Category: High School theater


There is no easy way to memorize  lines. You have to go over and over your lines until you know them cold.

You have to be able to say them automatically without giving them any thought. Like a knee jerk reaction. You hear your cue and – whoosh – the line magically pops out of your mouth.

The first thing to do is understand the play and where the plot goes. You need to know what happens first, what happens next, etc. in order to get a feel for what words happen when. Read and read and read the play until you understand the flow of the story.

If you are lucky, your lines will help move the plot along.

Her: Is she arriving tonight?

You:  Yes, I think her car just pulled up.

Your lines might be used to help flesh out a character or a setting. These might be harder to memorize because these lines don’t necessarily “connect” to what’s happening on stage, although they are important to the story.

Him: He’s a bit of a prude.

You: I saw him going into the movie theater yesterday.

Him: He usually stays at home and reads!

Your lines may be there to introduce a song or dance – lucky you, there will probably be some underscoring to cue you in (cue “The RRRain in Spain Stays Main-ly in the Play-hayne”).

There is no easy way to memorize (practice, practice) but everyone has a particular system for making the lines stick:

1. Writing your lives down – may be tedious if you have a big part

2. Talk into a recorder – record your cues and leave a space for your response.

3. Flash cards – with your cues on them; flip them over for your actual line.

4. Cover the line as you are reading them – read your cue, see if you know what your next line is.

5. Work with a partner – he/she must be dedicated to helping you and very patient.

6.  Look carefully for clues or signals in your lines or in your cues. One of the most obvious are alphabetical order (or a change in order). “Don’t be silly. Of course you are. You heard what the Master said.” Look for relations between words – similar prefixes or suffixes. Looks for rhymes. Listen for rhythms. Listen for similar sounding words or sounds.

Him:  She’s crazy.

You: But she keeps everyone on their toes.

7. Discover the key words in your lines. They may provide guideposts and help you move forward.

These aids will only work after you have put in time to memorize. Begin memorizing as soon as you can in case it takes longer than you anticipate. Read the line, look away, and try to commit the words to memory. Repeat many times. You must focus on engaging the brain for this. No true multi-tasking, although many find it useful to move while memorizing.

If you’ve never had to memorize lines before, you may find this need to focus to be a challenging experience but extremely rewarding for two reasons.

One, focusing will enable you to learn your lines.

Two, focusing will help you during the run of the play. How?

In the real world, we live in a world of distractions. Happily, you can memorize where there are distractions – on the subway, in a library, at the park, while working out. When you focus, you find that your brain no longer recognizes the distractions around you and you only think of the words. And this will serve you well when the time comes for performance.  You will have trained your brain to focus. Your focus will be on the actions on stage (and awareness of your audience). When the cell phone goes off, the audience member coughs, or the plane flies overhead, you won’t hear it.

You will be like an athlete making a shot at the foul line  in spite of cheering, and jeering, fans.

Don’t try to begin to memorize lines while you are driving. Your focus has to be on the road. Once your lines are memorization, PERHAPS you can recite while driving. But, please, focus on the road for everybody’s safety.

Rehearsing with your fellow actors will help tremendously as you begin to learn your lines. You will move on stage, adding muscle memory to words. You will hear the lines and inflections of other actors which will help you understand where the scene is going. You may have props and items on the set to work with – it will be easier to remember “How fragile this is,” when you’ve just picked up a piece of glass!

You are allowed to be imperfect during the early rehearsal process.

Learn the line exactly as written. It is not OK to paraphrase or ad lib your lines and consider them memorized. You don’t know which of your words your fellow actor is using for their cue – they are expecting to get their cue from you as written.

After you have a good (not perfect) grip on your lines, you can begin developing your character. But first you have to know your lines.

What tricks have you found to help memorize lines? What are some of the problems you’ve come up against?

You’re standing in the middle of an empty stage, nervously waiting for day one of rehearsals to begin. You’ve read the play, maybe had a chance to sit and read it with the other people involved with the show. But today is the first time you will be moving around on the actual stage.

Do you have your script? Good. Do you have a pencil with an eraser? Good.

Get ready for your blocking.

No, not mental blocking. Blocking is the activity in which people are directed to move on the stage in a regular, repeatable pattern.

One of the first things you have to know in order to go to the right place is where “north, south, east and west” are on a stage.

Moving downstage is moving towards the audience and moving upstage is moving away from the audience..

Why?

One story is that, back in the “old days,” the audience sat on a flat floor, not on a tilted one like you find today in a movie theater. In order that everyone could see what was going on, on the stage, the stage itself was slightly tilted towards the audience.

Therefore, walking towards the audience was literally walking downhill. Down the stage. Shortened to downstage.

Uphill was the opposite. It was heading away from the audience to a higher level on the tilt. So going away from the audience is known as going upstage.

The problems of working on a tilted stage are obvious and numerous. Items would slide of the stage into the laps of the audience. Balance was more difficult. And walking for hours on a slant was hard on feet, knees, back – the entire body!

Quickly, as the size of the audience grew, theater construction  plans adjusted so that the stage was flat and the audience sat in tiers, at a tilt, in order to see the stage. But the name for the stage directions stayed.

Left and right are a little more difficult to remember, but only if you are not on stage facing the audience. These directions are given in your perspective as an actor on stage. In other words, as you stand on the stage and look in front of you at the audience, left is on your left and right is on your right.  If the person telling you where to move says “Move two steps stage left” you take two steps left. “Exit stage right” means turn right and leave!

Easy.

Of course, it is more of a problem for the person who is sitting in the audience telling you which way to go – he or she must reverse their own perspective to fit with yours. The directions are always given to match the point of view of an actor facing the audience.

Center stage is the middle of the stage. The house is where the audience sits.

This diagram shows the directions on a stage, from the point of view of the actor facing the audience.

images

I’ve written too much for the introduction to the January play. The three pages, including quotes, are confusing. Should I knock it down to one? Forget the quotes completely? Just go into the play and assume the audience will figure it out?

But I now like giving the whole play a situation to work within. It gives the play an anchor, in a way. Originally written for high school students, the play had a built-in anchor – “We want you to understand the Sonnets because it’s part of your curriculum.” But, now, people are just walking in off the street, so to speak, and have no assumed context for this play. That it is a series of scenes means that it has no story to tell from beginning to end – it’s just a bunch of potentially unrelated stories. So the intro provides a way for the scenes to connect. A reason for them to exist.

What about the dance at the end? It is traditional. Plus, I want to do it. I’ve almost always added dance to my plays. But will it be confusing to the audience? Or will it provide the energetic and emotional “boost” that I hope it will. Right now, I imagine that the actors will wear contemporary dress, so their dancing will be in jeans, Dockers,  sneakers and boots. The women will probably not be wearing dresses, although dresses would look better for dancing. So how will it all look? I think the ending dance is a great way for each actor to take a bow, but will the audience go for it?

The vision I have in my head is clear, although some of my ideas are stronger than others. Each scene must tell a compelling story. As an audience, we must be engaged with the characters. The part of Shakespeare , the character called “Bard” whose job it is to recite the sonnet during each scene,  is to be shared by all – it’s too big a part for any one person. I would love to have the sonnets recited by actors with different accents. Any way we can blend the contemporary and the “Renaissance-ian” using props, costume pieces, and/or the set, is peachy by me.  In the closing, it would be fun if we could bring the stage hands (if there are any) into the curtain call/dance.

I won’t have time to do all 16 scenes, so I will have to eliminate at least six, possibly seven scenes, depending on how much time the intro ends up taking. I only have 60 minutes, including set up and take down, for the entire play. I also have to have a minimum number of scenes – I can;t go out there with a 25 minute play – and I’m not a writer so I can’t write filler. Scene changes will only take so long, and I can’t have a troubadour come in, singing songs,  to eat up time!

I’m preparing this for a competition. I’m in it to win it.

I’m directing a one-act of Shakespeare’s sonnets.  It consists of 16 sonnets, with accompanying scenes which show how the sonnets relate to real-life situations. At the reading I had a few weeks ago, the feedback was generally very positive, which I found affirming and encouraging.

However, one suggestion I received was that there be an introduction in order to explain to an audience which may not be familiar with Shakespeare, what was going to be going on. My reaction was that this was not necessary because:

  1. You don’t need to give an introduction to a play, you just do the play
  2. The audience would be pretty familiar with Shakespeare
  3. I didn’t have an introduction to do and I’m not a writer (clearly)

But I’ve given it more thought and the fact is that most people are not familiar with Shakespeare. Many have only learned that Shakespeare is irrelevant and indecipherable. They know from the outset that they won’t “get it” so they don’t put themselves through the misery of trying to understand – it’s so much easier to watch a sit-com on TV.

This one-act is for a competition but it’s also for a general audience. And, although the judges will be familiar with Shakespeare, the general audience will not. Most will especially be unfamilar with the sonnets. So, if I can create an atmosphere where the general audience will be more comfortable, I will be serving them well, although perhaps diminishing my chances with the judges by suggesting that the judges are dumber than they actually are.

I want to hit on three aspects of discomfort that, IMHO,  general audiences have with Shakespeare and with the sonnets specifically.

  1. Shakespeare wrote in unintelligible language that no one, not even the British, understand anymore.
  2. What was taught  in school about Shakespeare absolutely killed any interest there might have been.
  3. Poetry is for wimps and is almost as unintelligible as Shakespeare’s language. Put them together and you have a recipe for disaster.

So I must address these three strikes against enjoying the play I will present. I must face them and diffuse them.

It’s as if you are in a crowd listening to a stand-up comedian playing to a home town audience. All around you , you see people breaking down in laughter and you just don’t get what is so funny. Because the jokes are part of a different culture, you are at a loss. However, with a little information and encouragement you can become part of the audience enjoying the show.

I believe it is the same with Shakespeare. Shakespeare was the most popular playwright of his time. His audiences, even those dumb, uneducated “groundlings” who couldn’t afford a seat and paid to stand for the entire performance, got his jokes, felt his pain, understood the yearning, hopes and thoughts of his characters. We are not dumber than those groundlings, we’re just part of a different culture. With a little information and encouragement, we can be part of that  audience of 400 years ago and enjoy the same show.

My introduction will try to bridge the 400 year old gap, simply, in one minute or less, and will pick up the general audience which will be viewing my production. I will be like  Alice stepping through the looking-glass and holding out a hand to the viewer to come along. I will inform and encourage and will bring them to my side of the mirror. However, unlike Alice, I don’t have any absuridty to reveal, but the universal reality that travels through time and hits the mark in today’s world.

It’s a tall order and is going to take some thought. It’s probably grossly unrealistic. But I believe that Shakespeare well done is plain ol’ good theater and can grab the contemporary audience, if the audience can be convinced to relax, to not be afraid, and to let themselves be open for the experience.

 

 

Continuing from the earlier discussion of how to select a play, let me start with:

6. Royalties and Scripts

The play publisher will provide information on how much it costs to “rent” the right to do the play. That is, the royalty. This information is available in the print catalog and on-line. Often, the amount is based on the size of the house – how many people you can potentially pull in to see your show per performance. Sometimes you can simply count seats, sometimes you have to give a rough estimate. It is not based on how many people actually see the show per performance.

The publisher may also want to know how many performances you plan and how much you will charge for tickets. Sometimes, the royalty is more for the first performance and less for subsequent performances.

You must pay your royalties before you perform your play. No exceptions.

You must purchase a script for everyone who needs one. That not only includes the cast, but also the director, the stage manager, and the technical crew chiefs.

Musicals are very different.

7.  Timing and Season

By season, I don’t mean summer, winter, spring and fall. I mean the time in the theatrical season when you are doing the play.

Traditionally, the fall is the start of the season. This is when you get new actors, new audience members, and a fresh start.

In schools, drama clubs present a play in the fall with a slightly smaller cast that includes a core of experienced actors from the previous school year. The show is designed to interest the student body (and faculty) with the drama club activities and, of course, with theater in general. In community theater, the opening show will often set up the  “theme” for the coming season.

Winter is the time for holiday audiences. Be sensitive to religious issues. Be aware of how fall holidays will affect your rehearsal schedule and plan accordingly. Some theaters do a musical and skirt the religious dilemma of a Christmas/holiday play altogether. The theater I’m currently associated with is doing the musical “Cinderella” both before and after the holiday break. Brilliant!

Very often, theater companies will finish the season (usually in the spring) with a musical.

Summer theater, including theater camps, usually do a musical or Shakespeare. You can find many adaptations of both.

8. Your Team

You need to be realistic about what resources you have to work with. By resources, I mean human resources. The more experienced a team you work with, the more complex a show you can perform.  If you don’t have an experienced set builder, please think twice about doing a play that calls for three sets, indoor and outdoor (interior and exterior), with a second story kitchen that needs running water. If you don’t have access to costumes, re-consider doing a “period piece’ (a play set in a specific time period that needs specific wardrobe and sets). If you are the only one who is  interested in and has the necessary skills to put costumes together, build the set, and/or play the music, please  rethink your play. You simply cannot do it all.

But do not despair. Many, many fine plays are simple, one set, contemporary costume plays which will delight your audience and take you and your team to unimaginable heights of skill and creativity. Save your challenges for the story.

Actors of all abilities and experience will audition (no, ability and experience do not necessarily go hand in hand). Be prepared for some to rise to the occasion, and some to disappoint. It happens. My experience is that more women audition than men. Good singers and good dancers are rare. People who can do both well are very rare! Everyone can memorize lines but not everyone has the time or inclination to work as needed on memorizing.

On the other hand, do not hesitate to challenge yourself and your team. Theater is the finest example of the impossible being made possible. The challenges will allow everyone to increase both their skill level and their knowledge and will allow you to benefit in the future by being able to do more complex plays.

Always encourage your actors to work backstage, and your backstage crew to audition.

9.  Past Experience – You, Your Team, Your Audience

If you are working in an active theater group for which you have established actors and crew, and the audience has stuck with the theater for years, you will have a relatively easy time of it. You must keep the challenges of bringing something new to the table, but your team will be able to stretch as needed – they know what they are doing.

But what if you are new, they are new, you’re starting from scratch? If you’ve picked the right play (following my suggestions, of course) and find something that you find interesting, you will probably have a good experience.

Choose a play that your new audience will find gratifying and will enjoy. Usually, for first time theater-goers, that means a comedy or a musical. If you can choose something they have read in school or have seen in television/in the movies, they will be at ease with the story and can focus, subconsciously, on the experience of live theater. You want to make them as comfortable as possible, at least for this first time out.

Same goes for your new actors. Try to find characters that are close to people they may know – never, ever, cast a 13-year-old as a Grandfather. You don’t want to become just another example of the ” gray-hair-spray-and-wrinkle-make-up” cliché.  Seriously.

10.  Potential

Take the long view of your theater experience. Whether you will do your next show in a month, six months, or a year, you will be excited by the experience and people will be expecting you to come up with something even better the next time. Decide whether you are ready for a drama, a musical, a mystery. Perhaps you want to focus on classics – those plays that people talk about (The Crucible, The Diary of Anne Frank, Death of a Salesman, etc) but most people have never seen. Perhaps there is an author whom you really enjoy – Neil Simon, William Shakespeare, Stephen Sondheim – and focus on his (or her) works. Perhaps you want to focus on adaptations of well-known stories (The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, Robin Hood). Go online and find out what is popular among theaters of your caliber and do what they do! Why not? Pretty soon you’ll be heading out on your own, anyway.

There are many factors to consider as you  decide on a play to produce. You have to go with your gut feeling – your head and heart have to be in sync. You will always be taking a risk and you cannot predict how the show will be on opening night. Doing theater is a wonderful, desireable endeavor that is truly necessary for the human experience. People will enjoy it, and some people really need that creative outlet.

 

Lists are popular on-line, so I thought it might be a good time to present one of my own. It is a top ten list but, in truth, there are an infinite number of issues you must keep in mind as you find and settle on a play. However, since I do not have an infinite amount of time (and you do not have an infinite amount of interest), I have settled on these few. Perhaps these are in order of importance.

1. Your Interest

This is one aspect of play selection that I have never, ever seen addressed but, for me, is the most important. Selecting a play is like selecting a mate. You are going to be intensely involved with this play for months. And I do mean intensely. Not a day will go by when you do not deal with this play in one way or another. You will make phone calls about it. You will take the script on vacation with you. You will work with it on weekends. You will sacrifice family time for it. It will become all-encompassing to your life so you better pick a play that is compatible with your head and heart. If you do a classic, you need to pick one that grabs you. If you do an elementary school play, you need to pick one you want to look at every single day.  If you do a musical, enjoy the songs. You can get frustrated with it, you can lose your temper with it, you can hit a brick wall with it, but you must not get bored with it.

Do not take other people’s word for what is a great play and what is not. Many times, I’ve lost interest reading Tony Award winning plays. Many times, something quirky in a catalog turns out to be the perfect play. You have to read and go with your gut. If you don’t love what you’ve read, read something else. This is one of the most important aspects of finding a play. Find something that you love, and don’t worry if no one else loves it.

2. Your Audience

You might think that your actors would be the second most important thing, but, IMHO, your audience is next. Your playwright has a story to tell and he or she wants to tell it to the audience, not to you. If your audience can’t get what you give, you’ve wasted your time and effort. If you have an audience of “seasoned” season ticket holders, you know what to expect from them and they know what to expect from you. You are on a similar wavelength and you promise to provide new, interesting, challenging performances and they promise to keep up with the challenge.

But, say you are starting out new in an area which has not had theater before or has not had successful theater before (it happens). For example, say the new principal wants to revive the school drama club and you’ve been tapped. Yikes!! Where to begin?

I suggest you start out with something popular. Comedy, for sure – people like to laugh. Begin with a sure hit – Neil Simon perhaps? For younger audiences, fairy tales and nursery rhymes go well. If you begin with a story the audience is somewhat familiar with, they will be willing to see it and meet you half way. If you start with something that scares them off, you’re just making it harder for yourself. Save Shakespeare for your second offering. I love Shakespeare, but I don’t advocate it as a first offering for a new audience.

On the other hand, don’t play the audience dumb. You have to give them something that makes it worth their while to have spent the time and money to see. They want to experience something new, eye-opening, brain awakening. Demonstrate to them why live theater is better than television.

3. The Theater

Your venue is an important factor in selecting a play. If your auditorium is being renovated and you find yourself in the school lobby,  you may have to rethink doing a play that depends upon lots of quick lighting changes. If you will perform outside, you may have to rethink that small, intimate one-person play. Do you have lights? Do you have a lighting board? Do you have wings (wings are the spaces on either side of the stage where people and objects can be stored while waiting to be brought on stage during the run of a play)? Do you have a curtain? Where will the audience sit? On the floor? In folding chairs? Below you? Around you? Above you?   If you have a large cast, where will you put them when they are not on stage? And if you’ve never heard of a cafetorium . . .  well, just count your blessings.

4. The Actors

Finally, the actors. But, before we get to them, just remember for a moment your purpose in doing the play. Do you want to peak the audience’s interest in theater? Good acting will be important. Do you want to get people involved? A play that needs a large cast will be good. No matter what you want, the fact is that you have absolutely no control over who auditions for a play. The perfect person for the part may be out of town for performances so won’t try out. You get no dancers for a dance-heavy show. No singers for a musical. It happens and you have no control so realize that right off the bat.

I am not in favor of asking people to audition or pre-casting. It puts a bad taste in the mouths of those who did not get asked or pre-cast, even though they will be as gracious and kind about it as can be.  It also says something about you that is not the most flattering. That’s not to say that you can’t find out if someone is planning to audition and start creating your cast in your mind ahead of time.

A little about casting. Suppose during auditions one person is amazing! Head-and-shoulders far better than anyone else who has auditioned! Clearly the star! Be careful. You want to create an ensemble and if one person is TOO good, although it sounds counter-intuitive, it will put the show out of balance. Of course, the hope is that the better, more experienced actors in a cast will help the new or less experienced cast members rise to the top. Your job will be to make that happen.

5. Technical Demands

I’ve touched on this earlier when addressing the venue. Just be aware that if you chose a show that depends upon special effects – a rainstorm, fireworks, a fight scene, a toilet dripping from an upstairs apartment, someone disappearing on stage – you have to do a good job in pulling these off. Don’t exclude a show just because it calls for these effects, just keep those demands in mind. Some you will be able to do, some not. Stick to your abilities yet don’t be afraid to challenge yourself and your crew. Your audience will be delighted when you rise to the occasion.

 

Keep in mind that every single rule here has an exception. Sometimes you do Shakespeare at the outset. Sometimes you do the Music Man in the lobby. Sometimes the star is the best person who auditioned.  Sometimes you fall in love with a play and make it work in spite of all obstacles. These are just considerations, not set-in-stone rules.

 

To be continued.

 

 

 

As a new producer/director or theater, or as just a friend of theater, one of the first questions you may have is “How do you find a play to do?”

It’s not as difficult as it sounds – in fact, there are more plays out there, waiting to be performed, than any person could possibly do in a lifetime. There are millions of people who have written plays – some great, some terrible – who would love to have you read, admire, and produce their creation.

The easiest way to find a play is to get a catalog of plays. There are many companies who do just that. These publishing companies acquire the rights to publish and handle the work of playwrights. They put these plays together in catalogues and hope that someone like you will be intrigued enough by the write-up in the catalog to want to purchase and read the play.

These companies are in business to get plays read and produced. That is how they make their money. Therefore, they are very helpful and accommodating to your needs. They have on-line resources that are designed to make it easy for you to find many, many plays that suit your needs and interests.

You can find classics, musicals, dramas, comedies, mysteries, plays for youth, plays for older actors. You can find Christmas plays, Halloween plays, Valentine’s Day plays, You can find plays for elementary school, junior high school, high school, college and community theater. You can find plays for one person, two people, thirty or more, and everything in between. You can find plays by authors that everyone has heard of. You can find plays by authors whom no one has heard of. You can find “full-length” plays, one-act plays, and ten-minute plays. You can find plays for women, men, gay, Asian, African-American, Jewish, Latino actors, and any combination thereof.

If there is a play that you have heard of or seen (stage play- movies and television are a whole different ballgame) and you want to read it, you can do it. Some may be easier to find than others, but it can be done. The cost of buying a “perusal” copy is usually low enough that most theater professionals have hundreds, if not thousands of copies of plays that they have purchased. Perusal copies allow a person to decide if they like the play enough that they want to produce it. The situation is a little different for musicals but the general idea is the same. Of course, many plays, particularly those considered “classics” are available in libraries and on-line. Many are also available in collections.

The editions of plays that script publishing companies sell are usually acting editions. Acting editions are not the large, pretty, glossy scripts that you find in a bookstore. They are usually small enough to fit, folded, in a jeans back pocket, where they will often be found during rehearsal. They are printed on relatively coarse paper and are meant to be written in (pencil only, please) and can take many erasures (I told you to use pencil) because the actor, hopefully, writes their notes in this script. The more well-known the playwright (Christopher Durang, for example) or the more successful the play (Tony Award winning, for example) the glossier the edition.

Some plays are only available in manuscript form – that is, printed out on sheets of regular paper. If you download scripts off the internet, of course that will be the form you will print out.

It is never, ever, a good idea to make a copy of a play. The simple reason is that writers depend on you buying their creations in order to make a living. If you just copy their stuff, they never see a penny and go broke. Enough said, don’t make copies.

So, if you are looking for a play, have no fear. You will not have any problem finding one. Your problem will be in choosing among the hundreds that will interest and intrigue you.