Working on text – the early phase of rehearsal

UPDATE – this is an out of the archive post reworked a year or so on. If you’re a regular here or to my other blog Groundling, from which this is taken, you may have already read my rehearsal and performance posts for the Empire Theatre’s 2008 production of Cabaret directed by Lewis Jones.  I played the role of Fraulein Schneider. You can find these posts elsewhere on the site. Just type ‘Cabaret’ in the search pane, and stand back. I’m revisiting some of my posts on actors’ process, which I hope you may find useful. This one looks at text analysis.  As always, I would love your commentary.

Sunday’s rehearsals swung into a first shuffle-through of the play scene by scene. This was table talk about character, backstory, and relationships followed by a work through of a couple of scenes in which my character first appears.

First appearances are critical for character revelation. For a start, an audience starts to make up its mind about how it relates to a character. First appearances are also where a play’s obligatory exposition is revealed. A good play will give out the information on who, what, were, why and so on via character interaction and dialogue that hopefully doesn’t beat you over the head, as well as through other subtle clues in the script. These are things the actor needs to pick up and feed the character.

Text analysis for the actor is a bit like the forensic analysis of a crime scene. However, there is something you also need to bear in mind, and that is to balance what the character knows with what the actor knows … or as it’s often expressed, don’t play what’s on the ‘next page.’ I got a bit carried away myself today wondering how significant the first mention of Jewishness in the play would be to my character. Of course the audience is going to prick its collective ears at this point … ‘Uh oh, we’ve got an issue here that is going to come back later!!’ but the characters themselves are at this stage, blissfully ignorant of the fate in store.

This is what I like about these early turning over the text rehearsals … playing with possibilities and making choices, and seeing where they lead. It’s good to have a director like Lewis who allowed me to stumble my way around the set, getting its geography and furniture layout into my head, getting the feel of ownership that the character would have; it’s my house after all – it was once a large home and where I was born and where I grew up. Alas, nowadays it’s been converted into a boarding house. Yes, this was one of the creative choices I’ve made, along with what has brought Schneider to where she is right now … New Year’s Eve 1929.

I’m really going to enjoy the next phase of rehearsals, and it’s going to include something I’m not all that familiar with … making the transition in and out of a musical number. I’m sure it’s going to be all about finding the right energy level and bridging from speech to song, though handily all of my songs tend to do this with quite a bit of ‘spoken in rhythm’ appearing on the score. Although we are not singing within scenes yet, this finding the right heightened energy was something the director worked on quite a bit during the final run-throughs of the scenes this afternoon.

Getting up close and personal

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There comes a time in rehearsals when the director wants to go in close to a piece of text and refine things with the actors. Sometimes it’s because moments or a whole scene are not working as well as they might. Characters may have become becalmed and need a fresh injection of energy. Tonight was that night for my principal scene partner and I. It was a probing, analytical session, one that posed ‘what ifs’ about relationships and actions. It came at a good time, before the lines have solidified around these things, but after the preliminary outline or sketch has been made.

I’ve often thought of role development during rehearsals being like the creation of an oil painting. Firstly, the script determines the kind and scope of painting that might emerge. Early rehearsals for me are about sketching in the outlines of a broad composition, then about adding colour, light and shade … layering, defining some areas over others, and as the composition begins to emerge, even scraping away an unsatisfactory element or two, and replacing it with something that has emerged during the process. This is how we create during rehearsals.

And so tonight we were challenged. We scraped and redefined, layered and changed some of the tonal palette in several scenes. Paraphrasing was cleaned up … being dead letter perfect matters. What emerged after a couple of hours was a clearer sense of the arc of the characters’ roles within the story, and of course, a developing and refining of their relationship. For me it was one big step along the road.

PS. The night began with a publicity photo call in costume. It was great to get a first view of my character wigged and costumed with period spectacles … all grist to the creative mill. We stood on stage in 1930s costume inside a 1930s art-deco theatre. Thought for a bit about being the theatre ‘ghosts.’

Image: Thanks Adida Fallen Angel

First Run: spot the holes and string the beads!

Water Court Installation

Water Court installation Queensland Art Gallery

Despite the dreads a week or so back, the first run was actually a bit of a thrill. During the blocking and working phase of rehearsals so far, most of our scenes have been worked in isolation from the others. So today, it was terrific to see them all and especially the dance chorus numbers beside our own. It was like stringing a whole lot of beads; the little pieces all make sense when they’re of a piece.

First runs are for spotting the ‘holes’ from both sides of the rehearsal room table: scenes that are working or not working as planned, moments that need rethinking, songs and routines that require further work. For the creative team of directors this translates into re-blocking, fixing and rescheduling of planned rehearsal sessions. For the actors, singers, and dancers (and that’s all of the acting company) it’s getting a chance to see how much of the arc of the story has bedded down through our action, lines … and gosh, darn it … just remembering to get everything in the right order. Working off premises in a local school kept us on our toes … the familiarity of the stage or the rehearsal studio was replaced by a new, not altogether congenial space with a shocking acoustic. Still, one does what one must!

Did I have the book down? No, not for all of it … I clung onto it for some scenes, but in others not bad I reckon. I know where I have to mend the holes. I’m working with a fine scene partner who’s a ‘giver’ and that means a great deal to any actor. The support that comes from a steady, calm gaze (not looking at the book, remember?) makes the job a lot easier. You get all you need from your scene partners during performance. Watch, listen, and respond.

That first rum had to be done. It’s over, the dread’s put to bed, and with a work through tomorrow night of all of the Schultz-Schneider scenes, songs and dance routines, I should be feeling a lot more comfortable as we head down the track into Week 6. Now it’s into refining, tweaking and polishing as well as creating the character’s ‘journey’ across the whole play, and not just within the confines of individual scenes. That string of beads again …

Tomorrow we are exactly one month out from opening night … and it’s St Patrick’s Day!

That Triple-Threat Thing

Empire Theatre
Image by Dramagirl via Flickr

Sing, dance, and act … if you can do these equally well, you’re a triple threat according to show biz jargon. Well I’ve long known I’m an actor first and foremost. I love music and singing and always have. We’ll pass over the dance part. So here I am in a singing role in Cabaret (Fraulein Schneider) with a modicum of dancing.

Last night I spent an hour with the choreographer and my scene partner working on a dance sequence, which is testing the triple part of the job: dancing, singing and acting at one and the same time. It’s an exercise in discipline … motivate, move, breathe and all in strict tempo and on pitch. I was reminded of some of the training work I did years ago in beijing opera (jingju) where the freedom often afforded and treasured by modern western acting style is conditioned and honed by a strict adherence to the performance traditions of the Chinese form. Demanding is not the word when it comes to prepping for jingju or for that matter a lot of traditional theatre forms. Shaping up to the insistence of tradition is good for the modern performer’s soul and feet! And it’s also good for me, a trainer of actors to get back into the saddle and to try to ride as well as I ask them to.

PS: I had the first tingles in the fingers a couple of nights back. This is my signal that the performance is just round the corner … as is that first run on Sunday.

Week 5: How can that be!

Stamp of the Greater German Reich, depicting A...
Image via Wikipedia

There’s a definite sense of autumn in the air which means we are getting mighty close to production time! Last 4-day weekend’s rehearsal period saw our doughty director and the creative team work their way through the mind-numbing exercise known as directing a crowd scene. Perhaps not so much mind numbing as shredding. There were 27 or so bodies on stage working through the pretty involved party scene which ends with the show-stopper Tomorrow Belongs to Me.

There’s a tonal ebb and flow as well as the more obvious choreographed dance sequences and stage pictures and it all has to look just … so. Once again I’m reminded of that aesthetic principle of effortless beauty which characterises the best work, be it golf swing or a dance routine.

And so on we go into Week 5.

PS: Research factoid. Nazi Germany produced the postcode.

Whoa! The first run-through? Already?


photo credit: Jeremy Brooks
Now time goes fast when you are enjoying yourself. We all know this. But to get a schedule standby for a first run-through makes you realise how fast time is really running. In the world of the theatre this call tends to bring on gentle hyper-ventilation and semi-moist palms. Yes, our efficient stage manager, sadistic smiling choreographer and on-the-mark director are prepping themselves for the thrill, the spills, the it-has-to-be-done-sometime folks, and this is it … the first runthrough of Act 1 Cabaret … soon. So what’s the big deal?

Up until now, the script, that talismanic object I spoke about some time ago has served as source, blueprint, and comfort-blanket on the rehearsal room floor. You can hang on to it … remember Linus and his comfort blanket? It’s just like that. However … a run-through almost always carries with it the gentle (or not so gentle) insistence the books be down; this is theatre jargon for no script in hand. In other words (and metaphorically speaking) you get to strip naked and deliver the goods. Theatre folk tend to call this the ‘stumble-through’ or ‘stagger,’ resisting the notion of ‘running’ with all its connotations of speed and achievement. It’s a time of vulnerability and naturally, of terror.

But hang on; it gets worst. This show is a musical. Not only do you lose you best friend (the script), but you get to sing and dance too … . Are you getting some idea of what the first run-through must be like now? Of course, until it happens, there is no sense really of how the show as a whole is doing, nor of how all your efforts up till now are gelling. Up until this point, it’s all been shuffling around, playing, exploring … as one should. Now the real thing … the demands of performance … begin to stare one in the face.

Theatre is no place for sissies!