Wednesday, April 2, 2008


I love the first day of school.

Why? Because it’s all about expectations and surprises.

Which also happens to be one of the reasons I love theatre (good theatre, that is).

Even when you know the name of a class, you don’t really know anything about what’s going to happen or how you'll change from the first to the last day, whether its ten weeks or fifteen weeks or just even a short span of three weeks.

You walk into the room and figure out where to sit. Maybe you know one or two people. Maybe you know no one. You meet a new classmate. You chat. You’re all a little nervous in some ways because you’re asking yourself a few random questions:

Will I have to do a lot of reading and other homework?
I wonder if I can just hang out in the back of the room and sleep?
Should’ve I taken that tennis class instead?
Should I have sat down in the front row next to that cute guy/gal?
Is the instructor going to be a total tyrant or a pushover?
Will he/she even remember my name?
Do I have to actually say any intelligent things today?
I hope we don’t play that stupid name game.
I definitely should’ve sat down next to that cute guy/gal and started talking to him/her.
Did I come too early?

Certain expectations are laid out on that first day of class. I usually don’t know my students, so that first day is a big learning day for me as well as for them. Even if a student has been in my previous class, this time it’s a whole new ball-game. First of all, we have a different group (dare I say ensemble?). All the students are on a different path. And that student I already know is already a different person from my last class.

So I don’t really know how the day is going to go or what will happen next.

And that anticipation is similar to the beginning of a play. Because there is one question that should linger in the mind of those who are watching:


It's a very basic idea not dissimilar to Noel Coward’s advice, “Never, ever bore your audience.”

I used to start my first day of class going over the syllabus. Man, that was boring. Now I start with a brief discussion (like 5 minutes) and then we get right to work with exercises. I don’t even explain that much about what they’re doing, I just let them start working. They’ll catch up. And I can explain later. Of course, if they have questions, I answer them. But usually they don't, because the answers get illuminated in the doing of the work.

I also want to tell my students EVERYTHING all at once. Making new plays, writing, directing, and acting— there’s so much to discuss, to know, to work on…But life doesn’t work that way. We can only do so much.

The first day is about beginnings. And beginnings are about expectations and surprises.

As is the first moment of your play.

All you have to do in the beginning of your play is set up that question:


You don’t need a mountain of exposition to do this. You don’t need an overload of set descriptions or character bios. You just need to begin.

Let the characters start doing whatever it is they need to do.

Hamlet is a great example.

(This is why there was a photo of Olivier holding Yorick's skull at the top of this entry. It's not there just to confuse you...really...)

Pretend you’ve never heard of the play and go to that first scene and first line. It takes place on a castle wall of Elsinore and Francisco calls out “Who’s there?”. Barnardo approaches and Francisco tells him he comes “most careful on his watch”. Barnardo tells him it’s almost midnight and to look out for Horatio and Marcellus.

Okay, so do we know Hamlet’s father was murdered by Uncle Claudius? Do we know anything about the Ghost of Hamlet? Or anything about Ophelia?


What we know is that we have some guards possibly freaked out about the fact that it’s almost midnight. In Elizabethan times, as like now, midnight can be pretty creepy. And these guys seem slightly more cautious than normal. Are they at war? Are they waiting for someone? Or something...?

See how good ol’ Billy is letting the audience ask themselves WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?

It won’t take long to start getting into the story. We find out about the Ghost. Horato tells Hamlet and we start to get the details about the story, etc.

A really bad playwright might’ve worried if the audience would be confused by the situation (I mean its complex, right?). So he/she might’ve started the play with Claudius speech where he talks about the death of his brother and recent marriage. Or starting with a Hamlet soliloquy like “O, that this too, too solid flesh would melt…”.

But Billy knew his audience likes good ol-fashioned ghost stories, and he wanted their attention and he didn’t want to bore them. He wanted to get the play started.

When they first walk in, that audience has little expectations. Oh sure, they may have pre-conceived notions and either expect the play to be terrible or brilliant, but otherwise, they don’t know what to expect from your script. They’re like those students on the first day of class, just getting into the theater with their own random questions (Will this be good? Will I leave at intermission? What’s it about? Maybe I should’ve sat next to the cute guy/gal?) They don’t know your characters or the story. So take your time in laying out the information.

Get going and let the audience catch up. They will.

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