In the past few weeks, I enjoyed the great honor of reading two new American plays aloud for passionate, intelligent audiences, at two different theatre companies. So good! Such an honor!
Just so you know, here’s how that goes. In each case, our cast got together with a director, and we read the play in rehearsal for a few hours. We were able to hear the words, begin to understand the story, get a sense of what the other actors’ initial choices were, and reread based on the director’s idea about what the play was trying to say and do.
Please note, we’re getting ready to perform in a teeny amount of time. We have to make strong choices, and we have to be ready to flex to the director’s ideas—after all the director is the only one who’s had the playwright’s input at this point. The director has thought more strategically, if you will, about how to put our talents into play. These are brand-spanking new plays. There’s no precedent for them. We’re flying by the seat of our pants.
(I love this, by the way. It’s like bungee jumping without the danger of a rocky splat.)
To me, my job as an actor is two-fold, one) to make strong offers*, to feel my way through to what my character is trying to do with the words, and to respond and connect to all the juicy ideas my cast mates bring to the table (and, at this point in the rehearsal, I literally mean “to the table”), and two) flex, and make new bold choices at the direction of the director.
Please, please, know that I’m not griping with what follows but trying to sort out the balance between those two parts of what I think is my job: Offer and Flex.
Here’s what’s got me puzzled—other (smart, talented, professional) actors apparently approach readings differently. They call upon and follow their instincts, and then they stick to their guns. They bring their best ideas and work, and then they don’t surrender them. They nod in (apparent) agreement with the director’s notes, and then they don’t follow directions.
Case in point…[Slightly adapted example to protect people’s feelings]
DIRECTOR: Sam, thank you for bringing such passion in the first act.
SAM: Thanks. My character’s a real hot head. He’s got lots of issues he’s dealing with.
DIRECTOR: Right! That’s the thing. He doesn’t know about his “issues” until almost the end of Act II.
SAM: Well, unconsciously, he must know, right? That’s why he’s angry.
DIRECTOR: Actually the play says he’s pretty upbeat. [Director points to four or five lines in Act I that point out how upbeat Sam’s character is.] If you play anger in Act I, there’s no payoff, you see? You have nowhere to go. Follow?
SAM: Riiiiight. I get it. Thank you.
[Cut to reading in front of an almost sold-out audience, in front of the playwright. What does Sam do? Bingo. Plays all of Act I angry, ignoring the director and the conversation about the story.]
I wonder about so many things here. Does Sam just like playing angry, so he did? Does Sam feel more comfortable playing angry than upbeat? Were there directors or colleagues in the audience he wanted to show his anger to?
Maybe Sam’s not great at playing upbeat? Maybe he doesn’t like being told what to do, without a chance to explore the text in rehearsal (a luxury a reading rarely affords). Maybe something happened between Sam and our director that eroded his trust in what she said? Maybe he fell in love with his first ideas and wouldn’t/couldn’t/ didn’t know how to relinquish them?
[Oh. I see it now; Sam’s choice irritated me. I guess I am griping a little.] Not to get all Carrie Bradshaw, but here’s my question: what does it take to follow a director’s direction?
Yes, my own ego trip involves considering myself super flexible in making a new, equally committed choice in rehearsal. If it’s a truncated process, like a reading, I will virtually abandon my own initial thoughts, to perform the play as the playwright and director want to hear it. I justify this by thinking, the reading is to serve the play, to give voice to what the playwright imagines. If it works, great! Keep it, build on it. If it doesn’t work, great! Change it, cut it. My job is to give them what they want.
It’s equally possible, however, that Sam believed he had the responsibility to be a co-creator, to use his talent and experience to help. Perhaps I err on the side of trusting that the director knows best, or I too easily relinquish my voice or point of view.
So, good, smart folks, I’m asking: How do you see the balance between Offer and Flex?
Thanking you in advance.
*I use “offer” here the way improvisers do, to mean anything that brings to a story to life. It could be a gesture, an emotion, pacing, inflection. etc…you know, my ideas about how to act the character.