When Actors First Meet

One of the most critical moments in making a film (or in the directing of a play) is when the actors all come together for the first time. You’ve been through a long and often torturous casting process. And now, at least in your mind, you have the best casting possible. But most likely you have been casting a majority of these people as individuals.
Perhaps you have had that wonderful opportunity to mix and match couples, families, whatever.
But now they are all going to come together and it is guaranteed that some alchemic reaction is going

“When Harry Met Sally”

to happen. Your job? Create a safe, nurturing and creative environment in which all the actors can function at their most authentic, their most confident, even their most vulnerable – an environment that will allow them to do their best work.

I know that many of your are thinking, “There is no such first meeting. I just cast the movie and we start shooting.” This happens way too often. So for those of you jumping right from casting into production, consider the fact that if you took the time and energy to allow the actors to form more significant and meaningful relationships (both as the actors and as the characters) how much better your film would be.

For the moment, let’s put aside any notions of just jumping into production. And let’s even put aside the notions of a rehearsal process (which we’ll discuss in a future newsletter). And let’s just think about what a difference a day can make. And this day is just a day of meet and greet and a simple reading of the script. That’s it. No more that that. And right now I am going to guarantee you (don’t you love guarantees especially when they relate to the creative process?) …I’m going to guarantee you that the quality of your film will take a significant leap upward just because of this one low-key day. I can also guarantee that it is very likely (and there’s that disclaimer that comes with most guarantees) that you will save production time just because of this one low-key day.

So let’s look at how this day can work.

You announce it as the ‘first reading’ of the script. But you and I know that there is going to be a lot more accomplished than just a reading. You invite everyone. By everyone I mean everyone who is in some way connected to your production, all the way from producers and writers through cinematographer, editor, designers and even administrative staff, assistants, secretaries, etc. And, of course, the actors.

Select a location where there is lots of room, tons of room. Sound stages are good. Conference rooms in hotels work well. Something large and impersonal. Not someone’s home or office.

Create one space in the room where the reading will happen. This will usually be tables and chairs in some configuration so that everyone can see everyone else. A circle, a square, a community. You’ll also want to have a table of refreshments: water, coffee, tea and snacks. My suggestion on snacks: avoid the processed sugar. Go for the fresh fruit, vegetables and dip. And leave another part of the room, perhaps even half of the room, open and empty. Watch as people enter, see where they go, what they do. Most will gravitate to the tables and chairs. Some will select where they want to sit. Some will make little nests of papers and objects at their chosen location. Most will get to the refreshments quickly simply because it is an area of comfort and security. Everyone (usually) will avoid the empty part of the room. There’s no reason to go there.

“When Harry Met Sally”

As soon as everyone is gathered (most will be at their chosen places at the reading table with little plates of food and liquids) start your meeting. And this is how it starts:

“Okay, everyone, please stand, leave your food and papers at the table and come join me.” And you walk to the empty part of the room. Now, one thing you might want to do at this point is simply watch the behavior of the participants. First, you may see that the actors will clump together, or stay close to someone they know. Some department heads will resist and maybe not even leave the table. Producers and executives will take a few steps and then opt to observe from a distance. Of course, none of them know what’s going to happen (which is all part of the plan) so what you have done by one simple request “follow me to the empty part of the room” is you have tapped into and triggered those insecurities that exist within all of us.

“Now, I need everyone to form a circle.” And with this simple request the insecurities will get triggered again. There is no place to hide in a circle. Some will refuse or just hold back. One simple rule: ‘You either join us or leave the room’. That’s right. There are no observers to this process, only participants. Your goal is to get everyone in the circle. They’ll do it, be patient.

Then you produce the ball. This is a smallish ball, somewhere between a softball and a volleyball in size. It’s soft so it doesn’t bounce. Again you will feel the energy in the room shift because it is suddenly clear that there is going to be some kind of game. More insecurities are triggered.

A side story: Many years ago when I was directing a PBS Special all about “Blind Tom” and the Civil War, there was an actress who had been cast (cast before I was hired as director so I had never met her) who was a major television star on a hit series. And she arrived at this ‘first reading’ of a Civil War script in perfectly-coiffed hair, high heels and a three-piece suit. When I asked everyone to come to the empty part of the room, she held back with the executives. When I said, “form a circle” I could see that she was not happy and was most likely wondering why she had even agreed to do this project. I knew we were off to a bad start. But when I produced the ball and held it in front of me, she suddenly kicked off her high heels, ripped off her suit jacket, threw it on the floor, rumpled her hair and screamed in delight, “Theater Games!” And she was right. That is what this is: theater games. And from that moment on she and I were the best of friends and she helped set an amazing collaborative tone amongst the actors for the entire production.

Now, for the rest of the game. This is how it goes. Simply say, “This is a ball. The object of this game

“When Harry Met Sally”

is to throw the ball to another person. Please throw it so that it can be caught. And when you throw the ball simply say the first name of the person you are throwing it to. If you get stuck, my name is (your name). You can always throw it to me. And, if you want to throw it to someone and you don’t remember or have never heard their name, simply say, ‘I am sorry, I have forgotten your name’ and that person will give you their name and you can throw the ball. It’s simple.”

And then throw the ball to a person saying their name and the game has begun. Your point of concentration during this game in not on the game, but on the people. Watch them. Watch their body language change. Watch their attitudes change. Watch self-consciousness disappear – sometimes slowly and sometimes rapidly. Just listen and you’ll hear the relaxation and humor enter the room. Within a few minutes, seriously, the ball will be whipping around the room. When everyone has had a chance or several chances to receive and throw the ball and you can feel the confidence rising, stop the game and say, “I need one volunteer”. Sometimes someone will volunteer immediately because they get where you’re going. Sometimes some courageous person will volunteer having no idea what the task will be. When you have your volunteer, just say, “Go around the circle and face to face with each person just say their first name.” Big groan from the group. Insecurities triggered again. “And remember, all you have to say if you can’t remember is, ‘I’m sorry, I have forgotten your name’ and you’ll be fine.” And within a minute that person will have gone around the room, naming every single person. And then, most likely, you will get other volunteers who want to try it.

“When Harry Met Sally”

After a few volunteer circles you can take the game one level deeper. “Okay, this time when you throw the ball to someone else, say their name and the role they are playing in this movie. By ‘role’ I mean either the position as in producer, writer, designer, craft service or for the actors the actual character they are playing. And, again, if you don’t know, just say, ‘I am sorry …’ “. And the game starts again. And, again, within a few minutes the ball will be whipping around and you’ll be hearing names and roles spouted out with such pride and confidence.

And here is what you have accomplished in just a few minutes:

–       Everyone feels seen and heard.

–       You have leveled the playing field. No one is more or less important than anyone else.

–       Every person has been recognized for who they are as a person and their role in this venture.

–       And there is now a ‘community of players’ that has proudly gathered for the sole purpose of creating something new.

This article began by addressing the challenge of bringing actors together for the first time and how you can create a safe, nurturing and creative environment in which all of the actors can function at their most authentic, most confident levels. Well, you’ve already done it. And you haven’t even talked to one actor yet. You’ve asked nothing of them other than they play the game. And as you watch them return to the tables you will witness entirely different body language, behavior and attitude. It will feel like a family about to sit down for an evening meal, warm, safe, comfortable and confident.



21 responses to “When Actors First Meet”

  1. Patti

    I had forgotten the “ball” game. I did that in my Intro to Acting class. It works. If I had known how much fun theater was, I would have studied it as an undergrad.

  2. Nunzio Fazio

    This is brilliant. “I am stealing this idea from you.”

  3. Naomi

    Your introductory process for the team is basically the foundation for ‘building’ the project’s shoot–or is a well-mixed list of our best ingredients, an important step in any excellent dish. Thanks!

  4. Rachel

    Ah, I love this game! It works so brilliantly at the Write Your Life Workshops. I’m so glad to see you share your “secrets” here. Great job, Mark.

  5. Thomas

    I’m a screenwriter awaiting discovery. I can write but can’t act. Last night I went to an actors improv where the leader engaged everyone in a series of games. Within 10 minutes everyone was laughing and focused on the game. The leader handed out strips of paper with a short line written which one actor stated to another and from those two lines built a small story. Seems like this would work well for screenwriters too. Once our defenses are down, we can relax and get to fun,… I mean work.

  6. Gary Hetzler

    I love that game and haven’t played it in very many years. And yes, we did it at the first cast meeting (a very large cast too). Back then, the cast was also the crew, staff, etc. so all hands were on deck. I look forward to doing it again.

  7. Rebekah

    Hi Mark. Long time no see. Thank you for sharing the ball. I’ll remember to do the game with the group I’m taking to Italy. Not everyone knows each other, and I want to get off to a good start before departing the Islands. In this case, I really don’t want any drama! All the best, and please keep posting.

  8. Kathleen

    Good morning Mark:

    I remember the ball game very well and while reading this it brought a smile to my face. As all your wonderful “games” do. The many suggestions in your books about how to help actors connect with their roles and partners have helped me in my work as an actress and also as a coach.I’ve used a similar version of the ball game with non-actors too. It worked brilliantly. Sometimes I think adults are too busy being their version of what they think adults should be instead of just being. And being alive and present AND allowing their inner child to come through. As always I read your blogs with much anticipation, joy and excitement and walk away feeling great. Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience with us.

  9. Craig Nisker

    Fabulous tip! I can’t wait to try it! Thanks!

  10. babu subramaniam

    Thanks for sharing this Mark. Working towards shooting my movie in June. So dreading the casting process realizing how vital and complex this part of the process is. Hope to see you soon. cheers! Babu

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