Theatre Information

Be Off-book When?

By • Feb 16th, 2011 • Category: An Actor's Advice

“Down to the wire.” “By the skin of your teeth,” “Pulling it out of the fire.”

As a writer, I should be ashamed of using so many clichés in one piece. But my point is made. I am sure most of you are aware of times like these. When either you, or someone else managed to pull something together just in time to make it work.

You can’t always help it. There are times when urgency demands that we all at once construct a plan and execute it. In such times this last minute success may be admirable. But more often than not, I dare say these sorts of executions and “successes” are the result of not being prepared for something. When it is only your neck on the line, it becomes a personal decision if you want to subject yourself to this final sprint approach. But when others are relying on your competencies and your preparations, as they do in the theatre, there is no excuse for not making regular progress.

I fully realize that different actors progress at different speeds. Some actors are just better than others, regardless. I am not asking people to be better than they are. But those at any skill level are capable of making choices which do not hold up a production for the others involved.

Too many times I have been in a show where one particular person is too busy, or too tired, or too sick or too…something, to be off book on the assigned day. Everybody else has somehow managed to be close to where they belong at any point in the rehearsal process, but this person for whatever reason will tell everyone, “I just haven’t found the character” or “I just haven’t sat down with the script and looked really hard at these lines.” But then they add this corollary,

“But don’t anybody worry, I’ll be ready by opening night!”

The hard truth is, if you are ready “by” opening night, you are not ready. That is because you are putting your own schedule, preferences and abilities ahead of everyone else’s. You are expecting other people who rely on you to muddle through somehow until you have decided to get caught up. And some such people do actually end up where they need to be when a show opens. But the show as a whole suffers because all of the others working with the “late bloomer” have not been able to put in their best rehearsals leading into opening night. They never got the best from you when you were supposed to deliver it. They were supposed to take you at your word that you would be ready, even though you had not earned that sort of trust from everyone.

If this is you, make sure it isn’t you anymore. Theatre isn’t that last minute bedroom painting you forgot to do before the real estate agent comes to show the house. It isn’t the quick evening of dessert you threw together because your friends are showing up without warning. It is a team creative effort, and asking everyone who is off book, and into character to “bear with you” while you are still fumbling with your script, and stopping every five minutes to ask the director a question when everyone else is solid is as unprofessional as it is insulting.

Photo by John-Morgan. Used by permission.

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is a Maryland native and has been acting for nine years, having studied it at Marietta College in Ohio. He has been schooled in Shakespeare, improvisation, public speaking and voice articulation throughout his career. His credits to date include over 30 plays and readings as well as 2 films. You can also read his blogs (for theatre related thoughts) and (for thoughts on personal success from an outcast). Follow him on Twitter @TyUnglebower.

5 Responses »

  1. Spot on Ty. Nothing can kill a production like an actor who hasn’t done their work. I suffered through this on one particualr show I was in all through rehearsal. I had the opening scene with an actor who would tell me rehearsal after rehearsal, “don’t worry, I’ll be ready opening night.’ Well opening night came and this guy comes to me and says, “I don’t know my lines completly, so cover the best you can, we’ll get through it and I’ll be ready tomorrow.” Tomorrow never came, for 12 performances, our opening scene was improv. I never knew what he was going to say or do and each time it was different. My skills in improv helped me get through the run and I don’t believe the audience ever knew, but, that is one actor I know I won’t work with again. So I say a big YES, for any actor out there who is last minute, learn your stuff or leave.

  2. That is the nightmare scenario to which I was referring exactly. No excuses.

  3. David: I admire your patience with this semi-pro actor, but where was the director when this was happening? After the first night, the director should have stepped in and demanded that this guy learn the lines.

    Ty – in your last paragraph, you mention the “unprepared” asking questions of the director every five minutes. That annoys me almost as much as the actor who hasn’t got his lines down on time. After a few weeks of rehearsal, and the director has laid out the landscape of the play the way he/she views it, don’t start asking questions or suggesting changes out there. 24 hours before opening night is NOT the time to say, “Hey – do you think we could try this?”

  4. I agree, but sadly, that too is something I have found is quite common, particular in amateur theatre productions. It bad enough when the director feels they need to change a scenes 4 times in the last 2 days of rehearsal. But when an actor is constantly asking and suggesting things and holding up the scene, that is a horse of a different color.

  5. I totally agree about the actor and the lines. No disgareement there.

    Where I do disagree is with the notion that at a certain time before you open you give up on fixing somehting. If the director feels that a scene isnt working then the director , cast and crew should keep on working on it until it does work , right on up to places. And thats where being off book sooner rather then later helps as the better you know your lines the easer it is to make adjustments.

    As to actors asking questions when something isnt working , the way I solve this when I direct is easy. I tell the actors dont ask me if you can do something just do it. If I dont like it I will tell you. They have free rein during rehearsal to find fixes as long as it doesnt involve the safety of the cast and crew.