A STRONG CHOICE IS A HEAD START
There is a ‘road of discovery’ which every and actor and director travels during rehearsal and performance. The road is endless and has many off-ramps leading you to other roads which are also endless. There is good signage along the way to guide you and and help you know which roads to take and which to avoid. The road’s beginning is the text and the road’s ending does not exist. The further along you are when rehearsal begins, the further will get by the end of the process.
The beautiful thing about this road is that when you leave it at the end of your process, say when a show closes, the road keeps going. No matter how far you have traveled, there is more road ahead of you. It is infinite.
I’ve often heard actors talking about discovering too much too early. I’ve feared that myself in the past. As if the discoveries I make are finite and I might use them up before the end of the run. This is simply not a concern. Discoveries are as infinite as the road, and too much can not be discovered too early or too often.
I discovered this to be true yesterday in rehearsal. After working a scene, my director guided me toward a stronger and more compelling direction. Till that moment, I was really taking my time discovering where my character lived. I was letting things hit me slowly and timidly. This is not in itself a bad way to approach a role, but when my director offered me an stronger, more exciting and dangerous choice, my discovery took off. The director and I learned more about the character during the next 30 min. than either of us had learned in the three weeks prior. The strong choice bred discovery . It lead us to more understanding and to stronger choices still. Light begets light. Knowledge begets knowledge and strength, strength.
A strong or bold choice is informed by the text and provides the character with compelling and difficult obstacles. The strong choice hurdles the actor further in to the inner life of the character, and frees the character for complete exploration of the world of the play.
Come into rehearsal prepared, full, courageous and ready to commit to a strong choice. You can travel any distance of the road of discovery at any time. If you come in timid or cautious, the director, or any other outside influence can still drive you further down the road whenever you are ready. But the bolder you are on day one, the further down you the road you will be at the beginning of the journey. The further along you begin, the further you will get.
The process of discovery for any play, show or movie is infinite. You never arrive. Rather you continue traveling as long and far as the process allows. Don’t be afraid to get a head start.
THE HOW AND THE WHAT
When is it okay to beg clarification, or question a director? We’ve all seen the best actors do it and we’ve all done it ourselves when necessary. What makes it necessary? When is it okay to stop and say, “Wait, I’m confused?”
The actor should keep his mouth shut and let the character do the talking, in the world of the play. Unless the actor doesn’t know what the character is supposed to be saying. Then the actor must question the director to clarify.
But what about when the actor knows what the character is saying, but doesn’t know how the character should say it? Well, the answers to those questions are best learned in the moment to moment discoveries of the play. They are best discovered by the actor with a closed mouth, an open ear and a willful imagination.
A director hires a particular actor because that director believes that actor will most clearly tell the story. Whether it be through look, temperament, skill or maybe just professional relationship, you were hired for a particular role because you most closely fit bill for that directors story-teller. Our job is to tell the story, as the director desires it to be told.
So, when is it okay to stop the rehearsal and say, “Wait director! This doesn’t make any sense?” When is it okay to stop and question the director?
When you don’t know what story you are telling.
Actually, it’s not only okay to question the director at this moment, it’s essential.
In the theatre, once a director stages the play and puts it on its feet, together with lights, sets and sound, the director leaves. The actors are then left alone with the stage manager to continue to tell the story, as the director envisioned it. So, if you don’t know what story the director wants to tell, how are you going to craft your discoveries two, three or four weeks into the run?
Here’s an example, and this is lifted right from my rehearsal yesterday. This exchange is going to seem simple enough, but it draws an important distinction. There’s a moment in Cabaret when I was allowing my character to eavesdrop on a conversation between two other characters. Then the director said to me, “Hey, make sure you turn into Sally at this point. I need you two closed off.” I was confused. The day before I understood that the director wanted my character to learn something from the conversation going on and I’d made the choice to let him eavesdrop. I though the audience needed to see that, as it informed them about decisions my character made later. So, I said to the director, “Wait, if I close myself off then I won’t be able to listen to this conversation. I thought Cliff needed to hear what was said here.” “No”, said the director. “I don’t want anyone to hear this. I want this conversation to be totally private.”
Now, I could have easily closed myself off when the director asked and not questioned it at all. It’s easy enough to do and I could still have allowed my character to eavesdrop. But, doing so contradicted my understanding of what story we were telling. I though we were telling the story that Cliff hears the conversation and learns from it. I learned the director wants the story to be, no one in the room hears this conversation and Cliff learns what he needs in other ways.
Here’s the distinction: If I had already understood that the director wanted the conversation to be private and was then asked to close myself off, I would never had questioned it. In that instance, closing myself off would not contradict my understanding of what story I am telling, but rather how I am telling it.
An actor can change the ‘how’ of the story very easily, and should do so fully with as little question as possible. The ‘what’ of the story, however, must be fully understood and questioned methodically.
I’m sure there are other amendments to this rule. Also, it exists with an eye for collaboration aside. (Sometimes a director is looking for collaboration. You know it when it happens. Just keep your ears open more than your mouth.) But, as a general rule of thumb, I don’t think you can go wrong only speaking up when you have to. And and an actor has to understand what story they are telling.
Act with the line.
Not before the line
After the line
Over the line
Under the line
Around the line
Near the line
In spite of the line
Because of the line
The old adage is to act on line, which I don’t think is a bad idea. But, on the line merely tells you when to act in relation to the line. It does not tell you how to act in relation to the line. So, the adage is incomplete. Let the old saying be:
When do you act? On the line.
How do you act? With the line.
This, however, is also incomplete. What do you do when you don’t have a line, which is the case more often than not? How do you act without a line? Well, that might be it right there. Act without the line. Let the old saying for when you don’t have a line be:
When do you act? On the moment?
How do you act? Without the line.
I think if I were giving advice to a group of beginning actors, these four rules would be the first words out of my mouth. These four basics are critically important and deceptively hard.
DISCOVER LIKE A COW
Yesterday’s rehearsal was our first run-through. We’ve been spending a lot of time rehearsing all the pieces and we finally put it together. I had a lot of successes during that run. And, when I talk about successes I’m not talking about performing something just as I had planned to perform it, or the scene feeling just as I’d hoped it would feel in my visualizations. Success came when I freed my character into the world, allowed him to truly listen, and then my character responded honestly. I made so many discoveries and gave my character so many chances to uninhibitedly explore the circumstances of the scenes. Discoveries happen during those uninhibited explorations. So, how do those explorations happen…?
Surprise, surprise! It starts with the parameters.
I am told that this is true:
If you put a cow in the middle of a wide open pasture with no visible boundaries, such as trees or a fence, the cow will only grace in one spot. Apparently, the cow will starve before he will explore an undefined pasture. But, if you fence in that pasture, the cow will graze all the grass from edge to edge and everywhere in between.
An actor is a lot like a cow.
Exploration within parameters is a requirement of discovery and discovery is a requirement of truthful acting.
I was able to make discoveries about my character’s inner life and relationships because I was exploring within a set of well defined boundaries. Those boundaries were set in the rehearsals leading up to this run-through. It’s not like a discovery is going to cause my character to suddenly stand on his head or take on a limp. In fact, I won’t even make a discovery that causes my character to cross up stage at the pre-determined place in the scene where the director has asked me to cross down stage. In rehearsal, I integrated that cross down stage into the inner life of the character — it became a boundary along the scene’s edge — and I will only make discoveries within that boundary.
Within a plays boundaries — boundaries such as a character’s dialect, a character’s inability to touch another character or look at another character, a dance move, a series if stage directions, or even an emotional journey agreed upon by the actor and director — live the choices and discoveries about the character’s motivations, actions, tasks, and the nuances of that characters relationship to other characters, words and objects.
Once we are fenced in, we can trust that we’re not going to fall off the edge of the earth, no matter how far we wander. Then we are free to graze everywhere the pasture allows.
Anonymous asked: What would it take for you to go gay, sir?
Hmm… what an interesting question. What would it take for you to go straight? Or, maybe think of it this way…
What would it take for Micheal Bay to make a good movie or for Drew Barrymore to top her work in E.T?
It’s just not gonna happen.
REHEARSAL JOURNAL: REHEARSAL
Today in rehearsal we finally put together a scene I’ve been looking at on my own for weeks. At home or during down time in rehearsals I’ve mined this short scene for obstacles and parameters and solutions and, of course, I’ve discovered more problems than solutions.
During the sparse dialogue between mine and one other character this much is clear: I want to get away from this guy and he wants me to stick around. He’s trying to get me to do something that I’m never going to do. Simple enough. Today, when we put the scene on its feet an additional element, or elements, was introduced by the director. It wasn’t my scene partner who was keeping me from leaving the conversation, but rather two other characters holding baseball bats and barring my exits L and R. Suddenly my character’s obstacles and problems became much different than I had imagined. The stakes were higher and my character utilized a completely different set of actions in his attempts to leave the room.
We have to do our homework. One thing that made this scene really fun today was my familiarity. I’d been over the scene enough on my own and engrained the dialogue and need firmly into the inner life of the character. So, the new elements of danger introduced by the director were easily integrated into an already full internal struggle. But, today I was reminded that the real work is done in rehearsal. Rehearsal is where the scene truly comes together. More learning went on in the silences between lines and in integration of new stimuli than could ever have been done alone with my script. You can’t take your homework into rehearsal believing the job is done. The work continues, and in many ways is more important. Once you drop the script and begin interacting in the world of the play you must be prepared to take the next steps.
So often actors decide to, or are encouraged to, use the first staging rehearsals to learn the “blocking” and get comfortable with where to go when. Then, later they start to, or are encouraged to, begin acting. What a waste of some of the most important opportunities for discovery. I’ve harped before in this blog about the importance of using every chance available to dive further into the inner life of the play, from read-through to closing night. But, perhaps the fist time a character is allowed to find their feet in a new surrounding, free from the script, is the most important chance of all.
REHEARSAL JOURNAL: ON VOICE
In a large, echoey and sparsley furnished rehearsal hall, filling the space is not a problem. In the hall where I’ve been rehearsing articulation and specificity of sound are actually more important than volume, though I contest that is case in most spaces. Too often a 10 AM rehearsal, following a 10PM curtain-down the night before, just doesn’t inspire a proper warm-up. Too often I find myself walking into rehearsal, coffee in hand, buzzing my lips or exploding a plosive for the first time that day.
Well today, as I have only semi-regularly done during the past few years of almost daily rehearsal, I gave it the old college try and afforded my voice and body ample time to ‘warm up’. And not just any warm up, such as going to the gym and generally working out, but a warm up geared specifically toward readying myself for the very particular challenges of that particular day’s rehearsal.
When you do not warm up, you have to work harder to be interesting.
James B. Nicola
Was there any surprise that during rehearsal, after a short but focused warm-up, I felt a great amount of freedom? Was there any surprise that I was much more available to the needs of my character? No, of course not. The fact is, my voice and body were completely at the ready. When I breathed in the inspiration of the moment my body readily delivered whatever resulting action my character chose. The action came out with clarity and resonance, which gave strength to my character and strengthened his impact on the other characters.
What I reminded myself of today was a simple and easily escaped reality of the life of an actor. On stage; every word, movement, breath and even thought must be communicated in a way larger than life. Real-life nuances are fine for real life, but they have no place on the stage. So, being awake enough to make sound and have a conversation at the coffee shop does not mean you are ready to have a conversation on stage in front of an audience, no matter how ‘life-like’ the play may be. In fact, the more ‘life-like’ pieces of theatre often offer more slippery physical and vocal challenges. It’s tempting to use the ‘real-like’ qualities of voice and body which simply disappear on stage. It takes more skill to whisper to the back of the house than it does to yell.
Why is it so hard to remember the things that you’ve had the most time to learn? I’ve known how to warm up for acting far longer than I’ve had any idea about how to truthfully act. But truthfully, without the former I don’t stand a chance at the latter.
Late last night I was trying to fall asleep having just put down my Cabaret script. As I lay in bed I began visualizing the scene I had just been looking at. Imagining myself in the particular circumstances of that scene I scoured the situation for possible actions or discoveries. Then, in my visualization, I looked around and realized something: I was standing in the rehearsal hall.
I didn’t look up as my character in the visualization and see the walls of a cheaply furnished Berlin flat. I didn’t look out a window and see the whole of the Nollendorfplatz stretching before me. I rather saw a wall covered in drawings of the set and, of all things, my damn director standing before me watching my every move. I didn’t even visualize myself in costume.
We have so little opportunity, whether in a rehearsal hall or on a film set, to truly experience the imagined world imagined in which our characters reside. I don’t have the opportunity to spend any time in 1930’s Berlin, or even visit some sort of Cabaret museum. The best I have found so far is to take a blog-like virtual tour of ‘Christopher Isherwood’s’ Berlin online. (I must say, it wasn’t of much use.)
So why then, when my character’s environment is created solely from my imagination, would I not utilize an opportunity to visualize my character in that imagined environment?
The greatest tool an actor has is imagination. That imagination can take the character anywhere and everywhere the script, director or actor decide the character might go. I’ll spend plenty of real time standing in the rehearsal hall pretending I’m standing in a flat in Berlin, I don’t need to stand in that rehearsal hall in my dreams.
Visualize your characters in their imagined environment as often as possible. That visualization is a part of your rehearsal. If you rehearse it well enough, God willing, you’ll carry it into your performance and that’s one more thing you won’t have to pretend.
PLAYING THE AUDIENCE
Life onstage is not like life off stage; it is formed life, conceived of passion, fertilized by imagination, and contrived by a storyteller for a purpose.
James B. Nicola
I picked up, Playing the Audience, by James B. Nicola three of four years ago and remember not liking it much. I think I had no taste for it; like a teenager has no taste for a structured, tannic Bordeaux. Now, I’ve tasted a lot more wine and I can work my way through the complexity of the wine to the subtle fruit and chocolate flavors hidden within.
James’s book, thus far, is a treatise on the actor’s obligations to the audience. He is trying to teach actors how to make art which the audience can enjoy and benefit from, not just art the actor enjoys and benefits from. Art only becomes art “with the experiencing of it. It is the beholders experience combine with the artist’s creation that defines the act of art.” In other words, we are nothing without our audience.
In service of the audience, James keenly understands the difference between truth and reality and how important it is for artists not to confuse the two. Nothing in theatre is real, but all of theatre can be truthful. Nothing, either, in the act of acting is real, but all MUST be truthful.
I have much more of James’s book to read, but 15 pages in I’ve already packed away some amazing tools and tricks to help connect myself to the character and my character to the audience. It’s useful to simply be reminded that the goal of a live performer is to to “make the audience’s experience worthwhile, unique and essential.” The invitation we give the audience must be compelling; the material we present to the audience must be truthful and essential and our dedication to the audience must be purposeful, specific and unwavering.
But, to quote my favorite childhood TV show, “You don’t have to take my word for it…”
REHEARSAL JOURNAL: ENVIRONMENT
A director I’m working with now has given us actors a great thing. It’s a window, DL that looks out from my character’s apartment onto the whole of Berlin. The window of course doesn’t really exist, but my character spends a lot of time looking out. It doesn’t have any curtains and is oddly too large for its apartment. Oh, and it also has the ability and tendency to move about as needed.
I discovered today that being specific and imaginative with your character’s environment can provide some great parameters. Especially on the stage, we can’t wait for the set to do it for us. If, God willing or God forbid depending on my mood, you find yourself on a set with three walls and all the correct furniture then you certainly have a lot to play with. However, you still have to imagine that fourth wall, and in most plays imagine it quite often. That wall can provide as many problems for the character as solutions for the actor. It’s yours to build up or tear down or fill with holes as needed. However, you usually aren’t on a set with even three walls, and even if you are, you aren’t on it for rehearsal. So, it becomes the actors job to build their own environment. Well, why not build one that serves up the character some problems to deal with?
You might not always be able to build your character a window. And, I must admit I sometimes find the window too freeing; filled with too many opportunities and my character longs for some more specific parameters and stricter problems. So, today I built my character a corner. It was a tight corner and he couldn’t really move much in it. The corner was made up of three walls and the fourth wall moved about as needed, to allow the character to look out or at someone or down at his feet. However, I sometimes closed off the corner all together and gave the my character no where at all to look or move. Trying to free himself from the corner really opened up my character’s struggles and activated some otherwise pretty ‘act-y’, boring shit.
That corner wasn’t anything the director gave me and it probably isn’t anything I will carry with me into performance. It is rather a parameter which I will use as long as necessary and when needed as a tool for discovery. I’m sure, or rather I hope, that in rehearsals to come I will exchange that tool for a sharper one, and that one again for another sharper still. Playing with the character’s environment is just another set of tools I will now and forever carry with me.
REHEARSAL JOURNAL SERIES: LISTEN UP
I have recently failed at exploring parameters in my rehearsal, as I promised I’d do. But, that’s mostly because I’ve not been in rehearsal much. That will change quickly. However, I got to sit in on a rehearsal the other day and while lessons on applying parameters didn’t strike me, I did have some thoughts on listening.
Especially early on in rehearsal, maybe at the first stumble-through, it can be difficult to know what kind of work to do. Do you worry about your lines? Do you forget the acting and just focus on the staging, as so many directors have encouraged me? Do you ask the questions which are clouding your understanding of the moment or just dive in and search for the answer on your feet? The answers to these questions seem to be different for everyone. As I sat in a room watching 6 actors struggle through a text-heavy show for the first time, I saw 6 different ways of coping with the challenges of rehearsal. Do I believe that some ways are more useful than others? Yes, I surely do. Do I think that the overall quality of work done in the theatre and in film and TV would improve if we actors, as a group, settled on and practiced more efficient and focused rehearsal habits? Yes I do. But, that is a lot to ask and we are too personally invested in our own processes, especially, I observe, as we grow older in the business.
However, I am going to ask one thing of every actor who is reading this blog. And, I am going to ask every actor, or director or writer or grip who is reading this blog to ask this of every other artist they know. LISTEN BETTER!
That’s it. Listen better. That is where I think we all need to start. No matter how confounded you are by trying to remember your lines or trying to remember where the hell you counter, a more palpable solution can be discovered if you listen better. No matter how concerned with understanding where your character is coming from and where your character is going, the best answers are found in your partners and you can only hear them if you listen better.
During that rehearsal I watched, the actors who were listening are the actors I watched. The actors who were in their head worrying about their own shit, understandable as that is because it was the first time they had put the whole play together, did not get my attention. Audiences are not interested in watching an actor act. They are interested in people who listen and observe and react and learn. A character who walks on stage not knowing his ass from Adam and then learns the difference, right before the eyes of the audience, is a compelling person to watch. The actor who gave that character a need to listen and learn has done the story a great service. When all else fails, or better yet before it fails, we all need to listen up.
Hey, I’m back.
Here’s what’s in the news today:
Boston’s Logan International Airport will become the first in the nation this week to require every single traveler to go through a quick interview with security officials trying to spot suspicious behavior.
NPR’s Morning Edition
They’ve been doing this successfully in Israel for a while now. The idea is to weed out suspicious travelers before they even get to security. Though many are skeptical, TSA agents asking just a couple simple questions to passengers have already caught drug traffickers and fugitives. Here’s what’s happening…
“We are looking for behaviors that are out of the norm — some kind of indicators of intent to cause a problem,” says George Nacarra, federal security director for the TSA at Logan.
Nacarra says there is a long list of hints or “tells” that can out a bad guy planning to do bad things: “The movement of the eyes, perspiring in a cool environment, the Adam’s apple movement. … I can’t be more specific because they are somewhat classified,” he says.But experts say most of the behaviors officers are looking for are involuntary physiological reactions that a human being would not be able to repress. “[That someone could not have these reactions] is like saying don’t have a heartbeat,” says Marc Salem, who has made a career as a consultant to law enforcement — and as a performer.
“Well, that’s fantastic dude. Thanks for all the travel news in your acting blog!”
First of all, you need to check out the video on the Morning Edition website. It’s attached to the article. This is about how we work as humans, despite our ethnic, social or cultural backgrounds. No matter how different we are, some things about how we deal and react the the world around us are just, well… human.
These human reactions, which are universal and, some say, completely uncontrollable, are what TSA officers use to determine whether or not you are a terrorist. It’s the way your face responds to the situation of being questioned (not even the answers to the questions themselves) which tells them you’re lying and are probably a terrorist. Think you’re a great actor and can lie without lying… I doubt it.
Here’s my theory. Just as experts say that these universal reactions can’t be controlled, I believe they also can’t be faked. Yes, we have a pretty good idea what some of them look like. Our society has come to a consensus about what most of our “human” emotions look like. So, many actors think they can simply express those emotions with their face and fool an audience into thinking their character is actually going through something. Well, I’ve never bought it and I promise, you haven’t either. Yes, we’ve put up with it and agreed as a society that we’ll let that pass as acting. However, I think we all know the difference between faking it and ‘the real thing.’
“These indeed seem / For they are actions that a man might play. / But I have that within which passeth show, / These but the trappings and the suits of woe.”
Per usual, Shakespeare’s been on top of this from the beginning. Acting comes from“That within which passeth show ”. Anything else is fake. I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but our ability to fake it is like a terrorist or drug-smuggling-teenager’s ability to lie to airport security. Even if they can get away with it, do we really want them to?
I think we need to start doing some of the same work that we all hope these TSA officers are doing. Only, we have to do it backwards. We need to dig deep and find what makes us all human. Then, we need to dig into that which makes us human and figure out how to relive that humanness from the inside out. We need to learn to tell the difference between what is real and what is fake. Then ban the ‘fake’ from our acting vernacular. I have a feeling this task will not be easy for us actors or for the TSA. Hopefully, we can all get good at it real quick.
REHEARSAL JOURNAL: REPETITION
I am in the throws of the repetitive rehearsal at the moment. It’s the part of rehearsal when you hear a lot, ”Lets do that one more time.” I wrote in my rehearsal journal regarding applying parameters during one particularly long set of repetitions:
This is fucking hard.
I think that about sums it up.
Using repetitions well in rehearsal is important for so many reasons. Surely, it is crucial not to waste any opportunity to learn something about your character in the world of the play. Also, it is true that anything and everything you do in rehearsal shows up in performance. I’ve learned that first hand recently. So, every time you rehearse a scene without fully releasing the character into the world of the play you are risking performing the scene in the same way. It’s not like that repetition you wasted is just going to disappear and be replaced by the next one. You learn from it. The character learns from it. And every bad habit that you rehearse has to then be unrehearsed in order for a truthful inner life to be completely present. Said like that, the whole process seems a little daunting. But, I can at least take away this:
If everything I rehearse shows up in performance, then I am minimally burdened to rehearse an availability to the character’s inner life. Then, at the very least, the character will be present in performance. That is where it all starts. I know I should never be rehearsing anything less or more than that. So, that’s a beginning. A beginning is a good place to start.
THE REHEARSAL JOURNAL SERIES
I the past few days I’ve had a few people talk to me about parameters and rehearsal. I’ve also observed some new things and asked myself so new questions about how rehearsal habits affect performance. How can parameters be used in rehearsal effectively? What is the process for implementing parameters in rehearsal? How do you practice good rehearsal habits when working with a director or other actors who don’t share your vocabulary or vision?
I would love to have answers for all these questions. So, I am going to bring back something I have not done in quite a while: the rehearsal journal. A lot of actors have great audition journals, though I myself have never been good at keeping one of those. Particularly recently because I’ve been at the same theatre for over two years and haven’t auditioned much. However, a rehearsal journal has proven a great way to learn from my successes and failures in rehearsal. It’s time I keep a detailed journal again as I dive into rehearsal for my next two shows.
Over the next two weeks, as the summer rep. here at Barter comes to a close, I’ll be rehearsing part-time for Cabaret. Then, I take a week break. When I come back, I’ll be rehearsing full-time for Cabaret and The Glass Menagerie. Over the next 6 weeks or so I’ll keep as detailed a journal as I can in rehearsal, particularly geared to discovering how to use parameters as a tool for discovery. Of course, I’ll share what I learn here. So… keep reading.
Of course, I’ll continue to share other discoveries, ideas and questions that come up along the way. I encourage any one reading to contribute their discoveries, thoughts or questions about parameters as they rehearse or perform. If you are doing TV or film work, I’d really love to hear what you have to say about how this tool is different, useful or un-useful in those mediums.