Friday, 31 December 2010

Being 'funny'; isn't funny

The shortest Words of Wisdom: being 'funny' isn't funny: play comedy straight.

At this season there's a lot of comedy on the box: some of it's funny, some of it isn't. This is one reason why.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Make your showreel work for you

The Words of Wisdom this week are Make your showreel work for you.

There are probably few areas in the acting business where you can more easily waste your money than in getting a showreel made. A brief search of the internet will reveal an enormous number of companies that offer showreels and, I hate to tell you, many of them will charge you a lot of money for a sub standard product which will do nothing to advance your career.

So, if you approach, or are approached by, one of these companies, the first thing you will want to see are the links to several examples of their work. Not just one, which might be cooked up for promotional reasons. Click on these and have a look.

What will you be looking for? You will be looking for something of a high technical standard, beautifully cut. It's no good having a mate do an edit as a favour - unless that mate is a professional film editor. If it's not up to standard it will reflect on you. It should be clips from actual professional work, or indistinguishable from it. Four or five, demonstrating your range, is enough. They should be recent ... and short. Just a few seconds. The decision whether or not to see you for a part will probably be made on the first thirty seconds of material, so that's what really counts. You want them to want to see more of you. The sole purpose of a showreel is to make a casting directot or director say "Let's get that one in to read for the part." That's all, so show them the best of you and nothing else.

Make your showreel work for you.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The gun and the whistle

The Words of Wisdom this week are 'Action' is not the starting gun, but 'Cut' is the referee's whistle. That's a couple of sporting analogies so let's explain them.

When a film is being shot there's a little routine that is run before every take. It's a dialogue between the director, or first assistant director, and the camera operator. It goes like this: "Quiet please! Turn over." "Running" "Action." The magic word for the actors is 'Action.' And at the end of the take there is another magic word: 'Cut."

How should actors handle these two magic words? 'Action' is not the starting gun. At the start of a sprint race, the instant the runners hear the bang, they hurl themselves out of the starting blocks and hurtle down the track. When you, as an actor, hear the exciting word 'action' resist the temptation to do something similar. If you have the first word, or the first movement, of the take, never initiate it until you are sure you are in character and in mood. Run in your head what has happened to your character in the few seconds before where the take begins, something said or something that's been done, and then, when you're ready, start. It's not a race.

And 'cut?' What's that got to do with the referee's whistle? Well, when you learn to play football you're taught 'Play to the whistle.' You may believe that the ball has gone into touch, or that a foul has been committed, but you might be wrong, so you keep on playing until you hear the whistle blow. So, similarly, when you get to the end of your lines in the scene, don't stop, remain in character and in mood until you hear the word 'cut.'

Why is this important? Because you're giving the editor material to work with. Next time you're watching a movie, notice how it's cut and how the editor has used the beginning and end of shots, often to effect by transmitting a mood that the audience will absorb unconsciously. If you don't provide editor with the material with which to do this, it can't happen.

'Action' is not the starting gun, but 'cut' is the referee's whistle.

Thursday, 14 October 2010

Don't Aim for Fame

The Words of Wisdom this week are Don't Aim for Fame. This may seem strange in a business in which people may become extremely famous, in a world that worships celebrity as never before. But fame - don't aim for it.
For one thing dreaming of success doesn't help you to attain it. You may be sure that the medal winners at the 2012 Olympics are not daydreaming of standing on the podium. Thry are too busy visualising their next hard session on the track. We have all heard angry X Factor parents complain to Simon Cowell "You've destroyed her dream," but that's all it was - a dream - and dreams disappear when you wake up to reality. Focus on the work, not the reward.
Of course, if you do well and are successful, particularly in the performing arts or sport, this tends towards your being known to a lot of people, but I can assure you that this is not a blessing but a curse. It's the penalty you have to pay for being successful.
Think what it's like: you can't go anywhere you want without people recognising you and bothering you. Any new person you meet may just want to be part of the glitter of your fame and that's why they're smarming up to you. If anything happens in your life the paparazzi will be on your doorstep and you won't be able to step out of your house without being mobbed. If you're in a soap, people will confuse you with the character you play and give you unwanted advice about what should happen next in the plot. You will have to put up with the same jokes and catchphrases repeated again and again and again.
Some members of the public believe they are licensed to be as rude to you as they like: "It's us that put them there" they reason. Wherever you are in the world, someone will come up to you and ask you for an autograph, a donation, an opinion or a favour. And if your fame depends on public taste, it can disappear like turning off a tap. Some people will hate you.
Worse still is to use your family for publicity. Talk about your marriage, or your home, or your child's illness and you will have made it public property and created public interest. When your marriage goes wrong there will be no hiding from the attention of the red-top tabloids.
Many people who seek for fame have a narcissistic tendency and confuse the love of an audience with the love of a person. If they are successful this tendency is reinforced. See the rage of a TV personality when his or her show is axed. It's not just the loss of money or opportunities for achievement: they feel it as a cruel withdrawal of love. Hell hath no fury like a celebrity scorned. Do you want to be at the mercy of the uncaring audience?
The lives of celebrities are governed by fear: the fear of loss of celebrity. Don't Aim for Fame.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Storytelling is important

The Words of Wisdom this week are Storytelling is Important. Storytelling includes the production of tales, myths, books and, importantly for us, plays and films. Anything with a narrative.

The human mind has a very strong tendency to perceive pattern, even where none really exists: we see the stars forming constellations, we see a face in the froth on a cup of coffee, we make a choice of lottery numbers although the machinery is designed to make every number equally likely to appear. It's the way we organise our thoughts and also our actions. Pattern.

Events in a real or imaginary life are thus turned into a narrative that makes them have meaning for us. That is story. And the remarkable fact is that every single culture on Earth has story as part of its inheritance, story told or acted out, often at great cost. It must, therefore. be of great value to a society to have this, because otherwise cultures not spending so much on story would take over from those burdened by its cost and the energy involved in producing it.

So what is the advantage of having story? It is surely because story enables us to transmit values, morals and customs and to handle change. Without it and its continual renewal, our society would fall apart and decay. That's why plays and films (and music incidentally) are important and a life devoted to them is not a waste of time.

Finally, there are two other phenomena which appear in every culture on Earth, despite their great cost, and which therefore must be of great adaptive value to us. They are religion and sport. Every culture has religion, of one sort or another, and every culture has sport. We'll try and explain this in a future post. Meanwhile, Storytelling is Important.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Turn off your mobile phone

The Words of Wisdom this week are very simple: Turn off your mobile phone. There are a few things which are important in an actor's life: one is auditioning. An actor is being auditioned by an important director for a major part; they are getting on rather well - then his phone rings. The spell is broken. What the ringing phone tells the director is that the actor has left his phone on because he considers that there are other more important things in his life than this audition. The director feels offended and the actor doesn't get the part.

Worse still would be for the actor to actually answer the call. Believe me, it has happened!

As well as in an audition, the same rule applies when rehearsing or taking a class. It's simple good manners to give your full attention to the task in hand and, in the age where we all have 24 hour connectivity, it's a good principle to make your phone your servant, not your master. Use it when you want to use it, not when it wants to use you. Turn off your mobile phone.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Don't smoke!

The Words of Wisdom this week are very simple.

Don't smoke!

As an actor one of your main assets is your voice. The easiest way to damage it is by smoking. Don't smoke!

You'll know about the health factors: lung cancer and other cancers, heart disease, emphysema, chronic bronchitis - all nasty diseases that you would want to avoid. Don't smoke!

Ever seen a smoker trying to run? Breathing more deeply they dislodge the tar buried in their lungs. It rises into their throat and they suffer a coughing fit as they try to clear it and have to stop. Don't smoke!

And then there are the wicked tobacco companies, making money out of a drug more addictive than heroin. Why put money in their pockets? Don't smoke!

Smokers have years taken off their lives. A recent study of 180 people aged 100 and over found that one, yes just one of them, smoked. About 20 had smoked in the past but had given it up. The remainder had never smoed in their whole life. So if you want to live long and healthily: don't smoke!

And, if you are afflicted by this addiction Allen Carr's Easy Way to Stop Smoking is recommended.

But, best of all: don't smoke!

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Accents: exaggerate when learning, underplay when performing.

An actor should never stop exercising his or her voice. Apart from working on the tone of the voice, developing projection and maintaining clear diction, there is the whole area of dialects and accents to consider. (The meanings of these two words overlap, but generally a dialect is a different version of a mother tongue, depending on the country or area someone comes from, while an accent either refers to someone using a foreign language or the voice of a particular person.) Although actors are usually cast for parts which use their own accent, this is not always the case and, in any case, the more you learn about voice and speech the better.

The main way in which accents vary is in the actual sounds made in pronouncing the vowels and consonants: for example, whether the 'r' is rolled in a word like 'worse', whether the 'a' is long or short in 'path' whether the 't' is pronounced in 'brighten.' But there are many other important differences: how much stress or emphasis there is on individual syllables (French speakers, for example, speak with very little stress), what is the characteristic pitch, how much of a musical intonation is present, what is the typical tone (often throaty in city dwellers) what is the pace (often slow in country people) how precisely do people speak.

The throatiness factor is an interesting one. The cockney accent, from London, and the Bronx accent from New York, share this and, presumably, people in those places have for generations closed their throats when speaking, to protect themselves from the polluted air of the big city. However, there is a new kind of throatiness heard from fashionable Californians - sample 'The Hills' to hear it - and I have no idea why this should have happened, but then there is no accounting for fashion, is there.

There is endless fascination in how people speak and many subtleties. For example, doctors and lawyers speak slightly differently from each other, no doubt because of their different roles in life. Neither do builders speak like sales staff. There is also a lot of fun to be had in 'doing' voices and developing characters who speak in different ways. I was lucky enough to have been brought up in the golden age of radio comedy, listening to classic shows such as 'Take it from Here', 'The Goon Show' and 'Hancock's Half Hour.' I found that when I got into school the next day I could imitate what I'd heard the night before and add to it as well. I found I could make people laugh and this was one of the first things that turned me on to theatre.

The best way to learn an accent is from someone who speaks with that accent or by going to the area where that accent is spoken. Failing that, listen to recordings and talk back to them (the talking back is very important.) You are using the power of imitation, which is an important part of the learning process. When a whole cast have to speak with an accent they can improvise together using it and catch it from each otherlike a disease.

One final Word of Wisdom: when learning an accent, exaggerate it: this accelerates the learning process because you are stretchiing yourself. When using an accent in performance, underplay it because accents are more subtle than you think and you don't want to fall into a 'stage' caricature version. Accents: exaggerate when learning, underplay when performing.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

99% isn't good enough

I first became aware of a special significance of the number 99% when I was working as an agent. Sometimes an actor would go for an audition and the next day we'd get an exciting call from the casting director. "We really like xyz" she would say "can't make an offer yet, but it's 99%." This happened a number of times, including one case I particularly remember of a lead role in a big movie playing opposite Bob Hoskins. After a while I noticed that this '99%' never turned into 100%. No-one whose chances were described as 99% ever actually got the part. 99% wasn't even 50:50. It was either that they were very good but not exactly right for the part or that they were very good but the 'money,' the film's backers, wouldn't like them. Lesson: nothing's certain till it's certain and don't count your chickens till they're hatched.

About this time I put up a notice in my office reading '99% isn't good enough.' This was a reminder for myself as well as for anyone else. Some people thought that it was a plea for perfectionism, but it didn't say 'Only 100% is good enough.' That would be foolish. Nobody's perfect. No-one in the real world is 100%. Finally it was the songwriter Alan Blaikley who got it right. The 99% was for effort. If you're going to achieve anything worthwhile in life, aim for the maximum you can. Commit yourself to whatever you are trying to do. There is no guarantee of success, but at least if you fail you will know you didn't fail for want of trying.

So the Words of Wisdom this week are 99% isn't good enough.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Learn to speak RP

The Words of Wisdom this week are Learn to speak RP. RP (Received Pronunciation), sometimes known as Standard English, is the version of the English language taught as correct by language teachers. It is, by and large, the speech of educated people in the South East of England. There can be no doubt that, whatever dialect or accent you have grown up speaking, your casting opportunities as an actor will be greatly increased if you can also speak RP.

Now your dialect or accent is an important part of your identity and I am not in favour of people changing the way they speak with their family and friends. Old fashioned elocution teachers would say things like 'He has a dreadful Birmingham accent, we must knock that out of him.' Well, I think that's pretty rude. What's wrong with speaking with the tones of the place you come from? But in the workplace something closer to RP may be required, to prevent the speaker from being disadvantaged, so, as a public speaking coach I try to teach 'Professional English,' close enough to RP for any accent not to be a distraction.

So how did RP become dominant over every other version of British English, so highly favoured and such an important class indicator? This makes for quite an interesting story. It starts with the growth of two things in the nineteenth century, the railway system and the great public schools. The public schools, Eton, Harrow, Winchester and so on, had mostly been founded in earlier centuries, educating boys on a local scale. When the railways came, the schools started to attract pupils from further afield and grew rapidly in size and number. They became the places where the sons of the aristocracy, the gentry and the professions sent their sons to board and be educated. Now people from different parts of the country had mixed before in the armed forces and at the universities, but they were older and their accents more fixed. At the schools boys started at about the age of thirteen and, being from different parts of the country, started speaking amongst themselves in a style which was not that of any one area, but a sort of average of all of them, with the South East predominant because that was where the capital was. RP was born. Now of course, when these boys grew up, they tended to become important people, in the highest ranks of society, with all the top jobs, and the way they spoke was the indication of how they'd been educated, so everyone else who wanted to get on in life had a strong incentive to learn to sound the same. RP became regarded as the best sort of English.

Coming up to date, it's interesting that, generation by generation, accents have become less marked. This is surely because of the mass media: we all grow up hearing the same voices on television, so a further averaging is taking place and we tend to speak more and more alike. In some ways that's a good thing but it also means that we have lost a lot of local colour. The exceptions to the general rule are interesting too: when people want to emphasise their cultural identity they invariably choose to speak very differently from the general run.

Learn to speak RP.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Working in a call centre is not the end of the road

The Words of Wisdom this week are working in a call centre is not the end of the road. A lot of resting actors get work in call centres. The connection is obvious. Actors have, or are supposed to have, good attractive voices and they should be fluent and able to handle a script. The work is quite easy to get, because most call centres have a rapid turnover of staff, the hours may be flexible and it's often possible to get time off for auditions or acting work.

Nevertheless, call centre work is often referred to as the actor's graveyard, as if anyone taking it up has surrendered any hope of making it in the business or ever acting again. Admittedly, the work is repetitive and not particularly well paid and it can be stressful, particularly if there are call targets to be met. But you shouldn't look down on it or hate it. Every useful task has to be done by someone and it's not good to look down on other people because of what job they do or to resent what you do because you believe you have a higher calling. Judge people by their personal qualities rather than their occupation. It's a privilege to work in the arts, which so many people want to do and no-one has a right to it.

Sometimes call centre work is receiving enquiries, as on a helpdesk. Here your person to person skills are at a premium and this is an opportunity to hone them. Sometimes you have to make the calls: cold calling people in their own homes is particularly tough, and requires great resilience. Business to business calling demands that you master some new knowledge and that provides opportunities to learn about a new industry or occupation - something actors should always be receptive to. You never know when it might come in useful.

Think positively: if you have an onerous task make sure you succeed at it: remember that success is a habit that is a good idea to get into. Take every opportunity for some character study: how do people react to you and what pushes the right button with which person? Learn how to keep a repetitive performance fresh (an important skill for actors) and, whilst remaining within the remit you have been set, experiment with your voice and accent. Sometimes you might create a whole new persona for one particular campaign.

In short, use the situation to your own advantage. Working in a call centre is not the end of the road.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Think about eating and drinking

Some decades ago a lot of people used to smoke in films and plays. Smoking was glamorous and it was essential for an actor to inhale and blow out smoke in an appropriate way. Now fewer people smoke and it's definitely not glamorous so if smoking appears at all it's to tell us that the smoker is a nervous, shifty or addicted character.

Smoking seems, to some extent, to have been replaced by eating and drinking. These are vital daily activities so it is perhaps surprising that we do not see more of them, but sooner or later most actors will have to eat or drink on stage. I have written a couple of such scenes myself and they do present the actor with some problems. So the Words of Wisdom are Think about eating and drinking.

When you are acting your mouth tends to go dry, so take very small mouthfuls so that you won't find yourself with a lump of food which you can't swallow going round and round in your mouth. Similarly with drink: if you gulp too much it may make you cough.. Incidentally, don't ever drink alcohol before a performance: it will throw you right off. There was a time when such figures as Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed were heroic drinkers, but it didn't do them much good in the end. But how people eat and drink is fascinating and very indicative of their personality and relationship with others. So this is something to make a study of. When you go out to eat, do some people-watching.

Never try miming drinking from an empty cup. It's just about impossible to get it right because the distribution of weight is wrong. If it's a hot drink don't substitute a cold one. Hot water poured from a kettle or teapot sounds different from cold. Apple juice looks like wine, and so on. Think about eating and drinking.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Study Status

The Words of Wisdom this week are Study Status. We all know what status is, it comes from power, attractiveness, being admired or having social standing. And it also comes as a personal quality, an inner feeling of being important or unimportant. People of high personal status appear to be effortlessly superior; those with low status put themselves down and defer to others. Certain areas of work - selling, teaching - demand skill in adjusting status; it must be high enough to be respected but not so high as to be overbearing. Also it's important to be able to raise the status of others which is a function of praise (or flattery.) In drama, status is always an important factor and shifts in the status of characters are particularly important.

Here are some characteristics of high status behaviour. Being upright and still. Spreading the body. Not fidgeting or touching the face. Employing strong gaze. Blanking people, or not checking their reaction to something you've said. Speaking slowly, confidently and in complete sentences. In each case, low status behaviour is the opposite. Shouting is generally low status behaviour. It implies struggling to be in charge of a situation and not controlling oneself, but a sudden, fierce shout, commanding attention, might be high status. There are certain behaviours that might be described as 'status gambles', for example dressing or behaving inappropriately in a situation. This is as if to say "I'm so important that I don't have to keep the rules." If one's personal status is high enough to carry this off, then that status is confirmed, but if it fails then one's status is diminished.

This is a rich field of study and a knowedge of it can be very valuable in many areas of life, so Study Status.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Study your emotions

The Words of Wisdom this week are Study Your Emotions. Be aware of the inner feelings which you experience at different times in your life and which lead you to action. When acting or preparing for a part revive emotional memories of things that have happened to you. How did they feel, physically? What happened to your face? What happened, in particular, to your eyes? Observe how the interaction between the emotional and the physical runs both ways: if you are happy you smile, if you smile it makes you feel happy.

What are the emotions?
Fear. Surely the most basic of the emotions, because it is the survival emotion, protecting us from danger, and must go far back in our evolution. It has many relatives from worry, nervousness and anxiety to terror and panic.
Happiness. Something we all pursue and are fortunate if we find.
Disgust. Hatred if it applies to a person.
Anger. The whole gamut from irritation to fury and rage.
Sadness From regret to inconsolable grief.

Those are the five primary emotions. One on its own is surprise. Something which, by definition, cannot be planned for. A difficult one for actors to portray, though a sudden movement often helps.

Here are some less obvious emotions.
Confusion, or doubt,
Pride. Proper pride, as in believing that your team is the best, and arrogant pride, believing that others are inferior.
Gratitude. Being thankful.
Curiosity. This is a valuable one for actors to explore. We are curious creatures and are interested in any new thing. In any scene, ask yourself what is your character focussing on and where is their attention directed, particularly if it changes.
Inspiration. Feeling uplifted or transformed.

A word of warning. There are some drama teachers who seem to regard acting training as a form of psychotherapy. They have no compunction in breaking their students down and invading their private feelings. This is an abuse of authority and should be avoided at all costs.

Meanwhile: Study Your Emotions.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Find a switch

The Words of Wisdom this week are Find a Switch. A switch is a way by which you can go into character easily. If you play a part in rehearsal you will develop a feeling for the part you are playing, in which you simulate the mental and emotional state of the person, the way they speak and their physicality. This makes a whole imaginary persona which may be like or unlike your real self. Basically, acting is pretending to be a different person from yourself, a different person and a whole person.

You shouldn't be too precious about this, incidentally. I've heard of actors saying of a line in the script "But my character wouldn't say that." Well, if the writer wrote it, then, sorry, your character does say it and your task as an actor is to make what you have to say credible, however difficult that may be.

So what is the switch? The switch is a strong element of that characterisation which you can turn on at will and which will take you into the character. It may be a certain phrase or a way of speaking or a physical movement or a moment in the drama, anything that's striking and different that you can associate with the part. It's like the way that scents and smells can remind you of places and memories. One famous English actress always worked from the way she held her feet. Once she knew how she stood and walked she was there. That's not necessarily recommended but I think you'll get the idea. Think of the switch, feel it, and you'll get the character.

Try it and I think you'll find it works. But how does it work? Well, look up the Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov. It was he who rang a bell whenever he fed his dog, with the effect that eventually the dog would salivate whenever he heard the bell ring, even if no food was offered. That is known as a conditioned reflex. By operating a switch you are developing a conditioned reflex that takes you from a strong feature of your part into the whole persona of the character. The more you do it the stronger it gets and the Words of Wisdom are Find a Switch.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Accept your awards graciously

It's never too early in your career to learn how to accept an award. One day it may happen to you and you want to be prepared. It's a simple enough process but there are a lot of ways in which you can get it wrong, so here's some advice on how to accept your awards graciously.

We live in the age of celebrity and award presentations are the quasi religious ceremonies of the age. They need to be handled with respect, but without excessive awe for the occasion. We have all seen music business awards where the winners slouch onto the stage and grunt like inarticulate teenagers, as if to show they're not suits, man, but rebel hearts, although they are in fact multi millionaires in their forties. Not good.

Generally speaking the best acceptance speeches are given by makeup and costume designers, special effects people, producers and, usually, directors. They will be short, sincere and to the point. Unfortunately the actors, who are the most used to appearing before an audience, often deliver the worst speeches of all, so here are some points to remember.

Don't start crying, it's embarrassing and unnecessary. Don't fail to have a speech prepared, it's disrespectful. Don't pretend not to have a speech prepared, you were nominated weren't you? It looks dumb. Don't attempt to make political or social comments, you will appear empty headed. For example it's not a good idea to raise the issue of global warming in front of an audience many of whom will have just crossed the Atlantic by private jet. Don't embark on a dissertation on the philosophy of the stage, or a memoir starting with the lives of your grandparents: people will think you are losing your marbles and won't ever employ you again.

It's a bad mistake to thank too many people for helping you: the more people you thank the more people will be aggrieved because you've left them out. A maximum of three is advisable, after which you give a general and heartfelt thank you to all the many other people without whom you would never have been honoured. Everyone will be satisfied by that. Don't thank God under any circumstances: implying that you are more favoured by the almighty than the other nominees is hubristic and may come back to bite you in later life. Keep it short, otherwise it looks as if you are trying to hog the screen time (which you will be.) Don't tell jokes, they usually fall flat. If members of the royal family are present make no reference to that fact, you will either look obsequious or cheeky if you do.

On these occasions there are only two possible outcomes. You have either won or you have lost. Prepare for both eventualities. The evening always goes on much too long, so be prepared for that too. Don't eat too much and consume a maximum of one drink and no other intoxicating substances. If there's a red carpet work the crowd and autograph anything that's put in front of you (bring your own pen.) If interviewed it's perfectly acceptable, indeed obligatory, to state that you think you have no chance of winning, whatever the true situation may be. Enjoy yourself.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Voice; body; mind.

Words of Wisdom

Work on your voice - every day
Work on your body - every day
Work on your mind - every day

If you are serious about being an actor, that is what you have to do, so you have to make these things part of your regular, daily timetable.

Working on your voice includes deep breathing exercises, exercises to open your throat, so that your voice isn't trapped there, exercises exploring your full range of pitch, practising projection and sharpening your articulation and diction. It's important to do this regularly, not just occasionally.

Working on your body includes stretching, core body exercises, cardiovascular work, such as running, aerobics or swimming - that is absolutely central to your fitness - strength training using weights and something involving agility, such as dance or martial arts. Make progress by gradual increments: that way you improve but are less likely to suffer injury.

Working on your mind includes plenty of reading, fact, fiction, biography, history, doing a mindstretching puzzle, meditating, writing a diary or setting down some other thoughts. planning for the future. Focus on one thing at a time, analyse it and then integrate it into the whole.

I am a great believer that education should not end at the end of school or college: make self improvement a lifelong aim. Develop your capabilities and maintain them.

Work on your voice - every day
Work on your body - every day
Work on your mind - every day

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

It's not only what you say; it's the way that you say it

Words of Wisdom: It's not only what you say; it's the way that you say it. This is something that all actors should study. They have to deliver lines, words written by a playwright, but how they deliver them is very much a matter of the actor's choice and it is vitally important.

It is difficult for writers to indicate exactly how they want their words to be spoken. They will use punctuation, of course, question marks and exclamation marks, capitals and italics, possibly, but that only gets them so far. A direction such as 'sarcastically' or 'pause' may go a little further, but there is a lot of work to be done by the actor, him or herself.

That can only be based on a lot of listening. For a start, listen to the huge differences between the vocal tones of men, women, boys and girls. Listen to the difference between a question and a statement. Listen to the effect of non verbal sounds: 'um', 'er', the many different kinds of 'ah!' Study the many different variations of pitch, volume and intonation and try them out for yourself. Try a slower or faster pace and different variations of pace - a hard thing to master and one of the most important things, too.

This whole field is called 'paralanguage' and it includes what you may have heard me describe as 'emphasisers.'

See how voices indicate emotions and attitudes. Study people you know and characters you see and hear on screen. And don't forget our cousins, the animals. If you have a cat, how does it express 'I'm hungry', or 'open the door', or 'you trod on my tail', or 'I am happy'. And note that these expressions are always integrated with the animal's body language. Our spoken language is only a (very important) extension of the language of our entire body, not least our eye contact and gaze, our head movement and gesture. They're all different parts of the whole.

And we haven't even started on accents and dialects! Do some homework in front of the television. In politics, contrast the vocal styles of David Cameron and Gordon Brown; in music, Madonna and Lily Allen; in acting Jack Nicholson and Hugh Grant; in sport, Jamie Redknapp and Andrew Strauss; in newscasting, go to Sky News and check the subtle differences between Anna Botting and Kay Burley.

In short: It's not only what they say; it's the way that they say it.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

It's not the singer but the song; not the actor but the play

Many of you will know what an enthusiast I am for TV talent shows, such as American Idol and the X Factor. My business, of course, is helping talent to develop, so I am fascinated by watching the contestants, who may or may not have talent, which may or may not be going to develop, and seeing what happens to them. Now a lot of the competitors, at their first audition, will be desperate to show what amazing singers they are, with spectacular vocal gymnastics, loud, soft, high, low, with unexpected runs and melodic changes, often in an attempt at the style of Mariah Carey or the late Michael Jackson. One thing will be forgotten in all this sound and fury: the song itself. And that is the most important thing. The task of the singer is to deliver the song, with all the meaning and feeling of the lyrics and the music. Anything that they do that is original or showy has to be in the service of the song. All they have to do is deliver the song extremely well and the audience and the judges will recognise what a good singer they are.

It's the same for actors. Acting in a play is not an opportunity to show off your vocal brilliance, your beautiful voice, how you can pose and posture. The important thing is the play (or, of course, the screenplay) and what you and your fellow actors (drama being a team activity) can make the audience think and feel. The play's the thing. It shouldn't be a competitive event or an exhibition. If the audience can believe that you actually are the character you are portraying, then you will have succeeded.

So the Words of Wisdom this week are: It's not the singer but the song; not the actor but the play.

Friday, 1 January 2010

Words without thoughts never to heaven go

The Words of Wisdom for the new year are 'Words without thoughts never to heaven go.' Yes, it's Shakespeare, from Hamlet, and the first Words of 2010 are about phrasing - something technical but also commonsensical. It's about words without thoughts not meaning anything to an audience.

When we speak, we express a sequence of thoughts. Each element of thought becomes a phrase of the speech. When analysing a text always observe the punctuation, the full stops, commas and so on. But also work out the phrasing, which is determined by the meaning of what's being said.

Here's an example, which also comes from Hamlet. He talks about death, 'The undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.' There are two thoughts here, that death is like an unknown land and that no-one can return from it. So, putting in a little dash to indicate the phrasing, a just perceptible break of a fraction of a second, it has to be spoken as 'The undiscovered country - from whose bourn no traveller returns.' The break does not have to be produced artificially, it is just the result of thinking the two thoughts, one after the other. But in a recent production of the play the actor playing Hamlet gave us 'The undiscovered country from whose bourn - no traveller returns.' This was, presumably, for vocal effect, but it's impossible to think 'The undiscovered country from whose bourn' therefore it doesn't make sense to say it.

Here's another example, from the same performance. The lines are well known: 'The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.' What must Hamlet be thinking here? Paraphrasing, there are three thoughts: 'I'll use the play - I'll catch him out - in his conscience.' So it should be phrased 'The play's the thing - wherein I'll catch - the conscience of the King.' (Remember these dashes represent a tiny break of a fraction of a second, simply achieved by thinking the three thoughts.) The actor used the phrasing 'The play's the thing - wherein I'll catch the conscience - of the King.' How can you think 'wherein I'll catch the conscience'? Who's conscience? It's a showy way of saying it, but meaningless.

Now this is not to be critical of a particular actor, who, overall, gave a fine performance in a demanding part, but it does show how easily, particularly when the words are very familiar, one can deliver the words but forget the thought processes that would have shaped them.

It's not always as clear cut as the examples I've given, either. Often there might be several possibilities for how something might be phrased. It's not always a problem with one unique solution, but it is something to be aware of and think about. And of course, if you're improvising, making the words up as you go along, it's no problem at all. But words without thoughts never to heaven go.