Today I was having an online discussion about typical practices of a first rehearsal read-through, and this question came my way:
re: off-book — a commentator on my blog told me that actors are typically asked to memorize their lines [for first read-through] without inflection of any kind so they are more directable in rehearsal and flexible in actual performance. Is this true?
Okay, I had to unpack this thoroughly! The idea of this makes me want to put daggers in my eyes. I have no doubt that there are a handful of directors who ask this, but the idea of that is rather insulting to actors. Thankfully, I’ve never encountered a director who asked this of actors, but I have known a few dictatorial, controlling, dehumanizing types who might.
Here’s my rant:
- Why do you have to make an actor “more directable”? Sure there are some who resist the ideas and input of directors, but it has very little to do with their vocal inflections and everything to do with their poor training as actors or their small-mindedness as people. Or, perhaps, it is due to the the poor skills of the director. No amount of flat vocalization is going to fix that.
- Actors are trained to use their voices. People in general are taught to alter and inflect their voices. Perhaps not to the extent that actors are, but still. This is part of our linguistic development. To ask them to not do any of their own natural inflection is kind of dehumanizing.
- Inflection is often how you can tell if an actor is understanding the lines and exchanges correctly. Why would you want to get rid of that information in a read-through when you can correct it early on?
- It is actually WAY HARDER to memorize in that rote, flat manner. Memorization is naturally helped by being connected to meaning, to auditory signals, to the bouyancy of rhythm, and how all of those sounds and variances create a physical result in the body. Those sounds can actually begin to create emotion in the body that can connect to action and motivation. This is part of the discovery of the text, character, and the play as whole. LET ACTORS FOCUS ON THE JOY OF THE LANGUAGE AS FULL PEOPLE!
- If actors do succeed in memorizing the text with a flat inflection, it starts to stay that way in their muscle memory and it can be very hard to get them out of it. Ever tried to get a student with a naturally flat inflection to be more expressive in a speech? It’s pretty hard. But try to get that over-dramatic student to tone it down. . . a lot easier.
- Flexibility comes with the exercise of flexibility. During the rehearsal process a good director will ask the actors to play with the language in multiple ways until they make deeper, more surprising, but still honest choices about the language. Starting out stiff doesn’t make anything more flexible later, in my experience.
Yes, there are times when a flat inflection is helpful. When a prompter recites a line that an actor can’t remember, a flat inflection from the prompter lets the actor make the choice about how to speak the line without suggesting anything to the actor.
Yes, we often tell actors not to come to the first rehearsal with many fixed ideas about their character’s choices because when they work with their fellow actors, the mixed ideas may not mesh too much. And yes, we often ask them to just read the play for understanding in the first-read.
But this is not asking actors to relinquish the natural, normal inflections of their human voices. Stripping them of their humanity will not really get the results wanted, I promise.
Honestly, saying such a thing to actors sounds like several dictatorial, insecure directors I’ve known who are more interested in controlling every little bit of the actors’ performances as though they’re marionettes, rather than working alongside the actors to help them craft a performance from their great human potential.
And isn’t humanity with is very real, supple, flexible, vibrant voices what we’re supposed to be serving here?
If anyone has any legit answers for this, the comments are open.
(PS – Thank you to Servetus for the query that launched this rant. Good to get my blood going again!)