Friday, August 01, 2008

The Basic On Stage Survival Guide - (part two)

Here is a continuation of The Basic On Stage Survival Guide:

The Basic Rehearsal Process
(training wheels)
The Basic Rehearsal Process
(a few guidelines and rules)

One of the first things you will do in rehearsal is called a "read through" . A read through is just that, everyone sits around and reads the play out-loud. This will be one of the first times and maybe only time, you will hear the play from start to finish as it was written. It is during the ''read through" that you will get a sense of how your fellow actors are going to play their roles. If the play is a comedy, you will get a good idea where the laughs will be, if it's a drama, you will learn where the "dramatic" moments are. And it's during the read through you will get a sense of the flow of the play. You may not get a sense of it again until the final rehearsal or the first performance. But don't worry about that now, because now you must work toward performing your role* without training wheels which is the written script.

(*A bit of Trivia on the the term "role" -meaning the character you play. In the very early days of theater, they did not have a fancy published script for every actor, instead they would hand out a rolled up parchment or paper that contained the actors lines in a given scene. So, an actor was given a 'role' of paper instead of a full script. That is where the term "role" comes from.)

Yellow Line Guide line

One of the first things actors do when they first get the script is Highlight their lines. Yellow is the most common color used for this practice. Highlighting makes your lines easier to find on the page: example- if your attention is diverted away, you can quickly glance back at the script and find your place. Having your lines jump out at you in yellow from a black and white page, helps draw your eye to the correct spot. Believe me, there is nothing more frustrating than waiting for an actor to find his place in the script. Another fact about highlighting is that you can easily flip through the pages of the script and see which pages you have lines and those you don't. An important guideline I will suggest here and explain in detail later, as you highlight your lines on each page, also highlight (in a different color) the last few words of the line (or action) just before it. Knowing where and when to say your line is important.

Blocking and the pencil Rule

After the Read Through, the first rehearsals will consist of "staging" your movement; where you stand, what direction you should walk, when you enter and when you exit. Movement on a stage is commonly referred to as "blocking." The script will have "suggested" blocking that will appear in italics such as "walks Upstage and exits" but the suggested movement is only that, a suggestion. Your actual movements will be given to you by the director. The rule is that you write these directions in the margins of your script using a pencil. Yes pencil. Why? Because directors tend to change their minds and it's very hard to erase pen.

One quick bit of stage direction trivia I learned from a Theater History major was the origin of common stage directions: such as upstage and downstage. In the early days of theater, the audience sat on a flat, level area which made it difficult to see all the action on the stage. To compensate, the stage was built on a slight angle that went up toward the back. Any actor standing at the very back of the stage, was slightly higher "up" than anyone at the front of the stage. This made it easier for the audience to see everything and everyone on the stage. Hence we have the terms UPSTAGE - which means the back area and DOWNSTAGE which means the front area. To move "upstage" an actor was walking "up the stage" to the higher area in back and walking "down the stage" or Downstage to the front. This bit of information made it much easier for me to remember the ups and downs of directions. Of course, somewhere along the line, they decided to change this and have the audience seated on an incline and make the stage a flat surface.

Novice Note: Stage Right and Stage Left are from the actors point of view. No trivia is provided for right and left. I will assume you can figure that out.

Rule: Don't Upstage

There is also a term called "upstaging" which means to steal focus from another actor. If you stand directly in front of another actor, blocking the audience's view of that actor, you are "upstaging."

If another actor is speaking lines on the stage and you suddenly begin jumping up and down and screaming, you will cause the audience to pay attention to you and you are upstaging.

Basically any time you draw the audience's attention away from where it should be, you are upstaging.

Initial Direction Details

You may have a detailed director and find yourself writing many directions in the margin of your script, so it's helpful to abbreviate the directions such as "cross upstage left" or "walk downstage right" with "cross UL" or "walk DR". Here you just note the first letter of the area - U-upstage, D-downstage, C-centerstage, R-right and L-left. I even know a few actors who use "X" to signify "cross" and even others who use arrows point up or down.

That's Cheating!

Another term and rule you will learn during blocking is Cheating. This does not mean copying your stage directions from another actors script, it means "turning slightly toward the audience." There will be scenes where your character will be talking to another character and in real life, humans tend to face one another when involved in a conversation, however, on the stage it is frowned upon turn away from the audience. If you act like a normal human and turn toward the person you are speaking to, the audience will only see your profile. Not good enough. The audience will be insulted because you are ignoring them. OK, that rule isn't totally true but most directors may tell you that, therefore they will ask you to "cheat" toward the audience.

Rule: Cheat Toward The Audience
To "cheat" means to keep your body toward the audience and slightly turn your head toward the person to whom you are speaking. It will feel awkward and unnatural but it will make your director and the audience happy.

Another awkward cheat is delivering your lines to a character who is behind you. If you think the audience gets insulted when you turn sideways, imagine how enraged they would be if you turned your back on them

Rule: Never turn your back on the audience.

Why? Well, if they throw something at you, you won't see it coming. O.K. not totally true. But most directors will have a cow if your turn your back to deliver your lines. Now, there are always exceptions - sometimes a director will have you turn your back or face sideways for dramatic effect.

But most of the time, if you are standing downstage and someone enters upstage, which will be behind you, you must "cheat" by delivering your lines either slightly turned or facing straight ahead.

All kidding aside, the main reason that actors must cheat toward the audience has to do with sound, that is the sound of your voice. When you are facing the audience and speaking, the crowd should have no problem hearing you because the sound of your voice, or your sound waves, are pointed right at them. If you were to turn to the side or completely around, your voice (sound waves) are pointed away from the audience your sound waves bounce around the stage before finding their way out into the theater. This bouncing effect brings your volume down a few notches and makes it harder to hear you .

Sound Advice
Which leads me to another term you will hear and rule you must follow: "projection!". Projection means tpo speak louder. Let's go back to being a normal human, when you are talking to someone who is standing relatively close to you, you will be speaking in a normal tone. If a third person is twenty or more feet away from you, chances are they will have a hard time hearing your conversation. When you're an actor on a stage, (not a normal human) the audience will be that third person twenty or more feet away from you and it's important they hear you, so you must Project!

Rule: Project

To a first time actor, you will feel like you are shouting but trust me, by the time your voice (sound waves) reach the ears of people sitting twenty feet or more away, it will sound normal. Only to someone standing right next to you, will it sound like shouting and anyway, you are not shouting, you are "projecting."

You may also a director say, "project from your diaphragm." This means instead of speaking from your throat - as you do when speak normally, "from your diaphragm" is when you push air to your voice from your stomach region - which is like turning your volume up to 11. Singers know all about projecting from the diaphragm, so if you know a singer they can teach you how to do it.

I have known many actors who couldn't get the hang of projecting from the diaphragm. One actor I knew who was having a hard time with the concept was also a big fan of Pee Wee Herman and he he loved imitating Pee Wee's laugh. (if you are not familiar with Pee Wee Herman you can ask someone or find a clip on Youtube)

As you may know, Pee Wee's laugh was very distinctive and very deep and loud. The reason it was loud, is because it came from the diaphragm. I said to the actor, "You know, every time you do the Pee Wee laugh, you are using your diaphragm to project it. Just figure out what you are doing to project that laugh and use it to project your lines." I could see the light bulb go off.

Pretty Pictures
Allow me to turn the topic back to "blocking". One stead fast rule that a director follows when designing "blocking" for the stage, is that they try to create interesting pictures for the audience to see. Example: If there's a scene with 3 or 4 actors on the stage and they're all standing in straight line, like a chorus line or police line up, it's not very interesting. In fact, it's downright dull.

Most directors use the triangle theory. The triangle theory states that if there are 3 actors on stage, they must be spaced to form a triangle. One actor maybe standing a few feet upstage and the second a foot downstage and so forth. If you were on the ceiling of the stage looking straight down, they would form a triangle.
The basic idea is to have actors spaced at different depths on the stage and not standing in a line. It's much more interesting to look at from the audience's perspective. The stage is 3-D after all. A director may also ask you to "counter."

Rule: Counter to create depth

If you are standing on the stage and one or two others actors move toward you in a scene, you should "counter," which means take a step back or forward to create a triangle. Even after weeks of rehearsal, some actors may forget and stand right next to on the stage and you should take a step to counter.
Finally, once all of your blocking is set, your cheating is done and your volume is adjusted, you will begin running through the play over and over.

Depending upon your rehearsal schedule, you may get to run through the play numerous times with the script in your hand but there will come a time when the director will want you to be "Off Book". Novice Note: Off book means you have memorized all of your lines and blocking.

I can't stress this enough, the faster you get 'off book' the better, because the more chances you have to speak your lines from memory, the deeper your concentration will become. But first let's get you Off Book.

Next post: How To Memorize Lines
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