If you are an actor, or aspire to be one, then at some point in your training you are going to play theater games. You are going to toss an imaginary ball towards a fellow student standing in a circle across from you. You are going to pretend to be an animal of some sort – most likely several in succession. You are going to mime eating an apple and sipping a cup of coffee. You are going to draw numbers from a hat and organize yourself into an ersatz pecking order, playing high or low status, physically stretching yourself towards the ceiling or squashing yourself towards the floor to delineate this. And if you were inspired to study acting because of your love of the classic works of dramatic literature, or simply because you craved fame and glamour, then you’re probably going to be frustrated by this. “These ridiculous games aren't going to help me play Hamlet!” you’ll cry. And you’ll be absolutely convinced that, should you become a professional actor, you’ll never find yourself doing these goofy exercises again.
And you probably won’t.
And you’ll find yourself regretting it.
My friend Erik Ransom has organized a private monthly Shakespeare reading series; it’s proved so successful that he’s added directors’ workshops to the schedule. This weekend, we held our first such session, focusing on scenes from the Henry VI plays. (He’s combined the three into one script; I’ll be sure to let you know if it gets staged at some point down the line.) We’d already read through those texts some months before, meaning we all had a basic sense of what was going on in the texts, and so the bulk of the workshop concentrated on a variety of theater games.
We treated a post-battle scene as if it were in a tavern, with all of us trying to rally surly drunks. We contorted ourselves into absurd shapes so that characters fleeing to safety had physical obstacles to get through. We formed myself into an undulating mob surrounding a character giving a heartbreaking soliloquy, getting closer or further from them depending on their emotional state. It was an afternoon of kindergarten activites for adults, and it was glorious.
And it made the scene work infinitely better. When we fully staged the scenes at the end of the day, their emotional beats were sharper and richer than when we held the initial table read. What had been a sea of iambic pentameter now was specific and clear. And we could match the language with now-vivid characterization and physicalisation. So clearly, all these silly games pay off.
Yet these games never seem to occur in actual, professional rehearsal situations, even though they work. And the irony of it is, you’re better able to make those games work for you, and appreciate how they work with the rest of the process, when you’re an older and more seasoned actor than when you’re impatiently first starting out. You finally appreciate them. So why don’t you get a chance to do them more often?
The sad fact of it is that even these few hours which we took on our weekend is more time than the average professional rehearsal process affords. You only have a few weeks to put up the show, and the bulk of the time is sent simply with the physical staging, making sure that one pretty stage picture flows into another. There’s rarely time for any in-depth character work, much less work built on theater games – it’s assumed you’ve done all that on your own, so you’re not wasting time in rehearsal. And that means that your full cast isn’t necessarily on the same page, doesn’t get to explore and find unexpected things, doesn’t get to bond by lying on the floor together becoming lumps and bridges and writhing octopi.
And it’s to our detriment.
So if, in this fast-paced and frightening world in which we live, you do find a few hours in which you can play a game, play it. You won’t regret it.