One of the delights of the fringe is seeing new artists - playwrights, directors, designers, performers - who may not be fully in control of their skills but who have obvious talent that can only grow with experience.
One of the frustrations of the fringe is occasionally watching such people shoot themselves in the foot.
In just a week I’ve seen too many directors make too many basic errors of the sort that seem almost perverse, as if some dark impulse drove them to sabotage their own work. So I’d like to offer some reminders of basic principles they may have skimmed over in the early chapters of their How-To books. (To protect the innocent and assuage the guilty I’ll stipulate that not all the cases below come from this year’s festival.)
1. The audience should be able to see the actors.
All things considered, it’s usually not a good idea to put the set between the actors and the audience. Granted, most fringe playing spaces aren’t ideal, but if you happen to find yourself in a room with a flat seating space and no raised stage, you might want to rethink having a key scene played with the actors lying on the floor. Dark shadows and smoke effects may have been quite atmospheric in your white-walled rehearsal room, but reconsider their use in the dark, airless space you’re stuck in. If you’re performing in the round, move people about so they don’t spend the play with their backs to the same half of the audience.
*2. The audience should be able to hear the actors. *
Your actress’s tiny voice may have seemed sweet in rehearsal, but if you’re playing in a room holding more than 50, consider whether she’ll be audible beyond the fifth row. If you’re putting a mic on a singer check it carefully in your first previews to be sure it isn’t muddying his voice or overpowering the room. Echoes and dead spots in some venues may warrant rethinking whether you really want that actor to shout so much.
3. The audience should be able to understand the actors.
If your production is all or partly in a language other than English, do let us know in advance. If one or more of your actors have very heavy accents, do extra work with them to reduce the barrier. And for Pete’s sake don’t go out of your way to create problems - earlier this year in London every reviewer complained of one show that the actors affected ethnic accents so thick as to be unintelligible. I’m all for equal opportunity, and a play can probably get by with one actor who lisps. But if you’re doing a Greek tragedy and half your cast is talking about Oediputh and Polynitheth, you’re not going to generate the effect you want. Some performers whose elocution is fine when they speak go all open vowels when they sing, and generally speaking an actor talking to a wall is less likely to be understood than one facing vaguely in our direction.
*4. The audience should be able to tell who’s who. *
If a demonstrably young actor is playing an older character, give us some clue, so we’re not startled to have someone call him Grandpa midway through the plot. If an actress is playing a man or an actor a woman, give us some hint from the start and don’t make us wait to hear a surprising gender-specific pronoun. If your actors are doubling roles, do something to change their voices or appearances so we can guess who they’re being this time. If characters are meant to be related, it would be ideal to have them resemble each other, but at least let them have vaguely similar accents.
*5. The audience should be able to tell what’s going on. *
Or at least, pace Harold Pinter, as much of what’s going on as the playwright wants them to understand. If you’re going to edit a text, make sure you don’t edit out essential facts or continuity. If you’re going to employ nonrealistic performance modes, or cut-and-paste the text, or just use the play as a jumping-off point for your own creativity, then it would be wise to choose a play that the audience can be assumed to come in knowing - an experimental non-linear Macbeth is more likely to succeed than a similarly treated Timon of Athens.
Thank you for listening. I think I’ll lie down now.