From my observation of various rehearsals over the years, what works and what doesn’t. The plays present a dual challenge: they are technically difficult and they require all the heart you have to give. They are demanding. May this make them less so.
The beats and pauses are plot. They aren’t theme. They serve the same purpose as the lines in the play. They convey information. If they are adhered to, the meaning of the scene should become quickly clear.
A pause is twice as long as a beat, roughly.
The plays are scored, and the music of the play is essential to the experience. The audience will only receive the play if the music is in place. The plays should sing. To do this, keep the ball in the air. I’ve heard this called “repartee” though I don’t think it’s that, exactly. I’ve worked with directors who have had ping pong tables in rehearsal, likening the dialogue to the game. Technically, (especially in the more comic plays) it’s that there is no pause after your line and before mine, unless one is written. No space for thought. Throw it back and forth.
Then, when there is a beat/pause, take it. You will have earned it. Don’t coast up to the stop sign and then creep away. Slam on the brakes and peel out.
But the music cannot be mechanically performed. If you bat the dialogue back and forth, it will be dead and the audience will not receive it. It must befull and fully lived in. You’re living through the scene, with a foundation of the score beneath you.
The score is there to reinforce intention. So go get what you want.
It can’t go too fast. This happens a lot. Don’t speak too fast. It’s difficult, but you need to excise filmic, behavioral pauses without allowing it to become a runaway train. The actors need to be on their front foot, but they must be in control of it, they have to Own it. My characters don’t speak quickly, they react immediately.
The best way to get the music of the play in place, in the bodies of the actors, is to run lines with someone on the script, calling out the beats/pauses when they occur. This must be done again when the actors are on their feet in the scene. Run lines with beats/pauses vocalized (say “beat.”) The actors can do this too, speaking the beats/pauses as if they were lines.
If you just review these things at the table, the actors will get cranky. They will begin to feel put upon. So it needs to be drilled. I encourage the director to be more like Balanchine, less like Freud.
The stakes in every scene and in the play need to be as high as is possible. Please don’t stage them as funny. The comedy will play if the music is in place. The people are real and want real things and each actor needs to bring themselves to the play Personally. The plays can hold a lot, please fill them up.
Then if you have the music in place, and the souls of the actors exposed and at risk, then you can let it rip. The plays require passion.
All of this should lead to freedom. After all the work is done, improvise within a very supportive form. The plays should end up being exciting to perform. Wild. And the audience should feel a great sense of suspense.
They don’t mean a thing if they ain’t got that swing. Good luck.
John Kolvenbach’s plays include Goldfish, Fabuloso, Love Song, Gizmo Love, and On An Average Day.