Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Learn your lines by living them

The Words of Wisdom this week are Learn your lines by living them. All actors have to learn lines, the bigger the part the more lines there are to learn, and few things cause more anxiety than the fear of 'drying' - forgetting what you have to say next.

How do we learn and how do we remember? One thing we know is that we learn from repetition. If we repeat a skill again and again we get better at it, particularly if we make the repetition progressive, that is, if we start with easy things and step by step move on to harder ones. But how do we apply this to learning and remembering lines of dialogue? Well, there are different aspects of memory involved.

First of all there is factual memory. This is the system we have that remembers phone numbers or names. Recall is usually precise and quick, or else not there at all. It can be helped by associations of the kind used by memory experts, for example, if someone is called Donald, imagining them as Donald Duck will help you to remember their name. This kind of memory is of slight use when learning a script, but not much.

Then there is emotional memory. This is slightly more useful. When acting, if we have to show emotions of fear, say, or anger, it is helpful to produce these feelings inside ourselves. It can be helpful to remember a time we really felt that emotion. This gives us a stream of feeling to work on and experience the ebb and flow of a script. This is important but emotional memory cannot always be conjured up reliably and it is not as quick to access as factual memory.

Most important of all is procedural memory. This is the system by which we learn to walk, or cycle, or hit a tennis ball, by developing an automatic and unconscious routine so that we can do them without conscious thought. In order to use this type of memory, work through the words, associating them with your body language, your moves and what you are doing, how you look at the other characters and what they do, so you are remembering the play and your part in it as a whole. You will find that the words will just fit in with everything else and you will remember them far better. You don't have to have the rest of the cast there with you for this, because you can use visualisation, and even if the script is cut or altered you will find you can edit your memory of it and produce the new version.

Try this method, accessing procedural memory, the next time you have a script to learn. Learn your lines by living them.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Every setback is an opportunity

If you are involved in the arts, and particularly if you are an actor, your life will be full of setbacks. You are in an overcrowded profession; there are a lot of people who are rather like you who want to do what you do; the statistics are against you.

Of course, you will study, train and prepare yourself just as thoroughly as you can, but, if you are called to read for a part, you will probably be one of several, or many, people competing for it and you may not be chosen.

This will not necessarily be your fault. A lot of casting depends on physical appearance, the way you speak, height, weight, hair colour, everything in your persona that contributes to your type. If you are inexpreienced you may find yourself at a disadvantage because casters tend to play safe with someone with more of a track record than you have. So the first thing to do is to recognise that your failing to get the part may not be your fault. Don't punish yourself unnecessarily.

Now comes the next stage. Every setback is an opportunity. Use your annoyance at not having got the part to energise yourself. Review the audition: was there anything you could have done differently, or better? Could you have prepared better? You have now made a new contact. They will remember you. How might you be able to revive that contact in the future? What can you study to develop your knowledge and capabilities? How can you get yourself noticed and make yourself heard?

You are running a one person business, so you must be businesslike. You must develop yourself and promote yourself. Life is full of setbacks, but every setback is an opportunity.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Be nice to people on the way up - you may need them on the way down

The Words of Wisdom this week are an old theatre saying: Be nice to people on the way up – you may need them on the way down. That speaks for itself really. People in this business have some success – often a very small amount of success – and they can quickly become arrogant, conceited and all too full of themselves. Don’t let it happen to you, when you become successful. Be nice to people on the way up – you may need them on the way down.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Acting is a proper job

It is said that professionals are those who can do it when they don’t feel like it, while amateurs are those who can’t do it even when they do feel like it. Without necessarily agreeing with this, I do believe that everything in my classes should be aimed towards achieving the highest professional standard. I am aware that not everyone who comes is an actor or aiming to be one, but there is no substitute for doing something as well as you possibly can. So today’s Words of Wisdom are Acting is a proper job. Like sport, the arts are something which a lot of people love doing and many people aspire to. I’ve been involved in one or both for practically all my life and it has all been immensely rewarding. Because so many people want to do things in the arts, or sport, they are very hard to succeed at. But are such enjoyable pursuits somehow childish? Are they, maybe, not a proper job, like those done by the serious faced people one sees on the tube trains, going to work in an office or factory? The answer is yes. Entertaining people brings joy and meaning into many people’s lives. It is a valuable endeavour and no-one should feel guilty for being paid for doing something they love.

On the other hand, no-one has a right to be employed as an actor, however hard they may have trained. One sometimes hears actors say that they have a right to follow their chosen profession. No such right exists. There are plenty of people who have trained as doctors, accountants, architects or lawyers who cannot find a job in those callings. It’s a competitive and unfair world and luck and contacts count for a lot. So actors have very little power over their destiny: they are in an overcrowded and insecure field, with no career structure, and they take a gamble with their lives. All they can do is work, study and train hard, gain experience and keep their professional friendships in good repair. And acting is a proper job.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Practice sight reading

Today’s Words of Wisdom are Practice sight reading. Sight reading is a very difficult skill to master: it’s something many people are nervous about and failures at sight reading seem to be particularly humiliating. It’s a very important skill for actors, as at auditions you often have to read (even if rarely to sight read, because you normally have an opportunity for preparation.) It’s a normal human reaction to avoid things that are difficult, but you should always face danger (those are words of wisdom of their own) and because sight reading is important and difficult you should practice it continually.

It is remarkable that we can do it at all. Think what happens in your brain when you turn the image of some black squiggles on paper into spoken words with meaning and context, subtlety and humour, all in a fraction of a second. So practice.

Choose all different kinds of material: scripts, novels, newspapers, magazines, children’s stories if there are children you can read to. Find things that you are interested in and enjoy. Slow down: the most common mistake is to go too fast. Visualise anything that leads to or describes an image and place that image in your field of view: this will make your delivery more vivid. Engage your emotions, feel inside whatever the material leads you to feel: your emotional involvement will transmit to the audience, but it needs to come from the inside, if it’s just put on the outside like a cosmetic it will appear false. If you are reading a script or a novel or a story read all the parts with a different voice for each one and, probably, a more neutral delivery for the narrator or stage directions. Experiment and adjust stresses and inflexions.

Gradually your enjoyment will grow and your reading will improve. Practice sight reading.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Sometimes you need to split a line in two

Today’s Words of Wisdom are slightly technical. They are Sometimes you need to split a line in two. Let’s start with speech. Underlying speech are feelings and thoughts we wish to communicate. Feelings, other than those of shock and surprise, grow and subside relatively slowly, which is why you need to give an audience time so that the emotions you are transmitting to them have room to grow and resonate. But our thoughts flicker along rapidly in our brains and we can think of several things each second. Each thought we communicate is reflected by a phrase in our speech: one thought, one phrase. To give an example: ‘Happy’ is a word, ‘Happy Birthday to you’ is a phrase – one thought, ‘Happy Birthday to you and your twin brother in America’ is a sentence but it’s actually two separate thoughts – ‘Happy Birthday to you … and your twin brother in America.’ Just think the two thoughts separately and you will find you put in a fraction of a beat between the two parts of the line. Try something else: try ‘Happy Birthday David and Jonathan’ as one thought – that is wishing the twins a happy birthday – and then as two thoughts – happy birthday to David and also to Jonathan. Did you feel the difference?

Sometimes in a script you’ll get a line that’s very difficult to get out. Often the reason is because the line contains more than one thought and needs to be split in order for the meaning to come across clearly. Sometimes you need to split a line in two.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Create an emotion - then hide it

Today’s Words of Wisdom are: Create an emotion – then hide it. This paradoxical point is very much for screen acting. You see, most of us, most of the time, hide our emotions, particularly the negative ones. However we’re feeling inside, we try to retain our self control. How often do we hear people say ‘Yes, I’m fine’ when we know they are far from fine? So we hide our emotions, but we’re also very good at reading the emotions that people are hiding. So, the thing to do is to create a very strong inner feeling of the emotion that you want to convey – and then hide it. The all-seeing eye of the close-up camera will spot what is happening and it will appear realistic because you are hiding a negative emotion, just as people do in real life. You are avoiding the danger of over expressing the emotion in an unrealistic way. Going ‘over the top’ happens when insufficient motivation meets excessive performance: it is to be avoided at all costs. What counts in a performance is the degree of the emotion, not how intensely it’s expressed.

On the stage it’s rather different. There, except in the most intimate of theatres, you have to project and apply a magnifying glass to what you do.

Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Know the better side of your face

The latest Words of Wisdom are: Know the better side of your face. If you look in a mirror and draw an imaginary line across your eyes and another one across your mouth, you will probably find that the two lines are not parallel. The side where the lines are further apart will normally be your better side. This side will usually be wider, as well, and more mobile and expressive. You will photograph better from this side and it’s the side to favour whenever you have the choice. If you find that your face is quite even and symmetrical (which probably means you are very beautiful or handsome, as we are instinctively attracted to such people) try clicking your tongue to make a sound like a horse galloping. It’s probable you can only do this on one side, your ‘good’ side.

More people are right faced than left faced. Left faced people are more likely to be male and it’s associated with being good at maths or music. It doesn’t seem to be linked to left- or right-handedness. Few people seem to know about this, though it’s important to know about for anyone who wants to make the best possible physical impression. So know the better side of your face.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Never give in

The Words of Wisdom this week are about persistence. One of the main reasons for businesses and other enterprises failing is the lack of persistence – giving in too easily. This is true of sport and the arts as well. As you continue in something you learn and improve, but it does take time. If you start out in life with an aim you may change that aim, or alter your strategy for achieving it. You may develop your tactics, but the important thing (and the one that happens to be my personal motto) is Never give in.

Never give in.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Use your head

The Words of Wisdom this week are Use your head. It’s quite impossible to speak without moving your head but most head movement is completely unconscious. Study people in life and on television. Notice how they all use their head movements to amplify what they are saying and the way they respond to other people’s speech. Observe how head movement may express assent, affirmation, negativity, doubt, explanation, recollection and all sorts of complexities of them and much more. See how head movements associate with gaze, facial expression, gesture and words. By becoming aware of all this you can harness a tool which you can use to make your own performances stronger and showing greater complexity. Use your head.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Remember that the greatest talent you can have is the talent for hard work.

The Words of Wisdom this week are Remember that the greatest talent you can have is the talent for hard work. Whatever abilities you are born or grow up with, they can be enormously enhanced by consistent, incremental, well directed, study and practice. And the converse is also true, talents not exercised and used will, in time decay. Use it or lose it. And you will find that hard work brings its own satisfaction.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Paddle in the Ocean of Truth

The Words of Wisdom this week are ‘Paddle in the Ocean of Truth.’ This is inspired by the great scientist Isaac Newton who, towards the end of his long life, said: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” There is no limitation on the subjects about which plays may be written, and actors need to know as much as they can about as many things as they can. Things such as literature, history, psychology, politics, styles, music, body language – I could go on, and on – read, study, observe and listen. Above all, work on that infinite subject, the variety of human nature. Theatre has the most enormous scope: it can amuse and entertain, but also reveal profound truths. Paddle in the Ocean of Truth.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Follow your bliss

And now for the Words of Wisdom: Follow your bliss. This phrase comes from the American write on mythology, Joseph Campbell. His best known book is ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’ and in it he expound his belief that all the myths of all the peoples of the world are aspects of one overarching myth – the Monomyth.
A search of Google and You Tube will reveal lots of interesting stuff about him and I recommend it. What he meant by ‘Follow Your Bliss’ is that when you find something that enables you to have peak experiences and enter the zone where you feel at one with all of nature then you have found something you should follow all your life. It doesn’t mean just indulging yourself, that soon ceases to be blissful: true bliss enables you to set aside your ego and its petty demands. So, whether it comes from acting, writing, making music, painting or athletics: follow your bliss!

Monday, 30 June 2008

Watch people

Let’s start with the Words of Wisdom. We do a lot of things on autopilot. It’s the way our busy brains free up capacity for thinking and facing fresh challenges. Tasks we perform a lot become standardised routines: we don’t bother our conscious mind with them and we do them a similar way every time. This is known as habit.
The only thing wrong with this is that the way we do things becomes more and more stereotyped and that is one thing that, as an actor, we want to avoid. In our everyday lives the way we eat, drink, show agreement or disagreement, walk, smile, nod, kiss, hug, frown or hit a forehand drive is a matter of habit that has developed over many years: that’s the way we do things.
But the characters we play may need to have a different way of doing some of these things. We want to depict different people who may do things in a different way. In order to do this we need to expand our behavioural vocabulary, so we watch people and learn from them. Watch people in the street, in a pub, on a beach, on the bus, at Starbucks, in a shop, at a wedding, visiting in hospital, going to church, laughing, crying, working, playing. Watch people.

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Heads you win

And the Words of Wisdom this week are: Heads you win. Observe what people do with their heads. For a start there are their eyes, with which they express emotion, show attention and communicate by gaze alone. Then there are their eyebrows, with which they show recognition and surprise and make ‘big eyes’ to assert dominance. Then there are their mouths: the way people’s mouths are set is highly indicative of character and mood and the predominant emotion of people’s lives. Then there are their head movements, which have a whole vocabulary of their own. Observe how people nod or shake their heads, or make slight movements, the whole time they are talking or listening. Notice how they co-ordinate their head movements with their speech and in response to other people. Watch how people can convey quite complex messages, simply by moving their heads in particular ways. When you’re out and about, observe other people, absorb what they do, and you will gradually expand your vocabulary of head movement and enrich your non verbal communication. Heads you win.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Less is more: sometimes the words will do all the work

The Words of Wisdom this week are: ‘Less is more: sometimes the words will do all the work.’ That comes in two parts and both depend on the interaction between the actor and the minds of the audience. Less is more because if inner emotion is expressed in a subtle way the audience will read the inner emotion that the actor is generating and find it convincing, but if the emotion is over-expressed the audience will find it exaggerated and unbelievable. Sometimes the words will do all the work because a large part of what an involved audience is doing is decoding the meaning of the words it is hearing. Lines with a highly emotional content don’t need to be decorated with artificial histrionics, just say the words and the audience will do the rest. Less is more: sometimes the words will do all the work.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

99% (effort) isn't good enough

And the Words of Wisdom this week are: ‘99% (effort) isn’t good enough.’ Most things worth doing in life are difficult and hard work. This particularly applies in the arts and sport, two areas where I’ve spent most of my life. It means training and practising harder, even when you don’t feel like it; it means challenging yourself by taking on the things you’re least good at; it means starting all over again when you have a setback. As the poet says ‘Say not the struggle naught availeth’: and as the Words of Wisdom say ‘99% (effort) isn’t good enough.’

And if anyone would like to read the entire poem, go to

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Acting is more like football than it is like chess

First the Words of Wisdom: Acting is more like football than it is like chess. Much is made of the complexity of the game of chess: how there are millions of possibilities for the first few moves, so that no game is ever likely to be exactly repeated. Chess is regarded as an intellectual pursuit, whilst football is often said to be a diversion for the less intelligent.

But look at the facts. There are twenty ways that white can play the first move in a chess game: sixteen for the pawns and four for the knights. There are twenty ways that black can reply and the game continues in a similar way.

Compare this with football. Think of the myriad ways a ball can be played: kicked or headed, in what direction, how hard, with what elevation and spin. Which, of the other 21 players on the pitch will play it next, and where? And what about the complications of fouls, corner kicks, the offside rule and all the rest of it? It immediately becomes obvious that football is a far more complex game than chess.

Unlike chess, where a position can be exhaustively analysed, acting, like football, defies precise analysis. Both involve mind, body and spirit and excite passion in both players – same word, you see - and spectators. Computer programs have been written that can play chess at grandmaster level, but a robot version of Lionel Messi is still awaited. As is a computerised Scarlett Johansson.

So, we conclude: Acting is more like football than it is like chess. Acting is not a science and can never be reduced to a formula. So may your favourite team win, or at least play well.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

If you can't be perfect be good

And the Words of Wisdom? If you can’t be perfect be good. If you’re preparing for an audition, there are some types of piece you can polish and polish and polish – just like in Groundhog Day – until you have the ultimate performance. But you can’t always do that, particularly with comedy pieces. You can never do them the same way twice: there are simply too many variables involved. This sometimes leads to a feeling of disappointment, because after you’ve done it well, you want to be able to do it just as well again, but every time you do it, it comes out differently. Accept it: remember the best is the enemy of the good. Don’t punish yourself with perfectionism. If you can’t be perfect be good.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Don't waste time and energy on the trivial: focus on what's important

One person who inspired me when I was a teenager was the Australian athletics coach Percy Cerutty. He used to take his runners to a training camp he had by the sea and have them run up and down the sand dunes, live naturally in the open air on a better diet and train incredibly hard. One story he tells in one of his books I have never forgotten.

Cerutty noticed that there was one bunk in the hut where the runners all stayed that always seemed to be occupied by the best athletes. This was the bunk of Herb Elliott, who was to become the best runner in the world, and many other champions. Now it wasn’t the best bunk in the hut, in fact it was the worst, being on the ground by the door, and Cerutty worked out why this was. He watched how a new bunch of boys would arrive on the bus, how they would race excitedly to the hut, making a lot of noise, and sling their bags to grab the best places, at the top and near the stove. Except the one who was going to be a champion didn’t do that. He knew they weren’t there merely to get the best bunk; he was there to aim for something bigger than that. And that’s why he got the worst bunk.

I remember that resonated with me when I read it at the age of 16 and I resolved in that moment to live like a future champion and not get tied up with trivia. And I commend that to all of you. If you’re an actor you can be waylaid by all sorts of things: the pay, the billing, how unnecessarily early the call was and how you’re now having to wait around for hours, all the backbiting that goes on whenever two or three (actors) are gathered together. It all gets in the way of your main aim. And so the Words of Wisdom are: Don’t waste time and energy on the trivial; focus on what’s important.

Monday, 4 February 2008

The audition is the first rehearsal

The audition is the first rehearsal. An audition is not a combat, or a plea, or even an interview: it’s a piece of work. Go to it as you would to the first rehearsal if you already had the part. Don’t dress as if costumed for the part, that smacks of desperation and is inappropriate, but dress in the clothes you’d rehearse in. The first rehearsal is often, like the audition, a reading, so you will have familiarised yourself with the script and thought about it, but it’s unnecessary to have learned it word for word. It’s the first rehearsal so there will be plenty of questions to ask and a degree of experimentation may be involved. The point of all this is to establish a working relationship with the caster or director, rather than just being part of a selection process. You will put yourself and them in the right frame of mind to progress your involvement in the production. You might be right or wrong for the part, that much is in the lap of the gods, but you are putting yourself in a position in which there will be no unnecessary barriers to your getting it. The audition is the first rehearsal. If you get the part it will turn out to actually have been the first rehearsal. And if you don’t get the part at least you will have worked with a director or caster who may well remember you favourably for next time. Those are the Words of Wisdom.