Thursday, March 13, 2014

What Our Actors Can Expect

We get a lot of questions about rehearsal schedules when casting a show.  Being so familiar with this style of performance, sometimes we think that ‘unrehearsed’ is self-explanatory.  We remember the first time that we encountered this approach to Shakespeare, not knowing what to expect.  There are other methods that are huddled under the umbrella of original practices, so today we are taking the time to outline what our cast for The Comedie of Errors can look forward to.

After the play has been cast, the actors, prompter, director and stage manager all take part in a weekend workshop where the performers learn the technique.  We learned from Demitra Papadinis at the New England Shakespeare Festival where she had developed The Ten Commandments of Staging Unrehearsed Shakespeare.  We follow this outline as we walk everyone through the process.  The workshops start with everyone getting to know each other before we explain the why’s and wherefore’s of what we are doing.  This is when we begin putting everyone on the same page. 

Then we start going through scenes.  Actors are given sides resembling what they will see in performance containing only their lines, their cues, entrances, exits and important stage directions.  Any and every scene that Shakespeare wrote is up for grabs – except for scenes from the play we will perform.  The scenes are gone through several times with everyone commenting on what effect they felt (the actors and audience), what was missed, what was learned and how to include these findings in the performance.  We work through every commandment until everyone has a thorough understanding of everything that the actors will need to pay attention to when they are in front of an audience.  The workshop ends with us showing some video examples of good versus bad prompting, which allows everyone to see what they have learned in a practical manner.  At this time, they are given their cues and the materials and directions to make their scrolls.  They do not receive the entire script, nor at any time are they allowed to read the entire script, see a production or film of the play or read about it.  They are to come to the performance as fresh and void of baggage as possible.

The next step for our actors is the text sessions.  The number of these and their formats can vary between actor, but the easy explanation is that the actors sit down with the director for several hours to go over their lines word by word.  Every word, line, beat, pause and punctuation mark are gone over in detail: 

“Is this a short line?  Why?  Is it a pause or an action.” 
“This is a stage direction, so make sure that you are throwing it so that whoever you are talking to catches it.” 
“You enter this scene, and you exit without speaking: Make sure you’re listening for stage directions.” 
“This will be a fight, so you must be off-book for these lines.”
“You go from verse to prose.  There is a shift, make sure you play it.”

Notice there is no direction given in the sense that we are used to as actors.  The director does not necessarily give answers of what the stage business should be.  Those choices belong to the actor.  What the director does at this point is make the performers aware of places that they need to pay particular attention.  Sometimes only one text session is enough.  Sometimes more, but that is determined on a case by case basis.  During this part of the process, the actors do not meet together.  There is no group rehearsal at this point.  Everyone is looking to their own roles.

Except the prompter.  The prompter will have the entire script, and will meet with the director to go over the placement of any sound cues, where fights occur, where long pauses appear and ideas for covering disturbances such as passing trucks, airplanes, trains or biker rallies that my be rumbling by during the performance.

Depending on the amount of fights, quick changes dancing and music, there will be ‘fight rehearsals’ where all of this is gone over in detail with any and every actor that is on stage.  Since the actors are playing multiple tracks of different characters, everyone needs to know what is going on.  These are the only bits that are gone over before the performance to make sure that the choreography is done correctly and the fights are performed safely.  Before each performance, the cast members who are engaging in these bits that day will have a fight call.

After that, the cast shows up at the performance venue, listens to a curtain speech outlining everything for the audience, the prompter blows a whistle, and whoever has the first lines of the play steps on stage and starts talking.  Actors enter when they hear their cue, and execute the rules that they learned in the workshop using their scrolls in front of the audience.  This is the first time that the entire cast has been together since the workshop which can be as far as a couple of months behind them.

Scary, isn’t it?  The actor’s nightmare: walking out onto the stage without knowing the scene, who you’re talking to or what you are going to do.  At least here you aren’t naked, and you have your lines on your scroll.  No matter how long the first performances last, it is the fastest show an actor will ever do.  The adrenaline obliterates the clock and the attention that must be paid to your fellow actors completely absorbs you.  Frightening? Yes.  Exhilerating? Absolutely.  It’s a feeling you will never have any other way on stage, and it will cure you of any fear you may have about performing.

-Andy Kirtland

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