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.