Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD
Acting Instruction 3: Table Work
This week I'm meeting with each of the casts, individually, to describe our treatment of the show and get some initial ideas about relationships.
Our talk about treatment is not a "discussion." Thanks to self-inflicted time constraints, I haven't got time for a proper discussion-- one in which everyone considers and contributes their insights starting from a central concept-- so instead I've merely asked everyone to give me a short statement of what they think the show is about. This approach has the main disadvantage of seeming like a test, so I have to remind everyone that I'm not "approving" or "rejecting" their response. Instead, I write down one or two words that encapsulate their statement. If I can see a trend among these words, I try to synthesize it; if any individual idea could have an influence on the performance, I take a moment to describe how that could happen-- not because I expect they will do so (or even remember what I say), but to emphasize that their intellectual understanding of the show can translate directly into action on stage. Despite anything I might say, though, this conversation is really them-to-me; I get a little bit out of it from hearing their perspective, and sometimes they get a little bit out of it from having articulated their thoughts. Perhaps later on, once everyone is more familiar with their show, I'll try to lead an actual discussion about it, and see if from that we can all share a deeper understanding of the plays. (Update: in the early class, I decided not to bother with this step. Although a few interesting tidbits came out of these exchanges, because this isn't a discussion it means that what gets shared is a statement that sounds good rather than an insight that can be used.)
Their talk about relationships does, with some coaching, become more of a discussion. I begin by telling them to look at each of the other characters in turn and say "I want you [to] ___." Apparently this instruction isn't as straightforward as it seems to me, because I've learned that I now have to clarify that this is character-to-character, not actor-to-actor; I've also come to expect that the first person to speak will tell me (or no one in particular) that "I want him/her to..." and I'll have to break in to redirect their statement to its proper target. I'm trying to figure out how to make these clarifications unnecessary. Now that I think about it, I remember (both from last semester and this week) that no matter how confused anyone might be, as soon as there's one successful demonstration by any one cast member then suddenly it's crystal clear to everyone what they're supposed to do and what they're supposed to get out of it. Perhaps my problem has been that I have been giving this verbal instruction and massaging the first and second responses to be the necessary examples; perhaps it will be more effective if I simply provide the demonstration myself, showing how I expect each of them to say "I want you to..." by addressing each of them as though I were a character myself.
It's essential to have everyone articulate their relationships as "I want" statements. When an actor makes an "I want" statement, the effect is electrifying. The actor's entire self becomes alert, active, and involved, literally embodying their stated attitude toward the person they're addressing; the energy of this statement typically provokes the addressee into an equally engaged response. With each cast, after the first "I want" statement, I interrupt to make sure everyone noticed this involvement and response; I explain that, as long as you know what you want, you will always know how to relate to each other on stage-- you can see how it automatically takes over your entire body, and you can feel how that helps you.
If the actors don't make "I want" statements, as their character, the results are not helpful. Typically, when an actor is asked to "describe your relationship", the actor leans back, rolls their eyes into an introspective glaze, and begins rambling about everything they can think of that connects the characters with random facts and generalized abstractions. Alternately, if an "I want" statement is made, but by the actor instead of the character, the statement interferes with the reality of the play (more on that in a moment). And if the performer makes an "I don't want" statement, it generally has the opposite effect of an "I want" statement; they disengage their body and become uninvolved, because they're now speaking about the other character instead of to them. When this happens I alert them to their disengagement and ask them to restate the same sentiment as "I want". This is usually easy-- for example, "I don't want him to touch me" becomes "I want him to keep his hands off me"-- and I make sure to point out to the actor how the "want" statement creates the relationship that the "don't want" statement merely implies.
If the actor says "I don't want anything", I don't pester them to invent something. They haven't thought about it yet. Instead, I tell them two things: one, wanting nothing doesn't help them; two, the fact that the author put both characters in the same play means that they must have some kind of relationship to each other, even if they never meet. The relationship can be implicit, where the author wants the audience to understand what the characters would want from each other if they met. Otherwise, the relationship can be indirect; I give the example of your spouse's therapist, whom you may never actually meet but from whom you clearly want something ("I want her to make my spouse stop being such a ---").
Ideally, the conversation about relationships takes on a life of its own, which helps to distance me from the show. You didn't need me to have this discussion, I'll say; remember that this is your show, not mine. Although I'm here to provide the overview, help you make strong choices, and guide your technique, creating this show is entirely up to you. My goal is to make you not need me, and this is where it starts. This semester, I'm dealing with a total of 10 one-acts, and most of their rehearsal time is actually going to be without my direct supervision; if I were working exclusively with a cast, I don't know whether or not I'd try to communicate the same message. I suspect I would; I believe the actors should always have the confidence to create and explore regardless of whether I'm there to monitor what's going on.
Because they will be working without me, a cardinal rule of rehearsal must be modified. The rule is this: NEVER tell another actor what to do. Never. You tell the director, and it is the director's responsibility to filter your suggestion to others. In the real world, actors who try to direct each other get fired immediately (and once word gets around, they don't get hired either). The director is the only one who can be sure that your suggestion is appropriate to the overall vision of the show; it is the director's responsibility to decide when another actor is ready to hear suggestions; the director is the only authority figure who can legitimately insist that an actor incorporate a suggestion into their process and their performance. Any actor who tells another actor what to do is inviting an unpleasant power struggle-- so how can the actors offer ideas and suggestions when there is no director present to mediate them? The issue is especially pressing in the amateur environment, when the actors may not easily recognize their options and opportunities, and will definitely need each other's help to discover their own performance.
Therefore, the rule is modified: Never tell another actor what you "need" them to do. I've often had to aggressively steer actors away from doing this, anyway, on their own and in regular rehearsals. If you find yourself saying a sentence with the structure "If you ___, then I can ___", even with the best intentions, there's a good chance you're destroying the scene for everyone.
You don't know the other actor's process. If you tell them what you need, instead of helping them figure out what they need, you are disregarding their character and ignoring their work. You're trying to turn them into your puppet. Because you've told them that you "need" this, they can't refuse without creating a power struggle-- and it hurts your performance if they agree.
Even experienced actors don't always recognize how badly this damages their own performance. Consider this real-life situation: as you're driving, the car in front of you stops suddenly, and you smash into its rear. Before anything else happens, you leap out and rush to the other driver, and you tell him "Now be sure to get really angry and start yelling at me; it'd be great if you hit me a few times, too, but not in the face, okay?" ...Sounds ludicrous, yes? This is exactly what you wouldn't want them to do. Curiously, actors do this all the time-- unwittingly putting themselves in the absurd situation of wanting the other actor to do the opposite of what their character would want. But you can imagine, in this car accident, how it would be equally ridiculous to run to the other driver and say "okay, when you get out make sure you are totally calm and cool about it, so I can convince you to ignore my lack of insurance." This is not how real people deal with each other! When we want something from another person, we can't step outside of reality and tell them to do it. We have to stay "in character" and pursue our objective within the "scene". That's the way life works.
Any actor who "needs" something from another actor has put themselves in a losing situation. They can no longer respond honestly as their character; they can only respond to whether or not the stimulus was "correct". When their castmate does the "wrong" thing they'll be frustrated and unprepared, and when their castmate does the "right" thing they'll be complacent and false. They are prevented from living in the reality of the scene.
To help the actors help themselves, I tell them my "treatment" of their show. In this context, a "treatment" means that I tell them where they should focus their efforts for maximal results. Each script has different demands, and I want to make sure that they get the strongest product with the least amount of work. Here's what I've told each of them.
Play 1: The better you know the lines, the better the show will be. The play is a series of interwoven conversations, and if we can create that weave with smoothness and continuity then that will make the show succeed. The characters are written simply and blatantly; all they require is for us to have fun with them.
Play 2 and 6: Know your relationships, character arc, and objectives. This script itself is just a series of conversations without any obvious action. The story here is in how you change from beginning to end; your objectives are what make you change; and your relationships are what determine your objectives. If you understand these things about your character and your character's story, the show will be interesting to watch. Furthermore-- these three aspects are the heart of the show, but what happens as a result of them is not. Don't expect anything to happen; don't try to make anything happen except what your objectives dictate. The success for this show is not by "doing it correctly" but by allowing the play to occur naturally every time through your characters and their relationships.
Play 3: Provoke the hell out of each other. This show is high energy, high emotion, high everything. Use your lines, your bodies, your voices, everything that's available to you to bombard each other with strong impulses. Invade each other's personal space; make them react to you. As you continue to rehearse, look for more and more opportunities to throw each other off balance, provoke honest reactions, and charge each other with energy. And make sure you get everything you need from the impulses around you; don't ever turn inward. Never get reflective or self-absorbed-- and if you need to be agitated, if you need to be angry, if you need to be upset, get it all by grabbing external impulses and amplifying them, not by internal "bubbling".
Play 4: Create characters who amplify impulses to the extreme. This is a farcical and unrealistic comedy, where all of the humor is in the characters. Each character should have a body that responds to every available impulse with exaggerated energy.
Play 5: Real is real and fake is fake. The story has both real and surreal elements. The surreal elements will be made surreal by creating characters who are obviously too ridiculous to exist, and the scenes in reality should be played as honestly as possible.
You might have guessed that in a full rehearsal process, all of these elements would be encouraged and integrated. In the time we've got, I'm interested in getting the biggest bang for each buck.
In yesterday's session, the question was asked-- in a scene where four characters are fulfilling the same function, do I need to have a different relationship to each of them? What if I want the same thing from all four of them? The specific answer is, of course, particular to the needs of your show; the general answer requires a quick look at what happens when you make an "I want" statement.
An "I want" statement implies how you will receive impulses and how you will deliver impulses to a person. In short, your want determines how you relate to that person-- thus, relationship. The relationship is contained by and revealed in the impulse process. If you want the same thing from four different people, then you will relate to all four of them in exactly the same way. You can imagine that every time you go to the grocery store, how you relate to the different cashiers doesn't change very much from one trip to the next, because you want the same thing from each of them. On stage, you can make this choice if you want to make a point of having the same relationship to multiple characters.
The urgency of your want determines the energy level of the process. If your want is imperative, then you will amplify the impulses that you receive, and you'll deliver impulses more strongly; think of arguments you've had, and I'm sure you'll imagine an example. If your want is mundane or unimportant, then you will draw very little energy from that relationship, and you won't give much to it either. Needless to say, on stage it will benefit you to have as strong a relationship as possible, even if that relationship is negative ("I want her to stop loving me" as opposed to "I don't really want anything from her.") I thought about trying to make this point more strongly in class when people made weak choices, but as long as they understand how it works, I suspect that their own exploration will convince them more effectively than my trying to tell them verbally.
I haven't yet mentioned that, for a few of these shows, I've included in my "treatment" an assessment of the individual actors. There are three reasons why I've done this. One is that some of the performers have specific traits or habits which interfere with their performance (such as mumbling); I alert them to the habit and briefly describe how I expect we'll handle it. A second reason would be if the actor has a personal trait which either enhances the character (and could be played up) or could conflict with the character (and should be integrated rather than fought against). The third reason has been when I've noticed that an actor has expressed uncertainty, in which case I remind them of specific examples where they've already demonstrated they are fully capable of success.
About the teaching
As the previous session concluded, I told each cast to prepare for this session by figuring out their objectives. Last semester I learned that we won't have time to figure it out in class; so have ready your superobjective (which supports the superevent) and your beat objectives (which support the beat events). Look at the handout if you're not sure, or ask me questions. In the class time, I'll be there to write down what you tell me, and only comment afterward if we have time. I said exactly this, and I said it to all six casts... which makes me wonder why, this week, all three morning casts were fully prepared and all three afternoon casts had no idea what I was talking about.
It must have something to do with the different energies of the two sections. If I had to speculate, I'd think that perhaps the afternoon class, in its higher energy, is by now accustomed to discovering everything through direct experience; the morning class, with less physical involvement, has had to think more about what they're doing. If that were true, then the morning class would be more ready to conduct an intellectual appraisal and the afternoon class would be more likely to expect me to lead them through an experience. It's seems possible that, even though I said the same words to each section, the afternoon class didn't even realize that I was asking them to prepare something outside of the class time. But this is just a guess; I don't know what the difference really is between the two classes.
I did discover that I hadn't adequately prepared one of the afternoon casts. I'd forgotten that it had taken me hours to analyze the script, just to figure out what was going on; in the end I was only able to root out a coherent storyline by making specific decisions about the characters' objectives and relationships. I resisted sharing this information with the cast on the "treatment" day, because I didn't want them to think that I was dictating what they must do-- however, when it came to figuring objectives this week, it was clear that many of them weren't even sure what their character's story was about. As a teacher, there's a great temptation to let the student sink or swim in their own analysis; there's an irrational bias that it's somehow "cheating" or "spoon-feeding" if you share your own work with the student. But in the director/actor relationship, I find I have a duty to share what I know. Because the actors will be following my "take" on the show, it's important that they have as much information as possible; that way, either they'll agree with and adopt my suggestions, or they'll use my analysis as a springboard for their own approach. In either case, as long as I operate under full disclosure, they're not wasting time trying to guess at what I've already decided. I'll have to keep that in mind for my future attempts.
About the acting
I was surprised to discover that finding objectives is yet another example of how acting is backwards. In the first half of the week, most of the objectives that I heard were statements like "to explain what just happened" or "to describe my situation"-- literally true, but useless to the actor. I'd tried to avoid this problem on the handout by saying if the script does it for you, it's not your objective, but after three casts gave me the same kinds of answers it was obvious that this instruction had been meaningless. I had to think of a better way to explain it. I was discussing the problem with an undergraduate, and she pointed out that their answers were correct for an English-class analysis; that is, it's what you'd get from reading the text, not performing it. Of course-- the students were asking themselves "what is this text doing?" instead of "what is this character doing?" Once I knew that, I was able to come up with a quick example which I began relaying to the casts before each session.
Imagine you're coming home after curfew and facing your parents. If you look at the script of your conversation, you'd probably say "I'm explaining where I've been," or "I'm describing my date." But what are you really doing? You're covering your behind, you're defending your actions, you're trying not to get grounded. That's what your objective is-- what you're doing, not what you're saying. It's great if you know what you're saying, though-- your objective can often be why you're saying it. If you're explaining your home life to a friend, it might be "to get sympathy." If you're seducing a married man, it could be "to steal him from his wife." Let the text say what it's going to say, and give yourself a motive for saying it.
Once I started using this example, it became much easier to coach people into finding stronger objectives. They'd usually realize it themselves, without my help; after they announced what the text was doing, there'd be a moment of realization followed by "...because I..." and then the real objective.
About the learning
At the campus bagel shop, I bumped into one of my students. The previous night she'd seen the first required show of the semester, and while she was watching the production she couldn't help but think of the work that the actors had put into it. I'm doing all this preparation just for a ten-minute play, she said wonderingly, while they've had to put together a full two-hour performance!
I'm delighted by what her observation implies: that she knows what she's doing. Or, at least, she feels confident about what she's trying to do. She understands her own process well enough to project it into the mainstage show, and to imagine how the actors developed their final presentation. This is what I was getting at earlier, when I discussed my approach to the students' papers-- if you change someone's understanding of theater, that new understanding becomes an inextricable part of their experience, whether or not they write about it. Even if she chooses to write about something else, I can be confident from what she's told me that our rehearsal process has given her some ability to look "under the hood" and understand how the components are assembled into a final product.
While running lines on their own, it seems inevitable that the performers will slip out of neutral and attempt to act the lines. "I get pretty bored with just running the lines," one of them said to me this morning. There must be some better way that I can coach everyone towards a neutral read; there are those who are still stuck on the words (memorization deadline is next week), and that can't be helped, but those who have half-memorized the words are rather evenly divided between those who are reading neutrally and those who are faking it. At this point they should all be reading neutrally, sharing honest communication; anything else is wasted time, because they're focusing on saying the words rather than exploring the ideas. Even rote drilling is preferable to recitation, because it focuses exclusively on the words, where a recitation distracts the performer into a generalized state of agitation where neither ideas nor words are meaningfully retained. But neutral reading, done well, isn't boring or flat; neutral reading is the beginning of exploration.
I thought that I'd covered this in the final session before beginning relationships and objectives, but apparently I didn't do so clearly enough. However, now that I think back, I realize that the students whom I used to demonstrate the process of building from neutral are (and have been) reading their lines neutrally, allowing their speech to be flavored by the natural impulses that occur while they're in their reading circle. They get it because they did it. I suspect that in the future I may have to take some time with each cast and make sure that everyone experiences the difference.
I'd rather cut the problem off at the source, though. I see, looking at my article from that day, that I did have everyone break off into sections to begin "neutral reading"-- but that the basic difficulty arises from the word itself. Neutral reading is honest communication; neutral reading is speaking in a normal, everyday manner. Everything we say is a neutral read. Yet when I ask people to "neutral read", I always have to qualify that this is what it means, rather than monotone or mindless reading, and I have to pull them away from trying to do what they think is neutral reading so that they can just speak normally. Neutral reading is... wait a minute... it's a Meisner term. That's where I got it from.
And it causes the same Meisner problem. It's just like the repetition exercise. The term "neutral reading" initially causes actors to do the exact and total opposite of what they're meant to do, and only after intense and deliberate guidance are they able to understand and benefit from the process. Yet-- as I have consistently observed-- what they're meant to do is something they already do with masterful expertise. They aren't learning something new; but using the term "neutral reading" makes them think they are, and as long as I continue to use that term I'll have to wrestle everyone who hears it back into normalcy. I'll purge "neutral reading" from my vocabulary.
But a concept needs a name. Shall I simply call it by a different name? Will that be enough? The value of "neutral" is that it implies the absence of character, objective, and relationship; the damage of "neutral" is that it implies meaninglessness and monotony. But wait-- that's not a value. I'm always stressing that neutral read is not the absence of character, objective, and relationship. When you speak honestly, you do have a natural character (yourself), a natural objective (to communicate meaning), and a natural relationship (I want you to hear me). I don't think the term "natural reading" would work, though, because some scripts get wildly absurd.
"Honest reading" would be a better choice. Honest communication is the foundation of every effective performance, but the term "neutral reading" implies that when you begin performing you'll have to abandon it and do something non-neutral. If I speak of "honest reading" then it will be easier to imagine how honest reading remains the omnipresent core of a performance as it becomes layered and flavored by influences of character, relationship, objective, and impulse. By thinking "honest" rather than "neutral" it would be easier for an actor to allow themselves the freedom to explore the impulses around them, and to do so productively, while still in the line-learning phase. I think I'll try this term in the future.
Nonetheless, I suspect that "honest" by itself will not pry their eyes off the page. It's possible that it might-- you can't honestly communicate unless you're actually talking to someone-- but I've been intrigued to discover that students usually develop a strong relationship with the paper they're holding. They may talk honestly to the paper, not to their castmates. If there is some word I could use that would imply that they deliver the impulses to the cast (instead of the paper) and receive impulses from the cast (instead of their cue) I'll want to use that instead; but for now, "honest" it is.
Fundamentals of Dance is a good opportunity for me to feel what it's like for most folks to take an acting class. In dance I'm a rank novice. I haven't any experience in dancing; I don't know what the principles are; I don't know what I'm expected to learn; I haven't done any independent study on the subject. This is my introduction to the subject, and my only source for understanding the material is the class itself.
Unfortunately, the class is not helping me to become a better dancer, nor to understand dance any more clearly. As I attempt to do each of these routines, I experience what the acting students must feel trying to do their performance pieces. I'll do what I believe is being asked of me, and when I'm given "notes" I try to make the necessary changes-- but as I see it, the only difference between the attempts is that the instructor likes one of them better. I don't know why. I can make the changes, but from my perspective one is no better than the other, just different. When I was graded on the "modern" routines, I received a specific critique of the things I had or hadn't done, and the sheet was completely meaningless to me. There were lists of actions I could've done which would've been errors; I didn't know what any of them were, but I was glad to see that none of them were circled. Whatever I had done, it netted me the right point score in all categories. But the only thing I learned was how to memorize that routine. The only thing I was taught was how to please the instructor.
I don't fault the instructor, who is skilled in her craft and sincere in her desire to teach. Rather, I see how what she's attempting to do is paralleled in acting classes. In a typical acting class, the semester is occupied by one monologue, one scene, and one poem, each of which is graded, none of which are expected to be "good." In our dance class, we are doing one set of "modern" routines, one set of "ballet" routines, and one set of "jazz" routines, two of which are graded, none of which are expected to be "good." Indeed, we were explicitly told that the ballet routines would not be graded because we couldn't be expected to demonstrate the necessary technique.
Expecting incompetence, acting instructors invent other ways to grade their students. "Effort" is popular. One instructor grades on "how much you improve"; another grades on "how well you incorporate the notes." Most popular of all is paperwork. Did you write a character analysis? Did you "score" the scene? Did you research social history of the period? Did you analyze your script? Go to a show, read an article, research a historic figure, make daily observations... and write about them all. But while these strategies may ensure a better grade, none of them ensure a better performance. Last year, I was asked to describe why I was so dissatisfied with a class I was taking. I replied with a comparison: If I say to our voice teacher, "Show me an 'A' student," he'll point at the stage. But in this other class-- supposedly a performance class-- if I say "show me an 'A' student," I get a stack of paper. The actual effect of the paperwork on the performance is incidental and irrelevant. This problem goes beyond just this one class, though. Across the board, the quality of an actor's performance has been systematically minimized or eliminated from the grading structure. The system has been designed to accept failure. Worse than that-- by redefining its criteria, the system deliberately disguises failure as success; and ironically, a successful performance easily becomes a failing grade for the same reasons.
This is why I've been dead set against testing and grading. I have claimed that tests are an objectionable and inaccurate measure of success because they only measure a student's ability to take the test. I had dismissed the entire idea of tests as educational abominations. Last week, however, a written test in the dance class prompted me to re-examine what I think about testing. The basic problem with classroom tests, I considered, is that the student gets the grade.
The grade should be given to the teacher's method. As I sat there matching words to blanks, it occurred to me that nobody should have had to "study" for this test. As presented, this test was a memorization task irrelevant to our dance experience; I later overheard one of my classmates complaining that she'd switched around the definitions of "active stretching" and "passive stretching" and I wondered, why shouldn't she reverse them? To her they're both the same; they're just words to be memorized. But what would happen if the test really did measure our dance knowledge? If we had been given recognizable experiences in class, we would need words to describe what we'd experienced; then, when we read a verbal description of that same experience, we would automatically think of the matching word. Missing the question on the test would be a red flag to the instructor that the experience was insufficient. It would show that the method had failed to teach the student.
If the method were on trial, rather than the student, a test could become a positive tool for constructive development. To the teacher, the value of testing is to determine where the method is failing. If the method were on trial, teachers would be more inclined to believe that they should explore their students' competencies rather than manufacture ways for their students to fail.
Assigning grades to the student creates an unfortunate and entirely erroneous bias: that the student's "failure" means they need to "try harder." If the method is flawed, no amount of effort will generate success. If the student is not learning, it is the teacher's responsibility to understand why, and the teacher's responsibility to help the student connect with the material. A student does not have the resources, the perspective, the experience, or the knowledge to conceive of and implement any methodical changes which will be necessary for them to connect with the material. All the student can do is push harder on the same string.
The argument against this bias can be traced back at least as far as Immanuel Kant in the 1700s. I was intrigued when I read this secondhand (but apparently accurate) assessment of Kant's "Copernican Revolution":
The notion that one has the truth when one's mind conforms with the world is rejected in favor of the notion that all knowledge is subjective; because [knowledge] is impossible without experience, which is essentially subjective.
I know plenty of teachers today who believe that their students have the truth only when their students' minds conform with their world. But I'd agree with my second-hand Kant and say that students have the truth when they understand their own experience, not mine.
To the student, the value of testing is to quantify and comprehend their own experience. There is a hoary business phrase that "there can be no management without measurement," in this case, testing helps us to understand where we are now versus where we've come from. This is the sole problem I've experienced with my current vocal training; without ways to test myself, without tangible benchmarks and objective measures of capability, I do not know whether I'm moving forward, slipping backwards, or heading sideways into an interesting but thoroughly unproductive effort. There are cues which do appear; occasionally I'll discover that I can sing or shout something that I couldn't previously (forward), or lately I've been noticing my everyday placement has slipped away from my hard palate (backward), but how can I understand my current ability if I have no way to measure it?
For everyone involved, the value of testing is to provide a reason to care. In amateur theater, it's an open secret that a director will ask for "off book" two weeks before they really expect all the lines to be learned. Because the actors are all volunteers, the director doesn't have any clout, so they use the artificial deadline to shame the slackers ("You were supposed to be off book last week") and get what they need. Fortunately, I have clout; all this week, I've asked my students to be off book. I haven't called it a "test", but it's worth twenty percent of their grade. What makes it effective is that it's not arbitrary. The actors need to be off their script-crutches at this time for the sake of the rehearsal process. If they're not, both they and I need to know it, and this "test" will reveal the problem to both of us. Fortunately, because it is a test, and I've clearly defined the parameters ("get from the beginning to the end without looking at your scripts or calling for a line"), they can know ahead of time whether or not they're fully prepared, and if they recognize that they're not they can apply the effort to become prepared.
What about the student who doesn't want to make the effort? If the project doesn't appeal, help them find a different project. If they aren't drawn into the process, try a different process. I'd say this is the best a teacher can do. Following this, if the student refuses to be interested in the subject, if "doing the work" remains a chore and not a delight no matter how you frame it, then it's not going to happen. Leave them alone. Let them drop the class. Take them out of school. Remove the shackles! Let them discover and succeed at what they will do rather than force them to sullenly fail at what they must do. Everyone wants to be good at what they enjoy, and (as far as I know) the only people who enjoy doing nothing are the ones who are dead. Or watching television. And there's nothing a teacher should be expected to do about that.
This is the week when each cast demonstrates that their lines are learned. I didn't realize how fully I'd been conditioned by all my experience in amateur theater until now; as it is I'm amazed. My stated decision not to be lenient on line-learning has overridden my expectations and I couldn't be more pleased. As much as I've railed against grades and grading, as much as I've tried to pull attention away from the grade, tying the grade to line-learning has succeeded beyond what I had hoped. I've only listened to three of six, so far, but I am optimistic for the rest of the week.
The best thing is that everyone is off book at the start of the rehearsal process. This is what I'd wanted. Each show will only have 4-5 hours of rehearsal with me, and 13-14 hours total (plus three run-throughs after that). Not much time at all, really, but with the lines already learned then each rehearsal will actually move things forward. Each rehearsal can actually be exploration which improves the quality of the show. Each rehearsal can actually be productive. 4-5 hours of off-book rehearsal is better than two weeks with scripts in hand.
What I wasn't expecting is that, because of the grade, everyone not only understands that learning lines is important, they made it important to be off book on time. They actually did it. It may seem odd to say that I was surprised by this; isn't this what I planned? It's that my experience in amateur theater is far too strong. In amateur theater-- including every single performance I've seen or been in since coming to this school-- no matter how loudly the director bellows or berates, the off-book day is never the day when everyone is actually off book. The scripts get put down, the actors try to run through it, but within two scenes there are so many flubs that the director is forced to make concessions. Far too frequently, the actors call for lines right up through the dress rehearsal; with an all-volunteer production, the director has no clout other than to replace actors, and there's no guarantee that different actors would be any better at learning lines. So they don't have much choice but to accept it. And the actors know it. The unspoken assumption is that it really doesn't matter.
In the morning class, I was pleased to actually see the difference. At the start of the term, one of the casts needed another person, so I recruited someone from outside the class to fill the last part. This person has the fewest number of lines in the show, but is not going to receive a grade-- and this week she did what I'd expected. When the rest of her cast began reading, I was increasingly relieved and delighted as each scene progressed; every scene, every monologue had been flawlessly retained. But finally, we reached a scene with the non-student... and before she reached her fourth sentence she stopped, grimaced, thought hard, started over, stumbled again, and looked helplessly at us. "I have this memorized, I really do!" she said. I replied that yes, I'm sure you do-- but, like last semester's Narrator, you need to see for yourself that you don't have it memorized well enough. I assured her that she wouldn't affect her castmates' grades, and she reached gratefully for her script.
Once I said that to her, I had to admit to myself that this is what I'd expected of everyone; if not for the grade, I am certain that it's what would've happened. I fully expected that the purpose of this week's read-through would be for them to see for themselves that they don't know the script well enough, just as this non-student had. I didn't believe that the sessions would be exactly what they were supposed to be: the students demonstrating that they have the entire show adequately memorized. Scripts down, no calling for lines. But I got what I wanted. I got what I'd hoped for. They made themselves ready according to the stated parameters.
We're already starting to see benefits. One of the casts asked me today if they could stay a bit late and show me what they've got so far; I was thrilled to comply. They read through their script, and only one person had to look at the page (the main character, who probably has more lines than the rest combined), and that was cool-- and because they were so confident in their lines, they had actually begun a hint of blocking, and in doing so they suddenly made me see how to turn three particular beats from a reflective lull between scenes into a powerful statement of struggle and loss.
After each read-through, thanks to a suggestion that was sent to me last week, I'm asking the casts what they would call "neutral reading." In one of the casts, particularly, it became thoroughly evident how "neutral reading" is a woefully inadequate and inappropriate phrase. They began rather hesitantly and somewhat mechanically, but as they gained confidence they became more and more playful until, at the final scene, everyone was having a marvelous time. One of the six was a veritable energy sponge; she tapped into the impulses of everyone around her until she was visibly rocking and bouncing in her chair with uncontained enthusiasm. This is exactly what we want to do in performance, I said. You've started with honest communication and responded to the impulses that were truly there-- but you sure as heck can't call this "neutral"! Everyone immediately nodded their concurrence; two of them just as quickly said that it should be called "natural" instead. Another cast also decided on "natural", and a third settled on "conversational-situational". I also asked a particularly insightful student for his ideas, and he volunteered "core" or "base". Once I've asked the remaining three casts for their opinions I'll see if there's a synthesis to be made.
The results are in. Each of the casts has chosen a different name for what I formerly called "neutral reading":
It seems as though "natural" will be the best word to introduce the concept in the future, although "conversational" may also appear depending on the needs of a show. The show which chose "conversational" is a slice-of-life show where the actors could very easily begin over-emoting just because the story is so straightforward; "conversational" keeps them down to earth. The last two suggestions arose out my wondering whether the term "natural" would really cover the entire process from beginning to end, so that even (for example) in a farce where the characters are flying completely off the handle in crazy ways, I could still describe it with the same term. I'm torn between "response" and "impulse"; although "natural impulse" is more appropriate to my approach, I can't use it prior to the full explanation and understanding of what "impulse" is. This term may not get their eyes off the paper-- neither "response" nor "impulse" imply the delivery of the lines-- but I'm not sure that there is one that will.
As I've listened to the lines, I've heard a new permutation that I hadn't anticipated. It took me a while to figure out what it was. In one of the morning casts, there are two girls playing roommates who are actually roommates in real life; as I listened to them, I could tell that they were listening and responding to each other just as they normally would, but the words they were speaking just seemed... off, somehow. I was able to detect the same quality in other students' speech as well, but I wasn't sure what this quality actually was. They knew what they were saying, and they were honestly communicating, so why did it sound so strange? I found the answer when I was working with two acting students this week. When they finished running their scene, I asked one of the girls to say one of her speeches to me. As she did, it dawned on me that although she was honestly communicating, she was only conveying a literal meaning. Until that moment, I hadn't realized it was possible to sincerely communicate mere words. The honesty in her voice-- and in my own students' voices-- masked the fact that she was speaking the words, not the idea.
It was obvious that the idea was missing as she spoke. It's strange, but if you look for it, you can see that an idea is missing; you can see that a person's head is "empty" of an idea. Stranger still was what happened when I asked her to "say the same thing, but without any of the same words." Her eyes rolled back and, as she tested a few words, I clearly saw the idea forming in her mind where previously there had been nothing. Once she'd finished, I asked her to say the scripted lines again, and the same words which had sounded odd and stilted now became natural and normal. I could also see that her head was now "full" of that idea. I can't explain what I saw any better than that, but I was reminded of the fact that some professional Shakespearean directors refuse to proceed with rehearsals until every actor has paraphrased all of their lines. Surely this is the best way to convert words into ideas. However, it seems that the process must be most effective by speaking aloud, and not merely by writing; otherwise, it's entirely possible that the actor will merely swap out one set of words for another without creating any ideas in between. You need to speak the idea, not the words, to achieve a natural response.
I'm glad I asked the students to invent that new term. Nobody even considered the word "honest", and "natural" hadn't occurred to me at all. In writing the previous paragraph I discovered another reason I needed to get a new term-- whenever I wrote "neutral" I've had to put it in quotes to represent the fact that it doesn't mean what you think it does. Natural response means exactly what it says. As I proceed through the rehearsals I'm going to try to remember that this is a two-way collaboration; although I do have the greater technical expertise, everyone's understanding of the same technique is bound to be different. If something isn't quite happening I need to make sure I understand how they think and what they're trying to do, rather than try to wrangle them into following my explanations.
If I allow myself to be fallible, this gives students greater freedom to find their own way to the necessary principles. The principles don't change, so the process should be flexible; if I insist that I have the best solution and bully someone into following my procedure, the potential for learning is destroyed. It's okay for me to say that I don't know how to reach a student. I can accept that sometimes I won't be able to succeed. Sometimes I really need help. For example, in one of the morning casts, there's a student with whom my instructions and explanations never seem to connect. The more I attempt to make sense of a concept, the more confused she becomes. Now that I've seen how she writes, I suspect that our disconnect arises from my direct pragmatism versus her reflective conceptualization; where I look for the simplest and most efficient statement, she seems to understand best by exploring many tangential perspectives. We're both fortunate, though, that her script has partnered her with a fellow who comprehends what I'm getting at and, somehow, is able to translate that to her in a meaningful way. I can see how her performance is progressing, even at this point, without my direct intervention-- she'll listen to me politely and respectfully, because she trusts me to know what's going on, but she trusts him to know what to do. I won't necessarily be able to help her directly, but I trust him to support her.
Every student must believe in their own competence, or the process slams to a halt. If a student believes they know what to do, they'll try something and expect to succeed. Otherwise, they'll deliberately sabotage their own efforts so their failure is pre-excused. In Fundamentals of Dance, we were grouped together and told to invent a dance routine, where each member of the group was responsible for a different type of movement (axial, locomotor, temporal, spatial). Although we'd been introduced to the individual concepts, none of us had ever composed any dance routine, let alone a routine based on required parameters. The very first thing that each of us did was to shrug and laugh nervously together, "I'm not a dancer... so yeah, I don't know how to do this." The fact that the other groups seemed to know exactly what to do made us even more certain of our own inability. None of us were short on suggestions, but every suggestion was systematically rejected by the rest of us who weren't sure if it would be the right choice. Eventually, with time running short, we had to settle on something, so each of us contributed one thing which we hoped would work-- but then our collective commitment to it was so hesitant and fearful that in presentation, when we could remember what we'd planned, our sheepish energy and apologetic takes to the audience guaranteed that they would take pity on our obvious failure. The failure wasn't our fault; as you see, we just can't do it.
The Fundamentals of Dance class helps me feel incompetent. This must be what it feels like when a non-reader hears me interpret a piece of text: I fail and fumble in my own attempts and I'm left to wonder, how do they do that? I'm often surprised when I'm trying to follow the instructor's movements and suddenly realize that without knowing it I've been using the wrong limb, or pointing the right limb in the wrong direction. When the instructor takes us through a new routine segment by segment, I can do each segment, but then when she puts them together I get lost and confused and have to stop. This has got to be a direct parallel to the students who can read only with pauses after each sentence. I see that I could do what she's demonstrating, given enough time and practice; but she's asking me to do it right now, in tempo, with full involvement, and my body doesn't have the ability to grasp the structure so quickly. Without going through the process at my own pace, all I can manage is a meager approximation of the final result. If I weren't able to compare this to acting, I would probably conclude that these people have the "talent" to dance... and that I don't.
The real problem is too much, too soon. Students rarely make the distinction between "I can't do this" and "I can't do this right now." An instructor must avoid asking for advanced results without clarifying a process to get there. In my enthusiasm, I made this mistake with one of the afternoon casts. They had learned their lines so well that they were already beginning to experiment with blocking and movement-- and their explorations were so successful that I began to see new layers and new ideas I hadn't before. In my excitement, I told them everything I'd seen and imagined; unfortunately, this made everyone think that what they'd done was wrong. In the next session, I implored them not to abandon what they'd been doing, because that was the base on which we'd build the things I described. If they stopped doing what they knew was right to do instead what they thought I wanted, the performance would lose its solid foundation and become a shaky facade. You know what you're doing, so keep doing it, I said, and let your performance grow naturally; then when we rehearse together I'll help manage that growth.
I want to keep shows from falling apart.
That was my original motivation to attend graduate school. I had attended three different productions which blew me away on their opening nights-- but when I came back to each one, it had become flat and boring. After the first production I thought it was the performers, who perhaps didn't have the experience to handle a three-week run; but I gradually became convinced that even experienced actors don't know why their show is falling apart. They may feel that something isn't right, but they don't know how it happened or what to do about it. My conviction has only grown stronger since my arrival here at school.
The turning point of my understanding was from performing in The Marriage of Bette and Boo. By whatever quirk of fate, each actor was perfectly suited to their role, and the audiences received us with tremendous enthusiasm. Our opening week was a blast-- except for Sunday's dead audience. Oh well, we figured, we'll get better audiences next week. The following Friday, we began with a rowdy, noisy, "good" audience, but soon they became as somber and dead as the previous Sunday. I had to conclude that, somehow, we had done this to them. Something in the show had changed them. The next day I stood behind a flat and listened to how, in Bette's opening monologue, the audience's energy drained into the pauses of her speech. They'd respond to something she said, but then she'd wait for them to finish before she continued, so by the time she spoke again they were already relaxing back into their seats, and the enthusiasm of their next response was tainted by their relaxation. The vicious cycle continued so that by the end of Bette's first monologue, the audience was no longer engaged and energetic but calm and respectfully attentive. They still appreciated the show, but they were no longer involved.
I wasn't immediately sure that the pauses were at fault. This was the first time I'd been able to observe directly that pauses were the cause of low energy, but I didn't know what would happen if that were changed. Fortunately, the actress playing Bette noticed these pauses and asked me, should she find actions to put into those silences? I told her that it would probably be more effective to eliminate the pauses, but admitted that I wasn't sure whether it would.
She proceeded to show me that it would. In the next performance, I listened incredulously from behind the flat as I heard how, merely by removing the pauses from that opening monologue, she took a politely interested audience and whipped them into helpless, guffawing laughter. Although she wasn't able to keep that level of energy for all five shows that followed, she had nonetheless proved the point. This was the first time I was able to confirm that pauses were a cause of low energy, not a result.
My understanding of technique has evolved in the three years since that incident, but the problem remains the same. The school's first production of this semester was a drama, and it was fascinating to see how, through its run, decreasing energy spread through the cast like a virus. On opening night, only one actor lagged; six days later, only one actor was able to maintain her energy; and by the final Saturday even she had succumbed.
The problem wasn't pauses. The problem was the loss of impulse. One particular moment defined the change. There are two characters who share a quick exchange which goes something like this: "Mazeltov!" "Gesundheit!" "You're welcome!" On opening night, each of these impulses was caught and amplified so that the third line, which they both said in unison, became a bursting peal of energy. On the closing Saturday, the first actor shouted "Mazeltov!"-- but the second actor ignored the impulse from that line and, instead, used solely his own effort to match the first actor's energy level. Then both of them ignored this new impulse and created a brand new effort for "you're welcome" which fell short of the previous two lines. Instead of using the impulse to build effortlessly to a climax, they worked much harder to achieve a less energetic result.
But impulse technique was not the sole problem; perhaps it wasn't the core problem either. On Saturday the energy began falling right from the start, when the actors had monologues instead of dialogues and couldn't have taken impulses from each other anyway. Then, at times during the dialogue, I found that the lower energy actually contributed to my understanding of the story because the characterizations were not overpowering the scene as they had on opening night. Could it be the direction? I saw how the actors fought against lower energy in their monologues; this can be compensated for by a stronger objective, which creates energy by being pursued more vigorously. Weak energy in a monologue suggests a weak (or nonexistent) objective. And in those scenes that I hadn't understood on opening night, the actors had applied their high energies to their characterizations at the expense of the story; once they calmed down, I was able to hear the words and understand what was going on. Is it possible that the director failed to help them tell the story? In a way, I'm in the same position I was four years ago: I know what I'm seeing and hearing, but I don't have any way to test it... yet. These one-acts are part of the experiment.
I am certain, now, that good storytelling is more than just impulse and pacing. I'd thought nothing more was necessary until last semester, when I went to see a production of Dancing at Lughnasa. The show baffled me. With only one exception, the actors exhibited excellent pacing throughout the show, and all seemed to be conversing honestly and believably. Yet the show was terribly dull and uninteresting; my mind kept wandering away from it. The director and the actors agreed afterward that it had been a "bad show." But what specifically was going on? I had previously thought that only an unmotivated pause would release the audience into their own thoughts; here, these performers had good energy and good pacing-- no unmotivated pauses, no impulses dropped-- and somehow that wasn't enough to keep me interested. I considered my usual explanation of what happens in that unmotivated pause: nothing. For some reason, despite the successful pacing of the show, there was nothing happening on stage; and this is where I began to think of the storytelling structure I've already described in these pages, where the actor's objective supports the director's event which tells the story. Without those objectives, there are no events; without the events, nothing happens, however loud or amusing the characters might be.
I've worked with the director; I know that he essentially leaves the actors alone. Although this is preferable to the puppeteer-director who refuses to leave the actors alone, an actor left to his own devices will work primarily on his character. He may figure out his own "through-line", but won't necessarily have a sense of how his work coordinates with the other actors or contributes to the overall story. What I believe I saw, then, was the same thing I saw last year*: the actors poured all of their effort into their own character's development. When energy was high, it engaged the actors' bodies, and their characters carried the script with their strong reactions and expressions. When energy was low, their bodies disengaged; without an objective to tell the story or an amusing character to interpret the lines, the show couldn't go anywhere. If the event of the script was blatant (young lovers meet for the first time) then the audience tuned in to that story; if the script's event was subtle, a character without energy or purpose isn't interesting to watch, and the audience tuned out. For both shows I heard plenty of audience members complaining that the script was weak; I disagree. I think the story of the script was not being told.
The actors were all very good at creating characters, though. I was grateful to them for showing my students how to give farcically high energy to a physical character. The supporting cast members were comical, totally ridiculous, but were nonetheless entirely believable. All my students were deeply impressed when the rather cool-headed narrator suddenly de-aged into a nervous ten-year-old. Another actress, playing the narrator's mother, switched back and forth between her younger and older selves in the blink of an eye, and went completely and honestly over the top in her interpretation; where the supporting cast was comical, she was tragic, and her extremity came from an equally real place. Some of my students will be playing farcical characters, and I was expecting to have to convince them that it's okay to go way over the top if it's honest-- but I don't have to convince them. Instead I can remind them that they're still not as energetic as the mainstage actors, and they'll know with confidence that they can take it further.
I drew the attention of a few of my students to the narrator's performance. Listen to the narrator, I said, to hear what happens when you memorize with pauses. Each sentence becomes its own isolated idea; when you listen to him, I said, you'll hear how the end of every sentence is a full and complete mental stop, and the beginning of each sentence is a total restart. Continuity of thought is impossible, because each sentence is its own conceptual island. Furthermore, your speech becomes a slave to its punctuation, as unmotivated pauses force themselves in after every period and almost every comma. These are detachment pauses, and they are dangerous; unless the audience relates to what you're saying or has some other reason to pay attention (if you're a family member, or maybe if they think you're cute) you are guaranteed to lose them.
Without my having to tell them, most of my students noticed how the actor playing the narrator's father blatantly dropped impulses. On opening night, when everyone else had energy through the roof, he remained sedate, sidestepping each impulse before providing his own calm speech. I encountered this actor during the intermission, and he told me that his castmates were doing things he'd never seen them do before. Their energy was at a level he'd never had to deal with, and he felt a step behind them all. I assured him that although I had seen what he felt, his character was supposed to be out of sync with the others anyway, so it came across as a character choice. Unfortunately, once the rest of the cast lost their energy, this actor no longer seemed the odd man out, and my students could still see that he was dropping every impulse that came his way. Not so good for his performance, but good as an observation my students could make with confidence.
Now we're moving into our own performances. The lines are learned, and this week we'll be blocking the shows and beginning the actual on-your-feet rehearsing. I'm almost sorry that so much of the rehearsing may happen outside of my presence, but I appreciate that the separation helps the students to more completely feel that the shows are their own creation, and to explore and invent without having to check in with me at every turn. Last semester I was delighted at how much each show grew and changed without my interference; I hope that this semester everyone can enjoy the same freedom of discovery.
*although for a different reason-- that director wanted to work with the actors, but they didn't learn their lines, so he couldn't.