I spoke last month about the perils of rehearsal room block, those difficult first few days with a new company, and the worries I’ve often had about misunderstanding or misinterpreting a note from a director. This got me thinking about a particular piece of advice we all must have heard at some point in our careers – perhaps when we have been flapping with nerves before a dress run, or panicking that we have forgotten all of the work we have done in rehearsals minutes before opening night. At this moment, hoping to allay the fears of the group, the director might somberly draw the cast in and whisper enigmatically: “Now is not the time to worry about the work we have done in rehearsals; at this moment you have to trust that this is all in place. Now go out there and tell the story.”

Is this a note that can ever truly be acted on? Has any blocked actor ever taken solace in the knowledge that the most important thing for them to do is simply tell the story? Great acting revels in the specifics and pales in generality, meaning that this is too general a note to be of any use to the conscientious actor.

Of course, story telling itself is at the very heart of all drama, and always has been. Any modern notion of acting we hold today derives solely from our ancestors’ constant need to tell stories, and over the centuries the only things that have changed and evolved are the techniques used to serve this need. Whether we are talking about the simple narration of a tale around a camp fire, a morality play, a Victorian melodrama, a stand-up comedy performance or a piece of sophisticated psychological realism, the audience are interested in the plot first and foremost, and as actors we are principally there to facilitate their understanding and enjoyment of that story.

But as a performer, as in life, we don’t play our story. We don’t always engage with our lives in this context, we can’t see into the future, and we don’t always learn from the past; it isn’t possible to play a carefully considered and meticulously plotted character arc in any case.

For me, a clearer note to give a group of actors is not to play the story – not even their story – but to play their character’s intentions.

Everyone has their own methods of preparing physically and mentally for a performance: leaving their personal hangups and reservations at the door, clearing their minds, engaging their imaginations, and allowing themselves to trust that the foundations of their work (which Declan Donnelan would call “the invisible work”) are solidly in place. The next step is to let your focus sharply hone itself to what it is your character wants and needs in each individual moment (or each individual target, another Donnelanism). The rest is just cause and effect.

A fragile actor can be like a Buckaroo of paranoia on an opening night. If you overload them with character histories, given circumstances, or in fact any of that great stuff that serves a purpose in a rehearsal room, they will most likely freak out and end up throwing all of it off. However, if you encourage them to relax and simply consider each objective at a time, all of that wonderful work will shine through – and guess what? –  they won’t need to worry about telling the story, because they will be serving the story. And that is ultimately what we’re all here to do.

Image by sarahmicheal