Thursday, June 11, 2009

Ten Tips for Acting

You can improve your acting, dramatically on your own, or with a friend, by doing some simple, easy-to-do-things, and they won't cost you a thing. First and most importantly:

* Consonants - Learn to speak clearly. Practise your consonants. That is the single most important and dramatic way to improve your acting ability. Enunciating clearly does not just reflect the language of newscasters and aristocrats. it allows a person to transcend their local unintelligible dialects. Dropping consonants is a casualty of daily interaction, lazy shorthand with friends, family and colleagues. Consonants give shape to the emotional resonance of vowel sounds. Vowel sounds coming from the actor suggests the feeling inside and consonants let the audience know what that feeling is. Consonants are like the frame of the house. They give it shape. Learn to exaggerate those consonants.

It may sound highly unnatural at first, but after a while, it will become more natural, and will become a ready-to-use and important tool in landing roles. You should practise hitting the consonants in the middle and ends of words. Playing spaces can vary in kindness to the ear. For instance, the sound in the theater might not travel. It might reverberate. It might be perfect. Film, and television can have varying qualities in the sound equipment and sound mix. With certain films at a key point, I've had to play that moment over and over again to make out what the actor said. Be kind to the aging and hearing impaired. Speak clearly. Practice it everyday. Don't think that by dropping consonants you are being real or true to your art. Instead, you are being hard to hire.

* Imagination - Get your imagination in fighting shape. Look at a play and use your imagination to get inside the character's head, inside their heart, inside their soul. Your imagination is a powerful tool we all share. We might be different physically, in looks and talent but we can all harness that power of imagination. If a writer is portraying life on the streets, then use your imagination to find that character within you. If the character is the president of the United States then use your imagination to pick up the ticks and tricks of the trade. Imagination is the single most important tool you have to get inside the head of another character. It is the single most important tool you have to inhabit the world of the play. Having all the talent and the tools in the world will not mean anything if you lack imagination.

Your imagination can only be fed by learning as much as you can about the world around you. Read novels, history, and see films and plays, listen to music and play games. Imagination can take you places where technique and talent can't. It allows you to walk with kings and queens across moonlit desert sands. It allows you to close a drug deal in a back alley. Imagination allows you to breathe life into words on a page and translate them into a living world for the audience to see. Flex the muscles of your imagination, spread your wings and soar above the earth like Oberon and Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

* Projection - You need to be heard. While not so important in film and television, it is important in the theater, and theater is an easily accessible way to get into acting, to acquire the skills needed to succeed in other mediums. Theater is the best way to make connections that can help further your career, so learn to be heard. Don't be shy. It is your right to be heard. Go in a big room, open your mouth and aim your voice at the back wall. Focus on that back wall and your voice will travel there, even in a large room. Use your diaphragm, the muscle under your ribs to push the air and the voice out. Most people speak with shallow breaths. They talk so not to be heard. Talk to be heard. Check out books by Patsy Rodenburg. Her books are goldmines of technique for improving your acting ability with regards to speaking.

* Nouns and Verbs - Nouns are the subject of the sentence. The noun is the thing, the person, or the place that you are talking about in a sentence. The audience needs to know who that person is, where that place is, or what that thing is that you are talking about. Learn to track down the primary nouns and secondary nouns in a sentence.

Say the lines out loud with an emphasis on the nouns. Play with the relative importance of the nouns and pronouns (he, she, him, her, they, you, and so on) Get different meanings out of a line by switching the importance of various nouns and pro nouns. The verb is the active word driving the line to its conclusion. It is essential for an audience to hear what actions are happening in a line. Don't fall in love with pretty descriptions so much that you give adjectives and adverbs precedence over nouns and verbs. Adjectives and Adverbs describe the nouns and verbs. They are less important. Don't make them more so. Let the audience in by letting them know what you are talking about. Nouns and verbs are essential to that communication between performer and audience. If you ignore that, you are going to find it that much tougher to get roles.

* Upward Inflections - This is another important tool for the actor. Many inexperienced actors throw their energy into the beginning of a line, but as they run out of air, the ends of their lines are dropped vocally, which is completely at odds with natural speech. In natural speech, the speaker organizes his thoughts to say that he or she is going to do this, or to go there. What are you going to do? Where are you going to go? These are questions that the last word or two in a line answers. If you pump all your energy, adrenalin and breath into the beginning of your line, then you have nothing left for the end of the line, nothing left with which to answer those questions.

A rush of energy at the beginning of a line, while perhaps exciting for the actor becomes monotonous to the audience. It becomes a predictable succession of vocal peaks and valleys, where the beginning is loud and the end of the line quiet. Do that for too long and the audience will be checking their watches. They won't have a clue what you are saying. Learn where to breathe in your lines, and pay attention to punctuation breaks. Find ways to keep the energy up at the end of a line. Don't plan to leave tired-endings for the other actors to pick up. If you end a line with a word supported by breath, it transfers energy to the next line. It keeps the energy of the play crackling.

* Monologues - A monologue for the purposes of an audition can be a soliloquy, a private speech between actor and audience, or it can be part of a conversation with another character. It should be about two minutes long and be uninterrupted by other characters. Find some monologues that you can use for audition pieces. Look in real plays for these monologues. There are many free monologues on the internet, but many of them are not going to help you land parts. It will probably be useful to have two classical pieces, one comedic and the other dramatic. Shakespeare is usually a good choice because you can find recordings or movies that have those monologues in them. Then you should search for a modern dramatic and comedic monologue. Search for these monologues in highly regarded plays, plays that have been on Broadway for instance or those that have been turned into movies. The reason for that is that you will have better luck researching them and finding recordings for them.

But before you listen to any recordings, or watch any filmed versions, you should do your own work, your own investigation into who the character is and what he is doing, what he is feeling, and what he is thinking, where he has come from and where is he going. The monologue has to travel from the beginning to the end, and you should map whatever change in emotions there might be, when the tempo picks up or slows down. Does the monologue grow in rage? Does it trail off in despair? Find the drama, the irony, the comedy and it's timing. Find the humanity in the piece. You should learn the character inside and out. Learn these monologues so well that you can do them spontaneously. Don't give yourself an excuse for not getting a part with a poorly-prepared audition piece. Blend your thoughts, your emotions into the character's thoughts, emotions and words. Read as much as you can about the character and then listen to a recording or watch a filmed version. You will now understand the character and so hearing or viewing this monologue will give you additional ideas and insight.

* Study other people - Be a student of people. Be a student of people from all walks of life, the rich, the poor, the young and the old. Study their physicality. Watch people walk and listen to them talk. Listen to the rhythms of their speech. Watch people when they sit, when they stand, when they are passionately trying to communicate something or when they seem disinterested, when people are happy, or sad or angry or sleepy. What body language do they use? Imagine what goes on in people's heads. Find two similar looking people and look for clues to their personalities by their posture, by how they move, look for physical clues that might suggest why one ended up one way and one another. How much does nature and nurture have an influence on human beings? Watch what people are doing when they are listening to each other. What do they do with their hands? What do they do with their hands when they speak? Be a student of body language. Shakespeare said that the actor must hold a mirror up to nature. To act, you must reflect what real human beings do. As an actor you are interpreting the human condition, the poetry and music of human emotions, thoughts, actions and communication.

* Read - Read plays, read books about acting, read about famous actors, read acting biographies, read anything. A well-rounded knowledge is essential for an actor. Not only is it important to know about acting, but it is important to know history, religion, psychology, geography, science, so read, read, read. Reading gives you your own credible insight into lines written by playwrights and screenwriters. People who write, read a lot, and to gain insight into these characters, you must read a lot. One casualty of theatre schools is the ability to understand the world. There is not enough contextual knowledge provided in these schools devoted only to acting. Know the world and you will know how to act.

* Get in shape - Treat your body as a temple. Eat right and exercise. Plays and films can be demanding physically. The more you can ask your body to do, the better physically you can fit into a part. If you have a certain physical trait that your character needs, you need to be able to achieve that. Physical activities, like dance, or karate, or running, or yoga, or sports of various kinds can help you prepare physically for demanding roles. There could be dancing, sword-fighting, and other acts of physical exertion needed, while all the while being able to deliver lines supported by breath. Your mind and your body, voice and movement, are the tools of the actors trade. Take care of them.

* The Internet - There is a lot of free information on the Internet. There are many acting tips that are available for free. Arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible. There are a lot of really helpful suggestions for actors out there. Most of the free information is really geared for beginning actors and many of them don't identify technique or different methods in more than a superficial method. But more advanced information can be found in things such as Google Books. The more research you do, the more information you can unlock on the Internet.

Obviously, there are scams out there. There are scams everywhere, and would-be actors are targeted in the real world as well as on the Internet. The more homework you do, the better, and as long as you realize that if you have drive, and are willing to work for what you want, that there are no short-cuts, then you have a good chance for success. But anything you read can only be reinforced by working with others. You cannot act in a vacuum. So to truly succeed you need to be working with other like-minded individuals.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Theatre and Religion

Much of theatre, and its descendants, film and television came out of religious rituals.

Show business was originally, in its infancy, story-telling around the campfire, or choral work at religiously significant events. Music, theatre and dance were all used as methods of harmonizing religious beliefs, or to create organized dialogues with different deities.

Human beings search for answers to existence, destiny and what their small thread on the tapestry of existence meant. We seek meaning in everything. We find patterns. We are organizers. We need form out of chaos. We need to understand.

But perhaps we don’t really need to understand. Perhaps what we really need are comfortable patterns. Perhaps our need for comfortable patterns over rides our desire for truth. Truth, being relative, is elusive anyway. Human kind needs to be part of a hierarchy to feel comfortable. We need the big bang. We need creation. We need someone to not be asleep at the switch. While religion and early theatre gave comfort to the masses with the creation and reinforcement of patterns, such as the choral work at fertility rites in ancient Greece, rituals which would please the Gods and ensure good harvests, there were those who questioned this belief in a patterned existence. Lore has it that one of the chorus, one of the religious collective stepped out and asked the chorus; The Gods, questions. Thespis was speaking for mankind in the guise of an actor.

In a chaotic world without faith or understanding, there is only fear. We need to understand, and if that understanding is only a simple framework that is in place only for now, to be supplanted by something later, so be it. Newtonian physics being supplanted by Einstein’s intuitions. Happens all the time.

Theatre can be a provocative form that poses questions, and many times it does not supply the answers. Theatre is Thespis stepping outside of the chorus and challenging that chorus with his questions.

Theatre peeks at the chaos outside of our comforting patterns. Theatre can also do nothing of the sort. It can reinforce existing assumptions. It can be mindless, or it can be immersed in patterns of its own, such as the patterns inherent in a money-maker, a hit.

One thing church and theatre still share in all cases is the communion shared by priest and performer, minister and musician, rabbi and rabblerouser, with their congregation.. Both are concerned with the human and spiritual condition. Both can inspire, and both can move. Some of the greatest art is created in the service of religious institutions, and some of the greatest spiritual events happen inside the theatre. Form out of chaos. Patterns out of incoherence. My theatre happens to be in a church.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

In the Beginning there was the Word

In the beginning there was the word, and for actors there is no show without the words -- you can argue that but basically it is true. No words; no play. You can have plays without words, but not many. It's difficult to write a template for a show without words.

The words are the key to the action, to the thought, to the feeling, to the relationships, to the world that is to be created by the actors. The word is the single most direct tie to the artist that created this work and it is so horribly abused.

You walk out on the street, through the poorest, most deprived areas, and you hear the richest poetry. Emotions, relationships, feelings, thoughts spill out on the guttered sidewalks like bullets.

Get an actor up on stage to recite epic poetry or gritty modern day drama, and they flatten everything out. They are not married to the word. They are married to their idea of acting.

Schooled to become a generic beast, actors become pale copies of their source material; a lie within a lie

Actors should learn to use the words, to trust in them. The words guide the actor through the dramatic battleground. The words are weapons, they are shields, they are sniffing dogs. Words are the keys to character.

There are twenty-six letters in our alphabet and they are our linguistic binary system. We code and recode to form the words that we want, a simple and elegant construct, or a wordy convoluted structure that reveals more of the character than what he wants to say.

Words are keys to action; words make you laugh; words make you cry.

Interestingly, many actors would rather cry during their performance than cause the audience to cry. I suppose they feel that the actor is more important than the character and if Sally, who is playing Juliet, really cries, then the audience will be really moved and impressed by her display of authenticity. Of course its not authenticity - it is merely Sally taking time out from playing Juliet to feel wonderful about herself.

The word is a link in a chain and a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. How can you hold a play - a world - together, like Atlas did, with weak links? Shakespeare creates his Verona in Romeo and Juliet with beautiful words, words that paint the audiences' imagination with hot dusty streets, young torrid love, and violent battles. David Mamet's earthy and poetic painting of a real estate office uses four-letter words to hold up Glengarry Glen Ross. You gotta say it like it's written.

Young actors tend to try to reinvent the artistic wheel, because they are young. Because they feel that they are expressing themselves, they try to twist that wheel into a square, or an oblong. They are rebelling against the world and its representative art, but in doing so, they are only dragonflies, skimming the surface, looking at their reflections in the watery glass. They see themselves in the art. They congratulate themselves for being artists, for lifestyle rather than life. They rebel against being slaves to the constructs of the art.

They rebel against the word.

Many theatre companies are shepherded by young people. They are finding a new way to use art as an expression of their feelings to rebel against the status quo. In this, they are unique, just like everyone else.

Great writers stand the test of time because of their brilliance, their talent of marrying the commonplace to the cosmic. Words and actions are the only clues they offer to tell us who these characters are. Misuse those words and you break the key. The actor offers the audience one half of the key and the audience completes it with their half. Broken words and broken keys litter the world of modern acting.

Shakespeare, and many dramatists before him, gave the actor a soliloquy to show the character's true feelings. Without a soliloquy, the writer might give the character a monologue, which can be like a confessional to another actor. But sometimes things are not so direct. Words and actions often only hint at what lies beneath the mask which the actor presents to his fellow actors, to the audience. As Shakespeare said, you may smile and smile and be a villain. We need the words to open the door to the villainy behind the smiling mask.

Actors are often left inventing their character's interior but they still have the words and the actions of the playwright for clues, and cues to action.

Drama is conflict and often times the words are the only weapons. These weapons have to be sharpened with practise and skill. Was that a thrust or a parry?

In the English language we have inherited words shaped and tested against time from the early mists of Anglo-Saxon England. English being a foster language, it adopted many orphaned words from other languages along the way. Greek, Roman, French, German, Dutch; we have a mongrel language that is fluid and that changes all the time. It is a living language. Words that meant one thing fifty years ago mean something else now. People are always inventing words and phrases and forever shifting the ground under our linguistic feet.

This makes the task of the actor a daunting one. He must find what the words mean. The farther into the past he goes to find that meaning, the less likely he will be one hundred percent correct. An additional problem is that modern academic interpretations of old words take precedence over the artistic ones. These interpretations conspire to help flatten the actor's interpretation. Not to abuse poor old Will Shakespeare too much, but artistic interpretations of his masterpieces do not exist in the footnotes. And thus the modern actor must fight through the fog of imposed academic bonds. No wonder the poor bard has difficulty in taking flight in modern productions. Poetry gives way to prose. Modern flattened sensibilities are imposed on epic earth-shaking tragedies, or modern cartoon sensibilities derail classic comedies.

Be true to the word, and it will be a beacon illuminating the path that leads to the genius in the script. Somewhere in there, you might even get to know and make peace with the writer.

Words are the only tools in the writers' hand. Tools to forge a living breathing character.

Actors use those tools to find and refine their ch

Monday, June 1, 2009

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood opened on Thursday May 28th. While it is perhaps pure entertainment as opposed to being filled with life lessons, or a message, it has a high degree of performance art in it. The actor-singer-dancers are required to stretch themselves in all three fields of Triple Threat. Dancing, singing and acting. We give the kids two weeks to get their show up to give them a taste of what professional theatre is like. The leads have mics(courtesy of Sound Works) and the music by Steve Furster is very infectious. Megan Ready-Walters as Red is hilarious as the vacant lead character. She is probably the most talented performer in all three fields, with a beautiful singing voice. Hannah Smith is both funny and pathetic as the lonely wolf who has been abandoned by her wolf pack. She is a great singer and actor. Katherine Noyes as the Weeping Willow is very good at all three disciplines. The Weeping Willow is the focus of a lot of really bad tree jokes, such as (To the dog) "You're barking up the wrong tree!" to "I can't leave. My roots are here." Newcomer Paige McNeely is a blast as Red Riding Hood's dog Scrufy, the badly-trained, but loveable dog who opens the show with a rap song called: "Scruff-Doggy-Dog". There are other forest animals that pop in for a visit, as well as The Big Bad Woodsman (Claire Morgan) the assistant woodsman (Simon Derome) who doubles as a random salesman for fairy-tale life insurance. Julia Foster plays various grumpy woodland creatures. Shannon Broekhoven and Allyson Foster round out the cast as Mother and Grandmother respectively. These kids are very busy performers as they are constantly involved in shows around town. From singing lessons, to music lessons, to dance lessons to acting lessons, these kids are highly-trained and their performances show it. We look forward with great anticipation to next year's Triple Threat Class.