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.

Advertisements

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.

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?