I've seen a lot of community theater productions over the past decade. I've seen well-funded blockbusters on an undulating stage with talent destined for broadway. I've seen quaint little productions in community rec rooms that had to beg neighbors to come to fill in some of the roles.
Whether a near-professional extravaganza or a lovely little show that is two steps above a family production in Uncle Joe's basement, one thing marks the difference between being riveted to the end or quietly sneaking out during intermission.
Pacing is the Breath of a Performance
"We know all about pacing!" you say. "Don't go slow. It's not that complicated."
Wrong. So terribly wrong.
It's true that pacing is perceived as speed. "Keep it moving!" your director shouts. Actors and actresses start speaking faster, taking fewer breaths. Pushing their tongues to the limits of intelligibility and beyond.
No. No. And No. Please stop the madness.
Talking faster doesn't improve pacing.
Let me say that again.
Talking faster doesn't improve pacing! If anything, talking faster usually makes pacing worse.
Pacing isn't about the tempo of your speech. Pacing is about eliminating the empty space in our conversations.
Eliminate the Empty Space
Here is an example. Read the following lines as fast as you can. Every time you see a period or a question mark, wait a full second before moving to the next line.
"And you don't know the fellows' names?" "Well, I should." "Well then who's on first?" "Yes." "I mean the fellow's name."
Go ahead and do the exercise again, but this time, say the words out loud. Yes, that's right. You're not imagining it. You sound like two-thirds of the high school and community productions running today.
The problem is pacing - too much space between phrases. Improving pacing is as simple as eliminating the space. Let's try the exercise again, but this time read out loud at a comfortable tempo.
"And you don't know the fellows' names Well, I should Well then who's on first Yes I mean the fellow's name."
If you have a friend, practice this until you can completely eliminate the spaces between phrases. Better, right? But still not quite right. It feels a little too - paced. Too robotic.
The dirty little secret about pacing is that the goal isn't to eliminate the space between actors' lines. Good pacing creates negative space between the actors' phrases. Good pacing uses space between lines sparingly, to create emphasis.
Create Negative Space
Try this example with a friend. Read smoothly and clearly, and when words overlap, say them together.
"And you don't know the fellows' names?" "Well, I should." "Well then who's on first?" "Yes." <pause> "I mean the fellow's name."
"I can't just step on my fellow actor's line!" you cry. "It's not fair to them and it will exhaust the audience to have to follow us blabbering over each other.
Actually, no. Audiences barely notice negative space when it's done correctly, but it's true that you can take this too far. How do we know how far to go? Find where the speaker stops listening.
"And you don't know the fellows' names?" ^ Abbot is listening ^Abbot knows what's being asked and starts to respond. "Well, I should." ^ ^Costello knows the word is "should" and starts to respond Costello is listening "Well, then who's on first?" ^Listening ^Knows and responds "Yes." ^ ^Costello is still listening, waiting for more, causing the pause. Costello is listening "I mean the fellow's name."
Why does this work? Talking is more than just words.
More Than Words
Yes, I just started singing the song, too. And the song isn't wrong
More than words, Is all you have to do to make it real. Then you wouldn't have to say, Who's on first? 'Cause I'd already know.
Perhaps I took some creative liberties there, but you get the idea. Good pacing is about letting your body communicate faster than your mouth.
What does this look like?
Your head nods "yes" as soon as you know you're going to say yes, maybe a full sentence or two before the other actor stops speaking. Your head shakes side to side while you listen to someone say something disagreeable. Your eyes widen and your mouth opens as soon as you think the person talking might say something exciting.
"That sounds exhausting," you say.
Why, yes. Yes, it is.
Acting is Hard But You Can Do It. Pacing Will Help
Memorizing lines is hard. Remembering to say them at the right time is hard. Walking to the right spot on the stage while remembering your lines is hard.
Pacing is hard.
But if you keep working at it with your fellow actors your show will be a thousand times better. Your audiences will thank you by standing, cheering, and coming back again.
Help us continue to make community theater better. Become a hero today!