How Fast is Too Fast?

Traffic Light trails on street in Shanghai,China. Background photo created by fanjianhua –

You probably won’t believe me, but you can’t go too fast onstage.

Okay, you can (see below). But otherwise, I dare you to try. I’m not a betting person, but I’d put money on this, and I think my bank account will be pleased.

A few years ago, I directed Boeing Boeing. It’s a farce. Farces, by definition, need to fly by. They aren’t funny otherwise. So I hit the “go faster” director button at every rehearsal at least once. I’m sure the actors got tired of hearing it, but at the end of the rehearsal period, they had gotten the hang of it, the play soared, and the audience roared.

When I think farces, I think of slamming doors. If you aren’t going at a speed where three doors slamming in quick succession would be hysterical, then you aren’t going fast enough. Even when the doors aren’t slamming.

Still, it was just because it was a farce that I was hypersensitive about the speed. But here’s the other thing I learned by directing my first farce: speed only works when you are completely emotionally invested in your character.

This is why comedies, and farces in particular, are so difficult to do. It’s not just about saying lines in a way that is funny. Let me say this again, because it’s really important: going super fast ONLY works when you are really emotionally connected to your character’s needs and wants. If you aren’t, speed just highlights how superficial your acting is. Farce is difficult because you’ve got to take broadly drawn caricatures and somehow make them seem human WHILE running at breakneck speed. Tough stuff.

Ten years ago, I saw a summer stock show at a theater that played three shows in repertory. Two of the actors from the musical appeared in Chapter Two as the leads. They were experienced professional actors, they were glib and knew where the laughs were, and it was an entertaining show. I also didn’t believe for a minute that either of them were anything but actors. They timed the jokes appropriately and played it quickly; they just weren’t believable as human beings. Their performances were good, but superficial. The play would have been much funnier if I had believed they really were those characters.

The memory of that show comes back to me repeatedly, reminding me that there is a fine line between what is “real” onstage and what is simply “technically proficient”, and that makes the difference between good – even very good – and great performances. I’ve used that show ever since as a bar in my head against which I measure what I’m directing. (“Does this succeed where Chapter Two failed?)

For now, let’s assume you are fully connected to your character’s reality and talk about speed.

By speed, I mean how quickly you say your line and pick up your cues, how long your pauses are, etc.

After I directed Boeing Boeing, I directed a 1932 play called The Late Christopher Bean. This was an 80th anniversary revival of the play that had kicked off the theater’s existence. I didn’t know the play, and when I read it, I thought it was alright, but not a play I’d have personally recommended. Working on the play, as so often happens, gave me a deep appreciation for how well-written it really was. Sometimes plays you dismiss turn out to be hidden gems once you start uncovering their secrets in rehearsal.

I was a fill-in director and didn’t have much time to prepare for this particular show, but it was clear that it was essentially a screwball comedy. For those of you who don’t know what a screwball comedy is, may I recommend the films It Happened One Night, My Man Godfrey, and His Girl Friday?

It also occurred to me that screwball comedies were close relatives to farces, and so the idea of running as fast as you can applied to both. I continually harped on speed from the beginning of rehearsals. Once we started run-throughs, I gave the cast time frames: “The first act ran 60 minutes, but it should run 50.” (Don’t ask me how I know how long an act should run, I just do.)

The actors worked their tails off and really tried to speed things up. Things were progressing marvelously. Still, two weeks before opening night, I told them, “We still need to cut 10 minutes out of the show.”

They looked at me incredulously. They had cut the show to the bone; no self-respecting actor could play it any faster and still retain believability! I understood their pain, but held firm. “I know you think I’m crazy, but I really think there are ten minutes that could be cut.”

The following Tuesday (during Tech Week), I clocked the show, as usual. And I delivered the good news: “You cut that 10 minutes I asked for. The show is perfect. You should be very proud.” They were (as well as astonished that they had found that elusive 10 minutes!), and our audiences were very happy.

This really got me thinking. I had directed two shows in a row where I had demanded speed, and the results were undeniable. Was it just the farcical nature of them? Would it work with other comedies? And how about dramas?

Stay tuned for Part 2 . . .


Playing a Farce, Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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