Friday, February 1, 2013

How NOT To Be "Actorman In Actorland"

Okay, yes.  The title is gender specific.  Sorry, ladies.  But it applies to all of you Actorwomen, too.  I actually take the phrase from an old friend, who learned it from some teacher at the La Jolla Playhouse Young Actor's program many moons ago - and it actually comes along with a visual of someone walking around onstage like a silent alien or astronaut or deep-sea diver, exploring the air onstage as though there is something there to explore.

Perhaps that seems ridiculous to you.  I know it does to me.  And yet, this is how many actors seem to approach their work in rehearsals.  They show up, ready to get on their feet and explore the world of the play.  How?  They'll get that instruction from their directors., then the director might say a few words, the group may have a conversation or two on the characters or what things stand out, and then they get onstage to work on their feet...and explore NOTHING to infinity and beyond!

Many actors balk at "overthinking" anything - or any kind of extensive discussion of the play, the story, the characters, their objectives (motivations), their journeys, etc.  There seems to be a worry that these kinds of discussions inhibit the actor from exploring.  And yet, these conversations are absolutely necessary if the actor is to be given any kind of freedom to play onstage - so that they have something to explore.

Unfortunately, very few actors bring any ideas to the table.  Therefore, blocking (creating staged moments throughout a production) becomes a necessity.  When afforded the opportunity to work organically, most actors don't know what to do.  So, what ends up happening?  They'll explore their ideas of the lines and the various attitudes they associate with the meanings they hear in their heads.  Or they explore walking around and talking in the way they feel the character would walk and talk.  And they love doing that.  But it doesn't tend to result in any kind of story being told.  You get a bunch of people, walking aimlessly around the stage, talking and gesturing.  Maybe they'll get lucky and happen upon something, but maybe not.  And why leave it up to luck?  If our entire process as actors involves throwing ideas at a wall to see what sticks, then we are lost indeed.

So, what can we do about that?  Well, as The Seeing Place has just begun rehearsals for A Lie of the Mind, we've met, discussed, and ultimately asked all of the actors to come in with a plan.  That plan includes:
1.)  Their character's story as they see it.
2.)  Their character's journey of learning.
3.)  Their objectives for every scene.
4.)  A set of physical tasks to do onstage that make sense to what the character might be doing in every scene.
5.)  And a set of imaginary elements to explore the circumstances and situations given by the playwright - and interpreted by the actors.

And then we get together and rehearse - using both the writer's lines and the actors' improvised thoughts.  In that way, the actors can guide their work logically from moment to moment.  And my job, as the director, is to make sure everyone is actually doing their work and exploring.  Furthermore, I am there to make sure that those explorations are serviceable to the story.  In that way, we can build the production together.  It takes some doing to get used to, but it gets us back to what it was to play when we were kids.  Working this way, many of us have been able to get past the need to be good or to be entertaining, and to simply live through something.  In that way, we become accustomed to discovering the story.

In the final weeks of rehearsal, we'll shape the play that the audience actually sees.  So, we'll only be saying the writer's words at a point, and the technical elements (lights, sound, set, sightlines) will create certain necessary staging.  But we'll have all sorts of things to share that we discovered in rehearsals.

That's how we address it.  It's possible to do most of this alone.  Personally, I find it imperative to walk into any project, having an understanding of the story and an idea of what I can explore during rehearsals.  Most directors welcome that kind of excitement.  And either way, it's important that actors come in having something to say as artists.  After all, that's what theatre is all about. 

What are your thoughts on the subject?  Don't be shy.  Conversation is the best part of a community.


  1. I'm really curious to hear what people think about this. I know that some people think that if there isn't "blocking", the show won't be the same for every audience. AND THEY ARE CORRECT IN THAT THINKING. What's most important is for audiences to know that this isn't a bad thing. Seeing a show alive and fresh every evening is something they should demand for their time and money, not actors walking a track every evening and trying to make that track look natural.

    But working organically is REALLY hard. True creativity requires an actor to get rid of the "I wanna do it right" voice and risk failing in order for the scene to play out organically. Speaking for myself and I imagine many other actors, this is really difficult to do. It also requires the absolutely trust and skill of a director to guide actors through the process of playing on stage, deftly balancing guiding the work and leaving space for individual creation.

    For those of you who haven't seen a show at The Seeing Place, we invite you to come in and see how this all plays out on stage. We cap our tickets prices at $12 so that theater stays affordable, and make it our commitment to provide top notch storytelling whose value far outweighs the price.

    For those of you who have seen one of our shows, leave a comment and tell us what you think about this article and how you've seen it played out on stage. I'm very curious to hear your thoughts!

  2. Why WOULDN'T actors want to talk about the play and their character and everything else that goes into creating a show? I truly don't get those who JUST come into rehearsal and act. Acting is about so much more than just saying the lines and to get to all that with other people? JACKPOT. Best day ever.

    Get me in a rehearsal room now!

  3. Last night was my first on-our-feet rehearsal. We spent 4 1/2 hours working on a 2 page scene. I first worked on the scene filtering everything through the physicality of the given circumstance that I had just finished a 10 hour drive in winter. Then, all three actors filtered the scene through our exploration of location: a run-down motel room. Then, for our final exploration, we were all concentrating on creating the relationship with the character in the scene of primary importance to our own character - for Sally, that's her relationship with her mother. I don't think I realized how angry Sally is before that rehearsal - I knew in a cerebral sense that she felt angry, but I wasn't in contact with how deep-seated and ugly and black that anger was, towards everyone in her family, and I'm excited to see how that manifests as the subtext of my performance in the end. I think rehearsing step-by-step, element-by-carefully-chosen-element gives you access to the wealth of knowledge you have stored in your body, emotional memory, and subconscious mind.

  4. How about "actor-person"??!!
    More to the point, the greatest benefit of this process has been the opportunity to move out of the safety zone of playing the character based on a pre-conceived notion. If I decide how I should play my character in advance, before rehearsal starts when I am learning my lines, I miss the chance to explore the character fully, to learn more about him (and my thoughts about him), to discover the variety of levels that may exist in him and find for myself the nuances in the language provided by the author, particularly one like Sam Shepard.

  5. Working in depth in character development like this makes so much sense. Yes, it is work because in the years I've been acting, I've never experienced having to think in this way to this extent. I had very little freedom of exploration (other than in my head) since it was more director driven. And when an actor does explore on their own, it truly is on their own. When you share the exploration with the other cast members, you develop other feelings, thoughts and ideas on relationships which is pretty cool. Plus you get the opportunity to really feel what varied emotions are naturally created which you can't do so easily in your head. I have to admit though, I'm still comfortable and secure with the idea of blocking. I'm a creature of habit and routine and when I return to see a show I liked, I usually will expect to experience the same thing. But the experience of improv certainly keeps you on your toes and prepared.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Mary. And of course, you are still comfortable and secure with the idea of blocking. We all are. Blocking is a big safety net. And when we do what the director tells us, we know that our work onstage has been vetted.

      That said, nobody can do the same things in the same order with the same intensity every time AND live through a situation. At best, they can hope to SEEM as if they are experiencing something for the first time onstage. But there's very little left that can grow organically onstage if we set the expression and timing of our work in stone.

      That said, a performance is just that, so we cannot be rehearsing onstage. Even in our work, we do have to share the things we discovered in rehearsal. But we can always build upon them and continue to discover ourselves and the play on a nightly basis if we plan our imaginary work out and leave ourselves open to it, even as we tell the story.

      Lastly, you cannot expect to see the same play when you go back to see another evening - even if it's done externally. It's live theatre. The audience responses are going to be different. The actors are going to respond differently to them. People will have varying energy levels from the last time. Their imaginations may engage in the same way or not. Their concentration levels may change. They may forget lines. They may remember lines. The set may fall down. A prop might break. Someone might get careless and knock something over. There is no real consistency, anyway. The only way you can honestly expect to see the same performance as the last time is if you were to watch a film for the second time.

      And with all of that, I am so glad you're getting something out of our work together. You're doing some really great stuff.

  6. I feel that important discussion of a character and the set of circumstances given to me in a play are essential to me as an artist as I move forward with any piece. I have not always had the luxury of exploration being the root of a rehearsal process with all directors or projects that I have worked on. I feel it when I am on stage or in front of a camera and haven' explored enough. I don't feel a solid connection to much of anything and acting is forced or strained. I love Magan's post. There is so much we have access to emotionally that are able to have an even greater connection to in rehearsals and performances when we explore with the intention of becoming more aware of ourselves, the character, and the world of the play.

  7. This is the process for me. It's been a paradigm shift in the way I work. It's freeing, it's organic, and for me it produces the best results. When I go to a show now, this is the work I want to see. If I don't, I usually lose interest very quickly. This work is about open honest dialog between all of the artists in the room. I once heard a great quote, "Don't make the mistake that most smart people make, and that's thinking you're the smartest person in the room". I think this quote holds true here. This work won't allow you to make that mistake. Everyone has something to offer, and everyone should offer it, whether you're the director, actor, or playwright. I don't know about you but I get really uncomfortable when there's only one person in a groups who comes up with all the ideas, all the decisions, and demands that everyone follow them. If that system worked I'd probably be much happier working in a restaurant with some crazy sadistic chef.


We're so passionate about creating a conversation in our community - thank you for leaving your thoughts!