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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 Many people think they sound stupid when asking for clarification of a word or historical reference.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.

Casting: The Worst Job in Theatre

I direct plays at the high school level. Why I haven’t “hired” someone to do my casting for me I’ll never know. In this type of setting, there’s nothing worse.

Pitting my own regular actor against my own regular actor. When we do large second semester productions, it’s like putting family member against family member when my tight-knit drama group, The RLT Players, audition against each other.

It’s excruciating.

I just came back from a call-back where I had to choose between two young, talented actors – one being my daughter. (I know, I know. I should have recused myself. But as director, I do want to have a say.) Oh well, I’ll take the blame no matter what happens. That’s the nature of a casting director.

I can’t imagine a person wanting a job where their main goal is crush people’s dreams. Granted, you get a lot of thank you’s along the way, but you turn down far more than are ever accepted.

You know what I do? I tend to think everyone needs to have a role, so I do my best to get as many people as possible involved. The musical we are doing this coming year, “A Tad of Trouble,” has 12 characters. Well, I’ve added four understudies, then I’m adding an angel chorus of 10 or so and then through some dancers in the mix and we are going to be hitting about 30 people or so – a record for one of my productions.

But no matter how many people I make happy, there are some who will never be satisfied.

That’s a good thing. An actor should never be content with a role until they get the role they want. Use that angst and dissatisfaction to fuel the future. Hurl those insults at the casting director (I can take it, even though I’m a nice person and don’t like it).

Now can I put all this behind me and produce a new show.

Let the fun begin, because there was nothing fun about casting.

The Necessity of Bad Rehearsals

There is no such thing as a bad rehearsal if progress was made.

My drama group had a three hour practice this morning, gearing up for our show less than three weeks away. Unfortunately, due to a variety of circumstances, we worked on our last two pieces for the FIRST time today. Not ideal at all!

For the first two hours we sloshed through my musical “A Woman at War”, first working on the singing (yes, some people didn’t know the lines or melodies yet), and choreography. (Yes,it was extremely sloppy.) But at the end of the second hour, we actually made it through the entire 10 minute musical without stopping. It was pretty much a disaster.

Hour three was spent on a little piece called “What was it like?” that keeps asking questions about the past. Here’s an excerpt:

What was it like to be asked to go to the back of the bus because of the color of your skin? 

What was it like to have the Star of David embroidered on your sleeve? 

What was it like to see the paratroopers come – to watch them drift from the sky just so a girl who was different could go to school? 

What was it like? I wasn’t there. I didn’t experience it. But it was real. And it shaped our world.

A different person is speaking each of the lines while someone else is acting it out. Over top of it is a beautiful original piece of music written by Hui Min Tang which is wonderfully evocative, and really brings out meaning in the words and actions. While all of this is going on, two dancers will be doing an interpretive dance as well. It’s our final piece and should be quite meaningful if we can put it together.

Today it was horrible.

But by the end of the second hour, we made it through the three and a half minute piece, and while it was still cringe-worthy, we made it through the three and a half minute piece.

So the bottom line is this:

  • You have to start somewhere.
  • Messy comes before perfection.
  • Keep your eyes on the goal, not on the failure in front of you.
  • Learn and move forward.

Bad rehearsal always lead somewhere. And that place is a great performance.


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.

The Purpose of Dress Rehearsals

I’ve been directing stage plays for seven years now. I’m no professional, and I’ve learned a lot throughout the years. Dress rehearsals are the emotional peak that every director has to scale before a new show. Once it arrives and the actors poke through the clouds and stand on that emotional peak, a director’s job is, in essence, over. Not officially, of course. There will still be production meetings before each subsequent show, but the main work is done. Everything now rests in the laps of the actors.

Dress rehearsals accomplish a few important items. First, there’s the technical aspects of the dress rehearsal that must be perfected. In our productions, oftentimes, dress rehearsal is the first and only time the actors performing at the actual venue. This is, of course, stressful because the stage is different. We are working with lighting we haven’t seen yet and it takes hours for the actors to get familiar and comfortable in their new surroundings. As a director, I have to make this happen, step by step walking through the set, the new blocking, and the lighting scheme with everyone. I’ll be at the venue for many hours with the tech crew prior to the casts arrival.

Once the technical aspects of the performance is clear, I have to encourage the cast that they can, indeed, do this. And this, for me, is the ultimate meaning of dress rehearsal. Its instilling in the cast the idea that the show is now theirs -they are in control – they can be successful – they are prepared for anything to happen. This last point is key. In live theatre, the unexpected can happen at anytime. Dress rehearsal is instilling in the cast that they can overcome any obstacle, be it a missed line, a broken prop, or smudged make-up. No matter what is thrown at them, the show must go on.

I’ve had shows where the electricity went off in the final act. Yes, it was awkward. But the show must go on.

I’ve had shows where actors completely blanked out on stage.

I’ve had shows where actors forgot to bring a crucial prop on to stage.

I’ve had shows where a singer started off-key, or a backdrop started to fall. In this particular case, a quick thinking person backstage stood on a chair and held up the backdrop in excruciating pain until the end of the show.

This is what dress rehearsals teach – no matter what, the actors and crew can handle it.

So I love it when dress rehearsals are finished because my job is done. I can sit in the audience and enjoy the show and the actors can relax and have fun on stage.

Here’s to dress rehearsal day! Our show opens tomorrow.

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.

Characterization: A thought from Sir Lawrence Olivier

Lawrence Olivier said the following about acting:

“If I play a beggar, I look for the king, and when I play a king, I find the beggar.”

This is wonderfully simple expression of how to approach an acting role that you’ve been awarded. In real life, there are no regal people or destitute people. There are people who act as if they are regal and other people who act as they are destitute.

Can you show me a king who doesn’t have his doubts? Can you show me a beggar who doesn’t have his moments of grandeur in his mind?

People are not cardboard – one dimensional beings. We all have vulnerabilities. We all have our grand moments. That’s what makes us human, and that’s what makes Olivier such the accomplished performer.

But his thoughts can also mean much to writers. To make well-rounded, believable characters we, too, need to find the beggar in the king.

Everyone has redeeming qualities. Even the bully. Even the pest. Even the murderer. The criminal. The adulterer. The dictator. No one starts out on the road to evil without passing a few moments of beauty along the way. So as you craft your villain or your antagonist or your whomever, make them real. Make them easy to like and easier to loathe. Bathe them in consistent contradictions. Have them be conflicted. Put them in situations which stretch their resolve. If you do, you’ll be on your way to crafting a believable, three-dimensional bad guy or girl.

Everyone has faults. Even the saint. Even the reverend. Even the … you get the picture. There’s no such thing as a hypocrite in real life (more on this later) because everyone fails, falls, stumbles, and makes mistakes. We’ve all seen writing where characters are too perfect. Who can relate to that? The “good guys or girls”, the heroes, the protagonists the whomever also must be bathed in contradictions. What gives them doubts? What causes them to do things they say they will never do? What drives them to a precipice they swore they would never reach? What hard things can they do which will steel their resolve? This is also the start of building a solid character whom your readers will be engaged with.

Thank you Sir Lawrence Olivier for a good reminder.

(And yes, that was a preposition ending a sentence. It’s fun making grammarians squirm.)

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?

My Final Thoughts on RLT Players Season 3

Finished up a whirlwind of a week last night. And we finished it with a bang. A rocking sellout crowd who were moved and entertained by the young actors of The Road Less Traveled Players. What a privilege it is for me to lead and write for a group of talented, growing actors and performers like that!

Yes, these are high school students. But that is the last thing I have in my mind when I write, direct, and prepare them for the stage. I don’t write for high school students. I write for actors who want to engage their audience, who want to reach across barriers, who want to explore complex themes, who want to express authentic human emotion, who want to do more than antics and empty theatrics. I work with actors, not high school students.

Why do I say this?

I think there is a certain connotation when describing an amateur school production. After all, it’s simply meant to entertain the kids’ parents. It’s just a platform for someone to show off what they learned. Even one of the Malaysian organizations that reviews and gives awards to dramatic productions clearly states that school productions are not eligible to be reviewed. I’m assuming its because the quality? Perhaps?

But, in my mind, The RLT Players are different. They are exuberant on stage. They take drama seriously. They take comedy seriously. After the shows, I’ve heard endless comments such as: “That was emotional!”, “Brilliant!”, “It not only entertained, it gave me something to think about”, “I hope the people I brought heard the message”, “amazing”, “touching”, etc … Of course, I am very humbled by responses such as this, but I’m not surprised. I sat in rehearsals getting chocked up every time when Jessie and Jackie were working their lines in “I Once Was Blind.”  Chilling and exhilarating at the same time.

That is what I love about live theater. It has the ability to reach human emotions in a unique way. It has the ability to elicit meaningful conversations on life-changing topics. I had someone, not connected to our school, tell me “I’m so happy to see someone dealing with difficult topics such as suicide. This is what we need. Dialogue and discussion.” Beautiful.

Others loved the ridiculous nature of the silly “The Giant Squid that Ate Georgetown.” What made it work is Lexi’s ability to actually act like she was a sailboat. That allowed Joseph to be a squid. And yes, it sounds ridiculous, but it was hilarious with a simple message of ‘there are not limits on good deeds.’

And David singing in “Captured in Time and Space” about living a life alone without the human touch. How many people go through life today wanting connection, but having none? Far too many. We have cut ourselves off. And so they cried to the heavens, “Where you want me to go? What you want me to say? I can’t go alone.” We all need help. We all need each other.

And that is, in essence, what the Road Less Traveled Players is all about.

I’m so proud of what they have accomplished and how far we have come. Yes, there is room for growth, as always. But in my view, if you missed the show this weekend, you missed not the potentiality of a group of high school students, you missed the opportunity to be moved by a group of maturing actors.

RLT Players Season 4: Coming in 2014