Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD
Acting Process 3: In Process
The funny thing about doing run-throughs, in this environment-- they give the impression that work is going to happen.
I think the actors and the director have different perceptions of the value and purpose of rehearsal time. Our director, who is a professional performer and who has before now not directed at this school, is treating us as he would professional actors, assuming that we will do all of our analysis and preparation outside of the rehearsal. The actors, who are all graduate students with heavy workloads, are most likely spending most of their time outside of rehearsal working on their homework and assignments. So when we converge on the rehearsal time, the director is expecting most of their work to be done, but the actors are expecting to use the rehearsal time to do the work.
I'm not just speculating. I've seen it happen; I've even done it myself. Because of the demands of the MFA program, I've used the rehearsal time of other shows to make choices rather than to explore choices, and then I only have the chance to test choices rather than explore them. In each case this strategy seemed necessary because of how I was compelled to organize my time. Now that I'm in this show, for which I know most of the work has to occur outside of the rehearsal, I find myself struggling to remember the process I used to have, before I came to this school, which will allow me to construct a complete performance.
That's a curious irony of this university's program. Nobody actually learns how to develop a complete performance. The undergraduates don't learn it because the curriculum assumes that they will never be performing in the mainstage shows; the graduate students don't learn it because the curriculum assumes they already know. Everything is focused on scenework, scenework, scenework. When there is attention given to analysis, the analysis is rarely connected to the performance (instead, it is graded as a written document)-- but even if it were connected, the development of an entire role is a different process than that of a single scene.
The results of this omission seem evident in the mainstage performances. In the shows I've seen over the past two and a half years, the actors have often worked on their "character" (physically), and will very often have found specific moments and meanings within their text. But if they are aware of their scene objectives, if they have developed an arc, if they know their function within the play's structure, then I haven't seen them apply this awareness to their performances. Time after time after time I and my students have come away from a show wondering "what was that about?" Now that I'm in my third year, some of the thesis writeups for performances I've seen have now found their way into the Fine Arts library; I believe I will need to go look at a few of them and discover if my observations are accurate.
I don't say this to knock the other actors, or even the MFA program, but to make clear that none of what I am about to describe regarding developing and structuring a complete role was learned here at the University of Florida. Honestly, I'm not exactly sure where I learned it. My memory tells me that I learned most of it from being cast in shows as a freshman at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, and then when I transferred to Boston University this gave me an advantage over the other non-majors which led to my winning lead roles which allowed me to reinforce and flesh out my understanding.
These are the components which I believe are necessary for a competent performance:
As long as I am totally clear on these elements of my performance, then I will be able to competently fulfill the role. It might not be "great" or even entertaining, but these elements alone will make the performance effective. I always try to develop a physical characterization, although it is not always necessary if you "fit" your role; I also try to develop at least a minimal amount of personal history, to give some sensible context to what I'm saying, but generally what motivation one needs can be found entirely on stage during performance.
The superobjective is what I am there to do. It is the single driving purpose with which I propel myself through the entire show. To be effective, any objective (or superobjective) must be external, allowing you to act on things outside of yourself and create a presence rather than turn inward and disappear. In this show, the only things I'll have to work with are my (Gary's) wife Sue, the audience, and a couple of stools. Therefore, my superobjective is to gain support-- mainly from the audience, but also from these other two.
The beat objectives are the series of actions with which I pursue my superobjective. Each action should be a necessary step toward the action which follows it, so the actions support each other reciprocally; that is, action B can't happen until action A has been accomplished, and once action A has been accomplished then action B should follow as a natural consequence. Each of the actions individually support the superobjective.
I have only just decided on this superobjective, which has altered some of my beat objectives. Revisiting the beats, then, I end up with something like this (where "them" refers to the audience):
SUPEROBJECTIVE: to gain support.
Beat objective 1: find the strength to tell this story
Beat objective 2: make them want to help me
Beat objective 3: make them afraid for me
Beat objective 4: make them outraged
Beat objective 5: share the Light.
That last objective represents the fact that I would like to present this role as though it were, for me, akin to a Quaker meeting for worship. In addition to the relationships I've already mentioned (wife, audience, chair), there is the relationship between myself and the Inner Light, which allows me to find peace and confidence as I look toward the future. If I am successful in my superobjective, then by those few final lines they will be willing to share my decision with me. By the end, I no longer have to convince them; rather, I shall include them and in turn become a part of them. Another effect of this perspective is that, in seeking support for my story, I can allow myself to be inhabited and transformed by forces greater than myself.
This tells a different story than that which I originally imagined. As recently as last week I was still thinking that my goal was to tell Gary's literal story of incarceration and release, and I was focusing my analysis on telling that story as effectively as possible. But the only way to do that well is to actually re-live the story, and that's exactly what the authors and the director and the flashback device indicate is not to be done. Although it's important to understand what the events were that I lived through, they're not the story that's being told in the here and now. Gary's story isn't what happened to him; it's how he's dealing with it here today right now in front of you. The struggle to get through the time on death row has already gone; the struggle to get past it is what the audience will see when they attend the show.
As such, the events of the show must also change. If I hadn't mentioned it already, the "events" are the story of the play; the "superevent" is the single happening which the story exists to represent, while the beat events are the steps along the way. Each event should be simple enough to express as a single simple sentence, and read in sequence should tell a comprehensible story. As you might have guessed, the objectives and the events are inextricable; the objective makes the event happen which consequently tells the story. It is not enough for me to merely know what my objective is; I must know how my objective supports the event and pursue my objective for that reason. The events, then:
SUPEREVENT: Gary overcomes his troubling past.
Beat event 1: Gary [finally] faces his problem.
Beat event 2: Gary discovers that it isn't his fault.
Beat event 3: Gary releases the fear.
Beat event 4: Gary marshals his forces.
Beat event 5: Gary steps into the future.
Ideally, a paired objective and event are self-explanatory. The simpler their relationship can be, the better. In this case, the only one that really doesn't explain itself is beat 4. I have decided that the idea of this monologue-- the explanation of how I got out-- is that the government, even once they know they've made a mistake, will continue to try to keep me in, defying sanity and logic. In which case, making the audience outraged will make them want to fight for me, even as Larry and my twin sister already had done, and make them part of "his forces". It's amusing, now that I write this event, to remember that the lawyer who got him out was named Larry Marshall.
It was only last week, working with some of my students, that I finally understood the purpose of a character arc. I don't address character arc as part of my normal curriculum-- choosing instead shows whose arcs are plot-driven and obvious-- but some of my students from last semester are working with me now on a more advanced script which requires arc analysis. I wasn't able to explain arc to them very well, but I told them what I knew: every character must change by the end of the show or there wouldn't be a point to his/her being in the story; the arc can be described as a series of emotional states; identify the states and the moments of change and that will define the arc. From that vague description, they each prepared their understanding of the arc for our last session, and because I wasn't sure how I would want to guide and clarify what they had to say, I decided to stay completely silent until they had finished explaining their discoveries-- and I'm glad I did, because the more they spoke the clearer it became that objectives and character arc are direct complements. That is to say:
Objectives are how you affect the story. Character arc is how the story affects you.
It's a symbiotic relationship that pushes the story forward. To say it more actively: You drive the story forward with objectives, and the story drives you forward with the arc. It should be a natural cycle, where your objectives make things happen, which change you and make you do something else, which makes something else happen, which changes you further, et cetera. With this driving energy, an audience will remain engaged with you, because it will be clear to them that this play is going somewhere.
In a way, the arc is fractal. There is an overall arc, there are beat arcs, there is an arc to each speech, and if you were really paying attention you'd feel how each line and each impulse creates a change in attitude. I believe I need to understand it to the level of each monologue's arc. Right now I don't know the specific points in each monologue, but I can define the beginning and end points of each.
Beat 1: Uncertain
hesitant and evasive -> ready to tell the story
Beat 2: Anguished
self-critical -> absolved of blame
Beat 3: Fearful
powerless -> powerful (or small -> large)
Beat 4: Chagrined
victimized -> wronged
Beat 5: Resigned
Holding on -> released
In defining the arcs here, it seems obvious that I have the opportunity with each monologue to clearly address and overcome a particular problem. Each monologue thereby moves me further toward being able to leave the experience behind me.
In the first arc, I'm not sure I'll be able to even face what happened. But I manage to grab the bull by its horns.
I'm glad to have learned that, in real life, Gary requested the polygraph test. I can begin that beat thinking that I could have done something, that I might have been able to somehow get out of it if I'd just done something differently; but by the end of it I'll know that I was railroaded.
The third arc gives me an excuse to return to an interpretation that I've enjoyed. The last line is "I made a Calvin and Hobbes patch that I put on my hat. They confiscated that one." Initially, I saw that as a laugh line; that is, they didn't confiscate any of the random things I embroidered, but this patch was so cool and skillfully done that "they" invented an excuse to take it. My partner discovered a different interpretation: these projects were the only good thing in my life, and their confiscation of the patch was, to use my partner's words, a bucket of dirty dishwater dumped over my joy. I believe that, using this arc, I'll be able to incorporate the two feelings and thus create the point of the piece, which is that I found a way to become bigger than them. I had my own way of escaping them, and ultimately they had to reach up to pull me down; although it wasn't really pleasant at the time, they don't have that power over me any more, and that's why I can laugh about it in a bittersweet way.
The fourth beat is where I describe how I got out; its arc allows me to see that I don't need to take it personally. The system's to blame.
The fifth arc, then, is the actual release.
After the arc, what's left is relationships. Relationship is one of those fuzzy words which actors often find impractical. However, I've found that if I determine what I want from a person then I will always know how to relate to them; so I've come to define "relationship" as "what I want". I want the audience to agree with my assessment of the situation and support my decisions. I want the stools to protect me and support my frame. I want my wife to encourage me to do what I need to do. That should be enough. Having made these choices (objectives, events, arc, relationships) I'm almost ready to rehearse.
I still have to develop the physical character, and I'll be meeting with the director tomorrow to begin working on that. The purpose of developing a physical character is simple: the way we use our bodies is a function of our life experience. I would be able to accomplish the story as outlined above without changing my physicality at all, but I don't want to overlook the simple fact that Gary's statements will make more sense if they are presented through the filter of Gary's body rather than my own. I don't anticipate hunting down footage of the real-life Gary and mimicking him; rather, I want to make physical choices which will best reflect and express the analytical choices that I have already created.
My partner and I are continuing to work with the imagination exercise. I'm enjoying the work itself, but I'm also enjoying the work with him because he doesn't have the same preconceptions of it as I do, so he takes risks in his approach to it. Although not everything he's tried has been effective for the show, the process continues to expand and refine my understanding of how the exercise works. I've abstracted some important guidelines.
The suggester may make flat statements provided that the suggestee has been instructed to protest if the statement is untrue.
The suggester can usually modify anything that has been established.
The suggester may role-play any person in the scenario. The suggestee's mind will automatically and immediately distinguish between suggestion and role-playing without any specific effort by the suggester (e.g. character voices).
If the suggester is not role-playing, other people in the scenario will nonetheless talk and respond to the suggestee.
The suggestee will automatically and unconsciously create a personal relationship to the space.
The suggester mustn't get ahead of the suggestee. The suggestee is the one creating the scenario.
If the suggester appears as themselves in the scenario, without role-playing an imaginary figure, it must be recognized that doing so will force the suggestee to accommodate the suggester's presence. As we began to explore my Gary's prison, my partner decided that rather than make disembodied suggestions he would "tag along" as though he were a person to whom I was giving a guided tour. It seemed like a harmless change, but I started to become concerned as we went along because even though the imagery was just as vivid, I felt completely detached from it. Afterward, I realized what had happened: because I knew that Gary's prison sentence was spent in isolation, my mind had rationalized my partner's jovial presence by assuming that we were returning now years after my release so he could check out where I used to live. Naturally, then, everything I saw and remembered there was through the lens of historical distance, greatly lessening any impact it might've had.
We discovered that last guideline today. We decided that today's session would my experience of Gary's interrogation. In the session where I found my parents, my partner's aggressive suggestion had been extremely useful, so it seemed only natural that he would adopt a similar attitude for this exploration. What neither of us recognized is that in that previous session, he had nonetheless been responding to me and what I was creating. So this time around, I assured him that I would let him establish everything while I followed his lead-- and although the session began well, it began to fall apart when he began telling the story to me instead of allowing me to create it. Because he had become sure that he needed to lead me through the story, bolstered by the knowledge that Gary had been coerced by the policemen, my partner stopped listening to me. When I realized that a plot point had been omitted (some graphic photos) I attempted to introduce them as a mysterious envelope, but he wouldn't let me look at it. He continued to tell me images I didn't see, role-play characters I hadn't included, and dismiss objects I wanted to examine, racing ahead of me. Before long, I found that I was no longer seeing anything as Gary, and furthermore I was no longer responding to him as Gary-- instead, I was just following along blindly as he plowed ahead-- but we persisted. Because this exercise blurs the line between person and character, and because we're still figuring it out anyway, neither of us thought to call a halt to it. And it's a good thing we didn't, because we did get some useful images from the courtroom during the trial; although I don't have any specific or vivid images from that, I did get a strong emotional impression of the numbness and disbelief I felt after having been convicted. So we got some useful stuff from it, and discovered an important guideline, and we'll probably re-visit the interrogation knowing that the suggestee needs to create it.
I went to the Fine Arts library and looked at the theses for the roles I have seen performed by the past two years' classes. If those writings are any indication, it appears that I was right about what I've seen. Nobody talked about arcs or the structure of the plays they were in; and across six theses (there were only six available), comprising maybe 250-300 pages of writing about preparing and performing a part, I encountered the word "objective" ONE time. The word was used only once, and even then, merely as a throwaway comment in the paper's conclusion ("I enjoyed analyzing the script and thinking about my objectives"). To be fair, one of the performers used the word "intention" where I might have used "objective"-- and it wasn't a coincidence that of the six roles his was the one I had actually enjoyed as a professional-level presentation. In fact, that same fellow's performance in Man of La Mancha three years ago had helped convince me to make this school my top choice in the first place.
The other five actors' thesis papers all followed the same pattern. Each of these five actors had researched all the facts they could uncover about their character, and researched all the facts they could discover about the play, but none of them explained how that work was supposed to transfer to their performance. They basically understood everything about the play and the character, but didn't discuss how they intended to use that information to craft their role. None of these five really talked about what they planned to do once they hit the stage. This is how my director describes the difference between a craftsman and a talented amateur: the craftsman leaves nothing to chance, while the amateur hopes for a good performance. Three of these six actors acknowledged this explicitly in their writing; they each referred to a specific moment they'd found in rehearsal, saying essentially "it was a wonderful thing, and I would love to be able to do it again, but I can't make it happen so I'll just hope it does." Four of the actors described how the cast or an audience lost energy (in rehearsals or performance) as though the loss was some cosmically unaccountable phenomenon. Except for marking their script to find Lessac-related vowel and consonant opportunities, none of them seemed to discuss at any length how the MFA program had prepared them for the role; and not one of them described their general process as a performer. All of them discussed their experience only with this particular play and its demands, filling additional space with random events which occurred during the rehearsal and public presentation (for example, one actor used an entire paragraph just to mention that his parents had come to see the show).
By contrast, the sixth paper demonstrated a deliberate application of craft. It was evident that the actor was describing the process with which he would prepare any role. He specifically described how he was bringing his MFA voice and body training into this presentation, and explained his understanding of their general application to acting performance. The coherence, simplicity, and directness of this paper gave the clear impression that this is a guy who knows what he's doing-- and, frankly, he does it better than I do.
I hope the library gets the other theses in before the end of the year. Besides these six, I've seen fourteen other thesis performances, three of which I felt were of professional caliber. I want to read those three thesis write-ups and find out how they prepared their roles. Two of the three actors I know to be highly instinctive in their approach, and neither of them revealed a specific process to me while they were here; yet however much they may have discovered instinctively, they were able to repeat and deliver the same performances consistently and without ever "becoming stale". How much did they plan and how much did they find in rehearsal? What was the nature of their planning which allowed them to discover what they did? And with the third actor, who is much more deliberate in his approach, how much leeway did he give himself to discover beyond his analysis? They're gone now, and once those theses appear I want to know. The other eleven write-ups, I suspect, would fulfill the same function as five of the six I read today, which was merely to confirm the causes of what I observed in their performances.
After reading these papers, I met with my director individually-- and in that meeting I learned how my thesis role is going to be difficult.
It's not merely because the bar is set high for quality. The bar is set high. I've developed a reputation for being extremely critical, and although that reputation is tempered by the acknowledgment that my opinions seem to be informed, it seems reasonable to expect that there will be people very interested in finding flaws with my performance-- not because they have it in for me and actually want me to fail, but because everyone likes to see a self-professed know-it-all taken down a peg or two. Where I have (regrettably) allowed all but one of my other roles at this school to remain obviously flawed, I am approaching this role with the attitude that every flaw and oversight I don't eliminate by performance time will be recognized, magnified, and trumpeted. For those who may be predisposed to finding those flaws, I want to make this as fully complete a process as possible. For my students and others who are more inclined to respect the help I have given them, I want this performance to be a living demonstration of the potential that can be found through the principles I espouse. And with only the analysis that I have developed so far (which you have already read, here), that would be enough to appear competent, even of professional caliber. But that's not enough, and that creates a challenge.
The difficulty is in my one great weakness as an actor: my body. I mean that literally-- my body is weak. Although I am practiced in inventing different uses of my body, and I have specific process for that (choose a leading center and develop habits), I find it far easier to create characters whose gestures are distal and articulate rather than core-driven and fully coordinated. To put it another way, I'm much better at flailing than solidity, and I'm much more comfortable with quick, darting, isolated gestures than with deliberated full-body motion. The latter type is practically alien to me; there is no activity in my life which does or ever has required such a use of self. And yet that's exactly what we need for Gary. That's what I asked my director about today, when I met with him individually, and he confirmed this to be where we need to take the character.
With two and a half weeks until opening night, this must be the focus of my attention and effort. Based on the direction I received today, I'm confident that my analysis will fulfill the director's vision of the play and of the character, and if that were all there were to it then I would be ready for final performance in a couple of days. However, I need to find and live within Gary's physicality if I'm going to truly make Gary live within me. If anything, I expect that this is where the greatest flaws will show-- but thanks to today's meeting, at least I'm on the right road now.
I still need to learn my monologues more thoroughly. I can't yet say each of them at top speed without pausing. I've recently noticed that I was partly mistaken about the result of this goal; I had previously thought that the purpose of learning them so well was to know the words so well that each follows another unconsciously. That is true, but I no longer believe that this is a function purely of rote memory. Rather, today I was noticing that at a certain speed my speeches actually seem to slow down, not because I'm talking more slowly but because my mind has stopped focusing on the words and sentences and started focusing on the ideas. I can say twenty or more words for each individual idea, so my speech-generating muscles are working furiously while my mind almost casually steps from one idea to the next. I hadn't realized before that my super-fast-without-pausing goal caused the ideas to stand out so prominently, so that by having that goal I force my mind to start attending to the ideas instead of the words-- but since that's the goal I'm shooting for I'm glad to see it happen, because now I can pursue this level of memorization for this reason specifically.
That's the process with which I prepare any scene or speech. First, I learn the lines to the point where I can say them unconsciously. Then I make sure I can say them naturally, as though I were genuinely conversing with someone. After I achieve this much, I can layer in anything I want. That's how a performance is built; on the "plain vanilla" of the natural communication, I add circumstances (such as objective, character, and relationship) into that plain communication, and the more I can layer in the more flavorful the performance becomes. That's why I say that I could potentially be ready to perform by the end of the week; because I trust in honest communication, I would only have to practice in each rehearsal speaking honestly, for the reasons given by the objectives, allowing myself to be affected both by the story images and the feedback of my imaginary audience.
The process of rehearsing is, as I understand it, continued discovery of how your chosen circumstances (arrived at through analysis) affect your words and actions. The more you rehearse, the more meaning you will discover. I would emphasize the word meaning because so many people use rehearsals to try to figure out the "correct" way to move or say lines; but what's correct for one rehearsal may not be correct for another, and circumstances will definitely change when they include an actual performance. I use a short exercise to demonstrate why it's not necessary to worry about saying your lines correctly:
Tell me what you did this morning. (Response: "I had a pop-tart and brushed my teeth.")
Now say it again, but notice which syllables you stressed. (Response: "I had a pop-tart and brushed my teeth.")
Now say it again, reversing all the stresses. (Response: "I had a pop-tart and brushed my teeth.")
I then point out to the speaker that where their sentence still made sense, it meant something different.
I ask them to say the reversed rhythm again and figure out what it would have to mean for them to stress it like that.
Then I tell them to say the sentence because that's what it means.
Then I ask them to say the original meaning.
Then I ask them to say the other meaning.
By this time, it's obvious that the stress in a sentence is caused by what it means. I conclude by saying, once you discover what a sentence (or an action) means, you can trust it to come out the same way every time, unconsciously-- because if it came out differently, it would have to mean something different. As long as you mean the same thing by it each time, it has to come out the same way. (This is also the exercise and explanation I use to introduce someone to classical scansion.)
So as you persist in rehearsing with your chosen objectives, relationships, and other given circumstances, you will continue to discover new ways that each line contributes toward those circumstances. I consider an effective performance to be one in which no such contribution is overlooked, and I consider an excellent performance to be one in which many such contributions are invented and implemented. Once you make these determinations, and optimize their effectiveness, then you will craft a performance that isn't wishing and hoping, but deliberate and consistent. They come out the same way each time because they must; and you can create that magic moment every single time because it is a direct consequence of the circumstances you have created. In this perspective, it is completely impossible to "over-rehearse" and become stale, because each new rehearsal tends to generate additional meaning-- and even if no new meaning is to be found, each new rehearsal gives an actor additional confidence and ability to trust in how the circumstances will naturally generate the desired delivery. The actors don't have to fake it.
Over the past week, our director has been emphasizing objectives. I don't know whether or not any of his thrust is due to my explanation of those theses I read; at the time, his response was amazement ("You mean I'll have to run these rehearsals like an acting class?") but regardless of the cause he has been coaching the actors somewhat more aggressively, explicitly challenging them to find, specify, and use stronger objectives and greater energy. Considering that the latter is, ideally, a function of the former, we need that clarification.
As much analysis as I had done, I was spurred even further by a one-hour individual meeting with the director. I had been stuck between interpretations-- do I show that Gary has been ruined by this experience, or do I show that he's come through it and he's okay now? As I've mentioned, without the final scene, it didn't seem that I had the opportunity to show that I had been ruined, and yet the director (and assistant director, for that matter) kept referring to the final scene as an important defining moment for Gary. I withheld my annoyance that the reasons they were citing were the exact reasons why I had argued for the scene not to be cut, and described my current dilemma, and the director gave me the middle ground I had been looking for. Where I had been thinking that I needed the audience's support to "get over it", and that I was telling my story for the first time as a kind of theraputic session, he said that seemed to be a rather tepid choice. Better, he said, if I were to need the audience to help me survive this experience. The word "survival" clicked right into the analysis I'd already done, and gave the heightened stakes I had wanted.
The arc also became much clearer. We recognized a pattern in each of the four monologues: I begin with at least some measure of hope and positive expectation which is not merely dashed but made even worse:
1. I begin an ordinary day, only to find my parents missing, then murdered, and then I'm arrested for it.
2. I thought the police would help me, but they actively worked against me, and then they lied to convict me.
3. Prison is supposed to protect me, but I was in constant danger, and I had to retreat from reality just to survive.
4. I thought I was going to get out, and even with all the evidence the system fought to keep me in.
The authors don't want the actors to re-live the experience. However, if I tell this as though I were telling it again for the first time, then I can allow it to affect me in a way that would be unjustified if I decided that I had already told this dozens of times to various audiences-- that this was merely one stop of some kind of speaking tour. I believe that my choice is justified by the fact that I begin with some hesitation ("So my case...") and that I don't describe the stories in great detail. I will confront the details in my mind; I've created them vividly, and there's no reason not to use them.
The hardest part, though, is remembering that the audience is there. It's one thing to put imaginary people in the imaginary seats; it's quite another to need them, to relate to them, to talk to them and try to get something from them. I remember that one of my students, last semester, unfortunately delivered most of his lines to an imaginary audience; I kept assuring him that the most important thing was to talk to the audience, and kept steering him away from falling into self-indulgent readings which would compensate for the missing audience by "programmed" inflections and actions-- fortunately, he listened to me, and allowed his monologues to remain somewhat lackluster (as he perceived them) during rehearsal; so once the audience actually was there, the channel was already wide open, and he exploded with the life and energy he had been eager to share with them. I don't want to allow myself to present a lackluster performance; I want the performance to be high-involvement before the audience gets there, and only get better once they arrive. My objective relies on their presence; I've got to make them be there.
Today I discovered what happens when they're not there. We went into the main stage auditorium and played to that larger space. I began without establishing the audience to myself, and consequently the only objective I had which I could pursue actively enough to reach the back of the auditorium was my frustration and indignance for what had happened to me. Although this is definitely a part of the experience, it wasn't a pleasant experience, and served more to stir up those angry negative feelings than it did to remove and overcome them.
Today's rehearsal showed me that it's not a very strong objective to "get support" (or anything similarly intangible) if you can't say why. I think I know why; I want the audience to tell me that this wasn't my fault. If I begin the show believing that in some way I was to blame, that maybe I could have done something or said something or in some way prevented all this from happening, then I can use the events of the play to convince myself that I really did do my best, and I want the audience to agree with me. That is-- it's okay to feel the anger and outrage that I felt today, but this must be tempered (if not subsumed by) my need to ask the audience if it's okay for me to feel this way.
"I don't know amateur theater... but I'm sure seeing it now."
This is what our director said at the conclusion of last night's rehearsal. As I've probably mentioned, he's the former stage partner of Marcel Marceau; his training was principally through apprenticeships at the professional and regional levels, and he has never attempted to do theater at a university. Although I'm sure that departmental politics have baffled him, I have directly observed only what's happening in the actual rehearsal, and I can understand some of his disbelief and frustration. Certain tenets assumed in professional theater are blithely and consistently scorned in every University of Florida show; sometimes this is because of the demands of the university curriculum, and other times it's from ignorance. In either case, our director was moved to tell us last night, "I just wanted to focus on the acting-- instead I've had to deal with everything but."
Here are three important rules that are generally not adhered to in University rehearsals.
When you're at a rehearsal, you are at the rehearsal, and every moment you are there should be focused toward the work. If you're on stage, you are developing a final performance with full commitment; if you're offstage, you're either in the house actively engaged with the on-stage exploration or in the wings silently maintaining your focus. If you want to do something else-- such as go to the restroom, make phone calls, etc-- you wait for the official break called by the stage manager; if you can't wait, you make certain that the stage manager knows where you are going and then make sure that your activity doesn't interfere with the rehearsal.
University students, unlike professionals, have homework. This is an unavoidable reality. Because rehearsals take so many hours out of the day, it is inevitable that some students will need to use their offstage time to complete assignments, and our director acknowledged that from the start. What he was not anticipating was that they would do their work right there in the house seats, in full view of the actors who were trying to rehearse. Although the carelessness of this attitude was evidenced toward the start, when the "offstage" actors would enter and exit through the very loud studio door while the "onstage" actors were trying to rehearse, this recently became a serious problem because the script of this show is almost completely direct address (that is, spoken directly to the audience through the "fourth wall"). If you're trying to play a character who is coping with a difficult image, but who forces himself to reveal it mainly because he needs to be listened to, then it's ridiculous and destructive to look out at your audience and find half a dozen people with their heads buried in their laptops who don't have the slightest interest in your story. I and my castmates kept trying to ignore them, trying to play instead to the attentive audience we imagined was there, but we gradually discovered that it was impossible for those disinterested heads not to have an influence on our work. I brought this to the attention of the director and he cleared the house in subsequent rehearsals.
I also asked that the stage manager's table also be removed to the side, and the intensity of the director's response startled me. I had seen the stage managers were doing e-mail and browsing Facebook on their laptops, so I had merely intended to indicate that they were part of the same problem. The director, however, was first flabbergasted and then livid that the stage-managerial crew would be doing anything other than watching the show they were supposed to be managing. Their table was not moved-- but at the next rehearsal I noticed there were no longer any laptops on that table.
The worst problem in any show, however, is simply straying off task. The first show I did here at the university was the musical Cabaret, which had a cast of perhaps two or three dozen undergraduates plus a couple of grad students; I was stunned and perplexed when, without fail, the moment anyone wasn't directly involved in the scene they would immediately begin talking and laughing and socializing-- not merely backstage, but on stage during the choral numbers. I don't know how much rehearsal time was lost by the director's having to constantly recapture everyone's attention and make them shut up; but more importantly, I was amazed that none of the performers seemed to care about or even consider the fact that their talk could be interfering with the actors trying to rehearse. Eventually (and for the next two musicals) I decided merely to screen them out, accepting that their theatrical experience was mainly high school and they'd never been told how to behave professionally-- but as I recall my initial shock and astonishment at the rude thoughtlessness of talking backstage, I understand why our director found it so difficult to contain himself when remonstrating the backstage chatter that occurred last night.
This is simple, but critical: be ready to go at the time rehearsal begins. If the rehearsal starts at 6:00, and you need half an hour to warm up, you get yourself there at 5:30 or even earlier. The logic is clear. If you assume that every rehearsal is going to be productive, and that no show is ever going to be "perfect", then every instant of lost rehearsal time means that the final performance is lessened. Put another way, when you start later you get less done. There are, of course, many reasons why rehearsals start late; last night the tech crew was working the stage for an extra hour which meant that we didn't get a chance to run the show a second time (we were going to run once with the evening cast, then once with the matinee cast)-- but any actor had better make sure that they're not the reason. I recently attended a rehearsal of a different show where the director emphasized this rule, informing his cast "I lost my first professional job because I was one minute late." It's that important.
Unfortunately, in the non-professional world, there are no incentives to being on time. Without a paycheck to hold over the actors' heads, the director has no clout other than instilling a sense of responsibility. At the community or university level, the talent pools are often not large enough or impersonal enough to make firing an actor an easy decision. So what often happens is that one actor will be consistently late, which delays the rehearsal by a few minutes; then the other actors will expect the rehearsal to start late and (not wishing to waste time sitting around) they'll start arriving at the new start time; then someone will start arriving late to that time, and so on, chasing the time around the clock until the rehearsal time is severely truncated.
I use this phrase to evoke the image of "chain of command", but because this is an artistic endeavor it's not about giving orders. Rather, one must recognize which problems should be addressed to which people. If you don't like what the stage crew is doing, you inform the stage manager. If you don't like what the stage manager is doing, you inform the technical director. If you don't like what an actor is doing, you inform the director. In every case, the purpose is not to "tattle-tale" but to be sure of submitting either suggestions or grievances only to the person responsible for doing something about it, thus avoiding personal conflicts. An actor has one and only one responsibility: to realize their own role as fully as possible.
Actors should never direct each other. Any suggestion about another actor's performance, no matter how well-intentioned, should always be given to the director. This isn't merely because of the status issue ("don't tell me what to do!") although that is an important factor. Mainly, it's because an actor will never know whether or not their suggestions are appropriate. An actor doesn't have the director's perspective to understand whether their idea fits in with the show as a whole; they don't know their fellow actor's process or approach, so their "good idea" could easily obstruct that actor's work. Even when an actor is fully confident of the validity of their input they should still give that input to the director; if, for example, I'm in a show where the director openly asks for ideas, I'm always sure to look at the director if I talk about another actor, so that the director can approve, disapprove, or mediate my comments as they see fit.
In a non-professional environment, concessions often need to be made because even a competent director can't always give the actors the time they normally would. Fully two-thirds of my students' rehearsal time is without me, and our director for The Exonerated has had to pay far too much attention to technical and political matters, so the actors must have some method of supporting each other. I think that the rapport with my partner in this show has been an ideal example of how it can work, and this is due entirely to the director's decision to begin rehearsing the matinee cast immediately. When actors undergo the same process at the same rate, remaining completely in touch with what the others have been doing, suggestions can be made with appropriate respect to context. Additionally, any actor should understand that they mustn't take it personally if and when their suggestions are rejected.
We open tomorrow! The past few days, we've had our first full dress/tech rehearsals, twice with the evening cast (which includes me) and once with the matinee cast (which includes my partner). And each one has surprised me with their energy.
The evening cast's first dress rehearsal was the first time during this process-- heck, the first time in a few years-- that I'd done my full complement of warmups before the performance. The goals of my warmup is usually
1. get rid of the day, psychologically
2. relax my body
3. get energy
4. fill my mind and body with the character
and I do more of whichever seems necessary and appropriate. For this show, I focus principally on relaxing my body and filling myself with the character. Because I know that most of what I will be doing is reacting to images, I want to make sure those images are as fresh, complete, and vivid as possible; I want to make sure I will react to those images with Gary's body rather than my own; and most of all, I want to make sure that my muscles are relaxed enough that they are fully available to respond to the images. Emotional response is a physical action, and if your muscles are occupied either with tension or fatigue they cannot participate-- and conversely, the less of your body that is tense or fatigued the more potent your emotional reactions will be. Before the rehearsal, I spent about an hour and a half loosening my body and meditating into relaxation, and I spent the entire time between each monologue with a breathing exercise for focus and relaxation. I wanted to be as available as possible.
I did not anticipate the potency of the work I'd done. Because I hadn't done warmups prior to this rehearsal-- normally I carry a lot of tension-- the images, where they had been present, had affected me only minimally, enough to make the point. This time, however, with my body fully alert and available, the imagination work I'd done with my partner came fully to bear upon me, and I was astonished at their ferocity. I knew that this show is not supposed to be about re-living the experiences, and I tried to tamp down my responses and maintain my communication with the audience; but I had been prepared for a much weaker battle, and in general I was overwhelmed. Fortunately, with the exception of the first monologue, the intensity of the images drove me outward rather than inward-- that is, in the first monologue, finding my dead parents made me break off and stop talking, but in the second and subsequent monologues I kept trying to break away from the images to get to the audience. Still, I showed far more than I told; although this is commendable for having been a genuine experience, my director caught me the following day and told me to rein it in.
The key issue is that the more you expose your feelings, the less the audience sympathizes. I have known for some time that it is more powerful, effective, and genuine to struggle to hide an emotion than it is to blast it forth, regardless of whether it's real or fake (although, of course, you can't really struggle against a fake emotion anyway). What I didn't realize, until my director mentioned it, is how that distances the audience. If an audience sees someone bawling their eyes out, they may feel sorry for whomever, but the divide is created because the very sincerity and depth of the actor's emotion convinces the audience that they don't feel as the actor does. If the actor holds it in, though, then the audience is compelled to wonder, how does the actor feel?-- and rather than have the answer provided to them, they consider the information available, identify with those circumstances, and attempt to feel for themselves what must be going on. It seems pretty obvious, now that I think about it. So in final dress rehearsal, I don't want to lose anything that I've done, but I need to make sure that in the first monologue, like the others, my response to the images drives me toward the audience instead of away from them.
In addition to my own energy, I was surprised at what I heard in my castmates' performances. The energy was far higher than it had been before-- but I wasn't sure why. I knew that my own higher involvement stemmed from my preparations to make myself open to the analysis work I had already done, but as far as I knew none of my classmates had done any unusual preparations nor any last-minute analysis. It had to be "opening night energy", drawn from the excitement of finally having an audience and all the technical stuff in place. I've probably described that each of the shows I've seen here has started its run with a kick of energy which would deteriorate through its run, finishing in a recognizably lackluster closing night; last semester, people who went to see the first mainstage show saw a completely different production depending on which night they attended (I could tell from my students' papers exactly which performance they'd seen). I didn't expect to see that hyper-intensity kick from this production, but now that I've seen it, I wonder what will result from it.
Our director is familiar with the danger of losing energy during a run. Before our final dress rehearsal, he advised us "don't fall for the idea that you will peak. Professionals don't peak; they only get better." Of course he doesn't want to see the show deteriorate into dullness over the course of its run, but after seeing the drastic difference between pre-dress and dress rehearsal I wonder if that will happen. I can't predict with any certainty, because I don't know how this group will respond and because I'm going to stay focused on my own performance; but I actually heard one of the principal actors explicitly say that they were holding back during rehearsals precisely because they didn't want to "peak". Between that and the opening-night energy that has suddenly appeared I would say that the potential is there.
The difference lies in where the energy comes from. It is also possible to create a generalized body energy and funnel that into your performance, but this is not as effective as using objectives and impulses. Body energy is subtractive; whatever energy you start with (either from opening-night jitters or through warmups) is constantly discharged throughout the performance, as you use the energy to fuel whatever responses or emotions you believe you need; an actor who relies on body energy has to work very hard simply to maintain it, and their original cache of energy creates and defines the limits of their performance. If they start out low, they either have to stay low (and boring) or "force it" unnaturally. By contrast, the energy of objectives and impulses is additive; an actor can start from zero, at complete neutrality, and can use the circumstances of the performance to fuel himself to any level of energy he wishes. The limitation on this source of energy is solely the capacity of the actor's body to use it; by the end of a performance, the actor will find himself invigorated, not exhausted.
This is a principal reason why the professional actor will never "peak" and the amateur always will. An amateur actor finds each new performance to be an exhaustive effort, and his "battery" of energy continues to diminish with each presentation. A professional actor draws his energy from the performance itself, and thus will only ever gain momentum as he discovers additional and more potent energy sources in each repetition. An amateur wants to rehearse as little as possible, because they know that they will exhaust themselves, and no longer be able to achieve the appropriate energy levels (thus becoming "stale"). A professional wants to rehearse as often as possible, because they want to keep finding new opportunities for energy and involvement.
So during the rehearsals, I was listening for the source of this strange and surprising new energy. With only a few exceptions, I believed I was hearing subtractive body energy rather than the energy of heightened involvement, and since then I've been trying to figure out why I felt that. I keep returning to the fact that each time I heard this energy, I wanted to describe it as overwrought; each speech seemed literally worked too hard.
I'd be hard pressed to describe the vocal qualities I detected, but I'll try to explain what I heard. It seemed that rather than make larger, more important choices which required a more intense involvement, the actors were forcing the same small choices into a larger space. For one, I'd hear actors express an emotion quite loudly and I'd be taken aback that their loud volume seemed unjustified by the emotion's apparent effect; for another, I'd notice that the individual statements of a single monologue would become so much heavier with meaning and inflection that it would become a series of one- or two-sentence mini-monologues instead.
I also listened for variety of inflection. Our unconscious minds are infinitely inventive; when we're pursuing an objective (on stage and in real life) we will naturally and instinctively sculpt and shape our words in unexpected ways to best serve that objective. If, however, we deliberately decide how certain words are going to be spoken-- even based on legitimate analysis of what the line is supposed to mean, and even if the analysis supports the objective-- then we will necessarily be limited to what our conscious mind can invent. And that's not much. One of the performers in this show seems to have a preferred selection of perhaps a half-dozen different inflections, and when you compare this actor's speeches to each other you can hear those same inflections appearing over and over again. These inflections are perfectly appropriate for delivering the meaning of each speech; but the fact that they have been consciously and mindfully selected, the fact that the exact same inflections appear in different speeches, indicates that the inflections were not arrived at through exploration of objectives. When you constantly hear the same inflections throughout a performance, delivered at the same level each time they appear, this is not merely habit; it strongly suggests weak or non-existent objectives. (It's probably not a coincidence that the actor I heard doing this is the same one who had been concerned about "peaking".)
How much of this will be changed when there is an audience present? There was an audience there during our first dress rehearsal, but no audience during the second. During the second dress rehearsal, I did feel myself trying to unnaturally force my body to have an energy that had been present during that first dress rehearsal, and in reflection I wondered if that energy had come from the audience or from my better preparation (my warmups were lacking for the second rehearsal). It's possible that in the first dress rehearsal, the cast had not been prepared to communicate with the audience, and in the second dress there wasn't an audience to communicate with. Our director seemed very happy with the second dress rehearsal; I suspect that this is because even if I felt that the energy didn't match the actors' actual involvement, the fact is that higher energy (whatever its source) makes even an actor's small choices clearer. If you assumed that the lack of communication stemmed principally from the lack of audience (and therefore didn't worry about it) it would certainly be satisfying and gratifying to know that an audience will be able to hear and understand everything the actors say. If you assumed that the actors would be able to maintain that level of energy, you would be pretty happy and you wouldn't worry at all. But if the energy stems from subtractive body energy, then the final performance may prove to be a drag. We'll all find out.
But this isn't what I'll be concerned with as we head into opening night, or even as we continue through the run. My duty is to realize my own role as fully as possible, and let all else be the director's concern. I'm still not entirely certain what will happen in my own performance opening night; although I believe I achieved a successful, fully-realized performance during that first dress rehearsal, what I presented during the second dress rehearsal was weaker and more forced. Perhaps I wasn't prepared for the audience to disappear; perhaps the return of an audience will "fix" that. In either case, I know what I want to do, and thanks to that first dress rehearsal I know I can do it. But so far I've only done it once and, as I've found in the past, unless it happens twice it didn't really happen at all. If I'd been smart I would've included full warmups as part of my preparation last week so that I would've had two or more "final" performances and now have total confidence in what will happen. As it is, I know what's supposed to happen, and I trust my work-- so I'm ready to find out.