The Show Ends

Last night, we capped off an amazing weekend of drama at the Penang Performing Arts Centre. Good responsive crowds watched as my amazing young actors perform everything from comedy, to dramatic storytelling, to hard hitting drama. It’s such an emotional thing for a writer and director to see the work they’ve toiled on for months finally come and then quickly go. But satisfying. So satisfying.

Once again, watching the shows these past couple of days, my belief in teenage drama has been reinforced. I don’t believe in high school drama. High school drama has such a negative stereotype, at least in my eyes. When you put the term ‘high school’ in front of drama, suddenly you aren’t taken seriously. The awards folks won’t look your way. There’s a connotation of inexperienced acting which ends up being nothing more than photo-ops for parents and relatives.

I believe in nothing like that. Actors are actors, whether aged 16 or 45. Whether they’ve have years of training under Adler and Meisner or whether they’re in their first theatre arts class. The requirements are the same. Preparation. Characterization. Mining the script. Making choices about movement, vocal qualities, and backstory. And when it’s all put together, any actor, with the right preparation and the right script, can impact an audience in wonderful and unexpected ways.

That’s what happened here the past couple of nights. And it happened with actors ranging from 15 to 18 with varying levels of experience. When expectations are high, the actors will hit it. I’ve seen it over and over. And the comments are amazing.

“I can’t believe these are kids.”

“They are so amazing.”

Yes, they are. Whether playing a grandpa or a child, a piece of fruit or a government bureaucrat. They rise to the occasion time and time again.

I stand amazed. And proud. So proud.

I’m going to miss this group so much!

At least I was smart enough to realize that doing one show in my final semester here would not be enough. RLT Musical is coming next week. It’s my saving grace. It has kept me from falling into drama depression.

So let’s do this, one more time.



Using Verbs to Color Your Acting

One of the techniques I use in my Intro to Theatre Arts class is one that I’ve drawn from several different sources. It’s the idea of using an action verb to help describe what a person is supposed to do in a scene.

First, I will tell the actors to think of an action verb that epitomizes a character’s action in a particular scene. Invariably, the first word which comes out of the actor’s mouth is not a verb. It’s usually an adjective. “Happy” they will say. I’ll reply that it isn’t an action verb.

Adjectives usually come first because people usually think descriptively, not actively. They will say angry, sad, upset, etc… and while those words might adequately describe the tone of the scene they do not guide the actor in what they should DO. And acting is DOING.  Act, action, actor.  I think we see the A-C-T connection.

Usually my young actors will say, “Oh yeah, that’s not a verb.” Then I force them to choose a verb.

Next step, go to a thesaurus and look at all the synonyms for that word. Is there one that is more precious, that better colors the scene or the action that one wants to accomplish?

Lastly, try it out. Do the scene with that action verb in your mind. If the word was “deflect,” they have to add the actions, expressions (verbally and non-verbally) which represent “deflect.”  This forces them to chose a direction. They may find that they’ve found the perfect verb, or they may find they need to go back to the thesaurus and try something else.

This is a great little technique to give the actors some direction and make them think through their actions in a more precise and detailed manner.

Give it a try and let me know if it works.

Take a Few Days Off to Settle Your Brain (or not)

I have absolutely no scientific data to back up the following claim. But for me, it seems to work this way. Sometimes, when you take a little time away from something, it (whatever it is) seems to gel better in one’s brain.

My tangible example is when I lived in Vietnam, and I spent month after month trying to learn Vietnamese. Then I would leave for the states for a couple months in the summer, wondering if I would end up forgetting what I just spent a whole year learning. What I found was just the opposite. I returned from 2 months of not thinking about Vietnamese at all to suddenly feeling like I knew it better than when I left. It seems illogical.

I chalk it up to perception. The time allowed my brain to settle what I had already learned, so when I re-arrived in the country, I felt happy that I didn’t forget everything. It seemed easy to jump back into it. I always felt encouraged and ready to go, happy to start my learning again, refreshed to take it to the next level.

I was reminded of these feelings recently as I decided to give my drama team 5 days off even as our big show approaches. We had complete run-throughs this past Monday and Tuesday, and then we took a break for the long Thanksgiving weekend, as our next scheduled practice is a double one on Monday.

Before we left after our Tuesday rehearsal, I told them this: there are two kinds of actors (I was really just making this up even though I think it’s true) 1. the kind where a few days away from the memorized lines will actually help settle everything  on the brain. If that’s you, go and enjoy your break and be ready to work on Monday. 2. The other kind is the actor who continually needs to remind himself or herself of the lines. Even a couple days away from practice will make you forget some. If that’s you, keep working the lines daily and be ready for  Monday, I said.

I guess I will know on Monday what kind of actors I have and whether the break will hurt or help them. Either way, we have a show in a week. Let’s hope they are like me when I was in Vietnam.

Meeting up with the Footstool Players

My drama group, The RLT Players, had an awesome afternoon yesterday meeting up with the group which provided the inspiration to start our own group.

It was wonderful beyond belief to have these veteran actors and all around great people willing to spend a couple hours to talk about about acting and other aspects of the performing arts.

Here we all are after our long Q & A session:

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The night before, we all took in their latest show at penangpac, “Crazy Little Thing Called Love.” I have to put a plug in for the show, a mix and match of 13 different length sketches about love and relationships. The Footstool Players’ soared through the material, eliciting all the variety of emotions one would expect when considering the subject matter: elation, wonder, frustration, heartbreak. You only have one more day to catch the show – December 7 ends their three week run. Don’t miss it!

Our afternoon session focused on issues like:

  • The moment to moment in acting. How to listen well and be engaged in the surroundings, not just worrying about one’s next lines.
  • Pre-show prep – how each individual has different needs right before the show. Some need to be calm. Others need to fidget. Some need to yell and scream. Respect them all and stay out of each other’s way.
  • Embarrassing moments and missed lines. What to do? Help each other. Bail each other out and move on. Don’t dwell on mistakes.
  • The importance of a good stage manager.

And much more!

We all learned a lot, made some new good friends, and, hopefully, we can all collaborate with each other in the future.

Footstool Players – you won’t meet a nicer bunch of people and a finer group of actors.

Whenever you get a chance to catch one of their shows, don’t miss it.

Oops! My fault: A Director’s Mea Culpa

My new show opens in one week. It’s a series of 10 individual dramatic sketches. As I watched all ten performed as a whole on Monday, I realized that one of them was bad. Really bad.

It’s not the script. Actually, it’s an award-winning script which will soon be performed in Sydney. No, it wasn’t the scripts fault.

So what was the problem.

It’s easy to blame the actors. They are the ones performing it, right? They are the ones in the spotlight. If the intensity or timing isn’t there, that’s on them, isn’t it?


It hit me on Monday evening that the fault rested entirely on me, the director.  And so I told them Monday we needed to meet today and plug up the many holes. Yep, it was my fault.

I often joke with my actors that when the lights come up, my job is done and I sit in the back next to the exit, ready to make a quick escape if something goes wrong. Hands off, I say. But like it or not, a director’s hands are all over a production and if it doesn’t work, chin up and take the tomato in the face.

When a script is good (and this one is) and the actors are talented (yes, this not a problem either) then there’s only one person to blame.

So I got myself back in the game today to figure out what could be done. First, we tightened everything. The dialogue has got to zip. We worked on the chemistry between the actors. Much better. We repeatedly worked timing on three of the more technical scenes which live or die with perfectly sequenced sound effects and actions. Then we put it all together and turned on the stopwatch.

We shaved off a whopping 2 minutes, or 18% from the running time! That’s huge, and suddenly the script started to soar for the first time. At the end of our hour and a half, I was quite pleased at our progress and we are once again ready to insert it into our lineup as an asset, not a drag.

Sometimes there is nothing to do but blame yourself, but make sure you don’t stop there. Reassess, readjust, rework, and get back in the game. It’s the only way to improve, and that’s what we are all striving for, isn’t it?

How to respond when an actor asks, “What should I do?”

I get to teach and work with young actors. Some have experience. Others do not.

It’s incredibly fun seeing someone take the stage for the first time and try to find their way, try to understand their character, try to understand the relationships between the other characters, and try to, ultimately, figure out what they are supposed to accomplish in the scene.

One question that I am frequently asked as a director is “what should I be doing in this scene?” This almost always happens when an actor doesn’t have any lines for a while but is supposed to stay on the stage. This is a frightening dilemma for the inexperienced actor. They always wonder if they should just go off-stage at this point and come back in later. I had one actor ask me once, “should I just sit down and read a magazine?”

But the answer to the question “What should I do?” is quite simple. The answer is another question. Here it is: “What is your scene objective?”

In essence, why did the playwright put you in this scene? What are you supposed to be accomplishing? And, this is crucial, why didn’t the playwright have you exit IF you don’t have any lines for a while. Was this just an oversight? Not likely. The playwright wants that character to continue to try to accomplish his/her objective on-stage EVEN IF he/she doesn’t have any lines. So therefore, it’s easy to know what to do. The actor has to do actions, movements, and facial expressions which push them closer to accomplishing their scene objective.

Example, if an actor is playing a father who disapproves of the young man his daughter is sitting with, what would the actor do to show that disapproval even if he doesn’t have any lines for a while? He wouldn’t just sit down and become detached from the scene by reading a magazine (unless he sat right in the middle between his daughter and her beau.) Perhaps he would pace nervously, perhaps he would keep looking back at the young man, perhaps he would hover over them, or cringe when she slides in closer. There are many possible actions here depending on the dialogue and situation.

So what I try to do with my young actors is to have them identify why they are in the scene. Have them think of actions which help fulfill their objective and keep them connected with the flow of the story. If they can do this, they will learn to live “moment to moment” on stage, and they will get much better with having spontaneous and authentic actions. In essence, they will be better actors.

A Brilliant Object Lesson on Good Acting

The most awesome thing happened in my Intro to Theatre Arts Class today.

We were in our drama circle, and I was debriefing an exercise we did two days ago where one person sat in a chair and was told that if she left the room, her family would die. Another person was outside and didn’t hear that scenario. He had a different objective. He had to get the person sitting in the chair out of the room because he knew there was a bomb about ready to go out. It’s a classic scenario. Two opposing objectives with the stakes very high for both. It’s fun to see what the young actors will do. (On this particular day, the one person committed suicide, and the bomb went off. It was a mess, but I am digressing.)

Anyways, I am debriefing. My principal walks in to observe as I am asking my class if that scenario had been part of a script how would things have been different? The difference would have been that the person in the chair would have eventually left the room because it would have been in the script. That’s the problem with acting. The script tells you what is coming; therefore, if an actor is reacting only to the script it won’t be authentic. The person has to react to the words and actions of the other actors in the scene. The opposing objectives have to clash, and they have to be wrestled with and worked out in a spontaneous, authentic way.

As I was explaining all of this, my principal interrupted and looked at one of my students. “D.J., I need to see you outside right now,” he said in a gruff voice. D.J.’s face lite-up in fear, he slowly lowered his head and walked out of the classroom as a hush settled over the rest of the students. After they left, I continued talking. A minute later they re-entered and D.J. sits back down. “D.J., I need to see you outside right now,” the principal repeated. And then everyone got it! A brilliant demonstration. The first time the principal caught the student off-guard and the reaction was fear. Genuine fear. Even I had fear. I thought, “Oh no, I’m losing one of my actors. He’s going to be expelled.” D.J. later said that every bad thing he ever did flashed through his mind at that moment. He was not acting. He felt fear. As my principal informed me later, “D.J. was ‘crapping his pants’ when he walked out of the room.” But the second time through, he knew it wasn’t real.

And that, in a brilliant demonstration, is the difference between normal acting and exceptional acting. Exceptional acting means the person isn’t reacting to scripted lines. They are acting in the moment to the situation in authentic way.

I thanked my principal for his exceptional timing and an object lesson that my young actors will not soon forget.

The Key to Great Acting: Doing

When was the last time you walked into an office and saw four people standing shoulder to shoulder doing nothing in particular? As in just awkwardly standing there? In the middle of the work day?

I suppose the answer to that is never.

That was the certain scene I had to wrestle with today in rehearsal as four of my actors suddenly became awkwardly flat-footed, not really knowing what to do. In other words, it looked like a third grade drama.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a third grade drama, if you are in third grade. Let’s break this apart a little bit. We’ve all seen adorable little kids in a school or church play stand awkwardly waiting for the right moment to say their lines. At that level, kids tend to be vessels for dialogue, not vibrant actors on the stage. And that is completely fine, actually it’s very entertaining. We love seeing the lonely giraffe tilt his head toward his teacher as she nods for him that it is the right time for him to say his line. It’s great fun.

But when the third grade mentality works itself into a more serious dramatic piece, one is forced to admit that there are some clear distinctions between good and bad acting.

It all starts with doing. Doing leads to believability. When an office worker is conversing with a colleague, and he or she is jotting notes, shuffling papers, sipping coffee, tapping her desk with a pencil, it suddenly becomes real.

Believable action defines roles. It sharpens characters. It brings the audience into the story. It makes the audience immerse themselves in the surrounding because it feels right. It feels familiar.

Actors can then play off of one another. One passes the other a sheet a paper, forcing the second actor to do something with it, to engage with the object, thus creating a more realistic scene.

I have great young actors to work with, no doubt about that. But every once in a while they find themselves flatfooted in an office, shoulder to shoulder, awkwardly looking into the audience wondering what in the world that they are doing in the lights.

This is where I step in and remind them to ‘do’. It’s the work of actors.

What is acting?

Acting coach Howard Fine has said the following:

“Actors wear costumes, people wear clothes.”

Here are a few things I think it means:

1. If you are wearing a costume, you are a bad actor. (unless you’ve been cast in the role of “Tree” during the George Washington Cherry Tree play.)

2. Acting is about being real. Committing yourself to a role by personalizing it, understanding what part of you is already in this character.

3. Acting is about being a person – a real person – 100% of the time. A mother in the kitchen cooking breakfast for her family doesn’t wear a costume. She wears an apron. A mechanic working under the hood of sports car doesn’t wear a costume; he wears overalls or a uniform. The point is, every (human) character is a real person and needs to be treated as one.

4. Good acting transcends acting. Good acting is, in fact, not acting at all. It expresses human experience in authentic ways. It makes no difference if an audience is watching a performance or not. The actor represents a real human being in a real life situation. It is no place for costume jewelry.

Is it any wonder why acting is so difficult?

Drama: The value of character interviews

I had an amazing time sitting down with a bunch of the cast members of our new, original production of “Grandparents’ War” and conducting a series of character interviews.

The ground rules were simple: stay 100% in character until I say ‘stop’.

They were amazing, and I didn’t ask easy questions. The time frame was after the play was over so I asked a bunch of questions about what happened during the play, but the bulk of the questions were about the characters’ histories, personalities, and memories.

I asked: ‘Are you an optimist or pessimist?’ ‘What was your happiest moment of your childhood.’ ‘What was it about your spouse that attracted  you to her?’ … and so forth.

When I said ‘stop’, they devolved out of character, usually with a loud series of sighs. Then I conducted some debriefing questions of what they learned.

Character interviews are great for several reasons. First,  it gets them away from their canned dialogue, and it forces them to create a credible backstory to help build structure into their character. It forces them to be their character in a new setting, thus furthering who they really are. The spontaneous interaction forced them to think on their feet and to react to the other character in the interview as well.

Character interviews is a beneficial exercise for any actor wanting to find out more about their character.