This week's guest blog comes from film and theatre director Liam Billingham. As you'll see below, Liam was having some challenges while blocking a show and learned a valuable lesson that he'll share with all of you. Take it away Liam!
There is nothing like the first day of blocking a play. It’s the day you say to yourself ‘wow, we’re really doing this.’ Gone are the days of sitting around a table and talking. Gone are the nice breaks from table work in which everyone acts silly and enjoys getting to know one another. Now, we have a performance to make.
Last Saturday, I had my first blocking rehearsal for Lawrence Dial’s Carroll Gardens Aborning, a new play about two couples, one reeling from a tragic loss and the other making decisions about their lives together. It’s a wonderful, natural piece of drama, and one I was thrilled to be offered.
The piece is being produced by The LabRats, an NYC Theatre company. The Rats do lots of shows, and have worked together for years. Two of the Aborning company members are playing major roles, and our design team is composed of a crew of professionals who have worked with the company frequently. It’s a bit of a family affair.
As the actors warmed up and our stage manager set the stage, I found myself slightly anxious. I haven’t had to fully stage a play in years, most of my theatre work lately being on a one-woman show called Human Fruit Bowl, and everything else being film. This was slightly nerve wracking, especially because we had elected to start with the play’s most complex scene, blocking-wise.
The actors began doing their thing, and I began offering suggestions and ideas, but something wasn’t clicking. We couldn’t make headway, and things were happening in fits and starts. The chemistry demonstrated in our first read-through had disappeared. This kind of thing is quite common in a first staging rehearsal, but it felt somehow worse. Something was getting in our way.
After ruminating about it for a few minutes, I realized what it was: me. I was the problem. I was anxious about doing a ‘good’ job, and so was playing the role of an overly busy director. I wasn’t letting the play happen.
I took a step back and a deep breath, and let the actors go to work. Suddenly, things began to click. The actors were hitting the moments nicely, and their strong understanding of the play brought an easy clarity and confidence to each moment. I said very little, only commenting when an impulse told me to push someone towards or away from a choice. Very quickly, the scene took shape. Was it perfect? No, but it was a step in the right direction, which is exactly where you want to be at the end of a first blocking rehearsal.
This is certainly not the first time I have learned this lesson, as I think it is one that reverberates in all fields: Let the people around tell you what it should be. Listen first, and make decisions. Don’t let your need to be right get in the way of figuring out what works. The ability to step back and learn through experience is humbling and rewarding.
Liam Billingham is a film and theatre director based in NYC. Check out his work at liambillingham.com