You Missed Your Cue
Recently, I've had the honor of working with some incredible performers from every circuit imaginable in our fantastic speech world. From New Jersey to Seattle, Iowa to North Carolina, Massachusetts, Missouri and Colorado, I've seen performers who prove exactly why the National Speech and Debate Association (formerly the NFL) showcases some of the most diverse styles in the country. In being able to pursue the amazing opportunity to coach students from all around the country, I've come to respect just how amazing the National Speech and Debate Association's final rounds are; a true showcase of the best talents from around the country.
In this amazing realization, I've been able to get beyond my "California style" of interp (which, I've now gotten a good idea what that means for people NOT from California) and started to appreciate the dimensions and complexeties for varying styles around the nation. In being able to switch gears for these wide-ranging performances, one thing really sticks out as a negative for any performer, regardless of style: relying on cues.
:cue my 3P students rolling their eyes:
More often than not, I encounter students who are looking to "build up" their blocking, or "create bigger laugh" opportunities.
More often than not, without question, I go into the same lecture that I give to everyone else when we first meet. A lecture I will attempt to write down in a legible manner.
:cue stage light:
I think that, sometimes, we get caught up in the beauty and aesthetics of a performance we watch on the final round videos. The glitz, glam, and (just to stick with the alliteration theme) glory of a performance from a final round is multiplied thousands of times over with a live audience of a couple thousand and tens of thousands watching at home. The best performers take the stage to show off the hard work and dedication they've been able to craft into their "artwork". And for the many awed students watching live or at home, the first thing usually noticed and, sadly, mostly paid attention to is the blocking of the performance.
:cue gasp from audience:
"Juan doesn't like blocking?"
Calm down, masses (or the three of you who read this). I think that good blocking (creative and innovative, especially) is necessary to make it to the stage. The problem, really, is in how much emphasis is put on the blocking. Most of the duos who sign up for sessions, no matter how immensely talented, have this same issue and it becomes blaringly obvious to me - they've put 90% of their practice time into timing/blocking/transitions and about 10% into "everything else".
This would be bad enough if there were only two components to Duo/DI/HI/OO/etc... but there are so many more components than "blocking and acting", as I've read from a few inquiring emails. I think that this way of thinking has automatically lowered the ceiling on building your character(s).
Around March 2012, I had the insane honor of meeting someone I had no idea I would be honored to know. She's kind of a dork, a little insane, but completely brilliant. Most of you know her (Amber Justmann) as the "girl with the really pretty hair. You know, the big poofy red hair?" In our growing creative partnership (as many of our 3P coaches have done with each other over the years) I grew more as a coach in one year than I had in the many years previous to that. Than in my years of experience, including as a performer. One of the best conversations I've ever had, and I'll remember this forever, occurred while we were collaborating on a Duo cutting of "Radium Girls" (check it out- we think it could work) and we were discussing concepts, story structure and general cutting direction; this led to a huge conversation about "story or character"- which mattered more?
From that piece to a DI we collaborated on (which went on to get 2nd at Cal Berkeley) with which we asked the very vital question for the character we were working on: who is this person? what is his legacy?
Not "what happens to him" - "who is this person? what is his legacy? why does this person's story matter?"
Over those very few intense months of work, grew an understanding and compassion for characters and stories of all kinds. Amber realized this L-O-N-G ago. Not that she's ancient, but she had amazing coaches at DV that know their Drama. In working closely with her on projects, I have grown as a coach and can confidently say: If you're looking for drama coaching, you will never go wrong with Amber.
I digress. A lot of what gets lost for performers is the care and growth that a character needs to fully develop into what I call "a breathing human being". Most of us fool ourselves by thinking that if we just change our voice slightly higher/deeper or with this/that accent - suddenly we've "created" a character. False. You've created a caricature. A character is a breathing human being. One that thinks for herself, one that lives for herself, one that does as she feels in any given moment possible; because your characters experiences are going to shape them to be very different from who you are. Different lives, different habits, different personalities. You can't force someone who is not you to have the same actions/reactions as you.
Which is where cues come in. When I'm watching performances (duo or not) I see a lot of "cues" being thrown and caught.
Interp performance is very delicate. We are in a confined space that is no bigger than the regular classroom size we all know too well. The atmosphere of a round is very real.
The last thing I want to see as a judge is that you're constantly in your head. Counting, or positioning yourself perfectly, or waiting for the line that usually makes people laugh so you're building it up so much you kill it completely dead. I'm certain you all know what I'm talking about. We've all done it and most of us still do. You're trying to be under time, you're trying to make the right pauses, you're trying to remember this word that you always mess up, you're trying to show more of your face this time cause your coach watched your last round and yelled at you in between those two rounds and your life is just over after this.
Too much thinking means that I'm seeing more of X (the performer) and less of Y (the character). The character isn't going to worry about forgetting a word- because the character doesn't have a speech memorized. Y breathes differently from X. Y walks and talks differently than X. Y doesn't even resemble X. So Y the X? (I tried to be clever. I assume I just failed.) But I hope you get my point. I hope. That I don't ever want to see the person who picked out the piece- the person who is going to speak to me in the intro. I don't even want to see his/her mind working. I want to see Y's memory/emotion/mind working. Ya know?
Cues are dangerous because they don't take into account the mood of the room. They are preset emotions/steps/movements/inflections that could make everything feel forced and false. By confining them into a box - to tell this, assumingly, emotional story the same way every time for the rest of their lives, regardless of the situation. Put yourself in these shoes. Say that you have a story you tell all the time - do you give that story the same way every single time?
Granted, you can't just change the literature/cut round to round, but you can change the way the story is told. Because if your character is a breathing human being- s/he can tell this story 100 different ways (maybe with VERY minor alterations, given timing, mood of room, interaction with audience, space, etc) and still bring tears to the audiences watching. Why? Because it's not a preset emotion/mood. Because it flows naturally and without cues.
The blocking? That will come naturally as your characters start to move around and think on their own. I promise, given enough freedom (enough of you just "jumping off the edge") and trusting your instincts, your piece will grow in ways you probably couldn't imagine before.
But I caution you: When building a multi-dimensional character, even the slightest hand movement at the wrong speed or direction can make a character feel false.
Yes. You have to be that detailed when building a character.
Take your cue. Go work.