Is the Director the Boss?

director-clipart-directorAt AACTFest2015, I gave a seminar on Blocking which was attended by both actors and directors.  One of the directors stayed after the seminar was over.  She said (quite firmly!) that when she directs, it’s her show, and her actors have to do what she wants them to.  Then she said, “but I encourage them to be creative and offer ideas during rehearsals.”

You can’t really have it both ways.

Any time (in life) we offer contradictory instructions to those around us (and yes, this is a very human thing to do and a good thing to keep in mind when you’re acting), one of those instructions will be followed and one won’t.  And guess which one wins?

The one that is most negative.

No one wants to be punished or yelled at, least of all actors who are inclined to have fragile egos.  So we take the conservative route and listen to the negative rule; in this case, “what I say, goes.”

As a director, you can only expect creativity and daring from your actors if you give them the space to be creative and daring.  That means letting them explore and suggest, and if you decide to not go with their idea, letting them down in the easiest way possible.

The more space you give them, the more they will offer you.  This means that the precedent you set in the first two weeks of rehearsal determines how creative they will be in the rest of the rehearsal period.  Exploration is like a snowball rolling downhill.  It’s small at first, but give it some time, and it becomes huge.

As a director, this means actively encouraging the actors’ input until they start responding and praising the input, even if it doesn’t work.  Do that enough early, and they start to feel comfortable that their ideas will be thoughtfully considered.

And “thoughtfully considered” is the key.

I often work with inexperienced actors, and I encourage them to offer any ideas they have despite their inexperience.  (The newbies often think that I am giving that freedom only to those with plays under their belt, but I work hard to make sure everyone knows that the invitation applies across the board.)

I do this for several reasons:  one, everyone in a production needs to be “equal”, even the actor with four lines.  Two, because I trust that human instincts are good, and so the idea from someone who has only done one play may be just as good as the idea from someone who’s done ten.  Three, because that’s how you learn, and I want every actor to leave my production with more skills than she entered it with.

Because what I’m doing in the first weeks of rehearsal is blocking, it’s an easy time to invite actors to participate:

“You look uncomfortable there.  Are you?  What would make you feel better?”

“No, that isn’t working, because we need to get her to the couch on that line.  Anyone have any ideas?”

“We’ve ended up with everyone on one side of the stage.  Let’s figure out how to get you more balanced.”

“Joe, you’re blocking Sally from this side of the audience.  Can we find a reason for you to move somewhere else?”

As I look back at these comments, I realize that I use the word “I” as infrequently as possible.  Putting on a play is a “we” activity, and I use that pronoun repeatedly to make sure the cast understands that we are all in this together and that good ideas can come from anywhere, not just me.

I’ve done shows where an actor offers an idea that I know won’t work, and in the interest of saving time, I’m tempted to say so and move on to something that will.  Instead, I say, “Sure, let’s try it.”  When it doesn’t work, I try to tweak the idea to find a way to make it work.  I give it up only when I’ve exhausted its possibilities.  And I always explain why it doesn’t work, so they understand why we can’t use it.

Occasionally, the tweaking is successful and results in a pretty good idea, which in and of itself is a good reason for trying even bad ideas.  Or it buys me enough time to think of a better one.  But even when it isn’t successful, the effort I’ve put toward it shows that I respect the actor who offered the idea and consider him a full partner in this venture.  That one act is often all it takes to get the entire cast to realize that I mean what I say, and that they should pipe up every time they have something they want to try.

I never want an actor to feel that she offered a “bad” idea.  There are ideas that work in the context of what we are trying to do and ideas that don’t (or don’t work as well as we want them to — whenever possible, I will characterize them in this way).  The only ideas I will characterize as “bad” are my own.

“Remember when I said you should do X?  I was wrong.  It doesn’t work at all.  Let’s find something else.”

“Eh — it doesn’t really work, but I have no idea what to do instead.  Let’s do that for now so we can keep moving, and we’ll find something better down the road.”

By admitting my own failures, I make it clear that I don’t have all the answers and that I’m open to suggestions.  And that it’s okay to not have the answers now, that answers will show up eventually.  When it is clear that I am exploring, the actors are more likely to explore.

 

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.

2015 Actor’s Renaissance Season: Top 5

From an actor at my favorite theater in the world. Given that we’ve been talking about script analysis lately, check out #3 for a good example of how lines in different parts of the script impact each other and how even good, trained actors don’t necessarily see the connections immediately.  This is also an example of Diamond Lines.  Isn’t it funny that you can have Diamond Lines that you somehow completely miss?  It’s a V-8 moment when the penny finally drops, and you are so grateful!  And oh, yes — read the rest of the post, too. Worth your time!

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The Actor’s Renaissance Season is an experience unlike any other in the American Theatre, both for the audience and the actors involved in creating it. Eleven actors. Five plays. Three months. Zero directors.

The 2015 Actor’s Renaissance Actors featured these plays:

  1. THE TAMING OF THE SHREW by William Shakespeare (1591)
  2. THE ROVER by Aphra Behn (1677)
  3. THE WHITE DEVIL by John Webster (1612)
  4. EVERY MAN IN HIS HUMOR by Ben Jonson (1598)
  5. MOTHER BOMBIE by John Lily (1594)

In the Actor’s Renaissance Season, there are two levels of “Staging Conditions” applied to the plays. The first level relates to performance:

  • We perform with the lights on, so you can see other patrons, and the performers can see you
  • We perform in a thrust at the beautiful Blackfriars Playhouse, so you can sit right on stage
  • We use cross-gender casting, and all actors plays multiple characters in the same play
  • We…

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The Problem with Run-throughs

digressionI need to digress and talk about run-throughs.  I’m writing this from the director’s perspective, but it’s useful for an actor to know, too.  I have much more to write in the Script Analysis series on Other People’s Money, but I feel a mighty powerful need to digress, too.

Run-throughs are rehearsals in which one “runs through” an entire act (or an entire play) with minimal, if any interruptions, and notes (corrections, suggestions, etc.) are given after the act is over.  There are a few real benefits to using run-throughs in rehearsal:

  • To “check in” on where the play stands.  If you’ve been doing a lot of piecemeal work, it helps you see how it is coming together.
  • To give the actors a sense of continuity.  Some actors find it difficult to work a play in pieces without regular run-throughs to remind them of how the play feels as a whole.
  • To give the actors the chance to really explore their emotional life.  Once you’ve cleared up the rough bits in the first half or even two-thirds of the rehearsal period, whether it’s physical stuff that needed fine-tuning or emotional motivations, actors can’t really explore their characters’ emotions fully if you jump into the middle of an act at the start of rehearsal.  And eventually, you need to be running the entire play in one night, because the second act builds on the first.

Maybe there are other benefits I’m not thinking of at the moment, and if so, I’ll be happy to add them as they spring to mind.  HOWEVER,

There are directors who seem to think that run-throughs, once blocking rehearsals are completed (“you move here on that line, then you sit, and then you stay there until she enters, at which point you rise and walk to the fireplace”), is the proper way to go.  In other words, a week or so into rehearsals, it’s time to move to a run-through of the act.

I understand where this philosophy comes from (at least some of the time):

  • That’s how the directors I worked under operated, so that must be how it’s done!
  • I can see how close the play comes to my vision, and so I can know better how to fix it.
  • How else would you direct a play?

If you’re working in community theater (or high school theater), this is, sadly, a not-uncommon approach to directing.  Why “sadly”?  Because it’s not particularly effective, even if you’re (otherwise) a good director.

On the one hand, I understand that a lot of people who end up directing in these venues have had no training as directors, and often no apprenticeship with anyone who is really good and creative as a director.  I’ve known directors who have never acted, and who have no real understanding of what an actor needs (whether he knows it or not, and not everyone does) to do his best work.  For those directors, run-throughs make perfect sense, because those directors are all about final product — beginning on the first day of rehearsal.

I am going to do something HIGHLY UNUSUAL for me, for those of you who have been reading this blog for any period of time, and confine myself to a SINGLE ARGUMENT, which is (for me) so powerful than any other arguments (which I could surely find) would be superfluous.  I recently came in touch with it in a powerful way, one of those wonderful “Aha!” moments that make life worth living for me.

The human brain is dualistic.  That is, we know a chair is a chair not only because it shares characteristics with another chair, but because it doesn’t share enough characteristics with a table.  We know what is “better” only when we compare it to like things that are “less good” or “okay, but who cares” or “atrocious”.

So if an actor is struggling with a scene, or simply in the early stages of “discovery” (which have nothing to do with final product — see all kinds of other posts throughout this blog) — letting him run that scene once a night — perhaps twice, in the context of the entire act, if he’s lucky — is insufficient.  Why?

Because if a scene or a beat or a moment or whatever isn’t working, you need to isolate it and work it repeatedly, so that the dualistic mind can do its work.  Forget what I’ve said about the subconscious — that will come into play here, too, but my emphasis on the subconscious does not mean that the conscious mind has nothing to contribute.  It does (but many actors rely too much on it, even if they think they don’t).  And here’s where the conscious mind is a real asset.

I’m speaking as an actor now:

Run a scene the first time, and you’ll get the “default” position — whatever your natural instincts brought you to.  Maybe not all of it works as well as you’d like.  Run it a second time (immediately), and you’re likely to change the things that bothered you the most.  The benefit is that you just did the scene in a different way, so you can compare the two (the brilliant dualistic mind at work) and say, “Huh.  I liked that part of version 2 better, but this other part was worse.  But I’m still not happy with what I did the first time.”

Notice that I haven’t gotten very specific about what did and didn’t work.  I don’t have to.  I may just be reacting on a gut level, but I feel that one or the other version succeeded in each moment, or that neither did.

Do it a third time, and I can start fine-tuning more.  I keep what worked from each of the first two versions and try to fix the remaining broken parts.

Or maybe I go completely off the rails and try something different the third time, most of which doesn’t work, but which offers me a clue about the exchanges that are troubling me.

I can take these learnings ONLY because they are back-to-back.  Spread them out over three rehearsals?  I’m sorry, I haven’t got that good a memory.  I can’t remember the nuances of how I played this scene two nights ago.  In the intervening 48 hours, my boss has yelled at me, my kid has had a fever of 103.1, the quote from the roofer came in and I almost fainted, and my best friend told me she’s having an affair with her dentist.

Seriously — you can’t expect me to remember what I was displeased with at the last rehearsal if it was more than an hour ago.

Now, I’m talking as a director (who happens to be an actor, but that’s sort of coincidental):

At some point, I’ll talk more about how I direct and what I think directors can learn from it, but for the moment, I’ll just say this:  I work my scenes to death, until every important piece has been dissected — not necessarily fixed, but dissected,  I make my actors massively uncomfortable by not following the usual formula of repeated run-throughs.  I’ve learned to throw enough run-throughs in to keep the actors calm, while still focusing my attention on the pieces.

Still, I know that my actors, if they haven’t worked with me before, feel some uncertainty at my approach.  But 3/4 of the way into rehearsals (if it takes that long! — depends on the demands of the play, which is a story for another post), the prospects for the play look brighter for the actors.  They still aren’t out of the woods, but they begin to think that maybe I haven’t led them entirely astray.  By the end of that week, they start to become believers, because there is this magical alchemy that happens — a product, I’m convinced, of my approach to directing.  By the time we get to Wednesday of opening week, they are ready.  I mean Really Ready.  I believe in having a show that is as good on opening night as it is on closing night, because both audiences are paying the same ticket price.  I ensure that by making sure my shows are ready by the Wednesday that precedes opening night (and by the way, this also includes giving the actors a night off on Tuesday of Tech Week).

I should also say that the final product we’ve arrived at on that Wednesday?  It’s not only better than what the actors anticipated, it is better than what I anticipated (and I always have loftier goals than my actors).

Most importantly, I have a cast that is chomping at the bit to open, and is supremely confident that they are doing superb work.  Hard to over-estimate the importance of that.

I’ve done this with a variety of casts and a host of different kinds of plays.  It has worked every time.

I grant you, there may be one important distinction between what I’ve done with my casts and what another director might do.  I have a very good sense of how to help actors deliver their best performances.  Not every director will share that.  But allowing actors to explore options in a scene early on in the rehearsal period — not once you realize that repeated run-throughs are not fixing the problem — is an easy trick that doesn’t require any special expertise as a director!

Please, PLEASE give me feedback on this post if I am off-base.  As an actor and a director, I don’t think I am — and I have recent experience to justify this belief — but I am ALWAYS on the lookout for new information that might improve my perspective.  So comment if you disagree!

 

Actor’s Etiquette: Working With Directors, Part II

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI have a good friend who did a lot of acting for many years before deciding he wanted to branch out into directing as well.  We became friends when he cast me in his first directorial effort, Murder at the Howard Johnson’s.  MHJ is a very funny, physical comedy.  All three actors in the play had considerable experience and Charlie, being new to directing, gave us a good bit of latitude.  It was a very collegial environment, and as he felt his way through the complexities of directing (it’s harder than you think), he was very open to our ideas.  There was a lot of “group think” — real ensemble work — and the final product was something of which I remain very proud.  (The photo in this post is from that production.)

Several years passed, and we met up on stage again for Blithe Spirit.  Charlie had two other productions under his director’s belt, and had considerably more confidence in what he was doing.  But he had also reached the stage where he thought the director needed to control everything in the experience.  He came to rehearsals with distinct and largely immutable ideas about what needed to happen and when.  There was little room for flexibility in the blocking he had created.  Gone was the collegial atmosphere; instead, the cast was busy trying to give him what he wanted, sometimes sacrificing what we felt was true to our character in the process.

Another couple of years, another show:  the ambitious Woman in Mind.  Shortly after Blithe Spirit, Charlie had read and taken to heart Marshall W. Mason’s book on directing, Creating Life on Stage:  A Director’s Approach to Working with Actors.  Gone was the autocratic director; in his place was a director concerned with giving space and assistance to his actors to create more organically-driven characters.

Charlie and I still disagree about whether or not the stage directions in a script are sacrosanct, and have agreed to disagree on this particular point.  Despite this, while Blithe Spirit was a difficult experience for me, given my own approach to acting, Woman in Mind was very rewarding.

Charlie’s trajectory as a director is not unusual.  That middle stage is probably unavoidable.  As with most things in life, it’s difficult to know where “balance” is until you go too far and find yourself out of balance.  A director with self-awareness and a desire to improve will move out of the middle phase, but I’m sure there are others who remain stuck in that position.

So what are you, as an actor, to do when you find yourself working with a director who is in this middle stage, who perceives his role as The Decider, and tells you what to do when?

First, understand that he is learning his job just as you are.  You go through stages as an actor where you aren’t working to your full potential, because you’re still learning your craft, so cut him the slack you’d like yourself.  He is doing the best he can, and doesn’t yet see that controlling everything doesn’t produce the best result.

Don’t challenge his authority too directly.  Control is very important to him; honor that while expressing your own opinions and needs.

Genuinely try to make what he asks work.  Only ask to do something differently if you can’t.  If you do this, he’ll both see your efforts and feel your pain.

Be clear about why something isn’t working for you without making the director sound stupid or wrong.

Don’t demand — instead, ask permission to change something.  “May I . . .?”  “Would it be a problem if . . .?”  “It would really help me if . . .”  “I’m struggling with . . . do you have any suggestions?”

In other words, you can’t change the director’s approach.  You’ve got to figure out how to work within it to produce the best result with the least stress.  Accept that you can’t work in precisely the way you might like to, but negotiate courteously for the things you really need to be comfortable.

Actor’s Etiquette: The Young Actor’s Dilemma

cw_EtiquettePoster_v04_PrintReadyOne of my readers, Milo, made the following comment the other day:

“As a young actor, I find that directors seem afraid to give me specific direction.  So when I ask, how was that… I get a lot of ‘oh, great. You were perfect.’ . . . I don’t think I am that perfect.  So, I’d like more direction rather than less.  I’m working hard to be a pro and to grow as an actor, so directors, please pull some of that greatness out of me.”

Milo, I sympathize, and some of the answer you’re looking for is in my Actor’s Etiquette post on Working with the Director.  But let me take that further.

I’d like to start by addressing your particular situation, which is that you are a young actor.

Do the directors who don’t give you direction give the direction you would like to adult actors?  If they don’t, then perhaps they don’t know how to give direction.  Directors can be very successful despite this shortcoming, because they know how to cast well, and they have a vision.  Those two things can make up for not knowing how to communicate with actors.

When I direct, I am very actor-centric because I began life as an actor and can be articulate about the process.  Not every director works this way.

If they DO give detailed feedback to adults and it is merely your age that is holding them back, there’s a couple of possibilities.  Perhaps you were as good as you needed to be in that moment, and any improvements you could make aren’t worth the director’s time, since he has bigger fish to fry.  I know, that doesn’t help you to grow, but the director isn’t there to help you grow, the director is there to put a show or a film together.  (See the Actor’s Etiquette post, The Director’s Job.)

But perhaps he’s not sure how much better he can help you be.  Let me give you a golf analogy.  Most kids shouldn’t start taking private golf lessons until they are 8 years old (group lessons aimed at younger kids is another matter).  Younger than that, they have trouble focusing in a way that allows me to help them.  They also have some physical coordination issues that hold them back.

Even if they are 8, there are things I typically can’t ask of them.  There is a physical move in the golf swing that most 8-year-olds are challenged by, while a 10-year-old will be receptive to trying to copy that move.  I’ve got a 9-year-old student with whom I can discuss the golf swing and on-course strategy in a way I don’t with many adults, but he’s an exception.

The nature of a golf lesson allows me to chat with my student in a way that lets me understand his receptivity and abilities.  That sort of conversation isn’t de rigueur with directors, however, and a director who doesn’t work regularly with young actors may not know what they can comprehend and what they can’t, or know how to say it in a way that’s meaningful to the actor’s age.

How I talk to an 8-year-old golfer is different from how I speak with a 14-year-old golfer, and both are different than how I speak with an adult.  Ditto with actors of different ages.  And just as the 8-year-old golfer is baffled by certain concepts, so can the 8-year-old actor be (Milo, you’re older than that, I think, but you get my point).

Because of this, kids are often cast because they have a bunch of raw talent and are well-suited to a role.  This means they can turn in a respectable performance without a lot of direction.  So you should be flattered that your directors think enough of you to have cast you.

I know that’s unsatisfying as an answer.  I’ve got one more post to write on this topic, and I think you will find it more helpful.  But that’s for next week, I’m afraid. . .

Actor’s Etiquette: Working With the Director

3623570766Directors come in as many variations as people do, which is to say that the nature of the experience isn’t going to be the same in any two productions you do.

Some directors do a lot of table work; some do none.  Some like to plan blocking ahead; some like to let the actors develop their own.  Some are very involved in what happens in rehearsal; some sit back and let the actors do their thing and nudge the train back on track when it diverts too far.

Whatever kind of director you have, it’s up to you to figure out how to get what you need from him.  It’s a relationship, and like all relationships, we give what is easy for us to give, or what we’ve been accustomed to giving in the past.  If your director doesn’t give you what you need, it’s up to you to ask for it.  Good communication between an actor and her director is critical, but it’s a two-way street.  Don’t expect the director to read your mind.  He’s got a lot on his.

Most directors don’t give enough positive feedback to actors on their work, mainly because actors can’t get enough!  Acting is so personal that even those of us with strong egos need to be reassured that we’re okay, that we’re moving in the right direction.  In addition, some directors may only feel the need to provide you guidance and not reassurance.  If you aren’t getting enough stroking from your director, be direct with him.  “Do you like what I’m doing???”

If you aren’t clear on what your director’s vision for the play is, ask.  Rephrase what he tells you in words that are meaningful to you in order to be sure you are both speaking the same language.  (This is called “mirroring”, by the way, and it is the only way to be sure communication is effective and accurate.)

If you need guidance about your character, ask for it early in the rehearsal process.  Don’t flounder on your own until you’re desperate for help.  I’ve seen directors put off steering actors onto the right track until very late in rehearsal process, and it’s really too late to do much about it at that point.  Remember that if you are struggling with a scene in any way, the director may not realize it unless you say something.  Let him help you sort things out.

This isn’t a test you need to pass.  It’s a work of art you are creating.  Admitting confusion and uncertainty is a healthy thing in the theater.  It’s how we find what works.

Most importantly, be open to what your director has to offer the production.  Remember that he sees things from the audience’s perspective.  If he tells you something looks a certain way, believe him!  He has no reason to lie to you.  If what you’re doing isn’t coming across the way you think it is, change it so it will.

It’s also important to let a director know if he is working in a way that bothers you.  Some directors like to demonstrate.  As an actor, I hate it, and if I see a director doing it with another actor, I’ll let him know (privately) at the earliest opportunity that I need him to not do it with me.  If I am his first “victim”, I’ll diplomatically ask him in the moment to find a different way to get his batman_and_robin_1966_action_figures_hot_toys_1point across.

Remember that while the director has many other concerns to deal with, helping you is still one of them.  Don’t feel that you can’t “bother” him, because “he’s got so much on his plate already.”  He signed up for this responsibility, after all; it’s up to him to figure out how to juggle his responsibilities successfully.  Take responsibility for your acting, but the director is your partner in crime.  Ask for anything you need that will help you produce your best work!

And If There Isn’t Enough Rehearsal Time?

hourglassSo now you have a way of judging whether or not your director has allowed for adequate rehearsal time.

(This isn’t a perfect science, by the way.  The level of experience and skill the actors have will have an impact on how much time is needed, too, and the director may have sufficient personal knowledge of his cast’s abilities to know how that impacts rehearsal time.  What seems a little scant to you may actually be enough.

But all directors get surprised sometimes.  Things that we thought would go so smoothly are a mess, and things we thought would be extremely difficult prove to be very easy for this particular group of actors.  But we do the best we can when we plan.)

If the rehearsal schedule is set in stone, but you’ve decided you don’t have enough time to do what needs to be done, what can you do?  Generally speaking, the answer is to work harder at home.  The more effort you put into preparing for your role when you aren’t at rehearsal will free up time at rehearsal.  When you come to rehearsal better prepared, rehearsals become more efficient and productive, both for you and for everyone around you.  But here’s a few specific thoughts:

  • Memorize your lines as fast as you can.  No matter which challenge you’re facing, getting your lines down will make anything and everything easier.
  • If your challenge is physical movement that doesn’t involve other actors (much), ask the director if you can come early or stay late to run through those sections on your own.  Most directors will be happy to accommodate you.
  • If you have complicated bits of physical business (e.g., mixing cocktails), practice them at home until they become effortless.
  • See if you can work privately with a scene partner to reduce the amount of time needed to work that scene in regular rehearsals.  It needn’t be the complicated scene that needs the extra rehearsal time.  Working privately on anything in the play frees up rehearsal time for the tougher stuff.
  • If there are very physical scenes in the show that you know will take extra work, ask for a schedule of when those particular scenes will be rehearsed.  If you don’t think there is adequate time set aside for them, now is the time to express that concern, because two weeks before opening will probably be too late.

 

 

What Kinds of Plays Need Extra Rehearsal Time? Part II

Blocking issues aren’t the only challenges that may add extra time to rehearsals.  Here are some other things to consider:

One or two roles that carry the lion’s share of the play.  This includes two-handers, star vehicles, and wordy plays.  Some plays just seem to have a lot more words in them than others, and even if there isn’t one character with more than anyone else, there may be several who have more than the lead in an average play.  Plays like these typically require an extra week, just for memorization purposes.

Complex characters.  Plays with one or two roles that are particularly complicated and challenging characters probably take a little extra time to allow for the actors to do them justice.  Conversely, a well-balanced play with straightforward characters and actors who seem to be typecast in their roles may require a little less time to rehearse.

A_Few_Good_Men_CostumesMilitary, period pieces.  Some plays require body movement that is different from what we ordinarily use in real life.  Plays like A Few Good Men, where the majority of the characters are in the military, means that the actors need to learn military bearing in how they stand, walk, etc., and to maintain that consistently throughout the play.  Similarly, the manners at the Elizabethan court in Mary Stuart as well as the difference in attire will affect how actors need to move.

Physical ailments.  An actor who needs to limp, pretend to be paralyzed, use a wheelchair, or make any other notable physical movement changes may need additional time to practice them.  Some modifications, such as Laura’s limp in The Glass Menagerie, may not need much additional time, as the actress playing Laura can work on most aspects of the limp privately in her own time.  However, the actor playing the title role in The Elephant Man needs to contort his body sufficiently that extra rehearsal time is probably required.

Mind-altering conditions.  Scenes where an actor is drunk, high, crazy, or mentally challenged may need some extra rehearsal time.

Playing multiple characters.  Some people are very skilled at this and don’t need any additional time to rehearse.  However, actors who need assistance in creating clear identities for multiple characters, or who need to switch between them within a single scene, such as in The 39 Steps, benefit from additional time.

39steps3Plays requiring perfect timing or which rely on speed.  Not only does this include farces, but it also includes episodic plays like The 39 Steps and The Front Page, wherein much the fun and humor is dependent on fast-paced timing, both of lines and physical action.

Love scenes.  In theory, this shouldn’t take any extra time unless the scene is lengthy and requires a lot of physical movement, in which case it is much like a dance.  However, some actors have more inhibitions about the level of intimacy required by a love scene than others, just as some plays are more demanding in this regard than others.  Bell, Book and Candle is a good example of a play that requires considerable highly-charged physical intimacy.  If the actors playing the lovers are at all shy about entering into the demands of the scene, rehearsing them early and often to allow the actors to achieve  familiarity with each other and comfort with the physical contact is the only way to make them believable.

Foreign languages, accents, or gibberish.  A play like Enchanted April, if you have a non-Italian speaker playing the role of the cook/housekeeper who only speaks Italian, may need a little extra time, although much of her work will be done outside of regular rehearsal time.  Plays where all the characters adopt an accent, such as British English (Received Pronunciation) may take extra time to teach the cast the rules of the accent and correct them when they go astray.  Plays like Woman in Mind, the opening scene of which is conducted partly in gibberish, take additional time to rehearse, to get the actors comfortable with what the gibberish is supposed to mean and how it is to be delivered.

Classics.  Playwrights like Chekhov, Shakespeare, and Moliere present their own performance challenges that might warrant an extra week of rehearsal.

Children.  Depending on the age of the children and their level of experience, it may take a little extra time to get them to understand what they need to do.

 

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.