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Prepare the Performer, Not the Performance?

July, 2002

I recently directed a production that included a very wide age range–everything from young people still living at home to aged grandparents. Of course, the older parts were played by older actors–a stroke of pure casting genius never seen before in the theatre. (Or do I exaggerate?)

One really fascinating part of the experience was seeing the difference between actors who are rather of the old school and those with much more recent training and development. The older actors are very concerned with establishing the details of the performance and sticking to them. They are trained in elocution, text interpretation, character study and traditional actor’s craft. On this line I will move here; when I hear another actor’s line I will turn and look, and so forth. It is an approach to acting that requires a particular kind of teamwork, rather like the precise execution of a ballet. If you change any part of it, the whole elaborate apparatus gets thrown off kilter.

The younger actors are very much the opposite. They do not want to "pre-can" anything. They don’t want to do a "frozen" performance. They want to be free to change what they do from night to night, to surprise each other and be surprised. They are trained in improvisation and theater games, and they expect to bring the fresh, unstudied quality of that kind of work to performing a text-based play.

Of course, there could be endless debates in the bar afterwards over all this. There could also be real trouble in rehearsal over this, if anyone from either side is too insistent on getting their own way. Fortunately, both sides of this debate worked together smoothly, allowing for what the others needed and find ways to bring their own values to the work without obstructing everybody else. Thank God for an all-female cast!

It’s hard to choose. In fact, I don’t think you have to choose. A couple of months ago, I wrote about how, in a workshop, an actor asked me, "Should I do this exercise as me, or as the character?" I could have launched into a long diatribe about the fallacy inherent in the question, but some little guardian angel of the theater tapped on my shoulder and whispered five magic words in my ear: "Find out where they meet." The same idea applies to this question of preparation versus improvisation. Find out where they meet. That’s your fertile ground and your golden opportunity.

Fundamentally, however, I think the basic answer does not lie in fixation of the details of the performance. It lies in preparing the performer. It really is no accident that Stanislavsky gave his book the title "An Actor Prepares." If the actor uses rehearsal to explore the possibilities and gathers a rich harvest of useful and beautiful stuff to work with, all the options remain open. There is no need to close the windows. The freedom to create anew each night is there, whether you take up the challenge or not; you might as well go for it. If you have stored up a wide variety of feelings, ideas, associations, image and actions, you have the fuel for all sorts and sizes and colors of fire. If you have lots of clever moves and turns and gestures that you have experienced once and can bring to life again, you have many bits and pieces to put into the puzzle. You have a wealth of artistic riches to draw upon, and you are ready and able to do so at will. So why rule out anything on the mere basis that it isn’t what we did last night?

So, in the end, I go out to the bar and I argue for preparing the performer, not the performance. I want my theater fresh-picked from today’s best produce, not pulled out of a refrigerator with the lettuce all wilted. I want to see well-prepared artists go where they find out they can go tonight, rather than going the same place they always go. It’s better, more rewarding, and more human that way. Prepare the performer–not the performance. And bring me another one of what I’m having, bartender.

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