Several months back, I was in the middle of directing a show that was a big question mark for me. I knew that the ensemble that I was directing was thoroughly capable and the actor in the center chair was crafting a deft performance, but in so many ways the production was a question mark. I had no idea if any decision I was making along the way was a good decision; I just knew that the decisions had been thought out and thoroughly discussed with my trusted team. But still, everything was a giant question mark.
But in the middle of it came the opportunity to audition for a show I truly enjoy, with a director whose work I admire, in a company that is time-tested and whose system operates with the precision of a Swiss watch.
I decided to audition because I knew I needed to experience a different perspective in theater-making. Just the act of performing on the other side of the table, being the actor evaluated rather than the one evaluating the actor, would – I hoped – shake away a few of the cobwebs obscuring my vision.
Well, I was cast in that play and am now coming to the end of the rehearsal process. Tonight is final dress rehearsal for The Importance of Being Earnest, directed by J. Daniel Herring at Good Company Players’ 2nd Space. And I have to admit that the experience has been a blessing and a balm to my theatrical soul.
More than anything, I believe I needed to show up to a rehearsal process where I was responsible for only one thing: my performance. Other people would be in charge. I needed to do theater with the sole objective of having fun and to rediscover a sense of “play”. J Daniel’s early process of actor-driven discovery is one that suits me well. Also, his sense of organization and of having clear objectives from week to week that he wants the cast to achieve is something I trust. The process has been on-schedule and drama-free from word-one. The cast, too, has been responsible, dedicated, open and committed to improving from week to week. The “girl waiting for the other shoe to drop” in me has been decidedly suspicious of how well this whole thing has gone!
Along the way, though, I’ve done exactly what I hoped to do with this opportunity: re-learn what it is like to be an actor. I’ve been directing exclusively for seven years now and I think I had forgotten how to take direction rather than give it. A few Actor-Neediness-Things I’ve been reminded of:
If I’m not getting notes, I’m on the right track. How many times have I had that talk with actors who complain about not getting notes? “I have bigger problems to solve than you. What you’re doing is on the right track, keep going!” But what I discovered is when I wanted notes, I was not entirely sure what track I was on. And when I was tempted to go “note-seeking” (as I am now calling it), I had to stop myself and say, “Heather, you KNOW what he’s going to say! This just means you need to pay more attention to exactly what you’re doing, to process it, and keep making your choices more specific and more concrete. It is YOUR responsibility to connect the dots in the character’s life if things feel disjointed. If something goes wrong, he’ll TELL YOU.” But the instinct to have external approval for the choices we make is strong in the actor-mind. And there is a line between having a legit question about a choice and just being needy.
Related to the above revelation: Positive notes go a long way toward dampening actor neediness. Even just a note recognizing the team-work of scene partners or a single effective moment, will keep an actor happy and ready to give more. As a director, I am faaaaaar too sparing of positive notes.
It takes a lot more mental toughness to stay aware, in the moment, and in character on a stage than we give actors credit for. And as a result, their needs offstage/backstage become strangely idiosyncratic. Most of the time, the idiosyncrasies are just rituals they need to conserve their mental energy for onstage. Doing pre-show routines in a certain order. Having certain things on hand, even if they don’t really need them. Devoted adherence to a certain warm up or focusing routine. However, when an actor fears that they lack that mental toughness for any reason, they can get very upset when something relatively inconsequential doesn’t go right- a technical cue is different than expected or a costume item doesn’t fit the way they expected or the backstage chairs aren’t conveniently located, or the prop tables are in the way, or. .. or. . . Any number of inconsequential things can be snapped up by an actor to complain about. The complaining is often a manifestation of their worry about their performance.
Except when the complaint isn’t inconsequential. Because of the intense physical and mental energy they have to put forth when performing, it helps actors greatly when their essential needs are recognized and managed. I’m not talking about plush dressing rooms or elaborate gifts being made. But when things are tight and conditions are less than “the basics”- acknowledging it and doing what can be done to mitigate the circumstances helps actors to feel valued. When the design and tech crew see needs and tend to them, the actors are more likely to reciprocate. And when the production staff is organized and on the ball, the actors will feel like their work is being cared for. And when an actor has a legitimate need and that need is seen to, they will rise to that level of expectation and bring their talents back again and again.
All in all, the experience has been a joy, thanks to this cast, crew, and the production team at Good Company Players. I’ll check in again in a few weeks during the performance run. I’m sure I’ll have more to say! Leave a reply and add your own thoughts, too!
In the meantime, call the box office and book a seat for the show! We open tomorrow and run through October 13th! http://gcplayers.com/2nd-space-theatre/ticket-info/