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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Ten Months in the Making: A New Beginning

It was in December 2016 that I accepted an offer to teach drama in Saudi Arabia.

Ten months later, in September of 2017, I am finally set to have my first class. Tomorrow.

This is a huge shift in many ways. I had a terrific position in Malaysia, a position which had few limits on creativity, and that time period fueled my love for writing, my love for drama, my love for all things theatrical.

However, it was time to move on, so when I signed on to this new adventure, I knew there would be a lot of waiting and work in the between time.

Now all of that is over, and like any good thespian, the butterflies are flitting their wings against my insides. Nervousness is a good thing. I teach my students to expect nervousness, to want it, to need it, to embrace it. It signifies change and risk-taking. Before the curtain goes up, you pace around in a death stare, pale-faced, jittery, mumbling lines and vocal exercises in a desperate attempt to keep you focused.

As the moment arises, you step out in character, playing a role, connecting a concept with people. Delving in below the surface and expressing a glimpse of the desires and struggles you went through to get to this point. And the lights crowd the stage, and the magic comes alive.

Acting or teaching acting. There’s not a lot of differences when it comes to preparation and implementation. It’s all smiles from there.

Tomorrow is the day when the curtain rises on my time in Saudi Arabia. I’m ready. Not perfectly prepared. But ready.

And when the students arrive and we start the process of developing our passion for drama, I will finally reach a 10-month goal which, at times, felt like would never come.

I’m excited. On with the show.

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.