No Self-Consciousness Allowed on Stage

The drama classroom is often times a microcosm of life. We spend a lot of time talking about humanity, genuineness, and authenticity. These elusive words, when manifested correctly on the stage, can bring to life a performance which can penetrate deep into the audience’s consciousness. That’s the magic. From where do we reach in order to achieve these? What can stop our attempts at authentic emotion to slide into gaudy melodrama which makes the audience reach for the phone so they can stream another cat video to forget about the disaster on stage?

Self-Consciousness.

Now while it’s true that the actor must personalize their character in very real ways, that personalization cannot push them into self-awareness on stage. This, in my estimation, is one of the most difficult tasks that young actors in the drama classroom face. It doesn’t take long for one of my students to break a smile when doing an exercise. It doesn’t take much for someone to break character and turn away in self-conscious glee, knowing that they looked ridiculous in front of their peers. Well, yes. Everyone doing drama looks ridiculous. It’s a prerequisite. But to truly grow in one’s craft, you must get over yourself. You must get over what other people think, or how other people react when you are acting.

You have to get in the zone!

When I was a baseball pitcher, toeing the rubber and receiving the sign from my catcher, I felt like I was a lonely soul standing on a lonely mound. I didn’t hear the spectators, or the opposing team, or even my own players, I was in the zone, completely tuned in to the moment, to the pitch, to the mechanics, to the task at hand. In the same way, actors need to get into the zone through concentration and an acute awareness of the task they are trying to complete.

Last year I was put to the test in an experimental theatre piece I was part of. I had to sit in the middle of the stage, with the entire audience standing around me, watching me write the same line on a notepad over and over. I would pause, look up, and even though I saw them, I was not affected by them. I focused on the writing and I focused on the objective that my actor was trying to accomplish. After the show, I had many people comment on how I was “in the zone” and they couldn’t get me to break character. It was tremendously fun. How did I do it? I knew my objective and I concentrated on achieving it, at all costs. I was committed to looking foolish or strange because I knew that was the only way the show would work. It takes commitment and concentration. Do you have it?

I’ve attended many productions where the actors are already in character and on-stage as the audience was entering the theatre. It’s a purposeful mechanism of concentration that allows the actors to remain uniquely in tune to the task in front of them. It’s also a terrific way to tease the audience with what is about to come.

What about you? How do you stay in character? How do you concentrate when you are on stage?

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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?