Learning When to Laugh, and at What

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“My friends, you are in a schoolroom…Try to learn when to laugh, and at what.” -from An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski

I had the pleasure of judging and critiquing a thespian competition recently. It was a great show of talent from the latest generation to take to the stage.

One by one, and two by two, they would begin their scenes under the fluorescent lights of the classroom, making due with a table and a few chairs as their only set dressing. Parents, teachers, and other students would fill the empty desks and line the walls, all being mindful never to cross the line into the peripheral of the judges’ sight.

Prior to each performance, a rules and time keeper would ask that everyone turn off their cell phones and other noise making devices, and then they would announce to the room that there is to be no applause at the end of the scene, as to not disturb the scenes happening in surrounding rooms and also not to hinder the judges’ perception of the performance.

The audiences were seemingly accustomed to this strange behavior, and willing to oblige. However, this left them with only one way to show their appreciation. Their way was with vocal gasps of surprise at the dramatic turns in each scene. Or, to over-laugh or “re-laugh” at an actor’s actions which they had clearly seen rehearsed multiple times, and they knew the line would be just as funny, if not more hilarious this time around.

For those of us that find ourselves in rehearsal audiences often, it is important that we know when to be emotionally moved and what to be emotionally moved by. To know when to laugh and what to laugh at.

These young thespians surely felt comforted, supported, and confident stepping in front of the judges of the competition. But they were given a disservice when their sure delivery of laugh lines brought forced and repeated laughs from those in the audience, while bringing no response from the judges’ table.

As important as it is that the actor give a true performance, it is just as important that we as the audience give a true and honest response.

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