Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Acting in Silence

The most terrifying cue script one of our actors can receive is:

Lady #1 Cue

…………………………………………………….Gypsies Lust.

…………………………………………………….Speake not to us.

There are many Lords, Ladies and soldiers populating the scripts of William Shakespeare with such cues. What is the actor faced with such a cue supposed to do on stage? There is no indication of how long this Lady is to be on stage, what is happening around her or who it is happening to. The actor is in many ways in the same situation as her character. She must ‘use it.’

These characters often are not given stage directions by the other characters. Inexperienced or overly excited Unrehearsed actors will often times execute, with great enthusiasm, what they believe to be stage directions that are in fact not intended for them when they are playing these parts. This results in confusion for the audience (and the actors), or inappropriate actions and stage pictures leading to confusion for the audience (and the actors). The speaking characters should be clear about what, if any stage directions, they are throwing to other characters. Discretion is called for, and that comes with experience.

The silent actor still should be listening for pertinent stage directions, but she must react to what is happening on stage. If she is listening as actively as the technique demands, then she will not fail in making her presence on stage a benefit and not a distraction. The interesting thing is that her reactions are not important to the story telling. If the character’s opinions and / or reactions were, then the character would have lines expressing her thoughts or directions regarding her reactions. Sometimes characters are given an outlet. Maybe it is in a different scene, or after the main action has left the stage. In the moment however, her true reaction is correct – as long as it does not upstage or detract from the scripted scene.

The question when preparing the text is whether to present these nameless wordless characters. Are their reactions worth the expense of costumes and the (quite often) quick-changes that actors must undergo between their exits and their next entrance? In theatres with budgets, the audience watches supernumeraries standing in the background holding spears or looking as though they are waiting for a bus. For the many theatres that cannot afford these characters, they are simply cut from the scene – or a retinue is represented by one faithful courtier wordlessly following the King.

If money and cast is no object, then by all means we should represent these characters because at some point, their presence was thought necessary. However, when money is a concern, these characters often fall by the wayside in favor of economic story telling.

The other time that silence comes into question is when main characters become silent. Most notably Isabella (Measure for Measure) and Sylvia (The Two Gentlemen of Verona) come to mind. Both of these characters, very strong and rounded female characters, fall silent in the final scenes of their plays after their betrothals are announced. Celia (As You Like It) has no lines at all in the fifth act of her story – and she gets married on stage! (For more thoughts on this character, see Elizabeth Ruelas' earlier post "An Inexplicable Romance in the Forest of Arden" from Sept. 12, 2014.) Critics and audience members have expounded on the possible meanings of such mute characters, but when approaching the texts as we do, through cue scripts, it is important to remember that the actors portraying these characters have no idea what is not in their scripts. These actresses do not know for how long they do not speak. All they know is that they do not have the last line in the scene. The actress playing Celia knows that she is getting married because she must rehearse the dance, and most likely at some reading of the text or telling of the general story, Isabella and Sylvia will know their fates (or maybe not, just to keep it interesting for everyone involved). But these are moot points, because the actors should be playing by the rules, and in doing so make no comment on the scene. Any interpretation belongs off stage.

For everyone involved, the audience included, it is paramount to remember that everything pertinent to the stories is spoken. We listen to who is speaking. We watch who speaks. We do not ignore the silent characters, but they should not be the focus, and it is the actors’ job to make sure that we are always focused on what is important on stage. It is a discipline that comes with discretion and experience. The reasons why the silent characters are needed will only be evident in performance.

So in the first scene of Antony and Cleopatra, according to the above cue, the actor must follow Antony and Cleopatra onto the stage. She must exit with everyone after the line “Speake not to us.” Everything else must happen in the moment, and that is what creates interesting theatre.

-Andy Kirtland
The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project

Friday, October 17, 2014

Auditioning for The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project

Auditions are stressful on both sides of the table.  Actors want to do well and to be what the director wants, and the directors want the actors to do well and to be what we want.  Both sides want the same thing.  Unfortunately, nerves about the unknown can get to most people.  Actors stress over whether or not they’re “good” enough and directors stress over whether the “good” actors will be easy to work with.  We’ve found that the best way to help actors stress less during the audition process is to just tell them exactly what we want and to…wait for it…talk WITH them.

When we post audition notices, we state that we’re looking for “actors experienced with heightened language, the ability to play multiple characters, the ability to take direction well, lots of energy and awesome attitude.”  That’s all.  As actors, having a clear set of expectations for an audition is very important to us.  It helps us determine if we’re right for the show and tells us a bit about the people we’ll be auditioning for.  As directors, we are letting actors know what’s expected from them before they even sign up for an audition slot.  The Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique is not for the lazy actor.  It is not for the shy, timid actor.  It is also not for the Divas.  We are trying to put together a troupe of players that work together well, are giving, dynamic, and have wonderful personalities that shine through even during difficult moments on stage.  We want to give our audiences a unique experience where they can enjoy themselves as much as the actors.  The first step is proper casting.
We don’t like prepared monologues for our Unrehearsed auditions.  We want to see what you can do with a bit of Shakespeare that you may not know perfectly, which is why we do cold readings for our auditions.  When the actors show up, they are given a short selection of monologues from which they choose to do for their 10 minute audition slot.  Yes, we use the whole 10 minutes, but more on that later.  So, the actor who shows up early for their audition gets some time to work on the monologue a bit, and then comes in to perform it for us.  This first part is very important because it shows us their comfort level with the language, how they approach a monologue on their own, and their choice of monologue also tells us how they type themselves.  Then we explain who we are and what we do.  One of us gets up from the table and goes to stand by the actor and talk with them.  We talk about our process, talk with them about something interesting we’ve seen on their resume, and ask them if they have any questions.  We try to ease them and to let them know more about us.  Then we give them directions and have them do the monologue again.  Depending on the actor and how we are casting the show, we may have the actor do another cold monologue.  The important part of this process is to determine whether or not the actor truly fits all the criteria we are looking for:
1.       Experience with heightened language (their first go at the monologue tells us this straight away)
2.       Ability to play multiple characters (leads also play character parts, so can this actor do both?)
3.       Ability to take direction well (how does this actor take direction from us during their brief time here?)
4.       Lots of energy (do they use the stage? Do they use us as the audience? Are they not afraid to move?)
5.       Awesome attitude (the discussion we have with the actor shows us this)

Throughout all this, we look for another vital element: a sense of humor.  Can they have fun with the monologue and can they be funny?  This isn’t something we can teach them.  It’s something that every actor either has or doesn’t have, and with this technique the ability to find humor and to use it well is imperative.
This is also the time for the actor to decide whether or not they want to work with us. We may not be right for every actor, and it is better for everyone to find this out in the audition rather than after the process has started.
If, during that 10 minute audition, an actor shows us that they can bring to the table everything we’ve asked for, then why call them back to confirm it?  If, on the other hand, we’re unsure about an actor who maybe gets 50% of what we’re asking for, then we just review our notes from the audition and decide if we think they’ll get the rest with a bit more Unrehearsed training.  Of course, if an actor comes in with a bad attitude or doesn’t seem to get what we’re asking for at all, then we are not the right company for them. 
We tried doing callbacks once for this technique a couple of years ago, which didn’t work.  They were wonderful actors to begin with, and we knew we would like to work with them, but sometimes it just comes down to “type” or “look”.  If we already have two actors with similar looks or types in the cast, then we’ll hold on to this third actor’s info for our next show.  Aside from building a troupe of players, we also want individuality and eclectic-ness.
That 10 minute initial audition has always told us exactly what we need to know about an actor – especially when we combine it with the other elements that happen during or before an audition. A callback is just one more audition that they might stress over, or have to take time off of their ‘pay the bills’ job to arrange.  If we, as the director and producer, use our time with the actor to talk with them and put them through some Unrehearsed technique paces, then why call them back to do it again?
Luckily, we have been spoiled for choice at our auditions with the amount of talented actors with awesome personalities who have shown up.  Yes, we want that to continue.  We want actors to give us difficult choices because they’re all amazing.  Maybe they’re not right for this show, but they may be perfect for our next show.  Not doing a callback for USP is also our way of saying not only do we trust our cast, but we hope they trust our decisions.

-Elizabeth Ruelas & Andy Kirtland
The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project

Friday, October 3, 2014

"Shakespeare at the speed of thought" - Guest Post by Tonya Lynn

For this week's post, we've asked one of our talented troupe members to write about her experience with the Unrehearsed Cue Script Technique.  Here are her thoughts:

“Seat-of-your-pants Shakespeare.”

“Shakespeare at the speed of thought.”

“The actor’s nightmare…gone right.”

These are some of the ways I’ve caught myself describing the unrehearsed Shakespeare technique to my theatre friends and colleagues in the past few months since having my first performance experience with it this past summer as a cast member in The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project’s production of Comedie of Errors.
First of all, the production was extremely physical, and one of the most high-energy productions of Shakespeare I’ve ever been involved in.  As a physical actor myself, this is right up my alley (I’ve been training in stage combat with the Society of American Fight Directors for over a decade, have trained in film stunts with the United Stuntmens’ Association, and am also currently studying movement theater and mime).  With all actors in the production actively attempting to “suit the action to the word,” every physical moment and action can have clarity of intention that I crave as a physical actor.  As a safety-conscious fight choreographer and stage combatant, I was quite relieved to learn that choreography is the exception to the “unrehearsed” rule—all the configurations of possible combatants learned the show’s choreography prior to the performance, and we had fight calls before every performance.  Safety first!
Also, by necessity, all actors are actively listening to every word spoken on stage – this enforced “active listening” creates an ensemble atmosphere where every person/character on stage has a personal investment in the scene as it unfolds.  Regardless of the quantity of text an actor may or may not be speaking, everyone on stage is listening equally – and that creates a depth of commitment to the scene across the board that is hard to find.  There is also an urgency to the performances fueled by adrenaline and a bit by pride – pace is important to the unrehearsed technique, and no one wants to be called out by the prompter for slowing down the performance.
I’m no stranger to Shakespeare.  I have a MA in Theatre History, and as an actor and fight choreographer I have more Shakespeare on my resume than more contemporary work.  I’ll admit that familiarity and facility with speaking Shakespeare’s poetry and prose is a bit of an advantage when working in this style – especially at the workshop level, where the actors are performing “scenes-from-a-hat” style.  A full  unrehearsed production levels the playing field– the opportunity to do text analysis with the director on every word assigned to a given actor, ensures that everyone can have a full understanding of their text  (and the cues and clues within it) prior to the performance.  I’m still thankful to the teachers who had me start reading Shakespeare aloud in high school, regardless, because it’s exhilarating to face the challenge of applying the unrehearsed technique on the fly!
In the interest of full disclosure, my first experience with the unrehearsed technique was actually as an audience member a couple of years ago—several friends and colleagues were involved in an unrehearsed production, and I went to see what the buzz was all about.  Through the haze of memory, I remember most the energy of the production, the chemistry of the ensemble, and how positively green with envy I was that my friends were having so much fun on stage.  Fast forward a few years later, and now that I’ve had the opportunity myself, I can confirm my experience has indeed been exhilarating, challenging, a little bit terrifying, and also…fun.  I highly recommend giving it a try, from both the actor and audience perspective!
- Tonya Lynn
The Unrehearsed Shakespeare Project