Hearing the heartbeat of a play
BY MICHAEL DAEHN
REAL LIFE HAPPENS to the beat of an ever-changing metronome. So, the most effective plays are those that closely approximate the truth of the sometimes wildly shifting rhythms of their stories. As a result, one of a director’s key tasks is to uncover and embrace the heartbeat embedded in the world of the play and cultivate that varied pulse throughout a production.
Not unlike a concert conductor, a play’s director ultimately determines the tempo for a show. In collaboration with actors, musicians, and designers, successful directors explore how the cadence of action affects the way a story unfolds onstage and, consequently, how it is perceived and experienced by the audience.
A well-timed show clearly understands the psychology of audiences and the craft of storytelling. Time onstage can be rendered faster or slower through dialogue choices, line cue-ups, overlaps, pauses, a series of instant or gradual light cues, or an actual musical underscore, say for the escalating suspense of a thriller or a lingering scene of great loss. As an audience, our gasps, tears, sighs, and cheers are affected more than we realize by specific timing choices set during the director’s scoring of the show.
So, a director without a sense of musicality is at a disadvantage. It is not enough to tell a clear story. A director must also consider how that story is experienced. Most theatregoers have attended shows with clear and visually interesting throughlines that nevertheless feel static and unfulfilling. By contrast, a production that fully engages its viewers embraces a wide range of musical tempos, from tender sotto voce moments to powerful crescendo climaxes.
How does a director decipher the rhythmic possibilities of a nonmusical show and put them to work in the storytelling?
Before rehearsals begin
Read outside the box. Read the show aloud to yourself numerous times. Listen closely. Explore even those possibilities that seem highly improbable. Experiment with ways to escalate suspense or reinforce gentle beats by speeding up or slowing down the rhythms of a scene. Enter rehearsals with a wide range of viable options waiting to be animated by your actors’ choices.
Divide the show into musical beats. Chart the changes in the rhythmic needs of how you approach your story by identifying a genre and song for each beat or scene. Your choices should be selections that might underscore the scene in a film. Determine whether a scene is honkytonk country, early rock’n’roll, or a smoldering samba. Does the climactic beat sound more like a scream-inducing Bernard Herrmann soundtrack, a rousing William Tell Overture, or the dueling banjo-driven “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”?
Upload and record the score you’ve selected. Listen to it in its entirety, before early table reads of the play and again later while driving to rehearsal (or even as white noise while answering your emails or following social media), so the musical riffs, textures, and sequences get deep into your body. The director can always edit the score as needed throughout rehearsals, if the rhythms of the story change or evolve.
During rehearsals: The temporal toolbox
Music. Play music. Use music to underscore warm-ups. Have a changing pre-rehearsal score that sets the rhythms for that particular session’s work. Play music for the company that reflects the rhythms of a scene before tackling its moment-to-moment needs. Let music help the story to inform your voices and choices.
Beat it out. Help your actors to find the intrinsic rhythms of a beat or scene by drumming it on a conga, rapping it on the front of the stage or your trusty promptbook, or tapping it on a triangle. Use found objects as needed, but make sure the actors get the beat.
Effects and sound design. If the play or playwright has provided a tempo-setting gift like a full-blown tempest, then use it. Realize the tempest’s dramatic potential by progressively shortening the intervals and increasing the volume between menacing thunderclaps. Connect the surging ferocity of the storm to the increasingly urgent or suspenseful action and accelerating dialogue in the scene that it accompanies.
The crickets, stray dogs, and coyotes that populate Sam Shepard’s plays multiply in number and accelerate in tempo as his stories progress, working as a percussive tool to drive home the violent tempos of the desperate characters. On the other end of the spectrum, the steady cleansing sprinkle of a spring drizzle or a midmorning yard full of birds in song sets a gentle, welcoming beat for an early exposition scene or a happy denouement.
Working with the cast. Rehearsals always include a period of exploration and discovery before the shaping of the final story. The following examples provide actors with tempo-changing tools to create dimensional characters and afford directors opportunities to speed up or slow down the pace of a scene.
1. Internal character tempo. Everybody has an internal clock that affects their relationship to the pace of their everyday world. How fast or slow an actor gestures, speaks, or responds is a grounding component of developing their character. Consider for a moment the remarkable variety of tempos showcased by the characters of Oklahoma! or Hamilton and the rich authentic worlds those ranges create when they come together. It follows then that one of the director’s storytelling jobs is to mix a perfect blend of internal character tempos in every scene to reveal a believable slice of humanity, each character telling their distinct story at their respective individual tempo.
A corresponding consideration to remember is that the needs of the scene should always hold precedence over a character’s dominant pacing choice. A slow-talking drawl adopts a speedier cadence in the face of life-or-death peril. An up-tempo dialect slows to a crawl in the face of aching grief.
Sometimes in comedy, internal tempos change, with two characters speaking at different speeds by scene’s end than those with which they began the conversation. A change in a comic scene’s given circumstances, particularly a reversal of fortune, can also change the tempos for the characters from one extreme to another. Equally potent for comedy is a character whose tempo contrasts with their world, like the clergyman in The Princess Bride, who delivers the world’s slowest wedding remarks as the groom desperately tries to hurry him up.
Of course, one nice thing for the director is that most actors come to auditions with a distinct rhythm of their own. Often, it’s simply a matter of putting the right actor in the right role, based on the natural tempos revealed during casting and your determination of how the actors can best contribute to the overall tempo mix needed in the story.
2. Ladders and trail-offs. Comedy is uplifting, so are the techniques that propel the humor into another gear. Ladders refer to building comic lines from one to the other by ending each line on an upward inflection, the opposite of the way we read. However, when a character says something funny that in turn is topped by the next character’s quip that in turn is one-upped by the lines that follow, every one of those lines needs to end on an upward inflection. In this way, each humorous remark gathers momentum from the one before it, resulting in a build that is funnier than any one of three individual lines. A downward inflection at a line’s end will isolate a joke and stop the comic build before it starts.
Just the opposite effect occurs in a serious scene. An actor charged with sharing the reason for their ache or dread must end their lines on a trail off, this is, a downward inflection. They use the gnawing feeling in their character’s gut to quietly guide the last words of the line out of their reluctant mouths and into the sympathetic souls of their audience.
3. Cue-ups, nibbles, and overlaps. As a show gets close to opening, the director usually pleads with their cast to cue up, or to “take the air out,” in an attempt to speed up the tempo. Cue-ups come in different forms, distinguished by tempo and degree of urgency.
A simple cue-up means the actor should deliver their line the instant that their partner’s dialogue finishes. Cueing up might convey competition, quick-minded problem-solving, fear of silence, approaching danger, or simply fast-paced repartee. Whatever the reason, chunks of dialogue without air between the lines will make an audience listen more attentively and ensure they don’t miss anything important. Conversely, a tightly cued scene will make any air (those silent moments or pauses that remain) resonate even more.
Two other types of cue-ups are nibbles and overlapping dialogue (or simo-talk). A nibble simply asks the actor to bite off the last word of the previous actor’s line with the first word of theirs. This strategy conveys an additional level of enthusiasm, challenge, or urgency to how each character in the exchange pursues their intentions.
The use of simo-talk involves selecting passages of dialogue during which the actors deliver their lines at the same time, overlapping each other. The actors are made aware of what specific words and phrases must cut through the collective conversation and be understood by the audience. Other than ensuring those essential phrases are heard, lines might be shouted down (as in a scene of protest), shortened (as the old gang at the reunion trying to get a word in edgewise, frequently cutting off their BFFs midsentence), or rattled off in bursts of total simultaneous dialogue (as the animated Cratchit holiday dinner in A Christmas Carol).
The brief use of simo-talk effectively creates a sense of authentic group conversation, great immediate danger, or showcases an unwillingness by stubborn characters to allow opposing views to be spoken, in effect drowning out all others. All three examples use the director’s score to enhance the level of audience engagement.
4. Pauses and silence. Some scenes require a slowdown or even temporary shutdown to tell their story. The beauty of a Harold Pinter play often lays in the poetry of his frequent pauses and the invention required of his actors to fill them. In all of Pinter’s works, a pause inevitably means that the audience will learn a great deal about the characters without the help of dialogue.
A scene about a first (or final) date or a great tragic loss requires awkward silences that will add emotional ballast to the words. Topics that are hard to disclose also demand quiet moments between the words, as the characters gather strength or stifle fear. Those soundless moments are essential to creating hard truth onstage.
However, the director must also be aware of how those sensitive, quiet moments can slow the tempo of the production’s larger story and be able to compensate with more up-tempo choices in surrounding beats or scenes.
5. Stutters, stammers, sound stretching, and sighs. In the Restoration comedy The School for Scandal, the character Lady Sneerwell must do exactly that — sneer well. She stretches the sound of every syllable of every word as a demonstration of her utter judgement and disdain for the less positioned in society. Fortunately, the rest of that biting world’s gossips, wits, and rakes are more than up to the task of balancing out the tempo needs of this delightfully funny play. When characters elongate their words for character-defining reasons, the director again must adjust the rest of the score accordingly to keep the essential comic rhythms lively.
Likewise, a character (like Billy Bibbit in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) who is challenged with a stutter or stammer that is crucial to the story requires the director to make some scoring adjustments to the overall rhythms of the play. Verbal tics (those distracting sounds like aspirants or lip smacks that plague some young actors after almost every line) have a similar slowing effect that diminishes any rising momentum in a scene. Even too many sighs can bring an otherwise well-acted scene to a halt.
The director’s job is to match the rhythm to the story by leading the search for an answer to the questions: “When faster? When slower? Which tools should the actors use to change the tempo, and when?” Exploring this sometimes-neglected layer of storytelling potential before and during rehearsals allows everyone to make the necessary moment-to-moment temporal adjustments. It may not, as the theatre adage goes, be all in the timing, but scoring your production is certainly a crucial part of putting a believable world onstage that speaks to its audience with an authentic beat. Hit it!
Read more Teaching Theatre.