In my work in theater, I play multiple roles – actor, writer, director, coach, and producer. And they seem to come in waves, the times when I am focusing more on one role than another. Lately, it’s been directing and coaching.
I know–from all my experience in this field–that putting the truth on stage is the goal. As a director, this is often a challenge. For the past two weeks I have been directing a new play, and coaching a 9-year-old actress in her first leading role. And both projects have given me opportunities to pursue the truth, and to manage personalities.
My young actor friend is relatively new to working on stage – she’s got some chops as a singer and dancer, and has played small roles and done some commercial work. But she never had to learn 200 lines of dialogue in two weeks, in a play about the Holocaust. She’s a willful and extremely bright child, and was excited beyond belief to win the role. But, like all children, her attention span was shorter than was optimum for learning lines, much less learning how to deliver those lines in a nuanced and truthful fashion. We had to work more on simple repetition than on delivery, which was a source of chagrin for both me and her mother. I named her my “Jumping bean” as that is the energy she brought to our coaching sessions. I constantly had to remind her to focus. I developed, on the fly, various techniques to help her focus. Holding on to her knees worked for a while, and cuddling up in a chair with her enclosed between my arm and my body was also useful. I realized, as I was trying it for the first time, that the cuddling approach was a variation on Temple Grandin’s “hug box” http://www.grandin.com/inc/squeeze.html
One day she came in and said she was too tired to work, and proceeded to lie on her back on my stage. Since her parents are paying good money for her to work with me, and our time is limited, allowing her to have a rest seemed wasteful. And I also didn’t really buy that she was too tired, as she had spontaneously tap danced her way into my space only 15 minutes before.
So I stood astride her body, and said, “OK, you can lie there and send your lines up to me, and I’ll play the other parts from here.” The novelty of it worked for her, and soon she turned to her side, up on one elbow. I mirrored her position, and we were soon sitting, then standing, and had a great rehearsal. I learned that the way forward lay in accepting the truth of what her body was saying. This was a powerful insight that I applied to my other current project, directing a two-person play.
This play, which I directed last year, had about 20 performances. One of the actors is also the writer, and she spent the last year rewriting it, producing a much tighter, one-act version of the story. In this new version, the conflicts in the play are heightened and clarified, and our second character is a new actor to the role. Our writer/actor is playing the same character as before, so for her it’s a great opportunity to explore both the story and her acting challenges. She has to let go of previous ideas about the character, to push the writer mind to the back of her head, and to interact with a new personality on the stage. It’s not an easy thing to do. But she is rising to the challenge in a marvelous way.
Yesterday during rehearsal she was busying herself with notions of stage business, prop management and costume changes, while I wanted to focus on the interaction between characters. I suspected her focus on those details was taking her away from the real issue in the scene, so every time she tried to go back to those issues, I refocused her on the other actor, on her responses, and on listening to the text. Tension was building in her body, and between us, but I doggedly pursued my goal, not taking her growing distress personally, but also giving her room to have her feelings. Suddenly I could see it happen – she was hearing herself, hearing the text in a new way, and there it was – the scene in its fullness. She knew it, the other actor knew it, and I knew it.
By letting her be, by keeping the truth important, I guided us through the rapids and into the lake. When we took our break, she said to me, “I couldn’t understand what you were trying to do or what you wanted from me.” I said, “I was heading for the truth. That’s all I know.”
That’s all we ever know.