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Pace, Pauses and British Humour

Any one that watches British comedies on stage or screen is familiar with the fast paced nature of the work. The pauses are (or should be) earned due to a natural build of tempo and language. The Brits are fantastic in their use of language to get what they want.

9_edited-1This week I spent an exorbitant amount of time examining British comedy in its structure, form, pace, rhythm and pauses. Patrick Marber’s CLOSER is filled with several variations of silence. If you get a chance to read the play, you will notice that he uses different language and writing to signify different lengths of pauses: Beat, pause, long silence, etc. What does all this mean? What is Marber trying to say with these different signifiers? What it means to me is that, like all British theatrical writing, there is a built in tempo and rhythm to how the work should be best performed. Any one that watches British comedies on stage or screen is familiar with the fast paced nature of the work. The pauses are (or should be) earned due to a natural build of tempo and language. The Brits are fantastic in their use of language to get what they want. And that, of course, brings us back to tactic; using tactics to gain our objective. They use words and language as a tool. They are masters of it, and so my cast must become masters of it as well.

What I began to notice as I worked with my actors was that they would find their motivations for their next line, for their next tactic or approach, in between the lines. For work such as this (like in Shakespeare), these motivations and tactics must be found IN THE LINES THEMSELVES. It requires an intense mental concentration to speak and think at the same time. It is a skill that we, as North Americaners, have yet to excel at. My solution to my actors’ erroneous pauses, which caused the scenes to chug at a glacial pace, was to kick caution to the curb and demand that the scenes be propelled forward through heightening the tempo and rhythms. This was challenging for all the actors as they had become accustomed to finding their motivations for the next line in the pauses they created. The pauses were no longer there for them to fall back on.

To facilitate this new found pace, I used a metronome in the running of several scenes. The ticking allowed for the actors to see how much actual time was being spent between each line and how long the beats and pauses were that they were taking. I must have yelled “THAT’S TOO LONG” a million times. And I believe I was right, because now we are at the point where the quickened pace actually makes sense. The actors have started using language, rhythm and pace as part of their arsenal of tactics to use against each other.

We have been reworking the scenes in this way, making sure that cues are picked up, that language is a part of the transitions from one tactic to the next… and the result? Humour. Laughter. Life. Enjoyment. The story is revealed through the heightened pace, and most importantly, the pauses are EARNED! And since the pauses are earned, they are filled. What I’m noticing, even in these moments of silence is that the rhythm doesn’t die because words are not being said. Energy is still being shared and communicated between actors as they assess the scenario and each other to enter the next unit of the scene. It’s astounding and delightful. We laugh much more now, and as a result, so will the audience.


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Caleb McMullen

Written by Caleb McMullen

Founder and Editor-in-Chief of TheatreisforSuckers.com

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