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.

RLT MusicalPOSTER2

 

Advertisements

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.

The Biggest Mistake of Young Actors

The biggest (or one of the biggest) mistakes of young actors is not spending nearly enough time inside the script.

I’ve directed a lot of young actors over the past eight years, and it never ceases to happen that as a show nears performance, I hear one actor say, “Oh, so that’s what that means!” They finally realize that they’ve been saying memorized lines which actually mean nothing to them. This is a grave mistake.

Acting coach Howard Fine says that an actor shouldn’t ever say a line without first having a reason from inside of them to say the line. If they are saying lines without purpose, it’s either because they haven’t explored the depth of meaning in the script or they haven’t personalized the script with their own experiences and skills that the actor brings with them.

So here are a few steps young actors can take to overcome these mistakes and create a well-rounded, meaningful character:

1) Read the script. Again. And Again. Before you do anything else, read it repeatedly. I love how Howard Fine says “Before you work on the script, let the script work on you.” That’s an excellent way to put it. Let the words sink in. Try to understand the setting and context. Let the character define him or herself to you before starting to memorize lines.

2) Stop thinking acting is all about memorizing lines. Anyone can memorize lines, but not many can act well. Ask yourself why this character has these lines before you start to say them.

3) Don’t be afraid to ask for help and clarification. Many people think they sound stupid when asking for clarification of a word or historical reference. No actor can understand everything immediately, but you should immediately know if you understand something or not. And if you don’t, ask? Ask a fellow actor? Ask your director?

4) Remember that the writer’s words were chosen for a purpose. Don’t change them! I had a situation where someone was performing one of the skits that I had written. After they finished, I said that I didn’t remember the ending being that way. He replied, “Well, the ending just wasn’t working for me, so I changed that part.” Shoot me with an arrow, quick! You, as an actor, HAVE to make the ending work. This shows me that the actor did not do his proper homework and didn’t understand the implications in the script. This is a wonderfully easy way to complete deflate a production.

If you put the proper time into the script, your acting will be rewarded. Your character will be more believable because you, yourself, believe in the actions you are doing on stage. And when you understand your actions and believe in them, the audience will believe in you too.

That’s our goal.

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.