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Polonius Production Diary: Notes

I continue to not write much about Polonius, I know. It’s not terribly interesting work, honestly. It’s going fine, just not terribly interesting. I mean, our Hamlet and our Ophelia are doing interesting work and all, but Polonius is Polonius.

We had a sort of stagger-through last night, our first time running the whole thing (mostly) off-book. It took forever, as that rehearsal tends to do, and then at eleven o’clock at night we gathered for notes. It was, um, late.

I wonder if there are better and worse methods for giving actors notes. I mean, there are drawbacks to all of them. For a rehearsal like last night’s, when we are all exhausted and dull-brained, it seems foolish and counter-productive to stay late and give notes. On the other hand, giving notes at the beginning of the next rehearsal isn’t really good, either—for one thing, there may be a different subset of the cast called at the beginning of the rehearsal, and for another, it’s difficult enough to remember (or decipher) a note a couple of hours after taking it. It may be surprising to people who haven’t done community theater how often a director will say something like ‘I have written down here: Horatio down TOUCH. Does that make sense?’ and eventually they figure out what it was that she wanted him to do or not do. Trying it the next day is a lot more difficult.

Some directors don’t take or give notes at all until very, very late in the process, preferring to stop scenes right away with their suggestions and ideas. That is probably my preference, but there are drawbacks to that, too—it’s important to get a sense of how scenes flow (and how they flow together) that can be difficult if we’re doing too much starting and stopping.

I have had some directors attempt the technique where notes are emailed to the cast the next day; this has all of the disadvantages of the next day with several additional disadvantages (the director doesn’t have the cast’s help deciphering notes, for one thing). The huge advantage is that it doesn’t take up rehearsal time, which is an incredibly valuable resource; there is a corresponding disadvantage that it takes up the director’s time outside of rehearsal, which is usually a valuable and scarce resource as well.

One issue as well is that I often find it helpful to hear the notes given to other cast members, so a really efficient system isn’t actually as good for me. I’m not talking about the notes like ‘I think the important word in that line is him’ but often if the director is giving other actors notes about pacing or cheating out to stage left or focus, there’s useful information there for me, if not about what I am doing myself then about what the director thinks, about theater generally or our storytelling. Or even about the director’s methods of communication—I could have saved myself a lot of upset during certain shows if I had known at the beginning that the director had a habit of sounding like she was barely holding in her furious contempt for the talentless stupidity of the actors she had cast when she was, in fact, just trying to work quickly. I’m not likely to work for her again, it’s true, but I was only able to figure out the communication problem when it involved another actor and not me.

And another concern, particularly in a show such as Hamlet, is that the lead actor often gets as many notes as the rest of the cast put together, and sometimes the notes are of a different nature. There’s a legitimate tension between the rest of the actors not really wanting to spend their time sitting through those and yet not really wanting the lead actor to get Star Treatment, getting his or her notes in private audience with the director. I mean, everyone understands (I hope) that it’s a play about Hamlet, and yet—at least in the amateur theater that is all I know to talk about—part of what we are doing this whole thing for is a sense of camaraderie and, well, community.

And all of those options about when to give notes and how to give notes are of course less important that what and how many notes to give. Actors being different one to another (similar in that way to real people) and reacting differently to different styles and amounts of notes makes it difficult, I imagine, but there is also time management involved, and communication issues and so forth. Listing every possible improvement is often counterproductive, but ignoring problems may not make them go away, either.

Essentially, directing is difficult, and I’m just glad I don’t have to do it.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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