“Pick up the PACE!”

It’s the eternal rallying cry of theater directors the world over; if you ever acted on stage, back in those halcyon days when we were able to act upon a stage, you’ve been given that note.  You only have a finite amount of time in which to tell the story, and the audience only has a finite amount of attention to give.  And so, as you’re rehearsing a play, even as you’re still stumbling to try and figure out what you’re doing, you’re being told that you need to do it faster.

It’s very easy, when you’re starting out, to take this note as referring simply to speed, and try to barrel through your lines at an auctioneer’s pace.  After a few such rapid-fire attempts, where your words degenerate into gibberish, you realize that what you actually need to focus on is the intent behind the words, rather than any sort of words-per-minute mark.  Picking up the pace is truly an acting note, and once you do so, you find your acting becomes better.

The specific adjustments, when you examine them from the outside, are almost imperceptibly small.  They involve picking up your cues right away, almost before your scene partner has finished, anticipating the end of their thought and reacting accordingly.  They involve driving the overall intent of your line, pushing through to the end of your idea rather than getting caught up in any one turn of phrase.  They involve things that initially seem unrelated to the speed of your speech, like your physicality – the more dynamically engaged you are, the more intention with which you move, the more fluidly the whole performance goes.  Any one of these might only be an adjustment of a fraction of a second – but over the course of a whole play, they represent a dramatic adjustment to the speed, and the quality, of the performance.

And it turns out that Zoom makes them almost impossible.

After a few weeks of observing and participating in the remote readings that have become our performing lives during COVID-19, traps and pitfalls have become apparent.  These traps have a noticeable effect upon pacing, and they’re inherent to the zoom platform.  Specifically, there’s an audio lag between participants.  It’s less than a second, but it’s there – which means that perfectly synchronized audio between multiple performers is impossible.  You may think you’ve seen and heard it – as when orchestra members have played in their separate houses and apartments to nevertheless come together to play one piece – but it generally involves after the fact audio editing.  In a live medium, like a play reading, there is inevitably a slight lag between the moment one actor gives a cue line, and the moment the other actor hears it.  And that slight lag is about the same just-barely-perceptible length as the pauses that generations of directors have done their damnedest to banish from the stage.

Combine that with the fact that we’re not physicalizing our performances, but instead reading aloud while slumped at our laptops – combine that with the fact that we’re alone in our rooms, easy prey to our most self-indulgent tendencies – and the impact is clear.  Even the best actors I know – and certainly I myself – have regressed in terms of the pacing of our performances.  The pause acting we’d tried so hard to do away with throughout our training has come back in fearsome force.

What to do?

At the moment, I’m not sure there’s anything we can or should do.  We’re witnessing the strange and painful birth of a new performance medium.  It might ultimately prove to be a mere curiosity; it might prove to be the defining medium of the next century.  (In the worst-case scenario it’s mankind’s last performance medium, in which case these questions are rather a moot point.). We don’t know the rules yet, because they don’t exist; we’re making this up as we go along.  But with each online gathering of actors, be it to explore the classics or work on new texts, be it purely private or streamed on YouTube or the like, we refine this new genre further.  We get one step closer to figuring out exactly how this needs to work.  The questions I ask here are meant only as my own small contribution to that inevitable process.

(But yeah, it wouldn’t hurt to pick up our cues.)

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