Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD

Acting Instruction 4:  Rehearsal

October 17-21 - Block and tackle

This week we're blocking all the shows.  And when I say we I mean I am blocking the shows, planning out who has to move where on which lines.  For all the shows I direct, I try to have a complete blocking plan ready in hand by the first blocking rehearsal.  Many directors prefer to design their blocking only when they have actual bodies to move around, but I wouldn't choose to do that even if I had enough rehearsal time.  I don't need to; I can scribble quick diagrams and imagine from those what the stage will look like once the live people are in place.  More importantly, though, it seems to me that a director who arrives at the first blocking rehearsal without any preparation is giving the actors the impression that he doesn't care about helping them.

In a naturalistic play, most of the blocking will be determined by the actors, but the director should still have as complete a plan as possible.  The director's plan should include a layout of the space and a diagram of the particular movements that the script requires.  Of the six plays we're doing, only one is naturalistic; in it, I have marked no movement at all, but only events.  On this line, one character has to leave.  On this line, another character has to pick up the telephone.  This line is where this character has to come back into the room.  I've made a diagram of where I believe all the furniture in the room should be placed, based on the "stage picture" I want to create.  I develop this picture almost entirely on instinct; I attempt to feel where there is balance or imbalance and adjust the setting appropriately.

The more absurd the play, though, the more the blocking serves the director instead of the actors.  The movement of the play is less dependent on the actors' discovered impulses than on purely logistical concerns.  When, for example, a scene with four people is immediately followed by two of those same people having a telephone conversation in a different location which is immediately followed by the original four people playing totally different characters in a third new setting, there's no point in trying to find a natural way to do it.  The traffic pattern has to be determined by need, not exploration.  The actors must then discover the impulses which can move them to where the script needs them to be.

Whether naturalistic or absurd, I think actors appreciate having at least a basic outline of where they should move.  Until they have learned their lines and determined their objectives, there won't be any natural impulses to help guide the blocking, so the director should be ready for that; additionally, if the director thoughtfully plans the movements to follow the natural flow he sees in the script, then the actors will gain a better understanding of the story just from following the movements, and will become better able to make their own suggestions when they find more appropriate behavior.

I don't doubt that at some point this week I'll find myself explaining what it means to be "on task."  An actor who isn't directly involved with the stage action should remain quietly attentive, not interfering with the main action but ready to become involved at any moment.  The biggest time sink in any rehearsal is when actors who aren't directly involved in the stage action begin drifting away-- to do their homework, read a book, or start conversations-- and the director (or stage manager) has to recapture the actors' attention and involvement before anyone can continue with the rehearsal.  So far, I haven't had to say anything about this, because the casts are so small that only one person is ever standing unused at the side.  When I'm working with the larger casts, where four or five people will be waiting their turn, I expect it'll become necessary.  With my complete preparation, and without actually speaking any of the lines, and with all five actors fully on task, it still took the full hour to block a ten-minute play.  We don't have time to mess around.

October 18 - Building blocks

Today was the only day we'll have in the actual theater space for a while, so today was the day we blocked the three most absurd shows.  I came to the session with as much preparation as possible; namely, having a clear sense of the actions that had to happen and of what I felt the movement would accomplish in each scene.  Last semester, we performed a show in which five actors had to play nearly forty different characters, with dozens of scene changes in the space of minutes-- I'd arrived at that blocking rehearsal with the entire traffic pattern meticulously planned.  For these three shows, I was concerned because over the past week I'd tried to figure out their layout and flow, but every time I drew a specific floorplan something in the script seemed to interfere with it.  Every time I tried to diagram the traffic, some character ended up in a useless place and couldn't get out of it.  So I crossed my fingers and held my breath and brought with me only my mental picture of each story.  Fortunately, this proved to be enough.

I had designed the blocking ahead of time, but by need rather than position.  This helped the rehearsal flow smoothly, because each time I moved everyone to where they needed to be I discovered how their current positions made it possible to get to their next place.  I had to see where all the bodies were in order to know how they were changing the space.  The process was efficient and effective because I knew what had to happen next, even though I didn't know exactly where.  The unprepared director comes to the rehearsal expecting that the actors will show him all the blocking when he says go; I hammered out the touchpoints ahead of time and allowed them freedom to discover in between.  For two of the three shows, this was exactly what we needed.  If I'd tried to plan the exact movements it wouldn't have helped; typically, as I described where they needed to be and why, the actors eagerly volunteered how they could make that happen, and these suggestions were almost always better than what I would've tried to diagram. 

The third and most complex show I'd left for last because I figured we'd run over time.  That did happen, but not for the reason I expected.  Not at all.  I'd thought that the show would be so confusing and complicated that we'd waste a lot of time trying to figure out how to make things work; what I got was just the opposite.  The show was already so clear to the actors that they constantly overwhelmed me with excited suggestions-- valid, relevant suggestions, not just random nonsense!  I'd mention a movement that had to happen, and every one of the five principal actors would immediately jump in with a half-dozen ideas about what they could do.  Where I was expecting to take extra time struggling to solve these problems, the struggle instead was to convince everyone that the problem was solved ten times over and we can move on now!  This struggle, I confess, I'm delighted to have.

There was one interesting disappointment.  There's one scene which involves six people in a relatively small area.  The central action and focus is clear-- so clear that I couldn't even try to plan it.  The movements would have to arise from the characters' responses to the action and their relationships to each other (especially in that confined area).  By the time we reached that point, we knew what the layout would be, and we knew what movement would begin the scene.  So I let them loose to see what would happen-- but nothing did.  They weren't sure of their relationships, they weren't sure of their objectives... but more importantly, they weren't sure of their lines.  With all six of them there in the space we won't be returning to for at least a month, and the floor plan established, and twenty minutes to spare, I was desperately tempted to try to establish some kind of movement just to have something to work with.

I was convinced not to, though, by one particular observation.  I called the actors' attention to it.  At this moment in the story, I said, notice that one person did know her relationship; and did you see how that made her move forward and put her hand out?  She probably didn't even realize she was doing it until she'd already done it.  It just happened.  If you understood your relationships and your objectives, you wouldn't be stuck there wondering where to move.  You wouldn't even think about it.  You'd know.  But you can't do it unless you know the lines.  One of the girls said, with genuine unhappiness, that she felt like they'd failed me by not knowing the lines.  I thanked her sincerely for her concern and responded that I'd just change the object of that sentence; you didn't fail me, you failed yourselves, because you can't do this scene.

In reflection, I wonder if directors unwittingly reinforce their actors' belief that it's not important to learn the lines on time.  Tonight, this cast saw that without their lines they couldn't proceed with the work, and they understood why.  In most of the rehearsals I've seen, the director will insist on proceeding with the scene, blocking it and acting it regardless of whether someone's holding a script or calling for lines.  The actor thus learns that blocking comes only from the director; also, because the director attempts to make them act while they're holding the script, an actor is taught that the rehearsal is the same whether or not they've got their lines learned.  So the only reason to make the effort is because the director keeps yelling at them.  The frustrated director tries to get what he can in rehearsal, not knowing that by doing so he's convincing the actor that work can get done even if the lines aren't learned.  I felt today that temptation to "get something", but I'll have to resist it in the future even as I did today.

If the actors don't know their lines, the only productive use of rehearsal time is running the lines.  Anything else is a waste of time.

October 21 - Past is still prologue

I'd forgotten how much of an influence Keith Johnstone's Impro had on my teaching style.  Here are some selections from the book:

"The implication... was that the student should never experience failure.  The teacher's skill lay in presenting experiences in such a way that the student was bound to succeed."

"If you want to apply the methods I'm describing in this book, you may have to teach the way that I teach.  When I give workshops, I see people frantically scribbling down the exercises, but not noticing what it is I actually do as a teacher.  My feeling is that a good teacher can get results using any method, and that a bad teacher can wreck any method."

I've already written about how I believe that any method is a philosophy, rather than a collection of exercises-- and how, because Meisner himself was such a good teacher, it took me until this year to understand that his exercises and his actual approach are assuredly destructive in the hands of anything less than a master.  I've seen a similar example of an instructor attempting to teach their understanding of the Lessac system of vocal training.  At every opportunity, this instructor transformed the system's natural exploratory approach into a series of prescriptive exercises and actions which are done either correctly or incorrectly-- thus stifling creative discovery in favor of new ways for the students to "get it wrong" and fail.  In an unfortunate double irony, the instructor's understanding of the basic Lessac method was fundamentally incorrect, so the students were not only being made to fail, but they were failing to do it wrongly.

"The first thing I do when I meet a group of new students is (probably) to sit on the floor.  I play low status, and I'll explain that if the students fail they're to blame me.  Then they laugh, and relax, and I explain that it's really obvious that they should blame me, since I'm supposed to be the expert; and if I give them the wrong material, they'll fail; and if I give them the right material, they'll succeed.  I play low status physically but my actual status is going up, since only a very confident and experienced person would put the blame for failure on himself... They'll want to test me, of course; but I really will apologize to them when they fail, and ask them to be patient with me, and explain that I'm not perfect... the normal teacher-student relationship is dissolved."

The first time I read this book, I wasn't teaching anyone, so I didn't understand that this statement is a core philosophy.  When I read it this week, I had to smile, because of course I do sit on the floor but I know full well that sitting on the floor is only a pretense at low status.  In the academic environment, any way you dare to be different raises your status (unless it makes you a fool).

I do apologize when they don't succeed.  It doesn't take any effort; I don't have to keep reminding myself.  I know for a fact that every one of these students has the capacity to do everything that these shows demand, and I believe that they want to succeed.  If they are not succeeding, it must be because I haven't given them the directions they can use, and I feel badly for confusing them and wasting their time.  Apologizing follows as a matter of course, and I always appreciate their patience and willingness to try whatever different things I can invent for them until something finally works.

"Normal schooling is intensely competitive, and the students are supposed to try and outdo each other.  If I explain to a group that they're supposed to work for the other members, that each individual is to be interested in the progress of the other members, they're amazed, yet obviously if a group supports its own members strongly, it'll be a better group to work in."

It seems that my attendance-policy bludgeon has created the effect I wanted it to on the teamwork as well as the line-learning.  Initially, they came solely out of self-interest; gradually, they've come to support their show.  They know by now that when they're not scheduled to work with me, they aren't "required" to come, but they do anyway-- and when they can't, they call and apologize to their castmates.  They know that their presence matters; they know that their absence makes a difference.  After the first few days, I've never mentioned the attendance policy again, and I doubt I'll have to.

In the standard curriculum, the attendance and grading serve as a different kind of bludgeon.  It doesn't help to bring the students to a new awareness that renders the policy unnecessary; instead, it instills in them the fear that forces them to make their attempt, so that the attendance policy and the project grade become the sole motivation.  Yesterday, I received this message from a student who is taking Acting for Non-Majors in a different section, following the standard curriculum.

Today I'm meeting with my group... so we can go through our scene, but I have a sinking feeling that the performance isn't going to get any better. I want to be optimistic and hopeful, but nothing I've experienced thus far with this group has given me any reason to be. Is it my fault for not trying to be more friendly with them? ...I must be really far off base, because something is wrong. I'm reading through some of what you wrote about impulse right now. Maybe something in there will help... But even if it does help me personally, how can I convey what I've learned from it to my scene partners without sounding preachy or like some kind of know-it-all?

Confusion.  Frustration.  Helplessness.  This is not the instructor's fault; it's built directly into the system.  The students don't know what principles they can explore, so not only are they unable to recognize improvement, but the motivation to help each other is stifled by the fear of seeming arrogant.  Nobody knows how to work on their project in a way that actually makes it better.  There's little reason to spend time on it, because the tenth attempt is probably going to be just the same as the first.  And even if it isn't, who can tell?  No matter how motivated you are, it's easier just to give up.  The same student writes:

The people I'm working with unfortunately seem about as interested in it as my shoes are. ...I feel like I'm too into it, like my involvement is borderline obsessive. It's a very disconcerting situation. I mean I feel like an idiot... Maybe I'm not being fair to them-- maybe they are interested in this... But what can I do? I can't make them want to have fun with this, like I want to have fun with it. I can't force interest. Nobody can.

I'm starting to understand this attitude more fully from my Fundamentals of Dance class.  As we prepared today for another two hours of (to me) seemingly random movements, I suddenly realized... not only do I have no idea how to do this well, but nobody expects me to do it well.  So all I need to do is wave my arms and legs in roughly the proper directions and wait for the time to drain away.  Although this proved to be an effective strategy-- I could even make the time go faster by counting down in five-minute increments-- unfortunately, we were soon obliged to attempt an actual dance routine.  "This isn't graded," the instructor said, "this is just for fun!"  But it was certainly not for fun.  For me especially.  I know by now that I can't learn more than one movement at a time; I have to practice each step five or six times just by itself before I can think of adding another.  So I watched helplessly as the instructor demonstrated the routine we were supposed to "learn".  Then we were divided into two groups, and each group was made to attempt the routine while the other watched-- putting our failure on immediate display.  And then we did it again.  The exercise was useless; I felt embarrassed, annoyed, and resentful.  Not "fun".  I don't know exactly how many other students shared my feelings, but joking comments assured me that we were in the majority.  All of us were relieved that we would never have to do it again.

I'm still fighting against the remnants of that students' attitude in my early class, and I'm failing.  I was initially disappointed that the students didn't seem to want to support each other-- unlike the other classes, on the days they weren't scheduled to work with me, they didn't show up-- but I had to acknowledge that if I were a student in this early time slot, the snooze button would very probably override all my best intentions.  However, I became increasingly concerned as I began to sense a seeming apathy among many of the students.  I first wondered how they expected to run lines as an ensemble if they never met; then I suspected they must be using the audio recordings instead; now I'm not sure they've been working on the lines at all.  And even though I looked each cast straight in the eye and said have your objectives ready for next week, even though I sent them an e-mail with the handout explaining how to prepare, even though I sent them a follow-up e-mail reminding everyone that they needed to have their objectives ready to go by tomorrow so please ask questions beforehand, only four people out of sixteen had anything prepared at all, and more than half of each cast still seemed surprised and didn't know what to do.

I confess this particular effect isn't just the early class; I will have to revise my approach to objectives in the coming semester.  The early class is different from the other two classes mainly in having a larger proportion of unprepared students.  In all three classes, each student I've worked with individually prior to the objectives session has arrived prepared with effective, useful objectives; with the other students it's been hit or miss.  I suspect that next semester I will need to figure out an approach in which everyone may discover how to create effective objectives, and allow a dedicated session for that exploration.

Still, there is something not working in the early class, and fortunately I had the opportunity to talk with one of the students about it.  Is it possible, I asked her, that somehow everyone is still holding on to the attitude inflicted by the two weeks before I arrived?  I felt when I showed up that everyone believed this class was a place where nobody mattered and nothing important happened; although I'd like to think that that's now changed, people's behavior seems to indicate that they don't think so.  Is this the problem, I asked?  She didn't have to think long before replying that, although that might be a factor (she hadn't thought of it the way I put it, but she couldn't disagree), her main impression was that the class, before I arrived, was going to be really hard.  We were going to write our own monologues and have to perform them well, she said; we were going to have to write and perform our scenes.  It seemed like it was going to be really, really difficult.  I like your approach better, she said, but I can see how everyone would think that, by comparison, you're not asking them to do anything.  So maybe they don't realize that you are, and so they don't do it.

I wish that didn't make such good sense.  Fortunately, I don't expect to assume another class partway through next semester, and next semester is my final term.  If I get stuck with an 8:30 class next semester-- I've learned that I am teaching Acting for Non-Majors again, although I don't know the time slot-- I'll have them from the start, and I can strongly urge anyone who doesn't want to be a part of it to drop the class immediately.  I'd rather do that than expect to struggle against apathy.  For this semester, the coming week is when everyone in the early class needs to have their lines learned for the early class; with the other two classes, I saw everyone working on their lines together, so I was confident in what I'd hear, but with this class I won't know what to expect.  I'll just have to hope for no crisis and find out as the days unfold.

October 22 - On level ground

Sometimes I wonder if I've got any original thoughts at all.  From The Inner Game of Tennis (1974):

I see tennis players [actors] every day trying hard to correct their "faulty" games [scenes], and they learn at a much slower rate than the player who places his confidence in whatever potential is already within him and then lets it happen.  Both have to practice, but the first type is beset with problems of self-doubt trying to make himself into something he's afraid he isn't, bearing all the credit and blame for the results.  In contrast, I see the second player trusting the potential within himself and learning to rely on the natural process by which that potential becomes actual.

This summarizes my approach to scenework, whether I'm teaching it or just interfering.  Last semester, I was always hanging around the theater building waiting for a class or a rehearsal, so I often passed the time by observing undergraduates practicing their scenes; and more often than not, I'd be asked for my input.  And then their work would get better... and stay better, because I always focus on basic acting technique and not the specific "needs" of the particular scene at hand.  This semester, I'm only on campus for the classes I'm teaching, so it wasn't until the recent Hello Dolly rehearsals that I found myself killing time while random rehearsals were going on around me.  I've sat in on a few, and been dragged (willingly) into others, and two of these seemed worth mentioning.

In one, a girl had asked me to help her find "levels" in her performance.  As I watched her scene it was obvious that she was missing all the impulses, so I took a minute to show her how to find them.  And I mean that literally-- it took only one minute. I dispensed with all explanation, asking instead, "If I say to you, 'How are you doing today?' on what word do you feel the strongest impulse?"  I deliberately punched her with "doing" so that the impulse would be blatant, and that's the word she chose.  So I asked her to catch the impulse from that word and use it; then I asked her to feel the impulse but let it dissipate before responding.  I asked her to amplify it, then to shrink it; and that's all it took.  She applied the concept to her scene immediately, taking her energy entirely from the impulses she was receiving.  She could feel when she'd caught or missed them.  After she'd finished the scene, I congratulated her on the different levels she'd found, and slyly asked, had she noticed them?  With amazement, she said that no, she hadn't; I explained that she wouldn't have because it was effortless.  When you miss the impulses, you have to force energy into your scene, and you'll feel yourself trying; plus, because you have the same generic purpose every time, you'll always force yourself to the same level.  When you use the impulses instead, the scene's energy flows and changes naturally, and your levels will become variable as a matter of course.

Her absorption and application of the technique was so quick, so thorough, and so effective that I wondered-- is this the difference between working with "non-actors" and "actors"?  Maybe working with "non-actors" is essentially like training with 100-pound weights before moving on to 25-pound weights, so that less effort produces a greater result.  In further reflection, though, I realized that this would only be true because the "actor" has more experience with which to assimilate a new concept.  Last semester, I was told by a faculty member that my time was being wasted on non-actors because they can't give back as much as I give to them-- I know what he meant, but I suspect I've benefited far more by working with non-actors.  If I had been teaching the same techniques to experienced actors, they would have been better able to compensate for technical flaws, and I wouldn't have learned as specifically what my techniques will and will not accomplish.

Furthermore, as I discovered from another scene, actors who "know what they're doing" may not accept new ideas.  Two girls were working on a Shakespearean scene, and they were having a conflict about how often they should rehearse.  One of the two preferred to rehearse as often as possible, for as long as possible, so that they could both maximize their explorations and discoveries.  The other preferred to rehearse as little as possible so that the performance could "stay fresh".  Of course I sympathize with the first girl, and I volunteered to the second that I had some ideas she could use.  I demonstrated with her how she could keep a performance permanently "fresh" by responding to the impulse; I thought that perhaps this could resolve the conflict by showing her how useful it is to have more rehearsal time.  Instead, she maintained an air of aloofness throughout the demonstration, as though I was merely showing her some clever trick that she would never need or use.  It did occur to me after the fact that she had an additional stake in not listening to me, because doing so would have acknowledged that she was the problem in this rehearsal process-- but in either case, the person who doesn't want to rehearse will always win.  My suspicions were confirmed later; I learned from someone who saw their final performance that despite the limited rehearsal time, this girl's choices had already become mechanical and "stale".  Although she had seemed to acknowledge the difference between working with the impulse versus repeating dead choices, she still relied exclusively on her own technique, rejecting what I had shown her.

Among it all, I think I've resolved my previous fear of what I'd do if working with trained actors.  I had worried how professional actors might respond if I attempted to "teach" them my techniques, but the approach is the same regardless of the actor's experience or skill level-- the director should detect what's missing in an actor's performance and find a way to insinuate that information into the actor's process.  If a technique illustrates and solves a problem, it will be accepted.  If an actor is not aware of a problem, they will reject a technique that would solve it.  If my technique is merely offered as interesting information, it will naturally be rejected by an actor who has developed their own; but if instead the technique gives a new dimension to an actor's performance, they will enjoy it as a new way to unleash their existing skill.

October 23 - Jam packed

I think I understand why people will rely on rehearsals to learn their lines.

Hello Dolly, opening in less than two weeks, is the first show I've ever done in which I'm actually in a dance number as a dancer.  Although I was on stage for the big dance numbers in Anything Goes last year, my character was both old and drunk-- being old allowed me to stay slightly behind step, so I could just imitate everyone else each night; being drunk gave me the excuse to perform the steps clumsily.  This semester I actually have to do it right, and the process of learning the dance moves is fascinating.

I learn dance combinations the same way an average reader memorizes a monologue.  One tiny piece at a time.  I can't think structurally because I don't have any mental models of the grammar of dance, and I have to learn it one word at a time because I can't understand the ideas.  I have to absorb each individual movement as a separate and distinct unit, practice that single movement until it becomes instinctive, and only then can I hope to add the next.  Connecting the movements is another process altogether; not only does the transition between them require its own physical logic, but as far as I'm concerned, anything could happen next.  In reading, an average person can at least infer that "this cup" will be followed by "is empty" instead of "ballyhoo pumpkins", but my knowledge of dance is so limited that, by analogy, the sentence "I built three chairs" makes just as much sense as "wobbles puppy crespin tango".  The only way I know that one move follows the other is because it's been shown to me often enough.  I must rely on the rehearsal to learn the dance moves because my mind can't remember how to put everything together.  This gives me some understanding of the actor who won't learn lines on their own; they don't know how to do it.  If I didn't know how to use the script to effectively memorize my lines, especially when none of my castmates are around to speak their lines, I might feel helpless enough that I would come to believe I couldn't memorize lines except from the rehearsal.

I am allowing myself to learn the dance routine from the rehearsals.  And, with each rehearsal, I find the routine is melting further into me.  When I began learning the routine, I was totally conscious of every movement.  In each subsequent rehearsal, I find that I'm totally unconscious of the movements up to a point-- and that point keeps retreating further and further toward the end of the routine.  The endpoint is melting away as the routine melts into my body.  Gradually, like a good monologue, I'll be able to perform the dance without thinking about it at all.

I'm trying to duplicate this experience for my students as they continue to work with their lines.  The exercise is simple, but requires focus and energy.  The cast begins reciting their lines at the top of a beat, and as soon as someone pauses-- either between lines or between sentences of their own lines-- they stop and go all the way back to the first line.  They almost always find this initially frustrating; they think the goal is to get through the scene, not to eliminate pauses, and each pause feels like a failure to finish.  However, I assure them that this is to be expected; if they could get through the scene without pauses then this exercise would be totally redundant, so just keep at it and watch what happens.  And indeed, once they feel the endpoint moving further and further toward the end of the scene, the game changes and they treat each pause as marking a successful new achievement.

There are a few things necessary to make this game successful.

1.  When I introduce it, I emphasize that this exercise is totally mechanical.  We are merely using this as a method to etch the lines on your subconscious mind.  This will enable you to find your own natural rhythms and pauses.

2.  Short lines must be elongated.  For example, if your character has the line "What?" and you say "What?" as a tidy little pop of a syllable, the next person will find it almost impossible to speak their line quickly enough to avoid a pause.  You have to draw out the sound into "Whaaaaaat?" to allow the next person to join in contiguously.

3.  Speed.  I also point out that, overall, going slowly makes it easier.  Eliminating pauses creates the illusion of speed, and the subsequent higher energy often does create a faster tempo, but the actor should never ever feel rushed.  (As an example of the speed illusion, here is a short audio recording, and here is the exact same recording with the pauses clipped out.  The script is an excerpt from David Ives' Foreplay, or the Art of the Fugue.)

4.  Breath support.  Few students have trained their breath well enough to handle longer speeches without breathing at least once.  I tell them that, once they see a longer speech coming up, they should breathe deeply and speak quickly-- but if they must breathe, I say that they should be sure to breathe when they have to, not where the punctuation tells them to.

5.  I need to actively police the first few attempts.  This is partly to reinforce that the game is about eliminating pauses and not about finishing the scene, but it's also because they may not register a split-second hesitation as an actual "pause".

I'd previously thought that memorizing without pauses was merely a good idea; now I recommend it as essential.  Memorized pauses create a jarring mental stop, which I knew was good to avoid-- but by practicing this dance routine I've learned what happens in the pause.  You figure out what comes next.  A memorized pause is not merely a mental blip that disrupts the flow of an idea; it pulls you out of your performance.  To an extent, I did know this (which is why I called this the "detachment" pause), but I always thought it was a passive detachment, a moment of nothing.  Instead I see that it is an active detachment, a moment in which the actor's mind is furiously working as the actor, not as the character, to remember each new idea-- actively ruining the actor's ability to stay focused, keep energy, achieve reality, maintain impulses... well, in short, making it impossible to achieve a good performance.

October 24-November 21 - Rehearsal begins

I've given the actors everything I'm going to give them.  Analysis, treatment, and blocking, plus the common language that I will be using to discuss and manage each show.  From here on in, everything that I do is going to be in direct response to the actors' needs.  On the one hand, this makes life much easier for me, because I don't have to plan ahead any more than a single session; on the other hand, it makes life harder, because now I begin paying attention to what each show doesn't have, and focusing on what is lacking or missing or ineffective-- so now I enter a no-man's-land where I hold my breath, keep guiding each cast, and let them find their way to the point where I can see that we "have a show" ready for performance.

The early class has surprised me-- in a good way.  Over the weekend, I considered the fact that for the other two classes, the grade itself had really been a bait-and-switch; although they made their initial effort out of self-interest, everyone gradually discovered that it was more fun to work together, and now the habits are set (they call each other when they're going to be late or absent) and I don't even have to mention the grade.  In the morning class, I never really impressed on them that we're here to do shows-- instead, I gave far too much emphasis to the grade factor, and this naturally resulted in their doing what anyone would do for a grade:  exactly what they had to, and no more.  It's not a matter of enthusiasm; that's just what happens when you're working for a grade.  I don't need to be concerned about their commitment.  Even though only one or two people showed up on the "off days" before now, five out of eight this morning had all their lines ready to go.  One of the cast even came to class with his lines memorized despite the fact that he'd hydroplaned his car into a pond an hour before!

So I told them what I wanted to do-- have all 10 one-acts perform on each night.  If they're all together, that means each show will be playing to a built-in audience of 50 (the other casts); if they each invite only two people that's 150 people you'll be performing for, which is much better than the 20 or so you'd get if you were performing on your own.  But I only want to do this if you make yourselves ready to do it, I said.  You need each other, and you need this time, if you're going to rehearse well enough to make this show work.  If you don't want to do the show, fine, tell me; I understand that I gave you these shows without the option to drop the class that my other sections had.  If you don't want to do a show, I'll simply recruit a theater student to take your place and we'll figure out how to make the class time valuable for you in lieu of it.  If you do want to perform this show, though, then you need to be here and rehearse-- but for each other, and to create a show that's worth seeing.  Not for a grade, but simply because it's worth doing.  And I think they can do it.  If we do this, it'll be approximately a three-hour program each night, running from 8pm to 11pm with two intermissions.  This will be a heck of an experiment, but I think I can balance it, manage it, and pace it so that the full evening's program remains entertaining and engaging.  This morning, nobody immediately volunteered to drop out; over the next week I'll discover if that's because they didn't want to single themselves out or because they actually want to make it happen.

I now know what I'll be teaching next semester:  it will again be two sections of Acting for Non-Majors.  And one of them is at 8:30 in the morning (the other is still to-be-announced).  Although I'm unhappy about that, I can't really switch out of it; the reason I found out about it in the first place is that some students approached me to say they'd already signed up for it because they knew I was teaching it.  So I'll basically say on the first day-- if you want to make the effort, stay; if you don't, drop the class now or you'll make life miserable for everyone.

I don't see any reason not to try this same approach again.  This is potentially my panic week-- where, as I've mentioned, I see most clearly everything that isn't yet accomplished-- but the morning's rehearsal boosted my confidence in the process.  The cast attempted to run through their show, just to see where we are now.  Their lines were memorized but not solid; their blocking was set, but muddy and confused; and their energy was low, so their relationships, objectives, and characters were there only as fragments and hints.  And it dawned on me as I watched them... only this much is ever expected of non-actors.  If we were doing this as a "scene", then at this point I'd have to tell them everything that wasn't working, assign them a grade based on that evaluation, and then we'd drop it completely and move on to something else.  The one-act approach has the advantage of being a complete process.  Whether or not the shows turn out to be "successes", I think that offers the best chance of learning.

October 25 - Pacemaking

Without good pacing, any other work is wasted.  Over the past thirteen years I have become utterly convinced of this.  "Good pacing" simply means never dropping the impulse.  Character analysis, relationship exploration, past histories, scene analysis, given circumstances, any work you could possibly do-- every last bit of it flushes down into the unmotivated pause, carried away on the dropped impulse.  All of it.  Wasted.  Although I've learned in the past year that pacing isn't everything, deliberate and mindful pacing is nonetheless the single most important aspect of any stage performance.  And yet pacing is almost never recognized or even acknowledged.

Many directors-- if they think about pacing at all-- believe that good pacing will grow naturally from a well-rehearsed performance.  It doesn't.  Pacing is a literal, mechanical feature of the script which must be addressed immediately.  Otherwise, what generally happens is that the actors become accustomed to the unwound performance as the desired tempo and rhythm of the piece, and they unconsciously learn to compensate by manufacturing their own impulses in order to realize the performance they've prepared.  Maybe if they're urged to "go faster!" they'll suddenly start picking up on the natural impulses available from their castmates, and they'll make wonderful discoveries... but they recognize that this is the wrong tempo, so in the next attempt they'll revert to what they were doing and lose it all again (or, worse, attempt to mechanically re-create their discoveries).  And, as I saw demonstrated so blatantly by the actors who'd performed Two Pianos, Four Hands more than two hundred times, unless you're able to mindfully control your pacing you're completely at the mercy of whatever ambient energy exists on that night.  Until you're able to mindfully control your pacing, you are unable to fully explore your work, because without receiving impulses you aren't able to make honest, natural responses.  Pacing is a crucial ingredient at the initial stage of any performance process.

So as you might expect, this week is all about pacing.  I'm so relieved that the actors know their lines!  If they didn't, it would be hopeless.  As it is, half the casts have confidently put the scripts down and yet are now surprised to discover that they don't know their lines well enough.  Having the script out of your hand is important, but until you can say your lines without thinking about them you're still not going to be able to act.  If a cast knows their lines well enough, I'm showing them how to work the pacing.  If the cast doesn't know their lines well enough, I'm giving them strategies for learning their lines more thoroughly.

There are two phases to learning the lines.  Once you've memorized the words to the point where they become reflexive, those words then have to be transformed into ideas.  The memorization task is comparatively easy; the pause-elimination method I've already described works well for any chunk of script.  However, an unavoidable consequence of being able to say the lines so quickly and mindlessly is that, until a meaningful idea is attached to the words, they will always be spoken quickly and mindlessly.  The next step, once the lines are well-learned, is being able to use your lines to communicate ideas instead of words.  The "say the same thing but use different words" technique seems to be an effective way to create ideas that might be missing, but I'm learning that even if this technique never fails (which so far it hasn't), it's not necessarily going to help the actor learn to deliver those ideas instead of reverting to merely transmitting the words.  I'm still exploring that.

In my explorations, I try to root out causes of behavior.  Sometimes this will be a mechanical change which causes a new behavior; other times it's a new behavior which causes a mechanical change.  In any case, I'm grateful that by now my students trust me enough that they will try whatever peculiar thing I ask-- each time we try something different, even if it doesn't "work", it helps me understand more clearly the causes of their behavior.  You can't truly change someone's behavior unless you attack its cause.  Otherwise, in attempting to change, they're actually making the double effort to block the natural behavior and artificially create the desired response; it's not doing, further masked by over-effort, both of which strongly interfere with a natural performance.  Manipulating results instead of causes is no more effective than puppeteering.  But once you understand what causes an undesirable behavior, you can change that cause and naturally force a different behavior.  It's more easily said than done, of course, but this is the basic principle.

October 25 - Pacemaking, part two

"Good pacing" is, in essence, an unbroken flow of thought.  Dialogue and monologue are external and internal flows, respectively; therefore, each requires a different approach.

To effectively pace a monologue, all its sentences must be assimilated into a single construct.  In memorizing lines, our minds generally absorb and retain each sentence as its own separate idea, rather than a structural component.  That's what causes the full-stop mental break at every punctuation mark.  To create the well-paced flow of a monologue-- where a "monologue" is any speech that contains more than one sentence-- I first insist that the actor be able to speak the entire piece without pausing, and then I work with them to assemble the necessary mental structure.  Without that structure to allow a contiguous mental flow, a monologue invariably falls victim to the start-stop-start-stop pattern (which I described on September 9).

The morning session yesterday was mostly monologue, and this gave me the opportunity to apply a new strategy.  One of the actresses in this show has two monologues which are written as a series of sentence fragments with ellipses between them.  Naturally, she has learned them as separate ideas, and the lift-thunk-lift-thunk was obvious.  She wasn't able to use my instruction to "connect the ideas", so I thought I'd try something mechanical.  I pointed out that she was ending each sentence on the same pitch, and asked her to end them on a higher pitch instead.  I demonstrated what that would sound like, and how that would make us hear a continuation, but she wasn't able to imitate me; she kept coming back to the same pitch.  Those ideas were firmly separated.

I decided that if she couldn't connect all the ideas instinctively, we'd build the structure one idea at a time.  I asked her what the first two ideas were, and she told me.  Now think of a reason why the first one could cause the second one, I said.  She replied "Ah, yes, I understand!" and nodded enthusiastically.  I said no, no, I actually want you to think of a reason right now.  She pondered a moment and told me she had one.  Good, I answered; now speak the two ideas, and only those two ideas, as though that reason were true.  She did so-- and all her castmates smiled with amusement as they heard the end of the first idea go up to that higher pitch and create the bridge between the ideas.

Build both your monologues like this, I urged.  Now that you've got these two ideas connected, look at the third and figure out how it's caused by the second.  Then say all three out loud to connect them.  Then add the fourth, and fifth, and so on, until you've got the whole speech tied together.  As you proceed, make sure that you say the whole thing out loud every time, so that the reasons you invent can be transformed from intellectual speculation into your visceral experience.

The afternoon session was entirely dialogue, and I was ready for them.  This is the same group I worked with on Friday to eliminate pauses (see October 23); their success made it possible for us to do today's exercises.  I asked the group to find something soft that's easy to grab hold of and pass around, like maybe a hat.  One of the girls picked up her sweater and tied it into a ball.

I drew the entire cast into a tight circle and explained the game.  You have the sweater when it's your line; as you finish speaking, give the sweater away.  But give the sweater at the end of your idea, not at the end of your line.  That is, whatever word you'd underline in your own line, give away the sweater on that word (with that impulse).  You can only speak when the sweater is in your hands, and you have to begin speaking the moment it touches your hands.  The only other rule is that when you give the sweater away, you've got to give it to the person you're actually speaking to, whether or not they have the next line.  If someone else has the next line, they've got to intercept the sweater.  That's why you're all standing in such a small circle-- and the movement it requires is why you're standing instead of sitting.

Actors never do this correctly on the first try.  I have to be precise and ruthless in making sure they follow the rules; gradually they get the idea and will begin to self-correct.  Until they "get it", this is what they'll normally do instead:

- Pass the sweater at the end of the line instead of on the impulse.
- Give away the sweater at the beginning of the line but continue talking.
- Receive the sweater, but wait for the other person to stop talking.
- Give the sweater to the person with the next line instead of the person they're talking to.
- Give the sweater to nobody.

When one of these things happens, I interrupt immediately, point out the error, and ask them to roll back a few lines.  For all but the last of these mistakes, they don't complain about having to repeat, because the difference is strongly felt.  On that last one, though, I very frequently hear "But I'm just saying it, I'm not really saying it to anyone."  I reply that as an actor, you don't have that luxury.  The only reason to say something on stage is because you want someone else to hear it, and you should offer the sweater to that person.  If you're speaking to everybody, offer it to everybody.  If you're speaking to the audience, offer it to the audience.  But this sweater is actually a tangible representation of where the audience's attention is focused.  If you throw it vaguely out into the air, the audience's attention goes with it, and you'll have to work to get them back into the show.  Always give the sweater to someone.

It's not going to be possible to play this game perfectly.  The sweater (or hat, or towel, or whatever you have handy) is a physical object, and because this exercise usually creates a fast-paced, high energy, the sweater frequently can't keep up with the actors' impulses-- especially when there are three or four people all talking at once, or when the dialogue contains some one-word sentences.  Once I'm confident that the actors have the feeling for the game, I'll stop watching the sweater and start watching the actors' responses for when I might need to interrupt next.

The next phase, of course, is taking away the sweater.  But the sweater is still there, I told them.  The sweater is always there as the impulse you're passing around; this exercise just made it tangible.  So go through your scene again, and pass the sweater around even though you don't have the sweater.  And they did.  And they felt it.  And I could see it (literally).  The pacing was there.

I wanted to show them that the same principle applied to "slow" scenes.  Let's go to the first scene of the play, I said, which is a simple conversation between the two main characters.  Pass the invisible sweater back and forth, and you'll see what I mean.  As they started, one of them kept dropping the impulse on a certain line; I called her attention to it and we tried to feel out the impulse together.  She protested that the underlined word isn't where she'd begin speaking, but after a bit of wrangling she suddenly announced with astonishment, "I can let my face and body react at the underlined word, even though I don't start speaking right away!"  I said you bet, for sure, that's exactly it.  They began the scene again, and suddenly this girl's entire body was more freely expressive than I'd ever seen before.  I hope she continues to allow that self-confidence!

Directors will often have their actors throw a ball around and call it a pacing exercise.  But it is definitely not a pacing exercise.  To begin with, it's easy to throw a ball but not to grab it, and both actions are equally important.  Secondly, a speaker would have to throw a ball to the person who has the next line instead of the person they're actually talking to, and that would divert the natural flow.  And, most importantly, if a ball is thrown, then nobody can talk while it's in the air.  A ball exercise creates the unmotivated pauses that good pacing is supposed to eliminate.  I have seen how a ball exercise can help clarify the intention of certain lines by the attitude and energy with which the ball is passed around, but ball-tossing does nothing to improve pacing.

October 26-28 - A little miracle

"Instead of seeing people as untalented, we can see them as phobic, and this completely changes the teacher's relationship with them."

- Keith Johnstone, Impro

Wednesday's rehearsal in the morning session is a short story about a couple that has just broken up.  The action takes place in two separate apartments-- the stage bisected into his and hers-- and the two sides do not interact directly.  The two girls playing roommates are actually roommates in real life, so from the start I've been looking forward to taking advantage of that.  However, I've been continuously flummoxed by the girls' apparent inability to connect with the scripted words.  I've shown them all my clever tricks about speaking the idea instead of the words, demonstrated the difference between natural speech and reading, and experimented with how the objective drives the action; although they both seemed to understand what they were experiencing, and showed hints of being able to use it, nothing seemed to change.

When I see a work in progress, I can tell which things will get better with continued practice and which won't.  Today, as I saw this group run through their show, I could see that the "guy side" was operating on a solid foundation.  Energy was extremely low due to one of the performers being doped up on some kind of medication, but he and the other beer buddy were nonetheless sharing natural conversation by responding honestly to the impulses that were present.  The fellow playing the (ex) boyfriend was not always easy to understand because his natural speech patterns tend toward mumbling, but last year I confirmed (via two students with heavy European accents) that if the objective and the desire to communicate is strong enough, a person unconsciously compensates for indistinct speech.  Cultivate stronger objectives for the boyfriend, give the other two higher energy, and it will become a worthy performance.  The "girl side", on the other hand, was showing me a presentation which could never improve.

I was surprised and concerned that the girls' presentation was precisely what anyone would expect from "non-actors" trying to do a scene.  They rushed through their lines without knowing what they were saying, so I rarely understood them myself; they didn't know what to do with their bodies, and their arms either hung dead or flailed from the elbows in that typical non-actor way; one of them "got upset" in a generic way at generic moments, and the other responded with an affected, flat, toneless manner; there was no continuity of thought or action; impulses were dropped between almost every line.  In short, it was a bland and ordinary recitation that would have been exactly what you'd get from any ordinary acting-for-non-majors scene.  After I told the guys approximately what I wrote in the previous paragraph, I sat down on the floor with the girls and said essentially what I've just written in this paragraph.

Then I asked for their help.  If we've made it this far and you're still doing this, I said, then it's likely that no strategy I've developed will change that, and as long as you're stuck in this mode the performance is not going to improve at all.  Somehow we've got to get you away from being these plastic dolls and let you be yourselves instead-- and if I don't know how to do that, we'll have to figure it out from your perspective.  What do you suppose is happening?  They immediately replied with what they perceived as the basic problem:  "I would never react like this.  I would never talk like this."  They talked about it a little further, first repeating what they'd said in previous sessions but then saying something new that made my ears prick up:  "She [pointing at each other] would react like this.  If we switched roles, it'd be perfect."

I didn't want them to switch roles.  In addition to their having to re-learn all the lines, I didn't think it would solve anything.  I've seen people try to switch roles while doing scenework, and quite frankly I've never seen any good come of it.  Instead, thinking of our pre-rehearsal sessions, I interrupted their eager talk of switching parts to ask:  so you can each imagine how the other one would perform this part?  Yes, they both said, emphatically.  All right, then-- let's run through this again, and this time imitate each other.  I have no idea what that will do to the performance, but start at it and let's find out.  Don't bother with anything else; the only important thing in this run through is to imitate each other.

What happened then is something I will probably remember for the rest of my life.  The scene began with an abortive attempt; the girl playing the (ex) girlfriend immediately began by angrily striking the table, which made her lose track of what she was saying.  She asked to start over; I naturally acceded, thinking that at least she'll get some energy out of it.  But then she proceeded to deliver a performance which would have astonished even the most cynical of our theater faculty.  Everything out of her mouth had purpose, meaning, depth, and clarity.  Despite the fact that her roommate was still in a plastic mode, she related to her roommate with genuine sincerity and need.  She took all her energy from the impulses, finding the inherent levels and letting the communication drive her gestures and movements naturally.  And when the impulses were dropped-- as almost every one of them was when the his/hers conversations overlapped-- she maintained her objective with tremendous fortitude, which kept her focus and her energy intact.  I watched in utter amazement.  In the space of an eyeblink this girl had transformed from a thoroughly untalented "non-actor" into a person who, anyone in the school would have to agree, belongs on the fast track to the professional stage.

But, as astounding as that transformation was, the truly memorable aspect was her attitude when she had finished.  She wasn't brimming with glee from her success.  She wasn't looking quizzically at me for an assessment.  She wasn't worried or wondering or wanting my approval.  She stood there placidly, completely secure in what she'd accomplished, waiting for me to decide what would happen next.  Of course, I had only one thing on my mind.  What did you do?  What made the difference?  She shrugged and said, "I just stopped worrying about getting it right."

When I told a few of my peers about this, relaying my amazement, I capped the story with this quip and was frustrated by their response.  It was quite clear that they assumed I didn't actually mean a good performance (from a non-actor? Yeah, right), and further assumed that I had been responsible for the change, either of which diminished the significance of her transformation and the depth of her courage.  It seemed that they thought I meant that one of these thick-headed untalented non-actors had finally taken a baby step toward what we all keep telling them to do.  But this is not what we keep telling them to do!  The standard approach to a scene or monologue that isn't working is to give the student more instructions, as we believe that if they follow our instructions, and make these "improvements", the piece will get better.  I have heard more than one teacher say that a student will be graded on how well they've incorporated the notes they were given; a student in that position will never stop worrying about getting it right.  A student put in that position will always be perceived as untalented, because that student will never be released from the instructor's demands.

It's a curious contradiction.  How can you tell a student what they need to do without making them feel like they have to do what you tell them?  In this case, with this girl, I needed to confess my total incompetence and admit that everything I had to offer was wrong before she was able to release herself.  Everything that I say to her after now will undoubtedly be understood in this new context; and the best way that I can describe the "new context" is that of self-confidence and self-empowerment.

As we've begun these rehearsal sessions, I've been mildly concerned about how much basic technique I've had to revisit and repeat.  I've had to come back to the same concepts so frequently that I began to wonder, maybe I should just start with rehearsals right away and let the concepts appear organically instead of trying to "teach" them beforehand?  Maybe those five weeks made the students think that these were instructions they were expected to follow correctly, and they'd have greater freedom if I went right to the rehearsals.  But the more I thought about it, the more important those five weeks seemed-- not merely to establish the common language (I may be repeating myself, but I don't have to explain it all over again), but to convince everyone that they already have the skill and the "talent" they need.  As they see their classmates do wonderful, crazy things, and they also find themselves performing so effortlessly, they gradually realize that they will succeed.  They will have the confidence to take my instructions as guidance within the process instead of as the end goal.

There is no end goal.  Watching the amazing performance from this girl, my jaw on the floor, I nonetheless retained the presence of mind to ask myself, well, where do we go from here? and to say explicitly to her that this is the beginning point, not the end point.  If she continues to allow herself this same release, then she has evidenced the basic technique which any performance requires; now we can potentially process the basic technique into a sophisticated performance.  Provided that I don't inadvertently draw her back into the trap of following instructions.  I have been idly contemplating, since then, what this implies about our expectations of the students majoring in this acting program; what this girl did today would've ordinarily been considered a top-notch final performance, but if you put her in a different category she's just getting started.  It makes me think that we should expect our acting students to be in a different category, and we should give them the technique to get there.

This is possible.  On Wednesday I dropped in on a scene rehearsal between two acting majors (a guy and a girl) because I was killing time and they both knew me. I didn't expect much from the girl-- I'd seen her work before, and it always seemed plodding and insincere in the typical ways-- and I was pleasantly startled to see how relaxed, honest, energetic, and real her performance was. I worked with their scene a little while, and as she took a smoke break afterward she asked my opinion of her effort (when you're working a rehearsal you never offer evaluations, only observations). I told her quite sincerely how impressed I was with her presence in the scene. She grinned and reminded me of a five-minute conversation that she and I had had at the beginning of the semester, when I had just invented the exercise to feel impulses at the underlined word and was excited enough about it to demonstrate it to her while we each waited to see a different faculty member. That five-minute conversation completely changed her understanding of acting, she said. Scenes feel totally different than they used to-- so alive, so real-- and she never has to worry about what to do when she's just standing there without any lines, because all she has to do is catch impulses and let them affect her. It's been wonderful, she said; and, based on the reality she'd just shown me in her acting scene, I believed her.

October 29 - Smooth moves

One of the shows requires a great deal of movement.  This is the show with the greatest number of cast members (ten), five of whom are restaurant patrons who mill about noisily and occasionally interfere with the main action.  Until this week I wasn't sure how we were going to make it work; fortunately, I'm relieved to discover that the preparation we did was just what we needed, and now all we need is time.

The preparation came together in a seemingly haphazard way.  I had initially told all the patrons that I wanted them to create different characters...  but until we figured out who was saying which lines, nobody could make specific choices.  So I distributed the lines... but we still didn't know who was on stage in which scenes.  So I looked through the script and figured out when each actor could enter or leave, and who could pair with or split from whichever other actors... but when it came time to work on the blocking (at the theater space), three of the five restaurant patrons had conflicts, so we still couldn't work on it, and every time I tried to approach it on paper I couldn't quite visualize everyone's position.  I was concerned that I should have so much trouble-- last semester, hadn't I managed to prepare the blocking for a show involving five actors playing more than forty different characters?-- but consoled myself by remembering that the blocking from last semester's show was entirely driven by the mechanics of the story, and these patrons' movements are entirely outside the story.  So I had to acknowledge that it wouldn't come together until we physically put it together.

The marvelous thing was that all of the patrons had prepared for this session.  I gave them their line assignments, their entrances and exits, and a chart of which scenes they were in.  In their class sessions (without me), they used this information to figure out who they were in each appearance, and why they entered, and why they left.  And that's what made this session (with me) run so smoothly.  While the principal characters spoke their lines, the restaurant patrons made their entrances and, having entered, discovered together where their relationships and objectives caused them to move.  During the entire session, no one became confused or lost. I'm not sure I even made any new suggestions at all; I merely guided the traffic pattern based on their various initiatives.  Once we'd reached a kind of breakpoint where no patrons were entering or exiting for a while, we rolled back to the beginning and ran it again, and they were easily able to remember and repeat every movement they'd previously discovered because the movements had all been motivated and logical based on their character preparation.

The big surprise was that as smoothly as it ran, we still only got through 3 of the show's 22 beats.  I hope they'll be as successful continuing to block by themselves; I can imagine that my main contribution was being able to abruptly stop and start the group without anyone feeling like they'd been interrupted or interfered with.  Once we figure out the basic entrances, exits, and in-betweens, the next step will be to figure out how they can effectively intrude on the main action without destroying the story.  We may not get that far-- we might not have enough time-- but we'll go as far as we can.

While I was focusing on the blocking, the two principal characters "marked" their lines.  "Marking" is when the lines are spoken so that everyone knows where they are in the script, and what the approximate timing of the lines will be.  I noticed with mild dismay that they were both talking unnaturally instead of speaking as a natural impulse read (that's this cast's term for it).  The few times I'd overheard them running lines together, I thought I'd heard this from both of them, but wondered if maybe it was due to their unfamiliarity with the lines; this time, I could hear that they definitely knew the lines and were deliberately reading it this way.  I didn't want to interfere with the blocking, but at the end of the rehearsal I made sure to address this with them.

I did so by using my most significant and potent strategy.  It's a simple one-two punch:  observe the person speaking normally, and then ask them to read some of their lines.  They'll be forced to notice the difference, and they will have to admit that the way they're speaking their lines is like nothing they'd ever say or be in real life.  I have to be careful not to approach this as a trick; if I were to say "ha ha! I got you!" instead of "you hadn't thought to notice this, but you can hear it now" I would surely make them resentful and defensive.  In this case, the girl's behavior and manner had changed so drastically that I was able to imitate the two modes and show her what I had seen.  She agreed that this was what she had been presenting.

I urged her to say the lines again, but in her normal mode.  As she did, her body and voice stayed loose and expressive, and we could all feel the freedom she had gained in her ability to communicate.  I added a weak objective for her to try, then a strong objective, and she felt how each one changed her speech naturally.  Once she'd finished her lines, I pointed out to her that she'd had no idea how the lines were going to be spoken, and reminded her how free and open her body and voice had felt.  If you lock yourself into that other mode, where you're trying to re-create how you've heard the words in your mind, then that's the only thing that could possibly happen.  If you start from natural impulse and add an objective, then you can do anything.

We repeated the exercise with the other principal actor, but we only used one objective (we were running out of time).  All of us, including him, were amused at how the objective changed his lines, but halfway through his speech he stopped and turned to me with some puzzlement on his face.  He felt that he was done, but there were still more words to go.  No problem, I said-- that's how far this particular idea got you, is all.  Some objectives will only get you partway through a scene; that's why you've got to make sure you practice an objective to see that it carries you all the way through.  If you make a strong choice, it will carry you effortlessly through the scene, but if you make a weak choice it'll only get you so far before you feel like you're finished, and you won't have anything to do after that.

This specific incident is what had made me wonder whether I should've dispensed with the "classes" and gone straight into rehearsals.  I thought I'd covered all this during those classes, and that everyone understood it as "natural impulse", but it must not have sunk in if they were still acting so unnaturally.  But I considered the fact that we wouldn't have been able to turn it around in this session if they didn't already know their lines so well, and we certainly couldn't have done it so effectively and completely in the space of five minutes if not for having established the concept prior to this session.  I'm left to wonder whether somehow the classes could be more effective, to avoid this repetition being necessary, but overall the classes seem to have left the impression which they needed to about the "common language".

October 31 - Robots in disguise

"Jerome Bruner once said, very aptly, that much of what we do and say in school only makes children feel that they do not know things that, in fact, they knew perfectly well before we began to talk about them."

John Holt, How Children Learn

Early session

It's exhilarating going into each session not knowing exactly what's going to happen.  In rehearsal, each show has its own demands, and I don't always know what those are until I have something in front of me to work with.  Today I began to see an additional advantage of my uncertainty:  because I don't have all the answers, we all become the problem-solvers.  My role is to define the problem as clearly as possible so that everyone can participate.

In the early class, the show had four people conversing at a restaurant, and I started them on the no-pauses-or-start-over exercise.  I was probably a little clumsy in introducing the activity-- or maybe it's the dynamic of the cast at this point-- but I was surprised to feel that my initial monitoring (to catch them and have them start again) was perceived as corrective punishment rather than helpful guidance.  One girl in particular protested strongly each time I caught her in a pause, especially since I'd immediately ask "Did you feel it?" and, most often, she hadn't.  But she wouldn't have.

This exercise changes the rhythm of the piece, and pauses are an integral part of the old rhythm.  Someone counting "one, two, three, four" will feel no discontinuity if all the numbers are evenly spaced.  Even if there is an obvious silence on all three of those commas, they won't perceive any "pauses".  Try it yourself, now, and speak as slowly or quickly as you like-- you will discover that saying "one, two, three, four" is not the same rhythmic experience as saying "onetwothreefour", regardless of the speed.  Until you are mechanically forced into a different rhythm, you will instinctively follow the original rhythm, and you won't notice any pauses because they'll feel like they "belong".  As you might guess, this happens on stage all the time; this is exactly how a show unravels as it loses energy, because the show begins at a different rhythm and even trained actors, following their techniques and instincts, don't know how to change it.  They exhaust themselves with effort, but they don't tighten the rhythm of the piece, so despite their strain and stress the show remains flat and dull and, in a word, unsalvageable.

This eliminate-the-pauses exercise tends to change a piece from a percussive rhythm into a more natural flow, and I've started using the word "flow" exclusively in our rehearsals.  This helps me to help the actors recognize what I've come to call "micropauses"-- the actor begins speaking at almost precisely the moment that the previous line has ended, but their line arrives with an explosive force.  When I hear this little explosion, I know that the actor was saving up everything until the exact moment of their cue.  They were mentally waiting for all the other words to stop before they committed themselves to their own response.  This is definitely a pause, but it's hard to hear because of the actor's high energy and readiness.  Once the show's energy diminishes, an actor who waits for the words must take an extra moment to gather an impulse, and that's when the micropause expands into a noticeable split-second silence.  Eliminating unnecessary pauses doesn't happen from getting more energy, and it doesn't happen from going faster, and it doesn't happen from cutting each other off more quickly; it happens because the rhythm and flow of the conversation stream are changed.

Once the flow is changed, then what had previously seemed normal becomes blatantly out of place.  After the first group got going, I stepped aside with a second group (they appear in different parts of the play, with no overlap) to begin running lines with them; and as I continued to listen in on the first group I heard how they would catch themselves in the same pauses that they previously hadn't heard.  It was still true that occasionally the entire flow would shift back to what it had been, and I'm not sure whether or not they noticed, but mainly they did.  What was especially helpful was that-- perhaps due to the early hour-- although they did allow themselves to become more focused, they stayed relaxed and calm and conversational, so instead of feeling like this was an exercise designed to wind them up, they felt how the script became more and more like actual table talk.

Morning session

Today's morning-session show needs farcical characters with high energy.  Last semester, we'd done a show with a similar demand, and I thought I'd try the same exercise-- I asked them all to talk about something that happened to them, and then to tell us again "in character".  And it didn't work.  They told the story once, and then again, but the differences were so slight as to be undetectable.  In reflection, I realize that there was at least one missing ingredient; last semester I made sure that, before they began each story, they said (out loud) the type they were about to do as the "X-iest X that ever lived", like "the vainest bodybuilder that ever lived" or "the most airheaded cheerleader that ever lived."  This time, they were trying to do "their character", and it's extremely rare indeed that anyone would recognize from the outset how ridiculous they're allowed to be.  So the stories were told, and there seemed to be hints of character, but it was only a fragment of a fraction of where it would eventually need to be.

So I scrapped that approach and tried something more direct.  We need energy, I told them, and energy comes from your objectives.  I asked one of the cast to get an eraser from across the room, which he did rather slowly with a shuffling gait.  I turned to one of the others and said to him that if he retrieved one of the flip-flops from underneath where the eraser was, he wouldn't have to write the next paper.  He fairly leapt from his spot to run for that flip-flop and get it to me.  I pointed out to everyone:  I didn't ask him for more energy, but he automatically engaged high energy, because his objective was that important to him.  This show is almost entirely monologues, so you won't get to build off each other so easily; your energy will have to come out of the importance of your objectives.

We spent the rest of the session testing out different objectives to see what would bring the energy out of each character.  One of them seemed to understand that his objective would make him more enthusiastic, but his attitude didn't translate into energy.  I asked him to try this objective:  you've got paintbrushes in each hand, and you've got to flick paint all over the entire room by the end of your speech or we'll take your Bible away (a consequence related to the character).  He did so, and his speech became considerably more entertaining as he became more involved in it.  I explained to him and the rest of the cast-- energy is how much of your body you're using.  Although ideally that usage will come from a specific plot- or character-related action, we'll take what we can get as long as it works.  But then he proceeded to try the same speech with a different, character-related action:  if he could make us laugh, we would each pay him $100.  And he got right into it, waving his arms around, shaking his head, stomping his feet; he made us laugh because we couldn't help but enjoy his presentation.  He was still hesitant, afraid that maybe he wasn't going to succeed-- you could see him straining against his desire to stay contained and safe-- but he did it.  And that's something we can build on.

Will they build on it themselves, without my immediate coaching?  I'm still only hoping that the exercises we're doing in class will translate to actual knowledge.  Last semester, I was amazed and delighted when one of the shows pulled itself together with barely any input from me; this time around, although we still have a few weeks to go, I wonder if I haven't made the students more dependent on me to move forward.  I want to wind them up and let them go so that they don't need me at all, and their shows will continue to improve because they know what will make them better.  I remember that during my first year here, I was obliged to attend a Shakespeare workshop run by some visiting artists.  I and my classmates presented some monologues that we'd prepared, and the fellow running the workshop coached us in those monologues, and during that hour-long session we saw some drastic, startling, wonderful changes in those pieces which truly made them come alive... but after the session was done, nobody was able to reproduce those results, including me.  I tried to do the same monologue for the next departmental audition and left the stage burning with frustration that I somehow hadn't recaptured whatever it was that I had been coached to achieve.  We'd only been tricked into success, and without that trick we couldn't succeed.

Afternoon session

Today was only the second time we'd tried to run through this show with all the movements.  Unsurprisingly, once the movement was added in, the words mostly fell apart, but they were aware of this.  I was pleased that they remembered all the blocking-- if they had neither the words nor the blocking I would've been concerned-- but I was delighted with the final scene.

This was the scene we hadn't been able to block before (see October 18) and this was the scene we had used for the sweater exercise.  Up until that point in the play, they were able to remember the movements mechanically; there wasn't much call to move except where the script demanded it, and I'd been satisfied that they'd remembered where to go.  Once they reached the final scene, though, I was amazed that they unconsciously and automatically created the stage pictures which supported the story of what was going on.  Their relationships and their objectives made it obvious.  When one girl was protecting her friend, she stood in the middle of the stage to separate everyone; another girl stayed aloof and kept herself isolated from the main action, which revealed her character; the stage remained visibly balanced while the flow of bodies was natural and easy to watch.  Although we may not get exactly the same thing every time we do it, they felt how easy it was and how the process works.  If they take the time to tighten the other scenes verbally (no dropped impulses!), clarify the relationships and objectives and character arc, and give themselves "business" (such as helping someone put on a dress), the show will come together.

Post scriptum

Earlier in the week, one of my students stayed after a little bit to talk with me.  Well, actually, I did most of the talking; every so often I catch myself babbling on and on and I feel foolish for not having listened or interacted more with the person I'm talking to.  I ended up sharing with her my opinions about overacting (in a way which I hope made sense), but she had stayed behind to tell me about a conversation she'd had with another student, a friend of hers, who was taking Acting for Non-Majors from a different instructor and having trouble with her scene.

My student told me, with sincere bafflement, that her friend didn't know what she was doing.  She hadn't learned anything about impulses, or conversational reading, or any principles at all-- "They're just reciting lines!"  You say you don't teach us anything, but you really do, she said.  As we continued to talk I inferred that my student was genuinely astonished by her friend's report because she believes that what she's learning in my class is so basic, so fundamental, so necessary that she can't imagine not learning it, and I don't think I'm too likely to be mistaken.  I felt flattered, but it did make me wonder; what are my students learning?  If someone asked them, what would they say?  Would they be able to demonstrate it?  To understand it well enough that they could describe it to others?

On the bus coming home, I encountered one of my castmates from Hello Dolly who is taking "Acting 1" from one of my peers.  She was so positive about the class that I asked her, what are you learning?  She replied, my teacher is really great, and took the time to work with me on my monologue.  I pressed her, I meant what are you learning in the class.  She said well, we're doing improv games, and we do warmups every day, and we're having a lot of fun doing scenes.  I'm not sure what to make of what she was telling me; was she learning anything and improving as an actor, or was she just having fun?  I was glad to have had this conversation with her-- it reminded me that even if, in my opinion, students in other acting classes are not learning anything substantial about acting principles, I mustn't deny the validity of any satisfying experience that increases a student's enthusiasm for their art.

November 2 - Dodge, parry, thrust

Early session

The early session is starting to come together.  This is reassuring for the coming year, and underscores the critical issue which bears repeating:  if students are doing something to get a grade, they will do what they must and no more.  Quality and pride of accomplishment are unimportant, and are indeed often undesirable because school is so desperately competitive.  But when each student's success illuminates the group, the virtuous cycle can begin.

Today we were able to work out the blocking for one of the shows.  None of the four shows actually have "blocking" because three of them have all the characters sitting down and one of them is totally naturalistic movement, but this particular show requires a waiter to enter and exit and we had to figure out how and when and where that would happen.  In choosing this show, I was initially concerned because the waiter part is a "small part", and I worried that someone would not take the role seriously.  But the part was assumed by a footballer who was relieved to have such a straightforward demand, and in turn he is being as diligent and attentive as the part requires, applying a very serious and intent attitude which has supported the main action even more strongly than I expected-- not only as a character trait, but also as a performer, encouraging the other actors to continue treating their own work seriously.

After we finished the blocking, I addressed pacing, impulses, and character arc.  The pacing throughout had been essentially absent; I wasn't concerned about this, because I'd only asked them to run lines without acting, but I did want to make sure they knew how to pull it together.  I took a quick round of scripted dialogue with everyone to make sure that they knew how to deliberately share impulses, both giving and receiving (they did), and I reminded them that this is what's necessary for them to have normal conversation.  Once these impulses are in place, our next step is character arc, and here's how we can use the impulses to make that happen.

The character arc is how you change during the play, and you apply the arc by choosing your responses.  That is, if you know the general emotional state you're at in any given beat, you can make decisions about how to respond to impulses.  I proceeded to demonstrate that you can choose exactly how to respond and still be totally real.  I asked one of the cast on what word he'd grab an impulse from "How are you doing today?" (he chose "doing").  Another cast member gave him a response line:  "Are you comfortable?"  I suggested that he respond as though he were angry, but told him that he must use the impulse to respond.  We did this, and I immediately alerted the rest of the cast to notice how real and believable his response was simply because it had come from the impulse.  Then I asked him to try a different response-- as though he were gay and coming on to me.  I spoke my line, he grabbed the impulse and said "Are you..." and immediately broke off, precisely because it was so real and believable that he'd put himself into the unexpected position of actually propositioning his instructor.  Everyone laughed and he sheepishly acknowledged their appreciation.

The character arc is a series of generalized states linked by specific moments of impulse.  The generalized state of each beat gives you an idea of how your responses will occur; if you are aware of where the linking impulses occur, you can allow those impulses to naturally impel you to your new state without having to actively remember what is supposed to come next.

Morning session

We worked exclusively on flow.  I understand now that a show like this-- with three different conversations all interweaving between each other, often sharing sentences or even parts of sentences-- must be approached mechanically.  The lines and the feeling of the flow must be deeply ingrained into the performers' minds and bodies, and until that happens a tight flow will feel unnatural.  Once it happens, though, only a tight flow can feel natural.  Today, as I continued to demand repetition and insist that we avoid "popcorn" lines, we gradually began to see certain spots not merely of smoothness, but of actual freedom, where the actors began to anticipate their responses, catch the available impulses, and transform them into something amusing while at the same time maintaining the continuity of their previous scrap of dialogue.  If that sounds complicated, it is... but only if you try to describe it.  When you're doing it, all you need is to repeat and repeat and repeat, reinforcing the new flow until your memory takes hold.  Then your natural instincts will take over and you can talk and laugh and play with the lines however you want, enjoying complete freedom within the new flow.

In today's final iteration, I closed my eyes and listened, and I was delighted to hear that the cast was succeeding.  I asked them if they had begun to feel the freedom that I had heard-- a redundant question, because of course they had, but I wanted to both call their attention to it and voice my encouragement.  If they just keep at at it, and don't cheat themselves by falling back into the "popcorn" flow, this could be a dynamite show.

Afternoon session

A couple of days ago, I wrote something untrue, and I wasted a lot of time today because of it.  I had written previously that showing a student the difference between what they are doing and what they want to do was my most potent strategy.  But it isn't.  That's only my second most potent strategy.  The most potent-- hands down bar none-- is when I can say to the student "This is what I see.  What do you suppose is happening?" and then listen to their answer.

I arrived at the session knowing that I wanted to work with the two central characters.  For some reason, they weren't communicating with each other, and I wasn't sure why.  I asked them to run it once, and saw that the two actors were deliberately trying to not relate to each other because that's what the script seemed to call for.  I spent the entire class period working with them on giving and receiving impulses-- but progress was halting and incremental.  One of them repeatedly responded to my "did you feel that" with "I think I'm doing what you told me to," and the other kept worrying and wondering whether or not he was getting it right.  I tried different ways to help the first one feel the impulses (she was doing it, but she didn't seem to realize what she was doing) and different ways to help the other one allow his body to fully receive the impulses he clearly felt, but no matter what I tried there seemed to be a strong resistance from each of them.  Finally, the time ran out, and I let them know that somehow they've got to let go of "doing it right" or "doing what I tell you"... to which the first one replied that she herself was a very reserved person and didn't believe that belonged on stage, and the other said that he wanted to make sure his character was effective.

If only I'd asked them their thoughts at the beginning of the rehearsal!  Because this particular cast is generally a step ahead of the others, and because they had seemed to understand conversational reading, I had (wrongly) assumed that these two had arrived at their current effort by starting conversationally.  So I spent this class period thinking that if I could help them rediscover the conversation from the impulses, they would click back into place.  But here the girl was telling me that she deliberately tried not to be conversational because she felt her natural personality was untheatrical, and the guy was telling me that he was focusing on "the character" instead of on the conversation.  I wasted an entire hour because I was solving the wrong problem, and I could've found out what was going on at any time just by asking them.

What he seemed to be doing was, most likely, the most common mistake of any would-be actor.  It's the same old backwards approach that plagues all academic and amateur theater.  Instead of creating circumstances and letting himself have an honest conversation within those circumstances, he's analyzed his part intellectually and is attempting to speak what he would sound like if the circumstances were true.  Therefore, as he's talking, he listens to himself and judges whether it's "right" or "wrong" according to what he previously imagined.  That's what's cutting him off from his partner; if he allows himself to be changed by receiving her impulses, then his speech will come out all "wrong".  The solution to this one is simple, and easy, and what I did in five minutes with the other cast last Friday (with my "most potent" strategy); encourage him to speak naturally, and then layer in the objectives and character traits that show him how to get back to where he thought he was.  I had made a mistake in trying to work with him on impulses; that, unfortunately, only gave him more ways to worry about being right or wrong!

Because of the time, I was able to address the other actor's concern only with a passing comment.  I assured her that her natural self was exactly what we wanted, and if she felt she needed more energy she should take it all from the impulses.  I briefly demonstrated what it looks like when someone is forcing themselves to have an unnaturally high energy, and I think she saw in that a way to trust herself and how she normally communicates.  It will help that we're performing in such a small space, where she should feel more comfortable being intimate and sincere.

From this point, I'll refer to the undergraduate theater student who's auditing the class as the "assistant director".  I had already begun to think of him as that, and was already planning to credit him as that in the program, but today I saw an important value of using him in that function.  While I was working with the two central characters, I had intended for the other four to work together on improving the flow of their dialogue; although they don't have multiple conversations like the morning class they do have interwoven and shared sentences to worry about.  The assistant director decided to sit in on this while I worked on the other side of the room, and I agreed that it'd probably be helpful for him to monitor their effort and let me know what they'd accomplished.  During the rehearsal I was somewhat concerned because I saw him leading them in some kind of exercise; I feared that he might be getting carried away and either attempting something that was beyond them, or something that wouldn't work (not bad in itself, but I wondered if he'd blame the actors if it failed), or something which he thought would be interesting that took them away from working on the flow.  As it happened it was none of these.

He recognized that they had grasped the basic technique and, therefore, helped them take it a step further.  The other day I asked myself whether I was limiting my students by focusing so strongly on basic technique; after seeing his results I realize that I'm more likely limiting myself.  I'm applying the basic techniques and letting (almost) everything arise naturally out of it; he's finding additional information which I wouldn't have looked for that can be layered into the scene.  I'm glad to have this additional confidence towards his working with the students outside of my direct supervision; it should help us be more productive in the days we have remaining.

One of the actors arrived late, and he was able to stay late, which is good because I'd wanted to specifically work on his opening scene.  I wanted a technical result, but we needed to find the natural motivation which would cause it.  He opens the play with a barrage of questions, and up until this point he had been waiting politely for answers to these questions, when all of them need to be sharp hooks that swiftly drag us through the scene.  It's no coincidence that this session went smoothly and effectively; this is the fellow I mentioned who, when describing something that happened to him, allowed the story to tell itself.  I've noticed that if I use the wrong wording, he'll begin asking questions about whether or not he's doing it right, but even when I give specific instructions he usually lets his natural feelings guide him.  He had already decided that his objective was to get rid of her, and with that in mind he absorbed and effectively used each of my suggestions.  Between these four, we got just the result I was looking for-- easily and naturally.

- These questions are forcing you to stay, so you want to get through them as quickly as possible
- You know the answers to all of them in advance; they're routine
- Don't lose energy on each question
- Breathe in when you enter.

Three of these four (all but the second) were illustrated with physical experience.  I wonder if he might've picked it up just from the verbal explanations, but the physicality couldn't have hurt.  First, I indicated that if he were really trying to get rid of her, he'd just do this-- and I took him by the shoulders and marched him toward the door-- but he doesn't have that option, so the questions had to do it.  Following this demonstration, his voice became stronger and firmer.  Second, having noticed that he was allowing the ends of the questions to taper away into lower energy, so I asked him to literally throw a punch with each question.  He tried this, and then on his next attempt each question was indeed a verbal jab.

The breath in was more interesting than I expected.  I know that a breath in is an impulse, and that breathing in is essential to get the impulse-ball rolling (especially with a monologue).  For illustration I asked him to show himself what I already knew-- exhale and feel your energy state, now inhale and feel the difference-- and then I asked him to begin the scene with a big breath in.  Consider the breath to be your first line, I said.  It didn't surprise me that when he tried this he began with more energy, which was the point; it surprised me that by taking that breath in he started at exactly the right moment.  Not too soon, not too late, but just right.  Could it be that timing can be taught as well as any other theatrical technique, tied to the use of breath?  I haven't enough data to know for sure, yet, but the exquisite and inexplicable precision of his first line makes me think it's possible.

November 5 - Something in the way she moves

Last weekend I attended the BFA Dance Showcase, and I discovered many interesting things.  One performer and three pieces set me off on a train of thought which promises both to simplify my understanding of dance and, potentially, to merge the trinity of language, music, and movement.

In two of the compositions, I found my eyes irresistibly drawn to one of the performers.  These were "modern" dance pieces, interpretative and abstract, so the dancers were rarely moving in unison.  I knew that by fixing my eyes on this single performer I was missing the variety of the others' movement as well as the complete stage picture; I kept trying to make myself look at the other dancers or at least to withdraw my focus to encompass the entire stage, but I consistently failed.  Each time this one dancer caught my eye, she captured my attention and absorbed my interest.  I could not understand why; the only description that came to mind was that her performance was somehow full where the others were empty.  I looked at the other dancers and I saw human shells-- waving limbs and hollow torsos-- but each time I looked at this girl I saw a solid, vibrant creature.  I further remembered what the dance instructor had told me, months ago, when I asked him what dance was intended to communicate.  He replied, dance isn't trying to offer concepts for the audience to receive and understand; rather, dance creates a connection and an energy flow between the performer and the audience.  Watching this dancer, finding myself pulled to her and stuck with her, I felt that this must be the connection he was describing.  Why was she succeeding and not the others?  What would she say she was doing that the others weren't?

After the event I sought her out backstage to ask her.  She told me that when she was given a bit of choreography, she always considered "what feeling would make [her] want to move like this?"  The motion is just a movement until it has an internal purpose.  She demonstrated as she spoke, and I gawped to see the difference as the significance of her statement sank in.  Her first sentence was obviously and directly parallel to what I always say about handling a script:  what idea would make me want to speak like this?  Although I had previously concluded that a "movement idea" must be a visceral communication, body to body, and although I had been able to demonstrate how visceral expression enhanced a linguistic idea I still hadn't understood or imagined what a purely visceral idea could be until she showed me.  How simple!  A visceral idea is a feeling.

This reminded me of a dance exercise I'd been told of last summer.  When asked to improvise movement, actors began pantomiming actual behavior such as plucking apples from a tree or building a birdhouse, while dancers did peculiar movements that didn't look like anything.  One girl was on her knees tracing a circular motion; when one of the actors asked, was she scrubbing the floor? she said with some confusion that no, she wasn't "doing" anything.  This anecdote, I was told, showed that actors had a better understanding of improvisation, but I suggested a different perspective.  Maybe the dancers didn't seem to be doing anything, I said, because they're actually demonstrating some kind of abstract movement idea versus the actors' concrete ideas.  Maybe there's something they are expressing which we, untrained in dance, are unable to perceive.  That is-- if you've been introduced to sophisticated thought in language, you'll be able to use words to express concepts which are intangible and philosophical; otherwise, your vocabulary and grammar will necessarily be limited to that which you have directly experienced.  There must be an abstract movement idea behind what they are doing, I said, although I had no idea what it might be.  Now I know.  It's feeling.

No wonder movement takes care of itself when you're naturally communicating.  Any "feeling" is a response to an impulse, and natural communication is responding to impulses.  A "feeling" may therefore be an abstract emotional response to an indescribable chemical reaction, or it could be closing the window when you feel a breeze.  Either one is equally honest, natural, and full of life.  In one of the compositions the dancers scattered index cards, and after they'd left the stage a group of stagehands came out to collect the cards.  The audience watched with intense fascination for a surprisingly long while before realizing that these three black-clad "performers" were merely cleaning up in preparation for the next piece.

Another performance struck me in a completely different way.  The dancer moved while speaking a monologue, and I immediately disdained the presentation because the dancer's movements were "indicating"; that is, they were literally representing her words.  For example, she said the words "here" and "there" and pointed in a specific direction for each.  However, as I continued to watch, I realized that this was exactly why the piece was interesting.  I quickly discovered that I hadn't ever asked myself why indicating is supposed to be a bad thing.  When the dance began, my reaction against indication was instinctive, but as the dancer continued it occurred to me that I felt cheated.  These movements were redundant; I felt as though the choreography was wasteful because she was merely representing the words and not enhancing them with physical expression.

But then I became intrigued by the fact that the movements could represent words.  Many of the dancer's indications were familiar and trite (such as "here", "there", "me", and "you"), but she had invented additional, original gestures to represent other words.  These gestures didn't attempt to make sense of the words, but were entirely random movements which, through repetition, became associated with those words... and more.  I was astonished when, by the end of the monologue, she executed a gesture which she had repeated each time she'd said the word "system"; but this time, as I witnessed the gesture, before she said the word aloud, I received a distinct impression of the political-economic mechanism that her monologue had been illustrating-- which was in fact a greater entity than the word "system" as she was using it.  There was no doubt about it:  in that gesture, she had created a new word, and she had "spoken" that word to me with perfect clarity.  My experience of seeing that gesture was identical to hearing a word.  The gesture was a word.

I began to wonder-- if the gesture was a word, then what was the difference between it and actual spoken words?  Ironically, the next morning my mailbox contained a complimentary copy of The Actor At Work (by the same author, and in the same soulless style, as The Actor In You) and as I skimmed its pages I encountered the phrase "a word is a verbal gesture."  Suddenly I remembered my music research in which I'd observed that, although we say that an action "causes" a sound, the sound is the aural image of that action.  The sound is the action in the same way that a flower "is" green.  The author was not speaking metaphorically-- a word is literally a physical gesture.  When I speak a sound, you "see" the gesture as an aural image and unconsciously infer the physical movement.  Psychologically, then, there is no difference between spoken language and sign language; the gestural movement is merely detected by the ear instead of the eye.

Since reaching that conclusion, my mind has been whirling with possible overlaps between movement, language, and music.

If language is a physical gesture, then any word may be infused with a movement idea.  I described as much as I've written here to one of the students in the early class, and I prompted her to see what happened if she spoke a word from her script ("sex") and thought of it as gesturing.  She immediately began experimenting with different ways to say the word.  I listened with great interest to each new exploration, because she was instinctively accomplishing what our school's vocal technique is intended to teach-- using the different available percussive and tonal sounds in the language, varying the tempo and pitch, allowing her entire body to become involved in the act of speech-- and although each iteration was wildly different from the last, all of them were real and natural.  It seemed to me that the students of this vocal method who sound fake and forced and stilted in their attempts (and there are many) must be the same as the "empty" dancers.  They're moving exactly as they have been told to, but without the generative idea which makes it real.

I had thought that musical ideas were emotional expressions, and now I was forced to wonder why and how that was different from a movement idea.  If dance does not communicate to the audience but communicates with the audience, then at its best, dance creates a visceral connection of energy between performer and spectator.  Perhaps, then, one way to see it is that a musical idea expresses how I feel and a visceral (movement) idea expresses how I want you to feel.  For years I've occasionally amused myself by imitating other people's strides as I walked behind them, because I knew that it would cause me to feel as they do; and, thanks to Michael Chekhov's concept of "psychological gesture," I know it's possible to acquire this same effect from a visceral idea without actually moving.  You don't have to stand up and move like the dancer in order to feel what their gestures are communicating.  The critical difference between musical and visceral ideas, then:  you understand music by hearing it, and you understand dance by feeling it.

Music expresses how we feel.  This might seem like an absurdly obvious and generic statement, but I mean it in a very precise and subtle way.  The most important thing I discovered this past summer, while participating in a four-week voice workshop, is that the sounds we release from our bodies are aural images of our bodies.  I practiced and demonstrated this to myself by allowing my body to enter various states-- nervous, delighted, cranky, morose-- and releasing whatever sound resulted from that state.  I was startled to recognize that that musical sound communicated exactly how my body felt; anyone who heard it would understand my emotional state.  Oddly, this would suggest it's possible to communicate a musical idea with movement alone.  I remember seeing the Boston Ballet's production of Taming of the Shrew; in it Katherine showed her refusal to cooperate by leaving her body completely limp, forcing Petruchio to dance with her as though she were a rag doll.  We all received the idea of how she felt without having to experience it ourselves.  It was a kind of musical "sign language".

Could this be why our minds so easily get "in key" with a piece of music?  Musical dissonance is measured against a tonal center; the more physically agitated (or "dissonant") a musical sound becomes, the more unpleasant we perceive it to be.  Its emotional message is universal.  In normal communication, everyone speaks with their own particular tonal center, and returns to this center at the conclusion of every sentence.  By adjusting their mental reference to this tonal center, a listener will interpret how a speaker feels by the relative dissonances of the spoken communication.  Perhaps this is why music deliberately employs tonal centers as a fundamental property of its construction.

These thoughts help to explain another observation I had made about vocal technique.  I had speculated that consonants may reveal how we feel about what we're saying, while vowels may reveal how we feel despite what we're saying.  I was exploring the possibility that an actor could, by mindfully emphasizing one or the other, deliberately draw focus either to the literal message or the emotional subtext where appropriate.  It seemed to be true from the experimentation, but now I have an explanation to quantify my experience.  Consonants are gestural actions; vowels are static shapes.  A gesture may communicate a visceral idea; a musical sound may be the image of the body-state.

This also supports the notion of dialect as a physical rather than an aural phenomenon.  I've theorized in the last year that people may speak with an accent or dialect simply because of how they use the muscles of their mouth and throat.  They may be thinking the correct sounds but saying those sounds through a transforming filter.  If speech is a physical gesture, it would seem to make sense that each language would create habits of muscular use.  I'll bet it's comparable to the fact that Europeans start counting with their thumb and Americans start with their index finger.  Each gesture means the same thing, and communicates the same idea, but it feels funny and weird to do it the other way so it's easy to slip back and do it the "normal" way instead.  In any case, I realized last week that there's a distinct advantage to approaching an accent as use-of-mouth instead of sound-substitution:  making mistakes.  If you're attempting a dialect by substituting sounds, then when you fail to substitute you sound like someone without an accent getting it wrong.  But if you're using your mouth differently, making a mistake sounds like someone with an accent getting it right!

I've found too many implications in the past week to try to cover them all in one go.  Mainly, I'm intensely intrigued by the new possibilities for overlap between language, music, and movement.  Each mode seems to primarily communicate literal, emotional, and visceral ideas, respectively-- but each mode can, in some way, represent the other two types of ideas.  What I'm looking for in the short term is an exercise that can reveal a visceral idea as briefly, simply, and powerfully as "say the same thing but don't use any of the same words" reveals a linguistic idea.  Feel the same thing but don't use any of the same actions?  Do the same thing?  Make me feel the same thing?  Use the same impulse?  I don't know yet how to make the visceral idea "visible", but at least now I'm pretty sure I know what I'm looking for.

November 6 - In the deep end

Am I making my students too dependent on me?

In my very first article, I said "rehearsing without a director is ludicrous".  In an ideal world no ensemble would make progress except under my direct supervision.  Their effort would be in their individual preparation, which they would bring to the rehearsal to share with everyone.  Because I don't have that luxury in this environment, and because each session with a cast is so pathetically short, I find that the sessions with them are for the most part my helping them see what they can do to progress on their own.  My most critical task is making sure that they know what it means to get better, and can self-evaluate their progress, so they don't need to ask me if they're succeeding-- they'll know.  The essential assumption there is that they will progress on their own, so I find myself perplexed when anyone treats the sessions without me as "off sessions", either to chat unproductively or to agree, as a cast, not to show up that day!  Some casts understand that I'm only guiding them, and some seem not to; one student lamented to me, trying to keep the frustration out of his voice, "It's funny how certain people are only here when we're scheduled to work with you."  Next semester I'm going to try to solve this problem before it starts; this semester, I'm merely allowing myself to observe how, as was true last year, the more time each student puts in the better their performance becomes.

Before I can solve the problem, though, I have to know what it is.  There must be significance to the fact that the later the class, the more enthusiastic the cast, and I don't know whether that's because I wake up through the course of the day or if the students are already active by the time afternoon rolls around.  Because the energy of last semester's 3pm class resembled this semester's 10:30 class, I'm inclined to think it's more directly under my control... somehow.  Maybe it has to do with setting expectations at the outset and constantly reinforcing the fact that this is not my show, but theirs.  When I have the opportunity (when I won't be wasting rehearsal time) I'll see if I can ask how they view the sessions without me.

Friday's morning and afternoon sessions left me in completely different moods.  In the morning, I had merely been able to show them what we need to do instead of actually doing it together, and I wasn't sure that they would allow themselves to meet and work on it.  Following on the heels of a fragmented and unfocused early session, where again some cast members appeared and were clearly in the dark about whether their castmates would show up, I was particularly disturbed and concerned for the upcoming performances.  The afternoon session turned me around again, though, partly because I'd heard from one of the morning cast to say that they'd been working together, and partly because I am beginning to see real performance-quality work from these casts.

The afternoon session began rather lamely.  I was perturbed and surprised that most of the impulses were completely dropped, but took heart in the fact that nobody was forcing or faking the missing energy, and that with one exception everyone was speaking naturally and honestly (more on that exception in a moment).  It took us about twenty to thirty minutes of workshopping to pull it together, mainly because I was so violently start-and-stop.  Contrary to my usual let-it-flow approach, I was vigorously hands-on, interrupting and pouncing with every dropped impulse, insisting that they roll back and this time use the impulse.

What I was so actively correcting was the actors' tendencies to receive the impulse but to hold it before replying.  For example, when one character introduced himself by saying "Hello, Annette?" the actor playing Annette responded to that impulse by looking up and attempting to recognize the fellow before returning the impulse with her own line ("Michael?")  An honest response, a legitimate interpretation, but totally wrong for this show.  Don't hold the impulse unless you're forced to, I insisted; unless there is some justifiable reason you absolutely must keep it in your body, let that impulse provoke you to say your lines immediately and deal with the consequences.  As the scene began to come together, one of the cast observed that it's like playing ping-pong!  I enthusiastically agreed and made sure that everyone had heard his metaphor.  Finally, I asked them to run from the beginning and I promised not to interrupt.  The effect was tremendous-- the energy was insanely high, and I was riveted to the action-- and it was obvious that they had "got it."  They understood how to use the impulses according to the demands of this show; I don't doubt that when they continue to work on their own they will reinforce this work and take it further still.  They don't need me for that any more.

I couldn't entirely understand, though, why one of the actors persisted in speaking unnaturally.  Fortunately, he was willing to stay later with me to figure out why, and also fortunately I remembered to ask and listen instead of just rolling up my sleeves to fix it.  What he was attempting to do, he said, was to present "the character" and to discover how that character existed in the circumstances.  I assured him that I wanted the character to come out of the impulses, and not the other way around (I need to remember to tell him that in some of the other shows they are starting with the character).

Each "character" response, I continued, should come out of a specific impulse.  Let's use this example-- why do you stutter in this scene?  He told me that he's never met this girl before, and he's not sure she'll accept him, so he's nervous.  I agreed that this was important character background; now let's compare that answer to this one.  I snapped my fingers a few inches from his face and said, if I asked you "why did you blink" you'd have to say "you snapped your fingers."  Now looking at the same scene, knowing the situation you've just told me, why do you stutter?  He answered something like "This is the instant I've met her in person, and that's scary."  I nodded and said yes, good, let's add to that:  look at her chest when you say hello, and let that make you stutter.  He turned to the empty chair to say his line, and the stutter came out as naturally as you please.  That's how we want the character choices to happen, I said.  Just find the impulses that make you do them.

November 7 - Zip a dee

Over the past few days I've found out why I'd want to interrupt scenes.  I'd initially said that the only reason to interrupt a scene was when it was going in a completely unproductive direction; I said this mainly as a reaction against directors who love to pounce on lines and actions which they believe should be delivered differently, because the actors can't possibly relate to each other when that happens.  What I'm learning is that when a scene doesn't have a natural flow to begin with, it's not only desirable but absolutely necessary to interrupt-- repeatedly.

I've had to do this with almost every cast.  In some cases, it's a matter of adjusting the entire flow, and those I've already talked about; in these others, I'm finding that the intellectual understanding of "underlined word" and impulse does not directly translate into action.  They understand what I mean, but actually using the technique is a different thing altogether.  The most effective method of implementing this is to jump on every single dropped impulse and roll back far enough to make sure that it doesn't get dropped again; after I've interrupted enough times they begin to get the feel of it, begin to get the hang of it, and I don't have to interrupt again because they understand what they're doing.  I wouldn't be able to do this if I hadn't already established the language-- but since I have, it's been exciting to see their realization of "oh, this is what he meant" as they suddenly feel themselves snap into performance-quality dialogue.

Unfortunately, I didn't follow this strategy when working with the afternoon session today, and the result was damaging and draining.  The other shows I've worked with on this are all farcical and absurd in their own ways, so it made sense to give each line its own special pop.  The afternoon show, however, is a series of straightforward conversations, so instead of focusing on the impulse sharing I merely urged them to "talk normally" while attempting to layer in objective, relationship, and character arc.  I've had sessions before where we were spinning our wheels and not moving forward, but this was the first time I can ever remember working with any cast-- actors or non-actors-- where my efforts seemed to be making things gradually and consistently worse, literally sucking the life out of their efforts.  The problem was simple and basic:  I was giving them ideas to work with, but without the natural buoyancy of the impulse flow, they tried so hard to do what they thought I wanted that they abandoned what they already had; furthermore, since they weren't sure how to handle their impulses, the entire rhythm became stilted and broken.  This in itself wasn't damaging or draining-- just inconvenient-- but I was so obviously concerned and upset that things were going in the wrong direction that I created a tangible atmosphere of fear and failure, in which of course it's not really possible to relax and have fun together.  It didn't matter that I knew that I was the one whose efforts were failing, because I was actively broadcasting the message and that dragged everyone down.

I must not forget that everything is built on the impulse flow.  Without it, without that natural conversation, everything else you could do is wasted; once you have it, anything you want to add can become a legitimate exploration.

As I reflected on today's session, I realized that there's a strange irony in it.  If I had been giving them a grade instead of trying to create a good performance, my expectations of them would've been totally different, and I would have felt that today's session was a screaming success.  In hindsight I have to admit that, judged solely and exclusively in terms of what I was telling them to do, they were "getting better".  They were adequately and successfully incorporating all my suggestions; if this presentation had been for a grade, then I wouldn't have been paying attention to whether or not anyone was actually enjoying themselves, and I wouldn't have cared that the performance as it stood would never qualify as "good acting"; I would merely have praised them for following my directions, handed them a check-plus and some "notes", and been done with it.

But all I could see today was that their efforts were arising solely from following my instructions.  Consequently, they limited themselves to attempting their understanding of my ideas, instead of making their own discoveries and explorations within the circumstances.  This approach can never be successful.  Even if they found themselves able to follow my instructions to the very letter, I'm the one who invented what they're doing, and therefore I'm the only one who can possibly tell them if they're doing it well.  They don't know what I mean-- they can't read my mind, and it's not something they've discovered naturally-- so they can only attempt what they think I mean, to follow my directions at the expense of the show's reality, and that transforms their effort into "bad acting" as a matter of course.

Today I discovered another way that my instructions can lead to bad acting.  In my instructions on how to learn lines, I somehow failed to get across in some cases that being able to say the lines mindlessly without pausing is not a performance goal.  It's merely a technical necessity and a precursor to performing well.  I learned this in today's early session, where I simultaneously found that this had led to disastrous consequences.  One performer in a two-woman show was trying diligently to say the lines the way she believed I intended her to; this did of course lead to mindless and mechanical delivery, but her partner didn't understand what she was trying to do and assumed that this was because she hadn't learned her lines at all.  The partner became annoyed, then frustrated, then disgusted, and finally livid that, as she saw it, her time was being wasted.  I tried to explain this morning how this was my fault, and that they didn't need to blame each other, but we settled for a truce.  I was fascinated by the fact that the real-life relationship they had created was now a perfect match for their on-stage relationship; although they can't really use those real-life feelings on stage (that would be hurtful and miserable for everyone), what I had thought of as a puffy silly little five-minute play I now see has tremendous possibility for depth and complexity.  As long as the truce holds, we could see some amazing things come out of this unfortunate misunderstanding.

The silver lining of the situation was that a fellow in the morning session was doing the exact same thing.  His lines were tumbling out mindlessly and meaninglessly with almost a sense of panic; it seemed that he was struggling just to get the words out as fast as possible.  Because I knew what he was doing, I didn't have to waste any time working with him on making the ideas more real; instead, all I had to do was inform him that no-pauses was a technical exercise, and now he can let go and have fun.  As soon as he was given that freedom, he exploded with life and energy.

The morning session was all about energy.  How fortunate that I was able to introduce "energy" as a concept right from the beginning!  This was the same group as the "paintbrush" exercise from a few days ago.  Today, I asked them to run through their lines once, and I was pleased with the honesty and sincerity I heard even though almost all of the impulses were dropped.  Then I started them through it again, but this time, I said, let's add energy.  This play is only ten minutes long, but if you're doing this in the style it demands you should be exhausted by the end of it.  I didn't let them actually begin until I'd prodded the first actor to begin speaking with super-high energy.  Since my definition of energy was understood among the cast as use-of-body, it was possible for me to simply say to her "more energy, more energy" and have her return something more valuable than just loudness.  Once we were rolling, I aggressively interrupted-- not only each time an impulse was dropped, but also each time when an impulse was caught and diminished instead of amplified.  Don't calm her down, I'd say; attack her right back!  Get energy from the impulses you're receiving and beat each other up with the impulses you're giving.  Crank up that energy at every opportunity and with every impulse.  And they did-- and suddenly I saw that we "had a show".  Yes, there are still aspects which are rough and unfinished (the blocking, for one), but after this session there was no doubt in anyone's mind what the actual presentation would look like and feel like, and there was no question in anyone's mind about what they needed to do to make it happen that way.

November 11 - Be there or be square

I'm not making my students too dependent on me.  It seems instead that when they don't work on their show, it's because they don't know what to do; so when they wait for me, it's not because I've made them dependent on me, but because I have not yet succeeded in making them independent of me.

It's fascinating how easy it is to create either a virtuous or a vicious cycle.  When the students see what needs to be done, and are confident that they know how to do it, they are eager to come to rehearsal and work on it.  If they aren't sure where the show is going or what they need to do, they'll actively avoid the work.  The cast I worked with on Wednesday afternoon is usually punctual and bright and enthusiastic, but after that session I wasn't surprised that only three of them came in today-- specifically, the three that I had "worked with" the least.  I'll be meeting with them again on Monday afternoon and I hope we can turn that back around again.

Still, I was disappointed not to see them today.  I had thought I would take five minutes before working with the other cast and show them my mistake, so that they could spend the weekend thinking productively about the show instead of trying to put it out of their minds.  Next semester, I'll have to be even more heavy-handed about the attendance policy-- even if I didn't believe that more time equals better result with my methods, it frustrates and distresses me to see two or three students sitting around glumly because it's not a "scheduled day" and their castmates have neither appeared nor called to explain.

I think I've found a way to reconcile myself to a strict attendance policy.  From my perspective, the bare fact of the matter is that an actor is needed at rehearsal, period.  But because I so strongly believe that more time leads to a better performance, and each absence draws a student back from their potential success, a conversation with one of my fellow grad students has given me the rationale I was looking for.  He pointed out that although a grade doesn't have to be evaluative, it is a reflection of a student's effort.  If "A" work is a matter of putting in the time and being respectful to your fellow students, then a student who fails to do that is, logically, doing "B" work.  I'm not punishing a student, I'm reporting their level of effort.  As long as I take the time on Day One to define the measuring stick-- and urge anyone who won't do it to drop the class immediately-- then I can wield the policy in good conscience.  I don't have to say "I have to dock you because you were absent"; instead, I can point out the consequences of their thoughtlessness or lack of commitment, and they should understand that this is what I had previously described as being less than "A" work.

I wish an attendance policy weren't necessary.  My original contempt for attendance policies is still as strong as ever-- a teacher should make their class meaningful and worth attending without coercion.  The problem as I see it is that even when my students understand that their presence is important, they simply don't understand just how much they're losing by not putting in the time to work on their show.  Where other types of classes normally have set agendas and finite goals that can be "caught up" to, there's no such limitation on these shows.  These shows can go as far as the students will take them, and the traveling takes time.  Lost time is gone forever, and puts their final performance one step firmly back from where it could have been... but because they don't know where it could have been, they don't sense anything missing.  I want them to realize their potential, and therefore I will insist that they not lose that time.

It then becomes my duty to make sure that they are able to use the time well.  If, like many of the actors and non-actors I've observed practicing scenes, they're trying to "do it right" instead of exploring, then one hour of rehearsal is the same as six, and there's no reason to waste that time.  But if I've given them valid principles to discover and explore, then they will feel their own progress.  There are teachers who think that if a student misses class then the student is depriving themselves of the teacher's knowledge; I say that a student who skips rehearsal deprives themselves of their own wisdom.  And indeed, as I continue to see in every one of these shows, the students who put in more time are the students who are coming up with better performances.

Early session

This was our second attempt at running through this show.  I suggested at the close of the previous session that they take the time-between to practice not missing the impulses, and I'm pleased to say that that's what they had done.  There are three couples in this show, and as we began I quickly discovered that I couldn't understand two of the three pairs-- partly because they were not talking very loudly, but mainly because these acting studios were poorly designed and have a terrible echo.  I stifled my initial urge to leap up and find ways to help them get louder, because I knew that that would only make the echo worse; but as I sat and watched, I found that I didn't need them to talk any louder.  To begin with, the reason they weren't so loud is because they were talking to each other instead of to the space-- and because they were talking to each other, I didn't need to hear them.

All I had to do was sit back and watch the impulses.  The natural fact of an impulse is that it's taken into the body.  Not the head; not the brain; not the mouth or the hands or the gut, but the body.  Whether you hold it for a while or return it immediately, when you're listening naturally your entire body responds to every impulse.  So rather than try to make out their words, I tried to watch the story just from their body language.  And, for the most part, I could.  I saw how each of them reacted, and changed from that reaction, and were subsequently changed by their partner's responses to those reactions.  They were really truly communicating, and even though I didn't know the words I could see what was going on.

The next step, of course, will be getting the words out.  I'm not sure how much of it will be solved by being in a non-echoey space, but I suspect we'll be able to enhance the volume by strengthening the objectives and obstacles.  If the objective needs more power, if the obstacle is harder to overcome, then more energy can create more volume.  Potentially.  Provided that the actors know that increased volume is a desired result, but that it has to come naturally.  This week I heard a speech given by a woman who had obviously been coached to "articulate"; although her talk seemed sincere and friendly, her overemphasized consonants could only be described as bizarre and unnatural.

Morning session

This is the play with the three interleaved conversations, who has been spending the last couple of weeks mechanically squeezing out the pauses.  Today, as I listened, I was amused and pleased that they were starting to play around and be silly with their roles; at the end of the first run, one of the cast turned to another and said with mild surprise, hey!  We only paused maybe twice during that whole thing.  I took the opportunity to say that not only was that true, but did you notice how relaxed and easy you all were while doing it?  While you're still getting used to saying it without pauses, when it's still a mechanical exercise, it tends to speed you up because you're trying to jump in at the right time; but once your body gets into the new flow then you have complete freedom to do whatever you want.  In other words, you've gone through the mechanical stuff and come out the other side.  Time to put the blocking back in and have fun!

Afternoon session

I had hoped to do a run of this show, to see where we were before taking it into the theater space next week, but the central character was missing.  We ran it anyway, with my assistant director taking her place.  This turned out to be the silver lining because, as I watched, it became obvious that one of the actors was responding to the assistant director as though he were the missing actress.  This actor was responding as though the assistant director was behaving as the missing actress would be if she were there.  Once I saw this, I understood that this probably explained why, despite our apparently productive sessions, this actor was still stuck in an unnatural mode; he was still trying to "get it right."

At the end of the run-through I turned to him to point out how, upon arriving for his blind date, he hadn't noticed that she was in fact a man.  After assuring him that I understood why he had made the choice to continue as he did, I made the larger point to the entire cast that every performance is essentially an improvisation-- as it should be, no matter what you're performing-- and it's vital and critical for you you respond to what's on stage with you at that moment, not what should be there or what you imagine could be there.  Only respond to what is there, but do respond to it, and that's what will make this show successful.

That's a principle that bears repeating.  Respond to what's there, not to what you imagine could be there.  In one of the early-session casts, I had suggested a certain approach to one of the actors, and she did it in a way that seemed forced.  Take it from the impulses, I admonished, and she did; I asked, how did that feel, and she immediately returned "boring."  You bet it did, I replied, because the impulses you're getting are ridiculously low energy at this time of day.  But honest and boring is a thousand times more watchable than loud and fake.  When in doubt, conform your performance to the situation you're in; don't try to force something into your speech that can't be found naturally.

November 12 - Say win

The shows are beginning to snap into place.  As we began the actual run-throughs, of course I could only see the most serious flaws in each; now that we've taken some time to overcome those, the scales are beginning to tip toward something we can show in public.  There are basically four categories to fall into, and I've indicated how many shows fall into each.

1. Ready to go
2. Ready, but minor work necessary (2 shows)
3. Will be ready with major work (4 shows)
4. Won't be ready without major work (4 shows)

"Minor work" means that the show has some soft spots but is basically together.  "Major work" means that there is something consistently lacking from beginning to end-- for example, one of the principal performers may sound unnatural, or the blocking may be absent.  The difference between the #3 and #4 shows is my confidence level; where the #2 shows just need one or two rehearsals with or without me to make it click, the #3 shows still need two or three rehearsals with me to finish it off, and the #4 shows are the ones for which I haven't yet been shown enough to be certain that they will be ready in time.

I haven't forgotten that "ready to go" is really a minimum level of polish.  When it comes right down to it, the critical ingredients which are absolutely necessary for success are:

1.  Natural speech
2.  No dropped impulses
3.  Specific objectives
4.  High energy drawn from impulses and objectives

With this much and nothing more, a show is "watchable"-- but all four elements must be present.  Fake actors are annoying; dropped impulses are distracting; scenes missing objectives are pointless; low energy is boring.  Avoiding all these pitfalls leads to an interesting, engaging, active, exciting performance, and my first priority is carving out all of these basic problems.  Once that's accomplished, though, that's not the end of it.  That is the basic technique and the foundation on which to build a performance.  It's not the total performance.  It's merely... enough.

But is it enough?  I read a book called Winning the Loser's Game whose central thesis was drawn from watching tennis players.  Amateur tennis players knew they were terrible, and were thrilled not to trip over their own feet; players succeeded simply by not making stupid mistakes.  This was the "loser's game".  By contrast, professional tennis players took for granted the simple tasks of hitting and returning the ball; to succeed, they not only had to be swifter and more accurate than their opponent but also needed to counter and foil their opponent's strategy.  This was the "winner's game", where players skillfully earned points instead of ineptly forfeiting them.  Either game is worth playing, but it's the winner's game that's worth watching.  In theater, it might be adequately entertaining to watch a good friend or a family member stumble and fumble around for fifteen minutes, because you can "support" their "good try"; but with fifty-eight actors spread across ten shows I have to assume that each audience member is seeing fifty-seven strangers for whom they're not making excuses.  It's not enough for the actors to be not incompetent.  These shows have to be good!

I think the key to playing the winner's game is to expect success.  I know that every student in each of these classes has all the natural ability they need; when a student isn't giving what's necessary, I don't accept that this is the best they can do.  I don't give up on them and allow people to judge them as unskilled, untalented, or incompetent.  Instead, I must ask why they are sabotaging themselves, and work together with them to remove the block.  Nobody wants to fail; nobody wants to make an ass of themselves.  I know that each student wants to succeed, and if they understand how to succeed they will do it.  I don't anticipate that any audience member will believe that these are trained performers, but I do expect the audience to be able to forget that they are watching "non-actors" and just enjoy the show.  In every instance, if I see any show fall short of its potential, I'm going to keep working at it, because I know we can get there.  It's principally a matter of time.

Continue with part five