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Where Did That Chair Go?

By • Jul 25th, 2012 • Category: An Actor's Advice

The venue where I do much of my acting these days is a small one. Which means that sets cannot usually be large or particularly elaborate. (You’d be surprised at some of the things that have accomplished there, however.)

Still, when I am in a show there, as I am this summer, I hold on to a habit that I have had since I first started acting. Once the set is up, whatever it’s size and complexity, I take a few minutes before rehearsal each night, and before performances as well, to walk around on it alone.

First I go over my blocking quickly. The reason for doing so should be obvious, I would gather. Yet I will also walk around parts of the set that I never use in my performance. Whether by choice or by direction, not every character ends up in every inch of the space. Yet with this alone time, I make sure that I cover just about every portion of the stage and set.

I do this for two reasons. The first is practical. If I am familiar with where every chair is, how steep the stairs are, and at what angle I must cross behind a set piece, I can respond easier to unexpected occurrences. I can know what is safe and what is not on all parts of the set, so that if the unforeseen happens and I have to cross to that previously unused section of the stage, I can do so with confidence. I am not an advocate of “that will never happen” when it comes to the stage. The more I know, the more comfortable I will be, and I always strive for comfort on stage.

Besides, if the set is my character’s home, I may not be required to sit on the sofa in any of my scenes, but I can be sure at some point in time the guy has indeed sat on his own sofa. If I sit on it before rehearsal each night, it becomes part of my character’s story, and not merely a cold set piece.

The second reason is a bit more artistic, though hardly mystical. The more familiar I am with all parts of the set, the most it to can feel like a quasi-character in the narrative. Just as I like to know the other actors even if we don’t share a scene together, I like to take the time to absorb the energy of the set. (And even the simplest ones have them.) That power can be channeled by the actor as he performs. While it should not be the most important aspect of my performances, it is not one I wish to leave out if I do not have to.

Different venues have different policies, and some may not allow anyone on the set at all until the actual performance time. This is a bad policy, but nonetheless it exists. At such times, my plan is of course thwarted. Then of course there are the plays where the setting changes, and one can only move around on the set for scene one. (IN which case I just pay special attention to the “permanent” aspects of any given set design.

If you can warm up with the set of your show before you start, I encourage you to do so. After about the third time it won’t feel like it is adding anything, perhaps. But if the techie places the chair in the wrong place, and you have to cross to a whole new section of the set one night, you’ll be glad that “I need to turn sideways to get behind this pole here” is stuck into your subconscious by opening night.

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