Monday, June 24, 2013

Pencils With Erasers

One the the first lessons I learned as an aspiring actress was a practical one: Always bring a pencil with an eraser to rehearsals. Simple.

When you're walking around with a script in your hand, writing the stage directions in the margins of your script, as dictated by your director and duly recorded by the stage manager--and to which you are expected to adhere as rehearsals progress--that lead pencil is all-important. The eraser as much so, maybe more, because these original moves are likely to be changed.

Insecure in my early days, I used the blocking of the movements as a safety net. Knowing where I was standing and when I moved to which exact point on the stage was my security blanket. I found I remembered lines in relation to where I was when I said them. For the first years I worked as a neophyte thespian I was stiff as a board, bound to the moves and concentrating on all the wrong things to protect myself against the right ones, that is, trying to make it look as if I knew what I was doing while making myself as impervious as possible to emotion. Spontaneity and improvisation terrified me. I don't know how I ever got cast, but I suspect it was in spite of my rigid adherence to blocking. I took Alfred Lunt's advice to actors ("Speak in a loud clear voice and don't bump into the furniture") literally and was confident that if I could do nothing else I could do that. I always carried a pencil with an eraser, too, so I could record the changes from above and not move a muscle I wasn't told to.

Years later I learned (seat-of-the-pants, the way I learn most everything) to direct plays. My first admonition to actors, stage managers, all people who show up at the early rehearsals, was "Bring a pencil with an eraser." It is important even if the actors are not as tied to blocking as I once was. Details must be written down, even if they will be changed soon after.

I was founder of The Little Theater of Geneva, an American community theater in Switzerland, and saw to it that everybody showed up at rehearsals with pencils with erasers, and, in case somebody didn't, the stage manager had a stash of them to dispense. Later, back home in Fairhope, Alabama, I was founding director of Jubilee Fish Theater, an Equity theater based in my hometown. In both jobs I was in charge--selected the plays, cast them (sometimes in NYC with professionals) and directed almost all of them. I was in one or two myself. The buck stopped with me and I had to do a lot of the tasks usually taken by others in the smooth-clicking machine that is theater.

Landing in New Paltz, all that was a few years in the rear view mirror. I had attended a lot of Broadway and off-Broadway shows while living in Hoboken, but the local theatre there was small and didn't really have a place for me. I wrote reviews of their shows on my blog "Finding Myself in Hoboken."

I connected early on when I got here with the cozy Rosendale Theatre Collective. Lunch with Managing Director Ann Citron bagged me an invitation to join the group
Stephen Balantzian and Christa Trinler, rehearsing "Titanic"
s Short Play Festival as a director. We hit it off and I am on two committees as well as directing three ten-minute original plays that will be seen July 5, 6, and 7 at the Rosendale. The show is expertly run and the plays are first rate. I am thrilled with my actors, but I confess a little apprehension the first time I met with the cast for the first of my shows. Did I still have it? Would I convey the authority to direct these young pros? Am I over the hill, or will my ideas strike them as hokey and old-hat? I would bring pencils with erasers to the first rehearsal to show them the way we used to do it in the old days.

I needn't have bothered. The pair showed up, raring to go and cooperative on every level. And they brought their own pencils, with erasers.


  1. What fun. Can't wait for further updates and photographs. Break a leg Mary Lois.

  2. Dandy recollecting, Mary Lois. I was in metaphor mode this AM so your "acting" trials easily became "living". Blocking works when we're young until we get our "see" legs and begin, what, dancing? Acting? Committing to the effort. And for the confident and ambitious, directing – moving one's own life and others' lives as well (parenting) comes later, whether ready or not.

    Thanks for the notes. I'm penciling them into my own script (perhaps to be changed at a later date)."