"So uh... what's the concept for this one guys?" A Midsummer Night's Dream at Redmond High School, 2008 (© Sonya Isherwood)
When you think about a production team, probably the first members that jump to mind are director, stage manager, designers, and so on. And that's accurate! Actors are not usually involved in production meetings. After all, everyone's gotten enough actor-blathering at rehearsal! The last thing actors need is another opportunity to hear themselves talk. Just kidding. Kind of.
But just because actors are not traditionally involved in design/concept discussions does not mean that they aren't involved the production process - that is, the conceptual and design-oriented mechanism that is so often separated from the rehearsal process. In fact, the actor's role on the production team is a vitally important one, and one that requires the actor to be exceedingly attentive to director feedback.
The crazy thing about art is just how many variations upon variations upon variations there are. And the goal of a production team is usually to unify a particular piece behind one particular style/theme/concept/vision/message. The actor's job is to decipher what that means for the performance.
The reason that this is important is that if you're doing Hamlet as a critique of feminine power and half the cast thinks you're doing it as a Commedia-inspired farce, then the result will be a very schizophrenic production of Hamlet. Or, more realistically, if the director is trying to produce the most naturalistic, colloquial production of Much Ado About Nothing ever, and you're used to playing classical text with a heightened, passionate vigor, then there may be some issues. If neither party recognizes the problem for what it really is, then they'll get frustrated, and soon the actor will dismiss the director as incompetent and the director will dismiss the actor as a melodramatic ham.
A good director will clearly outline the concept and style of a production. But let's face it, not all directors are good directors, and not all good directors are that straightforward with their actors. Nor are all actors going to understand the difference between romanticism and melodrama. (To be honest, I just looked it up.) You're not expected to know what the difference is, but you are going to be expected to know that there is one, and to do the appropriate research on your own time. And, horror of horrors, if your director does not give you useful information on style or vision, then it's your job to interpret and extrapolate as best you can from the notes he gives.
That's what I consider to be the actor's primary role on a production team. But there are a lot of other interactions between actor and design that should not be ignored. How does costume influence character? What does the set suggest about the overall tone of the piece? Every design element says something, whether it's reiterating something you already know or presenting a new facet or an odd juxtaposition. As actors, we can and should use everything available to us in the process of character creation and stylistic choice.
One of the best hypothetical examples I ever heard in regards to this came from one of my freshman Acting professors, but since it was only ever hypothetical to begin with I feel no shame in reproducing it here. Say you're playing a sort of kooky, awkwardly extroverted character in some hypothetical show that's probably trying to say some nonsense about the beauty of courageous individuality. You get a look at your costume design and see that you'll be wearing a yellow-orange plaid blazer and light blue romper with a home-made hat decorated with flowers. Yikes.
Well, there can be no doubt that your character will, in fact, be kooky. The costume says it all. In fact, the costume says it so loudly that you, as the actor, are made freer to explore the character's other complexities in your performance.
That's not to say don't play it kooky! You don't want to betray the character or the costume by completely turning your back on something that integral. But the fact that the costume is so loud means that you can turn the volume down and turn your attention to qualities like unexpected empathetic perception or ingenuous philosophical maturity instead. What the design conveys, the actor can settle for implying, focusing instead on what the design cannot communicate.
Theater is both insane and beautiful because it uses so many different mediums to tell one story. But hey, that's why we're in theater right? (Because we're beautiful--and insane.)
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