Friday, October 31, 2008

Piggy Backs and Pictures

Earlier this evening was a rehearsal for "A Christmas Carol". We had planned to do all of act one, but we only got halfway through it. Yet that doesn't bother me, given how much we accomplished tonight.

Keep in mind that we are now rehearsing in what will be the house of a theatre we have not yet built. So in reality it is not yet even the house. It is the lobby of a former art gallery that over the coming weeks we hope to convert into a performance space. Given those limitations, going through blocking can be a stop and go process. But most theatres I have worked in require at least half of the rehearsals to take place in an area other than the stage, so I didn't have too much of a problem. As long as I know where the audience is supposed to be, I can rehearse in just about any space.

That being said, we were one man down tonight, which means things went a little bit slower still. However, i was more prepared than I might have been. I spent most of the free time I had in the last two days trying to get off book for at least the first scene, (wherein the dinner guests and Dickens explore the notion of presenting the story.) While I did have to refer to my book a few times, I found that I had it nearly cold in most sections.

I was semi-forced to get even further off book due to the nature of the blocking, which did not allow me to easily carry a script around with me. The first of these moment involved me entering while carrying a 13 year old girl on my back. I don't do this often, but the script called for her to be on my shoulder. If I had done that, her face would have been up in the lighting somewhere. So we went with the piggybacking.

The other moment involved a sequence wherein my character is mocked, has his eyes covered, is spun about to confuse him, before recovering and jumping onto an up stage platform...all with a violin and bow in his hand.

We had no instrument tonight, but all of the blocking I just described would have been dead on arrival if I had had to look at the book for every line. So I made double sure that my speech for that section was in my head. I anticipated yesterday that i would probably not be able to make much use of the book for this part, so I went over the speech a few extra times. I am glad I did.

Yet still I had to approximate the lines once or twice. I think you simply have to do that once in a while in a rehearsal. Normally you should try to say things exactly as you would in a performance. Yet, if the time comes to rehearse specific blocking which precludes holding a book, I advocate saying the gist of the lines until you are off book, so as not to slow up the blocking rehearsal. Memorization can be worked on when one is alone. Blocking requires everyone's time. Learn how to move, and then later what to say. You can always polish up what you say, when you say it. But unclear blocking often sticks out like a sore thumb.

I also came up with some good business to do when I am Bob Cratchit sitting in the tank. I think I will do some basic algebra. He was after all a clerk, and would be working with a lot of numbers for Scrooge. And for someone like me who is deplorable at math, doing intermediate algebra might be just the think to give Cratchit the look of tedious number crunching. Just a little trick I came up with.

Being the official photographer of the Full Circle Theatre Company, I also took quite a few pictures of rehearsal tonight. Of course, none of the scenes I was in. I may try to take a few pictures while my character is in a few background scenes once I am off book, I will have to think about it. But for now, it wasn't going to work.

One thing taking pictures of a show does is give you a good sense of stage composition. What is a show if not, among other things, a moving picture of sorts? I have the basics of stage placement of course, having studied it in school, but usually I do what the director says will look good. When I take pictures, I can see what works and what does not work with all the more clarity.

Saturday morning is the next rehearsal, and afterwards we are tearing down walls to begin the construction process. I have to work that evening, of course, so I will be unable to stay long, but I do want to stay long enough to help out. I truly want the place to be ready in time, at least in a rudimentary sense, because I do not really want to go back to the previous space the company used. So, I will see if I can find a sledge hammer, and do what I can do for the good of the cause.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I Don't Have a Light

Much to my chagrin, (and to the chagrin of many other actors, with good reason), some playwrights insist on making the smoking of a cigarette integral to plot of a piece, of at least of a specific scene.

I am not a smoker, and if Broadway called and offered me a role tonight, with my name on the marquee, if only I would agree to smoke for the role, I would turn it down. And I mean it.

This of course is not an anti-smoking public service announcement. (Though, as a point of personal privilege, I will say anyone who becomes a smoker has quite a bit less intelligence than most people.) What this site is about, is acting, and the question of the actor smoking on stage is not as uncommon as you might think, when you have been in as many shows as I have.

To begin with, I know of people who have gotten roles based almost solely on their willingness to smoke a cigarette. This to me is not only unfair, but sending quite the wrong message...that trickery and props are going to be more important in a show, than the story and the performances.

As much as we actors like to make it as real as possible, being on stage is a process of illusion and creation. Our lives are not really in danger. In most cases, the people kissing on stage are not actually in love, and not many people rub elbows with royalty. I therefore must conclude that a sudden need to be 100% true to life when it comes to tobacco products is not only lazy, and uncreative, but morally questionable to an extent.

Someone who has never smoked should NEVER be asked to do so in a show. To potential risk of addiction is not worth any part, and any director unaware of this is someone I would not trust to direct me to the men's room in the lobby, let alone on stage. The same goes for a director who would choose someone based on the fact they already had an addiction.

If no other advice I have ever give on this blog up until this point has ever been followed by actors, I hope this piece will be. Do not, under any circumstances, take a smoking role if you are required to smoke for real.

Know your script. Find out if any characters you may be cast as are smokers. If so, ask the director at the audition right away if you would be called upon to really smoke. If you would be permitted to simply appear to smoke, without actually lighting the cigar or cigarette, proceed. If the director is adamant that it be real, so no thanks to that particular role.

I would also caution against herbal cigarettes. There is a common misconception that these herbal smokes are safe. They merely lack nicotine and tobacco, and hence have no potential for addiction. But inhaling any kind of smoke is a health risk. Beware of directors that are willing to make this substitution.

I was in Anything Goes a few years ago, and my character usually had a cigarette in his mouth or his hand. I never lit it. Nobody complained, that I know of. Your "smoking roles" will survive, as mine did, simply by going through the motions of lighting a cigarette, and puffing, etc. All the goodies that go along with it.

"There will not be any smoke to be seen," many will argue. My counter, as it is for many things, is that if your audience is paying close attention to how much, if any smoke is rolling out of a prop cigarette, your production is in a lot of trouble.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Reading

So, My Sunday/Monday evening weekly column is taking a Monday turn this week. In fact, given that I performed on Sunday, this week will be a recap as opposed to a column.

Let me say that the reading for Dinner with Friends went quite well. Very intimate setting, (it is a small theatre, maybe 75 seats total, not sure.) I think we had about 30 people there, and they were all very warm and responsive to our reading.

So warm in fact, that as I read, I found the play to be a bit lighter than I originally thought. At least the way we did it. I still would not classify it as a comedy per se, but compared to how heavy and depressing I found the piece to be after my initial readings, the presentation was far more comical than I expected it to be. (If the laughter of the audience was any indication.)

I have done readings before. But none with such a small time commitment. So I got there early yesterday, (before our practice run through) just to get a feel for the space.

It was nice to experience all of the ambiance of the theatrical experience in such a short amount of time; meeting the cast, having the initial read through, working through some blocking, hanging out in the blue lights back stage, and smelling the aroma of saw dust, paint, and other such things.

It was a bit surreal in some ways. There were moments when it felt like I had been in the show for several weeks, as opposed to 24 hours. Probably because all of the sensory stimuli I previously mentioned usually don't conspire into a pre-curtain atmosphere until near the end of a rehearsal process.

And then there is the performance itself. The speed with which one has to get comfortable with a script, to find small nuances, to come up with facial expressions and line readings, and characterizations. Though our production was very minimalist, there was still some blocking to go over. With a fair amount of leeway for impromptu blocking, the idea of throwing movements and line deliveries into an entertaining and convincing show in one day stretched acting muscles that often do not get utilized to such an extent in a straight show. At least not that early.

I don't know if the performance from a one day reading should qualify, in general, as a complete performance. I would still hope that given 6 weeks with this play,I would be more nuanced, and be able to give greater depth the character. Yet, I was pleased with how much creativity I and the rest of the cast was able to make use of under the gun. When you do things this quickly, and are not consumed with all the technical aspects of theatre, such as being off book, costumes, sets, (though we did make some use of doors that belong to the current main stage show), there is a well of rapid fire creativity that opens up to you, which I enjoyed.

All of the acting inhibitions that one may encounter as one starts to stage a show simply can't be succumbed to in a staged reading like this. It was both a little scary and thrilling to have to toss all of those comfortable buffer zones aside and get right down to it. So much so, that I pondered whether or not a straight show would benefit from requiring a cast to sort of put on a full throttled reading, complete with some rudimentary blocking, in front of a small audience, right off the bat, say in the first week. Even if things would evolve and change from there, a sort of baptism by fire would give greater, and earlier life to many casts, I do believe. Just a theory though.

As far as the people, I mentioned how relaxed and easy to work with my cast was. The same was true for all of the people I encountered at the theatre. I am sure I will be doing other things in Winchester in the future.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

First/Last Rehearsal for "Dinner with Friends"

All on the same day!

Actually, there will in fact be a run through again tomorrow right before we do that reading. But that title sounded better.

To begin with, I have to say that while I still have reservations about the script itself, (see my previous entry), I have far fewer personal reservation about performing it now that I have met the cast and we have gone through it once.

Not that I ever dreaded doing it. I just had not yet found as much of a groove as I am wont to have when I start any kind of performance. And while "Tom" will still remain one of my least sympathetic characters (to me), a few more things came to light, and life, as I read the part with my cast mates this afternoon.

I think the best way to describe it, is that as I was reading the lines, and interacting with others, I was able to recognize this guy in my head. Perhaps not intimately know him, as I have with other roles, but as we rolled on together today, i was able to say, "oh, he;s one of those people."

What do I mean by "one of those" people? Without giving too much away of the plot of the piece, I'll say that he spends a great deal of time being insecure in everything, particularly his own identity. (In fact, as I read, i realized that all four characters share this flaw in one form or another. I had not seen that as clearly before my cast mates brought them to life today.)

Tom thinks that certain things are required to define him, even though they go counter to his nature. The play is about him realizing that his bitterness will not fade until he behaves more like his inner self desires.

Now, it's no Mickey Mouse moralizing. Tom's inner self happens to be, in my opinion, a prick. Hence a large portion of what he is doing is becoming more true to his inner prick, instead of pretending he is not one. He doesn't know that he is a prick, so I will not play him as one. But I know he is a prick, and now that I know, I can tell myself to just perform his lines, and project his moods in a way that a selfish, immature prick may do. not a perfect starting point, but something to sink my teeth into, given the short span of time I have.

I knew nobody in the cast formally. I had emailed one of them a few times. (And it so happens I know her mother...) The director, (who is also in a Christmas Carol with me) I had met way back in May during the cattle call. Which is where I also briefly met the other man in the play. But that was it, and there is always a tad more trepidation when you don't know anyone. But that faded quickly. A very fun group. Very relaxed. Which I think helped with the reading, actually. At least with the woman playing opposite of me.

There is a scene where Tom fights with his soon to be ex-wife. Fights are sometimes the most difficult thing to do in a rehearsal when you do not know your partner. (And in this case, I had never met her. Only exchanged an email or two.) But, the scene went incredibly well, according to the director, and the others present. It did feel very potent. Very powerful. It just clicked, which is good, because if that had gone awry, the rest of the play would have been more flat for it.

I guess sometimes two performances just click. Mine, and that of my opposite happened to be two that did.

I am glad this happened. I was a little concerned at first about how well i was connecting. Now that I have gained some trust with my co-stars, and come to find some truths about "Tom" in a more organic fashion, I have some more wiggle room. And to think, I will only ever have performed him three times once this is all over...24 hours from now!

How very visceral this reader presentation is turning out to be.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

(Early) Season's Greetings

The first cast meeting for "A Christmas Carol" was earlier tonight, in the brand new venue for the Full Circle Theater Company. Though some were absent, it all went quite well.

To begin with, the new venue seems to be an old art gallery of some sort. Walls are to be torn down, doors to be installed, etc. But it is a very nice building that will suit our purposes very well.

I play 6 different characters in this ensemble piece. I find I am already enjoying the challenge of this. Finding different voices, different facial expressions, different overall tones for each of these characters. (Without falling into some common stereotypes for these characters.) There is no to perfectly attain 6 separate authentic British accents, but it is important to me to make each voice, if not each accent distinct. Given that tonight was my first attempt at doing it, I feel I did fairly well.

Each person plays a "base" character...someone who is present at the home of Charles Dickens for a Christmas Eve party. These guests, in turn, portray different characters from the novel, under the direction of Charles Dickens himself.

My base character is real life Dickens friend, the painter Clarkson Stanfield. I found that not only do the characters he plays suit him, he, and all of his characters, suit my quite nicely. We are about the same age, and he is described as both mischievous and gentle. Both very much Ty qualities. I would have enjoyed any of the roles, of course, but I have determined that this one is probably the best fit for me at this exact time. I d in turn all of the very famous (to us) roles that he will bring to life in the play within a play.

A question was brought up tonight, as to how much of our base characters should shine through during the "Christmas Carol" portions of the show. This could go one of two ways, of course, with some room in the middle. We could either present it as though our characters were well aware of their limitations as performers, where the personalities of the guests shine through based on how they portray the characters. Or we could proceed as though our base characters were putting on an actual play...ignoring, as much as they can, their own personalities, and making every effort to assume the 4th wall during the Christmas Carol segments. (Which are about 85% of the play.)

Right now, the director has not made that decision. She told us that she leans more towards allowing some of the base characters to come out, but she also cautioned that she does not want this to become a full out winking audience participation situation either. She went on to add that alot will be determined by future rehearsals, and what our performance space will be like.

I can see both ways as being viable. As for me personally, I would prefer to have "Stanfield" disappear as much as possible when the Christmas Carol parts are being presented. But that is merely one actor's opinion on the situation, and naturally, it will be a fun play to be in, regardless of what the final place on that spectrum ends up being.

All things being equal, Saturday will mark the first time in my career that I will rehearse two plays in one day. It will be an interesting week. I look forward to all of it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Dinner with Friends: Initial Impressions

I have already mentioned that I am to appear in a one night only staged reading of Dinner with Friends, by Donald Marguiles. (At the Winchester Little Theater) We have a practice read through this Saturday, and perform it the day after. Today was the first chance I had to go over it in depth.

Specifics of the play can be found here.

I have to say that sometimes as an actor you can admire a piece, without necessarily enjoying it. I find that it is, for the most part well written, from a dialogue standpoint. It is a bit thin on action and plot, and what action it does have is not, in my opinion particularly interesting or unique. And while possessive of a certain degree of realism, none of the four characters comes off, in my first read through, as overtly sympathetic. I would say that I would not choose to try out for a main stage production of this piece. (It was a cattle call audition that landed me this role, i did not audition for this play itself, nor did I know that it was under consideration by the company at the time of my try-out for the staged reading series.)

However, I am intrigued by some of the specific challenges of doing this piece, at this time, as a reading.

Given that I will only be performing it once, and will in fact have the benefit of the script, I went against my standard practice of reading the whole play all the way through at first. I have opted instead to only read the parts in which I appear. I normally read an entire play, not only because I prefer to know the entire arc of a story, but also attempting to avoid knowledge of scenes wherein your character does not appear is usually silly given the endless rehearsals and performances of a play for which you as an actor will be present.

For this play, however, a very large segment of the theme revolves around conflicting perceptions among people over the same event. Particularly in the first act. The idea of some being absent, while others are present. I thought that only reading my scenes today would give the reading a possibly invigorating one-sidedness that I usually don't choose to make use of. Fundamentally a weak approach for a standard play, but a very effective one for this play. not only because it suits well with the theme, as mentioned, but because it is a one time only staged reading...a production which shall posses unique energies in its own right, due to the short prep time. My approach, i am hoping, will add to that visceral quality, for me and for the audience.

Another challenge for me is the character himself. At least at first blush, I can say with confidence that "Tom" is in the running for the character that is least like me, ever. I've not conducted an in depth comparison, and don't plan to. Suffice to say, I have played bigots and murderers, and not felt as isolated from them as I do this character, this far.

Before alarms start firing off in your head, allow me to state the obvious; I do not condone murder or bigotry. However, I recall being able to latch on to specific causes and motivations within myself that could, if approached in the wrong way, lead to villainy. So, the concept of finding something to relate to, and sympathize with, even in a villain, (see my most recent post) is a large part of my method.

In this case of this character, Tom is not only NOT a villain in the truest sense of the term, but his motivations and desires are very far removed from what I am familiar with. This is the point of acting, to portray someone to whom you feel little initial connection. Otherwise, evil characters would never be portrayed. And as I said, this is the least connected to a character that I recall feeling in a very long time. As an actor, I am trained to present a well formed character, and I will do so. I always do so, given enough time to look inward, to meditate on the piece, to absorb lines, and such. And I will this time. But to require such a large amount of that kind of work, in such a small amount of time is, without a doubt, a bit of a gauntlet to run. But this is good for the actor sometimes. Keeps one sharp.

More difficulty with the piece lies in the fact that it is depressing. There may be some hope sprinkled here and there, but by and large, it is a heavy play. A sad play. I am usually not a fan of plays that have sadness as there overall mood. Tragedy I can deal with an even admire. It is an all too common mistake to make "tragic" and "depressing" synonymous. They are not. Tragedy points to something larger than the bad events around it. A higher theme. A depressing play exists, it seems, just to point out that depression, or those sad events, without a real tie to anything greater than itself. Dinner with Friends is the latter. By no means do I think productions should always have a happy ending, (No true Shakespeare fan could want that), I am convinced that my theatrical constitution is, by and large, not entirely at ease with "rainy day" plays. (See also, Willy Russell's Blood Brothers).

Plus all of this is being done during one of the busiestweeks I have had in 2008. The crush and rush is on...and I think it is terrible and exciting at the same time.

One thing that annoyed me about this script is not atall unique to it. The playwright sticks his nose where it does not belong.

Yes, this can happen

First off, there were constant, (and distracting) parentheticals in the script, which call for any given actor not only to overlap what another character is saying, but specifying on what word such overlap should begin. Talk about micro-managing.

Secondly, there are "author's notes" as the end of the script. Essentially telling director's and actors how to play any given scene, and what to avoid in performances.

I hate when playwrights do this. I have always felt it was the playwright's job to write, not to direct or act. Those playwrights who feel the need to include direction on how to perform a scene show little faith in directors or actors, and really should find a way to let go of their work a bit more.

That is all on that for now. I shall return with another entry tonight, as it happens to be the night of our first read-through of a Christmas Carol, over at the Full Circle Theater Company. I very much look forward to that, and the production as a whole.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

By the Pricking of My Thumbs...

When playing evil, overacting often comes.

Not the best poetry but certainly a truth I encounter time and again at all levels of acting; people trying to "play evil". I have even been asked how to go about "playing an evil person".

Answer: You don't. Ever. You never play evil.

As with any character, you find a motivation for a scene or a play. You give them a personality, you add meat to the bones the writer has given you. And you proceed to become that character. It is the goals and motivations and choices that the character makes that will determine if he is evil or good, so you need to be convincing when you lead your character through those choices. Because to him, it is not evil, it is expedient.

I keep this week's article deliberately short and to the point in order to hammer this very important point into the brains of any would be actors. Elaborating on the point will only make it more theoretical and less practical. This is a pet peeve of mine, and I won't risk inflating the issue.

Find what you character wants. Bring him to life. Let the audience decide on what is evil, and what is not. Period.

Moustache twirlers need not apply.

Sunday, October 05, 2008


I have not done everything an actor could do on stage. But I have in fact appeared in my underwear before. I have had to kiss on stage, and I have had to pretend like I was going into a sort of respiratory distress.

Not to mention singing, during my occasional musical.

Yet despite all of this, the thing I hate to do on stage the most while I am trying to perform, is eat.

Yes. Simple as that. Eat. I hate the very notion of having to consume anything while acting. I consider it a distraction, and potentially dangerous, given that projecting one's voice to performance levels does not allow the throat to behave in the same way as it might when conversing over the real life dinner table. I feel vulnerable, and slightly less in control when food is involved. I avoid it whenever I can while doing a show.

I have been lucky thus far. Very obvious consuming of food has not yet been integral to any productions I have been in. I had to do it once as a student, and One scene in a play I was in a few years ago did take place at a dinner table.

My advice for those of you who also share this dislike for theatrical meals.

1) If blocking allows it, mask the food, so that the utensil does not actually remove anything from the plate. This allows you to place an empty fork or spoon in your mouth. This of course is easier for smaller items, or liquids, like soup. If it is not soup, chew, (VERY lightly of course!) on your own tongue. It will provide enough resistance to appear as though food is actually being chewed. Miming with nothing in your mouth will provide some of the most foolish looking chewing, even for the stage, than you can possibly imagine. Better to not even try to chew, than to chew air.

2) Bait and switch. Repeatedly make as though you are going to take a bite of something, just before you have a line. Then interrupt to motion and deliver your line. It's true to real life, for those who do not like to talk with their mouths full, and in most cases people will only be looking right at you when you deliver a line anyway. When you are not the center of attention, make like you are cutting something between your moments of dialogue. Audiences will likely be looking at the speaker at such times anyway, but you are covered if they do not.

3) If applicable, take tiny bites. This is a no brainer.

4) You you cannot take small bites, remain in character while wiping your face with a napkin, and remove the food into that if you can. This is not the cleanest way, but again, it allows the audience to see you are acknowledging to food in front of you, without you having to swallow it and digest it later on.

5) If none of these things work, or none of them can be put to use in your particular scene and you must openly consume some food, make sure you eat some of what you will be eating backstage, before the scene. Have the sample be as close to how it will be on stage as possible. It begins digestion earlier, and will customize your mouth and throat to what is coming.

I love food and I love theatre. Yet to me, the two don't mix. I have found, with these tricks, they rarely have to.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Results Are In

I have been cast in the Full Circle Theater Company's production of A Christmas Carol.

As I pointed point out previously, this is a Michael Paller adaptation. An ensemble piece wherein each actor plays several parts from the story, springing forth from a base part as one of Charles Dickens' friends. I have been given the role of one "Stanfield", a friend of the Dickens family. Through him, I will be portraying Bob Cratchit, The Ghost of Christmas Past, Topper, and the Undertaker. Cratchit and the Ghost alone represents a decent amount of stage time, I would gather. (Not that this is the reason I tried out.) The director will mail scripts to us sometime this week.