The Rules of the Game

by Esther Emery

This is the second post in a weekly series on our rehearsal process for THE LISTENER, by Liz Duffy Adams, the next and final offering in MOXIE Theatre’s season three.

What do rock-paper-scissors, chicken, and full-contact wrestling have in common?  They’re all part of the game that begins when Smak says to Jelly, “Let’s play for it.”

The Finders, played by Rachael Van Wormer and Tim Parker, battle it out for one very desirable piece of junk.

Delicia (the director) on the rules of the game:

“It doesn’t matter to me that the audience knows exactly what your game is, it matters that you know what you’re playing.”

The moves were devised by fight choreographer Christopher Williams.  And they’ve already been rehearsed many times. The actors try to be consistent, not only because the rehearsed moves need to be as full and precise (exciting) as they can possibly get, but also to make sure that everyone stays safe.  

As of tonight’s rehearsal, the play is fully staged, the lines are memorized, and the sometimes dreaded first run through has come and gone.  Delicia is taking her second pass through the text.  And, guess what?  Safe is boring.  Now, without losing control, the actors need to make it look like they don’t know what’s coming next.

Delicia asks questions like, “Why did you have to go to round two?”  Answer, “Because she didn’t fall.” 

“Does anyone win the rock-paper-scissors?”  Answer, “No, it’s a tie.”

“So…the only way to settle it is chicken.”

And chicken it is.  Chicken, followed by a satisfying takedown, some flat-out chaos and further dispute.

Here’s a moment before the game begins.  She has it.  He wants it.  He considers his move.

Now Delicia tells them that she can’t understand the words.  Uh oh.  We’re climbing on each other’s backs, here.  Doesn’t that count for something?

Not really.  Callboard Magazine described playwright Liz Duffy Adam’s writing in Dog Act as “poetic language juxtaposed with a sort of postmodern Shakespearean structure.”  

Excuse me?  

In the world of The Listener, language as we know it has devolved.  As the Earth has made many turns into the future (as Liz Duffy Adams has conceived it), words have morphed.  Grammar has decayed.  Some words are skipped, some added.  The result is a play that reads like an epic poem.  And there’s a real danger that the audience might not understand.

The actors sit down and speak the text without the moves.  Delicia tells them, “The language is so dense, you have to slow it down.  If you just have fun with it, we get that you’re having fun, but we miss everything you say.”

The actors climb all over the standard issue rehearsal cubes, which only vaguely resemble the real junk that they’ll have in two weeks.

Somewhere in here, I make my own devolution from reporter to artist.  I stop writing down what Delicia is saying and start writing down whatever comes to mind.

As they rehearse a particularly dense part of the text, I find myself wanting to talk about emphasis.  This is the technical part of an actor’s work, the part of the work that needs to be done, done well, and then forgotten.

Writers who write words meant to be spoken (playwrights, screenwriters, speechmakers) are very likely hearing the language out loud in their heads while they write.  They’re hearing cadences, rhythms, changes in volume.  But even the written language of punctuation can’t tell an actor exactly how to say it.  And, please, let me tell you, you wouldn’t want to tell an actor EXACTLY how to say anything.  First of all, they’d be irritated, and they’d very likely tell you about it.  And secondly, that kind of work tends to suck.  It’s less organic, less intuitive, and less believable.

But there are certain clues.  The importance of a proper name is signified by a capital letter.  In conversation, when I introduce my friend Tim, that word “Tim” gets a special weight.  There’s also punctuation.  A comma indicates a rest, while a period demands a full stop.  And then there’s the sense of the line.  We look for the new information.  When Jelly says, “Don’t know, don’t want to know,” she’s giving us two pieces of information.  The first is about knowing, but the second is about wanting.  So in the second phrase, the emphasis might go on the word “want.”  

Or, then again, it might not.

When I get home from rehearsal, my script looks like this:

Here’s Delicia on emphasis:

“It’s a very technical thing.  Take these notes, because they’re good notes, but then go back to doing what you know how to do.”

Which is acting.

I said I would tell you more about who was getting dragged around by a rope, didn’t I?  Well, here’s more:

Until next week.

Thanks to Chelsea Whitmore for the photos.