Author Topic: RUNNING: Giving notes to difficult actors  (Read 4930 times)

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bex

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RUNNING: Giving notes to difficult actors
« on: Jul 17, 2011, 01:14 am »
Oh wise SM's of the internet- hear my plea!

I ran into a situation tonight that I would welcome some advice on how to deal with.

I have an actor who is an older man who has only done one other play before (at a community theatre in town, vs the non-AEA professional company where I currently work) and he is fairly unschooled in standard theatre etiquette and behavior. He doesn't have a very clear understanding of my role as the SM in the production. He is also the type of actor you have notes for after every performance- drastic (intentional) paraphrasing, adding extra bits of blocking, things like that. He also argues with me about them- he won't just take the note.

My problem stems from the fact that he views every note I give him in the sense of me treating him "like a child" and making a big deal out of things that "aren't my business." I don't give his notes in any manner that is different from the way I give notes to anyone else in the company, and he is the only one who has a problem with it (the rest of the cast are all fairly seasoned veteran actors). 

I know that the reason he is upset by my notes is because he doesn't understand that it's my job to give them. However, I feel like trying to explain to him why it's my job to give him notes (and call him if he's late to call and make sure he's wearing the right costume socks and and and) only feeds his perception of me treating him like a child. It's a bit of a catch-22.

Anyway, I leave you with this question- how do I continue to give notes for the second half of the run to an actor who not only refuses to take them, but also is grievously offended by me giving them?

You will have to sing for your supper & your mortgage, your dental coverage & your children's shoes, over & over again while people in desk jobs roll their eyes the minute you start to complain. So it's a good thing you like to sing.

On_Headset

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Re: RUNNING: Giving notes to difficult actors
« Reply #1 on: Jul 17, 2011, 02:53 am »
So, three points:
- It sounds as though you've already tried being friendly and reasonable with him, and he just isn't having it.
- It sounds as though you've lost control of the situation. This is no reflection on you personally (these are very tricky circumstances which I'm not sure the rest of us could have navigated any better), just a naked fact: this is an area where stage managers need to be firmly in control, and it appears that you aren't.
- It sounds as though this actor may be violating his contract.

That is to say, if his contract includes language to the effect of "will make a reasonable effort to maintain the vision for the show as laid out by the director", if he refuses to take notes and corrections from the agent the producer has appointed to supervise the maintenance of that vision (i.e: you), he may be in violation.

Under these circumstances, I would sort of wash my hands of it.

"Here are my notes. You can take them or leave them, but it's my job to give them to you, and I'm going to continue doing so. If you object to this, you need to meet with the producer to discuss your contract. And if your performance continues to vary from the language and blocking used in rehearsal, I will be forced to schedule you a meeting with the producer. Are we clear?"

Yeah, it's aggressive and threatening. You've been nice, he hasn't budged. Assert your authority, and if he doesn't want to hear it, he can take it up with the people who sign his paycheques.

loebtmc

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Re: RUNNING: Giving notes to difficult actors
« Reply #2 on: Jul 17, 2011, 11:31 am »
Even though he is not an experienced actor, you need to be careful about show morale and backstage discipline. Certainly you can be strict with him - and it may work. But first of all, make sure you have a chat with your producer and director about the situation, and try to discover why this is happening. Often with senior actors, there are several areas of concern:

- are you sure the paraphrasing is intentional or is this actor struggling to remember lines/blocking? Especially with older actors, there is often much concern with career mortality and insecurity about being able to actually do the work. Often, deep insecurity and memory issues manifests as blocking/line shifts and is most likely the source of most of the issues you and he are both having. Also, he may not know better. Can you post/hand out the "rules for the actor" from any AEA rulebook?

- is this a "broomstick" actor - ie is he easily thrown by the smallest thing being different, even the live energy from the other performer changing on a nightly basis. (I had one famous senior actor who always came back the next night ready to do what his in-the-moment acting partner had done the night before - frustrating for all, but the senior actor couldn't understand because it was totally out of his vocabulary and resisted all attempts to help. Another time, a senior actor in a 2-hander so completely memorized the other actor's lines - a more senior actor who couldn't remember lines for crap - that he got lost every night)

- because you are young and he is not, you may need to deliberately establish your credibility. In addition, your verbal notes can let him know why the specificity of the written line is better; w blocking I always use the old "you aren't lit" for recalcitrant actors.

- because he isn't a seasoned actor, does he get bored easily - ie, looking for "different" to stay alive without realizing that isn't always "better". Perhaps he was set a bad example by others and simplly doesn't know.

- did he and the director disagree about the direction of the show and his scenes? Does he think the rest of the cast is no good, does he like the play in the first place? He may think he is acting in self-defense.

First of all bring the director to the table, if possible. He/she can let the actor know that you are trusted to maintain the show and that this is, indeed, your job. One thing that might help is to find private time outside of the show to sit down with him and ask what the issue is in a way that establishes your professional cred, maybe finds some answers to why this is happening and possibly solves the issue by coming to an understanding about expectations.

And, you may need to live with this and instead help the other performers in your cast roll with whatever happens. Charles Nelson Reilly papered his dressing room walls with the SM's maintenance notes on the original "How to Succeed" insisting that "it's only a little show." So, take a deep breath and remember, this too shall pass.

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bex

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Re: RUNNING: Giving notes to difficult actors
« Reply #3 on: Jul 17, 2011, 06:55 pm »
Thank you guys!  Here's a little recap:

-The director is involved (he's in the next show we're doing, so he's still in town). He stopped by after his rehearsal last night and watched the last 5 minutes or so from the balcony, and I filled him in afterwards. He came today pre-show and talked with the actor privately. He said that it went pretty well, and he reminded him that I am supposed to give him notes, he needs to call if he's running late, etc.

-I am sure the paraphrasing is intentional- he's been paraphrasing since the first read-through, and no matter how many line notes I gave him or how many conversations the director had about "the playwright chooses very specific words... we are communicating what the playwright had to say so we have to use his words... you don't need to make any improvements on the text..." he just kept doing it. A prime example would be, the script says:
Stella: How old are you, Doug?
Doug: Ninety-two.
And the actor says, "Ohhh, I'm ninety-two years of age, Miss Stella!"

-The problem is that he is a HAM. He feeds off of the audience's laughter, and if they're laughing he just keeps going. He's already the audience's favorite character, and the director and I have both told him in several instances that the audience already thinks he's funny, he doesn't need to add anything else.  When I gave him a note about wiggling around while he's supposed to be asleep on the couch, he argued with me, saying "The audience thinks it's funny! Don't you hear them laughing about that?" My response was, first, "that wasn't what we rehearsed," then "just because the audience thinks it's funny doesn't mean you need to add things," then "that's not the style of comedy that this show has- it's situational and verbal, NOT physical comedy. Yes it's funny, but it doesn't fit the style of the play," and finally "you are taking the attention away from the rest of the scene- there are things happening that are important to the plot that the audience isn't paying attention to because they're laughing at you moving around on the couch." He finally stopped arguing with me, but it was clear that he didn't think I was right, he just didn't want to keep fighting with me. He did quit moving around as much.

-He's already been grumbling backstage about how he has a life and he's ready to be done with the show, and I as much as I would like to just fine him (which is the standard procedure where I work), I honestly think that if I did, he would quit. My impression is that he feels very much maligned by the whole situation and if I don't handle him with kid gloves he'll just leave. I would like to take a firm, aggressive stance or turn him over to the producer, but I really believe that he will quit. We already replaced one actor in tech, we can't afford to replace another (plus, 40-something white women are easy to find in our theatre community, 60+ African-American men are not). I also don't know whether any language about upholding the integrity of the show is in his contract or not...
You will have to sing for your supper & your mortgage, your dental coverage & your children's shoes, over & over again while people in desk jobs roll their eyes the minute you start to complain. So it's a good thing you like to sing.

nick_tochelli

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Re: RUNNING: Giving notes to difficult actors
« Reply #4 on: Jul 17, 2011, 10:12 pm »
I had issues similar to this with an older actor at a professional but non union summer stock I worked at a few years ago. Especially the hamming/adlib factors.

If he doesn't get it by now he's probably not going to get it. Honestly, even most of the non-professional actors I've dealt with are amenable to notes, and understand it's the stage manager's job. If the director was fighting the fight all through rehearsal and now you're doing it during the performances....I can't see what's could be said to make it sink in. And if taking repercussive actions is going to make him quit and leave the show out to dry, it might just be better to grin and bear it.  He's not making the connection that he's there for his fellow performers, not for the audience reaction. If he's not wired that way, he might never understand.

Hopefully the talk with the director helped. But to me, it sounds like you've both collectively done everything you could do short of taking out a tire iron and tapping it menacingly in your hand.

loebtmc

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Re: RUNNING: Giving notes to difficult actors
« Reply #5 on: Jul 17, 2011, 10:58 pm »
Ah yes, given that this has been going on since rehearsal, so sorry, nothing you can do other than remind him when his shtick interferes with important information from other actors on stage or distracts in any other way from the plot points. And breathe. And look forward to the next show and the fact that he won't be hired again. It's too bad you can't teach him a lesson - but some folks just don't get that cuz the audience laughs doesn't make it right for or fit the show - gotta say, I've worked w some famous actors who don't get it either, and don't see how they're ruining the play for their personal attention hogging, perceived "moment of glory"

And - don't take it personally. Just keep moving forward, put one foot in front of the other and get to the other side as painlessly as you can.

Rebbe

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Re: RUNNING: Giving notes to difficult actors
« Reply #6 on: Jul 18, 2011, 09:34 pm »
It seems like you’re doing the best you can, so I second loebtmc in saying don’t take it personally, even though it’s frustrating and difficult not to.  This seems to be more about the actors own perspective and issues, and you are just the messenger.  I’d lean away from the “strict” solution, maybe because that’s just not my personal style.  A technique I would try to use is reflective listening.  So when he gets defensive you would paraphrase what he’s saying back to him, using feeling words “it sounds like you’re unhappy that I’m making this note,” to ensure that he feels heard and try to diffuse the tension rather than arguing/defending your own position as being empowered to give notes.     

I wonder if there is a way to get some positive peer pressure going?  If the actor won’t take notes from the director or SM, would he listen to a fellow actor saying “hey, when the lines stray from the script, I get a little lost, and I’m worried that will throw you off/be bad for the performance.”  You’d need to tread very carefully in finding an ally in the cast who could do this without causing more problems.  In an AEA setting the deputy is sometimes a good choice for this.   
"...allow me to explain about the theatre business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster."  (Philip Henslowe, Shakespeare In Love)

nick_tochelli

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Re: RUNNING: Giving notes to difficult actors
« Reply #7 on: Jul 19, 2011, 12:45 am »
It might just be me, but I think setting the precedent of actors giving performance notes to other actors regardless of the reason, be it their status as a "locker room leader" or the AEA deputy is a bad thing. To me, that's almost as big of a no no as what this actor is doing onstage right now. Feelings get hurt, and if you open that pandora's box, there is now nothing that prevents the offending actor in this case from doing the same thing to one of the more professional actors and you've been caught setting up a double standard in your production.

I've never gone to the point of involving the deputy on performance issues. Perhaps that's naive on my part, but I've only involved deputies in larger issues like contract disputes, union rule violations, sexual harassment and things of that nature. But then again, I've never quite experienced the same situation Bex is in right now. I've had actors not take notes before, but never to this scale and never in the AEA context where there was no deputy to be had.

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