It's the Little Things You Do Together

I wrote a post not long ago about "truisms" I've discovered working in the theatre for the past forty years, and I got a great response to it.

But I decided I should create a companion post to that one, specifically for younger actors and/or people newer to the process, or even as a gentle reminder to veteran actors.

Making theatre is a very complicated, very delicate, very precarious process, and the work the actors have to do is the most difficult because they have to use themselves, and their own experiences and emotions. It's hard to learn to do that, and it's hard to learn not to let it make you crazy.

But some of the most important things we learn, we learn in rehearsal and in performance. And these things are not all obvious; some of them are even counterintuitive. Some of these things you can learn only from working with experienced artists. I enjoy the great gift of working with both musical theatre veterans and newbies on almost every show, and I observe them throughout our process. 

Here are five important things for all actors to remember, which are all easy to forget, and none of them are self-evident.

Notes aren't criticisms; they are HELP. Being an actor is so hard on the ego, because you are the product and/or service you're selling. I try to convince actors that auditions aren't about who's best, but about who's right. But it still stings when you are rejected. Likewise, getting notes from the director, music director, and choreographer can sure feel like criticism, like you're being called out. But that's not what it is.

Theatre as an art form hasn't always had directors, as we think of them. The reason we do now, is that theatre got more and more complicated, audiences expectations grew more and more demanding, and acting morphed from just Declaring Speeches to "becoming" the character. For all these reasons, it became important to have someone(s) out front, who can see how all the pieces come together, who can be responsible for marshalling all these talents into a coherent, unified whole.

Like audiences, directors only want actors to succeed, to be wonderful, to tell a great story. When a director gives an actor a note, it's usually because something needs adjusting or correcting or rethinking, in order to tell the story as clearly as possible. Maybe the actor isn't saying a line clearly, or is in the way of other action on stage. Sometimes a note is about reminding the actor of their larger arc, of the context of a scene, of certain relationships or moments. After all, actors have a ton to remember. So while they're working on memorizing lines, learning choreography, getting used to blocking, the director helps them keep focus on all the important stuff, not just the stuff they're worrying about right this second.

A lot of actors have been trained to say "Thank you," when they get a note. The first time I heard that, it sounded funny to me, but it makes sense. I'm giving them a note to help them make their performance better, and they appreciate that.

And by the way, actors should never give other actors notes. For a million reasons.

Good Vibes are incredibly important in rehearsal and in the dressing room. I learned many, many moons ago that as director, my mood influences the mood of the whole room all evening. If I came into rehearsal cranky, we wouldn't have a great rehearsal, because it would be tense. If I came in with a smile and cheerful demeanor, the rehearsal would go much better, and everyone would get along better. I was a little freaked out about this at first, but I've gotten used to it.

Many casts quickly become families, especially after moving into the theatre and dressing rooms. They get very comfortable and familiar with each other, share funny stories, horror stories, anecdotes of past shows, etc. 

But rehearsals and performances are unbelievably delicate environments. The actors have to feel totally safe and "free to fail." The tiniest distraction can derail the work they're doing, and so can backstage dramas, cliques, and any other Bad Vibes.

It's really hard to put yourself into another person and life, access genuine emotions -- some of them painful as fuck -- and construct a fully believable time and place. That's why a phone ringing in the audience is so awful for actors on stage, or the extended unwrapping of candy.

That's why "Good Vibes" matter so much. I do everything I can to protect our actors during our process. Our rehearsals are all closed. But the actors have to do their part too, regardless of how their day has gone. Nothing is more toxic than bad vibes in the dressing room or rehearsal room. In order to make the magic we make, we have to leave life's bullshit outside, the everyday frustrations of family, friends, work. We have to bring only Good Vibes in with us. It sounds silly to say "Be positive!" but it makes a real difference.

The theatre is our church. It's a sacred space.

Most actors do far more work outside rehearsal than inside rehearsal. This may be the biggest surprise for "civilians" about working in theatre, especially musical theatre. A lot of people have to work together to make a musical, surely the most collaborative art form there is. And yet... all of us do most of our work outside rehearsal, apart from each other.

I work for hours at home figuring out the staging for a show, far longer than it takes to explain the staging to the actors in the rehearsal room. That's usually true for choreographers as well. The music director teaches the cast the score, but then the actors spend far more time at home working on and learning the music. Same with lines and blocking. And designers spend the vast majority of their time away from the actors, director, and everybody else.

We think that a bunch of artists come together to create a show. Except really, a bunch of artists create their pieces of a show and then bring all those pieces together, and mold them into a unified expression of storytelling. Newer, younger actors often don't understand that they can't only do the work at rehearsal; they'll spend all their time catching up, and make it harder on everyone else who has done their homework.

Shows evolve as they run, but they shouldn't change. Performances often get richer, deeper, more intense, over the course of a run. Scenes between actors often get richer and more emotional and more complex over time.

Great performances do evolve; but they don't change.

Once a show opens, actors should never change anything, even small things, without first checking with the director and any other actors who'll be affected. The whole idea of rehearsal is to experiment and find lots of good choices -- and then decide on one choice for any given moment, and give it time to settle and mesh with everything else. It's never nice to surprise other actors onstage. They have to be able to depend on you, and to depend on the staging and line readings they expect.

If you're getting bored in your performance, then you're not inside your performance the way you should be. If you're bored, it's because you're not focused. To give a truly great performance, you have to live inside the world of the story, not just "act" like it. You have to be the character. Which means you need to know the character inside and out, and know everything possible about the time, place, and every other detail about this fictional world. And once you do that, once you find the character, the balance, size, and tempo of your performance, once you feel the character behind the wheel, once you feel that letting go of your self, you won't want to change anything. But it will evolve.

And yes, this applies to people in the chorus, people with small roles -- everybody.

Nothing Matters More Than Honesty. Sometimes I wonder if younger actors think we're just being pretentious and artsy when we talk about honesty -- but it's so important, even fundamental to good theatre. Even when you're doing an outrageous show, like Urinetown, Head Over Heels, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bat Boy, Something Rotten!, even Jerry Springer the Opera, nothing matters more than honesty.

All good acting is not subtle acting. It's possible to be both exaggerated, even outrageous, and also honest. One of the writers of Bat Boy coined a phrase that became the performing philosophy of the Actor’s Gang in Los Angeles: “the height of expression, the depth of sincerity.”

In other words, the canvas might be bigger, the colors richer, the brushstrokes more expansive, but the image is no less true, the details no less real, the textures no less subtle. Theatre scholar Tom Oppenheim writes in the outstanding book Training of the American Actor about the great acting guru Stella Adler, "Stella insisted that characters must be multidimensional and grounded in oneself. They must be real human beings. But she does not shy away from painting characters in broad strokes. While she demands truth, she never shies away from size."

Many actors think minimalistic film acting is the only kind of "real" acting, but designer Robert Edmond Jones writes in his brilliant book, The Dramatic Imagination, "The only theatre worth saving, the only theatre worth having, is a theatre motion pictures cannot touch. When we succeed in eliminating from it every trace of the photographic attitude of mind, when we succeed in making a production that is the exact antithesis of a motion picture, a production that is everything a motion picture is not and nothing a motion picture is, the old lost magic will return once more. The realistic theatre, we may remember, is less than a hundred years old. But the theatre – great theatre, world theatre – is far older than that, so many centuries older that by comparison it makes our little candid-camera theatre seem like something that was thought up only the day before yesterday."

Actors are the priests and shamans of our times. All storytellers are. We need to take that seriously. Humans need stories. We are the storytellers. Hope these reminders help.

Long Live the Musical!

To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.