Frequently, people make judgments of others based on what that person has accomplished. Accomplishments are simply the results of actions or choices that people have made. Be it winning an Olympic medal, being great at scrabble or surviving a life-threatening crisis; what you’ve done gives others an understanding into who you are.

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So, what are the major accomplishments of your character? What does that tell you about them? What does it tell the audience?

Hmmm…

 | Posted by Bill | Categories: Acting, Writing |

I always loved Halloween as a kid. I remember hearing other kids saying they liked Christmas the best because you got presents (we had already eliminated the option of one’s own birthday as that was a given.) Yeah, presents. Fine. But would you rather get a new pair of Levi’s or some lame new board game…or would you like to dress up in the craziest costume you could imagine, including, and of course preferably, with fake blood? And then go out into the world in character acquiring as much candy as possible? What’s it gonna be…candy canes or serial killer? I mean, c’mon. Let’s be real. You can get that other stuff anytime (okay, maybe not the candy canes but no one really likes candy canes anyway and they can’t hold a candle to mini-Snicker bars!). You can’t really show up dressed as a swashbuckling pirate or craven witch on Thanksgiving. At least you can’t if you live anywhere else but Manhattan.

So, I have to say that I throughly enjoyed a trip through a really great haunted house here in NYC that just opened called Nightmare: Superstitions. The production team there has been doing it for years and knows how to do it right. Over two dozen separate “rooms” that you weave your way through, some in absolute darkness, as ghouls and scary creatures leap out at you from from time to time. It’s theater of the macabre but theater none the less!

But for the actors working as murderous lunatic, suicidal patient or agitated ax murderer, it’s got to be a kick-ass experience. To get paid to run around in nothing but a large diaper-like loincloth is tougher to do than you’d think. (I’m not kidding about that either as I once took a role as a Greek messenger whose only costume was a loincloth and a stick. And the stick was little!) I was really impressed with the actors as they were so committed to their characters, be it a ghoulish psychiatric nurse or a maniacal circus clown. The never broke from character once. Awesome.

Costumes aside, breaking the fourth wall to connect and speak directly to the audience for short periods of time when acting in a play is a not an easy thing to pull off well. You lose that safety mechanism of forgetting about the audience and you become very aware that they are all staring at you. You know this of course because when you break the fourth wall you are now looking at them. Suddenly, they’re not “over there” past the edge of the stage. Now they’re in the scene with you. And that feels dangerous. It’s unpredictable and you can’t rehearse it. It’s like rehearsing a space shuttle launch…you can practice all you want but it just ain’t gonna be the same as when you light the rocket fuel! That audience didn’t go through rehearsal with you so you don’t know what they may do. There’s always the chance there will be someone who fancies himself an actor in the crowd and who will inevitably determine that those three pre-show drinks were a good idea after all and having that guy on stage start talking to him makes this a perfect time for his theatrical debut.

I think there are two key things in breaking the fourth wall. The first is the ability to absolutely stay connected to your character and to have a good understanding of how your character reacts to being seen in the way that they are by the audience. The second is to have a clear idea of the character that the audience represents. They could be a jury to which a lawyer is speaking. They could be God. Or they could be an actual audience at the theater. In any event, you need to know how your character feels about being seen and heard and why they are doing so with this “other” character.

The deranged, psychotic mental patient had done the work when he screamed to me as I was leaving the room where he was lashed in a straitjacket, “I know you can see me! Don’t leave me! Help me! Help me to get out before I kill again…!”

 | Posted by Bill | Categories: Acting |

The best time to audition…

28 September 2010

As long as I’ve been acting there has been this on-going question as to when is the best time to audition. It’s not always the case that you have a choice, in fact most of the time you don’t, but in those times where a “window” of time is offered to you to audition for a role, you should take a time that is just past halfway through the scheduled auditions. So, if for instance, you are told that there will be two days of auditions and you can read anytime on Monday or Tuesday nights from 7:00pm to 10:00pm, then you should look to go in on the early on the second night. If an audition window is, say, Friday from noon to 4:00pm, I’d recommend you shoot to be reading your copy a little after 2:00pm.

And the reason is simple. By then the director knows what he or she doesn’t want. That’s right. What they don’t want.

When you audition it’s a good idea to ask the director (or casting director as the case may be) what they’re looking for. Whenever I audition the question that  like ask is what is the “tone” are they looking for in the role. Try it on your next couple of auditions. Frequently, you’ll find yourself getting some great guidance from that question that can help you better inform the audition towards what they are looking for. But what actors don’t usually consider is what they don’t want. And the truth is they don’t really know either. But what develops as an audition session goes on is that the casting team sees many, many different interpretations of a role and, although they are always looking for something unexpected, by halfway through the process they have seen a lot of what they know they don’t want. A natural tendency then develops as new actors come in to read to give more specific pre-audition direction about what they specifically don’t want to see.

I just recently sat in on a series of auditions for a show and saw this clearly happen. The audition scene called for a young couple to have an argument. The director started out reading the actors early in the process with some fairly simple direction. As actors went through the process many of them made somewhat obvious choices and engaged in fierce, highly-charged arguments, all the while keeping to the dialog in the script. But by the second night of auditions the director began to change how he informed the actors about what he was looking for before they read. He started telling them what he didn’t want them to do. “Don’t be strident.” “Don’t lose the fact that they love each other deeply.” “Don’t go too fast through the section of the script.” All of which he’d seen other actors do previously. And sure enough…the readings on the second night were more in line with his vision of the characters and the play was cast mostly with actors auditioning in the second session.

Knowing what they don’t want can be even more valuable than thinking you know what they want. And the fact is that most directors don’t really know what they don’t want until they’ve seen it done several times by different actors. So, if you do get the chance to choose when to read for a role, choose to do so right after the midway point of the auditions. That’s your best bet. And don’t forget to make strong choices…break a leg!

 | Posted by Bill | Categories: Acting |

I think one of the most common issues among actors is the inability to create a real feeling in a performance. So, instead of seeing a character who has just watched their mother die react to the situation, we more frequently see an actor who is “acting” like she had just done so.

The most single, valuable lesson that I learned from the great Stella Adler was to simply stop acting. Of course, she was prone to scream it at an actor who had just walked onto the stage and taken off his hat and who hadn’t uttered a single word. But she was always right. The actor just hadn’t done the work to get there and so was trying to “act” his way through the scene.

Ugh. Just gives real actors a bad name.

There are lots of different “techniques” to create emotional triggers for an actor and you have to find what works best for you. And let me tell you this clearly…it doesn’t matter what you do to get there. There are no rules. As an actor you should use whatever gets you where you need to be in a given performance, that is being in a state of emotional truth.

There are, however, a few guidelines that I’d recommend.

Firstly, although emotional memory around something that happened to you can be a productive starting point, it’s better to get to that place of emotional reality in the character through imagination and character work. It would be difficult to play a queen or a prince such as Hamlet without creating as complete a world as possible for the character by a process dedicated to imagining. Actively envisioning and thinking through what has occurred in their lives up to that point that has created their unique psychology, their behavior and feelings and reactions to their circumstance and to other characters around them.

I also find that emotional memory can sometimes become a crutch to actors who aren’t willing to do the real work of developing character.

But once you begin the process you bump into the reason you didn’t want to in the first place and it’s then that you have to be willing to be open to whatever comes. And if you’re really working, really tapping into that creative flow without any restrictions or judgments, trust me…some shit will come up. And that’s a scary thing. But what you have to know as an actor and an artist is that if it’s not scary, you’re just acting.

Don’t act. Stop the acting. Understand why the character is being the way they are and then just be. And be fearless…

 | Posted by Bill | Categories: Acting |

Hard to dispute that behavior reveals character. I frequently hear from actors that what they look for in developing a character is what the script says the character does, which of course is a perfectly acceptable first stroke of beginning to paint the picture of who this person really is. But far too many actors stop there. The thing that takes the character off the page and gives it dimension in performance is all the behavior that an actor creates and manipulates throughout the scene, play or film.

I recently saw a production of Equus (Love it or hate it, it’s one of the important modern plays of our time. If you’re not familiar with the play, find it, read it. It’s written by Peter Shaffer who’s other plays aren’t too shabby either.). Throughout the play there are a series of scenes that take place between the main character, a male psychiatrist, and a more minor one, a female judge. Their relationship begins as quite friendly and over the course of the play becomes more and more strained. The two actors who were in the production that I saw were both wonderful but it was the actress playing the judge, although in a smaller part than her scene partner, commanded your attention.

I didn’t know exactly why at the time. But later as I thought about the show I realized what it was. Her performance was filled with behavior. And behavior that was not on the page, it was acting choices. Lots of small choices. From small things like how she checked her blouse as she entered to the way she kissed her host good-bye with a flirty double-peck on the cheeks and a subtle lift of her leg. Later as the events of the play become more intense, each of her scenes played out markedly different. Although the action was frequently similar, the behavior was distinctly different. For instance, when, at the end of first act, she leaves and didn’t kiss him good-bye. Now that may sound simple but it was the timing of her changing behavior that showed us how her emotional state was changing. And this choice in her character drove the dramatic action as the actor she was playing against reached for the kiss and when she didn’t respond registered the loss.

The other thing that behavior gives us as actors or directors is a device to reveal character arc. Even in small roles, how a character is changed within a story is shown to us in the difference of how they behave now versus how they did before.

And what’s really cool is there is so much space to fill in a character with behaviors. It’s why two actors can play the same part so differently. So, any part, no matter who has played it before can become your own.

You choose. You create.


 | Posted by Bill | Categories: Acting |