10/23: Acting, Not Reading

Well, after waxing eloquent (or whatever that was) in the last post about the play having plenty of plot for my purposes, I realized at the first Act I run-through off-book that Jig Saw reads fantastic because people talk, talk, talk—without a whole lot of action. “Conversation! That’s all you do!” snipes teenage Julie at one point. A wise child, and an apt remark.

Yet when looking at some great inspirational material, particularly Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, conversation is the action in much of the comedy of the ’30s. Of course, a filmmaker decides where his audience will look, and how; shifting back and forth between actor close-ups and two-shots is all the audience needs to engage with fine writing. Obviously, the stage director has a whole other can of worms to open; keep the focus in the right place, but make sure the non-speaking actors are fully engaged. From the beginning, I’ve vowed that this will not be one of those productions while people stand around listening to someone yammer away. I had run into a wall with a big sign on it: “Jig Saw has yammer potential.”

Merde.

I started searching through period photographs in different library books; maybe there were props from the time, things every home had that would give the actors more stuff to do and toys to play with. A blind alley, and anyway, there are enough cocktails and cigarettes in the show to keep everyone occupied on the stage business front. So I grabbed a few books on directing; I always figure you can goose yourself out of any dilemma by exploring other points of view. Every challenge has been had by someone at some point, right?

And in one, a skinny little book from the theater section, The Stage Directions Guide to Directing, I hit on an intriguing approach. Published in 1999 by Heineman out of Portsmouth, NH, the book is composed of essays from Stage Directions magazine that address various issues faced by directors at community theaters and high schools, ranging over topics like the legality of changing a script, helping actors project, and working with difficult cast members.

In a piece by Sue Wurster, who at the time was Director of Drama at the Calhoun School in NYC, she describes an encounter with a talented young actor. He privately told her that he had a great deal of trouble reading and had to learn plays by having the lines read to him; if cast, he requested that the stage manager feed him lines in early rehearsals.

The kid was too good to pass up, but Wurster didn’t want to single him out. She decided on a radical approach: The stage manager would feed all of the actors their lines from the beginning. No one got to use his or her script in rehearsal sessions except for study and discussion.

The result: The actors stopped burying their faces in their books and began relating to each other immediately, not several weeks into production when the dreaded off-book date arrives. They learned lines faster, not just from hearing and repeating them over and over, but because suddenly the lines were linked to a context and a relationship. The practice increased camaraderie between the cast and the stage manager. It even fostered greater responsibility on the actors’ parts; they wanted to let the stage mgr simply managed, so worked to get off book quicker. Wurster would eventually go on to have more than one reader per show, with the added bonus that the readers ended up knowing the parts as well as the actors; in one emergency that she mentions, a reader was able to step into a role seamlessly.

I gave it a shot with the portion of my cast in last night’s rehearsal. My actors and I were a little nervous to try it, but about three lines in, we were loving it. No books! That in itself is huge. Nobody can really act with a book in his or her hand. But also, no pressure; we’re well before the off-book deadline for Act II, and I don’t expect the actors to know all their lines yet. With this approach, the actor doesn’t learn lines; instead, the lines get planted and grow. Blocking becomes organic, relationships develop at a comfortable pace.

I never wanted to become a dictator director, bellowing Citizen Kane-like, “People will move where I TELL THEM TO MOVE!!!” But by the same token, I am responsible, and with a comedy of manners, laissez-faire won’t do. Without books in hand, and with my excellent stage mgr Erin feeding lines while furiously scribbling notes, I could see what was going on with the characters and figure out what would most show rather than tell the audience what mattered. The actors, meanwhile, were free to use their entire bodies, including two of their most important assets in both storytelling and listening: their eyes and their hands. Shit did indeed get real. We left energized, all of us feeling like we had a living organism on our hands, a feeling that often doesn’t begin until much later in the process.

Wurster reported that the quality of work once she began the new process improved, well, dramatically. We all felt it last night. We’ll keep it up.

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