For all the words in the 25-minute monologue of megalomania that Mark Rylance delivers in the Broadway play “La Bête,” many of the comic payoffs flow from the stunned or dumbfounded looks, the tense or foolish body language, traded among Mr. Rylance’s crude street clown and the high-minded characters played by David Hyde Pierce and Stephen Ouimette. You can rehearse and rehearse such moments, but at their best they flow from instinct and risk-taking.
Mr. Rylance has his own preparation method: Improvisational games, the sort of unscripted, spontaneous exercises that he began learning three decades ago as an acting student in London. Sometimes he gathers with another actor or two simply to create scenes from scratch to rev up his reflexes, now that he’s been delivering the monologue eight times a week since June, on Broadway and previously in London. Lately, too, he has been joining his “La Bête” cast mates and crew members in a homemade version of volleyball amid the empty seats of the Music Box Theater before the audience streams in for the play about a showdown between high and low culture, set in the age of Molière.
“For me, improv is all about firing up parts of the mind and imagination in new ways,” said Mr. Rylance, who won a best-actor Tony Award in 2008 for his work in “Boeing-Boeing.” “Our volleyball has been a great part of that. It brings everyone into the present, and you notice the way their minds work and whether each of us has had a bad day or a good day. In the end acting is all about passing and receiving something, and hopefully taking risks and being attentive to the unusualness of stage work.”
Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce in “La Bete”
Such was the theme of a four-day improvisation workshop that Mr. Rylance taught early this month at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York. Joined by two theater mentors from London, Ben Benison and Roddy Maude-Roxby, Mr. Rylance focused on building confidence among the students to trust whatever improvised scene or dialogue was unfolding and to push themselves to contribute. He did this partly by using various masks, covering all or half of the students’ faces, which he always found to be a liberating tool.
“When you do improv you often inevitably start with an old feeling of boundaries and fear, of a sense that there’s a right way to do things — and one point of improv is to try a new way that might not be quite right,” Mr. Rylance said.
In the Music Box volleyball game, for instance, players can hit the ball with their hands while it is on their side of the net, but they have to butt it with their heads to hit it over the net. “You’re used to hitting it over with your hands, that’s what your instinct tells you to do, but you have to open your mind to a new direction,” he explained. (The producers of “La Bête” announced on Monday that the show, which had been selling slowly, would close on Jan. 9, a month ahead of schedule.)
As part of his work at the Adler Studio, Mr. Rylance, his two mentors and three actors from “La Bête” held a master class on improv last week for the public that doubled as a benefit for the school, raising $10,000. The evening at the Cherry Pit theater began with a bare stage as Mr. Rylance, Mr. Maude-Roxby and Liza Sadovy and Sally Wingert from “La Bête” stood on the sidelines. Slowly, each began to place stray chairs in a semicircle. They sat and glanced at one another for a good 15 seconds.
From left, Mark Rylance, Michael Milligan, Liza Sadovy and Sally Wingert during an improv class at the Cherry Pit theater.
The silence was a bit unnerving; a couple of audience members twittered as if to suggest, Would anyone come up with a good idea to start?
“Well, I think I’ll pack it in,” Mr. Maude-Roxby said, triggering relieved laughter.
“Yeah?” Mr. Rylance said.
“It’s cold!” Ms. Wingert barked suddenly. To Mr. Rylance she said, “You could turn up the heat a little.”
“Mom, I’m boiling, I’m sweating here,” he replied, creating a whole world of family dynamics and tension in one quick sentence. “I can’t, I, I, I, I can’t stay awake any longer, I’ve got to go to bed.”
“Feel my hands!” Ms. Wingert moaned. “I’m supposed to be having hot flashes, but I’m freezing.”
“You’re old, Mom,” Mr. Rylance deadpanned, drawing a huge laugh.
Mr. Maude-Roxby, who had evidently assumed the role of Dad, mumbled a protest. To which Mr. Rylance shot back, “No, Dad, she’s old.”
The six actors spent the next hour blending in masks, some bananas and a few props and chairs into more sketches. Mr. Rylance, as a shy woman talking to a suitor, used a fan to hide and reveal his facial hair to hysterical effect. Another scene seemed headed in two directions, with Mr. Rylance becoming an alcoholic at an A.A. meeting and Mr. Benison playing a flasher, until Ms. Wingert entered carrying a carton of water bottles and asking, “Who ordered the case of Dewars?” Mr. Rylance’s alcoholic winced, and then Mr. Benison said, “I drink as well — I flash best when drunk,” tying various strands of the scene together in nutty style.
Tom Oppenheim, the artistic director of the Adler Studio (and a grandson of Stella Adler), said that Mr. Rylance’s improv reflected a lesson of the school: Dialogue is only a starting point in a performance, which needs to be infused with a viewpoint, tone and body language.
“So much of acting is about seeing and listening to what others are doing,” Mr. Oppenheim said, “and it requires your senses to be fully open, which improv can help tremendously with.”
At “La Bête” the night after the Adler benefit, Mr. Rylance said he felt that the improv had a “marvelous effect” on his stage work, which requires him, as Valere, to revel in his own perceived brilliance while chastising himself for going too far — all in rhyming couplets. (“What hubris! What vulgarity What nerve!/ No, slap me! Slap me! That’s what I deserve!”)
“In that scene you ideally want to be leaping from one subject to another in desperation to impress the other characters onstage, like someone leaping from lifeboat to lifeboat as one sinks,” Mr. Rylance said. “My ability to do that varies after these last few months: I get attached to getting the same laugh from the audience that I did the night before, or another result that I liked in the past. But on Tuesday I felt completely impulsive.”