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.”

 

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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.

Maybe It’s the Podium That Makes People Say Stupid Things

For the past nine months, we’ve seen plenty of politicians say stupid things. Trump is probably leading the pack in the jaw-dropping odd, weird, or just plain stupid department. But he’s not alone. I’ve also found myself shaking my head at Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Ben Carson, and others (used in an all-inclusive sense.)

But it wasn’t until this week that I had an amazing revelation. The cause of all this stupidity might not trace itself back to any mis-firing of a brain synapse. I discovered that the reason for stupidity might be more of an environmental factor – one that, oddly enough, is related to furniture. A podium to be more precise.

Yes, it’s true. The podium made them say it.

How do I know this? I discovered this quite inadvertently as I introduced a new drama game into our theatre arts classroom. A game I called “press conference.”

The premise is simple. I give one person a scenario and they come to the podium and say “and now I’ll take some questions” and the rest of the students have to act as reporters asking questions about the given scenario. Some scenarios I used were:

  • You are a police chief reporting on two prisoners who escaped from a penitentiary.
  • You are a town mayor dedicating a new park.
  • You are a politician who has been accused of corruption.
  • You are a presenter at a healthcare conference, introducing a new line of skin care products.

You get the idea. The game started, and the class joined in with much gusto. It quickly became lively as the person at the podium would have to answer the sometimes antagonistic questions.

And then it started happening. Insults. Rude comments. Stupid comments. The person behind the podium began to sound like … gasp … Trump!  It was glorious! I told the class that I wanted to rename the game to “How to be the Donald!”

Now all of our stupid comments and rude posturing was all in good fun. No one got hurt. No one cried, and we had a blast playing the game. But I couldn’t help but think that something happens to one’s brain as you stand behind the podium. People become aggressive, illogical, and somewhat stupid-sounding.

It’s the podium! Podium syndrome. Why even the POTUS had a podium moment the other day when he said, “we defeat ISIS, in part, when we tell them that they are weak.”  Really? That’s all we need to do?

It happens to the best of us. Podium-itis.

So don’t be too hard on Trump. It’s that wooden piece of furniture in front of him. Perhaps we should build a wall around it.

First Read Through

Today was so fun!

One of the great rewards for writing and producing your own dramatic works is the milestones along the way that I get to enjoy. Today is certainly one of them: the first cast read-through.

After months of writing and publishing, I have to work through the grueling auditions to finally get an amazing cast set.

And then we finally get together to read the entire script for the first time. It’s always really fun to hear the actors start to think about their roles, and wonder how the interaction will be between the boy who is love with the girl and the villain who’s ready to squish the heroine. It’s delightful, really.

What makes it even more special is knowing that we are putting on a world premiere – a show that no one else has ever seen before. Thrilling!

We all laughed a lot this afternoon as we made it through the entire script in two hours. I have to tell you, if you can be in Penang in May 2016, you’re going to be in for a treat. This play is going to be a blast to produce for a variety of reasons.

Today was one of those good days. Months of work ahead of us, but I can already see that it’s going to be well worth it.

Can’t wait!

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Insight into Writing My New Show (1)

I’d like to take a couple posts to expound a little on the writing of my new show: “For All Generations.”  The show is a series of dramatic sketches which portray a variety of generational themes – families – grandparents – sacrifice for country. Let me start with my favorite piece of the bunch, a mini-historical drama called “If Love is a Crime, String Me Up.”

sketch fact sheets If love is a crimeSurprisingly, this was the first time I attempted to write a historical short play. As the description above mentions, a run-away slaves is met by Beatrice, a conductor on the underground railroad, and she has to stand up to Earl, the local sheriff, when he comes looking for the slave he heard about from a bounty hunter.

The writing of this play is purposefully understated to allow Beatrice, and her love, to shine. “Elly” the slave girl, doesn’t know what to do or what to expect, but she is completely overwhelmed by this woman who does more than just provide a meal. Beatrice models the very nature of being independent, confident, and self-assured, instilling in Elly the necessary tools and attitudes that she will need to survive as she slips into Canada.

Beatrice is one of the favorite characters I have ever created. Strong, funny, determined, loving to the core. And she’s a great cook which helps to distract the sheriff. This is an extremely moving play that tears me up every time in rehearsal. I can’t wait to bring it to the crowd.

sketch fact sheets revenge of grandparents

The next piece, “Revenge of the Grandparents” is a purely blissful comedy. I wanted to exaggerate (just a little) how grandparents dote over and spoil their grand kids, much to the chagrin of the parents. It starts when grandpa is watching the two kids and has fed them lots of sugar. They are flying around the room when their mother walks in, flabbergasted at how out of control they are. The grandpa leaves in bliss, while the parents say how they will get their revenge when they themselves are grandparents. Then, on stage, the parents are transformed into time and become grandparents, and they are now watching their granddaughter Janie, whose mother is overly protective and only allows her to eat organic vegetables. But the grandparents unleash on her lots of surprises from chocolate sundaes to hunting the “woogu-woogus” to jumping off the steps … When Jane’s parents return, they are in shock to discover how blatantly the grandparents disregarded all of their instructions. This is a hilarious piece which will have the audience in stitches. It’s also a piece that anyone who ever had that over indulgent grandparent will be able to relate to.

sketch fact sheets more heart less attack The last one I’d like to talk about today is “More Heart, Less Attack.” This one was inspired by an idea that one of my actors had. He wanted to convey how Asian parents may misunderstand each other.  It starts with an Asian child getting a whipping for a poor grade, and then through a series of soliloquys, we come to understand what each of them are really thinking. Then I added in another set of mother-child, this one looking at common misunderstandings about using technology and the pressures that kids feel about studying. It’s a simple piece which is meant to illuminate understanding between two generations.

And that’s a wrap of 3 out of the 10 pieces I’ve written. More to come …

 

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.