9 Actors on Why You Need Rhythm to Be Great

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Musicality in performance extends beyond singing and dancing. Every performer needs to understand rhythm, the division of space and time that’s fundamental to any action. Footfalls, heartbeats, and of course speaking all have their own rhythm and innate drama that all require choices by a performer. For instance, any comedian will tell you that rhythm is inherent in whether a joke works or not.

Many opine that rhythm, unlike pitch or singing, cannot be taught. While that is inherently false, it is important to reflect on how individual rhythms create an identity for a performer—in other words, you can emulate someone else’s but you can never replicate it. This article brings together quotes from artistic directors, playwrights, classical directors, and many actors on rhythm in performance that really digs into the choreography of stage dialogue between performers and audience.

Debra Messing (“Will & Grace”) on musicality and successful comedy. “Comedy is about music. If you don’t hear the music, that can’t be taught; you can’t find it. Comedy is rhythm.”

Penélope Cruz (“The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story”) on using rhythm to create her character Donatella. “My biggest challenge was finding [the character’s] voice. I wanted to find a way of speaking that was not me and that made you think of her and her energy. I think she has a very rock ‘n’ roll rhythm in the way she talks and moves. My coach, Tim Monich, helped me so much. We worked for many, many months. First, it was the Italian accent transferred to English and then giving it something that could be unique of her, something that when you hear it, it’s Donatella.”

Kyle MacLachlan (“Twin Peaks: The Return”) on working with David Lynch to turn individual rhythms into his character on the show. “What happens when I start to work on a role is it gets into my body and I transform somehow, I don’t really know how—physically? My thought process is different and rhythms become different. I just trusted whatever transformation was happening, knowing that if it needed to be refined slightly, David would help sculpt it.”

Sam Shepard (“True West,” playwright) on the influence of drumming on his writing and directing. “I like to look at the language and the inner rhythms of the play, and all that to me is related to music directly. In ‘True West’ there are coyote sounds and crickets and things like that. And the dialogue is musical. It’s a musical, ‘True West.’ I think it’s very related to music, the whole rhythmic structure of it. Rhythm is the delineation of time in space, but it only makes sense with silences on either side of it. You can’t have a rhythm that doesn’t have silence in it.... There are many possible rhythmic structures that an actor can hit, but there’s only one true one.”

Carole Rothman (Second Stage artistic director) on casting actors based on their interpretation of rhythms, especially in scripted jokes. “[Playwright Kenneth Lonergan] cares a lot about people actually saying his words. That may sound weird to you, but a lot of times, people feel like they can come in and improvise on the script. He’s not really that into that. And the ability to handle his language—he has a certain rhythm that kind of fluctuates between something that’s serious and something that’s very funny, so you have to be able to pick up what part of it is funny. The people that did the best were the people that we could figure out had a sense of humor.”

Eline Powell (“Siren”) on exploring physicality by creating her fantasy character Ryn, a mermaid. “What I want to take into different projects is how much physicality can add to a performance. Ryn is an extreme example but in future human characters, it’s an interesting thing to think about in minute ways, in how they stand and what their rhythm is. Do you ever sit in Starbucks and watch people go by? Everyone has energy around them and you can tell what kind of person they are just by the way they walk and talk. Exploring Ryn physically, I could think about other characters’ physicality, too.”

Ben Crystal (“Shakespeare on Toast,” author) on the essential ingredient to Elizabethan performance. “Most of Shakespeare’s plays are written in that particular rhythmical style, so to ignore it would be foolish. Iambic pentameter is the rhythm of our English language and of our bodies—a line of that poetry has the same rhythm as our heartbeat. A line of iambic pentameter fills the human lung perfectly, so it’s the rhythm of speech. [It’s] a direction by itself—the stronger stresses usually fall on the important words.... [E]ither Shakespeare couldn’t count and was an idiot, or he was a genius and knew what he was doing. When there are less than 10 syllables in a line, he’s giving the actor room to think. If the meter changes at any point, it’s a direction from Shakespeare to his actors about the character they’re playing. It sounds quite complicated, but actually, once you know what you’re looking for, it’s incredibly straightforward. Shakespeare knew that his actors would have had this rhythm flowing through their veins, and so would his audience. If he broke the rhythm, they’d feel it.”

Ross Lynch (“My Friend Dahmer”) on finding chemistry with a self-tape reader. “It’s hard because especially with self-tapes, sometimes you just can’t really find a good actor to work with. [I]t’s really hard to find someone who can give you a good rhythm and good push and pull because a lot of acting is really musical, it’s let’s play off of each other and let’s get something going because a lot of times with self-[tapes], you find yourself not necessarily connecting with the other actor, and that makes you look worse because you’re not having that chemistry.”

Sarah Ruhl (“For Peter Pan on her 70th Birthday”) on the use of line breaks and other rhythmic signals in her writing to convey character. “For me, it’s really about finding a character’s voice and listening to a character’s voice. I think rhythm is part of that. I don’t think rhythm is completely deterministic; I don’t think rhythm will give you everything you need to know about a character. But I certainly believe that once you can hear the way a character talks, you can sort of follow the character, and the character gets born, and the character has, hopefully, desires, and intentions.... For me, it’s about the rhythm of thought. A lot of actors ask me, ‘Oh, do I need to take a big pause there?’ No, I don’t think you need to take a breath there; it’s more about how a thought follows a thought. It’s more like poetry—when you’re reading a poem out loud, you respect the line breaks to some extent, but you don’t necessarily take a big pause between the lines. It’s more a way of articulating imagery for me.”

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