Wednesday, June 9, 2010
A surprising and frustrating run thru last night. Surprising because I decided at one point to pull everything back and see what happens. Frustrating because I never knew what barnyard animal was going to introduce itself into one of my monologues. It was a variation of the "no obligation" rehearsal for me. This is something my friend, the very fine actor John Bader, passed onto me. It means "no obligation to the audience." I have done it before but I'd never heard it called that. By "no obligation" he is talking about not caring whether the audience can hear you or not. It is, obviously, purely for rehearsal. However, having said that, it can be tremendously beneficial to the actor. Personally, it allows me to discover things in my work that I normally wouldn't give any thought to. It gives me the freedom to take some big, clumsy, awkward pauses that normally I would never do. But since my obligation is solely to the other actor onstage, I don't feel bad about taking them. I took a few of them last night and fortunately I'm working with some crackerjack actors that stayed right with me.
I abhor pauses for the most part. I've done a complete 180 in my thinking about this from when I was younger. Early in my career I was the pause king. I think it's simply a young actor thing. For some reason we're convinced people like to see us think. They don't. At least they don't like to see us think if there's nothing else going on. This is another bi-product of growing up in the age of TV and movies. In the movies we watch actors think all the time. And it's not a bad thing at all. But mostly it's because there's a close-up on the actor and his big, fat head is filling the screen so we have no choice but to watch him think. The theatre, and this may come as a shock to a lot of young actors, does not have close-ups. No one is following us around onstage watching our every nuance. Often times we THINK they are because A) that's what we grew up with - TV and movies. And B) we all have egos roughly the size of the BP oil spill and we think audiences are just itching to watch us think and discover. Here's one of the most valuable pieces of basic acting anyone can ever learn: think while the other actor is talking. Do your introspection when something else is happening. That way when your cue comes around you've gotten it all out of your system and you're ready to say the line. Quickly and without dead air.
There's a book out there called Tricks in My Pocket about Paul Newman directing Joanne Woodward and John Malkovich in the landmark remake of the film of Tennessee Williams' Glass Menagerie. If you haven't seen it I highly recommend it. Malkovich is heartbreaking in it. In any event, the book is mostly just a transcript of the exact conversations that took place during the three week rehearsal process. In it, Newman constantly uses the phrase, "Earn your pauses." At one point he is directing James Naughton, playing The Gentleman Caller, and he stops him and says, "That pause was not earned, Jim. Do it again." It's a wonderful piece of advice from a wonderful actor/director. On the other hand, there is a moment when Malkovich takes a big, fat pause and Newman says, "Normally I'd say cut the pause, John. But your pauses are so filled I can't seem to make myself say that." And he's right. Malkovich does more with a pause than most actors do with a career.
Nearly across the board I've found that veteran actors steer clear of unearned pauses. And every bit as true - most young actors gravitate toward them as though they were salvation itself. Usually when I'm directing a piece, about a week before we open I'll have what is knows as a "speed thru." Saying the lines as fast as one can and nearly sprinting about the stage from one action to the next. When it is done I will tell the cast that that is only slightly faster than it actually should be done in front of an audience. Usually they are aghast. Directors, too, fall into this trap sometimes. The elusive search for "moments." Here's a truism: no one pays $25 to go to the theatre to see "moments." Although a nice, effective, dramatic moment is certainly something to be appreciated, it is not what the evening is about. It's sort of like paying to see a movie and only caring about the car chases. Nice topping on the cake, but not what the cake's about.
So last night I threw a lot of that decades-long stage saavy out the door and decided to just let some of the "moments" happen. Especially in the second act where there are lots of opportunities for me to do this. I learned what I could learn from it and tonight will go back to moving things along. Shakespeare, as always, has the last word on this: the play's the thing. It's about the story. It's a story-telling medium. It's all about telling a story. To lose sight of that is a terrible thing. It's easy to do sometimes. We become bored with the story because we've heard it so often. Consequently we begin to embrace "second choices" in order to liven things up for ourselves. This is dangerous. It tampers with the all-important "illusion of the first time." It's a tricky time for director and actor alike. This is when stupid acting and directing choices are made. At the time they seem like wonderful, unexpected choices. But a few days later when the audience arrives, what had seemed funny or exciting or unpredictable in rehearsal, simply becomes incomprehensible to the paying audience that is watching the story for the first time.
Not to say this is happening in Praying Small. I honestly don't think it is. Except perhaps on my part. No one else is making stupid choices right now. I sort of am. But it's not because I'm bored, it's mostly because I still haven't found what I want in my own performance so I'm kind of just throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks.
There seems to be a joke at rehearsals these days. Whenever someone senses that maybe I'm displeased with something I hear, "Uh, oh. That's going in the blog." Nothing could be further from the truth. If I wrote about everything I was displeased about I'd never have any time in my life to do anything but blog. Besides, ninety nine percent of the time I don't have to verbalize what displeases me. It fixes itself on its own.
I think all the barnyard animals were cut last night. This pleases me greatly. What with all the chickens clucking and bears roaring and ducks quacking and dogs barking and horses neighing one was beginning to get the idea the play was about preserving wildlife.
Today is all about going back to the script. The playwright has written some arresting sentences here and there and I'd kind of like to say them correctly. Years ago I did an independent film with the veteran actor Wilford Brimley. Wilford is a great guy, funny and wise and simple. We were doing a scene together one day and I was waiting for my cue. It never came. In fact, nothing even remotely like it came. The director yelled cut. I turned to Wilford and said, "I'm sorry, Wil, but I just didn't know when to come in." He said, "Ah, don't worry about it. I paraphrased the whole damn thing. Hell, Clif, I could paraphrase a pause."
Tonight another dress with a few invited guests from the company. Tomorrow our bigwig preview. Friday we open to a sold-out house.
See you tomorrow.