Thursday, 10 May 2012

Remember to Red-Team and Use Your Thumb

Two sets of Words of Wisdom this week.  The first comes from the military: operational planning.  Traditionally, friendly forces are designated 'blue' and the enemy are 'red.'  Red-teaming means, in the first place, looking at an operation from the enemy's point of view: how will they view the conflict and what will they try to do.  More specifically, it means using skilled operatives to test the security of defences and flag up any weaknesses, for example, by trying to smuggle explosives on to an airliner without being detected.  It's a way of being more effective by shifting the viewpoint.

This principle can be applied to sports and games.  For example in Chess, which is essentially a war game, it can often pay to get up, walk round the board and look at a position from the other player's point of view.  In Boxing, sparring partners will be chosen for their resemblance to a future opponent.  In Football training one side may adopt tactics expected to be used by the other team in the next match.

How does this apply to acting?  It's about looking at things from more than one point of view.  When preparing with a script for rehearsal don't focus solely on your own  part.  Look at all the parts so that you can see the script from every character's point of view.  Remember to Red-Team.

The other Words of Wisdom this week are a simple bit of technique.  When a group of actors are doing a script reading there is a tendency for everyone to bury themselves in the page in front of them - and go faster and faster into the bargain.  To avoid this deliver each line 'off the page' in other words addressing the line to the character you would be speaking to if you were on stage.  Problem: how do you keep your place when you're doing this?  Simple solution: keep your thumb opposite the line you are delivering then, when you return to the script your thumb will be there to guide you.  Use Your Thumb.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Excellence for All

The Words of Wisdom this week are Never say you're no good at anything.  How often do you hear people say 'I'm no good at spelling,' 'I'm rubbish at Maths,' 'I can't learn lines,' 'I'm no good at catching a ball' or 'I can't give up smoking.'  Such negative statements don't help you to get anywhere in life and they can be very damaging, so whenever you find yourself uttering such a negative script, even to yourself, replace it with a positive one.  With persistence and practice you can improve at all these things.  Sometimes you can do this by yourself, for other things it helps to draw on the knowledge of a teacher, in one form or another.  In particularly difficult matters, such as addiction, you will almost certainly need help, but help can usually be found, if you look for it with enough determination.

Always remember that you are equipped with a brain that is the most wonderful and complex organ in the known universe.  You have a body which is capable of extraordinary feats of speed, strength, stamina and skill.  You have access to the whole range of human behaviour, some of it instinctive, some of it learned.  You are surrounded by other human beings, many of whom may be willing to help you in manifold ways and today, with the development of the internet, all the knowledge in the world is, quite literally, at your fingertips.

The first step towards improving at the things you feel you are not good at is to understand and believe that you can improve.  Then find out what you need to do and then practice ... and practice ... and practice.  The only limitation you have is the time you have available because, in the end, time beats us all.

But meanwhile, avoid people  who put you down, because there will always be people who don't want to see you succeed and that's a sad fact that you have to accept.

A long time ago, Anna Scher and I started a theatre for young people.  The idea behind it was 'Excellence for All' in other words to provide the very best drama training at a price that anyone could afford.  We worked and worked and worked and, gradually the theatre became more and more successful.  Most people were enthusiastic and positive about what we were doing, but there were some who were not.  Some of them saw our aim of excellence as being against their political belief in enforced equality, others saw our work with people who didn't have much money as somehow threatening to their power and privilege.  Such people aim for power and get gratification from hurting people and destroying things.  And so, Anna's illness providing the opportunity, the theatre was brought down.

Pity them, for they will never be happy.  But remember the belief in excellence for all and Never say you're no good at anything.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

One more thing about finding out more

More Words of Wisdom to add to last week's (actually because I forgot to put it in, although it's terribly important.) One of the best ways of exploring a text to see what you can do with it is by experimenting with changing the punctuation. Put in some imaginary commas, at random. Take out a full stop so that the words run on. Throw in a question mark at an unexpected place.

Some of the results will be nonsensical but it will be surprising if you don't find new emphases or new insights. Try it and see.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Use your voice to find out more

The Words of Wisdom this week are Use your voice to find out more. More about the character you are playing and more about your capabilities in relation to it.

When you are working on a part, unless a particular dialect has been called for, you will probably start off using something close to your normal accent and tone of voice. It's easy to get locked in to this and fail to explore the full extent of what the character might be about and how you might be able to deliver it. To avoid this, take a section of the text and vocalise it in different ways, for example:

Sing it (in any style)
Growl it
Moan and groan it
Bark it, aggressively
Change the pitch, up or down
Speed it up
Slow it down
Smile all the time you are speaking
Murmur it
Whisper it
Look in a mirror, trying to outstare yourself
Use a lot of meaningful gesture
Talk on the edge of tears
Laugh out loud

It is worthwhile taking time over this exercise. Listen to what is happening with your voice. How does it feel, physically? Emotionally?

If you work on it receptively you will find things you didn't know were there.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Learn to work the red carpet

Sooner or later, if you achieve the least degree of success in the business, you will find yourself invited to a gala opening before which you will walk up the red carpet. This may happen even if the film is an insignificant short in which you have a minuscule part, so it's essential to learn the correct technique to employ in this situation.

You will have three sets of people to work with: photographers, fans and press. The photographers will probably be confined to a roped off area to one side and when you arrive at the red carpet they will start calling out your name to get you to look at them so that they get a good shot of you. This can be quite confusing but what you do is very simple. Starting at the near end of the line, you eyeball each lens in turn, giving it a friendly gaze for a few seconds. When you get to the end of the line be prepared to repeat the exercise if they're still calling your name out. Take your time, make sure they all get a good picture and be prepared for requests to pose with someone else, as well, someone you know or a complete stranger.

You then turn to the fans. They may be family and friends, or inquisitive people who happened to be passing by, but their presence, gathered together behind a rope, turns them into fans, while your presence in the lights and on the red carpet, turns you into a star. They will ask for your autograph and it's a good idea to have with you a brightly coloured marker pen, one that writes reliably, so that you can sign your name easily. Make your signature very large. But the important thing is to talk to them. Ask them what kind of films they like, whether they've come from far, thank them for coming. They will be thrilled.

Finally come the press interviews, some for print media and some for internet. Again it's your job to be as helpful as possible, even if it means giving the same answers over and over again. Have a few soundbites and anecdotes ready for use. Be patient and make sure they spell your name correctly. Remember who they are: you may meet them again, perhaps in a more important job than the one they have now. This is not a good time to remember things that went wrong or people you did not get on with, so be diplomatic and forgive and forget.

All this attention can be quite head turning, so it's important to keep your feet on the ground. In ancient Rome, when they held a triumph for a returning general, amid all he adulation a little man would be employed to whisper in the general's ear and remind him the he was mortal. In the same way always remember that you will walk down the street the next morning and no-one will know who you are. (If you're lucky.)

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Surprise, Surprise

Surprise is a difficult emotion to depict (if it counts as an emotion, psychologists are divded on this.) You can't surprise yourself: it's the result of an unexpected change acting on the unconscius mind. So how can actors show this?

Surprise is in the mind but it has its effect on the body, in sudden and compulsive moment. The movement may be large or small. If the whole body moves it might suggest terror, or maybe slapstick comedy. Working in close-up you might be much more subtle: a slight change in the eyes may be enough, particularly if you are playing an emotionally guarded character.

Then there is the double take, when one person's grasp on reality has suddenly changed, the delayed surprise, anticipated by the audience and the other characters but not by the one who is to be surprised, the cumulative surprise, for good or ill, one thing after another. For all of them, work from the movement. Maybe you'll surprise yourself, after all.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Audiences and Words

You read the lines, you learn the lines, you deliver the lines you've learned and it's very important to get the words right. A rough approximation simply will not do. The writer will have gone to a lot of trouble to compose each line so that it reveals character and advances the plot and it is disrespectful to cast his or her intentions aside and deliver your own version. Of course, in rehearsal, you may well find instances where a line does not roll off the tongue easily. If you want to suggest a change ask the director, who may well refer it to the writer.

Sometimes a problem with a line can be resolved by a change of emphasis and actors need to be adept at this. A good exercise is to take a sentence and run it repeatedly with all the possible emphasis in turn. For example:
"SHE said she was happy ... she SAID she was happy ... she said SHE was happy ... she said she WAS happy ... she said she was HAPPY." Feel the different implication of each version. Start by hammering out the words in capitals, then gradually make it more subtle and therefore more realistic.

And another important thing to remember: the audience is not stupid. They are intelligent people. You don't need to lead them to conclusions by the nose. If it's there they will 'get it.' No need to exaggerate. Subtleties are better than stereotypes.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Words, words, words

The break for Christmas and New Year has given me the opportunity to compile no fewer than five new sets of Words of Wisdom.

First Words. Television drama seems to be in retreat in the face of reality TV, so what does that tell us about the medium of TV? All drama depends upon illusion, but what kind of illusion? On stage (and radio) the illusion is that what is produced in our imagination, prompted by what we are being shown, or, told, is real, wherever it may be in space and time. We want to believe in it and, provided that it is done well enough, we do believe in it. On film, the illusion is that we are experiencing a wonderful dream. On television the illusion is that we are looking through a window at a real world neighbouring our own. It is on the same scale as our world and, however unlikely the events portrayed may be, we believe that they could be happening to us, or people like us. Hence the success of reality TV and, whether we like it or not, that is the reason why successful television drama approximates more and more to reality TV. It may not be real 'reality' but, if you are working for television, try not to get too far away from it.

Second Words. Which side of stage or screen is dominant? Answer: the left side, seen from the audience's point of view - 'audience left' is known, confusingly, as 'stage right.' There are a number of possible reasons why winners progress from left to right, or turn to their left, as we see in comics and cartoons. Most languages are read from left to right; in the northern hemisphere the sun, moon and stars appear to move across the sky from left to right; running tracks are left-handed; so are most racecourses, except where the lie of the land tells against it. But perhaps the reason is that most of us are right-handed. Our right leg is stronger than our left, therefore when heading forwards we tend to veer to the left, so the observation that positive movement goes from left to right may become embedded early in our lives. Watch children running round a playground and see if it's true. Bear it in mind when blocking a scene or composing a shot: left is dominant over right.

Third Words. It's only necessary to do things once. If you use a gesture, a turn of speech or a way of handling a prop, what is sometimes called a piece of business, do it once and, because the audience's attention is focussed on you, you will have established it in their minds. In drama, one can represent many. If you use the same business more than once there is a danger that it will be distracting, or that it will appear self-indulgent or attention seeking. Of course, there are exceptions to most rules and sometimes a repeated item can become a motif that gives a particular signal, or repetition may produce an increasingly comic effect but, nevertheless, unless there's a very good reason for repetition, it's only necessary to do things once.

Fourth Words. If you make a mistake, keep calm and continue. Just go on. Half the audience won't even know. Most of the rest won't mind. Don't in any way draw attention to the fault. If you 'dry' or get in a tangle, the other actors, if they are professional, will help get you out of trouble. Improvise the next bit till you get back on track. And this applies in rehearsal as well as performance, so you practice the correct way of dealing with mistakes. Some actors, in rehearsal, will turn a mistake into a gag: not a good idea. Just go on till the director stops you.

Fifth Words. Be still. The strongest and most watchable thing you can do on stage is to be in a central position, not moving a muscle. If you are supporting in a scene the least obtrusive thing you can do is to be tucked away at the side, not moving a muscle. No fidgets. Be still.