Last night we ran through the entire show at rehearsal. After a great rehearsal on Monday, where we ran 4 scenes multiple times, I realized that some of the cast was ready to go off book. Before we left on Monday night, a couple of the actors asked if someone could be there on book the next night so they could try working without their script. I quickly made arrangements for that.
I really wasn’t going to discuss “Off Book” here until next week. I had the cast scheduled to be off book for Act One on Monday and Act Two on Tuesday. Last night, several of them proved they were way ahead of me!
The “book” is the script. Every answer about the show and it’s characters is in the script, if not directly, at least the answers must be grounded in what the script says. As actors and directors we find new things in the script every time we get together. Even last night, after all of the times I have read this script, I asked the cast what they thought about a scene and we debated what clues we had so as to reach a consensus.
When you get off book, that means you put the script down and basically know your lines. Actors need a deadline because holding on to the script is like holding on to a security blanket of sorts.
As a director I have to give them a realistic deadline. If it is too early, before they really have the chance to learn it all, then you spend the night stopping and starting which is very frustrating for everyone. If it is too late, then you run the risk of not getting what you want from the actors because when they put away that script, the real fun begins.
Having someone “on book” means that someone not in the cast has the script and follows it diligently. If an actor can’t remember a line, they call “LINE” and the person on book gives them a prompt so that the actor can continue the scene without having to look it up in the script.
One of the hardest things to teach a new actor (or young actor in workshops) is to just say line. Don’t get out of character, don’t apologize, don’t say thank you, just say “line”, listen and as soon as you can jog your memory, keep going. Anything else distracts everyone, breaks the rhythm of the scene and delays the whole process.
This is not to say that you don’t go to the person on book and thank them for their help at the end of rehearsal. But everyone involved knows that you are not being rude when you call for line and then keep going. It makes you look professional to do that.
In college, one of the shows I was in had a bunch of assistant stage managers. Each one was given a couple of characters to follow in the script during rehearsal. Each time we missed a line or called for line, they wrote it down. At the end of rehearsal we were given pages of lines we had missed, down to the exact word and with those notes we knew exactly what to work on. The goal was to not get handed pages after the run throughs. Or at least only get one page instead of a stack of them!
In community theatre, we don’t have time or the man power to do that, but when I stage manage I will often just call out page numbers at the end of rehearsal that everyone should look over. That way no one is called out individually and yet you know if you have lines on that page, then you need to work on those. Of course, as actors we know when we mess up way before any stage manager or director tells us!
When my son was in elementary school, he was enamored with ancient Egyptian culture. He did a project in first grade about it, and then again in 3rd and 5th. By 5th grade I thought that he was taking the lazy way out by writing on the same subject over and over. When I asked his teacher about it, she told me something that has stuck with me through my own later return to college and my directing style.
She told me that learning was like an onion. An onion has many layers, if you cut one open you can visibly see and peel away each layer. Her point was that each time Jon did a paper on ancient Egypt, he added another layer to his knowledge of the subject, he went a little further, a little deeper into the subject. Each time we go back to a subject we add another layer to what we know and all of that layering eventually makes a whole onion. You can’t put a bigger layer before a smaller layer, you can’t leave out layers, you have to go layer by layer or you have a mess.
I try to make my rehearsal schedule come together like an onion. I start with the small center of reading the story, knowing the characters and planning my process. I bring in the actors and we read it together and get to know the characters together. We then add our basic movements and begin to do it over and over, each time adding a layer.
A big layer is when the scripts comes out of everyone’s hands, and we begin to add the subtle movements, feelings and emotions that make the story come to life in a real way. Now is when I can really start adding the touches that will make this production unique and special.
As the set is finished, small props are brought in and we add another layer. We add the food and liquids that will be used during the show. We add costumes. The lights and sound effects are added and the final layer is the one that really brings it all to life- the audience.
This group is ready to move on ahead of schedule and I am so excited about what is about to happen. I think I received one of the best compliments ever when one of the actresses who is very experienced and respected said that about now is when she begins to feel the preshow panic. She said that right now she felt no panic at all, she felt supported and that everything would be ready.
That, to me at least, is how I see my job. To be there to keep the onion building. To add the right layer at the right time, to make sure everyone is ready, to keep calm so that the cast stays calm. Another director I have worked with told me once when I got a bit stressed that I shouldn’t panic until he told me to panic. He never told me, so I didn’t!
I am the type of person that feels that when everything is going along nicely, something awful must be about to happen. I plan for as many disasters as my twisted brain can come up with in the wee small hours of the morning! But I don’t panic until I am forced to. I try to keep marching forward, true to my time table, following my process.
I keep on adding each layer at the right time, fighting those who want to skip to a layer we aren’t prepared for, moving on when I see the next layer is ready early. All I want is for everyone to feel secure, ready and supported all along the way with little drama, no yelling and a lot of work. I want the onion to be complete, fresh and ready at just the right time.
I don’t think I can go any further with this onion thing, so I will now leave the onion metaphor. Except- wait! An onion makes people cry, which this play might do! However, onions do not make people laugh, which I hope this play will also do. So I’m done. I guess my job is to build the onion and then magically turn it back into a play?
OK- I’m think I’m really done with the onion stuff now.