I’ve got something rattling around my brain that won’t let go.
It’s about theater. And about performance. And about the things I’ve learned after nearly 25 years of performing in plays, musicals, and the occasional puppet show.
For those of you who are new, I actually started this blog as a way to chronicle my struggles and triumphs as a working actor in the big city. I even moved to New York to try and make as a professional. Although that dream didn’t quite work out the way I had anticipated, I still participate in a great deal of theater. In fact, I just completed a great run as the Dragon in the LTM production of Shrek, I’m currently in rehearsals as Lucy in the Broad Brook Opera production of Avenue Q, and I just got cast as Amy in the LTM run of Company which opens in April. When I go, I go hard.
I graduated from UConn with a BFA in Dramatic Arts, so I like to throw my “classically trained” pedigree around from time to time. As a result, for this post, I’d like to give some advice to actors who are starting out, who are deep in the throes of some sort of performance, or who are attempting to strike gold in the professional world. This is for you. I’m going to be breaking down the most common mistakes I see in auditions, rehearsals, and performance.
Know the difference between making a choice, and being cheap.
I don’t really believe in ‘bad’ line readings, like a lot of people do. I think that any choice is valid, with one gigantic condition – that choice needs to be rooted in emotional honesty and clarity for the character you’re playing. Sounds simple. It was excruciating for me to learn. A lot of people don’t want to learn how to be emotionally honest because let’s face it, it’s scary as hell. It requires you to actually own up to your limitations, your abilities (or lack thereof), and your way of establishing your power on stage. Some lines need to be attacked with a cleaver. Others are scalpel-precise. Others are dangerously soft. Still others are like spun glass that can shatter if you breathe badly. Know the differences. The differences will save you and your costars from bad reviews and literal headaches. One of the ways you can get easier at it (if you like the pragmatic, logical approach) is to go through your script and “break it down.” Meaning, go through your part, line by line, and figure out what choices you should be making on each line. Another way to get at emotional honesty and spontaneity is one of the core training regimes of the Meisner technique, which involves repeating lines until the sense of them is rendered meaningless and you can get at the emotionality underneath the line itself. I personally love this approach because if you repeat something enough, you can not only get at the emotional truth of it, you can also figure out what line readings work and what doesn’t. The opposite approach to that is the classic “Method” acting technique where you rely on your own sense memory or emotional life to add nuance to a line. My point is, every line is different because the character is going to be different depending on the situation. Figure that out, and go from there. Screaming your lines to get cheap laughs doesn’t work. Well, it works sometimes, but only on people who don’t know how nuance works. Something I like to think about as I go through a scene is to think about all of the different ways I could say a line before landing on the most appropriate one. Some lines HAVE to be said a certain way, as I just mentioned, but other lines can go a variety of different ways. Being a slave to one interpretation is a sign that you’re being lazy.
Note – one of my acting teachers in college said to me “prepare every single one of your choices and then when you get on stage, throw all of them out.” You have to leave room for spontaneity. But you’ll have a backbone of choices to fall back on in case something isn’t working. Or if your scene partner sucks.
Show your passion.
This is something I fell victim to all the damn time. The first few videos of myself as an actor are horrifically painful to watch, mainly because when I was a little kid I could just rely on my giant voice and loud personality to make an impression (which meant I fell victim to the “being cheap, not making choices” trap pretty much every day). When I got into UConn I had to learn the art of, uh, subtlety (?!) which to me meant “clam up, get really quiet, and act like no one can see you perform Shakespeare THIS badly.” I slowly and gradually improved, especially after a workshop in which two of my friends had to literally come and hold my feet so I wouldn’t rock back and forth. When I had to re-audition to get into the UConn program at the end of my freshman year, I thought I was doing the best work of my life. I performed Constance’s monologue from King John and a rather racy monologue from a play called The Key Exchange. Even at that point, when I thought I had been so mature and my work had progressed so well, I still bobbed back and forth like a nervous shadowboxer to the point that it makes me seasick watching it.
Something you hear a lot in acting school is “raise the stakes.” If I had a dollar for every time one of my acting coaches said that to me in school, I would have at least 200 dollars. But she was right. That’s how the electricity comes into the scene. As one of the guest artists said to us, “It’s where the party is.”
It wasn’t until junior year, when a teacher had the balls to call me boring to my face, that I realized I was doing myself a major disservice. I womaned up, stopped caring what people thought, and what do you know? My acting got better. Basically, stop giving a crap about what people think of you and learn how to trust yourself, and your acting will get better. Trust me. (This and the first tip are very close together because they’re both a product of a failure in actor preparation and an inability to be honest on stage. If you work it, you will figure it out.) sometimes the scariest thing to do is just stand there on stage and not do a blessed thing. Feel everything you’re doing on stage. Trust yourself. Trust the material.
Really, honestly THINK about what you’re singing or saying.
I’ve seen so many people COMPLETELY screw up a scene or a song because they failed to break down the script or they bulldozed a line or because they were just afraid to go further. You need to be patient with it. Also think about repetitions in the lines you’re singing – when Hugh Jackman appeared on Inside the Actors Studio and talked about his phenomenal performance as Curly in the London production of Oklahoma!, he said “When you’re singing ‘Oh What A Beautiful Morning’ and you’ve got that repeated line of ‘there’s a bright golden haze on the meadow’, you better think of a reason as to why you’re repeating that line, otherwise it’s pointless. That line is repeated for a reason, so find it.” It sounds so simple. It isn’t.
Don’t be afraid of feeling big stuff.
Some of my favorite moments on stage involve me working through a LOT of personal shit. I cry all the damn time on stage. When I was Guenevere in Camelot I looked like a drowning raccoon every night. Personal issues getting exorcisms on stage? Why not? The key is – and again going back to the whole point about emotional honesty – to not make the entire thing about your life. You aren’t playing you, after all. Crying hysterically doesn’t necessarily mean you’re playing the scene correctly. Think about what works for the character. That way, once again, you’ll be reaching for emotional honesty. Also, if you are thinking about going to a drama program for professional theatrical training, just know that at some point in your four years of school you are going to end up weeping hysterically in front of all of your classmates because acting sometimes is a cover for a gigantic therapy session. As it should be.
Learn how to speak Shakespeare.
If you can do the Bard of Avon you can do anything. Trust me. Learn iambic pentameter. Figure out how caesuras work. Break down monologues and really study what they mean.you should get so proficient at it that you can deliver the line any way in the world and have it ring true. Once you get that, you’re golden.
Pick the right audition song.
Unless it is specifically stated by the director/SA, do not sing anything from the show you’re auditioning for. That will come if you get called back. And for the love of God, sing something that sounds good for your voice. I go into auditions all the time and I hear people who I KNOW have great voices completely blow it with the wrong choice. A few weeks ago, I auditioned for that aforementioned production of Company, and I was originally going to do “On the Steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods because it’s the only Sondheim song I had the sheet music for. Then, the day before the audition, I got laryngitis, and singing upper register soprano was going to be impossible. So I ended up going with “To Make You Feel My Love” by Bob Dylan. It was just lyrical enough to be considered Sondheim-esque, but I also knew it was going to sound good in the vocal register I had for the audition.
If you’re dying to make it big in acting, be prepared to suffer.
If there’s one thing I want to impart to any young budding performer reading this entry, it’s this – you should not pursue a professional acting career unless you have absolutely no other professional avenues that make you happy. If that’s not the case, get out. I’m not kidding. Professional acting is an impossible career and only the lucky few get to have a sustainable life as a result of acting. Some of the most talented people I knew in college aren’t doing any acting right now, and to blow smoke up my ass, I’m one of them. It wasn’t for them. Personally I find a ton of enjoyment in my writing and having an actual real life that doesn’t involve being a silent monk all day in service of a part, but I still do theater because it gives me an outlet and it creates passion. I’m much more balanced with it in my life. But the minute it became my whole life, i wanted out.
Don’t be a dick.
The number one thing I see across the board with younger actors (or actors who haven’t worked professionally) is a lack of professionalism. Talent honestly will only get you so far in the business. If you aren’t careful, you will burn every bridge you walk over until there’s nothing left for you. Be a generous scene partner. Have fun. Remember that the purpose of acting is to play. Don’t overrun the scene because you have some need to be center stage at all times. Don’t turn into a diva. Don’t get mad because someone else gets a moment to shine and try to rain all over their parade. And for the love of God, don’t go for cheap laughs and repeat the same line readings/jokes over and over again because you got a laugh once. There’s nothing lazier. I try to be the person who is 100 percent prepared for every single rehearsal. I’m the annoying actor that comes into the first day of rehearsal with their entire part memorized, because once that’s out the way, I can start working on nuance. I’m helping puppet another track (role) in Avenue Q and I’m memorizing that entire part as well as my own. Because if I’m going to be helping out another actor ‘act’ their part through a puppet, I should know every single note of that character track. That’s my job. That’s why I’m an actor. Because it is my JOB to show up and know my shit.