In one of the weeks leading up to a show we have a “putting-you-off” week. Yes it’s simply that – full permission for the creative team to try and ruin the performance.
When you are learning to perform if you are not careful you can get stuck in a rut with the material. You perform the steps, sing the words, or act the character but when you repeat it over and over you start to just go through the motions. You forget why you are singing the words or making the steps. I call this giving a photocopy of earlier work. A performer has to learn to make it fresh every time, to be alive to what they are doing and why.
It’s a bit of a shock to the system when you are merrily singing your song and the musical director shouts out, “Really?” or they put their fingers in their ears and sing la la la at you.
The first time it happens the group will look around, probably laugh, and get the giggles. When they are asked, “Why didn’t you keep going?” they answer, “Because you put us off!”
“You’re not supposed to be put off; you’ve got a job to do.”
I like to think of it like this – don’t take the audience for granted. Life doesn’t always go to plan so be ready to adjust. In life-skill term this is flexibility and resilience. And theatre, being made up, is a wonderful place to practice this skill in real time.
Once the penny drops the group is ready to cope with more serious attempts to subvert them. Yawning at them can annoy them a lot! But are audiences always going to be fascinated by what you do? When you are singing into the hairbrush in the bedroom no one dares to contradict you. Mum. dad and the family may find you endlessly fascinating but with other people – you might have to work at them a bit to capture their full attention.
I like to keep things a bit more specific. For instance, if you are singing Let it Go from Frozen, I’ll hear you sing,
“Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone”.
I might shout, “Why?”
My purpose isn’t just to be annoying I want them to think and respond. I’m questioning what they are singing to me and asking them to tell me why they’re singing those words. You can see in their surprised faces a look of how-dare–you and it may even make them a little bit angry. But then you can see them thinking why am I saying this?
“What are you trying to tell me?” I say. And they begin to connect the dots. The song makes more sense to them when they justify it to themselves. They realise that each new idea is connected to the previous one and it becomes more specific – they start to engage me the audience.
It may all sound a bit crazy, but it has a purpose, to fix concentration, keep it focused on the work but also remind them to think about what they are saying with their words and their steps. Not to become brain dead and keep alive the thinking behind what they are doing.