Learning the Blocking, Part II

Okay, this time I’ll really answer the question of how you go about learning your blocking:

First, you have to write it down.  Clearly.  In pencil, because it may change.  You’ve got to develop a “shorthand” that is easy for you to remember.  A script doesn’t give you enough space to write full sentences, and you can’t be reading a full sentence about your movement while you’re saying your lines.  Using an “X” for cross, as well as the usual directionals (“DR” for downstage right, etc.) are obvious choices, but you may need to invent abbreviations for set pieces or kinds of movements (jump, run, stand, etc.)  I’ve sometimes drawn a floor plan on the stage and used numbers to indicate locations I am to be on certain lines, and noted those numbers on the lines in question.  I’ve also used arrows.marked script

How you note your movements is up to you.  The point is that they should be legible (no scribbling you can’t decipher later); clear in intent; and complete.  You may need to stop the rehearsal’s forward progress to make notes in your script.  This is perfectly all right; it saves everyone time later, so no one objects to the stop-and-go nature of blocking rehearsals.  Just make sure that you get everything written down, because I promise you, you won’t remember the things you don’t write down.

Here comes the really important part:

When you get home from rehearsal, walk through your movements in your living room.  Don’t worry about your lines.  Just make sure you know the movements.  Notice what the line is that you’re moving on, but jump from one movement to the next.  Skip all of the dialogue that happens while you’re stationary.

Don’t just read your notes.  Physically move through the pattern.  Twice.

If you are very active in a scene, you might want to break the scene into smaller pieces; pieces that allow you to remember a number of consecutive movements, so that the second time through goes fairly smoothly.

If you can, get to your next rehearsal a few minutes early, and walk through your blocking again in the rehearsal space.  In all likelihood, you’re blocking a different part of the play and won’t be running the scenes from the previous night, but you want to revisit the blocking while it is still fresh in your mind.  If you can’t get to rehearsal early, stay for a few minutes at the end.

If you don’t do these little walk-throughs, then by the time you rehearse the scene again, you’ll have forgotten much of your blocking.  But if you DO do them, you’ll gain comfort with your movements early in rehearsals, which will free you up to do the more important (and fun) work on your character!

To read Blocking the Play, go here.  To read Part I, go here.

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Learning the Blocking, Part I

How do you learn your blocking?  The same way you learn your lines:  by practicing it over and over.

I am surprised by how many people rely strictly on rehearsal time to learn their blocking.  If your blocking is fairly simple and you make clear notes in your script, this is a perfectly do-able approach.  However, if the blocking is at all complicated or there is simply a good deal of it, it is difficult to get it down quickly if you go about it this way.  And you do want to learn your blocking quickly, because until you have it down, you can’t do much else.

How quickly do you need to learn it?  Let’s say we block the first scene on Monday night.  The next time we run that scene, there are apt to be some moments when an actor is confused about where he is supposed to be, or someone has come up with a better alternative than what was done on Monday.  So the second night we work on the scene, we sort out all of these moments, and we should end that night with a clean run.  And that should be the end to 95% of blocking confusion, and by blocking confusion, I mean the actor who says, “Oops, I was supposed to have crossed to the door four lines ago!” as he dashes to the correct place, or the actor who is surprised to find that he’s supposed to be somewhere other than he is.

actor scriptThis DOESN’T mean that once blocking is completed, it can’t change.  It can.  As you get into rehearsals, you may realize that you can change the blocking to make something funnier or otherwise more effective.  Once you get familiar with the lines, you may realize that the timing is incorrect and the blocking needs to be changed to accommodate this new reality.  As you learn more about your character, you have little epiphanies about what your character will do that you couldn’t have back in the first week of rehearsal when you blocked the show.  To not change the blocking for any of these reasons would be silly, and you should definitely do so.

So yes, that means you have to unlearn what you learned to begin with and replace it with something else.  The nature of the beast, I’m afraid.  The point is that you need to quickly memorize your blocking be doing whatever you’re supposed to be doing at whatever point in the rehearsal process you are.  If you don’t, then your rehearsals stop being about making discoveries about your character and are just about figuring out where you’re supposed to move when.  Just as rehearsals when you haven’t fully memorized your lines but you insist on running the scene without your script are just about you trying to remember your lines.  It’s a waste of everyone’s time and disrespectful of those you are working with.

To read Blocking the Play, go here.  To read Part II, go here.

Blocking the Play

[This is a purely introductory piece on blocking — I have much more useful stuff to say about it down the road.  But I’ve got to start somewhere, and I’m still traveling, so this and the next two posts will fill in the gap until I can get back to my Rehearsing series.]

How you go about this depends at least in part on your director.table reading

There are directors who like to sit around a table with the script, working on relationships and script analysis, until the actors have their lines memorized.  Only then will he allow them on the set.

There are directors who like to begin with blocking, perhaps preceding blocking with a single read-through.

The directors who begin with blocking may come into rehearsals having pre-blocked the entire show, and will tell you where to stand and when to move.

Or they may let you make your own decisions about blocking and suggest changes either in their role as traffic cop or because they think they have a better or more interesting choice they’d like to try.  But first, they want to see where your instincts take you.

blockingIn this last group, there are directors who, once they’ve settled on something that works, will stick with it for the rest of the rehearsal period.  And then there are directors like me, who will continue to tweak the blocking as rehearsals unfold and we learn more about the characters and the play.

And then there is yet another group of directors, who will allow the actors to wander as they will for a few weeks and then put some structure to it.  The wandering is all part of the exploration of the play, and if you explore efficiently, you will have a pretty good sense of what works at the end of this initial period.  But this approach is best used with experienced actors who are all very comfortable with creating their own blocking.

How long blocking takes depends in part on how physical the play is, and of course two different productions of the same play may end up being very different in this regard.  Farces or very episodic plays (The 39 Steps, A Christmas Carol) take the longest time to block.  In a community theater rehearsal of a blocking heavy play, eight to ten pages may be as far as you can go in one night.

A word about the movement in the stage directions of a script:  Sometimes the movements are the playwright’s vision; sometimes they are from the original production.  Either way, you should view them as suggestions and not mandates, especially if your set is configured differently than either the original production’s set or the one the playwright had in his mind’s eye when he was writing (and who knows WHAT that looked like!)  Your job as an actor is to find and use movements that are organic to your own interpretation of the character and the play.  Honor the dialogue given to you by the playwright both in terms of your characterization and your physicality, and the result will be “right” – whatever THAT means!

The only exception to this is when the playwright describes movements that are essential to the plot and not revealed clearly through the dialogue (such as in Frederick Knott’s Wait Until Dark).

To read Learning the Blocking Part I, go here.  To read Part II, go here.

How Action Enhances the Play

Most physical action used in plays is not indicated in the script.

Yes, sometimes there are stage directions that appear in parentheses.  Some scripts have more of this than others.  These days, playwrights steer away from including any stage directions unless they are absolutely necessary to understanding what is going on in a scene.  For instance, if a character says “Here”, and then pulls a packet of unmarked bills from his jacket pocket, and the other character says “Thanks”, you’d have no reason to know that it’s a bribe and not a throat lozenge unless the playwright tells you.  But directions such as “sits” or “stands” are rare in today’s scripts.  The playwright understands that it often doesn’t matter exactly when the sitting or standing happens, and that if it does, a good actor will be able to figure it out without assistance.

But even in older scripts where stage directions are sprinkled in here and there (and sometimes these are not the playwright’s opinions but merely the stage manager’s recording of what was done in the original production, which you should not consider to be sacrosanct), there is much that isn’t included.  It’s your job as an actor to add physical movement that underscores, enhances, or adds to the fun of the play.

If you’ve ever read a Shakespeare play, you’ll know that aside from entrances and exits, there isn’t much recorded in the script in terms of movement.  Watch a good production, however, and you’ll find lots of action, especially in the comedies.  I just saw the London production of Twelfe Night with Mark Rylance and a host of exquisite actors at the Belasco Theatre in New York, and it was full of marvelous physical bits that made us all laugh.  Here’s a few photos to give you an idea of what is possible when you let your imagination loose and express yourself through more than words (you can also check out Youtube for the American Conservatory Theatre’s commedia del’arte production of The Taming of the Shrew — links in the right column — for some very physical Shakespeare!):

TN4

TN3

Twelfe Night

TN6

TN1

Acting is NOT a Linear Process

Most complex activities are not linear in nature.  Whether you are good at painting, cooking, or playing a sport, you gradually developed your expertise.  For instance, I am currently learning to do yoga.  Sometimes I pay attention to the positions I am trying to achieve, to make sure my form is good; sometimes I concentrate on making sure my abs are employed throughout.  Sometimes I pay attention to whether I’m inhaling and exhaling in the right places.

non linearWhen I pay attention to one aspect, I am NOT paying much attention to the others.  It’s impossible to focus on more than one thing at a time.  Whatever I focus on is probably what I feel is my weakest link at this moment.  By jumping back and forth between the aspects, I’m building expertise in all of them “at the same time”, just not simultaneously.  I keep a certain amount of parity in all areas by not developing my skill in one aspect to the exclusion of the others.

It is difficult to become great at one aspect if you don’t improve the others at the same time.  Because the aspects work together to create a single whole, you need to develop them all gradually and not leave one behind.  Imagine putting on a pair of jeans and getting your left leg in all the way up to your crotch before starting on the other leg.  You’ll find the jeans have to come down to at least your knee in order to get your right toe in the pants.

Because each new part in a play is a fresh learning experience, hopscotching from one approach to a role to another is just part of the creative process.  As long as you hit all the squares at some point and revisit them as necessary during the rehearsal process, the exact order you follow probably isn’t critical.

I start with my emotional response to the text, probably because that’s where I started when I read plays at eight years old.  That was my entrée into the life of a play, because most of my theater experience at the time was confined to reading the script, apart from an occasional school production.  Opening myself to the possible emotions my character feels is still my starting point.

Because the way I move on stage is driven largely by the emotions I feel, blocking comes after this initial emotional investigation, never before.  It doesn’t necessarily come second, though.  If I get a script before rehearsals start, I may mark the beats in my script.  I may look for the verbs for each beat, or I may just look for my verb for the entire play.  I may examine the language to see what it can tell me.  I may look for the arc of my character, or for the ebbs and flows of the play.  I may study the relationships between the characters.

All of the tools I’m introducing you to are tools you can use in whatever order suits you best, or suits a particular play best, and are probably best revisited periodically throughout rehearsals.  As long as you expose your subconscious to the opportunities these techniques provide you, the order doesn’t really matter, because your subconscious is clever enough to use them properly, no matter what order you choose.  But that’s a story for another day . . .

Comedic Action

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI was just going through photos of the first play I directed on St. Croix , a one-act play called “When Men Are Scarce” for Caribbean Community Theatre in 2006.  I no longer remember the name of the playwright, but it was a play from the early 1960s — very Doris Day-ish.  Certainly before the Sexual Revolution!

While very dated, it was a well-constructed play.  We did our best to overcome its age, and we turned it into very physical comedy.  I told the cast that it was, in effect, an episode of “I Love Lucy”, with the brunette in the photo (wose name I’ve forgotten, sorry) playing Lucy, the blonde (Lisa Vaughan) playing Ethel, Mariah Mays playing Ricky, and Emily Van Buren playing Fred.

At the time, WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets were still in vogue.  So our mantra became “What Would Lucy Do?”  (I gave the cast WWLD bracelets on closing night.)

Some of the physical action of the play was indicated in the script, although not in the quantity or detail that we ended up using.  “Ricky” and “Fred” dressed the set up to look like a romantic dinner had happened.  (We had a lot of props!)  Some of it wasn’t in the script at all:  “Lucy” trying various ways to build a “step” so she can come in through the fire escape window, or pushing the menswear under the loveseat with her foot while pretending the coats aren’t really there.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe real fun of doing this show, for me, was finding ways to really push the envelope and pack the stage with comedic action.  Don’t settle for token activity if you can find a way to enrich the visual with movement, especially if you can use the movement to underscore the emotional context of the scene (which you generally can.)

And when you’re playing comedy, remember that virtually all comedy is physical.  Even verbal jousting, like Noel Coward, is much funnier when you add the physical to it.  Don’t let the punchlines do all the work.  If you do, you are cheating both yourself and your audience.

Check out the Facebook page for more photos from “When Men Are Scarce”!

Why you need to practice onstage physical movements. A lot.

Activities are typically more complicated than movement.  For instance, I can get comfortable with crossing the stage fairly easily.  But if once I get there, I need to pour myself a scotch and soda on the rocks and drink it – well, that’s considerably more complex.

Not only are there many more moving parts, so to speak, I actually have to pay some attention to the activity.  I have to make sure the ice gets into the glass, not on the floor.  I have to be careful that the soda in the Schweppes bottle doesn’t spray all over when I open it.  I need to be sure not to pour too much “scotch”, unless my character is intent on getting drunk, in which case I need to be sure I do pour too much.  And I need to not overfill the glass and make a mess of things.

If I have a limited number of lines in which to accomplish this, I’ve got quite a challenge in front of me.  In other words, I better practice this early and often.

scotchFirst I have to get comfortable with the action itself.  I’m not in my own home, so I have to get familiar with where things are.  If I’m using ice tongs, I’d better practice moving ice with them so that I can do it quickly and without mishap.  I don’t drink scotch and soda, so I have to learn what the right level for the scotch is in the glass I’ll be using.  I have to practice with both bottles, so I learn how quickly I can expect the liquid to pour.  Do I have to unscrew a top?  How long does that take, and should I have the top almost completely unscrewed as part of the pre-set?

In other words, I need to remove the mystery of the actions.  Even activities that I am ostensibly doing for the first time need to be thoroughly explored, so that I know how to imitate the first-time experience.

Once I’m comfortable with the action, I need to add the words to it.  This will throw all my well-practiced actions into chaos!  I won’t say the lines right, and I won’t do the activity properly.  I’ll be a mess, in other words.  But as I continue to practice, the two – words and action – will start to blend naturally.  I’ll come to understand how the rhythm of my lines fit with the rhythm of the action.  Where I can pause to give my full attention to the action, and when I can momentarily stop the action to make a dramatic point with the words.

But all this explains – I hope – why you need to start experimenting with anything physical, whether it be a change in location or a physical activity, as early in the rehearsal process as possible.

Physical Activities, Part III

Before you choose your activity for a scene, it’s a good idea to examine all the possibilities.  Let’s say your character enters the house at 6:00, arriving home from his job at the bank.  He might change out of his suit, because he wants to be more comfortable.  He might unpack the groceries he picked up on his way home, because then they’re out of his way.  He might look through the mail, because he wants to see if there is anything important he needs to deal with.  He might pour a drink and sit down to finish the crossword puzzle he started on his morning commute, because he only has three more words to fill in and he likes to finish every puzzle he starts.  He might begin to prepare dinner, because he’s hungry or because it’s his night to cook.

Man Preparing a SaladThere are other alternatives, too, but you get the point.  Don’t worry so much at this early stage about what this particular character would do.  You just met this character, and quite frankly, you have no reason to be certain yet about his activity when he enters the scene unless the playwright has provided him with one.

So explore every possibility of what someone might do when he comes home from work, even the options that you are “sure” at this early stage don’t suit your character.  Thinking through and discarding the “wrong” options can sometimes lead you to the right one.

Whatever your banker does, he probably has a good idea of what he’s going to do when he gets home before he opens the door.  And unless something happens to stop him from doing it, that’s what he’s going to do.  He’s not going to make a big production out of it.  He’s just going to do it, as simply and naturally as possible.

When he walks in the door, he doesn’t yet realize that something dramatic happened while he was at work that is going to change his life.  He doesn’t know that his wife got the news that she is being transferred to a job 1,000 miles away.  That the rabbit died.  That his wife’s sister left her husband and has moved in with them.  Or that his son got in trouble at school for lifting a girl’s dress.

He’ll find all that out in the middle of chopping vegetables for the salad.  Maybe he finishes making the salad, maybe he doesn’t.  Maybe he tries to continue cooking, but finally gives up and makes a peanut butter sandwich (which he better not actually eat unless he has no lines for a page or two!)  But he’s got a viable activity to keep him busy while his world caves in!

See Part I here.  See Part II here.

Physical Activities, Part II

Choosing an activity for a scene is a very practical matter.

Think about your real life.  It’s full of activity, and all of it is practical on some level.

You go to work, because you want to get paid, and you do whatever you need to do to get the job done that day.  You eat because you’re hungry or because you have a dinner date with someone.  You read the newspaper because you want to be informed.  You go shopping because a lightbulb burned out and you need a new one.  mailboxYou pick up the mail because you haven’t been to the post office in a week, because you have to buy stamps anyway so you can pay your electric bill, or because you’re waiting for a package and you hope it came in today.

What do these things have in common?  The word “because.”

In other words, you always have a reason for anything you do.

Your characters are driven to do things on stage for the same reason.  Their lives are not governed strictly by the dramatic events of the play.  The rest of their lives continues unabated, just as it does in ours.  If someone close to you is hospitalized, the grass doesn’t stop growing, the dogs don’t stop needing to take walks so they can pee, and the refrigerator doesn’t refill itself on its own.

Much of the activity that should be taking place on stage is NOT written in the script.  If it bears directly on the events of the play, it will.  For instance, if your character’s company is treating its employees unfairly and the employees decide to strike, your character may be making picket signs in the next scene, and the dialogue might refer to that.  The dialogue might not refer to it, but you might choose to make signs as your activity anyway, because it makes sense in the context of the play.  But if you chose to make dinner during the scene, that might work just fine, too.

Whatever you choose as your activity for a scene, it must make sense to the audience.  This doesn’t mean it can’t be unusual or unexpected.  But if your hardworking banker husband comes home from work and, without ditching his suit, starts to do ballet warmups using the back of the couch as a barre – that’s an unusual choice that the script better justify on some level.  If it seems entirely uncharacteristic, given what the playwright has written and how the actor chooses to play the role before and after working the barre, then a different choice that the audience will accept is in order.

See Part I here.  See Part III here.

Physical Activities, Part I

The other kind of physical action you can use on stage is what is called “business”, but let’s stay away from the theatrical term for the moment, and call it an “activity” instead.

Every actor should have an activity in every scene, if possible.

Sometimes it isn’t.  If you are a guest in the house of someone you don’t know well, you may not be able to do anything other than sip your coffee.  Repairing your lipstick may not be appropriate for your well-mannered character.  If you’re having dinner in a restaurant, your activities will mostly be limited by what is on the table at any moment.  Fixing your contact will be distracting to the audience, who will worry that you, the actor, are in real pain.

But in most cases, actors should have an activity.  Guess why they call us actors?

toysWhile a change in physical location can be driven strictly by your emotions, it often is part of an activity.  If I’m picking up the kids’ toys because my mother-in-law is coming over, I’m moving around the living room, but it is in service of the activity of picking up the kids’ toys.

What happens as a result of choosing an activity, no matter how disconnected it may seem from the actual drama of the scene?

  • It makes what happens in the script seem more like real life.
  • Like a change in physical location, it adds visual interest to the audience.  The stage isn’t film, but post-MTV audiences like to watch motion while they listen.  Watching someone do something with purpose is much more interesting than watching someone sit around talking.  Some scripts have scenes that seem to be about people sitting around talking.  When you are cast in a play like that, you must put on your thinking cap and invent things to do.
  • What you choose for an activity says something about who your character is.

Chosen correctly, your activity can also underscore what happens dramatically in the scene.  For the moment, however, let’s leave that responsibility in the director’s lap.

But the grand prize of using an activity onstage?  It puts you in touch with your emotional life without you having to do anything intentionally.   This alone is worth the price of admission!

See Part II here.  See Part III here.