The Actor’s Minimum Requirements

This may seem like something that doesn’t need to be said.  However, in practice, I’ve discovered that it does.

Of all the things that an actor could or should do, there are two things that are the absolute minimum requirements for being an actor:

Memorize your lines.  Know where you’re supposed to be on stage, and when.

That’s it.

Notice I haven’t mentioned anything about the quality of your performance, your choices for the role, whether or not you stay in the moment, or any of the other things that we hope that you manage to do on stage.  I’m simply talking about basic, foundational needs.  If you do these two things, you can get through a play start to finish without major mishaps.

If you don’t do these things, then it doesn’t matter how well you know your character, whether or not you’ve made the most interesting character choices, or how effectively you deliver your lines.  If you can’t remember them to say them, everything else is irrelevant.  If you can’t remember where you’re supposed to be and now you have to leap across the stage in order to open the door for someone who the audience doesn’t know is going to be there, it will look contrived.  If you are supposed to cross left and you don’t, and you create a traffic jam instead, that’s a problem.

Please remember, the audience isn’t stupid.  They admire the fact that you can memorize all those lines, because they can’t, but because it is inconceivable to them, they expect it of you.  Paraphrase, improvise, and they probably won’t notice.  Drop a line and recover fairly quickly, and they’ll forgive and forget.  Drop a few, even if you recover quickly, and they’ll talk about it on the way home in the car.  Forget more than that, or forget them in a way that causes some obvious major problems, and they will be livid.  There is an unwritten pact with the audience, and that pact is that they will give you a few hours of their lives in exchange for you memorizing your lines and moving around the stage the way you’re supposed to.  Break that pact, and they will not only see you as unprofessional (whether you are an amateur or not, they expect you to behave professionally), but they will take it personally.

The bare minimum is that you should be completely, solidly off-book no later than two weeks before you open.  The recommended minimum is that you should reach that point no later than three weeks before you open.  If you can manage it earlier, it’s probably going to translate into a much superior performance than you would otherwise have had, and it’s also going to mean that you will be better able to bail out your fellow actors if they should go up on their lines.

Many years ago, I was in a six character play, and we were all on stage at the same time.  Five of us went up, and we had no idea where we were or what came next.  Fortunately for us, the sixth actor knew exactly where we were, because he really knew the play backwards and forwards.  I suspect he’d actually memorized most of it, but even if he hadn’t, he knew the flow of the play, what each beat was about and the material content and exposition in each beat.  He could have gotten us out of any jam that we got ourselves in, because he knew the play that well.

Because of that experience, I realized that MY responsibility as an actor is not only to memorize my lines for the audience, but to also memorize them so that I didn’t let my fellow actors down.  If I forget my lines, I put my scene partners in a difficult situation.  Not only am I asking them to bail me out, but I might go up in a section that makes it very hard for them to do so without it looking incredibly obvious to the audience.

And beyond that, I decided that I wanted to be that sixth actor.  I wanted some control of my own destiny, so that if someone else went up on their lines, I could not only bail them out, but I could make myself look good on stage.  In making them look good, I would also make myself look good.  After all, the audience doesn’t always know just which actor has forgotten their lines.  I wanted to be sure that they didn’t think it was me.

And perhaps most importantly, I recognized that we are all going to forget a line every once in a while.  We’re human, and it’s simply going to happen.  Better to be prepared, I thought, for that eventuality.  So I learned to make sure that I really understood the play, and why this thing had to happen before that thing, and why it was natural for this to follow that.  Why these lines belonged in this particular section.

As a result, years later, I was in a production of Woman in Mind, and the actress playing my sister-in-law walked onstage a page and a half earlier than she was supposed to.  The actor onstage with me at the time and I had to go with her scene, and when she exited, I jumped back to the line we had left off on when she had wandered into the scene.  We played the page and a half, and then I jumped ahead to what happened just after she exited, and we were back on track again.

I could see the panic in the third actor’s eyes when she came on stage early, and the fear because he knew that we couldn’t lose the page and a half, from a dramatic perspective.  Fortunately, I knew the play well enough that I knew how to navigate our way, and he just followed my lead.  And in doing so, paid an outstanding debt to that sixth actor so many years ago.

If you have trouble memorizing your lines, then you’d better start working on them from the day you get your script.  Check your progress against the calendar to be sure you know how you’re doing against the deadline you or the director has set.  Actively work on your lines, and don’t expect them to seep into your brain through osmosis or rehearsals.

Similarly, memorize your blocking.  This is something you need to work on at home, not just during rehearsal.  Do your homework and come to rehearsal prepared.  Respect your fellow actors enough to do that for them.

I once directed an actor who told me he hates blocking.  I’m sorry, but that’s not an excuse for not learning it early.  Memorizing your lines and your blocking are your primary jobs as an actor; don’t whine or offer excuses, just do it.  Or else don’t act.  These are not negotiable; they are the essence of what you are supposed to do.

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Actor’s Etiquette: Oh, Do You Have a Line?

etiquetteIf you’re sloppy with how you memorize lines, it’s very possible to find that you’re talking when someone else is supposed to be talking.  This is annoying on a number of levels.

I did a show once with an actor who decided to run two of his lines together, which meant that saying my line (which was only a single word:  “No!”) muddied things a bit.  He had an emotional reason for making this choice, even if it was a bit misplaced.  I ended up cutting my line out, because the way he was handling the scene just made it seem messy and as if someone (me, probably) had screwed up a line somewhere.

I had plenty of lines in the show, so losing a word was hardly a problem.  However, the lines were written as they were to produce a laugh, one we never got because of how the actor was playing the scene.  All the more amusing, really, since the actor in question considered himself to be a comic.  But I always felt badly about it, because it was the audience who lost out.  (And no, the director did nothing to fix the problem.  C’est la vie.)

Overlapping dialogue is fine, even when the playwright hasn’t written it to indicate overlapping.  It makes things more realistic, and sometimes helps to convey urgency or passion on some level.  It’s nothing that you want to do too frequently, because the other actors may start to feel that you are “all about you”, and not about the play.  Nor do you want to overlap more than a word or two.

You also want to be sure that you aren’t overlapping any important information or emotion.  Never step on another actor’s moment.  And never kill a laugh intentionally, as my scene partner did.  Audiences love to laugh; give them every opportunity!

Also, be careful in doing this when the line you’re overlapping belongs to someone who has a small part in the play.  If it is really necessary and appropriate, that’s one thing, but do remember that actors with small parts relish every word and moment they get on stage.  Let them have them!  If you’re the lead and they have twelve lines, you won’t endear yourself to them by stepping on one of them.

If you find yourself talking at the same time someone else is speaking, go back and check the script.  Make sure you’re handling your end properly and that you haven’t misunderstood the scene or memorized it incorrectly.  If the problem turns out to be your scene partner, have a word with your director in private.  With any luck, he’ll fix the matter, and if he doesn’t, do what I did in the above instance:  make your best judgment about what you can do that will best serve the play in this instance.

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.

Why the Playwright’s Words Matter, Part II

Second, lines with clear rhythm.  Tempo.

This is particularly important with verse plays (Shakespeare, Moliere), but applies to lyrical or poetic plays, too.  Change a word in Equus, which is very poetic, and you mess with the character, with the meaning of the play, with the rhythm (and therefore magic) of the piece.  Plays which weave a spell around the audience do so in large part because the writing permits it.  Change the writing, and you may break the spell.

Remember, I said that studies have shown that when the spell is broken, it takes up to five minutes to get an audience connected back to the play?  Changing the words can break the spell.  Do it at your peril.

Third, playwrights use literary techniques just the way novelists and poets do.Books

Literary devices like onomatopoeia.  Assonance.  Alliteration.  Parallelism.  Etc.

If a sentence has a staccato feel to it, that is probably intentional on the playwright’s part.  It may reflect a character’s jitteriness, for example.  A sentence with powerful, active words may be spoken by someone in anger, someone who expresses themselves very physically.  Change a word, and you may limit your ability, as an actor, to express a character’s emotions, because you’ll be disconnected from what the playwright actually wrote.

For instance, let’s say you have the line, “He blasted into the room,” or perhaps, “He burst into the room.”  Change the line to “He came into the room” or “He rushed into the room” or even “He pushed his way into the room”, and you’ve changed the feel of it.  The plosive “B” in the first two matches the feel of a door swinging hard against the wall as it is thrown open.

Playwrights are just as prone as novelists and poets to spend days agonizing over the choice of a single word.  I’ve seen actors change the way a line is worded because “it feels more comfortable.”  Because “I think this is how he’d say it.”  Because “this makes more sense to me.”  Quite frankly, this makes me want to scream just a little bit.  The actor has probably only worked with the script for a few weeks when he casually makes this decision.  Forget the fact that the playwright lived with the play for months, maybe years.  Forget that the playwright may have once written the line exactly as the actor is proposing, and changed it because he decided the word he replaced it with was a better choice.

Bottom Line:  If you think you know better than the playwright, it probably means you haven’t studied the script enough.

See Part I here.

Why the Playwright’s Words Matter, Part I

I’d like to give you a few more examples of why changing the playwrights’ words can be very problematic.

First, the easy one.  Jokes.  Punchlines.

Change one word, one simple innocuous word, and you might find it’s no longer funny.

Add a word, or two, or three, and you throw the joke off entirely.  It’s not the gist of the thing that makes it funny.  It’s the way it’s phrased.  Take a word out, you run the same risk.

sunshine boysA rule of thumb in vaudeville (see The Sunshine Boys) was that words with the “K” sound are funny, those without it aren’t.  And it’s true.  “M”s and “L”s just aren’t funny.  Harder, more plosive sounds are.  Substitute a funny word with an unfunny one, you ruin the joke.

Johnny Carson’s rule of thumb was that three is funny, four isn’t.  Talk about “She took my house, my car, and my parakeet”, and it’s funny.  (Notice that parakeet is funnier than dog; it’s got a K in it.)  “My house and my car” – not so much.  Even “my house and my parakeet” isn’t as funny as when the list has three items.  And add a fourth to the list – “my house, my car, my parakeet, and my shopvac” – it’s too many.  We start to lose interest before we get to “shopvac”.  (Take out house, and it becomes much funnier.  Two Ks, plus the unexpectedness of both the parakeet and the shopvac.)

In other words, our attention span only goes so far, and comedy is light, a fourth item weighs it down.  We’re looking for the punchline after three.  But you need three, not two, to set up the joke.  Don’t leave one of the three out!  And don’t add a fourth for any reason.  (Sometimes the playwright has added the fourth.  Sadly, that’s his mistake and you have to live with it.)

If you aren’t a natural comic, you might not understand why this matters.  The meaning is still there, right?  And isn’t it the meaning that is funny?

No.  Not all by itself.  Trust me on this.  Say the line as written.

And if you do consider yourself a comic, and you break these rules, the lines won’t get laughs, or you sure won’t get the kind of laugh the line deserves.  You’ll spend the run of the play wondering why the audience has no sense of humor, when in fact it is your editing of the playwright’s words that is ruining the joke!

See Part II here.

Word Choice, Memorization, and Script Analysis, Part II

Let’s examine a few related words to see what I mean:  cute, attractive, pretty, and beautiful.  And let’s do it with some of the cast of Glee.

glee-emma-pillsbury-290x400“Cute” is the pert girl with the dimples, a ready smile, and a bubbly personality.  She’s attractive, sometimes very attractive, but her features are probably not classic, and her beauty is as much a function of her effervescent personality as it is her physical appearance.  Think Jayma Mays (Emma Pillsbury).

glee brittany“Attractive” is a girl who is pleasant to look at, but who probably isn’t going to turn a lot of heads, or not for very long.  She’s probably got a feature which isn’t classic, but it doesn’t disturb the whole visage enough to make her unattractive.  Think Heather Morris (Brittany S. Pierce).

glee quinn“Pretty” is the stereotypical blonde cheerleader with the chiseled features.  Think Diana Agron (Quinn Fabray).

“Beautiful”?  Well, I’m not sure there are any real beauties on Glee.  No dogs, just no one who meets this high bar.  Let’s just say Giselle Bundchen.  Brooke Shields.  Cindy Crawford.

You’d never use the words “cute”, “attractive”, or “pretty” to describe these supermodels.  If you did, there’d be great confusion and a lot of misunderstandings.

Change a word in the script, and you can cause equal confusion without even realizing it.

I’ve had occasion, in writing these posts, to look for synonyms, and am surprised by how difficult it is, in the language that has more words than any other, to find good substitutes when I want to say something without using the same word I did in the previous sentence.  There aren’t many true synonyms which can be used interchangeably without altering the meaning of the sentence materially.

“Oh,” I hear you say, “that matters for a lot of lines, but not for many of the simple, throwaway lines.”  Okay.  Let’s look at a simple exclamation:  “Oh my god!”  Here are some logical alternatives:  “Oh my goodness!”  “Oh my lord!”  “Oh my gosh!”  “Oh Christ!”  “Oh lord!” and “Omigod!”

I’m not trying to get religious on anyone here, but I would suggest to you that seven different people would use each of these expressions in the same situation.  That even “Oh my god” and “Oh my lord”, while probably the two most similar phrases, nevertheless reflect a different relationship with their Maker.  That “Oh my god” and “Omigod”, while technically the same phrase despite a different pronunciation, nevertheless would come out of two very different mouths.

First, you have to respect these differences.  The playwright chose the words he chose for a reason.  Trust that, even if you don’t understand the reason initially.

Second, use these differences to help you understand your character better.  When we talk more about script analysis, you’ll see why this is useful.

See Part I here.  See Memorizing Your Lines Part I here.  See Memorizing Your Lines Part II here.  See Why the Playwright’s Words Matter Part I here.  See Why the Playwright’s Words Matter Part II here.

Word Choice, Memorization, and Script Analysis, Part I

Word choice matters.

The playwright has limited means of conveying an entire world to the audience, and to you, the actor.  He has only words.  And he has a limited number of them, at that.  He cuts out lots of words en route to the final draft of a play, and so every word that he leaves in counts and often has to carry out several assignments at the same time.

Which words he chooses tell you everything you need to know about the play and the characters.  The words are your clues to put the puzzle of the play together.  Think of the pieces as Easter eggs.  eastereggIn an Easter egg hunt, some of them eggs are so obvious that they dare you to ignore them.  Some are tucked behind a vase, their noses sticking out.  And some are so hidden that you need to move something in order to find them.

These last clues in a play may not surface enough for you to see them until halfway through rehearsal, but they’re there, hidden in the text.  But if you’ve changed the playwright’s words in the course of memorizing your lines, you’ll never find them.

It’s easy to change lines.  Sometimes we paraphrase lines to muddle through them because we have a mental block about them, and it gets us to the rest of the scene.  Before you know it, we’ve convinced ourselves that that is, in fact, the way the line is written.

Sometimes we change lines because we, personally, would use a slightly different phrase, and so it seems more natural to us to use our own words.  We may not even realize we’ve changed them.  If someone brings it to our attention, we’ll probably argue with them and stare at the script in disbelief.

Sometimes we change lines because we can’t understand why the playwright wrote it as he did, and rather than figure out the answer to that question (which might have a profound influence on how we play the character), we change the line so that it fits in with our notion of the character.  This is akin to taking a jigsaw puzzle piece and forcing it into a place where it doesn’t belong or, even worse, shaving the side of it so it will fit.

And sometimes (horror of horrors), we just think that we, who are so new to the material, know better than the writer who created these characters and slaved over each word in the script for many months.

But word choice reveals character, and so when you change your character’s lines, you change your character.  And usually not for the better.

Next time, I’ll give you some specifics about the kind of damage changing the playwright’s words can do.  But in the meantime, do your best to memorize his words, and not yours.

See Part II here.  See Memorizing Your Lines Part I here.  See Memorizing Your Lines Part II here.  See Why the Playwright’s Words Matter Part I here.  See Why the Playwright’s Words Matter Part II here.