Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dessert First

You don't have a minute. You don't even really have a few seconds. Whatever work you're doing likely only has a moment of the-person-watching-it's attention before they stop paying attention, stop watching, stop listening. Maybe they change the channel, maybe they click their mouse on something else, maybe they start thinking what will they tell their assistant to order them for lunch or look at their notes from a different actor's audition earlier in the day. (And while it has been said that actors have won roles with their walk from the wings to center stage [I believe I read that somewhere in Joanna Merlin and Harold Prince's book Auditioning], confidence and the projection of it is probably best covered in another post. I am talking here about our performances themselves.)

Sure if the audience is in a theatre, watching a play or a movie, then they've probably signed up, committed, to seeing the whole thing, but even then:

Acting is merely the art of keeping a large group of people from coughing

(Sir Ralph Richardson quoted in New York Herald Tribune, May 19, 1946).

What are we to do then as actors? Well if you have any say over a script or an edit, when you can put the good stuff, the one part you'd want someone to see if they only saw one part, at the beginning. And don't save the part you love, the deeper part, the clearer work or whatever it is that excites you for some amorphous time near the climax of the story. You don't always have to make the climax happen, that's more the writer's task.

Instead, perhaps start knowing that it is coming. I'm not saving over act. I'm also not delving into a discussion of if the actor's job includes foreshadowing the story throughout act 1 in all cases (which may make for a good post at some point). I am saying don't save the good stuff for a later that may never come. If the audience leaves, or stops watching, your good work may as well have been rehearsal.

Don't assume you get 5 minutes for the YouTube sketch to get to its punchline/good part; an estimated 500 hours of new video is uploaded every minute to YouTube and will show up right next to your work. Don't guess people will watch past the first 4 minutes of the 20 episode Netflix series you're working on; win over the viewer fast or the viewer will choose something else like either what Netflix is spending $6 billion (with a 'b') this year to make themselves or spending additional money to license from other places and putting a mouse click away from your work.

Narratively you cannot, a likely should not, try to put the climax at the top if it doesn't fit. Yet even in Chekhov's Three Sisters, a play partly about stagnation, he opens with the line it's a year ago that Father died, May fifth, on your birthday, Irina. We know and can have feelings about much of what is going on: the speaker is one of the sisters, another one of her sisters is Irina and its her birthday which is a complicated anniversary since its shared with their dad's death. It took me more words to type than Olga uses and her words likely still engage an audience interested in experiencing a family drama, just as they have for over 115 years on stage and on screen. This script lets an audience immediately get family drama, the treat they want if they are interested in a family story. The performer speaking that line ideally will be speaking already as Olga, not waiting to warm up into it even if the audience already agreed to sit through the whole show; the performer serves dessert first.

Rob Long articulated this idea of Dessert First over 5 years ago and his words still ring true:

The audience won't wait. They're hungry now...when you're trying to get people to do something, or to pay attention to something, or to just sit still for a moment, don't serve them appetizers first. Serve them dessert; dessert first, fun stuff first, sweet stuff up front. Start passing out the treats the moment it starts. Ask yourself, if you're a writer [or an actor], "at the top of the show, the top of the scene, is the audience getting dessert first?" Because if they're not, someone, serving it up a thumb push away

(from Martini Shot: Dessert First on KCRW, November 9, 2011).

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this posted by David August at 7:34 PM 

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