Kaufman’s Advice to the Players

We’re about to leap into the first day of rehearsals for You Can’t Take It With You, which opens on September 15. As I have been thinking about this day, and the process of getting a show ready for an audience, I’ve also been thinking about the witticisms of George Kaufman. Kaufman was a member of the Algonquin Round Table, and a regular contributor to numerous publications. Some of these articles yield great advice for the beginning of rehearsals. Some examples (in no particular order) of his advice for actors: 

Speak the speech: He interrupted a rehearsal of Animal Crackers, which he wrote for the Marx Brothers, saying “Excuse me for interrupting, but I thought for a minute I actually heard a line I wrote.”

Stay calm: Kaufman and Hart’s first collaboration was Once in a Lifetime, which Kaufman also directed and performed in. On his performance on opening night, he claimed, “When opening night arrived, I walked onto the stage of the Music Box and spoke every “if,” “and,” and “but.” And if it had not been for a certain pardonable nervousness I would have spoken some of the other words too.”

Accept criticism with good grace: Also about his performance in Once in a Lifetime – “Now about the bomb that came to the theatre. I examined the paper closely after the explosion, and I am willing to swear that it was not meant for me at all. It was addressed to “George S. Kaufmann,” with two n’s, and we have always spelled our name with only one. There are some Kaufmanns in Pittsburgh who spell it with two n’s, and I suppose it was meant for one of them. I think one of them is named George, too – or Adrian, or something. I am sorry, of course, about the three actors who were killed, but we had a pretty large cast and were thinking of letting some people out anyway.”

Don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board: “No matter how careful your labors, there is an unpredictable factor. Somewhere in the transition from typewriter to stage there is an almost chemical element that intrudes itself between the play and the audience. Sometimes this works to the playwright’s advantage, and a simple scene of which little had been expected suddenly throws the audience into stitches, or moves it to tears, as the case may be. This is a good deal like having your bank account gone over and finding that you have two hundred dollars more than you figured. But more frequently, of course, it goes the other way.”

Avoid hogging the limelight: Kaufman was a theatre critic at the New York Times from 1917-1930. Asked by a press agent how he could get a certain leading lady’s name in the paper, Kaufman replied, “Shoot her.”

Be kind to the playwright: “You must remember that a playwright puts up with a lot. (I suppose the actor does too, and so does the audience from time to time, but I am frankly writing from a specialized viewpoint.) There is no one in the world who cannot tell an author how to fix his play, and the poor guy  has to stand there and listen courteously. And at the end he must say, ‘Thank you very much. You are absolutely right,’ instead of what he wants to say, which is, ‘What the hell do you know about it?’”

And finally, keep your sense of humor: When asked about his opinion on a play he hated, Kaufman replied, “I didn’t like the play, but I saw it under adverse conditions. The curtain was up.”

And now, off to the rehearsal room!




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