We learn in many ways and one of the most important and profound is through empathizing with others who have had similar experiences to ours and understanding the ways that they react to them and why.
—Janos Horvath regarding ActorNotes.com

April 25, 2013

Truth: Church Basement Ladies & Shakespeare

As an actor I am always trying to find the truth of everything I say and do onstage. I realize that this is not a new thought, but it is one that I have taken for granted lately. It is just something I do, not giving much thought to why.

But one of the many why’s just became so much more clear to me. Truth is imminently watchable.

I was wondering why so many people like the show Church Basement Ladies. (It was running at Wayside Theatre right before I started rehearsals for Boeing Boeing.) I am not going to pretend that it is a bad show, or that it isn’t art. Because it is art, and it is a good show. But I hadn’t given any thought to why. The answer is simple. There is a lot of truth in it.

The reason that show does so well with audiences is that they see themselves on stage. Or they see people they know. There is a kind of familiarity there that is absent from so many other shows. It is the characters and the situations they are in that is so endearing.

So what about Shakespeare? It is the same thing, at its core, that will make the same audience love Shakespeare that already loves Church Basement Ladies. Familiarity. Truth.

Because we lose so much familiarity in the way of situations (and honestly, characters) comparing Church Basement Ladies to Shakespeare we must make up for it with pure truth. If an audience sees characters on stage who they may not relate to personally but nevertheless believe are real and truthful, that becomes so fascinating they don’t care that those characters are dealing with situations that they themselves have never encountered. They are thrilled to see this thing that seems so real.

This entry was posted in Back to Basics, Intangibles and tagged character, truth on by Don Denton.

Revisiting Old Material

This may be a no-brainer for most of the acting world, but every once in a while, even the most obvious things take a while to sink in.

I recently added a song to my repertoire that I had heard dozens of times, but had never sung myself: “But Not For Me” by Gershwin. It never really spoke to me. I was more of a fan of the “They All Laughed” type of Gershwin music. I realized that the song is so incredibly beautiful and that I never would have appreciated it as a younger actor. It is full of some of the worst kind of heartache and pain that you just can’t grasp right out of college.

There are so many things that we are asked to experience as actors long before we experience them as people. In many cases, we hopefully never will experience them. But in the event that we do, it is incredibly worthwhile to look at old material or previously untouched material with these new eyes.

This entry was posted in Personal Experience and tagged art imitating life, Gershwin, renewing material on by Don Denton.

“You should think of every audition as an opportunity to perform”
—Philip Wm. McKinley

April 24, 2013

Release Into the Play

This entry comes to us from Eddie Staver. Eddie is one of the most talented actors that I know, and I am thrilled to have him as a contributor to this project. I hope this is the first of many entries from him.

~Don

Pillowman: Katurian
Illinois State University, Normal IL 2006

From director Bob Quinlan “Eddie, it’s time to release into the play.”

I didn’t comprehend what Bob meant when he first offered up this masterfully worded piece of advice. It has become a part of my process, used in EVERY play that I’ve acted in since. It’s quite simple really, release your developed character into the world of the play that you and your team have developed throughout rehearsal.

In other words…let go.

This is fundamental in one’s development as an actor. Break down personal walls, humble your pride, exude vulnerability and you’ll be ready to start developing a character. To “release into the play” is a different matter, though. That comes when the character is fully developed. Finding the time to implement this idea of releasing can prove to be difficult. Too early and the actor enters a underdeveloped world, one where people and places aren’t prepared for interaction. Too late and, well, the audience gets cheated if you get my drift.

Side note: Anything less than a FULL release for every moment of every scene the character is in does no good. Strive for excellence, it will decrease the detriment of your errors.

Back on track now. A process of trial and error is needed to determine when the release works best, varying for each individual. Now, many times I will release moments early on. This is fine. It’s healthy to recognize. However this isn’t releasing into the PLAY. Much work must be done on everyone’s part in order for the play to be a safe place for the actor to release into. Often times this happens in dress rehearsals leading up to opening. When the actor is ready to solidify the choices they’ve been testing out in rehearsal. Remember shows don’t grow, cancer grows! Shows get more specific.

This entry was posted in Intangibles and tagged final steps, letting go, trust on by Eddie Staver.

Pick someone to learn from

As discussed in The Little Book of Talent (a great read for anyone in any walk of life), one of the most important things you can do to increase your skill level at anything is to watch people who are good at it. Not just watch, but study carefully and absorb.

The first time that this concept truly hit me (way before I read the book mentioned above) was watching Gene Weygandt during rehearsals for The Light in the Piazza at Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. Gene is an incredibly talented and seasoned Chicago actor. His stage presence is largely unmatched and his acting choices are incredibly thoughtful. Or, I assume they are. He could just be flying by the seat of his pants, but I doubt it.

During rehearsals, I watched him like a hawk whenever I got the opportunity. I learned a lot. But more importantly, I am still learning from the movies in my mind of his work. I am today, years later, making connections every now and again to things I watched him do back then.

For example, I have recently been thinking a lot about silence on stage. When it is effective, when it is detrimental. Length, depth, etc. Comedic timing vs. dramatic timing… just timing. One of the things I think about is Gene’s incredible moment playing Sr. Naccarelli while delivering the line “I have known many Americans during the war. Done certain small things for them in, how you say… ‘liaison.’” I was amazed at the pause he put before the final word of the line. He was really searching for that English word that his Italian tongue had not used in years. I was, perhaps, the only person intrigued by that moment in the show, but because I studied that moment so intensely I have a remarkably clear memory of it in my mind. And the timing of that line still informs my thoughts and decisions today. But it also informs me of something else. The pause wasn’t just dead space. During that pause, Gene’s character was visibly annoyed/frustrated with himself for not having the word he wants right at the tip of his tongue. The journey his character took in that 7 seconds or so throughout the entirety of the line was visceral. You knew exactly what was going on in his head and felt his slight struggle to a) communicate and b) keep up the pace of conversation.

Much of what I have derived from that moment has only happened recently, but the fact that I absorbed that moment and observed it carefully then is giving me all kinds of benefits now. It isn’t just watching or just paying attention. It is active observation. Hang on to every millisecond of what you are observing. If you have The Little Book of Talent, re-read Tip #1: Stare at who you want to become.

I think that it is a very worthwhile practice to consciously pick someone worth learning from and absorb as much as you can from them by simply paying close attention. I believe that this can work even if there isn’t someone in your cast who is as engrossing as Mr. Weygandt. You would probably do well to even study those who are making “mistakes” and capture those mistakes in your mind. In the future, you may see a brilliance in them that you couldn’t appreciate before, or you may make a connection and realize why the choices they made didn’t seem to work.

This entry was posted in Observation and tagged silence, timing on by Don Denton.

Not every character you play is going to be as smart as you

This piece comes to us from Theresa McGuirk. I am very pleased to have an entry of this quality as the first from a guest author. The voice of this piece is clearly speaking directly to the reader, but don’t let that dissuade you from submitting something that comes from a different angle altogether. Feel free to copy and paste straight from your personal acting journal. One of our upcoming featured authors did just that, with a little tidying up for clarity.

~Don

One of the things I appreciate most as an actor is that moment when everything clicks. You know what I mean. That moment when you are on stage and all of a sudden, the clouds part and the heavens open and the years of intense training come joyfully to fruition, and the blood, sweat, and tears endured during the rehearsal process are all worth it. That moment where you discover something not only about your character, but about yourself as well.

When I was in school, my fellow classmates and I were tasked with the wonderful assignment of performing four monologues as part of our acting final. Two classic, two contemporary, a comedic and dramatic of each. After that ordeal was over, I went to my acting teacher for notes on my performance. She said that I did a great job with each of the pieces, but the thing that concerned her was that they all seemed to have the same IQ. More importantly, they all had my IQ.

“You are a very smart young lady,” she said, “but not every character you play is going to be as smart as you.”

I pondered her words for a long time and they seemed to make sense, but it wasn’t until about two years later that that nugget of wisdom really hit me.

I was called in at the last minute to take over a part in a show. It was a role that I was actually supposed to play from the beginning, but things changed. Anyway, it was really a blessing in disguise that things turned out the way they did; not for my sanity or the sleep that I lost, but for my growth as an actor. If I had had the whole process to over-think things, like I normally did, I would probably never have learned the lesson I was supposed to learn.

This was a character that was so far removed from me. She was a floater, I am a wringer. She was very simple with her thoughts and I, well, I have never had a simple thought in my life. And I had four short days to learn lines, and blocking, and when to wear what costume, and oh yeah, how to lower my IQ to be this girl who was no where near as smart as I was.

Somewhere in the middle of the second preview, this gloriously bright light bulb went off in my head. It occurred to me, as I was delivering the most tripped out monologue about how I wanted to be an eagle, that a wall had been broken through. This girl wasn’t as smart as me, true, but she wasn’t dumb. No one really goes through life thinking that they are dumb. She might not have had super complex thoughts, but the thoughts she did have were important to her.

And then it occurred to me that the reason I was always opting to play smart, strong women, was because I was scared of the vulnerability that came with not seeming invincible. The walls of strength and intelligence that I had been hiding behind needed to come down.

I did start to notice, after I came to this realization, that a lot of us seem to struggle with finding a happy IQ for our characters. One woman I have worked with in the past, a very seasoned actress, had such trouble with a character she was playing. A character, you could tell, she thought she was much smarter than. Rather than embracing this role, she almost seemed to be personally commenting on how not smart she thought this girl was to the point of mockery, or caricaturization. This led to a very lackluster and insincere performance that the audience had trouble relating to.

One of my favorite pastimes is people watching. You learn a lot about people and what they think of themselves just by observing them. I have found this practice to be incredibly helpful when I need some guidance on how to adjust my IQ. If you need enlightenment about people, that is the best place to start. But don’t do it at Walmart. There are some forms of intelligence that should never be observed.

This entry was posted in Character Status and tagged avoiding caricature, character intelligence on by Theresa McGuirk.

If they walk out, we’re doing our job

As the very first post that this site will contain, I must admit I don’t want to set the wrong course. This insight that I found has little to do with the acting process, but might be useful from a directorial standpoint or from the perspective of an artistic director. Shame on me for starting out with a bit of a tangent, but in reality, it still serves to inform the actor, I think. Some things are more indirect, as I feel this realization may be.

~Don

Often actors in a show that could be slightly offensive take the stance that having people walk out of your performance is a sign that you are doing well. I’ve always been slightly put off at that sentiment. How could it be good for the theater (venue), for the theatre (art form), for the audience, and for the actor to offend someone to the point that they walk out on your show? The theater loses money (which in turn will make them wary of doing that kind of show again), the actor loses a job if the theater loses enough money, the theatre loses even more ground to less communal entertainment, and the audience loses the opportunity to be challenged, changed, or entertained. Yet, I also always felt there was a truth buried somewhere in the sentiment that “we are doing our job right if people walk out.”

Last night during a conversation about our show with a fellow castmate, the words I have been looking for fell out of my mouth and I had one of those moments where I connected the dots faster than I could comprehend. I spoke the words and in hearing myself speak, I found the answer to the question.

The real victories in theatre that aims to push an audience isn’t in the number of people that walk out, but in the number of people who almost walk out. Victory is in the people who are initially offended enough to notice they are offended, but are also entertained enough to stay and see the play through. It is those people who are likely to think about what they saw and re-evaluate their beliefs. Even if those beliefs don’t change, that isn’t important. They are still bettered for having thought about something rather than dismiss it entirely.

This entry was posted in Direction and tagged offending the audience, winning over the audience on by Don Denton.