Trust is arguably one of the most important elements of any work environment, creative or otherwise. If your boss gives you feedback during your performance review, you trust that they are in a position to provide you with the necessary advice to improve your productivity and maybe even help advance your career. It is the same for theatre. If a director gives you notes, take them. The following is an important piece of advice for ALL actors, regardless of their age and experience level so, performers and parents alike, please read!
Taking Notes: A Guide to Responsible Acting.
One of the most universally annoying habits of actors is ignoring notes. An actor receives notes from the director during the rehearsal process, usually after the scenes have been blocked and they are running through the show. A typical notes session involves all the actors sitting around with their notepads or phones (used just to take notes, I swear!) while the director or other members of the creative team provide feedback. Notes can vary from the general and familiar:
- Volume! Be louder! Why do I hear you better when you're OFF stage?!
- Open up! Stop crowding and eating the furniture!
- Go over your lines for Act 2! I'm not kidding, we open in a week and if someone calls "Line!" tomorrow I'm going to cry!
...to the odd and specific:
- Carol, can you try doing that whole scene, I don't know, a bit more...slow? I don't mean actually slow down the pace but like, maybe you could be more...just play it like a turtle, you know? Turtle-like. Does that make sense?
- Steve, you know how I told you not to enter up center after Todd does his monologue because otherwise you're blocking the rat chorus? Well, now you're blocking Debbie and I can't hear her line so can you go back to entering from center but enter really quickly so you don't block the rats for too long?
- Okay, when she freezes you, can you be leaning in for a kiss, like really over the top, lips puckered up, and then stay frozen just like that for the rest of the song? It's probably another 30 seconds or so. Maybe one minute. Two minutes max. And try not to laugh. Or breathe. It will ruin the moment.
The role of the actor is to listen to the note, say thank you, write the note down, and then implement the note during the next run through. Nothing more, nothing less. It seems very simple and yet, for some reason, the taking of notes is one of the most problematic events in theatre history, a fact that drives everyone "behind the table" absolutely crazy. Here are a list of what NOT to do during notes:
- Explain. This is very common and usually stems from insecurity. When given a note, an actor can sometimes feel vulnerable and become defensive. This exchange: "Sarah, can you enter from the door instead of the stairs at top of scene 12?", "Yeah, but you told me to use the door so that's what I've been doing" is not unusual and incredibly exhausting. Yes, we know what we told you. Now we are telling you to do something different. That's called a "note". Take it and say "thank you".
- Excuse. This is a catty response to a note, usually involving an excuse that throws another cast or crew member under the bus. "Tim, make sure you jump right in with your line after Cheryl drops the tray", "Well, she dropped it early so we skipped half a page of dialogue and that's why my line was late". Shady move, Tim. In one fell swoop you managed to put Cheryl on blast AND reveal yourself to be a major jerk. Assume that we know why your line was late but the thing is, Cheryl is NEVER going to drop that damn tray on time so we are asking you to jump in with the line to save the pace of the scene. Trust us, Tim. We see all.
- Forget. Look, I know that everyone in the cast is single and cute and you'd rather be flirting than listening intently to notes but if you are given a note and for whatever reason you FORGET to take that note, we are not pleased. So do yourself a favor and write it down. Nothing annoys a director more than to see an actor receive a note and make no show of documenting said note. Write it down in your script, in your notebook, on your phone, anywhere! But please don't forget it!
- Ignore. This is the most egregious of errors an actor can make when receiving notes because it involved making a choice to go against the direction given. Sometimes, thankfully very rarely, an actor is given a note that they do not want to take. Perhaps they are being asked to face upstage during a long monologue performed by another character and they feel that they audience NEEDS to see their nuanced and calculated reactions. Or perhaps they don't feel that they have time to make the quick change so they will just keep their favorite costume on until intermission and claim there was a zipper malfunction. Receiving a note and choosing to ignore the direction is not only rude, it is dangerous. If an actor gets a reputation for ignoring notes, they will find themselves on a "Do Not Cast" list before they can say "But this is the way they did it on BROADWAY" (Pro-tip: NEVER attempt replicate what they did on BROADWAY. If I wanted to see that version, I would have found a bootleg).
Basically, TRUST your director. Remember, we can see the whole show from a very different vantage point. We can tell if your costumes look shabby from the house, regardless of how they look when scrutinized under the bright dressing room lights. We are responsible for the story as a whole and need to make decisions that are bigger than your one performance. So, take your notes. If you have a question about the note, do not hesitate to approach the director after notes for clarification but during the notes session, the only response needed is "thank you".