A scene from Floyd Collins (© Southwark Playhouse)
I hate blocking. I can fake my way through table work but when it comes time to get up on our feet, I get terrified. I know that it's nothing to be scared of and nothing that is set in the first rehearsals ever actually sticks, but the idea of putting a rhythm and a pattern to things that comes from nothing just seems like an insurmountable obstacle.
Wait? Blocking comes from nothing? That's not true. What have we been doing at the table for a week while we were dissecting, deconstructing, and ultimately piecing together our story if we weren't going to use it as the foundation for our blocking? Truth time: nothing. Once the table work has been done, there's immediately a foundation and a story that we've agreed on telling that will allow the blocking to unfold naturally as opposed to me running around and telling you where to stand and which hand to move. Not to say that I'm not going to do that, but it's the actor's job to use the work that we did around the table to begin to motivate the actions. This is what I mean when I say that form equals function.
Because we've dissected and specified the lives of the characters during our table work, our work job during the blocking stage is to create a skeleton that will allow room for choices to be made and fleshed out while maintaining the world of the play. The skeleton can be things like tracking paths so that we are clear where doors, hallways, and other specific paths are or it can be rhythmic things that keep the pace fluid through the piece.
Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins, now playing at the Southwark Playhouse in Shipwright Yard, London, concerns a cave explorer by the name of Floyd Collins who finds himself pinned under a rock deep in a cave in rural Kentucky. Through the course of the action, we see various members of his family and rescue team traverse the "path" that he took in to trying to save him. In this production (which is staged in an abandoned train vault), the set was is sparse, the stage was populated by an immense number of ladders and platforms used to represent the levels and passages of the cave system. At one point, the rescue team attached a harness and rope to Floyd, attempting to pull him up. In the staging, director Derek Bond gave cast members lengths of rope at each point in the "path" for them to pull simultaneously to give the illusion that there was one continuous length of rope traversing the whole path. Of course this is something that is VERY very hard to explain, but because the "path" was clarified from the beginning by different cast members traversing it, the audience knew exactly what was happening when cast members began to pull on their individual ropes, producing an audible gasp from the crowd (or maybe it was just me... oops).
Whatever that skeleton is, form equals function. When you clarify a form and structure, the actors are free to give it whatever life they see fit and it makes your job as director just that much easier.