After a long rehearsal process, or amidst the doldrums of a long performance run, you may feel like you are in a creative rut. You find yourself running your scenes the same way every time. You know how your scene partners will act and react. The sense of exploration and discovery has been lost for weeks. Although the audiences cannot detect your inner lack of enthusiasm, you just feel plain bored.
It can happen to the most well-intentioned actor. Of course, listening and staying in the moment certainly helps the actor give a fresh performance, but sometimes you just want something different. Or maybe you have received the same rote reaction from your scene partner, and you want to give them an opportunity to truly respond.
Have you had some crazy ideas you never got to experiment with in rehearsal? You’ve felt some impulses during performances that you didn’t want to act on, but they’re itching now to get out? You want to stand in a different place, use your prop differently, yell instead of whisper, laugh instead of cry—something—anything—that you haven’t done before!
But there’s a live audience out there. Is the time for exploration over? Is it fair to spring something unexpected on our scene partners this late in the game?
Tim Conway was infamous for saving material for the live taping of the Carol Burnett Show. When they rehearsed, they would go about the sketch as scripted, but when the cameras were rolling, Conway would pull out all the stops and unleash his storehouse of funny ideas upon his unsuspecting cast mates. Their genuine reactions matched ours, and we don’t know what’s funnier—Tim’s straight-faced acting, or everyone trying to stifle their laughter!
But we’re not Tim Conway, our scene partners aren’t Carol Burnett, and we’re not necessarily performing sketch comedy. How far can we go?
Here are a few things to consider in this scenario before attempting to breathe new life into a stagnant scene:
Is it true to your character in the moment?
- Something new may be funny or dramatic, but if it doesn’t line up with what your character would really do, then it is different only for different’s sake, and a weak choice.
Is it true to the story arc of the script?
- If it would necessitate a change to someone’s line, or negate something previously said, then it’s best to find another option.
Will your scene partner feel physically safe?
- Surprising your partner with a slap to the face (even a “stage-slap”) or other act of violence is a no-no. If you feel it necessary to get more physical, communicate with your partner and rehearse the maneuver prior to the performance.
Will your scene partner be able to continue the scene smoothly?
- This is the perhaps the greatest unknown, and it is the grayest area of what we need to consider. Understandably, we don’t want to throw our partner off. But we don’t want to discuss the change with them beforehand, since we want it to be a genuine surprise. Will they appreciate the fresh take on the scene? Or will they inwardly curse us as they try to recover? Either way, I’m sure we’ll hear from them backstage later! This will ultimately be up to you. Consider who you’re dealing with, and consider which good to be greater: the predictability for your scene partner, or the freshness of the scene.
Do you agree or disagree? Would you try something new during a performance? Or is that unfair to everyone else in the scene? What have you done (or seen done) to keep it fresh for yourself and your fellow actors?