Frodo Is Becoming Obsolete

I started teaching drama and acting right about the time that Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy was finishing up. Nearly everyone had seen it, and almost universally raved about it. The characterizations of the film provided the perfect example for me when I attempted to illustrate for my young actors what it means for their character to have a scene objective and a super objective.

Let me break it down for a second. Every character in every play has a scene objective in each scene. It is explained by the reason for them being in the scene and the goal or objective they are trying to accomplish in the scene. I often would have actors who were on stage without lines ask what they were supposed to be doing. My first question for them would be why did the playwright put you there? What does your character want to accomplish? This will tell you what you should be doing.

What about the term super objective, sometimes referred to as a character’s spine?  The super objective is a character’s overarching objective—the one thing he or she wants more than anything else in the world. Aren’t objectives and super objectives the same thing? Don’t ones scene objectives always align themselves with their spine? Not at all.

Enter Frodo. His characterization is so clearly defined as to provide an excellent example of both. Frodo’s scene objectives vary but revolve around the ring and his obsession in making the journey to Mordor to destroy it. His obstacles change from scene to scene and even from book to book, but they all feed into the idea of journey and accomplishing his mission and destroying the nasty ring.

Hey, wait! Isn’t destroying the ring also his super objective? Absolutely not. What does Frodo want more than anything else? And why is he going through all the pain that the ring is causing him? He wants to be home in the Shire. That’s it. He fights creatures and inner demons so he can be rid of the ring once and for all and go home to his beloved shire.

But sadly, this example is becoming obsolete. Ten years ago, all of my students knew the story. Today, most don’t. Usually a few of them do. “I kind of remember it.” “Yeah, I didn’t like it very much.” “It’s such an old movie.”  “I heard of it.”

Sigh. I thought Ben-Hur was an old movie.

So now which movie series can I use? That’s the problem. I don’t watch many movies these days, and please don’t say Marvel Universe. I’m pretty sure all of their super objectives revolve around making money.

Who would have thought that Frodo wouldn’t have staying power?

It makes me realize one other thing: someday a new director will come along to remake the LOTR Trilogy because the entire series has become obsolete.

They did that with Ben-Hur, remember? And look what a disaster that was.

Theatre Arts: The Open Art Form

In my estimation, there’s nothing like live theatre. It’s the most intimate art form. The most personal art form. The most human art form. The most ephemeral art form.

Unlike a painting or a sculpture, the theatre arts is an open art form. When was the last time the Mona Lisa changed her smile? When was the last time Michelangelo’s David scratched an itch? In contrast, when was the last time you saw a play two days in a row and it was exactly the same? Never on all three counts. This is the beauty of the dramatic arts.

When I talk about theatre with my new students who have never acted before, I ask them these two questions:

  • At the intermission of a play, what does the audience talk about? Invariably, the answer is “The first half of the play,” or “What they liked or didn’t like,” or “What’s going to happen next.

Then I ask them the follow-up question?

  • During intermission, what are the actors talking about backstage?

The answer to most of them who have never acted before is not as obvious. But if you’ve ever been backstage during intermission, it’s very clear what the focus is on. The actors are talking about the audience. Is it a good audience? Is it a bad audience? Why didn’t they laugh at that certain part? Why did they laugh at that certain part.

Those are fun conversations to take part of because every audience is different, which means that every show is different. In an open art form, the audience impacts the performers and the performers impact the audience. It’s that interaction, that synergy which, in my estimation, raises the theatre arts to a whole new level of artistic expression.

Live theatre displays humanity in all its glory with all its warts. It can reach deep inside someone’s heart and affect them in ways you would not imagine. A few years back, I had a woman come to me after watching one of the shows I had written and directed. I had never seen this woman before. She had tears in her eyes, and she gave me a huge hug, thanking me for what she saw. She said it meant so much to her. I was flabbergasted to say the least. There’s no greater compliment as an artist than to affect change, encourage conversation, inspire action, and impact a member of the audience.

That’s why I can’t understand when people say they don’t like drama. That drama is too boring. To me, it’s the same as saying “I don’t like humanity.”

 

It’s not the words. It’s the emotion behind the words.

I was working with one of my actors on a pivotal scene in our upcoming play. She gives a short speech which spurs on some tremendous societal changes. Yes, it’s a few lines of dialogue which changes the story dramatically. It’s the crucial point in the play.

The actor had not been getting it. The speech she has been giving in rehearsal has been flat and unemotional. Today, I pulled her aside to correct it, and I started by saying: “It’s not the words. Don’t worry about what you are going to say. Work on how you prepare to say the words.”

First off, as a playwright, I was horrified at myself. Don’t worry about the words??? Am I crazy? But as a director, I needed to shift her away from the words because the words were hollow to her. I told her, if she can put herself in the right emotional state, then the words will flow appropriately and I won’t even have to tell her how to say the words. She will say them authentically.

So we put down the script, and we walked through the scene. We focused on the action, the moment, the setting, the character’s emotional connection to what had just happened. Then we designed a set of actions, a slow plodding walk, a purposeful turn, hands coming to her face. We dug deep into the feelings she had, the sadness she felt about what had happened. She forced herself to block our her surroundings and focus on the feeling in her chest.

She walked slowly into position, she raised her hands over her face, she put her head down, then lifted her eyes into the auditorium and started to speak. Her voice crackled, slight tears formed in the corners of her eyes, and she raised her voice strong and spoke the words – words which at the last rehearsal were flat and ineffective. Now they were purposeful, emotional, powerful, and perfect.

Young actors focus so much on the words, wondering how to say the lines. But a little exploration of the scene and some purposeful movement and trigger mechanisms can make the words flow naturally from the emotion and action of the actor. This is when the magic happens.

So, playwright, at times you have to take a back seat because the meaning of the words will only reach peak impact if they are said with the emotion and attitude of the actor.

Well done, young actor. And that was just one short rehearsal. I can’t wait to see the final result.

The Last Bastion: Staged Reading Saturday Night

I just got back from the first and only rehearsals with my fellow actors for the staged reading of my new play “The Last Bastion.” We did an initial reading and then somewhat mapped out our blocking on stage and did a staged rehearsal.

Tomorrow, we have a dress rehearsal in the afternoon and then the big show at 8pm @penangpac followed by a short Q & A to get some feedback for the piece.

I’m on stage for one of the few times in my life, but I had a lot of fun with the role, playing boisterous George Parsons, the conservative Christian talk show host who will do anything to protect the last bastion of conservatism. Christopher Preslar is playing George’s son Seth, who is bringing home his atheistic  Chinese girlfriend (Vinna Law) to meet his parents. Ai Ching Ung is reading the role of Hannah, George’s faithful wife, who keeps some secrets of her own.

So if you are in town, please come on out and enjoy “The Last Bastion.”

lastbastionposter

Theatre: The Open Art Form

I enjoyed giving a mini-lecture to my Intro to Theatre Arts class today about the topic, “What is theatre?”

Theatre is many things, but most importantly, it’s an open art form. The live audience makes it unique and ever-changing. The interaction with the audience makes every performance different. It can inspire the actor to achieve heights previously not achieved. It can deflate the actor when the audience is “dead” or when they don’t laugh at a crucial part or, even worse, when they laugh at a dramatic climax.

But it’s this interaction which thrills and elevates live theatre to terrific peaks.

One of the fascinating aspects of live theatre is that during the intermission, while the audience is mingling and chatting about the performance, the actors are indubitably back stage chatting about the audience. Is it a good audience?  Is it a bad audience? Are they catching the jokes? Were they brought to tears? What in the world is wrong with them? What can we do to get them more involved? Yesterday’s crowd was much better.

I’ve heard all of these and more about the audience during intermission. Actors are fragile beings in this way. They  need the encourage, support, and utter love from the audience. They crave it. They demand it. And if they don’t get it, their egos will never be the same (or at least until they have a better audience the next night.)

Live theatre inspires me, so I love to inspire students to try this completely wonderful art form. It’s a life-changing experience. It’s a unique open art form. It’s the stage, baby! Love it if you dare!

I’m Heading On-Stage. Yes, I’m Nervous

I’m Heading On-Stage. Yes, I’m Nervous

I’m super excited and super nervous for January 21. Penang Performing Arts Centre is sponsoring a staged-reading of my brand new full length play “The Last Bastion.”

lastbastionposter

The purpose of the event is to get some audience feedback for the play’s development. I want to eventually send it on to some theatre troupes and festivals to see if anyone would like to produce it. Oh, and I hope it will be an enjoyable evening of entertainment for all involved.

I wrote this play over a two week period in October, and I’ve revised it many times since.  It was one of those creative instances of “boom” – it seemed to write itself. Very easy. I love it when a creative work comes together like that. This was not a laborious exercise. It was a fun jaunt of creativity and I hope everyone likes it. Not only for the very (hopefully) funny scenes, but also for the timely themes about modern society in the United States. My goal for writing this was not to present any answers. It was to explore points of view, perceptions, and relationships – especially family relationships.

Here’s the short synopsis:

The Last Bastion

最後的堡壘

With great trepidation, Seth Parsons brings his atheistic Chinese girlfriend home to meet his conservative Christian parents with the hope of receiving their blessing. A reading of Mark W. Sasse’s latest script followed by a Q&A segment with audience.

I’m playing Seth Parson’s boisterous father George, an outspoken conservative Christian who has his own radio show on God and County Radio.  It’s a fun role, but I’m still nervous. I’m comfortable teaching in the drama classroom, but on stage. Oh well, I’ll give it a shot. At least I’ll have the script in front of me.

Christopher Preslar is playing Seth Parsons. I only know Christopher for his superb directing and acting in Penangpac’s “The Glass Menagerie” last September. Actually, it was after watching his show that gave me the new idea for “The Last Bastion.” So I’m really looking forward to working with Christopher on this. He’ll be directing “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” later this spring, so I’m looking forward to that too.

Alison Hurst is playing Hannah Parsons, George’s wife. Alison is a drama teacher at Uplands School, and she, like me, is not used to be on the stage, but I’m so glad she agreed to join us. I’ve seen some of her productions and she brings a great eye and creativity to everything she does.

Vinna Law rounds out the cast by playing Rainbow (Jia-Yi), Seth’s atheistic Chinese girlfriend. I got to know Vinna this past November when she directed my play “Alone in a Bar” at the KL Short & Sweet Theatre Festival. Physical theatre is her specialty, but she will bring the perfect attitude and creative thinking for Rainbow, a rather complex character who is dealing with some hidden family issues.

So I think from the set up that you can see a lot of cultural clashes coming when the atheistic Chinese girlfriend of Seth walks into the last bastion of conservatism in deep up-state New York. But there is a lot more going on besides that. There are some understated themes of home and reconciliation which I hope will be discovered by the audience.

I really enjoyed writing this play, and I can’t wait to see what happens with it.

Come on out and enjoy this free event – well, penangpac is taking donations for their patron of the arts fund.

January 21, 2016 – 8pm @ penangpac Stage 2

 

4 Weeks Off! Do you remember your lines?

Typically, when I’m directing a play, we will meet to do (hopefully) the whole play once a week. Then in the last month before the show, we ramp up the number of hours significantly and we’ll be ready.

This time was strange. In the past four weeks, there are certain scenes we haven’t practiced at all. At all! That’s not good!

What is the issue? Well, just the crazy school life we all live. We had Spring Break which took out a week. We had a photoshoot that took out another week. The other week we didn’t get through the whole thing. So today, I found my cast in the position of doing some scenes for the first time in 4 weeks! YIKES!

How’d we do? Not bad, considering. Lines are still memorized, except for an occasional needed prompt. The blocking needed work, but overall I’m pleased with the progress we had during out time of lack of progress.

Everything changes this Saturday as we’ll be having our first of three, all day Saturday practices leading up to the show.

The first Saturday must accomplish the following:

  • Do the complete script, front to back, twice.
  • Map out final blocking.
  • Map out lighting map.
  • Final list of props needed.
  • Work and re-work the final scene which is challenging because everyone’s on stage and a lot is going on. So far, it’s been terrible. But we’ll get there.

If we can accomplish all of this on Saturday, we’ll  be in good shape.

Have I told you how excited I am about this script? “The Secrets of the Magic Pool.”

Three shows, May 13-14 @ the Penang Performing Arts Center.

Can’t wait!

JStef-Apr2016-2777

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 Sasse Food Challenge: How to Motivate Actors

It’s become somewhat of a ritual for me over the past few years: The Sasse Food Challenge.

It’s a way to, hopefully, motivate my actors to memorize their lines by the date I want them memorized.

On the day of the challenge, if they ALL know their lines, approximately 95% or so, then I will invite them to my house to cook for them. I’ll cook something special like my gourmet pizzas (stuffed crust with toasted garlic and homemade spicy sausage, for example) or Mexican (homemade Enchiladas with my own salsa and pickled peppers.)

Usually food speaks greatly to them. In my many years of offering the challenge, my group only missed the challenge twice. It doesn’t get them off the hook – they still need to memorize their lines, but it does take away a great and fun time of bonding with the cast.

Monday is our challenge this week. They had previously did very well in memorizing Act I, but tomorrow is Act II, and if they can nail it, they’ll have their food on April 10.

We’ll also play some drama games and enjoy some good dessert. I hope they make it. Not because they’ll know their lines on time, but because I like to cook for them. It’s enjoyable,  and I always look forward to it.

So that’s how I motivate my actors. What do you do?

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.