by Jim Russell I love community theatre for many reasons, but one of the top reasons is that it gives people an opportunity to try something they’ve never done before – acting. And it gives directors like me a chance to help them shine doing it. If you’ve ever worked with me, you know that I tend to harp on some areas of the craft that are essential. In thinking about this with a blog about acting tips in mind, I have drilled it down to five things. These are the top five mistakes, if you will, that I think many novice actors make. They may sound obvious. They may not. But I am going to share them here, and I hope they might be helpful to someone out there who has recently made the leap onto the stage, or is thinking about doing so.
Mistake #1 – Memorizing Lines Too Late By waiting to memorize your lines until the drop-dead off book deadline, or even worse, until tech week, you are not allowing time to develop your character, to analyze your script, to experiment with different delivery styles, to engage in true listening on stage, and so much more. The longer you have your script in hand at rehearsals, the less chance you are giving yourself to truly shine. I know most community theatre actors have day jobs and busy lives, but there are lots of tricks you can use to get those lines down early. There comes a point in the rehearsal process when you as an actor should be diving into polishing your performance. You can’t apply the polish when you are still building the shoe. You have to possess absolute command over the words before anyone is going to have any chance of seeing how talented you are. You must be a master of the words in that script. The sooner you reach that point, the better. And yes, there are actors out there, in community theatre even, who are off book at their first rehearsal. That, of course, is the opposite end of the extreme, and I certainly wouldn’t expect that from anyone. But something close to that would really benefit you and allow you and your director to work on so much more. And there is more. Lots more. Learning your lines and blocking is just the beginning of shaping a performance you will be proud of. So allow time for the more! You’ll be glad you did. As for me? I’d rather work with an average actor who knows his or her lines than with a brilliant actor who doesn’t. Looking for some great tips on line memorization? Google it. There are many great methods you can try.
Mistake #2 – Not Picking Up Cues This mistake is often a side-effect of mistake #1. But not always. Either way, it will kill a good play every time. So, what do I mean by ‘picking up cues?’ It’s simple. In the script, you have lines. You know what lines to say because you’ve memorized them. But how do you know when to say them? Almost always, it is because you have also memorized your cues. That is to say, you know that when the other actor finishes his or her line, it is time to say your line. Sometimes your cue might be a sound effect or lighting change, or the movement of another actor, or even the movement of yourself. Whatever the cue is, you’ve got to know it so you know when to say that line you’ve worked so hard on memorizing. I often see actors who know what their cue is pause before saying their line. Sometimes, this is intentional to create a dramatic moment, and often actors are directed to do just that. But more often, the pause is usually the result of three possible problems. Problem #1 is that you haven’t memorized your lines, so you aren’t sure what to say. That is bad bad bad. Problem #2 is that some new actors intentionally insert a pause because they think maybe they are supposed to for some reason. Problem #3 is that you weren’t listening and got caught off guard. This issue of not picking up cues affects a crucial aspect of live theatre called pacing. What is a good play, with good actors, can very easily become absolutely painful to watch when there are long periods of dead silence on stage because actors are not picking up their cues. You may be thinking, “but in real life, people pause all the time in conversation.” You are correct. And we want to allow a little bit of that in a stage performance, when and where it makes sense. However, in theatre, we are creating an illusion on the stage. We are attempting to draw our audience into a reality that is being crafted before their eyes. We don’t want their minds to wander, and we don’t want them to start thinking about what to make for dinner tomorrow. Even worse, we don’t want them to think “is something going wrong up there?” And guess what? They’ll buy it. “It” being the artificial, intentional act of not allowing as many “natural pauses” in conversation as you would in everyday life. And they won’t even notice they are buying it. What they will notice is that the story kept them engaged from start to finish, that the play flowed and they never felt bored, and that the actors really seemed to be who they were portraying. So, how do you practice picking up cues? For starters, know your lines! Then practice them with the other actors with a focus on leaving NO DEAD AIR between lines (except where specifically intended for dramatic effect.) Start your line almost on top of the last word in the previous actor’s line. Make a point of almost talking over them. But don’t quite do it (unless the script calls for that.) Oh, and one last thing. If your director asks you to pick up the pacing, it does not mean say your lines faster. It means don’t allow so much room in between lines that an entire freight train could have driven through the space.
Mistake #3 – Not Projecting This one may seem obvious, but if not taken very seriously, it can and will destroy what could have been a really good show. There is nothing worse than having an audience member, right in the middle of the most dramatic moment of a play, yell out “LOUDER!” And trust me, they WILL do it. You must be heard. In the back row. Clearly. Without sounding like you’re shouting. This is called projecting. If you can’t do it, you shouldn’t be on the stage. But not to worry, because with the right tools, anyone can do it.
So what are the tools? Well, you were born with every one of them. Let’s start with your lungs. Practice the art of breathing deeply, and experiment with letting those deep breaths act as a magic flying carpet for your words to ride on. Let the words ride on the air as you exhale. Your words can’t reach the back row of the theatre on their own. They need a mode of transportation, and that vehicle is your breath. Next time you are running your lines, consciously practice this and experiment with it. Next comes your mouth. If your breath is a magic flying carpet for your words to ride on, then your mouth is a megaphone. Have you ever noticed that the end of a megaphone is large and open? Think of the hollow space inside a guitar. Large and open. These designs create something called resonation. And you can use your mouth in the same way. The larger it is, the more the sound inside it will resonate. So open wide! And what about your face? Do you think the back row of the theatre will be able to hear you if your face is looking away from them? No. And that’s why we do something in the theatre called “cheating out.” In real life, we usually look directly at someone when we are speaking to them. On stage, we often use another illusion that our audiences will accept without even noticing it. We almost always turn our face to the front, toward the audience, when we are speaking to another character. We don’t do this overtly. We do it subtly. And we don’t always do it. But we do it. And it works. It helps our magical flying carpet fly away in the correct direction, towards the people who must hear what we’re saying! And then there’s your body. Are you standing up straight (unless the scene dictates otherwise)? When you have good posture, it is easier for you to breathe correctly. When it is easier for you to breathe correctly, it is easier for your words to hop onto your breath for that ride out into the audience. It all comes together, and your words are heard. Remember: breathe, mouth, cheat out, posture. If you consciously focus on developing these key habits, you’ll master the art of projecting with ease.
Mistake #4 – Not Enunciating I hate to tell you this, but sometimes good projection can be absolutely useless. You see, the audience is going to squirm and pray for curtain call if they cannot understand the words you are saying. There is only one thing worse than not being heard, and that is being heard in Swahili, no offense to my friends in Kenya. Just as a live theatre audience can and will interrupt a performance to tell you to be louder, they can and will turn to the person next to them and say “WHAT did he say?” It’s just not pretty. Thank goodness, you can avoid this, or you can at least do your part to make sure it is a faulty hearing aid, and not you, that is to blame. What is enunciation? Daniel Webster says it is “the act of pronouncing words or parts of words clearly.” Pretty straightforward. And not so hard to do when you think about it, practice it, and develop it. There are many ways to master enunciation. One good exercise is to intentionally over-pronounce every word while running your lines. Be sure your projection is strong not only at the beginning of each sentence, but at the end. Be sure to get every “T” sound out. Slow down. Overtly say each word, as if you are repeating it to someone hard of hearing. Another good technique is to imagine every single word in your script as an individual, sovereign nation, with your script being the United Nations. Go through your script and look at each word, and say each out loud, all by itself. Pause. Think about the meaning and context of the word. Go on. Then do it from the back of the script to the front. Say each word clearly and completely. Try it right now with this sentence. Finally, get in the habit of warming up your mouth and voice before every rehearsal and performance. This is so important, I considered making it a category of its own in this list. Warming up is essential to giving the best performance you can. And by the way, in addition to warming up your mouth and voice, you really should also be warming up your body and your mind, using specific warm-up exercises. So what if nobody else in the cast is doing it. You’ve GOT to do it. Use tongue-twisters, stretch your mouth and face, “motorboat” the air with your lips, whip your tongue around, go outside and screech like a banshee and howl like a monkey. Usually, a good warm-up of your mouth and voice should make innocent passers-by think you are absolutely crazy. If that isn’t the case, you have not properly warmed up.
Mistake #5 – Not Listening When I decided to make “listening” the last item on this list, my intention was to discuss the importance of listening to the other characters on stage. And I will discuss that, but it just occurred to me how broad I can – and probably should – go with the term “listening.” For example, listen to your director when he or she is giving you notes. You are expected to put those notes into practice at the next rehearsal. If the director has to keep giving you the same notes, is your performance growing? Are you getting closer to “show ready?” Also, listen to, and do, whatever your stage manager tells you. He or she may not have time to explain that if you take one step backward right now, your foot is going to catch a wire and the entire skyline of Manhattan is going to come crashing down on stage two scenes early, on top of twelve innocent people. So just listen and yes, obey immediately and without question. But to get back to the art of listening to the other characters on stage, well, all I can say is this: You may have your lines mastered, you may have perfected picking up your cues, you may be able to be heard in East Afghanistan and understood by your own dog, but if you are not listening on stage, you are inviting (best-case scenario) mediocrity or (worst-case scenario) disaster in for a cool mint julep. Why is listening so important? It’s important because if you are just robotically delivering lines when it is time to do so, you are giving a one-dimensional performance. You must try to get into your character’s head enough that you can, as your character, listen to and understand the words, needs, desires and motivations of the other characters in your “reality.” If you can master this, you will find that it leads to great discoveries about your own character. This is not to say that there aren’t hundreds of other methods and beliefs about “understanding the script” and “knowing your motivation,” because there are. But it all begins with listening. And there are some pretty down-to-earth, practical reasons for listening, too. If you or someone else on stage forgets a line, you can keep the story moving with “ad-libbed” words until you get back on track. But you can only do this if you were really, truly listening and understanding. Make sense? Also, a little secret: listening actually helps you memorize and retain your lines better. Here’s an exercise you can try to get focused on listening: Run through a scene in the play with your fellow actors. But use only your own words to get through the scene. The goal is to get everything accomplished in the scene that the scripted version accomplishes, but to do it with “ad-libbed” words. It’s harder than it sounds. Don’t allow yourself to slip and use the scripted words. Try this a few times with different scenes. It will force you to understand every single thing going on in a given scene. It will teach you not to “rest on your laurels” and hide behind the script. It’s fun, too!
Knock Their Socks Off I hope this list helps you hone your craft and find that standing ovation we all dream of. While this list was about some of the key basics, there is more, lots more! For me, one of the joys of acting has always been the continual process of learning. No actor should ever stop learning. I wish you the very best as the house lights dim and the curtain rises. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned veteran, I can speak for everyone in the Carrollwood Players family when I say, you are welcome here!