Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Basic On Stage Survival Guide (Part One)

I've decided to try my hand at writing something other than a Murder Mystery play. Being involved in theater for the past 20 plus years, I have learned many things about being on-stage and I realized that many of the lessons and things I learned were by being on the stage and not in a classroom or book.

The motivations for writing "Basic On Stage Survival Guide" is two-fold. The first motivation came from a series of uncomfortable moments I recently experienced on the stage. Granted, this was an amateur production but most of the actors had phone-book-thick resumes of stage experience, therefore I assumed they would know what to do when someone went blank or missed an entrance.

My other motivation was that I am one of those phone-book-thick résumé actors and most new actors seek my advice such as "What's the best way to memorize lines? What do I do if someone misses an entrance ? What do I do with my hands? What are the rules?"

As I thought about it, I realized that I was never taught any rules of the stage, instead I learned from experience and the advice of other actors .

The Basic On Stage Survival Guide is a collection of traditional rules and guidelines for the stage. The guidelines are not rules in the sense of laws. If you break one, chances are you will not be arrested but you may get an earful from another actor.

I will approach this guide as if you have never set foot on stage before in your life and introduce the rules over time. I will also introduce various terms you should know and in some cases the trivia behind the terms. One of the first rules is that before you stand on the stage, you must audition.

An audition is a process where a director or others, select from a group actors that best fit the characters in the play. If the play is about a group of teenagers struggling with peer pressure it is doubtful they would cast middle age actors into the parts, therefore you may want to research the play first. In most cases, audition notices in the paper will tell you exactly what age range they are looking for and even what kind of auditions they will be. Most auditions will be simple "cold readings" from the script. A cold reading means you will read from the script without much time to prepare. You may have a few minutes to read the scene to yourself and get familiar with it or you may even be familiar with play, in that case it will be a Luke warm reading. A good director will describe the scene for you before you begin reading, but the idea is that you are approaching the material cold. Try picking up a book, turning to any page and just start reading out loud, you'll get the idea.

Helpful Tip for New Actors at your first cold reading: I have seen many new actors get passed over at auditions because they make common mistakes and end up in the "no experience" pile. The first mistake inexperienced actors make is reading from a script as if they are reading poetry. Some new actors think that "acting" means speaking in an iambic pentameter rhythm which is fine if you are auditioning for Shakespeare, but not every play was written by Shakespeare. When you are reading straight dialogue, the idea is to make it sound natural and conversational. Stay away from the sing-songy style of reading.
I have also witnessed a few actors suddenly become British when they read from a script, I'm not sure why, the play was set in the American South.
If you want to audition for the first time, be careful of any set ideas you have about acting. The First Rule is that "acting" doesn't mean every part is Hamlet. Also don't believe that to sound like you're acting you must sound British. These tips will keep you out of the "no experience" pile.

Other auditions may have you prepare a short monologue and perform it from memory prior to cold readings. Not every great actor is a great cold reader and performing something such as a monologue gives the director a good idea of your talent.
Musical auditions will have you prepare a song to sing at the audition. One audition I attended, the director handed out copies of a short monologue and gave everyone about 15 minutes to memorize it. This gives the director a fair idea of how quickly you can memorize. Some auditions may have you participate in improvisational games which demonstrates how quickly you think on your feet.

All of these methods help the director discover the best actor for the role. Hopefully it will be you. And if it is - welcome to rehearsals.

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