11 February 2014

Reflections on Theater Etiquette

by Kirk Woodward

[If it seems like I’m turning ROT over to my friend Kirk Woodward, you aren’t far from wrong.  (Well, to be honest, starting the blog was his idea.)   Kirk turned in “Religious Drama,” posted this past 24 January, and he’s got another piece in the pipeline for me (and his daughter has one in progress as well!).  This time around, Kirk examines how actors behave back stage and on stage while they’re working—or at least how they should behave.  Actors have all kinds of reputations, not all of which are even valid (thanks to Hollywood’s fictional portrayals), but one thing is (and has to be) so: they’re a sensitive lot.  Not just in the meaning of perceptive or even touchy, though those characteristics are part of the equation.  Actors, like many other artists, can be easily thrown by even the most minor intrusions or disruptions, derailed from the tracks of their work or performance.  Think of it as the performance equivalent to the dust particles that can ruin a delicate lab experiment.  What looks to outsiders like a kind of narcissism is usually nothing more than artistic self-defense.  Most theater etiquette comes from efforts over the centuries to minimize tectonic disturbances.]

What’s it like to work in theater? People get their impressions of the answer to this question from many sources – for example, from popular songs, like Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” (Annie Get Your Gun, 1946), with its cheery opinion that show folk “smile when they are low.” A little less general, perhaps, is Cole Porter’s presentation of first night jitters in “Another Openin’, Another Show” (Kiss Me, Kate, 1948). Positively glum – except for the bright music – are the many details of life on the road as described in Stephen Sondheim’s “The Glamorous Life” (A Little Night Music, 1973).   

And then there are the many movies and TV shows, for example, All About Eve (1950) and Smash (2012–2013), that present theater as a cauldron of bitterly competitive relationships and combative personalities. Those show folk! How frenetic! How bizarre!

So it may be useful to affirm that behind the scenes, theater isn’t all that different from “real life” for teachers, soldiers, cashiers, clerks, the clergy, or any other group of people working together. All work situations have their tensions and conflicts, as the comic strip Dilbert demonstrates daily. Actors, we say with only slight hesitation, are people too. (“They are?” says Max Bialystock in The Producers. “Have you ever eaten with one?”)

But there are structural differences between acting and other careers. There are very few other work situations where every job is temporary, and also where one’s job performance is actively judged by every person who comes in contact with it. A bricklayer, laying bricks, doesn’t have every person who will ever walk on that sidewalk commenting on how well the bricks are being laid. Actors lay bricks – alas, sometimes in more than one sense – in front of everyone, and everyone has an opinion on the result.

In the current environment of live theater, every actor is a step away from the breadline, and there just aren’t that many jobs available. In an article in the New York Times some years ago (“Broadway’s Anonymous Stars” by Peter Marks, February 2, 1996), a brilliant actress and singer (Liz Callaway) described how, a few months after getting a Tony Award nomination, she was working in a gift shop, because she couldn’t find another role.

In nations where the theater is subsidized, the situation is less dire, but the constant question of failure or success is still there. Actors, in other words, are always on the brink. The natural result is a heightened level of tension, which can express itself in various forms, like competitiveness, anxiety, superstition… Even a routine rehearsal is an Event, with a degree of success and failure riding on it, and with the great purpose of creating some sort of a work of art giving an additional dimension to the experience.

Because theater is in some ways different from everyday life, people do sometimes behave somewhat differently in it. That’s what this piece is about – stage etiquette, that is, how people behave in the theater, as opposed to how they perform. Those are two different things. Sometimes they are harder to keep separate than one might expect. Theater people sometimes feel, act, and even believe that the world of the theater is the only world there is. Sometimes there are consequences for feeling that way.

Theater people have a reputation for being extravagant, unpredictable folks. Some are, of course. Most, though, would never stand out in a crowd, except for that undefinable something that compels them to go on the stage in the first place. However, because of the nature of their work, actors tend to be insecure people, and this insecurity can lead to strange behavior. Awareness helps, some.

For example, being insecure, actors will accept help from anyone. “My manager said I should do the part this way . . . . “My agent said the scene doesn’t work for me . . . .” Directors can get testy over that kind of thing. They don’t like to think that someone besides themselves is doing the directing. It would be wonderful if every actor would learn not to tell the director (or anybody else) that someone else knows how to do their job better than they do.

In fact, generalizing from this example, just about all stage etiquette is contained in four words: Mind your own business.

Here’s an example of that principle that I personally find myself frequently yelling about: an actor should never, never, never tell another actor how to do a part, a line, a moment . . . anything.  Correcting an actor’s performance is the director’s job, and nobody else’s. One actor telling another how to do something in a show is the grossest breach of stage etiquette.

And as often happens, there’s an artistic reason for that piece of theatrical etiquette, as well as a behavioral reason. When one actor gives another actor “notes” on something the actor is doing, she or he stops being an actor and becomes a spectator. Instead of performing, the actor, essentially, is directing. And, incidentally, not minding his or her own business.

As always, the details of the principle I’ve just described can be difficult to work out. What if another actor asks you how to do something? I’d say the best answer is, “I’m afraid I’m too focused on my own part, but I’ll bet the director can help.” This is the ideal. But what if the director can’t help – if the director is completely inept? I would say that if possible, the actor who knows better should lead by example. But this takes a great deal of willpower.

Although nowadays classes are offered on every aspect of art, I suspect it’s still true that the best way to teach, in the arts, is by example. Those who are capable of learning, will understand and apply the lesson. Those who aren’t, won’t, no matter what. Artists both influence and inspire each other, and they do pay attention to what others are doing (whether out of a search for knowledge, or out of jealousy). As someone has said, “The best criticism of a work of art is another work of art.”

Artists can be critical, even picky, people, for several reasons. Their work is always being evaluated; they work in competitive fields, no matter how little they want to acknowledge it; they are members of a small community, in which people tend to know a great deal about each other.

Insecurity is highest at a first reading of a script. All concerned are trying to prove that they’re worth casting (even though they’ve already been cast). The remedy for insecurity in this case is the same as the answer for most problems in the theater: focus on the script. Easier, however, said than done.

This air of excitement and creativity is one of my favorite things about theater. I love to see plays performed, but I don’t know anyplace I’d rather be than a rehearsal. It almost doesn’t matter what the rehearsal is for – I just love the feeling of it.

When a show is going badly – or sometimes even when it’s not – actors tend to look for someone to blame. This tendency to blame can get badly out of hand, and once it starts, it’s hard to stop. One director I know begins each production by saying to the cast, “Anything that goes wrong in this show is my fault. Is everyone clear on that? Good. Then we can get started,” thus, he hopes, getting blame out of the way early.

When blaming does start, the atmosphere can become poisonous quickly. Carping spreads like a prairie fire. There’s a relevant verse in the Bible:  “Avoid profane chatter, for their talk will spread like gangrene. . . . Have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2 Timothy 2) Good advice, but sometimes hard to remember.

A great deal of theater etiquette has to do with being a professional. A professional, in theater, is a person who does a job consistently, under all circumstances. An amateur is a person who doesn’t, although the word should mean someone who loves doing it. That is to say, an artist should be both. The poet W. B. Yeats captures professionalism perfectly in his poem “Lapis Lazuli”: 

All perform their tragic play,
There struts Hamlet, there is Lear,
That's Ophelia, that Cordelia;
Yet they, should the last scene be there,
The great stage curtain about to drop,
If worthy their prominent part in the play,
Do not break up their lines to weep.

Professionalism counts for a great deal in the theater. No matter how creative and full of ideas directors may be, at heart they really only want two things: for the actors to show up on time, and for them to know their lines. Given a choice between the two, they’ll take the latter.

Professionalism can be as simple a matter as always having a pencil handy. In a theater it’s always a good idea to have a pencil. You never know when the director might tell you something you’ll want to write down. For example, where to stand, where to walk . . . . They get depressed when you say, “Don’t worry, I’ll remember it.”

Much of theater etiquette has to do with how one treats one’s colleagues backstage. Of course actors are frequently reported in the press as hating each other, and sometimes they actually do. This makes their satisfaction at giving good performances all the greater. But real satisfaction, I’ve noticed, comes when actors support and encourage each other. This happens most frequently when someone in the cast consciously starts the ball rolling by making it a point to praise and encourage. Others follow along, because everyone wants praise and encouragement – they just sometimes forget to give it.

Actors are notorious for being superstitious, although not are. Many backstage practices look like superstition, but on examination turn out to be just training. For example, performers have their own preparation routines. Before a show, they may hum, sing, pray, meditate, beg others to run lines with them, huddle in a corner and say nothing, talk loudly to whoever will listen; and some, although fortunately not all, will do vocal exercises consisting of high-pitched, piercing noises like the sounds of trains braking. Other actors will almost never tell these people to stop, not that they wouldn’t love to.

Actors seem seldom to force their religious beliefs on others. On the other hand, they promote their superstitions with the fervor of the newly-converted. I will say that there don’t seem to be as many theatrical superstitions in force as there used to be. However, the one about not saying the word “Macbeth” is still in full swing. The play is supposed to be unlucky, which strikes me as odd since the time I directed it was one of my best theater experiences. . . . I wonder how people will avoid saying “Macbeth” in a time like the present when practically every production that’s not Les Miserables seems to be Macbeth.

I was a member of a theater company where everyone assiduously avoided walking under ladders, until a member pointed out how odd that behavior was for people who claimed to believe in God. I had to acknowledge the justice of her comment, and since then have walked under ladders with abandon, with no ill results so far.

Speaking of walking under ladders, actors aren’t the only people involved in theater etiquette. Shows have technical staffs too. Smart performers recognize the members of the stage crew as colleagues. “Techie” (technical worker) simply means someone who can do things the actors can’t do, or don’t want to. The technicians wouldn’t be doing the Broadway show without the actors, but then the actors wouldn’t be doing the Broadway show without the technicians either.

Everyone is supported by someone. Actors are supported by technicians. When Lady Gaga introduces herself to all the members of the orchestra at the recording studio, that’s her theater training showing. Of course, just because they’re actors, doesn’t mean they’re inferior to technicians either.

If you are on a ladder or catwalk, above the stage, and drop something, you are supposed to yell “HEADS”! A good technician, they say, is one who shouts “HEADS” while falling off a ladder.

Theater etiquette also extends to how one relates to one’s colleagues when they’re in a show and you’re not – especially when they’re in a bad show. There is only one correct thing to say to a person involved in a bad show: “You were great,” and don’t elaborate. There is only one correct answer to a compliment, whether deserved or undeserved: “Thank you” – again without elaboration.

Despite the above, theater people keep thinking up ingenious and deliberately ambiguous things to say to someone whose performance, or show, falls short:

“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“It was amazing.”
“You’ve never been better.”
“I can’t wait to tell everybody about it.”
“I wish you’d been out front.”

A line like that should be better rehearsed than the performance, perhaps, was.

Another offstage area for practicing theater etiquette is social situations. At parties, theater people talk about their own work, and if a visual representation is available, they watch it. This is fine. In fact actors are permitted to talk about themselves anytime, anywhere.

Except – in auditions, where the advice Michael Shurtleff gives in his excellent book Audition must be followed: don’t talk about yourself. Directors don’t want to know why the train was late, what you had for breakfast, why you chose those pants . . . . Directors are busy thinking about themselves. Let them.

Story: An actor on tour comes home unexpectedly and finds his wife in bed with his best friend, also an actor. “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!”  the husband explodes. “Well,” the friend replies, “I’ve got a commercial, and I just did an indie, and next week I start rehearsals for . . . .”

The arts are primarily about mentoring – about “ways to do it” that are passed along, often through the generations. Sometimes the process is conscious, sometimes unconscious. It’s a reason that age, in theater, actually gets some respect now and then.

But the principle is the same as above: mind your own business. If at all possible we should only pass on to future generations the good stuff that’s in our heads, not the nonsense.

[As I read Kirk’s exploration of stage etiquette, I found myself thinking back on some of my own experiences and conclusions about actors and how we behaved on stage and back stage.  I made the word-processing equivalent of marginal notations, which I sent to Kirk along with my editorial comments.  His suggestion was that I preserve those somewhat random thoughts and use them as commentary on the blog post itself.  So, in more or less the order in which Kirk raises these issues, I append my own thoughts on the subject of back-stage behavior by working actors.

[One of my one-time actor friends used to love to say, “Actors are the only people who’ll work for nothing . . . if you let them!”

[Acting is one of the few professions (perhaps the only one outside modeling) in which appearance is of vital importance.  It’s not just whether you’re handsome or pretty—although that’s part of it—but how tall or short you are, how old you look (not are) or can pass for, what color hair you have (and how much!), and so on, and so on.  I once knew an actor who lost a role because he didn’t fit into the costume!

[And then there’s me . . . the Jew who lost a part because I wasn’t “Jewish enough”?  Where else does that happen?

[Acting is also one of the few professions where someone has to invite you to work.  Writers and composers, painters, and others can work when they wish—even if they don’t sell their work, even singers and musicians can sing or play for themselves or friends—but an actor can’t very much wake up and say, “I think I’ll do a little acting today.”

[The Producers line Kirk cites about actors and eating always makes me chuckle because when I was an actor, hanging out with other actors, I soon noticed what seemed to be a universal truth: When there are actors and free food, don’t get between the actors and the buffet table!  Don’t even try to engage them in conversation while they’re around food—you won’t get anywhere.  If there’s free food around and you want to find some actor—look where the food is—she or he’ll be there!  (Some actors drink, some don’t; some smoke or toke and some don’t—but all actors eat and they can divine free eats!)

[How many other fields are there where you can train, study, and accumulate experience and still lose a job to a guy who used to be a football player or a gal who’s a pop singer?

[Speaking of newspapers (and, hence, reviewers), is there another field in which a publication would go eenie-meenie-miney-mo to select a review-writer even when the writer has no experience or background in the subject?  Cars?  Music?  Books (well, maybe)?  Clothes?  Video games?  Architecture?

[I once worked with an actor (twice, I believe) who had the annoying habit of making “suggestions” about scenes we had together.  (He was directing them, to be frank.)  I always just ignored his comments but after a while, I told him straight out to let the director make the decisions, at least about other actors’ work, and not to put his two cents in—essentially, Mind your own business.  He still did it, but I no longer felt I had to respond in any way.  (The clincher was that he wasn’t an especially good actor and could have benefited by paying more attention to his own work.)

[Most actors who do this, of course, are really trying to get you to alter your performance so they can do something they want to do—not really to “improve” your work.

[On the other hand, with respect to directors who are inept (or, in this case, inattentive), I have once or twice had to be part of a conspiracy to direct a scene together with the other actors, on our own.  I did this with the England scene in Macbeth: the actors playing Macduff and Malcolm and I rehearsed together on our own, directing ourselves and each other (by agreement) because the director, who was playing Macbeth, wasn’t doing it.  (Some spectators told us it was the best scene in the production, though I don’t know if that was really true.  We felt good enough about the work that the three of us took the scene around to auditions; if one of us had an audition, the other two would come along to do the scene.)  I also was in a cast of An Ideal Husband in which the director refused to set any blocking.  After floating about the stage for a few weeks, feeling insecure and adrift, the whole cast got together and blocked the play.  Of course, we had to direct each other a little to accomplish this.  These, of course, are extreme circumstances.  (I was also the beneficiary of a situation in which a cast collectively fired its director—and I was asked to come in and take over.  That was The Importance of Being Earnest, my first gig.)

[Like Kirk, I always loved rehearsing, too.  The energy and creative potential is almost heady!  Performing was the desert, but rehearsing was the nourishing meal.

[The norm with theater casts, in my experience, is that they become temporary family groups.  When I was in the army in Berlin, we started a theater group because we didn’t like the practice at the official brigade theater of coming together, doing a show, and disbursing with no follow up.  We wanted contact even when we weren’t in production for anything.  (I’ve always theorized that theater people practice serial marriage so often because when a couple are in a show together, especially one in which their characters fall in love, the actors fall in love, too.  It’s very intimate work, very exposed, and close friendships, love, and sometimes intense enmity, can result from that.  It doesn’t happen that way in an office or a factory.  (It can happen that way in the military, especially in combat.)

[I did two productions of Macbeth and both were fine and un-endangered.  (The second had artistic problems, as I’ve hinted, but nothing life-threatening.)

[I had an acquaintance—she was a stage manager for one of my shows—who had a code system with her friends when they saw each other’s performances.  If the play was so bad, despite the friend’s work, that the others couldn’t sit through it, they sent a note back stage with one word on it: “Potemkin.”  I don’t know why that word was selected, but it meant: “I love you dearly, but this show is just dreck!”

[The age and mentoring notion—there’s a little of that in Richard Nelson’s script of That Hopey Changey Thing (and possibly the other Apple plays, since the old actor, Uncle Benjamin, and the young one, Tim, are in all the plays together).  I reported on a performance of this play on ROT on 15 December 2013.]

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