I was recently cast in a community stage production of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” playing the dour Judge Wargrave. In one scene, I am delivering a monologue, traveling around the stage, weaving myself in between the sofa and chairs occupied by other characters in the play. I am delivering Wargrave’s wise observations about a very strange occurrence that has left the group startled and confused and in search of a culprit.
The rehearsal process for this show was delayed by nearly two weeks, so by the time opening night came around, I was off book, but not by much. For this long monologue I took no chances. I married it to some very simple blocking, some easy and workable intentions and pinned myself to a prescribed routine for the first week of the run. When the second week of the run came around, I was confidently off book and felt my character wishing to expand.
At the core of Wargrave’s monologue was his intention to methodically expose an imposter in the group, a man who Wargrave knows is not who he claims to be. I stride around the stage, delivering my lines, all of this leading up to what is to be the big reveal a couple minutes later.
Striding past the imposter, I say, “… and someone has uttered some very definite accusations against us!”
The first week of the run, sinning on the side of safety, I delivered this line with an almost-boring simplicity — I recited it to the fourth wall (out into the audience) and then continued down the course of my established blocking, eventually leading me to the center of the stage. Tonight, however, with a successful week of performances under my belt, I felt confident in bumping my intentions up a notch. When it came time to deliver the line, “…and someone has uttered some very definite accusations against us,” rather than simply delivering the line to the fourth wall and moving on, as I had done the previous week, this time I looked down at the actor (playing the imposter) and stared piercingly into his eyes. I was Wargrave, front and center, in the moment, choosing to gaze at the character seated in front of me for a full two or three beats, a look that was intended to convey my inner thoughts: “I know who you really are!”
My stare down with the actor lasted about three seconds, but he must have mistaken my long pause as evidence that I’d gone up on my lines. Suddenly he blurted out his own line … one he wasn’t slated to deliver for three more pages! I guess he thought he was throwing me a life line, but had I jumped the chasm to pick it up from where he arbitrarily re-established the action, a big chunk of the play would have been cut out.
Luckily, an easy mode of improvisation was at hand; it was an easy save. I was able to stitch up the tear in the plot the actor had ripped with his leap into the future and carry on the way the play was supposed to unfold. The point of this anecdote is that sometimes your authenticity will catch actors off guard, especially actors who don’t like to venture out of the safe spaces they’ve forged for themselves; they embed their performances in proverbial concrete.
It’s a problem found more frequently in community theater productions — actors not knowing any better than to seal their performances into stone. There’s a difference between cinching down your performance (your blocking, your line delivery, etc.) and sinking it into cement. I like to say, a performance should fit like Spandex … tight enough to keep things in place, but not so tight as to prevent free movement. Because some actors think following a boxed in course of delivering a performance is what everyone else is supposed to do, they don’t expect their peers on stage to venture outside the box, either, and this is where the danger lies. Sometimes your authenticity and the evolution of your character can take people by surprise.
Unfortunately, there is no work around for this. There’s nothing you can do to compel other actors to allow their characters to evolve, so that their characters will seamlessly dance with yours when you try on new business. The best you can do is be true to the magic of authenticity while at the same time being careful not to throw other actors off their game. John Malkovich once said that if other actors couldn’t keep up with him, if they can’t adapt to what he’s throwing out for them, then “Fuck them!” he said. “It’s not my fault.” It’s not the kindest way of putting it, but the sentiment is viable; it’s not your fault if you’re a better actor than someone else on stage with you.