is a good reason for trying even bad ideas. Or it buys me enough time to think of a better one. But even when it isn’t successful, the effort I’ve put toward it shows that I respect the actor who offered the idea and consider him a full partner in this venture. That one act is often all it takes to get the entire cast to realize that I mean what I say, and that they should pipe up every time they have something they want to try.
I never want an actor to feel that she offered a “bad” idea. There are ideas that work in the context of what we are trying to do and ideas that don’t (or don’t work as well as we want them to — whenever possible, I will characterize them in this way). The only ideas I will characterize as “bad” are my own.
“Remember when I said you should do X? I was wrong. It doesn’t work at all. Let’s find something else.”
“Eh — it doesn’t really work, but I have no idea what to do instead. Let’s do that for now so we can keep moving, and we’ll find something better down the road.”
By admitting my own failures, I make it clear that I don’t have all the answers and that I’m open to suggestions. And that it’s okay to not have the answers now, that answers will show up eventually. When it is clear that I am exploring, the actors are more likely to explore.