One of my colleagues told me a story about working with Liza Minelli, and some advice she passed on to him that she’d gotten from her father, the wonderful director, Vincent Minelli. “Do something interesting in the first minute you’re on.” We both laughed at the simplicity and difficulty of doing just that. And I told my friend how that corresponded to something I’d learned as a young director: Make sure you build in a moment that really works during the first few minutes of a performance, so the audience can give over to the actors. There’s a distinct click that takes place when the audience surrenders, and that’s got to happen in the first few minutes or you’ve lost them.
In a comedy, we recognize the click in the first solid laugh; in a drama, when they grow quiet and settle in to listen. But you can’t just drop your pants or enter weeping to get them involved. If you do something extravagant without it being IN CONTEXT, you’ll alienate the audience.
So how can actors apply Mr. Minelli’s advice? Good actors, not just writers and directors, care about these early moments of their work, in performance, in auditions, even in rehearsal.
My theory is that THE AUDIENCE SURRENDERS WHEN THEY FEEL THE ACTORS HAVE MASTERY OVER TIME AND PLACE, over circumstance. Remember the delicious feeling you get when you’ve stolen away to an afternoon performance and become completely absorbed? You’re actually shocked when you leave the theatre and discover it’s still daytime! Because you weren’t in the theatre, you were WHERE and WHEN the actors made you believe they were – Bedford Falls, Ridgemont High or Illyria, lady.
This is true of both realistic and stylized material. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a gritty crime drama or a musical comedy with no fourth wall and the actors directly addressing the audience, you can’t tell a story without establishing time and place. We can’t give up our reality unless yours is more compelling.
Want to try an experiment? Try to tell a story without citing time and place in the first couple of sentences. Try to tell a dream you’ve had, a joke, a memory. It’s all but impossible to set it up without time and place.
“We were on the front porch at sunset when . . . .”
“It was a dark and stormy night . . . .”
“A rabbit and a goat walk into a bar . . . .”
It’s how human beings tell stories.
Of course, actors are more than telling a story, they’re living out an arranged version of a particular story. Accordingly, you’ve got to do more than SHOW us time and place, you’ve got to be embedded in all the elements of circumstance: who, what, why, when and where. In class, I encourage the actors to select an opening moment that establishes time and place, grounds them in “the moment before,” and forces them to commit (you can’t back off a good opening moment). Here’s what one of my favorite students did with a monologue from “The Beaux Stratagem.” She was going to use this in an audition, so she had to be efficient and keep her work somewhat contained.
She enters and sits, carrying two small props that have been concealed in her pockets. She snaps open her fan (and she knows how to use it, so it makes a good and focusing noise), and starts reading to herself from a tiny leather-bound book, possibly a book of poetry. Her sensory work is good, so we quickly understand that she’s an urban person outdoors, trying to do a very indoor activity. Suddenly, she slaps her fan at her book and wrist, killing what seems to be a horrible insect. She turns over her fan, sees the dead, disgusting thing and says her first line, “Country pleasures? Racks and torments.”
Really brings that moment alive. Hear the click?