Actor’s Etiquette: Cheating, Part 1

chambers-etiquette“Cheating”, in case you don’t know, is what we call “opening” yourself up, physically, to the audience, even if in real life you’d be facing in a different direction.  For instance, let’s say that two actors are face-to-face downstage center, which means that the fronts of their bodies are perpendicular to the proscenium.  This gives the audience in the center of the theater their profiles.  Anyone sitting on the sides gets a reasonable look at the face of one of the actors, and the back of the head of the other.

For brief moments, this is all right.  If it lasts for more than a few lines, however, it becomes problematic.  The profile view deprives the center of the audience of some emotional impact, which requires a more direct look at the actors’ faces.  The views from the sides of the audience are one-sided – that is, they have a good idea of what one actor is feeling, but can read nothing of the other actor’s feelings except from general body language, since they can’t see his face at all.

Once upon a time (like back in the days of the Greeks and for many centuries afterward), acting was declamatory.  Actors faced the audience fully and spoke.  There was no real pretense at reality as we know it today.

Somewhere along the line – perhaps because of Stanislavsky, or perhaps it began before him – actors began to pull one foot back a little so the front of their bodies were no longer parallel to the proscenium, but they were angled slightly – a bit of acknowledgment that they were talking to someone else on the stage, not to the audience.  These days, 45 degrees is typically the right place to start, and you adjust from there – more “open” (facing the audience more) when you can get away with it, and less “open” (facing another actor more than you do the audience) when the interaction between characters demands it (arguments, etc.)

If you aren’t used to cheating, it feels very unnatural, for the simple reason that it is.  We are accustomed to facing people more directly when we interact with them, and “opening” ourselves up, physically, to the audience for reasons of sightlines is nothing like what we do in real life.  However, it’s a necessary adjustment that adds to the audience’s pleasure and understanding.

The first thing you need to know about cheating is that it looks better from the audience than you think it does.  A few years back, I did a production of Blithe Spirit with an actor who did a lot of musical comedy.  In musical comedy, the cheating is a lot more apparent, because songs are typically directed out to the audience, even if they are being sung to someone else on stage.

When I watched Nick work in scenes I wasn’t in, I studied how he stood and how I felt about it, as an audience member.  He was angled at perhaps 20 degrees, not 45, and from the audience’s perspective, that’s almost as if he is facing them, and yet I never felt like he wasn’t fully involved with his partner.  In other words, it looked perfectly natural and realistic to me.  Why?

There’s two ways to handle this, and only one way works.  The way that doesn’t is to stand as Nick did and turn your head to your partner for the bulk of the scene (both when you’re listening and when you’re talking).  This isn’t much better than if you stood at profile to the audience, or anything between 45 and 90 (or more) degrees.  If the point of cheating is to give the audience a better look at your face, then turning your head defeats the purpose.

What does work?  That’s for the next post!


Actor’s Etiquette: Speed

0958_MA_49_Set EtiquetteFootball season is upon us.  Success in college football does not guarantee success in the NFL.  Why?  Speed.  The NFL game is faster.  Why?  The NFL has the crème de la crème.  It’s spread out in college, but the quality of the players is more concentrated on the professional level.  As a result, everything is faster and sharper.

Understand that speed, in acting, has nothing to do with pauses.  Eliminating pauses does not contribute the kind of speed I’m talking about.  Speed can shorten the pauses without taking away their power, but speed never means cutting them out entirely.  It means not being self-indulgent about our “moments”.  It means interrupting on time, not a beat too late.  It means entering promptly.  It means speaking more quickly than you might ordinarily.

Speed can be a reflection of high energy, but they are not identical and you can’t substitute one for the other.  Speed means that the audience can feel the momentum of the piece.  It’s like wanting to get a drink from the kitchen while you’re watching TV.  Do you wait for the next commercial, or do you think  you can get in and out of the kitchen without missing much?  (In a world without Tivo, that is.)

Speed means that things are going quickly enough that you would indeed miss something if you went to the refrigerator.

Speed, Energy, and Volume ARE interrelated.  If you don’t have energy, your volume will be down.  Try to intentionally pump up your volume, you’ll automatically increase your energy.  If you don’t have energy, you won’t have speed.  Intentionally increase your speed (you may feel like you’re forcing it, but that can be okay), and energy will follow.

Actor’s Etiquette: Energy

etiquette_class_book2Every show you do requires high energy.  That’s obvious (I hope!) for a show like The 39 Steps or Noises Off.  It’s less obvious for Waiting for Godot or Our Town.  If you don’t bring your best energy to a performance, it will suffer.  Low energy is contagious and will infect the rest of the cast.  It will infect the audience, too.

The reverse is also true.  An audience that arrives tired will not respond well and that will affect the performance, since actors and audience work together to create the experience.  But you can’t do anything about what the audience brings.  You can, however, be sure that you bring your best energy.

Good acting can be tiring – for you, not for the audience!  When acting, we ought to be operating with a heightened awareness of what is going on, and that requires unrelenting attentiveness.  Let your focus drop for a few seconds, and it takes longer than a few seconds to get it back.  This kind of attentiveness has a palpable energy to it; it gives power to your performance and keeps the audience involved.

Life on stage is NOT ordinary, nor should you treat it as such in the name of “believability”.  “Naturalness” on stage is not the same thing as “casual”.  Even film acting, which requires you to be much “smaller” about what you do since the camera can get right in your face, needs to be supported by a strong and consistent “electrical” current (if you will).

high voltageHow can you be sure to bring your best energy on stage?  Alan Alda does about two minutes of some sort of aerobic exercise just before he goes on stage, and there is scientific evidence that this helps you to perform any physical activity (and acting should be very physical) better.  For one thing, it engages both sides of your brain in synchronicity.  For another, it gets your blood pumping and wakes up your body.

It’s difficult to bring energy on stage with you if you’ve just spent fifteen minutes sitting in your dressing room or the Green Room.  If you’ve ever been to a performance that took five or ten minutes to get off the ground, low energy is probably the culprit.  Better to warm up your engine off stage, before you meet the audience.

How can you best do this?  Obviously, you don’t want to get yourself winded (unless that’s appropriate for your “moment before”.)  Being in good shape physically will make it easier to engage in physical activity that will “wake you up” without leaving you breathless, but if you aren’t, use your own judgment.  Dancing, shadow-boxing, and jumping jacks are some choices that can rev your engine in limited space.

It’s not just about what you bring on stage when you enter, however.  You’ve got to retain that energy throughout the performance, and that requires vigilance, especially on the days that your fellow actors seem drained or you yourself are.  I know there are times when I can’t seem to get my engine past 55 mph, metaphorically speaking, when I really need to be flying at 70 or 80 mph (for comedies in particular)!

When that happens, you have to keep pushing yourself, and remember what the experience is like for you when you DO have the right level of energy.  By recollecting that and measuring tonight’s performance against it, you have something clear to drive toward – even if I can’t quite make it to 70, I can usually get myself above 60 through sheer will . . .

The matter of energy is tied in with speed, which I’ll talk about in the next Actor’s Etiquette post.

Actor’s Etiquette: Deliberate Practice

10648110-got-etiquette-shirtDeliberate Practice, done in solitude, creates elite performers, says research psychologist Anders Ericsson.  What does that mean to an actor, who mostly performs with at least one other person on stage?  How can we, as actors, use Deliberate Practice outside of the classroom?

The fact that athletes in team sports also often spend unusual amounts of time in solitary practice caught my attention, because it’s the most comparable situation to an actor’s.  Yes, a violinist in an orchestra is working on a “team”, but he can practice his part in solitude more effectively than an actor can.  How what he does blends with the rest of the orchestra is secondary to what he does alone.

In football, wide receivers are dependent on their quarterbacks to throw them the ball, but that doesn’t mean that they can only get better by working with their QB.  Jerry Rice’s off-season workouts are legendary; Cris Carter last caught a ball in the NFL in 2002, but he’s caught thousands of them off of automatic throwing machines, and can still catch them one-handed (either hand).  Both Rice and Carter did an extraordinary amount of Deliberate Practice.  Which is one reason why they are in the Hall of Fame.

Monologue work is an obvious choice.  They are incredibly difficult to do well, as I’ll discuss in some distant future.  We do not ordinarily talk to ourselves in the way characters talk to themselves.  When we talk to ourselves, we mumble, or half of it is verbal and half in our heads.  None of which is interesting to watch on stage.

Monologues delivered to the audience are also tough, because they tend to become speeches.  We don’t speak to audiences the way we speak to best friends, and yet that is often exactly what is required.  Learning how to achieve this sort of natural behavior in a very unnatural circumstance is difficult and takes a lot of practice.

If you can learn to do it, however, you’ll find there is a lot of transference to your group acting skills.  The one clue I’ll give you is that the primary question I ask myself as an actor these days is, “Did I just sound like a human being?”  Often, in monologues directed to the audience, there are particular lines that just sound unnatural, and I have to work hard to overcome that.

You can see why casting directors like monologues.  They separate the men from the boys, as it were.

Monologues can only do so much, however.  There are a lot more of them available now than there was when I was growing up.  In fact, I don’t think I did much in the way of monologues until I was a teenager looking to audition.  So what was my form of Deliberate Practice, growing up?

I’ve read a lot of plays.  I mean, A LOT of plays.  Wanting to act is something I was born with, and once I discovered that there were plays out there, I got my hands on every script I could find, largely through libraries when I was in school.  Once I branched out into community theater, I discovered that there were playscripts I could borrow from friends or perhaps find in used bookstores.  Once I had more discretionary  income, I started buying scripts.

I didn’t just read them.  I read them over and over.  I identified characters in them (not always female) that appealed to me, and analyzed them, tried to figure out what made them tick, practiced their lines, tried to make them sound as natural as possible, while still being interesting.  I spent as much time with them as many actors do with their characters in rehearsal.  Enough time that I could see the links between the line in the third act and something that happened in the first.

I read old plays and new plays, classics and predictable modern comedies.  I read bad plays and good plays.  I learned why the good ones were good and the bad ones bad.  I figured out what playwrights had done to give me good material, and what was missing when they hadn’t.  I thought about how I could help disguise their lack, and how I could dig further into the complex characters so that I could show all of their complexity.  I worked to go beyond the obvious and find original ways to present my characters while staying true to them.  I learned how to read the text and let it speak to me without laying my trite perceptions on it.

I played hundreds of characters in my bedroom.  My first readings were about showing off and enjoying whatever attracted me to the character.  But I got pretty serious after that, working on the character as if I was actually going to play it, and doing all the work I still do in rehearsals.

Over and over again.

My sense is that many of my students, even the more ones, often don’t read a lot of plays, much less do the rest of what I’ve just described.  That’s unfortunate, because I think studying scripts is a huge part of actor’s form of Deliberate Practice.  Yes, I was born with a certain instinctive ability to sense what is going on with a character, but the work that I’ve described has most definitely helped me to become the actor I am today.

As with anything you want to do well – there are no shortcuts to putting in the time.

Actor’s Etiquette: How Do I Get Better?

But I want to be great!  Shouldn’t director help me get there?

Let me circle back through the last two posts and revisit the issue of young (or old, or anywhere in between) actors learning their craft.

You don’t learn it on the job.  All right, you do, because if you are paying attention and working hard, every bit of practice you get is going to help you to be better than you were yesterday.  (Entirely possible to practice and not get better, as we’ve talked about and which I’ll touch on more down the road when I talk about overactors and underactors.)

But the rehearsal hall isn’t the primary place you will learn your craft.  I’ve written about this in the past, but it bears repeating.

A craft, according to Merriam-Webster, is something requiring special skill.  Now, craft originally referred to making something with your hands, like woodworkers, silversmiths, and potters.  Think of any artisan – it takes a lot of practice to get good at that skill.  Bricklayers make it look like the easiest thing in the world, but if you’ve ever tried to build a wall yourself, you’ll realize that theirs is an ease borne of laying (and relaying) thousands of bricks.

Move into the arts, and you will see similar repetition.  Painters don’t just have a vision they want to commit to canvas or paper – they need to learn how to use the brush, which one to use when, how to mix the colors, etc.  A violinist has to learn how to bow, how to pick, how to find the right place to hold the strings (violins have no frets), etc.  Watercolorists throw out a lot of paper while they learn to blend washes, and musicians play a lot of scales in practice, not just concertos with the orchestra.

In other words, they have a myriad of skills they must acquire in service of creating the final product.

The fact that we are human beings and know how to walk and talk doesn’t mean that we automatically know how to act on stage, although I think some people imagine it does.  Acting is a craft, too, and requires special attention simply because the most obvious “skills” it uses are walking and talking.

I’m reading Susan Cain’s book, Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and she talks about Anders Ericsson, a research psychologist who studies “how . . . extraordinary achievers get to be so great at what they do.”  Solo violinists, grandmaster chess players, elite athletes – they all spend unusual amounts of time in solitary practice.

“In many fields, Ericsson told me, it’s only when you’re alone that you can engage in Deliberate Practice, which he has identified as the key to exceptional achievement.  When you practice deliberately, you identify the tasks or knowledge that are just out of your reach, strive to upgrade your performance, monitor your progress, and revise accordingly.  Practice sessions that fall short of this standard are not only less useful – they’re counterproductive.  They reinforce existing cognitive mechanisms instead of improving them.”  [Quiet, p. 81.)

So what is Deliberate Practice for actors?

It’s not going to rehearsal.  In rehearsal, you are only focusing on getting this character in this play right – you aren’t identifying what you aren’t good at and trying to get better at it in a global sense.

Because acting is largely a group activity, we use technique and scene classes as a means of working on our skills and developing a craft, and I strongly recommend them to you, in whatever form you can find them.  Even working on scenes with a fellow actor with an eye to developing your skills is going to help, if classes are not available in your area.

So what is Deliberate Practice for an actor, done in solitude?  Stay tuned . . .

Actor’s Etiquette: Getting What You Want

etiquette-logo1The real question, Milo, isn’t “why don’t directors give you more”, but rather, “what can you do to get what you need from a director?”  The only way to change the director’s behavior is to change your own.  (By the way, this is true of absolutely every relationship you will ever have throughout your life.  A problem you have is never someone else’s to solve; it is always your responsibility.)

Your question, “How was that?” is a close-ended question.  Close-ended questions are those which can be answered by a single word:  “yes”, “no”, “perfect.”

(Incidentally, you weren’t necessarily “perfect”, but it’s a great way of saying, “I have what I need,” while stroking an actor’s ego.  All actors, no matter how emotionally secure they are, like to be stroked.)

So if you want a different response, you have to rephrase the question.

“Did I make you believe that I haven’t eaten in two days?”  “I was trying to gradually build to ‘this’ moment, to keep escalating my panic.  Did that come across?  Were there any drops in the build in tension that I need to address?  And did I end high enough, or do I need to be even more stressed?”  “How did I make you feel in that scene?”

[I know, “panic” and “stressed” are adverbs, and I haven’t said a word about my motivation and how to play the verbs in this imaginary scene!  Breaking all my own rules!  I’ll explain why in another post.]

The first two questions can be answered in one word and so are essentially closed questions, but asked in context, they indicate an awareness of what you are trying to do.  That alone encourages a director to answer more thoughtfully, and gives him something very specific to respond to.

Generalized questions are tough to answer, because as a director, I don’t really know what it is that you’re curious about.  Were you trying something in particular, and you want to know if it worked?  Without knowing what you’re striving for, I can’t tell you if you succeeded or not.  Are you asking me if you understand the character properly?  Is there a part of the scene you’re uncomfortable with, and you’re wondering if I noticed?  Maybe you can’t put your finger on why it’s a problem for you, and you’re hoping I’ll spot it and let you know what it is?

Trying to read anyone else’s mind is a waste of time.  I’ve spent years trying to do it and have come to the conclusion that I will always fail.  Human beings are too complex.  So as a director, I expect you’re going to show up and do your job, and if you need something from me, you’ll ask me for it in a very specific way.

(Okay, that’s not true for me, personally, but I’m talking about directors in general.  I work with amateurs.  I can clearly see their process and where it isn’t working, and I can help them over the humps.  Directing, for me, is a forum to teach them to be better actors.  In the professional world you aspire to, however, that is not how directors work.  It is expected that you know your craft.  More on that in my next post.)

Even if the specific questions above can be answered in one word, the director will elaborate if he thinks there is room for improvement.  The way you have posed the question tells him what you understand about your own process and shows your willingness to work on it.  He can tell you the moments in which he was unaware of your hunger (or you can probe to find out which they were.)  He can identify the moments when his belief was suspended.

Still, identifying the moments that aren’t working isn’t the same as pulling a great performance out of you.  If you don’t know how to improve the moment, now is the chance to ask the director for help.  “I’m having difficulty with this part of the scene.  It doesn’t feel to me like it’s working as well as it could.  Would you agree?  Can you help me find a way to make it more effective?”

This is what I mean when I talk about the actor’s responsibility in Working with the Director.  Asking your director for some generalized help and putting the responsibility on him to make you good isn’t going to get you far.  Help your director help you by being clear about what you are trying to do and having specific questions to ask.

But as I indicated above, Milo, I have a little more to say . . .

Actor’s Etiquette: The Young Actor’s Dilemma

cw_EtiquettePoster_v04_PrintReadyOne of my readers, Milo, made the following comment the other day:

“As a young actor, I find that directors seem afraid to give me specific direction.  So when I ask, how was that… I get a lot of ‘oh, great. You were perfect.’ . . . I don’t think I am that perfect.  So, I’d like more direction rather than less.  I’m working hard to be a pro and to grow as an actor, so directors, please pull some of that greatness out of me.”

Milo, I sympathize, and some of the answer you’re looking for is in my Actor’s Etiquette post on Working with the Director.  But let me take that further.

I’d like to start by addressing your particular situation, which is that you are a young actor.

Do the directors who don’t give you direction give the direction you would like to adult actors?  If they don’t, then perhaps they don’t know how to give direction.  Directors can be very successful despite this shortcoming, because they know how to cast well, and they have a vision.  Those two things can make up for not knowing how to communicate with actors.

When I direct, I am very actor-centric because I began life as an actor and can be articulate about the process.  Not every director works this way.

If they DO give detailed feedback to adults and it is merely your age that is holding them back, there’s a couple of possibilities.  Perhaps you were as good as you needed to be in that moment, and any improvements you could make aren’t worth the director’s time, since he has bigger fish to fry.  I know, that doesn’t help you to grow, but the director isn’t there to help you grow, the director is there to put a show or a film together.  (See the Actor’s Etiquette post, The Director’s Job.)

But perhaps he’s not sure how much better he can help you be.  Let me give you a golf analogy.  Most kids shouldn’t start taking private golf lessons until they are 8 years old (group lessons aimed at younger kids is another matter).  Younger than that, they have trouble focusing in a way that allows me to help them.  They also have some physical coordination issues that hold them back.

Even if they are 8, there are things I typically can’t ask of them.  There is a physical move in the golf swing that most 8-year-olds are challenged by, while a 10-year-old will be receptive to trying to copy that move.  I’ve got a 9-year-old student with whom I can discuss the golf swing and on-course strategy in a way I don’t with many adults, but he’s an exception.

The nature of a golf lesson allows me to chat with my student in a way that lets me understand his receptivity and abilities.  That sort of conversation isn’t de rigueur with directors, however, and a director who doesn’t work regularly with young actors may not know what they can comprehend and what they can’t, or know how to say it in a way that’s meaningful to the actor’s age.

How I talk to an 8-year-old golfer is different from how I speak with a 14-year-old golfer, and both are different than how I speak with an adult.  Ditto with actors of different ages.  And just as the 8-year-old golfer is baffled by certain concepts, so can the 8-year-old actor be (Milo, you’re older than that, I think, but you get my point).

Because of this, kids are often cast because they have a bunch of raw talent and are well-suited to a role.  This means they can turn in a respectable performance without a lot of direction.  So you should be flattered that your directors think enough of you to have cast you.

I know that’s unsatisfying as an answer.  I’ve got one more post to write on this topic, and I think you will find it more helpful.  But that’s for next week, I’m afraid. . .

Actor’s Etiquette: It’s Not Your Scene

Etiquette-Book_webKnowing what to focus on and when is part of good storytelling.

Is your character the focus of the scene, or does it “belong” to someone else?  For instance, when one character has a long monologue, she is generally the focus of whatever is going on onstage.  That’s pretty obvious.  But all scenes have a focal point, and it’s your job to figure out who and what it is.  Focal points exist no matter how many people are on stage, and they often change throughout the scene.

For instance, there are a number of scenes in A Streetcar Named Desire that have Stanley, Stella, and Blanche on stage at the same time.  Stella is often a secondary character during them, although she has moments when she comes to the forefront.  The actress playing Stella needs to know when to “retire” to the background and when to insert herself into the action.

Having speaking lines doesn’t necessarily mean that you are the focus of attention, however.  Playwrights often have a primary character be silent during a scene, and yet all the attention needs to be focused not on the ones busily talking around them, but on the silent character.  How he is taking in everything that happens in the scene is the point of it.  For instance, when Prof. Higgins and Colonel Pickering ignore Eliza Doolittle in the scene after the ball in My Fair Lady, it is Eliza whom the audience needs to be watching.  The whole point is that the men are ignoring her, and she doesn’t like it.

Focal points can easily change multiple times during scenes.  Even if there are just two people on stage, one character is probably dominant at any given moment.  If you look at my beat breakdown for Moonlight and Magnolias, which you can find here, you’ll see that I list one character in each beat as being “major” and everyone else is “minor”.  Whoever is the “major” character is where the audience’s focal point will be, and the actors have to be sensitive to that.

The identification of where the focal point is in each beat was something I did as the director – that’s one of my jobs as a director, to make sure the focal point is clear.  However, the actors need to be sensitive to it as well.  It’s a dance.  Deferring to the “major” character in the beat is sort of like opening the door for someone.  Be gracious when it is someone else’s “scene”, but don’t be afraid to walk through the door yourself when it becomes yours!

Actor’s Etiquette: Diction

oetiquetteActors have to have good diction.  I don’t care what sort of character you are playing or what their accent is.  Diction is essential to comprehension.  Remember, the audience has never heard these words before, or at least, you should assume they haven’t.  (Even if you’re doing Shakespeare, operate on the assumption that at least some of the audience has never heard or read Hamlet before.)

Diction relies upon consonants being fully pronounced.  American English is much more focused on vowel sounds than consonants.  British English is the reverse.  The British use their lips much more than Americans do (if you’re doing a British accent in a play, and doing it well, you’ll find that your lips will get fatigued in your first week or two!), and this contributes to the fact that their diction is so much more precise than ours.

I’m not suggesting that you use a British accent, but you should be sensitive to the fact that we Americans sometimes get very lazy in our speech and so glide through the harder consonants that help to define the perimeters of words.  In real life, I can ask you to repeat something if you’ve slurred a word.  The audience can’t do that.  So you need to be sure that you are more careful in your speech when you are onstage than you are in everyday life.

Actor’s Etiquette: Mind Your Sightlines

RequiredEtiquette-CD_1In a perfect world, the audience should be able to clearly see everyone on stage all the time.

It’s not a perfect world, but here are some guidelines.

If you’re doing a large musical with chorus people in the background, it’s okay for the leads to stand in front of them.  But the primary characters in crowd scenes should all be visible.

It’s okay to cross in front of someone when they aren’t speaking as long as you do it reasonably quickly and, heaven forbid, don’t stop in front of them.

Don’t forget the people sitting in the front row against the walls.  They need to be able to see you, too.  If you are upstage of other actors, pay attention during each performance so that you can adjust your position if necessary to give those audience members a glimpse of your face.  Similarly, if you are the downstage actor, be courteous to those upstage and adjust your own position if you are aware that you are blocking them.  Play with it in rehearsals so you will know what kind of flexibility you’ve got on performance nights without having to stare at the end seats to figure out if you need to move.

If you find that you are positioned on one side of the stage and looking toward the other side of the theater for a prolonged period of time, find reasons to turn your head in the other direction with some frequency.  The audience on your side of the theater deserves more than just your profile, too.

And lastly, remember that when you’re backstage, be careful about peeking through the curtains to watch the action on stage.  If you can see the audience, they can see you!