Friday, December 13, 2013

Getting Dirty

I've mentioned my involvement with the newly formed Black Box Arts Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. As a facilities/house manager. We're having a small open house tomorrow, during which some of us will read "A Christmas Carol".

The building itself was a bit of a mess. A wall in the lobby that greeted patrons needed painting. (The logo of the old group that occupied the building was still stenciled all over the place.) Plus the green room needed tidying. I was there to do said painting, and I opted to do said tidying when the painting took less time than I thought.

I'm not going to recount my cleaning activities here; that would perhaps be one of the most boring blog posts in the history of the internet. I will say, though, that during slopping around in paint, scraping my thumb, (an injury I didn't notice until about an hour later), washing windows, sweeping, dusting and storing things, I felt in true service to the arts on general. True, bare bones, blood sweat and tears dedication to improving one small corner of the arts universe.

My biggest contribution to that universe is through performing, and sometimes directing/teaching theatre. Depending on who you ask, writing fiction is also part of the arts. If so, I feel I do, or very soon will contribute to that universe via my fiction as well. But there is something different, (not superior) to the actually getting physically dirty of making things work for the arts. That cleaning, and moving and storing and sweating. It manifests one's total commitment to the theatre or the arts as a whole. Lots of people can walk onto a stage someone else dressed and perform without having to clean it up later. But when you put in the time and the energy to literally get cut, bruised and exhausted in the preparations of arts presentation, you know you're truly a part of the process.

I haven't gotten that feeling as often over the last few years, due to various circumstances. I used to have it all the time back in college, though, where the work ethic I have described was first planted into me by my alma maters modest but dedicated theatre program. Back then I didn't see it as three-dimensional as I do now. The cuts and splinters and bruises and labor came with a bit of grumbling in college. But even then I was cognizant of the teamwork, the labor and the time that went behind getting a show ready. The submerged part of the iceberg of a play that involved sawdust and lumber, paint and brooms. Mops, buckets, nails and power tools. All so the glistening white part of the structure that was the performances could peak up over the cold waters of an otherwise average weekend, and sparkle in the moonlight for all to see.

I'll always be an actor. That will remain my primary contribution to the stage, I think. But times like yesterday, as I worked to get that space ready help put what I do in perspective. I may have been alone at the time, but I was breaking my back in communion with the thousand if not hundreds of thousands of people who for centuries have done so in theatres and arts centers all over the world in pursuit of ars gratia artis, or, "art for art's sake."

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Black Box Arts Center and A Christmas Carol

As the house manager at the new Black Box Arts Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, I'm happy to announce that on the 14th of this month at 6:00PM, there will be an open house as well as a staged reading of A Christmas Carol.

The script is based on the performance script that Dickens himself used on his tours. I myself have been a part of this reading on two other occasions, and I'm looking forward to taking part in it again later this month.

Readings are fun in general; they have the fun of performance but with less commitment to rehearsal time and other such things. Readings of A Christmas Carol are particularly fun, because of the beloved status of the work. I can think of few stories better suited to gain interest in a new arts center. If you're in the area, stop by and see us. I'll be in the reading, though I don't know in what capacity just yet. But they'll be tours, and some refreshment involved as well. I'll be updating on that as we get closer to the day, for those who can't come.

I'd also like to share some videos I produced for the Black Box Facebook page. They were fun to make, and give the idea of the sort of open, fun loving atmosphere we hope to create there. Give them a look at these links:

The first video addresses a very famous authorship debate that rages through academia and theatres alike these days.

This second one exhibits the professionalism and maturity of those of us involved in the Black Box.

In both videos I am in desperate need of a haircut, which I received less than 24 hours after I filmed those clips. Schedules...

I'll be back soon to talk more about the reading. Let me know what you think of the videos!

Friday, November 08, 2013

More Mish Mash

In my effort to continue posting here once a month or so, to my loyal blog readers I have not given up on this end of my online universe, I present two things of interest today.

To begin with, I will soon be assuming responsibilities as house/facilities manager at the recent opened Black Box Arts Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. This facility used to house the now defunct Full Circle Company, at which I did the lion's share of my acting in the last several years. FCTC had various issues and was, in short, forced to dissolve. But I have high hopes for this new endeavor in the building. (Which will be open to not just theater but other sorts of arts-oriented activities. I will post updates about some of my adventures there here on the blog.

I will in fact probably be posting a bit more content on theatre related activities that are not strictly reflections on my experience as an actor in a show. Though that has always been the backbone of this blog over the years, I have, (as I mentioned in my last entry) always meant to at some point slightly expand the scope. Theatre being the umbrella still, but including perspectives, polls, and other content that can make the blog more sustainable when I go through a drought of performances, as I am now. So do check back, as always.

Secondly, I went to a used book sale about two weeks ago, and came across a book for acting students in a pile in the back room. It's kind of old, but I bought it anyway. I finished it today. Here's my Goodreads review of it. (I'm only the second person on Goodreads to have ever read it, and the first to write a review.) Go check it out, and let me know if you've ever read it as well.

I'm also getting closer to revising and finishing my series of short stories that take place in the same fictional theater. I plan to publish that in e-book form sometime next year. It will be a bit of a prelude to my novel that takes place in the same fictional theater, which I hope to either shop to agents, or publish myself next year as well.

I'm proud of the stories. They need some work, and perhaps won't appeal to the broadest of audiences. But anyone who has spent any time in a theatre will, I feel, recognize the sorts of characters and situations presented in this short-fiction collection. I can't wait to get that off and running, so I can offer it to the theatre-minded folks out there.

Finally, my one-man Shakespeare show continues to evolve. I'm no where near performing it yet, but if the edits and the test reciting i have done be myself continue to progress, I wouldn't be surprised if it could go up sometimes in the fall of 2014. I'm excited about that as well.

So that's where I am in the theatre world as it stands now. I am by now means out of theatre, and in many ways will hopefully be back into it head long very soon, and will have more to say more often here on the blog again, between shows.

Until next time, loyal blog readers.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

General Updates

As we enter the final fourth of 2013, it has become clear that this will sadly have been the least active year for Always Off Book ever. While I have tried to post some of my previously published advice material here and there to fill the gaps, the fact is, I have not had as much to say on here as I would have liked.

One reason is that I have not been in a play in over a year, and this has always been, mostly, an exploration of my experiences while in a show. Not being in a play for over a year is sad not only for this blog, but for me. It happens sometimes of course, for various reasons. But I think I am now approaching the second-longest amount of time I have ever spent without being on stage. I mentioned the possibility in a previous entry of my doing Everyman. While that is still supposed to happen at some point, it has for various reasons been postponed.

More relevant to my lack of stage time recently, is the dissolution of the local community theatre in which I did most of my performing over the last several years. Even before the official end of same, the final year of it's existence was one of slow degradation. Lack of leadership, near total lack of public interest, disorganization, etc. A bit depressing in its own right.

However, certain other ventures are happening in the same geographical area of which I am a part. Because these plans have not been launched officially just yet, I will refrain from sharing specifics at this time. But if all goes well, I should find myself more involved in theatre in 2014 than ever I was in 2013. It will hopefully be an invigorating experience after the rough last two years. (During which, my plans for my own theatre company totally failed due to lack of local interest and cooperation, as did my production of Art for mostly the same reasons as far as attendance.) After last years theatrical stumbles, and this years theatrical absence, I need such a projects for 2014 to keep me busy. Stay tuned.

As for other theatres, yes, I certainly could have tried out elsewhere this year. I thought about it here and there. After all I have never been in a play in the closest city to where I live. (Frederick, Maryland.) The theatres there have a bit of a reputation for being close-shop and ever so slightly elitist, so i have been reluctant to try them. (I did so about ten years ago, and found the reputation deserved, but that was ten years ago, after all.) I have boycotted the previous venue where I used to do all of my plays because of the immoral behavior of it managing director of about ten years. Another is way too far away for me to drive to. There is one place I like, in Winchester, Virginia, which is far, but would be worth it for the right part. Sadly, they tend to produce plays that consistently require characters that are a minimum of 50 years old. So I'm not quite there yet.

I've also though about becoming active in community theatre message boards again. I have tried that a few times in the past, and have not met with much success. A lot of know it alls on such boards. (Or any message board for that matter.) Never really got a toe-hold in. My knowledge seemed unwelcome. But I may try again. It could give me more to talk and think about in the world of theatre. More things to write about here when I am not in a show.

And that is a big thing, I think. I probably need to broaden the topics about which to write here on Always Off Book. At least enough so there is something to say between shows. (Though I am hoping "between shows" won't usually last a year and a half plus...)

So while things have been slow here this year, I hope to pick up next year. I know I have a few followers out there, so hang with me, loyal blog readers. And give a shout out for a change to let me know you are still reading!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pre-Performance Playlist Possibilities

My fellow actors have asked me about music enough lately that I thought the subject warranted a closer look. Specifically, what sort of music should (or shouldn’t) an actor listen to before starting a show.
Portable music has been part of the pre-curtain ritual for years. It is just the devices that have changed. Regardless of what plays the music however, I do think there are some guidelines for their usage.
To begin with, I am not in favor of people playing their music, regardless of genre, without headphones. Certainly not in dressing rooms or common areas. This actually happens in almost every show I am in, sadly. If an entire cast can come to agreement about a play list, fine. But such universal permission is rarely secured, and thus I am subjected to what the person with either no sense or courtesy to bring headphones decides is the right kind of music for the dressing room. Please, do everyone a service and only listen to music if you have headphones. Even the smallest of casts are likely to have divergent pre-show rituals and varied musical tastes.
What sort of music one should be listening to privately with headphones is to a great degree subjective, naturally. Different music does different things for each person. So while I cannot recommend or discourage specific songs, I do offer some results that music should have, so one can choose their own music appropriately.
The simple view is this…listen to a mix of music that is skewed towards upbeat, (that is to say anything that peps you up) during anytime before the 30 minutes until curtain mark. This is the time to get pumped, so use what works.
At around 30 minutes until curtain, start slowing your selections down a bit, skewing the list more towards the tunes that relax you and help you focus. With less then 10 before curtain, if you are listening to anything at all, (which I usually do not) make it the music that most easily makes you calm, helps you collect your thoughts, and puts you in a receptive frame of mind. Energy is good, but don’t be head banging this late in the game. Be pepped but centered. Of course, don’t put yourself to sleep with lullabies either.
Music of course is very personal, and there are exceptions to every rule. Yet we all have certain songs that affect us certain ways. If nothing else, be aware of how any given song or band makes you feel, ask yourself if that is the way an actor should be feeling right before a show, and listen accordingly.
Just don’t miss “places.”
(This piece originally appeared on on November 18, 2009)

Monday, September 16, 2013

BEDLAM's Hamlet: A Review

BEDLAM's production of Hamlet is not a good candidate for one's first ever exposure to the play. It is experimental, visceral, and on occasion confusing and even somewhat gaudy. There is much to sift through and process during the nearly three hour long experience, and that processing will no doubt remove enough attention from newcomers to make the play inaccessible.

If, however, you are in fact familiar with Shakespeare's masterwork, this unique take will almost certainly, despite some of its faults, excite and inspire you.

A friend and I saw the production yesterday at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland. More specifically, we saw it in an experimental thrust space on the campus called the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab. This facility holds about 150, I would guess, and when were were there it was clean, but only partially painted. Whether this is how the venue always looks, or if it has been painted as such for Hamlet, I don't know. I do know that this presentation needs to take place in small, intimate surroundings with little frills, so the venue matched it well. The potency of this type of performance would certainly be lost in a conventional, more distant proscenium venue.

Why? It is Hamlet with just four actors. (Though, to be fair, at times the show cheats a bit on this concept, with various stage hands shouting certain lines off stage as needed. At least during this performance.) The four BEDLAM actors are Ted Lewis, Tom O'Keefe, Andrus Nichols and Eric Tucker. Tucker played the title role, and is also the director. As for the other three, as you can imagine for a show like this, each of them played several other characters. And some characters were not always played by the same people. Characters would hope from one actor to the other as needed, (and sometimes when NOT needed, but simply for comical or dramatic effect.) At certain points, these transitions happen multiple times within a single scene, with nothing more to indicate it than the quick donning of a hat or an obvious change in gait or accent. It is somewhat dizzying when both of an actor's characters in a scene talk to one another.

I told you it was not the play to see if you don't know Hamlet.

Not that this is by any means a weakness of the production. The mere blocking of the transitions alone without the spoken lines would be a performance to watch in and of itself. Especially in the final scene, when actors jump, run, toss hats and other props to one another on they cross, give one character's speech only to die, spin around and become their other character reacting to same. It looked like a cross between ballet and the NFL. A virtual master-clinic in choreography. (It actually reminds me a bit of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged  in that regard.)

Optimal use of whatever venue BEDLAM finds itself in is an integral part of this experiment as well. The human elements of the story, still vividly alive in Shakespeare's words take on an even more visceral quality as the four actors run in and out of the actual exits of the entire building, roll up a garage door to reveal not just Fortinbras, but the theater's actual parking lot, and deliver lines from the audience or the lighting booth among other places. The result is an impression that this is indeed a traveling company that just happened to find the building, and is putting on the play for the first time within the confines. This would be a different show depending on where one would see it, and that isn't always the case with plays.

Yet it is not an "in your face" production. Unlike the last time I saw a Hamlet I wasn't put off by the intimacy because it wasn't shoved down my throat. I felt invited, not forced, to become absorbed into the action. (Though just in case, I opted not to sit on the stage in the final scenes, when a new row of chairs was brought in by the actors. My companion opted to take the new seat, however. Other than Hamlet sitting next to her for the graveyard scene, nothing particular happened "to" her.)

All of the expert blocking in the world, however, would be fruitless without the language, which is why people consume Shakespeare. Though at times I found some of the speeches delivered too fast to be understood, (especially near the end), I consider BEDLAM's presentation of the text vivid and realistic. Clearly the actors knew what they were saying, and yet felt no compulsion to openly worship the verse. (A tendency I find that derails many modern productions of the Bard's work.) The words are mostly alive when they come from each of these actors. When that happens, you can perform Shakespeare at a landfill, and it will work. (For all I know, this has been done.)

At times, the gimmick overshadows the performances, though. An empty frame hangs from the ceiling from the beginning of the show. I was 99% sure at some point the reference to "counterfeit presentments" would connect to this prop, and indeed it does. But before that, Polonius is standing behind it, and when killed, the Christmas lights around the frame begin blinking, and continue to do so as the "dead" Polonius lies there. Instead of full exits, at times actors would merely sit on the laps of other actors, to conceal them from the audience until it was time for them to return. A few extraneous modern conventions, such as Hamlet observing, "awkward!", and shouting at Polonius, "Sing it with me!" These moments, as well as an at times unabashed if indirect acknowledgment that they are in fact a bunch of actors performing a show, ("In 45 minutes we will all be dead," says on actor just as the second intermission ends) took me out of the moment a few times.

There were also a few scene that required quite a bit of set assembly, as it were. As stage hands walked freely in and out of the action setting up chairs or curtains, I lost much of what was being said.

Then there are the transitions I mentioned. Usually they worked, especially when one character had a specific hat or prop they always carried. (Polonius always wore glasses, for example.) Yet I don't think there were enough of these small indications of different characters. This is perhaps by design, so as to force the audience to pay attention to the words more precisely. If so, I commend the notion. But when Claudius and Gertude are speaking, and Claudius suddenly changes his accent, and then the actress playing the Queen just shrugs and becomes the other gravedigger, it can take a moment to adjust to what has just happened.

I was also somewhat disappointed at the use of what seemed to be the gay stereotype in most of Hamlet's "mad" scenes. I don't at all believe the production or those involved in it are homophobic, and I could have accepted the use of the fay, high pitched voice for a few of the moments. But it seems to have been the go to set of affectations anytime Hamlet needed to be crazy, and it flirted with offensive near the end.

Still, any fan of minimalist production, experimental concepts, story/language-centric theatre and certainly of Hamlet should attend a production of BEDLAM's version of the play.(In repertory with Shaw's St. Joan, which gets the same four-actor treatment, with the same cast.) With them, it is more than simple "words, words, words" on a page.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

A Little Help?

If you happen to find yourself near a park where some kind of ballgame is being playing, and the ball gets loose and lands near you, chances are someone will yell, "a little help?" For whatever reason that seems to be the ball yard translation for "Can you throw my ball back to me please, since you're standing there?"

It's easy enough to do, so I venture to say most people do it. I would, and have. It doesn't ruin my day, and it lets the folks get on with their game quicker. It's a nice thing to do.

Sometimes I think audience members for classical shows, such as those of Shakespeare, may be thinking, "a little help?" when they don't follow what's going on. At least those who are not tuned into Shakespearean language and such.

That is of course assuming that they come to see the show in the first place, and haven't dismissed it right away as soon as they hear it is Shakespeare. (Or Greek Tragedy, or something of that kind.)

I feel that audiences may get more out of such plays if productions were willing to give them "a little help".

For this point, I'll stay with Shakespeare. (But it could apply to any classical theatre, so long as it's in the public domain.) I've been reading Shakespeare for years, and I still have trouble with some passages. That's the nature of his language, and how removed it is from our own in some ways. So when I think of someone who has never read it or seen it performed, I have no problem seeing why they would be reluctant to do so. I applaud people who say, "Sure, I'll try it anyway," but I can't blame those who feel intimidated by not knowing what the characters are saying, or what exactly is happening. It can be tricky. 

Yet I think Shakespeare has much to offer, both young and old alike. So if by doing a few unconventional things within the production of a Shakespeare play we can convince, say 30% of those who previously refused to watch to give it a try, why shouldn't we do that? A little help.

Actually, some productions do in fact do this, to a degree. Especially productions for younger audiences. (Though to me, when such productions eliminate all of Shakespeare's actual words, it defeats the purpose to somewhat.) But there are also shorter productions. Workshops. Handouts to explain the scenes. You can even of course go online and look into the play before you go see it. Numerous ways to see what is going on in a Shakespeare play you might not otherwise understand.

Reasonable, but problematic for me in a few ways. To begin with, not everybody wants to invest in a workshop before a play, or a talk-back afterwards. Theatre is suffering from dwindling attendance as it is. If our goal is to get people back into theaters to enjoy productions of Shakespeare and other such classical plays, I don't think we should expect people to spend even more time at the theatre.

As for handouts, they can be useful, but how many average theatre goers can either memorize the entire thing before the curtain comes up, or find a way to read it in the dark during the performance without distracting everyone around them? It needs to be as little work as possible if audiences not familiar with such works are to embrace the notion of actually watching and enjoying a performance.

One possible solution? (And I imagine somebody somewhere has done this, but I'd like to see more of it.) Have a host. A chorus of sorts, if you will. (Which Shakespeare himself did, to a degree, in Henry V.) A Meta-Character. Perform The Merchant of Venice as a full, regular production, but  before each act, (or even before key scenes) have this Meta-Character speak to the audience in modern language in order to guide them into what is about to happen, or to remind them of where they are in the story. 

I don't mean to bring up the lights every half-hour and clear the actors off the stage to make room for some pompous stuffed shirt to come out and deliver a verbal Cliff Notes Lecture. I mean come up with creative ways to create a character within the action but not directly affected by it, to move in and out of the story as needed to make sure the audience is still hanging in there. (Sort of like Arthur Miller did with Alfieri in A View From A Bridge.) Let this Meta-Character establish a relationship with the audience at the start, and let him reappear to tidy things up a bit for those not as used to the language. He doesn't have to explain every word of every line, he merely needs to keep the boat sailing. Just make sure everyone knows he himself isn't a Shakespearean creation. 

And let his lines be brief, but memorable. Suited to the mood of the piece, but removed enough from it so that the audience still feels they are not left alone to fend for themselves. Let him know more than the audience does, but also allow him to discover things and reflect on them as they happen.

It doesn't have to happen for every production. I still want to see conventional Shakespeare performed. But I have more experience with it, and can enjoy it more than less experienced people. Have a "Shakespeare for Rookies" production once in a while, with this Meta-Character. Bill it as a more accessible version, and try to get more people to come. (Especially on the community level.) Then, surprise, what the audiences see is still 95% a standard Shakespeare play. By the end they may not even feel they need Meta-Character.

And that's when they become willing to go to a more conventional production.

I've shared this idea with a few people before, and their reactions are usually negative. Though my views on this seem to be unpopular if not controversial, I'll respond to a few common complaints about this approach.

-It will take people out of the story

Why does it have to take people out of the story? Perhaps for people already in love with and familiar with what is happening, there may the briefest of speed bumps. But if what those who already know the play would call a speed bump should make certain things less confusing to a newbie, would that not tend to keep them in the story, instead of zoning out of it, waiting for intermission? Or worse, just leaving? Besides, if you put a little time and thought into it, you can come up with ways for this to be interesting in its own right. You're an artist. Think of something.

-It's too much extra work.

So suddenly doing good theatre is supposed to be free of hard work? I don't know many actors who would refuse to work harder on a scene if they knew that the reaction from the audience would be twice as positive. This bit of extra work would, I strongly believe, allow more audiences to enjoy more of the play.

-It insults the intelligence of the audience.

Sometimes I think actors, playwrights and directors that are in love with their own vision, no matter how complex, tend to convince themselves that audiences are sure to "get it" if they are only left alone, and we don't insult their intelligence. The problem here is that if people actually don't understand what we are trying to do after all, we are forced to conclude that they must be unintelligent, and not that what we are doing needs work. But here is a newsflash: Intelligent people can also find Shakespeare confusing. I already mentioned that sometimes I myself do. 

Plus there are all kinds of intelligence, none of which bestows upon someone an instant knowledge without study of some kind. Take those do-it-yourself pottery mills, where you go in and make your wife a vase with her name on it for your anniversary. Is it an insult to your intelligence when the people who run those places explain how the wheels and the clay and the other equipment work? Are you stupid because you have to be shown the first few times? Or is that merely learning something new, and eventually being able to do it on your own, if you so choose? Why can't Shakespeare be approached in the same way? To assume it cannot be, and that audiences will forever be ruined to "pure" Shakespeare if these ideas are adopted is the greater insult to intelligence. 

This leads into a similar complaint:

-When performed well, any audience will be able to understand Shakespeare's language. There is no need for help.

I will concede that those who are trained and have practiced performing Shakespeare will be able to deliver a good portion of his lines in such a way that many will be able to sense the emotion and the motivation, and infer the rest from context. That's true with any play. But some rely so much on the perfect recitation of the meter and lines to produce clarity that it borders on a religion. As though Shakespeare's work were not writing, but a mystical spell which, when cast properly, removes all barriers in everyone that hears it, thus magically making its purpose obvious. No matter that the guy in Row G, Seat 114 has never read or listened to a word of Shakespeare in his life. Get the meter exactly correct, and he will instantly get it.

The "Open Sesame" of the theatre world.

The truth is, Shakespeare has endured for centuries because it is powerful and usually beautifully written. But people have also grown up hating it, and it is losing ground as time goes on. I don't think it will ever die. Still, need not hobble around, begging for younger people, or non-scholars, or those with shorter attention spans to love it if we could rid ourselves of this fallacy that well performed Shakespeare will always equate to well-understood Shakespeare. If all people truly understood it when it was performed well, do you think there would be so much aversion to it today? I don't. 

Besides, I'd rather keep the general spirit of the piece, with a bit of an aid for newcomers, than keep every word exactly as is, but resort to stunts. I think this happens quite a bit among the "purists" of the language. They keep the words and structure the same, but add antics and side shows in order to make it "more accessible" to modern audiences. (See here.) If greater accessibility is the goal, why does it matter what sort of device is employed?

This next response is one of the most common, but perhaps the least defensible in my view:

-It's arrogant/inappropriate to edit Shakespeare.

This is to laugh. Shakespeare himself sliced and diced work all the time. That of others, and that of himself. His contemporaries did so. Speeches or even whole new scenes were added to productions of old plays just to fit in with the specific event for which they were being performed. Other scenes would be cut from plays for the same purpose. That was Elizabethan playwrighting. 

Yet forget Shakespeare's own time. Look at today. A full length Hamlet takes about four and a half hours to perform, depending on a few things. Professional companies edit that play. The histories have been staged with guns and tanks. That's quite an edit, even if you keep all of the words the same. Olivier himself edited the words, and not just for his movies. The point being that the Bard's work gets edited. Added to. Subtracted from. Adapted. Re-imagined. Does any of that prevent "purist" productions from ever taking place again for those who want them? Does doing any of that take away from the majesty of the original work? Or does it enhance it, and make people sit up and realize there may be something there more worth exploring than they originally thought?

A little help. That's all I think it would take to win a few more fans to classical plays and stories. They recieve it when they read the plays in certain volumes, via footnotes and such. Why not when they come to see them? Obviously, having this Meta-Character in a production is not going to convince a hoard of new people to come see Shakespeare. It won't make everyone everywhere fall suddenly in love with Antigone. But is it really any less troublesome than assuming that if we do nothing at all and let everything be exactly as it is, the classics will come into their own again, and the public will embrace them? That hasn't exactly worked so far, and to continue on that track I fear will allow the continued disintegration of the public's interest in these beautiful, important, human works. And that would be a tragedy I'd need no help in understanding.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

An Actor's "Stuff"

There are all kinds of theatrical products and services that an actor can purchase for the ostensible use of improving his craft. In most cases, I think one should hold on to one’s money. I am a firm believer that practice, conversation, and dedication work faster at improving one’s abilities than anything that can be bought and paid for.
However, there are a few things that generally require a monetary investment that I would recommend for the serious actor at any level.
To begin with, books. Books are never a waste of money. Any book worth reading is worth buying, as they say. Though the local library is a free alternative to buying many books, I always feel an actor should have at least a small library of theatre books of his own, to refer back to and enjoy over and over again. I am not a fan of textbooks, or books who espouse one methodology as superior. However, biographies of stage actors, books by famous stage directors, and those on stage history make great additions to one’s collection. As do books that talk about the craft more informally.
And of course copies of plays.
I also advocate spending money on dialect related products and services. Outside of the major acting metropoli, professional dialect coaches are hard to locate. With the internet, however, tapes and CDs that offer dialect instruction are not. Don’t spend a fortune, but do research and find some products that can make you familiar with some of the more common American accents that appear on stage. (Southern, Midwestern, New England, and the variety of New York City dialects.)
Outside of the home of the brave, I’d suggest various different British dialects in particular. (Yes, there is more than one type of British accent as well.) German characters seem to make their way into a lot of plays on the community stage, so that may be worth the investment as well. One can of course specialize, if one has a particular affinity for plays with certain characters.
The point is that knowing how to truly reproduce an accent adds levels of believability to your performances right off the bat. Few things are more distracting that an actor who is trying with all his might to sound like he is from somewhere that he is clearly not. (I find that bad Brooklyn accents tend to be the most atrocious of all, for some reason.)
Another investment worth making also involves something that tends to look very fake in many productions. That is stage combat. I am not saying that you need to develop a third degree black belt, or know how to fly into a breakaway window to be a good actor. But learning to pull punches, mask kicks, and fall convincingly not only make it easier for audiences to suspend disbelief, it helps the actor become more familiar with his own body. Being in shape never hurt any actor, and one of the best ways to get fit as an actor to engage in something that you can use on stage.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and it will vary depending on the play, and the actor’s aspirations. Yet the point I am making here is that there are a lot of people asking for a would-be actor’s money, all with promises of making one better on stage. It just so happens that these are the items and services I have found can be most useful to the most actors on a regular basis, and are hence worth the cash.
(Originally appeared on on October 21, 2009. )

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Next Up..Everyman

It has been a while since I've been able to post about actual acting news in my life here on the blog. And though details are still being worked out and rehearsals have not yet begun, I can say that I will be appearing in a "private production" if you will of the medieval morality play, "Everyman". I will be the title role.

For those not familiar, morality plays were often used in the Middle Ages by the church to teach values and spread the Christian Gospel. At the time, theater itself was often viewed as a sinful, bawdy undertaking. But morality plays were permitted, given the subject matter, and the ostensible goal of saving souls and what not.

This playwright is unknown, as is the case with most such plays of this period.

I shall play a man for whom death personified has come. The man, representing all men, in case you have not determined that, seeks among those who knows for company to go with him on his large, arduous journey. Friends, material, love, and other such concepts are represented on stage by single characters, all of whom abandon Everyman. In the end only God is faithful, as one might expect from a play of this nature.

It is unlike anything I have yet done, though my work in Shakespeare is probably the most similar, from a linguistic standpoint. It's not written as Shakespeare is, but even the more "modern" texts of the script have a certain poetic cadence that will be a challenge to master.

As an actor, and a blogger I have often advocated for challenging one's self and stepping outside of certain comfortable boundaries, and this will be one of those times for me. I will mention more when the actual production process begins, but I wanted to take the chance to announce it here.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Extra Rehearsal

Rehearsals for a production are a serious business. In the very least they should be to you. A lot of energy, and eventually, money, is invested in a community production. Wasting time dedicated to making a show a success indicates a serious disrespect for the theatre, and your fellow cast members and crew, not to mention your future audiences. This doesn't mean you should never have fun while rehearsing. It’s not the army, after all, but there should be discipline, and a willingness to get down to business right away.
Unless you gather with a few people you share scenes with, and rehearse informally.
Schedules can be a tricky business to navigate, but if you can manage it, take time outside of rehearsal to meet with your cast mates and go over the scenes you share. Even if you only have one such opportunity, take it. If nobody has suggested it, take the initiative yourself and suggest a time and place to go over your scenes. It is preferable to work on all of them, but for certain at least go over your longest or most problematic moments together.
Gathering outside of rehearsal accomplishes several things. To begin with, it gives you a chance to become comfortable with cast members you have not worked with or met before. Meeting for a read through at a coffee shop, or at a local park if the weather is warm can begin to tear down the awkwardness that often exists when people first begin working together on stage. And while this is not an absolute necessity in order to perform well together, it certainly does no harm, and when done early in the official rehearsal process, it more often than not will increase the productivity of regular rehearsals. Being “warm” to one another right off the bat eliminates the need to get used to one another during early official rehearsals, and hence leaves more time for developing the characters and the scene.
The benefits of these informal get-togethers are not limited to those who have never worked together before, however. Regardless of how familiar you are with your cast mates, an informal reading of the scene outside of rehearsal allows for more casual and open communication. This is fertile ground for new ideas and approaches, both to character and to the scene as a whole. Digressions, experiments, and questions for which there are little time during rehearsal can be given as much time as the group decides they are worth when the setting is social.
Finally, though it should be obvious, I will mention that a huge benefit to these meetings is that they are, or at least should be, fun.
You will meet those in community theatre who insist that it is in bad form to meet and run lines or discuss the play without the director being present. Such people consider it a cardinal sin to try to be creative without permission.
Ignore such people. While it is true that a director must provide vision to a production, only a poor, or power hungry individual will have a problem with some informal practice and brainstorming. Which, of course, is exactly what it is; brainstorming. It is not making a final decision, or overturning a direct instruction. It is exploration. It is getting comfortable and creative. It is enhancing the enjoyment of being in live theatre. Any actor or director that would deprive you of such things is probably not worth working with anyway.

(Originally appeared on on October 7, 2009.)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Is the Play the Thing? Or the Character?

The last time I addressed the notion of trying out for a show, even if you are not in love with every single aspect of it. While I of course stand by what I said, at some point in time once you are committed to being in a show, a decision must be made. I actually consider this one of the most important decisions an actor has to make. Not merely in any given show, but in one’s approach to acting in general.
It boils down to this often-controversial question: Should you be more devoted to your character or your show?
Two schools of thought are applicable here. One that says every moment you are on stage is designed merely to move the specific plot forward. In this viewpoint the actor on stage is a means by which a specific end is reached. (See also, David Mamet’s school of acting.) In this view, the show as a whole takes precedence over your feelings for your character.
The other school of thought dictates that any given moment the only thing an actor can control, the one thing he can own, is his character. It is the aspect of the show that he will spend the most time with, get to know the most, and of course will bring to life. Productions are symphonies of coordinated individual performances brought into harmony by a good director, and universal desire on the part of the cast. In this view, an actor’s particular character, and his relationship thereto reigns supreme. Call this the Laurence Olivier school. Or, in case you have not guessed it by now, the Ty Unglebower school.
Indeed, I am of the character-based persuasion in such a “showdown.”
Even if you love the whole show you are in, I maintain the importance of giving your character a bit more attention and affection than the entire arc of the production. An audience can afford to invest everything into the entire experience. The actor while in that show, cannot.
Why is this? It’s because I feel an actor should ignore the overall success of the play. On the contrary, every actor should have the success of the show as a priority Yet the best way to achieve that goal is to focus on nurturing your character, because no play is just one story. A play is a collection of individual stories, about individual characters. Any given character’s story may not be the focus of the play, or even of a given scene. Their story may not even get mentioned in the script, but their story exists to be told, if to nobody else but the actor portraying him.
I’m reminded of that ancient theatre story of the man who is playing a torch bearer in Romeo and Juliet. His friend asks him one day what the play is about. He answers, “Well, it’s all about this servant that runs around carrying a torch all night.”
Theatre may or may not be realistic, as compared to life. But it should at least be familiar. Even a farce should represent elements in humanity that we can relate to as an audience. This, I argue, is only achieved when, as in life, each character is empowered to control only his own circumstances, motivated by what he wants or needs. If an actor is constantly focused on how his actions and performance will set up some payoff five scenes from now, the performance loses something.
An actor should be aware of both the power and responsibility of assuming an identity not his own for two hours. This cannot be done when he considers himself a mere cog in the turning machinery of a larger vision. His story must be incorporated into that vision, not held hostage by it. As in life, tension between people, good and bad, makes things happen.
By no means is this view universal, and as I mentioned, this can be a controversial topic among theatre people, amateur and professional. Actors and playwrights and directors. Yet I have always believed in the old adage that the stage is an actor’s medium. I don’t shy away from that now, and I hope that you will not either.
(For further consideration of both of these “schools,” I recommend True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor by David Mamet for one side, and On Acting by Laurence Olivier for the other.)
(Originally appeared on on September 16, 2009. This version has been edited to fit the medium.)

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reverse Audition?

I get asked many times what makes me decide to try out for a specific show. What pulls me to it?
More often than not, I do so because I find a character to be interesting, and I think they would fit well with my style of acting. Almost as often, it is the play itself, and the story it is telling. I know many actors who would give one of these two answers to the same questions. Some go so far as to say that if you are not in love with the character, or at least the story arc, you should never try out for a production. I do not agree with this, however.
One must not hate a character one plays, that is true. You must not take on a role to which you can offer nothing. Misery and wasted time is sure to follow. But there are many other legitimate main reasons for trying out for any given show.
There is the director. Theatre is an actor’s medium, despite what some directors may insist. However, having to work with the wrong director for 6 to 8 weeks can make it a medium of tedium. Or worse. If you have worked well with a director before, enjoy his or her style, and feel totally at ease with them, and especially if you feel you are given the total freedom you need to explore your character with minimum interference, than audition for a show that director is staging. Even if it is a show you have not heard of, or do not care for as a whole, you may find that through a collaboration with someone you already admire, you will gain a new appreciation of the piece. I have more than once agreed to be part of a show simply because of the director involved, and have never regretted it. In more than one case I did in fact come away with a better opinion of the piece. Synergism and chemistry are a big part of community theatre.
On that same page, wanting to be in a show because of the rest of the cast also has its advantages. It is a bit more difficult to make such a decision, given that casting is usually unknown to everyone until all are informed by the director. There are occasions, though, when some parts are filled before others, and such actors become part of the audition process. Several people read with the already cast actor so the director can mark what sort of chemistry is present. If you already know you possess great on stage presence with someone who had earned a part, (or was pre-cast), by all means try out even for a mediocre show, or a show that doesn’t exactly knock you out. Like auditioning based on the director, the freedom you can find when you are already comfortable with cast mates at the start of a new production is very rewarding, and gives you a leg up.
Finally, I advocate trying out for shows that do not steal your heart when you have the chance to expose yourself to a new company, or theatre. Fair or unfair, companies and theatres tend to be at least somewhat clique oriented. Making yourself known, even in smaller roles, to the audiences and regulars of a theatre in which you have yet to perform is advantageous. So if your schedule allows, trying out for a show that does little for you otherwise, but could expose you to new people, will be of almost certain benefit down the road. (So long as you are fully dedicated if cast.)
Never do something you sense will make you miserable. If a production feels like it will annoy you, or you know you will get nothing out of it at all, by all means stay away. Just don’t adopt such tunnel vision that you feel only “perfect characters in perfect shows” should get you to go through the process of auditioning. If you do that, you decrease your stage time quite a bit.
(Originally appeared on on September 2, 2009.)

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Road Trip!

It is not always possible, but as an actor, if you get the chance to be a part of a traveling show, even a show you are otherwise not in love with, I advise you to grab the chance.
There are many advantages to being part of a show that is taken to several venues, in addition to the fun and adventure associated with road tripping and acting.
To begin with, it is the perfect way to put to the test something that I have often spoke about in my blog, and that is being ready to perform a show well under just about any conditions. Traveling to different venues keeps an actor on his toes, as it were, preventing him from becoming too comfortable with the specific stage, lights, house, or other accouterments of his home theatre. (Or anything theatre, if the show has no permanent home.)
A second practical advantage to most traveling productions is that they are stretched out over a longer period of time than your standard community production. While the latter is often only two weekends, the former, due to the logistics and expense often take place over the course of a month or more, with performances spread out. The longer you have to be in a show, and the more chances you have to go over it and perfect it, the better the product becomes. Like wine, many shows get better with age.
And finally, shows that are taken on the literal road provide a greater chance of getting to know one’s cast mates and crew. The nature of travel, and all of the benefits and disadvantages of the same, tend to enhance that sense of camaraderie and teamwork among groups of people engaged in a common task. I have said many times here and elsewhere that while bonding personally with fellow actors is not required, it certainly increases the chances of a show being excellent in all ways. And whatever makes the show better is good policy.
Of course, each of these things can happen in a standard show that does not travel. If they could not, there would not be much community theatre going on around the country. These advantages are not exclusive to a traveling show. However, they seem to be common threads in nearly all examples of road shows.
One of my greatest theatre experiences, one that convinced me I wanted to continue doing this acting thing far into the future of my life, was in fact a road show. Not only that, the production was a rather mediocre experience in many ways while we remained at our home theatre. The transcendent quality did not show up until we took it to other venues in the area. And I feel that is due in large part to the presence of all three of the facets of traveling shows I have mentioned.
They are not easy to come by at the community level. And of course this only works for specific types of shows; it works best for shows that have minimal sets. But such plays are out there. Companies that are willing to travel are out there. And if not, perhaps you can be the one who suggests such an idea to a local theatre production. You don’t have to travel to Europe for this to work. Any area in this country is full of city parks, community centers, and high schools that make perfect destinations for the traveling show. The extra work and expense can sometimes be more than made up for by the richness of the experience.
(Originally appeared on on August 19th, 2009. Appropriate edits have been made.)

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Milking is for Cows: Earning Applause

Like everything else in both the theatrical world and our daily lives, balance is the key. Extremes don’t sustain satisfaction for very long, and yes, that includes the idea of getting applause.
Applause, and in particular an actor’s embrace of applause, gets a bad rap. It’s true that few things are more obnoxious to cast mates, directors, and some audiences than a performer who is clearly “milking” the crowd for more laughs. More applause. More reaction. One who wrings that sponge with such a vengeance that they end up tearing it in half. Sure it may work sometimes, but overall this is a sign of an attention starved hack, and not a consummate performer. You can see these people coming from a mile away. Don’t be one, no matter how much you love the crowd.
The enjoyment of applause is not, however, a sin in and of itself. Applause and other positive audience reaction is significant. Don’t be afraid to embrace it, enjoy it, to be empowered by it. It is even acceptable to try to cultivate more of it, if it is done in a very skilled, subtle fashion. Despite what some may tell you, this does not make you a smaller person or a smaller actor.
There is no getting around it; performances are designed to be seen. Period. Acting, in the very end, is nothing in a vacuum. Ergo, hoping for, and enjoying applause, laughter, or crying from an audience that is moved by the show you are in is a wholesome thing. It proves that people are being touched in someway by your craft. It can also sharpen your senses, deepen your investment, and help you stay steady during a show. It may not be everything, but never ignore the synergism between the audience and the cast.
I have always said that the audience is the last character to be cast in a production. It’s a different character every night. Like characters on stage, one shouldn’t rely 100% on what they are doing to get through the night. But neither should this character be ignored totally. You don’t have to play directly to the audience to respect them, and sense they are there.
Which is why it is crucial to be aware of reactions from the house. Any actor who tells you they don’t care if the audience laughs or applauds I venture to say is either lying to you, or to himself. If such people really mean what they say, it is to their detriment. For if you do not care about audience reaction, then you are refusing to acknowledge them. If you do that, you are not respecting them. And you can believe this if you believe nothing else I have ever written about stagecraft; audiences as a whole know when you do not respect them. They can sense when you are up there just for yourself, or worse, simply killing time until you get to be in something better. That shows, and the audience responds to it.
Balance. Middle ground. Yin and Yang. Call it what you like, but the key is to love and respect applause enough to avoid stealing it, but also to try your hardest to earn it.
(Originally appeared on on August 5th, 2009.)

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Pre-Show Rituals: Yours and Everyone Else's.

I have never yet met an actor who sacrifices a live chicken before a show. Thank heaven for that. Nonetheless I make it a point to ask fellow actors, with whom I am not familiar, if this, or anything else more realistic, is part of their opening night, or pre-curtain ritual. That way I know not to interrupt it by accident.
Because you see not all rituals are going to be obvious to you. A person kneeling in a corner with their head down makes what they are up to pretty clear. But what about the person that is merely standing in the doorway on tip-toe, trying to touch the top of the door frame? Or the person bouncing on the balls of their feet in the middle of the room? Or the man walking around with a single penny in his hand? (All three are examples from actual life, and the man with the penny is me.)
It is easy for those of us without such rituals, or for whom rituals are only small informal affairs, to pay little to no attention to those rites that others have developed over the course of a career. After all, which should they stand in a door way like that, or what’s it to us if we are blocking their view of the parking lot from where we are standing? Acting is acting, right? Well, yes and no.
The fact of the matter is, every single human being, no matter how cynical or secular, succumbs to ritual at some point in time. It just does not always pertain to performing. But whether it be for mental, spiritual or superstitious purposes, all of us have parts of our day and our lives wherein we are very particular about how we proceed; in ways that otherwise would not appear to affect the outcome of the action we are taking, but are, nonetheless, important to us as we do them. For some, acting is one of those activities before which a ritual must be conducted.
I do my best to not be inaccessible when I am in a pre-show routine. And in fact, the nature of the venue and the shows I have been in over the last few years has made some of my previous rituals a bit less practical. One should be able to adapt. Yet that will not be the case for everyone. Some people are just very particular about their rituals. As a cast mate, you need to respect them. And even if you do not care much for the actor, an overall sense of duty to the show should dictate that you stay out of the way of someone’s ceremonies.
Which is why it is always good idea to ask. It will prevent you from interrupting anything, (which I have done once, sadly), but it will also show the other person that you respect them enough as at least a performer to ask the question…even if they have no rituals they need to be allowed to perform. And that sense of respect will also go a long way towards unity and synergism within a cast.
(Originally appeared on on July 15, 2009 )

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Workshop, Take II

Almost a year ago to the day, I taught a one day workshop at a local theatre about making and correcting mistakes on stage. As the post I linked to reveals, it was quite the success. Yesterday I gave that same presentation again, with minor tweaks. Though the group was not as old, as large, or as responsive as the group from a year ago, I'm still willing to declare the experience a success.

Particularly because there were several good questions from them at the end of it. That was one area where this group probably exceeded the last group, actually. They asked some more questions about certain scenarios. A few questions that I'm happy to say made me think for a moment or two before answering. Hopefully the answers I came up with were satisfactory.

It's that sort of interaction and consideration of different perspective and approaches that deepens the acting and theatre experience. Everyone has an opinion, and after you've been doing theatre for a while like me, you come up with specific answers and approaches to things that come up often on and around the stage. That's natural and acceptable. But when you have someone like a few of the students last evening asked you something you hadn't thought of before, or addressed an old issue in a way you've not considered previously, you're forced to look at things anew. To slow down and take something as familiar to you as making lunch, and see it from a different set of eyes. Or at least, from a more discriminating one.

This is true for any topic of course. Even science or history. Yet if I may be so bold, I'll opine that the arts in general particularly benefit from this concept of making the familiar a bit less familiar from time to time. What are they arts, after all, if not a means by which we distill the world into various beauties most people didn't realize were there?

Being a teacher, even for a single day, truly does make one a student as well.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Intermission Wisdom

Bathroom. Drinks. A snack (out of costume, of course). And if you are foolish enough to do so, smoke. There are many obvious things for which intermission can be used. There are however, unwise ways to spend an intermission during a show in which you appear.
The intermission is different for the audience than it is for the actor. For the former, it is a break. For the actor, it is more of a respite. The difference being that an actor should never be on break, as it were, from the job they are doing until either the end of the show, or until their character has made their final appearance on stage. Great is the temptation to zone out of “acting mode” during intermission, but resist it. Even if it does not seem like a big deal, and it is only for ten minutes, don’t succumb.
Actors need brief pauses. I am no exception. But consider that not only do you have further work to do in the show, the second act is of course where the climax is. As well as the final impression that the audience will be left with when the show is concluded. A weak starting point for a second act can very quickly nullify even the best of first acts, if actors are not careful. Many a badly spent intermission leads to a lackluster second half.
How to avoid the act two slide? By being wise during intermission.
Don’t load up on food. I have worked with actors who have whole dinners waiting for them to bolt down in the brief time during intermission. Not only is this not healthy, but it takes up time actors should be using to check on props and costumes. (This should be done by every actor first thing during intermission right after a bathroom visit, if needed.) Plus, all the food on the stomach so quickly is bound to make one sluggish, if not sick. Have a light, very clean snack if you must eat. Peanuts, or a carrot, or something along those lines.
Avoid laying down. This is a big one to me. Everyone does it, but unless you have at least 20 or 30 minutes before you return to the stage in act 2, intermission is not the time to lounge. Your body as well as your mind will start to shut down, no matter how much you plan otherwise. Getting back up into gear for act 2 becomes twice as hard when you find yourself loafing about during the intermission. I will permit myself to sit, but rarely to lay down, unless it is a particularly trying first act, or if for some reason I am not feeling well. Even then, I limit my time in such a position.
Don’t complain about your performance from act one, should you find a mistake in it, or find that you are below par. If you made a mistake that affected someone in particular, graciously apologize to them, but then leave it there. Spending all of intermission brooding about what act one should have been will only weaken the start of the second half for you.
On the other side of that concept, no resting on laurels. Ever. You may have had the greatest act one in your career tonight, but that means nothing for act 2. As I said, things can change quickly after an intermission, especially one where alcohol and other refreshments are served to the audience. It is your job as an actor to kick-start the audience at the start of the second curtain. If you do not, you will lose them, and your ability to successfully avoid this lies in spending intermission well.
(This piece originally appeared on on July 1, 2009 )

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Poetry: An Actor's Friend

Just in time for National Poetry Month...--Ty

Even the most realistic plays are written with dialogue that somewhat transcends everyday speech. Many will argue this point with me, and I embrace the argument. Yet I maintain that most successful scripts are so because the way the characters speak is at least somewhat removed from the way you and I speak in our normal daily routines.
This means that an actor must practice memorizing such dialogue, internalizing it, and of course reciting it. The “wavelength” if you will, of stage dialogue is not the same as real talking. If this were not true, all the training an actor would need would be to talk all day about anything to anyone.
How I wish it were that easy. I’d have several Oscars by now.
My advice for keeping fit the particular facets of the brain most used by actors is to read and memorize poetry. As often as you can. One poem a week, if at all possible.
Poetry, even modern verse, by nature is another collection of words that takes a step back, or at least to the side, from regular everyday speech. It is stylized and packs much meaning into few words. When recited properly, a poem’s emotional tone ought to be very clear.
Sound like any other craft we know?
And when you do memorize a poem, don’t just pound the words into your head and spit them back out at the end of the week. Delve into the piece. Search for its cadence. See the imagery it is evoking in you. Own that, and pour it into the memorization and recital process you have going any given week.
Don’t be a hero with this. Entertain no illusions of memorizing a Walt Whitman epic in 6 days. (Unless you are a Method actor trying to experience a nervous breakdown first hand.) Five stanzas at most should do the trick. And make sure you try all kinds; light poems, edgy poems, old poems and modern. Run the gamut.
Why not simply memorize speeches from plays? Certainly, this is a useful exercise as well, for very obvious reasons. But just as fitness experts recommend a varied workout to optimize the benefits to the target muscles, I feel that variety is also key to enhancing the actor’s mental and emotional fitness. Poems are similar enough to scripts that they work the same synapses in our brains, but different enough to keep things interesting.
Even if you don’t get the poem memorized in the week, (though why shouldn’t you?) you have at least opened up yourself to new words and feelings. You may just find the extra culture alone can be an actor’s friend.
(This piece originally appeared on on June 3, 2009.)

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Reading "Allowed"?

A character must often read something in a play. A letter. A passage from a book. Anything on paper which the plot requires him to process on the moment. An actor playing such a scene has two choices. To memorize the written material as he does all of his other spoken lines, or to have the written material actually printed on the prop from which the character will be reading. I advocate the latter.

Reading out loud can have an overly rehearsed quality to it when the words are memorized by the actor. Letters are often written by totally different characters, outside of the reader’s traits. Letters are frozen in one moment of time, and not dynamic as are snippets of conversation during a scene. Not to mention it seems a bit silly to hold a blank piece of paper in front of one’s face. The words you are reading might as well be there, if for no other reason than convenience.

Now, if you happen to be an actor who insists on memorizing a letter, and reciting it with a blank page in front of you, by all means do so. One can certainly sharpen the sense of spontaneity in such a case, just as one does when delivering dialogue. It is a matter of preference as I said. But I refuse to conclude that opting to have the writing in front of one makes one a lesser actor. I after all always strive to do excellent work. Excellent work, not extra work. Therefore, I have the writing on the actual prop page, and feel no shame in it.

But this is not about simple convenience only. It is about realism as well. I am convinced that the mental processes by which we converse with one another are different in subtle ways from those we utilize when reading something out loud. I therefore argue that attempting to memorize the written words of a script in the same way we memorize dialogue is not only more work, but also somewhat ineffective. A performance can only be enhanced when the brain is making use of the same processes when it is pretending as it is when it is truly engaging in an action.

My most recent acting experience illustrates this concept quite well. On Valentine’s Day, I took part in a reading of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters. (see here.) The script consisted entirely of letters that the characters had written to one another throughout their lives. The playwright himself included instructions at the front of the script book discouraging the actors from memorizing any part of the script. 

Why? For the very reasons I have mentioned here; memorization of the letters would risk making the entire presentation sound phony. As a result, my partner and I did not memorize anything, and rehearsed the piece only once. It was all part of preserving the realism of reading something directly from the page.
This may sound like method acting, and to an extent it is, though I do not endorse any given method for performers. Rather I have always advocated taking whatever steps one can to give any given scene the greatest illusion of realism as possible. To me, reading directly from written words does this.
Just make extra sure you check this prop twice each night. Winging it will usually look as false as over rehearsing.

(This post originally appeared on on March 4th, 2009. Reference to "my blog" was edited appropriately for this context.)

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Dramatic Readings? Dramatic Benefits.

What I want to talk about today are dramatic readings.
For those who are not familiar, they are exactly what they sound like. Actors read a play aloud from a script which they have in front of them. There is little to no memorizing of the lines, but the staging can vary to a great degree. Some readings consist merely of actors behind podiums. Others make use of props and set pieces. It all depends on the director.
However complicated the actual staging is, (though I think the simpler, the better for a reading) I cannot sing enough praises of staged readings to actors.
Resist the temptation to see them as watered down theatre, or as one friend of mine has called them “acting-lite.”
They are only acting-lite to lesser actors. In reality, a reading is an excellent way to hone skills of the craft, some of which do not get the attention the deserve in a standard production.
For one, projection and annunciation become even more important, as in many cases sets and extras are not present to invoke mood. You have the script in front of you. The audience does not, yet they must catch every word you read, in order to make sense of the story. The result is that readings often require a tighter focus, not a looser one, on the script, lest having the words in front of you lead to complacency.
Secondly, a reading forces the actor to pay closer attention to the face. Behind a podium, gesticulations and certainly crosses are of far less use to the performer. The often overlooked power of the facial expression must be utilized, in order to be true to a reading. The lessons about the use of the face one is forced to learn during a reading will hopefully carry over into the next conventional production one finds oneself in.
And finally, readings require far less time commitment. Some rehearse very little. Others do not rehearse at all. Either way, dramatic readings of any play, by virtue of what they are, require less time for the actor, while at the same time providing the same opportunity to delve into the complexities of character analysis and presentation.
That is, for the actor who takes a reading as seriously as he takes a production. And for me, only the best do so.
Why not be the best of the best, and get yourself involved in a reading?
(Originally appeared on on February 18, 2009. Time specific references have been edited for this post.)

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Fatigued with Fatigue

We all get tired at some point in time. Depending on our jobs, sleeping habits, and the kind of day we have, some of us get more tired than others.
Being in a play can be tiring as well. Particularly at the community level. Volunteer actors at the end of what may have already been a tiring day for them gather in the mid to late evening to either perform or rehearse a show for 2 hours. (More during tech week of course.)
It’s not for the faint of heart, or the weak of constitution.
That is not to say you should not do theatre if you feel tired in the evening. As I mentioned, most people would be. Beyond a certain point if you are always tired, perhaps you should skip auditioning for a show. However, what I am really suggesting here is that once you are in a play, keep whatever level of fatigue you are feeling to yourself.
It is a common experience in the theatre’s I have performed in, to hear at least one’s colleague complain of being tired in any number of creative ways. Obviously enhanced yawns. Slapping of faces. The simple yet direct approach of uttering the words, “I am so tired” with as much frequency as possible backstage to anyone who will listen.
Indeed, if some actors I have worked with were half as creative on stage as they were back stage in expressing how tired they were, they’d be superstars by now.
Not only is it clear that most people are probably not running on a full tank by 7:00PM, (thereby making it an unnecessary declaration), but it can actually make the situation worse than it needs to be.
We tend to reflect and enhance that to which we draw attention. If we take every chance to mention to someone how tired we are, we bring out fatigue to the forefront of our minds during a play. That is where our performance skills ought to be. If the most significant thing you can think about 4 nights before you open a show is how tired you are, your performance will be a tired performance.
Worse that that, you start to exude an aura of fatigue wherever you go. Your dragging, yawning, moaning and complaining can be contagious, and lend an overall deflated atmosphere to an entire production, depending on how obvious you are about doing it.
You do yourself, your director, and all your cast mates a huge favor when you come to the theatre by accepting the fact that you are fatigued, and assuming that everyone else, to varying degrees, is fatigued as well. That way you can instead put at the front of your mind, “Tonight I am going to perfect that scene I am having trouble”, or “I am excited about how the show is starting to come together.” With affirmations such as these, you will be able to find performance energy in spite of being tired.
And you will not run the risk of everyone else, especially me, growing tired of you.
(Originally appeared on on April 8, 2009.)