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Friday, August 08, 2008

Basic On Stage Survival Guide (Part 4)

In Character

As you memorize your lines and rehearse the play, you will begin developing your "character". Your character of course is the part you are playing. Keep in mind that when you are in a play, you are in a character. You are Hamlet not Joe Schmo. You will get a feeling for your character when you put on your costume and make up. Yes guys, you will have to wear make up. The reason for this is that under the bright lights of the stage, your face washes out into a faded blur of nothingness. You will wear a "base" or "foundation" make up that gives your face a richer tone of color and removes the faded blur look. Also you may wear eye liner to define your eyes on your face. Many rock stars use eye liner. If you are playing an old character, you will be given wrinkles and gray tinted hair spray to age you.

You will look less and less like the real you. Under make up, you will begin feeling like someone else and that person is your character. Your costume will also add to the "someone else" feeling. If the play is set in a different time period like the 1800's or 1920's, you will be wearing older style clothes. Just wearing those clothes will make you feel different. And that is the point of playing a character, it is someone different.

Although you know the person on the stage is only you in a costume and make-up, it is not supposed to be you. The words you are speaking are not your own words, nor is the play a representation of your life. I have known actors who get confused by this fact.

Example: I was in a play with a girl who absolutely refused to wear her costume. When the director asked her "why?" she replied. "I would never wear colors like that! They don't even match!" He replied, "You aren't wearing those colors! Your character is!"

Nothing Personal

Get used to the idea that you are playing a character and not yourself. Your character may say or do things you would never say nor do. One of the joys of acting is expanding and exploring your mind. You may be playing a deranged ax murderer, a Druid Ninja or a mutant Oak Tree - where else can you become these characters without being arrested or committed to an institution? Once you free "yourself" from your character, it will aid all the choices you make on stage and you will not worry that wearing green pants with a maroon sweater and white shoes is a fashion train wreck you would never personally wear. A character is nothing personal.

The point of making a distinction between you and the character you are playing helps with the issue of nerves. Granted, the very first time I set foot on a stage in front of a live audience, I was very nervous. But once I said my first line, my nervousness dropped a few notches. As I spoke my second line, it dropped even more. Many experienced actors will tell you the same thing - as soon as you speak your first line, you forget all about being nervous.


The Nerve Barrier

I read an article concerning "public speaking" and the reality of being "nervous" in front of people. Essentially, "public speaking" is you facing a roomful of people and talking about something. You are not playing a character, you are being yourself. The article went on to say that people giving a speech or presentation, tended to feel more secure when they had an object between themselves and the audience, such as a podium or desk. Psychologically, the desk/podium was an object that represented a barrier between them and the audience. This object separated them and was in effect, protection or a security blanket. If for some bizarre reason the crowd staged an attack, the speaker could hide behind the podium. In the old days if an audience didn't like you or what you were saying, they would throw objects such as tomatoes and other assorted fruit and vegetation. Perhaps a podium was invented more as a vegetable bunker and not so much as place to hold papers.

Much in the same way a speaker has a barrier between himself and the crowd, an actor has a barrier of a "character" he or she can hide behind. Nerves usually strike when you think about people watching you and judging you for what you do and what you say. But if you keep in mind, it's the character that is doing and saying things, not you, it should take your nerves down a few notches. A character is your security blanket. Of course, the barrier of a character isn't quite as secure as a large podium to protect you from hurling objects, but audiences nowadays are a tad more forgiving.

It is very natural to be nervous right before you go on stage. Once you step foot on stage and become part of the play, your mind doesn't have time to think about how nervous you are. It's too busy recalling all of your lines and blocking that you've memorized. As you are absorbed into the flow of the play, your nerves get pushed to the back of your mind.


Comfort Food For Thought

Experience has taught me, that how nervous I am before a show - is directly proportional to how secure I am in knowing my lines. If I don't feel secure with my lines, then my nervousness is doubled. Nerves can even be effected by your fellow actors. If you have a scene with someone who has gone blank a few times in rehearsal or jumps around in the script, it's doubtful that you will feel comfortable with them on stage. The key here is comfort. You feel comfortable when you know your lines and know that other actors know their lines. Fear produces nervousness and of course, fear is bred by the unknown. You can eliminate fear by eliminating th unknown. Then you can relax.

How Can I Relax?

Many actors I have worked with have a routine to help them relax before a live performance, such as stretching out as if they are about to run a marathon and others find a dark quiet place and want to be left alone. Others turn their nervousness into insane energy and jump around like a 6 year old who just consumed a pound of sugar.
Whatever method helps you to relax, I suggest you do it. Feeling relaxed just before you go on stage will carry over onto the stage. I personally have tried many methods and now I have it down to just stretching out a little to relax the muscles and then spending some time in a quiet place to focus my thoughts. Again, feeling calm and relaxed helps brings your nervousness down to zero before you hit the stage. Believe me, there are enough things that may happen to you on stage that erase any calm relaxed feeling, so it best to start out at zero.

From Zero to 60 in One Second

There was an older actor that I had worked with on a few occasions. He was a very good actor but had a terrible time remembering all of his lines. I really enjoyed working with him but never felt comfortable with him on stage. When he couldn't remember his line, he had a bad habit of saying any line that came into is head. Sometimes the line he said was 15 pages into the second act. Problem was you were actually on page 2 of the first act.
Another funny habit this actor had was his lack of eye contact. He had a tendency to look above your head as he was speaking to you, as if there were a spot on the ceiling he was fascinated by. He never made direct eye contact, that is, unless he went blank. If you were in a scene and he looked directly at you, actually made eye contact, then you knew your were in trouble.
This actor's real issue was his nerves. Since he was so forgetful, he was extremely nervous on stage and his mind was racing a mile a second. Instead of relaxing and slowing his mind down, it was a jumbled mess of racing thoughts. Therefore, when he went blank on stage and tried to recall his line, instead of taking a second to think he would just throw anything out. Of course, 9 times out of 10, it was from the wrong scene. Sometimes it was from the wrong play.

Granted, not all actors will give you clues and not all actors will give you comfort. The best way to work toward feeling comfortable and eliminating fear on stage is running the play and the lines over and over and over until you could do it in your sleep. It's also helpful when you work with someone who tends to go blank quite a bit, is to know their lines so you can keep the flow going and on keep it on track. Feeling relaxed before you take the stage is beneficial because if you are out there "freaking out" from the start and an actor goes blank or jumps 20 pages, you may totally spaz out and run screaming from the stage. And we know screaming will upstage everyone.

But seriously, the point is that the more relaxed and comfortable you are, the easier it is for your mind to think. The faster you are able to solve whatever issue has interrupted the flow of the play. More about 'saving flow' later.


Can You See it?

As I have pointed out, rehearsals are very important to helping your memorization and also getting an idea of the flow and pace of the show. There is a technique used by famous people, especially athletes called "visualization". Before they take the field they visualize themselves in the game. A baseball pitcher may mentally see himself keeping the ball down to good hitters. A quarterback will imagine himself dropping back and throwing a perfect pass to the wide receiver. An actor can visualize themselves on stage, saying every line perfectly, conveying every emotion and getting the audience into the palm of their hand - this visualization is called rehearsals. Yes, a rehearsal is really a live visualization. The director will be visualizing each scene and performance and how it will play to an audience. The actor can use the same technique in rehearsals. I personally have used "visualizing" a few times to help me get a feeling for my character and surroundings. In college I did a play where the setting was representational, meaning the set did not actually have flats to represent walls. (Novice note: a "flat" is a large piece of fabric, canvas or other stretched over a large wooden frame. They are propped up to create the walls or other parts of a set.)

We had a bare stage and the only set pieces we had besides a few tables and a counter, was a door frame and a window frame suspended from the ceiling to represent, well... a door and a window. The rest of the stage was surrounded by black curtains.

The play was set in a old time drug store in Brooklyn and to help me get a feeling for it, I came in early before rehearsals and walked around the empty space and visualized what it would look like in reality. I imagined what the walls would look like, old and dirty, with advertisements hanging on them. I pictured the drug store shelves and what they would like stocked with all kinds of stuff. What the floor would like etc.. Just visualizing those features made me feel very comfortable on stage. And when I was comfortable on the stage, I was relaxed.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Basic On Stage Survival Guide (part 3)

How Do I Learn Lines?

(Some Memory Tips and Tricks)

I am often asked "what is the best way to memorize lines?" I don't know if there is a "best" way but I can tell you what I do and what others do. But first, if you recall, under the subject of "highlighting" your lines, I mentioned it was a good idea to Highlight the lines or actions just before your lines. Case in point: I did a play with an amateur actor who highlighted all his lines and memorized them in advance (so we all could see how dedicated he was). The rehearsal began and our dedicated actor was completely lost. Why? Yes, he knew his lines, however he did not know "when" to say them his lines. He neglected to memorize his "cues". What's a cue? That is the line or action that prompts your line.

Example:

PERSON 1: How are you today?

PERSON 2: Just fine! Yourself?

If you are playing Person 2, it's kinda important to respond to Person 1. The only way to do that, is to know Person 1's line. Not only must you memorize your lines, but you must also know the lines that come before them because those lines are your cues. Hence my suggestion of highlighting your cues in another color. I suggest 'another color' to prevent you from accidentally reading those lines in rehearsals, because it will happen. I've done it.


Ready Set Action

Another Example:

The wind blows through the open window and extinguishes the burning candle.

PERSON IN THE DARK: Oh great! The candle went out!

Here you are "Person In The Dark" and as you can see, your cue is not another line that is spoken or any kind of sound you will hear. It will be something you will "see". It's a cue based on an action. One of the hardest things to remember is a cue from some type of action.

In most cases, the actual "wind blowing through the window extinguishing the candle" will not be actually 'happen' until the "Tech Rehearsals". Novice Note: "Tech Rehearsals" (Technical Rehearsals) are usually the final rehearsals one week before the play opens. This is where the all the Lighting/light cues, Sounds/sound cues and other Effects (wind and candles) are worked out.

Until you get to Tech Rehearsal, hopefully someone will follow along in the script and Read any action cues out loud. This is not always the case. I have spent what seemed like hours on stage in a rehearsal waiting for someone to say a line only to find out it was a visual cue. It's a good idea to be familiar with the line that comes just before the action. For instance, going back to the candle being blown out by the wind, if the line just before it is - "My! It sure looks windy out there!" You may want to be aware of it.

Hi, How Are You?

OK. Now that I've made you aware of what to memorize, let's get back to methods to help you memorize.

The first thing many actors do is the read the script a few times. Next step is to re-read the scenes in which you have lines -those will be the pages where your lines are highlighted in yellow. While you are re-reading these scenes, look for easy bits to remember such as responding to a question. Perhaps another character asks you something. "How are you today?" and your line is "Just fine." Or they ask "Where did you put the gun?" and your line is- "I threw the gun in the river" In lines such as these, your cue is a question and you simply respond. Responses are very easy to remember.


Mind Games

Another key is to pay attention to the subject of the lines just before your lines. Look for clues. In many cases, your line will contain a word or idea that relates.

Example:

SALLY: The trees look oh so lovely in fall.

DICK: Yes they do. I must get wood for the fire.

In this case, it's easy to see the cue for Dick's line is related to Sally's line. The subject of her line is "trees". Dick responds to her statement and then seems to begin a new subject about 'wood for the fire' , but in essence it's the idea of 'trees' that cue "wood for the fire". When lines contain what I refer to a "Cue -Clues" , (trees = wood) they are a cinch to remember.

Once you search your script for easy Question/Answer lines and Cue/Clues you can move on to other memory methods.

Picture List

In my early days on the stage, I was given a great technique that I still use today and it's very similar to the Cue/Clue example I sited above. I was a novice actor in a fairly large role, I was having trouble with a short monologue I had to deliver because the monologue had a "list" of things I had to rattle off. Lists are very hard to remember. One of the actors took me aside and suggested I tried to visualize each item in the "list" and connect or relate it with the next item.

Example:

GEORGE: When I was a kid I had a bicycle, a wagon, a dog and a purple umbrella.

The actor told me instead of thinking of the words as a list, one item after the next, to instead think of them, or picture them as one big item. Relate them to each other as one image. In the example above, the list has a bicycle, a wagon, a dog and a purple umbrella , so I pictured myself as a kid riding a Bicycle. And the bicycle was pulling a wagon. And in the wagon was a dog. And since I didn't want to ride too fast, there was a purple umbrella on the back of the wagon for a parachute. One big picture instead of little snap shots.

Connect the Dots

I have used this method of "picturing" to help me memorize ever since. I use it to remember long monologues. Most monologues contain "ideas" such as Hamlet's monologue which begins "To be or not to be." The main idea is 'death' and Shakespeare uses different metaphors as ideas to express the characters question and they can be broken down into ideas.

I look for the ideas in a monologue or in a long passage of dialouge because each idea will lead to the next. In most long speeches, the character is talking about this idea which leads to that idea, which is like the example of the kid riding the bicycle (first idea) that's pulling a wagon (second idea).

Going back to Hamlet's "to be or not to be" - the very first idea is the whole question of "being" or "not being" which is leads to the idea of "suffering slings and arrows" or to "take arms against a sea of troubles" which leads to the idea of "not being" or "death" is being like the idea of "sleep" and on and on. Each idea leads to the next and it's easier to remember if you connect the ideas.

Pretzel Safe Diamond Peanuts

Sometimes, you may have ideas that are not connected. A scene between 2 or 3 people in which they seem to be talking about 2 or 3 different things. For instance - I was in a Neil Simon play called "Rumors". Near the beginning of the play, the characters of a husband and wife arrive at a their friends house. As the scene begins the wife is commenting about the furnishings of the house and the husband is talking about how hungry he is and is wondering if they have any snacks. At least two pages of dialogue between the husband and wife that had no real connection or ideas relating to each other. Two different subjects with no easy question/answers or Cue/Clues. I simply created mental images triggered by the other unrelated lines. I created my own Cue/Clues.

Example:

WIFE: I bet she keeps all her jewels in a safe!

HUSBAND: I can't get this pretzel bag open!

WIFE: She has a dozen real diamonds you know!

HUSBAND: These peanuts are unsalted! Who buys unsalted peanuts?!

Based on the Wife's line about "jewels in a safe" , I needed something to cue my line; "can't get this pretzel bag open" .

So, I thought about an image of "jewels in a safe" and connected it with "pretzels" in "bag".

The jewels are locked away in a safe and you cannot open a safe. The pretzels are in a bag. I can't open the bag.

For the next line, I visually connected "a dozen real diamonds " to "peanuts are unsalted!"

Diamonds are clear crystal objects. Salt is a clear crystal object. The simple association of "diamonds" and "salt" worked as a cue for my line.

Between The Lines

Another method I often use is a tape recorder. You can record yourself reading the cue lines followed by your own lines. And then listen to the tape over and over, while driving or working or whatever. Much in the same way you learn the words to a popular song or a commercial jingle from hearing it over and over. Repetition is the key. Repetition is the key. Personally, I only tape myself reading the "cue" lines and then I read my lines silently to myself, allowing the tape to be blank for the time where my line is spoken. I play the tape and say my lines out loud during the blank spaces.

Another method is to simply read the script and cover up your lines with a piece of paper. As you come to your cue line, (which is highlighted in a different color) say your line and then you can move the paper to see if you were close.

You're Out of Order

When I say "close", what I mean is - as you begin committing your lines to memory, initially you will remember the "gist" of the line. If the actual line is: "Joe and me are going out for awhile, I'll pick up the ransom money on the way back. I'll see you later." At first you will remember clumps of words, the key points of the line such as "going out", "picking up ransom money" and "see you later" . Seldom at first, will you recall the exact order of the line as it appears in the script. You may recite it from memory like this: " See you later. I'm going out for a while with Joe. On the way back, I'll pick up the ransom money."

Welcome to the wonderful world of paraphrasing. Don't worry, we all do it at first. But try not to make it a habit. Problems can occur when actors continue to paraphrase even during performances. The main problem is those lines are someone else's cue. In the above example, 'see you later' may be a cue line for another actor, but if it's the first thing the actor says instead of the last thing, it may cause a problem.

One of my favorite personal examples of the "paraphrase fallout" came during a live performance of "You Can't Take It With You". The actress playing the part of a Russian Countess never said her lines the same way twice. The other actor who relied on her lines to cue him, finally developed a strategy to wait till she stopped speaking to say his one big line: "I'll make sure you're on time, your Highness."

He would say his line regardless of what she said, because he knew it came directly after her it and when he heard a reasonable amount of silence, he knew she was done. One night, for some strange reason, the actress said her line exactly as it was written. Hearing his cue as it was meant to be, caused some type of malfunction in the actors mind, there was a slight pause and finally his line came out; "I'll make sure you're on Hime your Tiness". Realizing what he just said, his eyes got very wide and literally his body jerked with a shock. Some day I may write a chapter on how to suppress laughter on stage.

The Write Thing

I know an actor who approaches memorization, like studying for a final exam. He will sit at a table and read his lines over and over. He will then test himself by closing his script, taking a piece of paper and pen and writing his lines down from memory. He will then check the script to see if he made any mistakes . He does it over and over until it sinks into his memory. Rarely does he paraphrase.

Read To Me

A common method which is probably the most popular, is to find someone willing to to follow along in the script and feed you your cue lines. They read from the script while you squirm and struggle to recall your lines uttering phrases such as: "No don't tell me! I know this! This is where I say something about the thing..... OK! How does the line go?" Having a somewhat impartial person to help you can... well, help you. If you say your line incorrectly or paraphrase they will more than willing to correct you.

Pause Turn Page

Some actors I've known simply memorize their script with no special methods or outside help except a photographic memory. They can actually visualize pages of the script in their mind. I knew one such actress who during her performance would pause at odd times. Right in the middle of a line she place a beat (novice note: Beat - pause of about one second) for no real reason. I found out that each pause she took corresponded to a place where her line was continued on the next page essentially she would pause, as she mentally turned the page.

Memory Cement Blocks

Allow me to tie this all back into the process of rehearsal because this is where your memory will be tested. You can listen to your lines on tape or recite them with a friend but it is not until you're in rehearsal that all your work finally develops and begins to click and stick into place. In a rehearsal, you are hearing your cue lines from the actual actors who be saying them. Also as you rehearse you will be moving around the stage with your blocking which can really cement the lines to your memory .

Move Speak Move

You will discover that your movement/blocking will attach itself to your memorized lines. I discovered how deep this "movement = line" connection was during a line blitz. Novice Note: A "Line Blitz" or "line rehearsal" is usually a panic session the director calls for when play is about to open. The actors sit around and simply run all the lines from the play, no acting, no blocking, just dialogue. Sometimes, you are asked to run all the lines as quickly as possible. Extra Trivial Note: I've also heard this referred to as a "Rain Rehearsal". The story goes that if there was bad weather during a performance, there may be a chance the power would go out. If the power went out, the audience would want their money back. But, technically, if the play was beyond the half-way point, the theater did NOT have to issue refunds since the audience saw more than half of the show. To prepare for this, actors would have "Rain Rehearsals" which was a 'speed metal' version of the play.

So anyway, during a line rehearsal, line blitz, rain rehearsal, whatever, we were sitting around running our lines and I noticed I was having a hard time recalling my lines. In frustration, I got up and began walking around and as I paced around the room it suddenly dawned on me. My blocking! I realized how much of my memory was embedded in my blocking. When I say this line, I'm standing by the door. And for that line, I'm walking to the table. Not only can a someone else's line prompt you, but so can a movement or location on the stage.