There’s only three weeks left of the run of Love, Love, Love at the Roundabout Theater in NYC. I thought I’d revisit my Rehearsal Series with an “In Performance” blog. A sort of addendum, if you will.
It’s pretty long, so I’ve broken it down in the following sections
KEEPING THINGS FRESH
DEALING WITH AUDIENCES
DEALING WITH SCREW-UPS
SHIFTING TO WHAT’S NEXT
So you can scroll down to whichever you’re interested in or read in chunks at your leisure. The quotes I’ve interspersed are from the recent Broadway World Interview with Richard Armitage from Nov 25th.
Keeping things fresh
The first question most people ask actors who are performing in a semi-long run (read: more than 6 weeks but less than a year), is “Don’t you get bored?”
Boredom is a danger, for sure. But part of the process of rehearsal is to develop the discipline we need to stay as much in the moment as possible. And if we can stay in the moment, focus on the needs and reactions of our character, we typically find new shades and color to keep the curiosity stimulated. (But there are reasons many stage actors don’t like to sign contracts for more than 1 year at a time. To play something that long becomes a challenge.)
When something is as linguistically and physically precise as Love, Love, Love is reported to be, that urge to stay on top of the performance is very strong. But you can’t “play with things” or get too creative with it, or the whole performance is thrown off. The pacing and rhythm don’t work, and if they don’t work the soufflé of a performance just falls flat.
“It goes against a lot of what you instinctively learn as an actor, that you have to change things up a little bit, change the rhythm so it doesn’t become stale, but actually you don’t. You have to really adhere to it.”
So actors will try to find little ways to find new things about their characters that don’t change the externals of the performance, but perhaps makes it more fun to play for the actor. When I played Miss Prism in a longish run of The Importance of Being Earnest, by week 5 I was looking for something to change up. But the language and lightness of timing of that show is very specific. So instead, I played a game with myself. One weekend, Miss Prism got new spectacles and she spent the time onstage dealing with all of the problems of Mr Worthing and Cecily and Dr Chasuble, all while trying to adjust to her new vision and tight spectacle springs. It did nothing to change my delivery or my external performance, but Miss Prism’s internal world had something new added to have some fun with. Over the course of the run, she dealt with any number of little annoyances and little pleasures (including the pleasure she took in having a new set of linen handkerchiefs at her disposal!).
In that same run, however, we had a rather self-indulgent actor playing Jack Worthing. As we fell into a solid rhythm of performance, this actor fell into bad habits of drawing out his line deliveries and slowing down his cue pick-up and waiting too long for the laughs (that weren’t coming because the timing was thrown off). This meant that everyone else around him had to adjust to him or try and make up for him. Usually, the rest of the cast has to accommodate the least disciplined member (the “problem-child” as Amy Ryan put it in an opening night interview). And it is SO.VERY.PAINFUL. When it is a routine problem for an actor or a cast, resentment sets in. And stage managers have to make corrections and directors have to be called in for pick-up rehearsals and to give more notes. It causes problems.
Everyone can have an off-night, though, and cast members are very generous about those times, helping each other along, keeping them focused, getting them back on track. New and interesting discoveries can be made in those moments, even if you can’t replicate them. When the cast is uniformly matched in discipline, focus, and ability it is such a joy to play that the buoyancy of a group effort really carries everyone along.
“We’re both a safety net for each other. Because of the speed of the play and the rhythmic connection with the writing, sometimes things go wrong and we both enjoy those moments rather than letting them be a problem. I can see the spark go off in her eyes and she really enjoys the game.”
Dealing with audiences
Even though actors are working hard to stay in the moment on stage, the further we get in a run the more we’re able to “keep an ear on the audience”. There is a relationship between the audience and actors during the play and the actors are acutely aware of it. We note when audiences are laughing at different lines, when they’re silent with rapt focus. Or when it isn’t rapt focus at all. We can even hear the boredom in the house. Boredom in the audience doesn’t come in the form of silence. It comes in the form of candy wrappers unwrapping, purses being opened, water bottles being crunched, jackets coming off or going on, Playbills being open and read, or Playbills being fussed with. All of those nervous sounds coming from a bored audience waiting for the next thing to JUST PLEASE HAPPEN.
“I think from about the first preview, we sort of found the rhythm of the play, because the audience really informed the speed and the dynamics, which weren’t there in the rehearsal room. Every house is different; every audience responds in a slightly different way. It’s a very personal experience I think. It’s great to feel an audience being entertained…”
But an engaged audience will either be in an eerie, high-energy, focused silence (we say, “They’re really good listeners!”) or engaged through response. The talking that Armitage referred to in the Broadway World interview isn’t uncommon. Sure, sometimes it is some oblivious person taking a phone call or asking their companion where they want to eat afterwards. Older people tend to ask “What did you say?!”
“They probably laugh in a more of an effusive way, but they comment to each other, verbally, throughout the play, which is really interesting. I can sort of hear people talking and I’m like “I wonder what they’re saying.” They’re commenting to each other throughout the play, which I think is great!”
But most of the time the audience will respond in exclamations. When an audience doesn’t like a character, they’ll have no problem saying “That bitch” or “Asshole!” at just the right moment. Sometimes they’ll turn to a friend and say, “What was that nonsense about?” or give an opinion about the correctness (or incorrectness) of the situation. American audiences tend to be quite verbal in their engagement. They chatter when they’re into what they’re seeing.
Dealing with screw-ups
There comes a point in every run where, despite all efforts to stay precise, little surprises start to creep in. Props malfunction, actors’ lines get “dropped” (forgotten or skipped), little accidental changes to the performances happen. A few weeks ago, Armitage fans who saw the show multiple times started reporting these on twitter and I thought, “Yeah, it’s about the right time for those little things to start happening.”
“You just let it be what it is on stage, which is absolutely my cup of tea. I like to let the work go by without commenting too much on it.”
When these happen, the actors have to learn to roll with them, improvise a solution that doesn’t derail the scene, get focused and keep going. These can be stressful unless you’re willing to stay in character, respond as your character might, and keep paying attention to what’s happening around you. Then you’re golden and audiences LOVE this.
Part of the attraction of live theater is that anything can happen and you were in the room to see it! And when a terrific actor handles an accident or mistake with aplomb and keeps the play going, the exhibition of skill and quick-wit is always impressive. It’s not that anyone WANTS things to go wrong, but if they do and you can deal with it. . . it’s a great feeling! (Super confidence building; all actors have their favorite stories of things going wrong on stage that they survived!)
The routines established during the rehearsal process tend to get condensed during a run. After all, life doesn’t stop and our hours outside the theater have their own demands. But maintaining health tends to be a big deal in longish runs. Getting enough sleep and not packing the schedule around a performance is usually part of the process.
When Armitage was spending his Mondays/Tuesdays doing Berlin Station promotions and working with Audible, I was little like. . .dude, take a day! But he knows better than anyone what his body needs and what it doesn’t.
For many actors, a regular schedule, enough rest, and healthy eating and exercise habits are non-negotiables during a run. And performing while ill sucks, although most actors manage to do it. There’s a thing we call “stage health” which is the effect performance adrenaline has on an actor. They can feel like crap with the flu, barely able to function, but when they have to get ready to perform, adrenaline kicks in enough for them to have the energy to do the job.
You’d be surprised at how well being onstage in front of people suppresses coughs and sneezes!
Shifting to “What’s Next”
During the last half or third of a run, most actors start thinking about what they’re going to line up next. When your meal-ticket depends on the work, this is especially important. How long a gap in between projects can you afford financially? But for many of them, the question is how long a gap in between projects can I afford psychologically? For some actors there’s a post-show let-down phase, where they’re relieved the pressure to perform every night is lifted, but also means they don’t have a meaningful activity to engage with. Having something lined up and available to prepare for helps both financially and psychologically.
So time during this phase is often focused on pursuing or considering the next project. Whether that’s booking auditions, talking to your agents and other producers about potential projects, or negotiating the next season of the tv show you recently completed *cough cough*. If they have something lined up, they usually start preliminary prep for it. Any actor out there right now is looking at their 2017-2018 calendars and wanting to see those months booked.
Here’s a little thing that sometimes doesn’t get enough play: The schedule of a performer in 8 shows a week. It’s completely backwards from most other people who are also not doing plays. Live performers work when everyone else has time off. That’s the nature of the beast.
So unless our friends and family have lives of leisure where they have mornings and early afternoons off, it can be a rather isolating time. And we wind up packing in appointments during those hours anyway – appointments with agents, other projects, interviews, auditions. Or if we have a day job or side-hustle, we’re doing that during those midday hours. We actually don’t have a ton of openings to see other people and get our lives together.
Thus the sacredness of Sunday night.
Sunday after the matinee is finished usually means getting out of the theater around 4:30 – 5 p.m. or so. And there are usually two general options:
- Go home, do laundry, and binge watch tv. Decide what you’re going to do with that precious Monday off.
- Make plans with friends and family because Sunday evening is probably the one time during the week that we have free at the same time and everyone is up for visiting.
So Sundays are either booked for the needful rest or they are booked for reconnecting with important people and relationships. Either way, artists need this time because both of these things support the work in ways that are impossible to articulate. Like everyone else, personal time and relationships are so important, but performing 8 shows a week doesn’t help things along.
But we do this work because we’re devoted to it. And so we take Sunday night and make it a personal comfort in some way. (Even if that means we have to live tweet Berlin Station in our pajamas!)