Every singer has their own system for learning their staging. Some people write directly into the score, some on sticky notes or paper, and some don’t write down anything, trusting their memories or the director/assistant director/stage manager to remember for them. Some write down every nuance flick of the wrist, some include nuanced dramatic motivation, and some just write “sit/stand/walk.” It doesn’t really matter, in truth, how we learn it, just so long as we learn it well enough to make the same moves at every run-through. The nuances can change, but if your costar is expecting you to cross at a certain time, it’s good to get it right!
My system is an amalgam of things that I was taught in school and that I have observed over the years in practice. As I’ve mentioned before, I learned the basics of stagecraft from my Jr. High drama teacher, Ms. Stettler. I remember taking a test in which I had to fill in the diagram of the areas of the stage, using their abbreviations: USL (upstage-left), DS (downstage), C (center, where we all like to be), and so on. (Here’s a good diagram, although they use Corner # for USL/USR/etc..) I still use the abbreviations today; they’re part of the shorthand I’ve developed, I guess.
A few years ago, an artist I was working with suggested using sticky-notes to write blocking. This is a great idea, to my way of thinking, for three reasons. One, it keeps your music clean, so you can actually read the music. Two, blocking often gets changed several times throughout the rehearsal process, and the constant erasing can damage your score. This way you can just pull out a new sticky note and start over! And, lastly, you always hope to perform an opera more than once, in more than one production. If your score is filled with notes from your last production, there’s no place for your new blocking. But you can get a new color of sticky note and start afresh. (I just pulled my Midsummer score off the shelf and took a look at the sticky notes from that production. Even when I perform the role again, I’ll keep those notes as reminders of that wonderful experience!)
So, here’s a picture of a page in my Jenufa score:
and one in my Helena score:
(Click to enlarge.)
On most of my notes, I draw a diagram of the stage, usually just a three-sided box. The Jenufa note is a good example of this; I’ve even drawn in the big rock that was jutting up through the stage. In this diagram, I’ll write letters to represent the other characters (i.e., J for Jenufa) and an “x” for me. Arrows indicate movement, and numbers in circles correspond with numbers I’ve written into the score to indicate when I should move to or arrive at a certain spot. Of courses, now that I look again, there are none of those in that picture! But there’s an arrow, and a diagram of the stage, and a bit of “dramatic intention,” so hopefully you get the idea.
You can see numbers on the Helena note, along with their corresponding spots in the music. “M” in the direction for #3 is Menelas, the tenor, and the small stage diagram at the bottom shows the positions we all end up in by the end of the next page. This system is not an exact science, as you can see, because in this example, the x’s are chorus members, not my character. There are no arrows on this sticky-note, either, mostly likely because there is A LOT of movement in this scene! Arrows would get confusing. Arrows are good for simple, clean movements, like Jano’s exit up there on the pink note.
Is this clear at all?! Questions?
That’s about it, really, for my system. I use these notes to review before a rehearsal and refer to them before I sit to do any visualizing. I had to step into a couple of rehearsals last week (Elf #2 is also singing Jano; she had days off or days when she would have gone into overtime, so they called me in), and I was always grateful to have something to review before getting up on my feet.
Stuff like dramatic intention, character development, subtle prop work, stage “business, etc., rarely makes it onto my sticky-notes. That sort of detail is “living,” so to speak; it changes depending on the moment, so I hate to pin it down. Sometimes something works so well I’ll do it every time, but the little moves that make a character look real onstage can’t really be diagramed. Diana Damrau, who is singing Aithra in this production of Helena, is a master at bringing a character to life through subtle details, and I am enjoying watching her work. Maybe I’ll end up incorporating some of her “system” into mine!