Just Take the Note

Between the madness of Midsummer last month, and starting rehearsals next week for Cupcake Lady Productions‘ Night of One-Acts, I’ve been preparing to act in the Fringe Festival. And I’m NOT producing! It’s interesting to watch how Actor Melissa conducts herself, now that all this producing knowledge has seeped in, and one particular phrase keeps popping back into my brain.

Just take the note.

We actors are prideful creatures. And at the same time, we’re wildly insecure. I generalize, of course, but it’s a dichotomy that I definitely struggle with. My thoughts shift between the conviction that I’m the greatest talent of Our Time, and the certainty that I’m stupid and awful and boring and that no one will ever cast me again, ever.

So sometimes, I get a little touchy when I feel like I’m being criticized (Who, me? NEVER!). I let every suggestion cut to my very core, and I get a little defensive. Or a lot defensive. Or I feel compelled to eat up valuable rehearsal time explaining that I was going to fix it the next time, or I’m tired, or any number of other excuses.

On the other hand, I get weirded out when a director doesn’t give me ANY notes. I long to be constantly improving, and if I don’t get a single critique, I assume the director thinks I’m beyond hope, and has given up on making my performance better. You can’t win with me. I’m a ridiculous, sensitive, artist type. I’m not this way all the time, of course, otherwise I’d be intolerable and no one would work with me. But we all have our moments.

Just take the note, Melissa.

Have you ever heard that advice before? It’s simple and complicated all at once. Swallow your explanations, listen to the director’s suggestion/adjustment/whatever, and apply it next time. “Just take the note”. It’s okay. Seriously. You are not expected to be perfect the first time, or the first ten times you do a scene. That’s why we have rehearsals.

This is not to say that you should blindly do anything the director tells you to. You, the actor, were hired for numerous reasons. Hopefully, one of those reasons is not because the director wants you to be a walking, talking prop. Smart directors want to hire smart actors, because smart actors make interesting, sometimes unexpected choices. Smart actors bring depth to a play that the director might not even have known was there. That is a joyous thing for a director. When I am directing you, I absolutely want to know how you see the character, what you think of the scene, how you view the world of the play.

Thus, if you are really uncomfortable with even attempting something a director asks of you, speak up. Do. If you’re really resistant to a direction, it won’t work. I’ve seen and been in situations where a director asks an actor to do something that is totally opposed to the actor’s view of the character. If that happens, talk to them. Any director worth his salt wants his actors to be happy with their characters and their portrayals. (If it’s a long discussion, probably talk to the director outside of rehearsal, because most productions don’t have the luxury of an extensive rehearsal processes.)

But most of the time, just take the note.

When I was directing The Importance of Being Earnest, I asked actors to try a scene as if they were on a really over-the-top soap opera. It was just something to add in once or twice, to add color. I didn’t want that scene to be soap opera level in performance; I was hoping to find a dimension that would inform the moment when we brought the scene back a bit closer to Earth. I bet the actors thought I sounded crazy at first. If they hadn’t tried it, though, how could we know for sure whether or not it would work? If a note you implement doesn’t end up working at all, the director will probably notice, and try something different. But if he doesn’t, you can certainly tell him, “This thing you asked me to do? I tried it, and it feels weird/doesn’t make sense/is making my back hurt. Can we try something different?” Or, even better, “Can I try doing it this way instead?”

I have been a lucky enough actor to work with a truly wonderful Broadway director (who is also, incidentally, a Playwrights Horizons Theater School alum). His notes are the best. He asks provocative questions, and he cares what I think. I remember a particular time, I knew my answer to one such question was the opposite of what he had in mind. But he indulged me, and asked me to take it a step further. I know it worked, because he never mentioned it to me again; if it hadn’t, I have no doubt that he would have helped steer me – ever so deftly – to a different choice.

Because, you see, the director is there for a reason. The director has something that the actors do not: perspective. You cannot watch yourself as you’re acting in live theatre. I fancy myself a smart actor, but I know that when I’m acting, sometimes I can’t tell why a moment doesn’t work, or why a joke doesn’t land. Good directors have the advantage of watching it all unfold. Good directors help actors realize the potential of their individual performance, while keeping the world of the play unified and whole.

As I’m rehearsing for Comedy of Errors, I have to remind Actor Melissa of this all the time. Actor Melissa is often annoyed with herself for not knowing her lines just yet, because she knows that the scene will be better when she’s totally off-book. But my director asks me to keep up the tempo, and he’s not wrong. Before I can say “Don’t worry! It’ll be better! I know! I’m aware! I’M SMART! TELL ME I’M BRILLIANT!”, I take a little breath, nod, and say, “Okay!”

Well, I do that most of the time.

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