Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Rehearsal #10: The Office by Beckett

We ran another entire show last night in rehearsal. This time I played instead of watching. We even had a little audience composed of the half of the cast that played last Wednesday, Shaun Landry (who was just visiting) and an extra musician. Actually we had Joshua play music for the first half of rehearsal, and new musician Kevin play for the second half.

Our playwright, suggested by Joshua, was Beckett. Fortunately I’ve just read a lot of Beckett and even recently posted my synopsis of his elements. I was all set. Susan was terrified, but she still dived in head first.

I can’t even begin to describe how much fun it was. I hope we get Beckett again on a night I’m performing so I can explore some other aspects of him. The show itself took place in an office conference room. Susan’s character was obviously lowest on the totem poll, somewhat rebellious, and had a fascination with her hand. I played Sebastian, who was onstage for the entire show! He was the next man up on the chain of command and spent most of the show deliberately moving two chairs into place in the center of the conference room. Christian played middle-management-man who did nothing but spout corporate buzz words. Laurie played the gender ambiguous boss. Debrah played a customer. We sold vacuums. The play ended when I choked Christian to death.

All that makes it sound way more normal than it actually was. Again, words fail me at Beckett’s brilliance and how much fun it was to improvise in his style. I understand why 90% of people think Beckett is rubbish, but there’s a reason he’s famous. The other 10% of us think he’s ripping brilliant (and soooo funny).

Monday, April 28, 2008

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Rehearsal #9: Run Through

Last night we introduced ourselves to a new musician: Kristen. We've never worked with her before, and she's never really done exactly the kind of improvised music we're asking her to do. She did a great job! We'll have to get used to working together, but I'm looking forward to doing a show with her.

Then, after the musical introductions, we did something we've never really done before at Un-Scripted: We ran an entire show in rehearsal. Normally the first time we do a whole show from beginning to end is preview night. This can be highly nerve wracking, going up in front of a paid audience never really having done the show before. You never know what's going to happen.

Years ago when I directed Fear, I attempted to set up rehearsals where we would run an entire show, but every time we ended up inviting an audience or selling tickets for it, making it an actual show and not a rehearsal.

I did not play. I will play on Tuesday when we run a whole show again in rehearsal. Instead I was treated to a wonderful show in the style of playwright Lorraine Hansberry filled with beautiful songs and poignant moments. Perhaps more importantly this was the first time we ever tried playing characters of other races on such a scale, but they pulled it off quite well.

The key to playing a different race is the same as the key to playing any character different from yourself: play truths not stereotypes.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Rehearsals #7 and #8: Drama is scarey

We had a pick-up rehearsal on Monday night in which we did nothing but play. No singing. No playwrights. Just lots of free form short improvised scenes. We also went over stage combat. Everyone had a good time.

Then last night we did two first halves of shows again. For both we used Arthur Miller as the suggestion. I ended up the protagonist in the fist and I definitely learned a few things about improvising drama.

Years ago I used to direct a show for Un-Scripted called Fear wherein we improvised horror. Drama is a lot like horror with two differences:

1. In drama, the protagonist isn’t in danger of having their face eaten off by blood sucking zombies, but they might be in danger of dying.
2. The “bad thing,” be it death or what have actually does happen to the main character. The buxom teen-age heroine doesn’t summon the strength and determination to kill the blood sucking zombie. In tragic drama, they get eaten.

Knowing this, I can now use techniques from Fear to help my drama, such as talking about how nothing bad could possibly happen to me, right? There’s no reason not to go down in the basement. Let’s split up. (All translated in drama speak, of course: My boss wouldn’t screw me over. You cancer will stay in remission. I can afford to buy that home because I know I’ll get that raise soon.)

Friday, April 18, 2008

Rehearsal #6: Common Language

Wednesday night at rehearsal we had David Norfleet there to play piano and did two first halves of shows complete with singing. For the first one we did Chekov and the second we did Ibsen. I was in the Chekov. Both went quite well, I thought.

We’re starting to develop a common language for discussing playwrights, which I think will be essential for this show’s success. Perhaps the most useful thing we’ve discovered is how to describe one playwright in terms of another. For instance, Chekov is Ibsen with hope. Neil Simon is the comedic Arthur Miller. Arthur Miller is the Neil Simon of tragedy. Beth Henley is Tennessee Williams only upbeat and quirky.

Here’s my analysis of Becket based on the general categories of information we hope to get from the audience:


Theme: Beckett explores the nature of existence by striping life down to its basic elements and expanding or contracting time, often through repetition of similar events.

General Outlook: Beckett is very fatalistic (i.e. life is a terminal condition), but his plays are definitely tragicomic. They can be very funny, but don’t generally have happy endings. In fact, they tend to end without any resolution at all.

Setting: Beckett’s settings aren’t “real” but they are constructed out of recognizable elements. The entire play is a metaphor and not rooted in any specific place or time.

Chracters/Relationships: Beckett explores status relationships. As a result you have characters of varying social status such as servants, parents, lower class, upper class. Often these status relationships are tilted by giving a high status character socially some sort of physical or mental impairment to lower their status. Conversely, the characters on the low end of the totem pole are usually the smartest. Low status characters socially are always extremely low status to the environment, but in a very stylized way.

The verbal pacing is slow. People speak in short sentences punctuated by long pauses. Phrases and exchanges are often repeated. Movements are often repeated as well.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Rehearsal #5: Mr. Angry

Last night we did two mini-long forms. I was in the first one in a group with Susan, Tara, Lauri, and Larry. We chose Wendy Wassertein as the playwright, and while I couldn’t give you a detailed account of her style, I have at least seen two of her plays.

We told a fun little story that centered mostly around Laurie’s character as the protagonist. I good time as a side character in a volatile relationship with Tara’s character, but I came away with a couple realizations.

The first being, playing opposite someone you’ve been playing with forever and know very well is like riding a favorite roller coaster. You know all the twists and turns, but they still surprise and excite you.

The second being, I have hard time playing angry onstage. I wanted to be bigger and angrier than I was, but just couldn’t go there. This was not entirely my fault. The story was obviously a comedy and intense anger might have derailed it into drama, and yet Larry managed to be quite angry in the second long form, a Neil Simon inspired comedy. I guess this is something I need to work on: Playing anger. Playing mean. Playing characters who aren’t nice.

This could be a whole new way to avoid being the protagonist I haven’t explored!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Rehearsal #4: Dirty Old Carpet

Last night at rehearsal we finally started working on singing. As with any rehearsal, we started by warming up a bit with a name fry exercise and then moved into a vocal warm-up. We concluded the vocal warm up by standing in a half circle around our musician and singing a Verse/Chorus song. One person makes up a chorus, we all repeat it, then each person takes a turn singing a verse, with all of us repeating the chorus in between each verse. We chose to sing in the style of a David Mamet play.

We then moved into doing David Mamet style scenes that contained songs. After we’d done that a bunch, we moved on to Neil Simon style scenes into songs.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

We were rehearsing in a theater that is currently housing a run of Jean Genet’s The Maids. They’ve constructed a set that supposed to look like a run down tenderloin apartment. It’s done very well, right down to the rust orange-brown carpet that obviously came out of someone’s bedroom once. The carpet has obviously been cleaned, but no amount of cleaning could remove the inherent dirty quality of the poor floor adornment.

As the rehearsal progressed I could feel my chest getting congested, my nose filling up, my head starting to drift off into the land of loopyness. Soon I realized, it must be the carpet! Maybe its former owners had a cat. Maybe it’s just dusty or moldy. Either way, I was counting down the moments until I could get the hell out of there.

That said, as I lost my grip on reality, I found improvising and improvised singing so much easier. I was incapable of thinking, so I just opened my mouth and let stuff flow out. My brain felt directly connected to my mouth in a very strange way.

Now I just need to figure out how to recapture that feeling without the aid of a dirty old carpet.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Rehearsal #3: Acting Your Beats

Last night in rehearsal we talked a lot about what playwrights we might get form the audience as suggestions and worked on acting.

At Un-Scripted, we typically do a lot of work with protagonists. Most often we strive to identify a show’s protagonist in the first three scenes and then the rest of the show revolves around that person. This is especially true of the musicals we have done.

However, plays aren’t really like that. Plays often don’t have a strong central character whom every scene revolves around. Each scene, and even each beat within a scene might have its own protagonist.

First we went over some of the elements that can make a person the protagonist or allow them to deflect in on to someone else.

1. The protagonist is usually on stage. If you’re the protagonist, you should stay on stage. If you want the other person to be the protagonist, you can leave.
2. Protagonists talk about themselves, revealing their feelings to the audience. They say “me” and “I” a lot. To not be the protagonist simply say “you” a lot and talk about the other person. (WARNING: as with anything there are exceptions to all these rules, as Karen discovered last night. In a scene her character started telling another character how she was about to break down because of her crazy husband, but because she was using it as a tactic to illicit a response from the other character, not simply as a revelation, she was throwing the protagonist role on to the other character.)
3. Protagonists are the most normal and relatable person on stage. If you want to be the protagonist, be slightly more normal than the other people on stage. If you don’t want to be, be weirder.
4. Be changed. Protagonists are changed by what’s happening to them. If you’re not the protagonist, don’t be changed.
5. Protagonists respond to new information, but rarely supply it.

Then we played a game where played 3 person scenes and tried to bounce the protagonist around each character throughout the scene. We chose to do this in the style of Neil Simon for the practice. The result was scene that could have been straight out of a play and didn’t seem improvised at all.

All this made me think: I should be in a scripted play. Suddenly acting seemed so much easier. Just figure out who’s the protagonist of the beat and act in a such a way that makes them the protagonist. Since the script will have taken care of numbers 1, 2, and 5 above, simply act broader and weirder than the protagonist in those moments and don’t let your character be changed. If the protagonist is you in a beat, act more normal than everyone else and be changed. How easy is that?