Unlocking LiFT 12: The Brass Lantern Live Rehearsal

By Matt Powers

We live in interesting times. Radio has made a comeback in the form of podcasts. The public has a desire to see how a show is created. Shows like Prairie Home Companion were popular in their day because they produced sound effects live, and now, with The Brass Lantern, we have the opportunity for a hybrid performance. Sure some of our effects are digital, but many we can reproduced live. But this isn’t about sound effects! Not yet! Back to directing.

Script Additions and Aids

While not a memorized show, it is still helpful to have some additional notes in a performance script. As my actors have requested, I’ve added several notes, cues, and other matters in the script so that they have a handy reference during the live performance. This isn’t so much that their memories are faulty, or that they didn’t take notes, rather there is an air of wanting to do very well, and they want to be sure to “get it right.”

Which is alright with me, it is a bit more work on my end, but this is worth it, and has an unforeseen benefit. It forces me to make my vision for the show much clearer, more potent. Not only is clarity beneficial for the actors, as it provides direction (ha, see what did there?), but allows them a solid foundation from which to build their character upon. Actors can piece together words, tones, and actions in unique ways – and I, for one, am the last to get in the way of that, but it certainly does help even the most seasoned actor to have a starting point. And, selfishly, this exercise helps my writing and my ability to communicate. Which is always beneficial.

Stage Presence

Transitioning from voice acting to live stage performance is a bit tricky at times. Actors get used to the privacy, intimacy, flexibility, and reproducibility of recording in a studio. It is very similar to television and film acting – if you mess up, you just do it again. Don’t nail the line? It’s alright. Do it again and stitch together the best bits.

Performing live, obviously, takes away this safety net, and when that happens, some actors retreat inside themselves, and their charisma and entertainment subside. At times like this, it is the responsibility of the director not only to put the actor at ease with reassurances, so they can flourish and be their radiant selves, but to guide them through the show with a clear plan. Then rehearse it enough so everyone is on the same page.

At that point, it is important that everyone has some fun, and draws out their character. Acting is fun after all, and if that’s not happening among the actors and director, that will clearly be evident to the audience. “If we’re not having fun, they’re not having fun.” I’ve said this many times to my actors, have seen it to be truthful, and will continue to say it until I’ve been proven wrong.

Timing / Fluidity

Certain moments and beats need to timed well to convey the moment accurately, with emotional intensity and clarity. Really, it’s about what information the audience needs to understand at that moment. Our job is to make that very clear.

In drama, or more serious portions of theater, timing functions a bit differently. In comedy, humor is generated through quick pacing, expression of the dialogue, and posture (as well as an actor’s awareness of laughter). With more serious work, those same concepts are in play, but in reverse essentially.

In the clip above, we see Matthew Arnold (played by A.G. Devitt) talking with Elaina Dare (played by Laura Powers). Arnold is home from his stint in the war, where horrors have scarred him, has difficulty confessing the whole truth about Elaina’s father, St. John.

Much of the work that we focus on here is accurately conveying Arnold’s character, and the difficulty he has with opening up to people. Contrasting Arnold, Elaina needs to come across as fierce, independent, capable, and understanding.  The scene also has elements of romance, as two characters, despite their foibles, are discovering they care about the other.

Its a dynamic scene with much to show to the audience, and great character development. The awkwardness, the risk-taking of emotional expression, and the wonder of discovering a new person (as well as new things about yourself), I think all of us can relate to. It becomes a matter of making the moment real. To that end, we opted for a slower pace of dialogue, with longer pauses to help show both the difficulty of being truthful and thoughts simmering below the surface. Character spacing also matters, we wanted the characters close to establish some intimacy, but far enough way to show distancing. Posture and mannerisms do similar work.

While the scene isn’t perfect yet, it is moving in the right direction. All it takes now is practice.

Till soon,

Matt

Unlocking LiFT 11: “Where’s the Cheesecake” Rehearsal

By Matt Powers

Since the inauguration of the Little Falls Cheese Festival four years ago, we have put on a series of original one-act, radio-theater style plays. We have a recurring cast of characters and actors, and are in the same venue each year.

These shows are great fun to direct. And that’s the point, right? Why have theater that isn’t fun? There is a time and a place for that kind of theater, but, for us, for the Cheese Festival in the throes of July heat, we prefer light, witty comedy. Even though we have a lot of fun, there are always things to work on.

Timing – Timing is crucial in any comedy. Getting the right preparation, delivery, and the right pacing all contribute to good timing. The best comedians excel in this areas, and know, in and out, how to make a joke funny. The same applies in theater where actors need to know what the joke is, how to prep it, and how to deliver it. With verbal and witty jokes, the burden is on the “straight man.” They need to establish a “normal” which the other character, the “foil,” can make a punch-line against. Sometimes the normal is composure, sometimes it is madcap, either way a baseline needs to be established in order for it to be upended.

Actors. Always on break.

So part of the rehearsal was geared toward allowing the actors to learn which role they played in the joke. Not everyone can be the punch-line person, but without the “straight man,” jokes fall flat. It takes some time, particularly getting the speed and delivery right, but once it hits – it is absolutely worth the time.

Voice Acting – These Cheese Festival shows have evolved into a hybrid. They are part radio-theater, part reader’s theater, or as our authors dubs it “theater for the air.” Since actors have script in hand, and our performance space is rather small, we don’t have much room for movement or blocking. So, like the old-time-radio personalities, we need to rely heavily on voice acting.

The full cast reading the first few pages. From left to right: Katie Drake, Tom Stock, Cindy Quackenbush, Ginny Clapp, Tucker Lester, Al McDowell, and Oscar Stivala.

Voice Acting is all about being distinctive. A character’s voice needs to be iconic and convey things like: age, gender, education, geographic location, physical size, personality traits, and more. So much time is spend on character voicing, not only to capture the essence of the character, but to fit in the overall comedic design. If a particular voice, or voicing, is making a joke unclear, then it needs to be tweaked. Oftentimes I’ll say to the cast, “We need more. Really bring that out. Or don’t be afraid to be a bit over-the-top here, I’ll tell you when its too much,” just to put them at ease and perform in energetic ways.

Script Adjustments – Finally, the script. We go through a rigorous reading process. Angela sends me a draft. I read it and give feedback. She edits, has others read it, and then we get it out to the cast. During the first few read-thrus,  we make alterations here and there, but it isn’t until we actually read it in our performance space that the script becomes finalized.

More script changes.

Several times during that rehearsal, I’d wander over to Angela, ask a question about the script or a cue, and get clarification. After we decided to cut, or add, something, I’d stop rehearsal, tell the cast what the change was, and have everyone mark it in their scripts. I know in some cases actors get very annoyed by this process, but they are good to us, and know that they too are part of the process and want to have an excellent product. It is sometimes time-consuming, but it works.

All of these things happen simultaneously, so it is a bit difficult to accurately convey how rehearsal goes, but they are vital for creating a fun, lively, comedy. And if we didn’t pay attention to these things, why are we creating theater?

Till soon,

Matt

Unlocking LiFT 10: The Communal Story

By Matt Powers

Community theater is the only theater. Blasphemy, I know. Particularly since community theater is see as pretty low on the totem pole. There are regional theaters, for- profit and not-for-profit professional theaters, Broadway which all have greater “status” or “respectability” than community theater.  It’s all hooey really.

The roots of theater grip into the community. The Greeks held multi-day celebrations with theatrical contests. Plays written by Sophocles or Euripides and others used familiar stories, religious deities, and local people to entertain, examine social and philosophical issues. Sure part of this was religious in nature, but much of it too was a community coming together to create new work from a talented artist, where the work directly related to the people of that time. Two thousand years later, we still do the same thing.

 

Making theater is about the journey we experience as a group, and how the stories we spin entertain and connect with our community. We all have lessons to offer, and we all have things to learn from stories. It is our duty to bring them to life, present them, and, hopefully, impact the community to get them talking. Spark discussion. Promote reflection.

If this is absent, the community suffers from this lack of discourse. It also misses out on opportunities to see the world through a different perspective. Take, for instance, Trifles by Susan Glaspell. First performed in Provincetown in 1916, this one-act play deals with an investigation of Mr. Wright’s death in his home. The male characters look for clues, while their wives talk. The ladies too investigate, examining the kitchen, her sewing, and the deceased pet bird she adored. They quickly realize that the Mrs. Wright indeed murdered her husband by considering her life, whereas the male characters barely consider it. The inherent feminism in the play adds to the community and shows inequality in that community. Possibilities for discussion, reflection (and hopefully change), are now available to make the community tighter and stronger.

With LiFT, we began Strike Story, continued with summer Shakespeare, but have now expanded to include radio-theater with The Brass Lantern, and have a foothold in an upcoming production of The Laramie Project. While we typically focus on new work (Strike Story and Lantern), because their themes are most relevant to our community, older and pre-produced work also bears important thematic concerns for our community.

Part of the job of artists, particularly theater artists, is to see the bigger picture of their community, and then create work that addresses it, to promote dialogue and reflection, and to make their community a better place to live.

A healthy community needs a healthy theater. No matter what size.

Till soon,

Matt