Pick Up The Pace
Helping beginning actors to understand - and make use of - timing is one of the most practical ways to improve their performances. That's because the timing of the line delivery has a direct bearing on how well even the best script will hold the attention of the audience.
Timing is a matter of pace and speed, two words often used synonymously but which have different meanings in acting. Speed refers simply to the rate of speech, but pace encompasses the surge and ebb of line delivery, especially the space between lines. A director's instruction to "Pick up the pace" usually doesn't mean, "Speak your lines more rapidly." More likely, the intent is, "Shorten the time interval between each actor's speeches."
Typically, beginning actors speak their lines too rapidly, possibly due to nervousness but often because they've not yet learned to listen to what they are saying.
Conversely, while newcomers may speak too fast, they're just as likely to be too slow in picking up their cues, which results in a jerky, unnatural rhythm. They may also maintain an unvarying tempo that becomes monotonous and kills the momentum of the sketch.
Many cast members will improve simply through experience. But you can boost both their progress and the impact of your performances as you help your players learn the basics of timing. Here are a few general guidelines.
For audiences to understand words from a stage, the lines often have to be delivered a bit more slowly than what seems "normal" to novice actors.
To convey a sense of hurry, shorten the space between actors' lines rather than asking them to speak faster.
Getting actors to actually listen to and observe what other characters are saying and doing often will improve the actor's sense of timing.
Timing should reflect the emotional content of an actor's lines. If the lines are pensive, both the pace and the speed should be fairly slow. For a panicked speech, the speed can a bit faster, although not so fast as to blur the meaning. But the pace should move quickly.
Thought-provoking scenes require a slower pace than comedic scenes. In fact, for comedy to work, thought pauses should take only a fraction the time they would take in serious drama.
Intentional pauses will seem longer to an actor than to the audience. Often you'll have to urge extending a pause longer than seems natural to the actor.
Pace should be sensitive to the audience. When a line evokes laughter, actors should pause long enough for the laughter to crest but launch the next speech before it dies completely.
Working on timing is worth the effort, for timing is one of the most effective ways to ensure that a sketch will have all the emotional impact the scriptwriter intended.