November 21, 2013
The run of The Lyons at the Menier Chocolate Factory comes to an end this week. I'm rather relieved, because I have only had one day off since the beginning of October and am now falling-over tired. I mean, literally.
But it's been a great gig with a great cast. The script is one of the best I have worked on, ever. The audiences have been terrific. While I have certainly been tired in the evenings, I have looked forward to the performance every night because playing comedy to a good house is like a sport; and a sport for which you have to be fit and on your toes.
Don't drop the ball
Every day in rehearsals for the RSC we warm up with a game of keepy-uppy. For those who don't know, it's a simple game of keeping a ball in the air wherein no one person can hit the ball consecutively. It needs quick reaction combined with cool control.
I have been struck by how it so clearly it reflects our need to keep the ball in the air when playing the hard and fast comedy at the Chocolate Factory. Our director there, Mark Brokaw, was continually reminding us to come in hard on cue, to obey the writer's punctuation, and to act on the line, not off it. 'Forward, forward, forward', he would cry.
It can be tricky; sometimes a good line might not quite get the laugh we are accustomed to — we often have to give the audience (and the actor!) the chance of the laugh but come in smartly, and not let the ball hit the floor, if the laugh doesn't come.
That keeps the story clear and buoyant, so the audience is always clear where the focus is, so the narrative has primacy.
Story is king
'Narrative' is a word we hear often in rehearsal with Jeremy Herrin – the director of Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. He frequently highlights a moment where a vital step in the story must 'ping' with the audience. He encourages us to act on the line rather than off it or around it.
The Lyons is a daily lesson on how acting off the line can let the ball drop and it feels like the synapses in my brain are leaping around in the same way that my feet are in keepy-uppy. I actually make a bit of a big deal about this acting off the line stuff in my book On Bard Duty (available from the RSC, of course!) :
The big question is: does the actor need the pause or does the story need it? If you really want to pause, have a thought about how your pause will help the whole-picture story. Try to assess its value outside your own character's story or journey and ask yourself if the story will be the poorer without it. If you can honestly answer yes, keep it in. But ration yourself. Severely. And when it comes to the length of the pause at the moment of its delivery you will then have to speak at the moment most effective for the audience, and not the moment your personal emotional journey might dictate. That's a tough call, because it often means that when your character is undergoing its most emotional and involved moments, you have to be schizophrenically sitting outside yourself gauging that unquantifiable, unmeasurable thing that is the dramatic interchange between actors and audience.
Basically, to keep the ball in the air our characters on stage often have to think much faster than we might imagine they would in real life.
by Nick Day
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