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.