When the Stage Directions Matter

Cinderella wedding

The inspiration for my play, Happily Ever After, came about because I started thinking about the fact that all fairy tales end with the wedding, and so kids who grow up reading them know how to aspire for a wedding, but have no real understanding of what happens next or how to navigate the next 50 years.  The emphasis on courtship over marriage has probably led many couples into a morass, pre-marital counseling notwithstanding.  I had no idea where I was going to go with it, but that was what put my seat in the chair.  What followed wound up being more layered and philosophical than I had anticipated, or even than I knew prior to attending the rehearsal of it.

While watching the rehearsal, I put on my director’s hat, contemplating how I would deal with the issues the director was facing if I was in his shoes.  As a result, I had to analyze my own play in a way that I hadn’t done, and so I learned some interesting things about it!

It was in analyzing the play that I finally figured out why I was uncomfortable with the changes made to the stage directions that end the play.  It turned out that the changes left the audience with two messages that were both in direct contradiction to what I had been trying to say over the course of the play.

Surprising that movement could have such a dramatic effect, huh?

Without reading the play, you may not fully understand why this is, but I’ll give it a stab anyway.

Here’s the original stage directions (remember, this is the continuation of the fairy tale — in this case, Cinderella).  I should say that the dialogue that precedes the stage directions makes it clear that, in the privacy of their bedchambers, the Prince invites her to dance.

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance.  They start to waltz, and one of them — it doesn’t matter who — starts to hum.  Da-de-da.  It doesn’t matter whether the one humming can carry a tune.  It may even be better if they can’t.  Now they are both humming.  They may even laugh at how bad they are, which only emboldens them to sing louder.  As the song goes on, they gradually move closer together.  And eventually, they are kissing.  Not the chaste sort of kiss as at the beginning of the play, but the happily-ever-after sort of kiss.)

Now, here’s the changed version:

(She brightens at this, and moves into his arms at a safe distance as an orchestra begins to play.  They waltz a few steps.  She stumbles and nearly falls, but he catches her.  She looks up at him, and there is a spark.  She grabs his head and pulls him to her, planting a firm kiss on his mouth.  He sweeps her into his arms and carries her into the bedroom.)

Without knowing anything about the play, there are five distinct differences between these two descriptions:

  1. In the original, there is no orchestra, or else it is too faint to be heard, and that is why they start humming.  In the revision, we clearly hear the full orchestra.
  2. In the original, there is a shared experience which has nothing to do with kissing or sex (humming while they dance, in a silly sort of moment between two people who barely know each other but are going to be spending their lives together).  In the revision, this is replaced by her stumbling as they waltz.
  3. In the original, the kiss is a gradual melding as they begin to relax together.  In the revision, there is sudden switch that goes off in her head that provokes the kiss.
  4. In the original, the kiss is mutual.  In the revision, she clearly kisses him.
  5. In the original, there is a blackout on the kiss.  In the revision, he whisks her off of her feet and takes her into the bedroom.

Without having the entire play to view it in context, #1 can fairly easily be dismissed as not being critical.

The other four may be critical.  First off, the original seems to emphasize the romantic over the passionate.  Sexual desire is clearly at play in the revision.

Secondly, the original has the shared moment of non-romantic, non-sexual silliness, and the revision doesn’t have a comparable moment.

So what can we take away from this?

Before changing stage directions at the beginning or end of a scene or play, you need to carefully study them in the context of what the playwright was trying to accomplish or is trying to say.  Opening moments set a tone, and closing moments — especially at the end of a play — are the playwright’s final word on the subject.  You want to make sure that you are, up to the end, telling the playwright’s story, and not your own.  Also, when the stage directions are more than the minimal (he doffs his hat and exits), they are effectively substituting for dialogue and so probably deserve a similar fealty, at least in terms of intention.

Understanding the playwright’s intention is critical in changing stage directions that are more than simply practical (she sits down; he pours a drink; they turn out the lights and exit upstairs).  If the director had kept the sexual overtones out of it and found a comparable non-sexual moment to replace the humming and laughter, I might have been disappointed (or not, if he found a better way of accomplishing it than what I wrote), but I wouldn’t be uncomfortable with it.  He would clearly have gotten the point of what I was trying to say and simply found an alternative way to say the same thing.

I could have written the “la-di-da” into the dialogue, and probably will so that future directors will understand that it is a non-negotiable element of the play.

So here’s my argument for why the changes reversed the intended meaning of the play:

I associate the sexual desire and attraction between a new couple with the fairy tale story; while critical to beginning a happy ending, it is insufficient in and of itself.  Love and friendship are the more important elements.  By removing the humming, you remove the friendship; by dispensing with the gradual, mutual kiss, you remove the love; and in its stead, you’ve got passionate desire on both sides (her kiss, his carting her off to the bed).  A misplaced emphasis on sex has ruined many a marriage, and that was part of why I wrote the play.  When you end on that note, you are saying, “This is a fine way to go about it.”

The director said he chose to have her initiate the kiss because she had been avoiding it up until that point.  That’s fine, but if I wanted that 180 degree turn, I would have written it that way.  Making her the aggressor makes her a very different girl (and him a very different man).  Before you make a 180 degree change, you need to be sure the script supports it.

He also said, “she stumbles and he catches her before she falls, as he will for the rest of their lives”, and it’s a sweet, if traditional concept.  However, it plays into the old-fashioned myth of the fairy tale — the white knight who will come along and save the damsel in distress and make everything perfect forever — that I had spent ten minutes unraveling and arguing was not going to produce a healthy marriage.

So change the stage directions if you have a really good reason to (I’m still not sure why they decided to change mine), but if you must, please make sure that you are being fully faithful to supporting the playwright’s intention and theme.

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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.

 

On Staying in the Moment

http://www.vulture.com/2016/01/roundtable-interview-with-the-cast-of-hamilton.html

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).

 

On Auditioning

AuditionI think I’ve written a small bit about auditioning before, but I’m not going back to read it to make sure I don’t repeat myself.  My perspective today may align in some ways — at least I hope it will — with what I have written before.  But I’m going to trust that what I write today is a whole in and of itself, even if it comes with duplicate phrases.

The one thing I think I must have said previously — or if not, I should have — is that Michael Shurtleff’s book “Audition” tells you everything you need to know.  Quite honestly, I think it tells you most everything you need to know about acting, not just auditioning.  Although if all you needed was the theory, higher education of all sorts would soon go out of business.

So I am vaguely contemplating auditioning for a local community theater production.  I’m not sure that I want to commit to everything doing a play means — rehearsals, performances, etc. — but I may just show up for auditions for the pleasure of saying the words I have longed to say since I first encountered the play in my adolescence, and let the future take care of itself.

Reading through the audition sides made me ask myself, what matters most in an audition?  What do I, as a director, look for?  And what do I, as an actor, try to provide?

Understand, there are as many kinds of directors as there are people.  I’m sure there are directors hoping that someone will show up who says the lines in precisely the way they sound in the director’s head.  And they may well cast on that basis.  I won’t say that an actor who does that won’t get my attention.  But it isn’t a given that I will cast that actor, either.

So what do I hope to see at an audition if I’m a director?

  • A moment — just a moment is sufficient — of a real emotional connection with the character.  A moment where all the artifice of the audition process disappears, and the actor is truly connected with what is going on with the character.  The more moments you can provide like this, the better.  But sometimes just a fleeting glimpse of it is sufficient for me to cast someone — for instance, if no one else has come close, or if you are so right in every other respect that the flash of understanding gives me the confidence that I can pull out of you what I need to.
  • An attempt to connect meaningfully with your scene partner.  I recognize that you don’t choose your scene partners at an audition, and your scene partner may have no idea that you are trying to connect with him.  He may be incapable of receiving what you send him, at least in the context of an audition, but I won’t grade you on that.  What matters to me is that I see you, as an actor, reach out to him, open yourself to whatever he may deliver.
  • If it’s a comedy, I’d love to get the sense that you know how to deliver a comic line.  I recently saw a musical comedy performed by a talented troupe of high school students, and was amazed by the fact that everyone with a funny line delivered it with great comic timing.  Very unusual, in my experience, and kudos to the woman running the program.  (Please give me the secret!)In a perfect world, you want a comedian/commedienne to deliver all the punchlines, but you won’t always get them.  Many times, the ingenue/juvenile or leading lady/man need to deliver punchlines, and you can do so successfully even if you aren’t a comedian by nature.  So at an audition, I want to see clear evidence that you know what “funny” means.

It’s nice if you’ve done you homework (if the play isn’t an original) and know something about the play and its characters.  If nothing else, it tells me that you are willing to work.  And while I don’t put a lot of weight on it, yes, reading the lines in a sensible way helps me to get past the rest and to see the first two things that I’m looking for, which are really two of the most important things you can convey in an audition.

The last thing you can bring to the table is sometimes taken care of by any of the things I’ve already mentioned.  It is also the most ephemeral thing to describe.

I’m looking for something unusual.  A creative take that isn’t expected.  A single moment of surprise, something that makes me joyful because whatever you do is so out of the ordinary and yet fits perfectly.  It can be the tiniest moment, but a moment that shows me that you can bring something unique to the play matters.  I want to see that you are a creative artist.  It doesn’t even matter if you make the wrong choice.  Just make an interesting choice.  I’m not going to assume that you have read the play before, or that even if you have, that you have digested it as thoroughly as you will over the course of rehearsals.  So I won’t penalize you for creative choices that aren’t right for the role.  On the contrary, just showing me that you can be creative is key.  I’ll assume that you will make creative choices in rehearsals that make better sense.  I just want to know that you have it in you to dig for the unusual.

Remember, I’ve got mere minutes with you in an audition.  To stand out, you need to do something — even just one thing — that no one else is doing nearly as well.  Stop worrying about doing it “right” and worry about doing it “interestingly”.

If you do all of these things but I don’t cast you, the reason is probably one of balance.  I’ve got to put together an entire cast that makes sense — physically, tonally, etc.  You may be brilliant, but you may also be the odd man out.  In that case, it may kill me to not cast you, but I’ve got no choice.

As an actor, assume it is killing me to not cast you.  Assuming that gives you the strength to keep going in this very difficult profession.

Pacing: Speed vs. Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It has do with pacing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Top Ten Most Useful Acting Posts

All right, they may not be my Top Ten.  I’ve written about 200 posts in the past two years, and I haven’t gone through each of them.  But I’ve noticed in the last couple of months that everyone in the world is suddenly obsessed with the difference between impersonation and acting, a post I wrote a year ago.  Now, it’s a good post, but it is hardly the most important one I’ve written, and it certainly isn’t a very practical one.  I wrote it in response to a student’s question, so it was sort of a diversion from what I typically write about.  (I love these diversions! – so keep asking questions.  But that doesn’t always make them the most useful posts I have.  Having said that, two of the posts I’m about to list were answers to questions.)

The impersonation post was visited again today, which made me think:  if I could direct readers to a handful of posts, which ones would I want them to read the most?  So here’s my quick-and-dirty list, in no particular order.  And oh — it’s eleven, not ten, simply because I miscounted and don’t want to eliminate any of them!

(By the way, I’ve noticed that some of the links from one post to the next aren’t working again.  No idea why this happens, but it seems to periodically.  I’ll get to fixing them soon, I hope.  In the meantime, you can search for the posts to get the right links!)

Line Readings, and Why They Don’t Work

The Learning Process, Part III (The Fastest Route)

Acting as Storytelling:  It’s About Competition

Equus, Part III:  The First Five Minutes

Actor’s Etiquette:  Deliberate Practice

The Subconscious Effect, or Why You Can’t Do Any Acting Until You’re Off Book

What Are Play Rehearsals For, Part III

Big Verbs vs. Little Verbs

Verbs & Beats – Moonlight & Magnolias

Playing the Verbs, Part III – Raising the Stakes

An Example of Why Verbs Make a Difference

 

 

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!

More About Verbs

Tampa - Selecting Beats & Verbs

Real Table Work — Selecting the Beats and Choosing Verbs

I recently spent a day with a community theater outside of Tampa, a very rewarding day with twelve actors who were so open to what I was sharing with them.  It was a joy to work with them.  As often happens, I have stayed in touch via email with one of the actors.  One of the perqs of hiring me to give your group a workshop is that in addition to the low per-person cost, I’m happy to respond to questions via email at any time after the workshop is over.  The workshop is typically about planting seeds, not harvesting them, and so it can take a little time to really reap the harvest.  I’m happy to keep helping to nudge the process along from a distance!

When a student raises an issue that I think others will benefit from, I respond to them via this blog.  So I’d like to share some of what Linda and I have been talking about, because I think there is broad application in how she is working through the newness of choosing and playing verbs.

First, remember that while Big Verbs (which cover the play or an act) are often global, broad stroke needs/wants, the Little Verbs — those which govern your moment-to-moment work — are very simple, practical things.  They may be in service of that Big Verb/Goal in some small way, or they may be in reaction to what another character is “giving” you.  But they are very concrete in terms of action.

Beats can be as short as one word or as long as a page (more often, 3-8 lines).  That means that your verb for the beat is just what gets you through the next 20 – 40 seconds.  It’s not at all global/high-level.  It’s strictly about “what do I need to do right this very minute to get what I ultimately want to achieve in this scene?”  Sometimes it takes a lot of little actions to achieve our goals.  Pay attention to what is going on right this very minute, and you’ll find some interesting things you didn’t realize were there.  I’ll give some practical examples of this in the next post.

But Linda found helpful something that I haven’t precisely highlighted before.  Scenes are a give-and-take between actors.  You and I may have very different goals in the same scene.  I may want you to help me prepare dinner for company, and you may want me to finance your new business idea.  Sometimes we’ll talk about food, sometimes you’ll try to sell me on yet another hair-brained idea.  Remember the tug-of-war analogy I used to describe conflict?  We can also use it to talk about who is controlling the situation at any given moment.  This will impact which verbs you choose.

I may want to talk about cooking, but your agenda can derail my own.  I will sometimes respond to what I am getting from you and temporarily put aside my own concerns, but I’m going to bring up what I want to talk about as soon as I can do it easily.  My need to talk about my own stuff may contribute an urgency to how I bring it up, or I may or may not listen very well to what you’re saying.  A close reading of the text should make its influence on what I do and say relatively apparent.

In other words, not everything I do and say in a scene is necessarily directly connected to my Big Verb.  Sometimes I am just responding to your need.  Think of it as tossing a ball back and forth.  When you hold the ball, you are controlling the scene.  When you toss it back to me, I take control.

Who is driving the scene at any given moment matters.  By driving, I mean, whose topic of conversation is being discussed?  Whose needs are we focusing on the most?  If we’re talking about the weather because you just came in the house complaining that you had to park halfway down the street because the snowplows have done a poor job of clearing and much of the on-street parking is unusable as a result, and I change the subject to talk about how I can’t find a dress for the office holiday party, then you were driving the first beat, and I am driving the second one.  I’m listening to you complain in Beat One, and you’re listening to me complain in Beat Two (alright, not the most scintillating dialogue or interesting plot.  But you get the idea.)

Understanding who is driving the beat helps you to connect with your scene partner, because you have a clearer sense of the fact that this moment in the scene isn’t really about you, it’s about you listening to and responding to someone else’s need.  In real life, we do this switching back and forth with ease and regularity.  So should it be on stage.

Of course, in a really well-written play, the best scenes will be where we are at odds over the same thing (that is, in conflict!)  When that happens, it is possible that no one character is really driving the scene — we are both fighting tooth and nail for what we want.  Identifying these moments can help us to focus more clearly on where and how the other character keeps throwing obstacles in our path.

But here’s the really wonderful thing that Linda wrote in her last email, which tells me that she is starting to understand the role verbs play and why they give such power to an actor:

“Your approach adds a more dynamic and complex layer to portraying a character.  Because what that character might be thinking or feeling is not in a vacuum; it’s in relation to another person or situation and it’s not static and, like much in life, it may be in conflict with ‘the other’.  It’s why verbs, not adjectives, tell the story.  So, yesterday when I was mulling over what you had written, I said to myself, ‘your emphasis is on how the character is thinking, wanting, doing, feeling, reacting, controlling, manipulating, etc (all verbs!), in relation to another person who is doing all those things as well.  [The emphasis is mine.]  It’s almost as though the actor is transmitting how that character’s mind operates and reacts in any given moment.  Which creates tension and excitement.  And even in glorious harmony with another person, it’s a result of working through all of the above.'”

The very fact that she is speaking the words I’ve boldfaced above indicates that she is starting to really understand how verbs work.  In her previous email, verbs showed themselves occasionally, but often in weak form, and sometimes not at all.  Of the seven verbs she’s used here, the last two are the kinds of verbs you want to choose.  They are actions you can play.  “I want to control my situation.”  “I want to control what you do with your life.”  “I want to manipulate you into doing what I want while thinking it is all your idea.”  Underscore your beat with those very powerful verbs and phrases, and you’re cooking with gas, as my mother used to say.

Once you can begin to use verbs on any level to describe what is going on with your character, you are on the path toward using verbs, and it is very difficult to turn around and go back to using adjectives.  Nor will you want to!

Overactors and Underactors

fence 3You’re one or the other.  No actor is born in the perfect equilibrium between those two positions.  We move to that equilibrium over time, and the closer we get to it, the better actors we become.  But we don’t start out there.  You naturally fall on one side of the fence or the other.

The overactors are the ones who chew the scenery.  Who perform like silent film actors from the early days of Hollywood.  Who apparently want to be absolutely sure that you understand what they are trying to communicate, and so go bigger and broader than a circus clown.

The underactors?  The majority of the population, they are the ones who’ve seen the overactors at work and been embarrassed on their behalf.  They’re the actors you can’t remember after the performance.  They use film school techniques that never even make it to the footlights, much less beyond them into the audience.  They aren’t terrible, they’re just uninteresting.  The overactors at least keep you awake.

The actors who occupy that space between the overactors and underactors have the best qualities of both types.  They have energy and life and keep you interested in watching, but they never push their performances to the point where they become unbelievable.  In fact, they can go further than the overactor and still keep the audience with them precisely because they have grounded their performance in the underactor’s naturalistic sensibilities.  They are natural without being milquetoasts.

Which are you?  If no one has ever told you, you may not know.  But if you have an opinion as to which type of actor is the “worst” to be, it’s probably a safe bet that you’re the other one.  For instance, if you’re inclined to say, “Well, if I’ve got to be one or the other, I’d rather be the overactor, because at least I won’t be boring!”, then you probably are an overactor by nature.

Or if you have someone you can persuade to be honest with you, ask them.  “If you had to call me one or the other, would you call me an overactor or an underactor?”  If your friend doesn’t understand the distinction, then ask this, “When you’ve seen me perform, have you ever thought I was exaggerating things just a bit?  Going “over the top”?  Trying too hard?”  If the answer is “yes”, you’re an overactor.

Why does it matter?  It’s important to understand your own tendencies, because they help you to know what you need to work on as you learn your craft.  If you know you’re an overactor, for instance, you’ll be more open to a teacher asking you to get more in touch with your inner life.  If you don’t know that about yourself, you’ll reject his suggestions.  If you know you’re an underactor, you’ll push yourself on the stakes question a little more than you otherwise would.

Even after you’ve honed your skills, you’ll always need to pay attention to your natural inclinations on an ongoing basis.  I’m an underactor by nature, so I have to consciously give myself permission to let loose, to go out of my comfort zone, to make things bigger and to trust that if I go too far, my director will let me know.  Knowing my own limitations actually frees me to be more creative!

(Incidentally, can you tell who is the overactor and who is the underactor in the photo above?)