Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Keep it fresh

So what are the Words (of Wisdom) this week? They are Keep it Fresh. One of the things that actors often have to do is to repeat what they have just done, sometimes over and over again. If you are playing a part in a long running play in the theatre you are having to deliver the same lines over and over again, maybe six or eight times a week. If you are shooting a film you may have to play a scene for take after take, and then maybe deliver the same line again for a different shot of the same scene.

You have two opposing problems here. The first is to keep your performance consistent, so that your intentions and those of the writer and director are carried out, and so that your fellow actors can rely on what you are going to do, so no-one can say “But that’s not how we rehearsed it!”

At the same time you need to make it seem to the audience as if the events being depicted are happening for the first time. The people in the audience want to be able to believe, with at least part of their minds, that nothing has been pre-planned and that the outcome of the story is uncertain.

So Keep it Fresh. Be ready but don’t over-prepare. Vary your performance fractionally so that it doesn’t dig too deep a groove. Adopt a frame of mind at the beginning of the scene that this is the ‘now’ moment and don’t rehearse the rest of the scene in your head before it has happened.

Every time you play a scene it will, unavoidably, be slightly different. You will say the words and perform the actions slightly differently; so will the other actors; if there is an audience their reaction will be different each time. There are so many variables that you can never play a scene the same way twice. Welcome this randomness and use it. It’s all part of the way you can Keep it Fresh.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Don't 'act' when you're acting

And so to the Words of Wisdom. They are ‘Don’t ‘act’ when you’re acting.’ It’s about the difference between artificiality and directness. The people in the audience haven’t come to see actors acting; they’ve come to see a play. They don’t want to hear people saying lines; the want to listen to the words. They don’t want to hear you reciting Shakespeare; they want to bridge the gap of 400 years and hear the play as if it was being performed for the first time. As an actor, don’t intrude between the writer and the audience. Paradoxically, the more you make yourself disappear inside the character and the situation, the more you will be admired after the event.

Treat the audience as equals; shun the mindset of cultural superiority so evident in, for example, TV costume dramas; we, the audience, don’t want to see two actors playing the parts of two tramps; we want to see two tramps. Don’t ‘act’ when you’re acting.

Tuesday, 12 June 2007


There’s an old story that leads to our Word of Wisdom for this week. An out-of-town lady is visiting New York City. Lost, she goes up to a cop on Sixth Avenue and asks him “Can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?” The representative of New York’s finest gives her a long look. “Practice, lady: practice” he replies.

There are different versions of this story: sometimes the cop is replaced by the pianist Arthur Rubinstein, but, whoever said it, they were speaking nothing but the truth, and that’s why our Word of Wisdom this week is … Practice.

Now the principle of how practice leads to improvement is a very simple one. If you put your body under stress, of any kind, it adapts to better cope with that stress. Provided you don’t over-stress yourself, which will lead to injury, you will get better at whatever you are trying to do.

In physical activities, like sport, if you run further and faster, you will improve. After a few weeks, the stopwatch, which never lies, will tell you that you are running faster than you could before. In a technical sport, like Golf, if you practice your swing, after a while you will be able to drive the ball further.

The same applies in mental activities. We have all had the experience of doing simple sums and gradually getting better and being able to do harder sums. Or we’ve learned to play Chess, or do Sudoku. We weren’t born knowing how to do these things: it was all down to practice.

And the same is true in the arts. We practice scales and arpeggios and go over and over a piece till we can get our fingers round the notes. There is a theory that the main reason Mozart became such a great composer was that he had practiced for hours every day from the age of two.

So why do so many actors, at least in the UK, fail to keep themselves in training like athletes, or puzzlers, or musicians? Maybe it’s because acting technique is more diffuse and less easy to define than in the other examples and the results are less easy to measure. But it’s true that a lot of actors in this country do not practice their craft as they should. They’re the competition and you can do better than them.

And that’s one of the reasons why we have our class. So that you can keep in practice, find it easy to slip into a character, learn a scene, take direction and build your confidence. Practice to overcome weaknesses and master the things you find most difficult.

So if you want to get to your own Carnegie Hall – in fact if you want to get anywhere in life – Practice!

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Remember the Power of Silence

Remember the Power of Silence (pause) Remember the Power of Silence. Those are the Words of Wisdom for this week. When we listen to speech, our brain does a wonderful thing: it interprets the strange sounds that arrive in our ears, decodes them and posts the results to the parts of our mind that deal with understanding and memory and the meaning of words. This it does, initially, very quickly, but it then takes time for the effect of the words to spread more widely through our minds. If more words come along too soon they interrupt this process and it doesn’t come to full fruition.

Also there is a more fundamental channel of communication than spoken language and that is the language of the body, the face and, above all, the eyes. When we are busy interpreting speech our thought tends to be taken over by that processing and we can’t get full value from what the body, the face and the eyes are saying to us.

Wait a beat to gain attention. Use a pause to add suspense. Exert silence to show dominance. Don’t do any of these too artificially, but allow the audience to look … and look. Remember the Power of Silence.