So you want to know what it’s like to put up a play on Broadway? I’ll tell ya. But, I should note, the way a classic play is put on (specifically John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, in which I am currently starring) is much different from the way a new one is produced.
With a new play the playwright will most likely be in rehearsals every day, looking over the director’s shoulder and telling him or her how to manifest the story and themes through the bodies of actors and work of the designers. There are usually rewrites on the fly because new dynamics are found while putting the scenes on their feet. This forces the actors to learn new lines, often through many iterations, and sometimes the night before a performance. Essentially, when mounting a new play, the director is offered the luxury of having a partner by his or her side to help guide everything until it’s just right.
With a classic play—especially if the writer is dead, like John Steinbeck is dead—it’s the opposite. The words are holy; do NOT fug with them. In movies, depending on whom you’re working with (i.e., not David Kelley or Aaron Sorkin) you can often mold the lines to fit your mouth a little better. The upside of this is that performances can be made more natural. The downside is that sometimes the nuances of great writing can be shaved off or dumbed down. Then you have movies like This Is the End, in which every scene involves at least a little improvisation and is often entirely improvised and much of the dialogue is “written” in front of the camera. Of course, this is an art in and of itself, and it can yield great results, but usually only with people like Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg who know how to guide such free-form methods into the proper channels of the story so that the overall spine of the film is preserved.
Of Mice and Men includes plenty of slang from the day (California rancher talk, circa 1937): tons of double negatives (“not say nothing”), and plenty of instances of “bastards,” “sons of a bitches,” “goddamn,” “Jesus!” and “hell,” all of which resulted in the novella being banned from many schools when it came out. The successful play arrived soon after the novella, then the black-and-white film, making Of Mice and Men an early trifecta of entertainment-industry success. So, for an actor working on this material, there is an emphasis on learning the lines exactly as written, but often one struggles with trying to remember if at a specific moment a guy is called a son of a bitch or a bastard. (I know, I know, it’s the poetry of the fields, the rhythms of the workingman.)
People who don’t really understand acting might think that the biggest challenge when performing in a play is learning the lines. Although a solid grasp of the lines will help free the performer to deal with his circumstances and movement on stage, learning lines is also just part of the deal, like a musician in an orchestra learns sheet music. But the learning of the lines of a classic play—verbatim, as if the lines were holy—makes an actor approach a role in a completely different way from how he or she might tackle it otherwise. If a line doesn’t make sense, or it sounds awkward coming out of your mouth, you can’t change it. You need to find some way of making sense of it. (And if you really can’t do that, just fake it and say it with conviction.)
As Chris O’Dowd—who plays Lenny in our Of Mice and Men production—has said, if you think your character wouldn’t say a certain line, you’re wrong. Instead of building a character from the inside out as an enterprise separate from the script (understanding what makes him tick emotionally, how he sounds, what he moves like, etc.), one can look to the script for most of this; it’s all in there. Many screenwriters might argue that their writing works the same way as that of playwright, but narratives in movies and television work differently, and often behavior, action, and silence are better. But on stage, the words rule and propel everything (at least in conventional Broadway productions; we’re not talking about the Wooster Group or the Living Theatre, where the tyranny of the script is consciously overthrown). Behavior and action are important, of course, but they both grow from the text. Stage blocking and stagecraft is there to serve the delivery of the meaning of the words.
The thing about plays is that everything is worked on beforehand, meaning that on a film there is an editor, and even though the actors perform the scenes in front of the camera so that they have a rhythm, a filmmaker always knows that the tempo of the scene can be adjusted in post. In addition, films involve the framing of the camera shots, and in this way the attention of the audience is directed very closely. On a stage, the members of the audience can look wherever they please (although it is a stage director’s job to narrow the focus of that attention through blocking, but that could be the subject of an entire article itself). This means that all the work that can be done in post—choosing shots, their order, size and duration—is done beforehand. The piece is designed as a whole, to be performed live, and thus, the rhythms and blocking must be worked out in advance.
In this modern age when there is little time for out-of-town tryouts (or at least in plays featuring movie stars who can’t commit years to a production), there is typically a month of previews for Broadway shows. Before doing Of Mice and Men, I hadn’t realized the importance of these previews. They are like test screenings for movies, except there’s a paying audience. But hell, it makes sense, because even in a preview the performers are live, and that is one of the main things about the theater, as Walter Benjamin pointed out in the 1930s: As opposed to the performer on film, the live performer has an “aura.” So, almost regardless of the quality of the performance, there is already something about having the performers in front of an audience that distinguishes it from filmed performance. Ostensibly previews aren’t judged, even though in this era of instant gratification and social media the word gets out pretty damn fast. Thank goodness we’ve had standing ovations since our first preview.