As an actor, you can get caught up in the world of the play you’re in. You can get caught up in your character, get caught up in their story, their choices, their clothes, and their thoughts and feelings. And so you should, that’s your job. That’s what you’re there for. That is your role in the production and it is necessary for you to perform that role for the production to work.
However, it is also important to remember that you are part of a team, and that what you do must support and enrich the collective vision. A good director should guide this collective vision and pull out the best performances from their cast, but it’s always a plus when the actor comes knowing not only their character, but their role in the story and the process as a whole.
1. Make offers.
When rehearsing a play you have time. Even when you don’t feel you have time (which is most of the time). Think how often you might run a scene in a rehearsal period, either on the floor with a director or casually running lines. You have plenty of time to bring options to the director, and often that’s when the most glorious moments are found. You are the expert on your character, so your input and options are valid. Bring them early and often. And if an offer doesn’t work, the worst thing that can happen is you get told to go back to the way you did it before.
2. Go with it
I remember having moments as an actor where I have been hesitant to follow a direction, and it generally came from one of two places, either a) my character wouldn’t do that, or b) I can’t make that work.
Here is a response to both of them. Yes they would, and yes you can.
Good drama comes from characters being forced to act out of character because they are being pushed by external or internal stimuli. Leaps of thought, intention and emotions are part of the territory. So really your character could do anything. It’s also important to remember is that even though you know them well, the audience has just met your character, they are always unpredictable to them.
Just as its important to play as an actor, sometimes the director wants to play too and experiment with options, or see how far you can take something. There is only one way to find out if something works and that’s to try it. So just go with it.
3. Contact over Character
Character is great, but connection is really what good theatre is about. Strong characters are fantastic to watch (and fun to play) but if the actor indulges and they become bigger then the action requires of them or they become too idiosyncratic they distract the audience from what they are really there to see. The action between the characters is more important then the characters themselves, so start with the action and the connection and build the character into that.
4. Learn your F***ing lines
“When should I be off book?”
I have been guilty of this question. And it’s a stupid question. The answer should always be: “As soon as humanly possible, why aren’t you already?”
Just get off book fast, and keep refreshing so your lines are always rock solid. It is going to make the whole process easier for you, your director and your fellow actors. You already know that.
So just learn your f***ing lines.
5. It wasn’t that bad
We’ve all been there. Mid way through a show, and something goes wrong. You dry, or you stammer, or you break a prop, or someone jumps ahead. You freak out and your immediate reaction is “Damn it! Its ruined. The whole things ruined!”
Relax. I can guarantee you that your perception of how bad an on stage stuff up is and the reality of how bad an on stage stuff up is, are immeasurably different things. As a director I have watched stuff ups (stuffs ups only a director would have noticed by the way, and only because they’ve seen the show a gazillion times) cause an actor to be distracted for the whole rest of the scene, sometimes the rest of the show, and in all cases the distraction caused by the stuff up was always more damaging to their performance then the stuff up itself.
Here’s a handy tip the next time it happens to you (because it will):
And if a show really sank and everything went wrong, all the more reason to deliver a banger on the next line.