Useful Theater Tips.

So, I’ve done some theater. Now and again. Over the past several years. I have been trying to compile everything I’ve done into… well a pile. An archive of sorts. Trying to lock down all the shows. Oh the shows. The problem with live theater is that it exists for a weekend or two, maybe a couple of weeks if you’re lucky, and then it is gone. It exists only in the memory of the audience and the cast. It is like pouring your heart and soul into a painting, putting it up in a gallery for a weekend, taking a Polaroid of it, and tossing it into a burning barrel. Like sand art. Or a perpetual and defiant gesture of futility.

But it’s also magical. Kind of magical. It has a heritage that reaches back as far as when writing was getting off the ground. People still put on Euripides and Sophocles, and those dudes are dead. Really dead. Have been for a very long time, but their plays, written for competitions and for the amusement of Greece, are still around. So, when you take the stage you are taking part in a tradition that has some strong roots. Stronger than football, that’s for damned sure. Stronger than film and television. Stronger than the Youtube. When society folds and we’re all wiping our butts with rocks in the dark, we still have the ability to pick up a script, learn it, and put on a show. Give me a jar full of lightning bugs and level ground and I’ll give you King Lear. But that’s not why you’re reading. You know all this already. You came for the tips. Can’t write a piece about useful tips and then just ramble on about the legacy of art.

Tip #1: Lines are very important.

This can be a real stopping point if not taken seriously. I contend with this daily of late, but it is nothing new. From day one you will be working with people who don’t know their lines. Finding someone who comes to rehearsal off-book and ready to rock is a rarity. The exception to the rule. The rule being; learning lines is hard. Humans are not supposed to learn lines. We are not parrots. We are not robots. Our brains are programmed to problem solve, not memorize and regurgitate. Which is not to say that life is just a series of perpetual regurgitations.

But how to learn the lines? Well, it’s easy once you have a method. Everyone needs to find their own method. I developed mine in acting school. You see, going to acting school is like running away with the circus, only in acting school they don’t teach you anything cool. Didn’t walk away from acting school knowing how to breath fire. Had to self-learn that. And it is a sharp learning curve. Something you’re either good at or on fire. What acting school does teach you is how to memorize something in a hurry.

“Oh crap. I have to know Orsino’s opening monologue by 8 AM tomorrow and it’s 1 AM and I’m drunk.”

Sometimes I enjoy setting little obstacles in front of myself, just to make it challenging. Nothing sharpens the mind like a deadline. Sometimes you will have the benefit of a friend. Most times don’t count on that. The actors best friend is a recording device. Back in my day I did it with mini-analog tape. I have dozens and dozens of miniature tapes littering my belongings. They contain either obsolete blackmail or monologues. Monologues I would listen to over and over and over again. Record it once, repeat it with the recording over and over and over again. Over and over and over. On and on and on. Repetition is the only way to win.

Later in my development as a stage artist I would not need the recording. My recording was in my mind. I would see the scene as it should be, and I would observe myself performing in it and just follow along. Got through “My Fair Lady” by doing just that. Like an out of body experience. You are the star of your own film. But even when it’s only in my brain, I still play it over and over and over again. This is called insanity to many clinical psychologists. I call it art.

Tip #2: Blocking is very important.

Everyone hates blocking. I don’t know why. I love it. I like to know where I’m going. Blocking rehearsals I draw a little map of the set and then have arrows pointing to where I’m supposed to go when I’m supposed to go there. It’s terribly easy. And if your director is even half ways to competent they know what will look good and what will not. If you ignore the blocking in subsequent rehearsals it all falls apart to chaos. Everyone just wandering around the stage like lost sheep. Unaware of their position on the stage or their relation to those around them.

Aside from looking amateurish and awkward it can also be dangerous. You don’t know when someone is going to leap unto stage with a sword. You don’t know when a fly-pipe is going to cascade from the rafters and crush you like a grape. You don’t know anything if you don’t know your blocking. It’s like learning a dance without paying attention to the footsteps. Sure, you’re moving to the music, but you look like a boob. If you know your blocking everything will go better for you. Then YOU will be the person on stage, when everything is on fire and everyone is covered in blood, YOU will be the person who looks like they know what they are doing. And you will look good.

Tip #3: Be prepared.

Some of you may have noticed that I have a couple of fleur-de-lis on the back of my hands. They have a number of meanings, and one of them relates to the boy scouts. Did you know their symbol is the fleur? I bet you did. And do you know their motto? Always be prepared. My hands are always prepared. For action. For amusement. For anything that I need them for. They could catch a knife if you throw one at me. They could deflect a shoe if you lob it at me. They could snatch gold from a fire with the alacrity and speed of a nervous viper and the flame wouldn’t know what licked it. Though the hand is quicker than the eye, the whole works is operated by the mind.

Your mind, during rehearsal, and performance, must be prepared for anything. Anything is chaos. Chaos is everything. We live in a universe that is falling apart, by natural law. As humans we rage against this chaos. This entropy. In theater we battle the chaos from the moment we decide to audition. We battle against it with the only tool we have, our reason. Our reason is partner to our ability to content with the unknown and unknowable. As a director it is my job to have an answer to any question. Give me your questions, your fear of the unknown, and I will chase away the fear. With confidence and talent we must beat back the darkness of half-built sets and half-known scripts. It is our job to be prepared for anything.

If, on opening night, bees erupt from the air ducts and begin assaulting the audience, it is our job to play “Flight of the Bumblebees”. If, on our second performance, a wild deer should find it’s way through the stage door and begin beating our leading lady with it’s cruel, sharp hooves, we must be prepared to leap at the beast with stage swords, slay the creature, dress it, and roast it over a pit for intermission. If, on the third night of our performance, our orchestra is engulfed in flames and half of the cast is afflicted with leprosy, the other half must be prepared to find a pianist and learn the lines of our leper brothers and sisters. We are prepared by knowing all of our lines and music. More than this we are prepared by knowing the lines and music of everyone else. We must know every exit and every entrance. Every cue and every song. We must live and breath the performance so wholly and completely that nothing short of complete and utter nuclear holocaust will stop the curtain from rising within a 10 minute window of our advertised start.

Tip #4: Assume no one else has paid attention to Tips #1 through #3.

No man is an island, but in the sea of theater we are all a little dingy. You can only ever be responsible for your own performance. Oh that you were not. The task of making performers better lays solely on the director and his or her staff. You must make YOUR performance the best it can possibly be, and while you can do this by knowing the abilities of those around you, you cannot influence them. You can learn another persons lines, but you cannot perform them. You can know another performers songs, but your mission must rest on knowing your own first and foremost.

If I am performing in Hoboken, New Jersey and we are performing “Showboat” in a pole barn, clad only in burlap sacks with only a rough shod and crudely painted riverboat as our set, I will still give the performance of a lifetime. Past the itching and the dropped lines and the casual ignorance I will deliver all of my lines with perfection and passion. Though my leading lady does not speak English and my orchestra consists of a washboard and two keys of marine band mouth harps, I will sing a rendition of “Old Man River” that will make grown and hardened men cry.
The jewel surrounded by dirt shines bright by spotlight. You must be that jewel.

If you are blessed to have the original Broadway cast at your disposal and Julie Andrews as your personal acting coach? All the better. But you cannot count on Julie Andrews. That woman has left me hanging too many times to count on her. You can not count on anything going right. You cannot count on your fellow performers to know what they are doing, or that your director has any idea what makes a good performance. By not counting on this, and by being prepared it will not matter. You will shine.

Tip #5: Assume you will always be poor.

Art is made for art’s sake. Mercenaries get paid.

Tip #6: Never sign a contract you don’t understand.

Or large men with bats will come for your grandma’s teeth.

Tip #7: Learn everything.

Only a fool doesn’t learn everything they can about theater. The convention that performers and technical professionals cannot commingle is a terrible fallacy. The more you understand about the process the better at everything you will be.

Tip #8: Live without fear.

Public speaking ranks as a humans greatest fear. More than death. Thespians are daredevils. The very worst that can happen is that we can all die and go to hell.

Tip #9: Perform with all your heart.

Go big or go home.

Tip #10: Always have a gig.

Even if it’s over an unknown horizon with uncertain prospects, always be looking to the next show. Be hungry for the stage.

Tip #11: Never let anyone walk over you.

Don’t let someone upstage you. Don’t let someone belittle you. Don’t let someone take advantage of you. Don’t allow yourself to be exploited unless it’s on your terms. Don’t let anyone convince you you cannot do something. Don’t believe everything you hear but listen to everything they have to say. Steal, but steal from the best. Shoot straight, conserve ammo, never make a deal with a dragon. Keep breaking legs until they run out of crutches. And, in the dark corners of your doubt and self-loathing, when all seems lost and there is not a friend to be found, remember that the stage will always welcome you with open arms, and the spotlight has been made to illuminate only you.

JT Liend
10-30-09

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