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.)