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Polonius Production Diary: wrong side

We are at two-and-a-half weeks now—or, as I try to think of it, we have the rest of this week (if the snow doesn’t force us to cancel tonight) and next week, and then the following week is tech week. So we’re getting close.

My performance is largely in place. There are a few places where I still need to get the exact words correctly into my memory, and there are a couple of minor blocking issues to fine-tune, but we’re at the point where I am getting the note to pick up my cues faster, which for me is usually a sign that I’ve got my interpretation down and have got just a tad too comfortable with it. So that’s all right.

Speaking of blocking—I’ll tell this anecdote, I suppose, from the beginning of III,i. The stage directions have the court entering together: King, Queen, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and Lords. There are some thirty lines between the King and Queen and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and then everyone but the King, Queen, Polonius and Ophelia exit. Or exeunt. Anyway, for those thirty lines, Polonius and Ophelia are there, but silent. I am about to “loose my daughter on” the mad Prince; she has a bundle of letters to return to him.

Our Ophelia (who, I should say, is quite good, and particularly good for this small space, being very natural and detailed, very watchable in her smaller moments as well as powerful in the mad scene) has been emphasizing Ophelia’s fear at this point—this follows on II,I and I have been so affrighted. As we began running this scene properly, she and I would spend most of that introductory silent time with some byplay. She would come in hesitantly, I would calm her, she would be still for a bit and then make to bolt from the room, I would prevent her and shush her again, she would take out one of the letters and start re-reading it, I would put it back in the packet, etc. All fairly low-key, so as not to pull focus from the main thing going on, which is the interrogation of R&G.

So. We’re doing that, and we get a note that we need to be doing something during that section. And we look at each other, and we figure, OK, it’s not big enough. And the next time we run the scene, we do it a little bigger, and we get the same note. And the actor and I talk about it, and we’re really uncomfortable going bigger at that point (we don’t mention it, but both characters would be trying to avoid the King’s attention at that moment) but it’s clear that what we’re doing is not playing from the seats. Sigh. Frustration. Perplexity.

The next day, I was venting my frustration and perplexity to my Best Reader (to be clear, my frustration was not with the director, who was reporting that what we were doing didn’t play, but with it not playing; it would be much worse (tho’ less frustrating in the short term, as I would be unaware) if it didn’t play and the director didn’t notice) and she asked: Is it the blocking?

No, I said. Or… maybe yes. I mean, we were completely visible slightly left of center stage, but you know, when there’s something happening on stage that isn’t playing properly to the house, sometimes it’s the blocking. So I asked our director if we could try coming in the other side and staying stage right, instead of stage left. This actually, as it turned out, put us further from center stage, pushed us in fact almost to the very edge of the playing area. And it worked! We did the same thing we had been doing on the other side of the stage, and this time the director liked it!

Blocking is amazing. I don’t think visually, really—as an actor I am primarily focused on language and sound, and while I try to work with physical movement, stance and gesture and business and such, I don’t (and can’t) keep an image of the stage in my head. And if I did, I don’t think I could read the composition of it, if you know what I mean. I am able, somehow, occasionally, to recognize really good blocking when I see it (or am blocked in it), and I can spot when the blocking is bad (boring or distracting), but can’t read it. Or do it. While I know it’s so, it’s still hard for me to believe how much changing the blocking works to help the storytelling.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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