Preparing for a Role: Bits & Moments in the Grind

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It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted about my preparations for a role in the Central College Theatre Department’s production of Ah, Wilderness!. The last time I posted we had the show blocked and had begun the process of really digging into our characters and working the scenes in rehearsal.

One of the things that you learn in the rehearsal process is that, in most productions, there is a natural flow to it. The initial excitement and fun of launching into the work together eventually gives way to a rehearsal grind. You work the same scenes over and over and over again. You get tired of being there. You stop looking forward to rehearsal and feel a sort of “here we go again” groan as you head to the theatre. It’s natural. It will eventually lead to a second wind of excitement and adrenaline before performance. The rehearsal grind is necessary and profitable for finding deeper layers of understanding, relationship and authentic moments on stage.

“Bits” and “Moments”

It’s in the grind of working scenes over and over again that you begin to find “bits.” “Bits” are small actions on stage, typically physical in nature, that generally provide a little humor. For example, in one scene my character is coming home just in time for family dinner after having gotten a little tipsy at a Fourth of July picnic. The script calls for me to greet our housemaid, Nora, with a simple “Hello, Nora” while giving her a courtly bow. As we worked the scene I realized that I’m greeting Norah just as she’s coming out of the swinging kitchen door with a serving bowl full of hot soup. I suddenly thought it would be a funny to hide behind the door so she doesn’t see me as it swings open, then jump out from behind and scare the daylights out of her. The first time I did it I think I actually did give actor Abbi Hartman, who plays Nora, a small heart attack (sorry, Abbi!).  The bit got a good laugh, however, and Director Ann Wilkinson let me keep it in the show.

Compared to a physical bit, a “moment” is more of a relational connection that is made between two characters. It might not be verbal or physical. A moment could be a look or a silent connection. These moments begin to emerge only as you grind out the scene over and over again and delve deeper into the character and the circumstances that are happening within the scene. For an actor, there can be a feeling of magic when moments happen. In that moment the lines, blocking, and character work all combine to create a very real, very emotional moment between you and a fellow actor within the scene. This is when you know you’ve begun to press beyond just “going through the motions” and are creating a reality on stage which will cause audiences to suspend their disbelief and get lost in the world of the play.

For example, there is a subtle “moment” that happens when my character confronts his young son, capably played by Jacob Anderson, about whether he’s been trying to take advantage of his girlfriend. In his defense the 16 year-old son spills that he and the neighbor girl are engaged. As we worked the lines in the scene the reality of the moment sunk in that my 16 year-old son is surprising me with news that he’s engaged. That reality caused me to reel back with a look of paternal astonishment. That look, in turn, caused Jacob to respond with a defensive pull back and the way he played his next line changed. It’s a small moment, but it allowed me to feel that this is a very real moment between father and son.

Some of my other favorite moments happen in the final scene of the play in which my character and his wife, Essie, are sitting together in the quiet of a summer evening having a marital conversation about their children, the days events, and engaging in that subtle non-verbal dance of flirtation between husband and wife that eventually leads to bed (don’t worry – only the flirtatious non-verbal part is in the script). First of all, I have to compliment my fellow actor Tiki Steen who has had to face the challenging task of being a young female college student thrown into an on-stage marriage with a strange man old enough to be her father. Acting can put you in weird situations and Tiki has handled it with cheerful humor and a generous amount of maturity for an actor her age. I bring years of marital experience to the scene which helps tremendously. I can totally relate to late evening conversations about children and worries and subtextual flirtations that happen between husband and wife. Tiki has had to do the yeoman’s work of learning, exploring and discovering. The reward for both actor and audience is some very genuine moments that happen in the scene.

As I rolled out of bed this morning about 2 hours later than normal, Wendy commented on how much of a toll “the grind” of rehearsal has taken on me. When you work a part hard and rehearse well, it can tax you physically and mentally. I tend to come home from rehearsal tired, but buzzing from the experience. I have to take some time to wind down, debrief with Wendy about the rehearsal, have a small bite of something and a nightcap, and let my brain and body relax. That usually means getting to bed a little later than normal and being a little more worn out than usual.

The grind is over. Tomorrow is a long technical cue-to-cue rehearsal. Then it’s three dress rehearsals before opening night.

Ticket and Production Information for Ah, Wilderness!

8 thoughts on “Preparing for a Role: Bits & Moments in the Grind”

  1. Thanks for the intriguing, well-written post. As a dancer/choreographer, I have similar experiences (‘the grind,” the combined exhaustion and buzz after late night rehearsals and shows–tough with family life :)), but not the acting context. So, your details are cool to learn about. Break a leg and ENJOY! p.s. Thanks very much for the ping back.

    1. You are so very welcome. My wife is a lover of dance and we both enjoy the beauty and artistry of the form. Got a chance to see the Royal Ballet in London a few years back and were impressed with a chance to see the KC Ballet this past fall. All the best to you. I loved the poem and was glad to have a chance to send a few clicks your way!

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