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 showbizradio.net 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 showbizradio.net 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 Showbizradio.net 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 showbizradio.net on February 18, 2009. Time specific references have been edited for this post.)