Actor’s Etiquette: It’s Not Your Scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What Kind of Plays Need Extra Rehearsal TIme? Part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Do We Have Enough Rehearsal Time?

calendarI’m going to address this simply from the point of view of community theater.  The time needed for college or professional productions probably differs.  I’m also starting with choices that are largely made by the director, but I’ll finish with how it impacts you as an actor.  If you can identify upfront that the director may not have given you enough time to rehearse, you can handle how you rehearse a little differently to overcome this deficit.

In community theater, time is your best friend, but I don’t mean just the number of hours you spend in rehearsal.  Yes, that matters.  But the number of weeks from the first reading to opening night matters as well.

Why?  Because it gives your subconscious time to do its thing.  This is what John Cleese talks about when he says the third requirement for creativity is Time.  Ideally, you want seven weeks of regular rehearsals and one week of technical rehearsals.  Let’s say it takes you five weeks to get off book.  That gives you one week to REALLY get off book; that is, to reach the point where the words come out without you having to think about them.  It gives you one more week to do the fine-tuning that can only happen once you are REALLY off book.  And it gives you the eighth week to adjust to technical issues.

If the entire cast can get off book in four weeks and you’ve got a compelling reason to not use an eight week period, then for an “ordinary show” (see below), you can shorten the rehearsal period to seven weeks.  However, it’s my experience that at least some of the cast will still be on-book in that fifth week.  But the theory here is that you should put the script down no later than three weeks before opening night in order to benefit from what I will call the “subconscious effect.”

Has there ever been a community theater production you’ve been part of that seemed to be noticeably better on the second weekend of performances?  If so, you’re looking at the “subconscious effect”.  Once you get off book and are “fine-tuning” your performance, your subconscious gets very busy and does work on your role that you aren’t aware of.  Even if all you do in the week after opening is look at your script three times and have one pick-up rehearsal, your subconscious is still working and getting more comfortable with your choices.  Magical stuff happens when you give it this time to work.  So if you can give it that extra week before opening night, you’ll get better buzz to help fill the house on the second weekend!

As for the number of hours you need, my general rule of thumb is that a production with no special needs that will run for 2 hours including one 15-minute intermission requires 54 hours of rehearsal time prior to Tech Week.  To get the most out of this time, you need rehearsals that last at least 2½ hours long, three or four times a week.  (Rehearse them more often than that, and they have no time to work on their part at home as well as do their laundry.)

If the play is longer or shorter than two hours, you can adjust the total rehearsal time up or down.  But length is not the only consideration in choosing the number of hours for rehearsal.  Special considerations can increase the amount of time you need to work outside of rehearsals as well.

What do I mean by special considerations?  I’ll talk about them next time . . .

Actor’s Etiquette: Memorize Your Lines

charm-school-for-business-etiquette-6-5-20121I once directed a play with a cast of experienced actors.  At the first rehearsal, I gave them my usual spiel about memorizing lines (you can’t do any real acting until you are off book; the earlier you memorize them, the better your performance will be; I suggest you aim for three weeks before opening; don’t try and go off book until you really are off book, because it’s a waste of everyone’s time and I won’t permit it).

Some directors set “deadlines” for the acts to be memorized, but really – there’s nothing we can do if you miss the deadline, is there?  It’s not like we can send you to bed without supper (not that I think negative reinforcement is a particularly influential approach.)

The actors nodded at me as soon as I began speaking.  As experienced actors, they knew exactly what I was talking about, and three of the actors in this show had a ton of lines each, so they knew what they were facing.

Three weeks before we opened, none of them had come close to memorizing their lines. I hadn’t really focused on this fact.  Yes, I knew they were still carrying scripts around, and yes, they seemed to rely on them more than I thought they should be at that point, but these guys had been around the block more than a few times.  They knew what was required.  They were pros, they’d get it done.

Also, different people handle memorizing differently.  I’ve worked with actors who made me unsure they were ever going to finish memorizing the script, but came in Tech Week solid in their lines and doing some remarkable work.  I hadn’t really worked with two of these actors before.  What did I know about their process?

Three weeks out, it finally occurred to me that I had to bring the obvious to their attention:  “Uh.  You guys might want to think about memorizing your lines.  We open soon.”

I could tell by the expressions on their faces that they hadn’t fully registered the gravity of their situation until I brought it up.  They began to work in earnest on memorizing from that point on, but two of them never really got solid and we had one performance that took a big hit as a result.

As a director, the one thing I DON’T worry about is whether an actor has memorized their lines.  It’s not my butt up on stage, and the one thing the audience won’t blame me for is an actor who forgets his lines.  I have always figured the potential of public embarrassment is sufficient motivation for an actor to hit the books and get his lines down.

I was wrong on this particular point.

I can’t memorize your lines for you.  I also don’t wish to be a nag; it’s an unpleasant role to have to play.  In the future, I’ll remind my casts each week of how far we are from opening and note where I think they are in terms of memorization, but I’m not going to do more than that.  You’re responsible for yourself.

Memorizing your lines is a basic element of being an actor.  Do it early so you are sure to get it done.