Saturday, March 31, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2, Rehearsal 7: First Halves

At rehearsal Tuesday we did two complete first halves, in an attempt to get deeper into the show. Mandy wrote the first one we did. It was a lighter comedy, sort of like Neil Simon, about a recently married couple going to dinner at her parent's house. The scene only had the couple in it, but the script was written such that many other characters were required in the second scene. Not only did those characters have full character descriptions supplied by Mandy, but most of them were talked about in the first scene. Mandy did all of this on purpose when she wrote it, because this sort of scenario was not unusual when we did the show last year.

I had many take-aways from being in it as one of the characters in the second scene. Reading the first scene, that I wasn't in, I came away with some idea of my character, but then to hear how they delivered those lines informed my character even more. I made a character choice, which may or may not have been the strongest one. I felt the whole time like I wasn't reacting enough to what was going on, which was a good reminder for me to have big reactions. 

The biggest take-away for me involved protagonists. In many of these plays, the protagonist will be defined for us in the first scene, in this case it was the couple. It's easy to forget that as the play develops. I could have made stronger choices to focus the play back on them and their experience. 

I'm also going to have to be cognizant of how "real" or "normal" to make my characters. Had I identified the couple as the protagonists in my mind before the show, I would have known that as a side character I could make my character bigger and less "real". Of course that's a delicate balance depending on the style established in the first scene. 

Then, for the second first half, we did another play of mine! Unlike last week's, this was the first few pages of a completed script that I had written. This made for a very different experience. In order for the first scene to make sense, I had to whisper some secrets to a few of the performers. I would encourage playwrights to do this when necessary. I had to pass on important character information that I didn't want the audience or the other characters to know. If I think of it, I may ask each playwright if there's anything they need to tell any of the characters in secret. Of course, I forgot to tell one character a secret very important for their character. As a result he had a tough time until he made a bold choice. A bold choice that might not have worked in the context of an entire show. 

On the other hand some completely surprising things happened that I hadn't thought of, but as soon as I saw them I thought "of course!" Of course things would happen that way based on how I've set things up. Something to consider if I ever give that play some rewrites.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2, Rehearsal 6: My Play!

We're supposed to have two rehearsals this week, so hopefully I'll get my act together to write about them both individually right after they happen. In the meantime, here's my recap of last week's rehearsal:

We started out by revisiting some exercises the cast apparently worked on the week before while I was in Houston. This involved some time spent hugging and kissing everyone in various different ways. Kissing practice can be very important in improv as you never know when you might have to kiss any given cast member, male of female. But there's more to it then kissing. There's also a general comfort level with touching that needs to be achieved. We worked on various movement exercises designed to work on that.

We also worked on picking each other up, who can pick up whom, etc. If the person being picked up knows what they're doing and helps, the holder can hold well more weight then you would imagine. Of course it helps if the holder knows how to stand and what not too.

Then we moved into a reading exercise. We split up in to groups and Mandy passed out scenes from actual plays for us to cold read aloud. During the actual show, the script for that night's performance will be available to us when we arrive at the theater. It's up to each of us individually to decide how much, if at all, we read it before curtain. This was an exercise however in reading it completely cold.

Afterwards people who did the show last year shared how they did it last year. Preferences were discussed. Questions were posed as to how much discussion can/should happen before the show. There are no hard and fast "rules". It really is up to personal preference and the needs of the show at hand.

The advice that I found most useful came from Greg and Christian. To them, the most important thing was to make a strong character choice without worrying about whether or not it was wrong or right. Making the choice is the important thing. You can always tweak it as the show progresses, but if you start vanilla, you'll be vanilla that whole time.

After that we continued working with the scripts we wrote ourselves. We started with a family drama that Scott had written. I was in this one, and learned that no matter how few lines I have, I can't skim the stage directions. I have a bad habit of ignoring stage directions that springs from the fact that in most published plays, the stage directions are not written by the playwright, but taken from the stage manager's notes for the original production. Which is actually problematic as now directors are claiming ownership of such things, but that's another tangent.

Then we did a scene that I wrote and submitted to the show under a fake name. Sadly it was not accepted, so we did it in rehearsal. It was a straight up fantasy with wizards and elves and Amelia Earhart and Spartacus. You know, pretty straightforward. I've written plays before and seen them produced and am familiar with the gut-wrenching exhilaration of hearing actors perform my words. Cringing at my own bad writing felt like a warm hug from an old friend. Still, many of the lines played the way I wanted them too and I was thrilled to see where the actors took it once the scripts went down. They did fall into the "repeat scene 1 in scene 2" trap, but Christian pointed out an easy way they could have changed that. It was unexpected and fun.

I learned a few things from it. As a playwright, you have no idea what detail someone is going to latch onto as important. It may have been inconsequential to you, but because the actors only have these few pages and your interview to go on, it becomes pivotal to them and their character. That, I think, is what makes this process fun for a playwright. For one thing, it takes the play in directions you wouldn't have gone yourself. For another, it teaches you to be very clear about what you want.

Everyone seemed to really enjoy by piece, which was great. People even said "if this got rejected, the rest of them must be great!"

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2, Rehearsal 4: Anecdotally...

I'm behind! The show has had two rehearsals since I last posted, but I've only been to one of them. I had to go to Houston last week at the last minute for work.

The problem is of course that two weeks after a rehearsal it's largely impossible to remember in great detail what we did. I do remember a couple of specifics. We broke into pairs and worked on telling anecdotes. People tell anecdotes in plays all the time, and half the time you have no idea what they have to do with anything until later in the play. This can be difficult to improvise because we're trained not to go off on random tangents and tell stories in the middle of a show, but it's something to learn.

Part of our homework for the week was to write first scenes of plays ourselves. Then for the second half of rehearsal we took two of these and started them. We did the cold reading and then improvised the next two or three scenes. I really don't remember if it was two or three. The first one we did, the one I was in, was Merrill's. It had a very Waiting for Godot feel to it.

My character wasn't in the first scene but was required by the script. That's a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I didn't have the problem of having to keep up with the script while reading the scene and then being thrust into improvising it. I could just watch it like a normal scene and figure out where/how I would fit. On the other hand, I didn't have much to go on for my character. I had a vague notion of what was expected of him and had to kind of wing it. Now, you might say "that's what you always do in an improv show". The difference is that in this context I had a playwright sitting out there in the audience I was trying to intuit. That makes it difficult.

Then I watched as we did Claire's. Hers had a similar absurdist style to it.

I'm back at rehearsal tonight, with more to report soon.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Act 1 Scene 2, Rehearsal 3: Monologues and Swimming

We were back at it again on Tuesday night. We started out working on monologues. Typically the idea of improvising a monologue onstage scares me. I'm not sure way, exactly. We started out by working in pairs. We'd start by improvising a scene together and then gradually one person's dialogue would turn into a monologue, while the other person interjected from time to time. This made me a little more comfortable with the idea of improvising a monologue, but it was almost more informative to be the other person in this exercise. the non-monologuer isn't just their to nod their head and smile. They can use their interjections to focus the monologuer and keep them back on point. I'd like to work some more on developing that skill. When I did a monologue after having been the non-monologuer, I really noticed when the non-monologuer's comments helped me and didn't help me. I felt like we really just scratched the surface of that one.

Then we moved on to a similar but slightly different exercise, and this one we didn't do in pairs, but on stage with everyone watching. One person would do a scene-based monologue as before, only this time the non-monologuer was reading all of their lines from a play. It was essentially the game playbook only with a shifted emphasis. Playbook is a justification game, where the people without scripts have to justify what the person with a script is saying (without making them look insane). For this exercise, the playbook person was instructed to fill the same non-monologuer helper role by picking out dialogue that could help the monologuer.

I went first as the monologuer with Claire as the playbooker. I had a hard time with it. The scene just wasn't going anywhere, largely because my character kept fixing things. Everything was ok! There was no need for confrontation. My character was good and upstanding. As soon as I allowed my character to be unsympathetic (to me if not to the audience), things started to click. Ding! Realization: I have a hard time playing characters I don't like or who make decisions I disagree with. That's good to know. In the end though, I found the hook of the monologue. Once I did, it flowed easily and was awesome!

Then Christian and Scott did a completely different scene, and we discovered watching it that one-sided dialogue is different than a monologue. What are the difference? We didn't get too into defining them, but they were obvious in a "you know it when you see it" sort of way. I spent some time thinking about it, and the best thing I could come up with is that in a monologue a character is trying to explain an emotion to another character (or the audience). Where as one-sided dialogue might just be trying to convince them to do something.

We finished rehearsal by actually doing a cold reading of the first scene of a play and then improvising the next two. We went in two groups. I was in the first one which started with the first scene of Machinal by Sophie Treadwell, a play I am not familiar with. It's expressionist, so the dialogue was not naturalistic by any means. I discovered a few things. First, I can't do these readings completely cold. Every night, we will have access to that night's script probably when we arrive for warm-ups. I'll need to look at it. Doing it cold, I made no character choices and had no idea what was going on. Then when we put the scripts down, I felt like I was holding on to the edge of a pool trying not to get sucked down a drain.

We had a "problem" doing this show last year where the second scene (the first improvised one) was often essentially a repeat of the first. As an audience member I found this maddening. I wanted the play to start already. Move the action forward, etc. Now I see why it happens. As soon as you put the script down you want to make sure you've got the dialogue and the pacing down. You want to tread water a little to make sure you can float before you try to swim to the other side of the pool. I think the challenge (that I will challenge myself to if nothing else) will be to settle myself into the play while still moving things forward.

The second group did the first scene from All My Sons by Arthur Miller. I didn't know that's what they were doing, but about halfway through I thought "this has got to be Arthur Miller". I looked. It was, and I thought "Ah, this all makes sense now." He has such a unique pacing to his plays. So little and so much is happening all at the same time. That's more a musing on Miller, but also illuminates how important the pre-show playwright interview is. Without knowing their pacing, we can't possibly do this in their style.