You Can’t Bop a Bop: Idiosyncrasies of Process and Personality in the Theatrical World

I’ve spent the past few weeks preparing a new Study Guide for this summer’s Class to Cast Seminar. It’s been an unusual challenge, not only because this Study Guide doesn’t follow the structural format I’ve established for all of our show-specific guides, but also because I frequently find myself trying to explain in written words things that I learned kinetically. The Class to Cast Guide will provide teachers with a start-to-finish model for producing a play with their students, either inside their classroom or as an extracurricular opportunity. Our goal is to cover everything that a teacher totally new to this concept would need to know: cutting the script, doubling, holding auditions and casting, the rehearsal process on the macro and micro level, dealing with text-based tablework, warm-up activities, guiding actors to make strong choices physically and vocally, dealing with particular staging challenges, audience contact, using dramaturgy, and finally dealing with the production concerns of costuming, props, stage combat, music and sound, marketing, and putting the whole thing on its feet for showtime.

Little Academe 2013; Photo by Pat Jarrett

Little Academe 2013; Photo by Pat Jarrett

What makes this process even stranger is that I am not, broadly, a kinetic learner. I’m a verbal learner — written or auditory. Yet the theatrical world is a place where kinetics seem to take over in a stronger way. Most of what we do for the stage, we learn by observation, instruction, and emulation. For a lot of us, it starts back in middle or high school, watching what the older students do, following in their footsteps, then passing the traditions on in our turn. I can easily write instructions for our usual activities — scansion, rhetoric, staging challenges, historical perspectives, textual variants — but when it comes to describing the procedures that shape a rehearsal process, I found myself having to engage entirely different writing muscles.

The oddity of attempting to put these things into words first struck me when I was scribing the instructions for Zip-Zap-Bop-Boing, the variation on Zip-Zap-Zop that we played at William & Mary. Staring at an empty bulleted list, I decided to try talking it out to myself. “Zips go to the side, zaps go across, bops rebound, and, of course, you can’t bop a bop.” Makes perfect sense, right? Well, no, unaccompanied by action, that’s total gibberish. While I’ll be able to demonstrate the actions to those teachers attending our Summer Seminar, I still have to make sure that the written guide is comprehensible to anyone else who might purchase it. Stretching routines and vocal exercises were also difficult to wrap language around. I’m coming to have a lot of respect for people who actually write whole books on those processes — but I also see very clearly why so many of them promote their workshop series and why more and more professionals are taking to YouTube for their demos.

Warm-ups and physical action aren’t the only difficult things to flatten onto the page: detailing the ins and outs of scheduling and structuring rehearsals takes some linguistic wrangling as well. This is something else I learned by mimesis: when I directed my first solo full-length show in college, it was after many years of exposure to other directors. Many start in assistant positions before taking on solo projects, in order to see the behind-the-scenes work and get a feel for the ebb and flow before diving in. And, of course, no two directors will run their rehearsal process in the same way, nor do all productions have the same needs. Cast size, rehearsal space, and actor availability are just some of the factors that can influence the scheduling, particularly for school productions rather than professional companies. So how to express something so nebulous? I’m giving a basic breakdown of how to think about those variables, but I’m also giving our teachers a few different examples: an ASCTC three-week schedule, the six-week format I used in college, a recent Ren Season schedule covering only three days. Hopefully this will give our teachers the information they need while still showing them the necessary flexibility of such a project.

What this is all really bringing home to me is just how important people are to the theatrical process. I know that might sound like a no-brainer, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it in exactly this context before. When I hear people talk — directors, actors, vocal coaches, etc — about their training and experience, they don’t tend to talk about what books they read. They talk about who they learned from. They talk about the amazing workshop they went to. They talk about summer immersion programs and the best course they ever had at school. They talk about the high school drama teacher who gave them a phrase that still rattles in their brains twenty years later. They talk about the first director who opened a door that let them feel like they were really doing something great on-stage.  That’s the sort of guidance I hope ASC Education can offer: a tangible and personal connection to the work, above and beyond the words on the page.

–Cass