Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Blocking the Action

The wonder of it is that I, who hate packing kids in the car, who would rather stay home than go just about anywhere, signed up without a second thought to haul the kids 2.5 hours down to Cincinnati twice a week for play rehearsals, on weeks when we didn't have service camp, drama camp, Backyard Bible Camp, or VBS. And yet, not so surprising at that, considering that I wrote the play, a youth group musical about the book of Job, and that I completely revised the script for this, the 18-year revival of the original production, and that I'm helping to direct.

"What I really want to do is direct!" is a creative cliche by now, and yet there's a reason that directing has such allure. If you like instant gratification, it doesn't get much more immediate than telling your actor, "What if you try saying the line this way?" or "Turn your head to look at her before you speak," or "This time, try NOT to get mad and see how that changes the scene" -- and suddenly, there's another, more complex layer of drama, a more honest reaction, a deeper nuance to a simple statement. Of course, sometimes you suggest a change, and it falls completely flat, but even that failure helps you to clarify your vision: Okay, this bit of comic relief needs to be toned down so it doesn't overwhelm the action; this moment of tension doesn't fit with the pacing of this act; a minor character entering at this moment pulls focus away from the tension we're building in the scene. The essence of drama is change, and the role of the director is to manage the pace and flow of that change.

I don't know what it's like directing professionals, but from years of experience, I do know that when you're directing a show for kids, blocking is key. Blocking is more than just movement around the stage, though it's crucial that everyone knows where they're going, and why. It's building pictures that tell the story of the play in images. And it's the way I tell the audience what's important in the scene, and where they should focus. Ever been to see a show and found that it was almost painful to look at the action on stage? Often that boils down to not having a clear focus on stage. Good blocking can cover a multitude of acting sins. It can tell the story despite the actors.

Here's an exercise I've used before with kids. Imagine two people, A and B.

A: Sorry I'm late.
B: That's okay.

A simple bit of dialogue, which can mean exactly what it says: A apologizes, B doesn't mind. We might picture this as A and B facing each other.

Now, picture A facing B and B facing forward. That puts a different spin on the words. B is cold, perhaps. What happens if A is facing B and B is turned completely away? What if B turns before saying the line? Afterward?

What if A and B are both facing forward?
Or, what if A is turned away and B is turned toward A?
What if A says the line, B turns toward A, and A turns away?

All these different ways of blocking this snippet of dialogue tell a story which may or may not conflict with the literal sense of the words. Often, body language tells the true story of a scene, while dialogue is loaded with subtext and subterfuge.

Other blocking tactics are cat and mouse, and power positions. Cat and mouse has to do with who is chasing whom. Which person drives the action? Which person is retreating? Power positions are familiar to anyone who's ever been on a job interview. Who has the power position: the person sitting safely behind the desk, or the person standing awkwardly in the middle of the room? In the court room, the judge has the power position, raised above everyone else. There isn't one pure language of power positions: standing isn't always powerful; sitting isn't always weaker; being higher isn't always more powerful than being lower. But it's helpful for young actors to  power positions to create pictures that enhance the drama.

So, in our production of Job, we've used several of these techniques. Job sometimes stands isolated from everyone else. His wife turns away from him when he tries to comfort her over the death of their children. When one of Job's friends goes on and on about how Job should handle his suffering, he gives his monologue down stage, to the audience, oblivious to the actual misery of Job behind him. When Satan tempts Job, he plays cat to Job's mouse, but when Job rejects those temptations, he takes a power position downstage while Satan slinks upstage. All of these are small workmanlike details, but they matter on stage. They make a difference between a show that grabs the audience, and a show that is too blah to remember.

I find this stuff fascinating. This is why I never regret my theater degree, even though I've barely ever made any money off it. (Come to that, during the short time I worked professionally in Los Angeles, I made less than I've ever made at any job, and I've rarely made more than minimum wage.) And when our show opens on Sunday night, I will have helped to create something tangible that will refresh the minds and souls of 300 people while making them participants in an age-old philosophical and theological dialogue. Not a bad way to spend summer vacation, overall.


Catholic Bibliophagist said...

I would suspect that your theater degree has also been helpful to you as a novelist.

Maria J. said...

I wish we could be there for Job: The Revival. Even after 18 years the box step is still the first mental image that must be shoved down when I hear about "this man called Job."

Break a leg! I hope someone, somewhere is taping it for posterity.

mandamum said...

So cool. Makes me wish I had a theatre degree :) I've worked with our Shakespeare homeschool production for two years (as director, because otherwise it wouldn't happen), and am learning as best I can on the fly. I'm copying this off for next time I have to think blocking. I know it's one of my weak spots, and I can take all the help I can get :)

On a tangential note, I would love to sit down with you and pick your brain on schola stuff too. Some day....

Julia said...

A nusical about the book of Job. This completely made my day.

If I weren't packing and moving next week and were rich, I would be sorely tempted to fly out there to see this. I hope you make a video and post it.

MrsDarwin said...

Mandamum, feel free to send me a note anytime with questions about directing! It's always easier to direct someone else's show. :) And about schola, too, though there I'm mostly self-taught, at least at the directing end. Still, I've picked up a few tricks over the years.

Julia, there will be a video, and I'd be happy to send you a copy, though you know how it is filming kids' performances: what's dynamite live doesn't always translate to film. Oh well. But I can share the script with you, if you'd like.