More Tips for actors

As I finish teaching my Summer acting class and prepare to teach another one in the Fall, I am reflecting on what sort of experience my students get from each session. I have offered “The Acting Process” for several years, but I am also interested in the teaching process. I like to take stock of  what techniques I’ve refined and what ideas I’ve either disposed of completely, or found myself emphasizing. I wrote a previous blog laying out some tips for actors and here are a few more that I’d like to share. If you want more suggestions, especially involving character work and relationships, then I invite you to register for my upcoming class from August to October.

1. Pick up your cues. When we are in rehearsals, we tend to be very polite to our fellow actors. We wait for them to say their line, we pause for just a second afterward to make sure they’ve said all they have to say, and then we speak. Those little seconds, and even milliseconds, can really add up. They affect the momentum and the pacing in a scene. However, when someone is talking to us in real life, we assume we know how they are going to finish a sentence and we are already formulating our response. If you listen to actual conversations, you’ll notice that often we cut people off before they are done speaking so that we can talk. Now, in a scene, we don’t have to do that for every line (although some overlapping can be good), but if we are ready to come in right as the other actor finishes speaking, we keep the action moving. It also helps us with our active listening (which I also talk about in the post linked above).

2. Plant your feet. When we are beginning to block a scene, holding our scripts and still getting used to the lines, we have a tendency to shuffle our feet. At least, it’s something I’ve noticed a lot of actors do, and I’ve been guilty of it myself. That’s not necessarily a problem in the early stages of a rehearsal, but that muscle memory can get lodged into our subconscious pretty quickly. Even after we’ve learned our lines and practiced our blocking, we might still find ourselves slowly and haltingly moving towards, or away from, the actor we’re speaking to. It muddies the distance between us and disrupts the composition and stage picture of a scene. There is a simple solution. Plant your feet. Take a stand. Embrace the stillness and focus on what you are saying or hearing. We don’t have to be constantly moving. In fact, we usually steal focus when we do. So, root yourself into the ground and don’t move! But, when you do move…

3. Move with purpose. If we are uncertain about what our character should be doing, or second guessing our motivation, that can often translate to a vague and self-conscious blocking choice. We just amble across the stage, stopping and starting, perhaps looking back the way we came, not sure if we should even be moving. So, when you cross the stage, or sit in a chair, or pick up a book from a table, commit to the movement. Go from point A to point B. Decide if you want to get there quickly, slowly, or at a normal pace, and then go for it. You can think about it later, after the scene is over. If we try to analyze it as we’re doing it, we short circuit our actor’s intuition.

4. Make sure you don’t deliver your lines on “tape”. One side effect of memorizing lines and practicing a scene over and over again is that we can get into a vocal pattern without even realizing it, and we start to deliver our lines with the same cadence and tone. It’s sometimes referred to as being on tape. We say the lines the same way, every time and it becomes hard to break free of that vocal trap. A technique that I like, is to refocus my attention towards what my character wants in that given moment, what is standing in my way, and how I want to try and overcome that obstacle. By getting to the immediacy of the problem, I communicate with my scene partner and I’m not just reciting lines.

5. Your first choice in a scene may be good, but it’s usually the most obvious one. I wrote about this in a previous blog, from when I was playing the role of John Wilkes Booth in Assassins. I could have very easily played that character based on my first impressions of the script, but there was so much more lurking under the surface, just waiting to be drawn out. I think it’s a good thing to trust your instincts and go with your gut in the beginning of a rehearsal process, but some actors never dig any deeper. Even if you find really good motivations for a character, explore the opposite of those choices. Delve into their relationship with the other people in the play, what events led them to this current moment, etcetera. No character exists in a vacuum, and by denying yourself the opportunity to research the role, you run the risk of presenting the audience with a person who only exists from the moment the lights come up until the final curtain drops. We want to portray fully realized human beings, with hopes, desires, flaws and a history, even if none of that is spoken aloud. If we don’t do the work, the audience can tell.

6. Be prepared to fail. Embrace it, cherish it and learn from it. It can be very tempting to play it safe in rehearsal and only do work that we think will meet the approval of our fellow actors and (especially!) the director. Unfortunately, that can lead to a measured and palatable performance that doesn’t make an impression on anyone. A good director will create a safe environment where not only is it okay to fail, but it is encouraged! We learn more from our failures than from our successes. When something doesn’t feel like it’s working in a rehearsal, that can lead us to a truly great idea that does work. But, if we’re afraid of looking foolish, then we don’t risk failure and we never find that inspiring moment that someone in the audience might remember for the rest of their life.

7. Trust in the work and find the joy in it! If we have done our job well, then we have written a lot of paperwork, broken down all of our lines to their tiniest beats, figured out many, many tactics to get what we want, and rehearsed our parts exhaustively. The point of doing all of that work, however, is so that we can literally throw it all away and just be in the moment. We trust in that moment, because we have prepared extensively for it and we are not just “winging it”. Being fully present and alive on stage is riveting to watch and, I believe, can only consistently happen when the groundwork has been laid.

 

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The Joy of Working

Last weekend I closed Aaron Sorkin’s “The Farnsworth Invention” at Gallery Players, where I played David Sarnoff. This weekend, Available Light opens “The Christians” and I’ll be portraying Elder Jay. It’s been a lot of overlap the last few weeks, performing one play and rehearsing another, but it’s been rewarding to be onstage again. 

I’d been on a hiatus from stage acting, just directing plays this year, as well as acting in a couple of feature films. I’ve also been teaching at both a college and a university, and planning a wedding. I have found that, as nice as it is to be performing again, the most important thing has been to keep busy. It doesn’t matter if I am acting, directing, teaching, working on lines, preparing a lesson or writing a blog; if I am in action, then I am moving towards something. Something that brings a feeling of satisfaction and happiness. 

Speaking of things that bring happiness and satisfaction, we are getting ready to announce the 10th season of Available Light Theatre! There has been a lot of behind the scenes preparation and a number of people in the company have gone above and beyond to make sure all the little details are getting done. 

We are a company of people who do things. 

We are always in motion, always going from one rehearsal to another, from our day jobs to the theater, stopping to rest only when the work is done for that day.  Then we start again the next morning and repeat. It can get a bit exhausting and sometimes our energies get pulled in many different directions, but what keeps us focused and pushes us forward, no matter how tired we are, is a common goal.

We want to change the world. One audience at a time. 

“Chain of Command”

2014-12-21 21.59.42(Disclaimer: I am not allowed to post details on social media about this film until it is through post-production, so I am leaving out key details for now.

(Update: The film, “Chain of Command”, is now available on various streaming services)

I am standing in the bathroom, washing my hands. My eyepatch is itchy and I resist the urge to touch it. I look up and see a police officer, the same guy who came into the restaurant a few minutes after me, heading towards me holding a syringe filled with what looks like poison. Before I can react, my friend James has come out of nowhere, grabbed him by the arm and slammed him against the wall. I grab the syringe that has fallen into the sink and go to lock the bathroom door. James hands me his gun, takes the syringe and as I train the gun on the cop, he plunges the needle into the cop’s chest. He begins to interrogate him, threatening to inject the poison into his system. The dirty cop tells him all that he knows, which isn’t much, and James pushes his thumb down on the plunger. The cop convulses, a little foam comes out of his mouth and he falls to the floor. James turns to me and says “It’s just you and me now. We’ll get through this together.” He walks away and I follow. As we get to the door, the director says “Cut!”. Michael Jai White, who plays James, tells me that he’d like to try a different line after the cop falls over dead. The cop gets up from the mat he fell on to, adjusts his elbow and knee pads and spits out the alka seltzer he had in his mouth. The director and the DP (director of photography) confer about the take, then the DP says “Reset!” and the camera grip moves back to the first position on the dolly track. The director comes up to us and says “That was a good take. We can use a lot of that. The alka seltzer didn’t foam enough, though. Could you dribble it out of your mouth a little slower?” The cop nods and Michael and I go back to our first positions. The sound rolls, the camera is slated with the clap board and the director yells “Action!”.

I am standing in the bathroom washing my hands. My eyepatch is still itchy and I resist the urge to touch it. I look up and see a police officer…

We shoot that scene in the bathroom about six more times. It’s just me, James, the cop and sixteen other people, along with three cameras, dozens of lights and hundreds of cables. It’s the last scene of the day, which started for the crew at 7 am. Earlier in the day I was tied to a chair, bruised and battered, being interrogated by an old army buddy turned criminal. That scene was actually much less exhausting than this one, since all I had to do was sit there with makeup on my face and pretend to be in pain. I’ve been filming this movie for several days and in fact have a fairly large part; I am second on the call sheet, right below Michael Jai White. The funny thing is, I almost didn’t audition for this role.

I had been fortunate enough to be hired for the last two jobs I’d auditioned for in Cincinnati. I was cast in a small role in “A Kind of Murder”, a feature film starring Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel and I had booked a series of training films for Proctor and Gamble. I was also traveling back and forth to Cincinnati for auditions and shoots almost every other day for three weeks, as well as directing She Kills Monsters for Available Light Theatre and teaching an Intro to Acting class at Otterbein University, my alma mater. When I got the call about an audition for a low budget (but still union) action film, I looked at the part and thought “I’m not right for this character at all and I really don’t want to drive to Cincinnati two or three more times this week!” Fortunately, my fiancée (Further Update: She’s now my wife) reminded me that when opportunities arise, you have to go after them. You can’t predict the results, but you can at least give it your best shot. So, I went to the auditions and then the callbacks and gave them my version of Sam Thorne, a disillusioned vet who lost an eye in the war in Afghanistan and just wants to forget about his time there. The director and producer liked my take on the character and I booked the job just as She Kills Monsters was opening and the semester was ending at Otterbein. Really, I couldn’t have asked for better timing.

And here I am now, getting attacked in a bathroom by a corrupt cop, being saved by my best friend and watching him dispatch the guy with a syringe meant for me. After the cop falls over dead, foam very clearly coming out of his mouth, James turns to me and this time says “F**k the police”. The crew breaks out in laughter and the director comes over afterwards and says “That was pretty funny and it might work. But, let’s do a few more takes with the other line and see how that reads.” The DP yells “Reset!” and we all go back to our first positions. It’s getting late, my eyepatch is still itchy and I couldn’t be happier.

5 things that are feeding my soul

This week and next are fairly hectic, so this is more of a personal update than an official blog post.

1. My acting class started and I have eight motivated students that I am excited to be working with. It also means that right now I am scouring through plays to find monologues and scenes for them to work on.

2. bobrauschenbergamerica opens in a few weeks and we just had an off-book rehearsal that went really well. We’ve also learned a line dance, a square dance and a song with four part harmony.

3. This Saturday, August 24th, we will be hosting Available Light Theatre’s annual fundraiser, Feed Your Soul (http://avltheatre.com/fys13/). It is a wonderful gala and this year there will be a very inspirational performance. It’s a reconfiguration of one of my favorite Available Light shows. You don’t want to miss it. Plus, there will be some great auction items, donated from businesses and artists all over Columbus.

4. We are working on our original show, Glue. We’re currently doing interviews with people about friendship. We’ve also been getting together as a company (when not rehearsing bobrauschenbergamerica) and developing Glue‘s structure.

5. I am preparing two sets of auditions and callbacks in September for shows I’m directing in 2014. One is The Music Man for Gahanna Community Theatre. The other is Cock for Available Light Theatre. These shows will appeal to two very different audiences, I’m guessing.

The Cockfight Play

There’s been some talk lately that my theatre work has become a little more…vulgar. Actually, I don’t think there’s been any talk, but I like to think I’m capable of being controversial. I am directing a show for Available Light Theatre called “Cock” and it’s certainly an easier show to market than some others. Something about it sticks in people’s heads…

The playwright has written on the first page of the script that there should be no set, no props and no miming. The idea is that there is nothing distracting the audience from what’s being said by the characters. I think of it sort of like reading a book. The audience fills in the blanks and sees in their mind’s eye what the actors are describing. The actors are free to move around the space, as well as each other, in ways that relate to what they are saying. Sometimes their movements directly reflect their words and motivations; sometimes the movement is more abstract and surreal. It’s been fun working with the actors to find what staging feels best for them and for the story we’re telling.

The show itself is very funny and insightful, which makes me think of it as a comedy with dramatic underpinnings. It’s the story of John, who has been in a serious relationship with a man for several years and after a bad breakup, finds himself involved with a woman. He gets very close to her in a short amount of time and then goes back to his boyfriend. From that point on, he bounces back and forth between the two of them without being able to commit to either. You could also say that he is trying to commit to both of them. The 80 minute one-act culminates in a dinner party where John’s two lovers force him to make a choice. The already bizarre dinner has an even more surprising turn that I won’t give away here.

The play deals very heavily with language; how we tend to define ourselves as specifically as possible and then act on those labels. Society, and even our closest friends and family, want to know if we are gay or straight (or, *gasp*… bi-sexual). I think this occurs all the time in the real world. Are we religious or agnostic (or, *gasp*… atheist)? Are we democrats or republicans (or, *gasp*… libertarians)? One of the things the play questions is why we feel this need to label ourselves and others.

I have said in the past that I identify myself as an actor first, a teacher and director second. I really don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve come to believe that I am just a human being, in a world of human beings. When I’m in rehearsal for “Cock”, I am a director. When I’m in rehearsal for “Leaving the Atocha Station“, I am an actor. When I am with my students at CCAD, I am a teacher. When I’m having coffee with someone I know, I am a friend.

This show, like most shows I do with Available Light, has helped me to grow in my understanding of myself and the world around me. I hope you are able to come see these amazing actors. I also hope that you will see and hear something in the play that sticks in your head and gives you something to ponder. If it changes how you think of yourself and others, I won’t ask you to define it.

Next Stop, River City

You may (or may not) have noticed that it has been a month and a half since my last blog post. What have I been doing during that time? Have I been snowed in, watching Netflix, refreshing my Facebook newsfeed? Fortunately, I have not. I have been teaching two acting classes and working full time at my various day jobs.

Oh, I’ve also been directing 70 people in a musical.

That's not even all of them on stage...
That’s not even all of them on stage…

Plus, working with a fantastic music director and his amazing 25 piece orchestra.

That's not even all of THEM, either...
That’s not even all of THEM, either…

Gahanna Community Theatre’s “The Music Man” opens tonight and it has truly been a labor of love. Due to the way the performance dates fell this year, we had a much shorter rehearsal process and of course the weather has been…uncooperative. Fortunately, my music director, choreographer and I front loaded the rehearsals so that the difficult scenes, musical numbers and dances were worked on first and worked on a lot. The actors and I started with a weekend retreat where we did table work and blocked parts of the show. Doing table work gave us a chance to talk about characters and motivations, to find the through line of the show, and for us to figure out how the characters change by the end.

By the time we were dealing with our first polar vortex, we were feeling confident in how the show was going. The chorus was producing a lovely sound and everyone was working hard to get off book and get their dance steps down. People came to rehearsal in snow and ice, and in sub-zero temperatures. We were fortunate that we only had to cancel one rehearsal due to weather and when we had our final dress rehearsal last night for a sizable preview audience, the actors were performance ready. There were still a few technical issues to work out, but tonight we will open for around 700 people. By the time the weekend is over, over 2000 people will have shared in our story.

It’s a lovely story, centered around a charming rogue named Harold Hill, who has a heart of gold and wants to be a better man, even if he doesn’t know it yet. It’s also about Marian Paroo, a vulnerable young woman who cares very deeply about those close to her, but keeps her heart guarded where romance is concerned. These two people change each other, slowly and without meaning to, and they end up changing the whole town with them. My actors have worked very hard to make these two people very real, and that makes their lives and their journey very real to the audience.

Most importantly, everyone on stage is having fun! From the blowhard Mayor, his attention seeking wife and her gossipy friends, to the stuck up school board, who Harold teaches to sing together as a quartet. These men go from bickering with each other to strolling through the town singing “Lida Rose”. In real life, the four actors have been singing together in a church quartet for many years. They compliment each other as only true, life long friends can. There’s also Harold’s old accomplice, Marcellus, who has settled down with a nice girl, only to be pulled back into Harold’s schemes. It may go against Marce’s better judgement, but boy, does he start to feel alive again, and when he sings “Shipoopi”, leading his best girl and all the town in a big dance, I dare you not to smile.

This is a family show, with a lot of young boys and girls, some of them performing for the first time. There are also several young adults who I have been directing in these shows since they were little kids. I am filled with gratitude to be a part of their lives, watching them go from shy (and not so shy) children, to confident, caring and engaged high school students and college graduates.

If you enjoy sincere, joyful theatre, you should come see this production. It will lift your spirits and warm your heart. If you are a cynical, jaded theatre goer, you should come see this production. It will lift your spirits and warm your heart. You have Harold HIll’s Guarantee of Satisfaction*.

*GUARANTEE NOT VALID IN IOWA CITY, CIRCA 1912

Things I Learned from Original Plays

Last week we closed an Available Light Theatre original production entitled “Glue”. It was a show about friendship and it was the culmination of several months of company created work. I wasn’t able to be in the show, but I was a part of the early development stages and saw the finished product a couple of times, and it moved me deeply. Since we started working on the show, I have found myself having deeper conversations with friends and allowing myself to be more open and vulnerable when talking to them. I have reached out to friends I haven’t talked to in years just to say hello. The show made me think about other plays that Available Light has produced over the years and how they have changed me for the better. These are not all of the original shows we have done, but they stand out for various reasons:

A/ThePostModernLoveStory: Redux – This one was actually with Blue Forms Theatre Group, a theatre company that preceded Available Light, but involved a number of the same people. The show delved into almost all aspects of love; the history, the poetry, the influence of popular culture and even the chemical reactions that occur in the body when someone falls in love. It made me a more romantic person and gave me a deeper appreciation for all of the things that have to go right, and can so easily go wrong, in any relationship.

Tomorrow is the Question – A play about politics, this wasn’t so much about “Us vs. Them” as it was about the grass roots movement and being an active part of the political process. It made me more politically aware and a little more politically active. Unfortunately, politicians keep sucking the enthusiasm out of the process.

Dirty Math – This show was about economics, from it’s cyclical history up to the current recession. It taught me about collateral debt obligations and spelled out exactly what the mortgage crisis was about. Also, it made me a little more fiscally aware and responsible.

How to Stay Human – At talkbacks for Dirty Math, people wanted to know if there were answers to any of the problems we had brought up. This show was a sequel of sorts to Dirty Math. We talked more about possible solutions and why one should even bother to try in the face of apathy, government inertia and bald faced hypocrisy. There are things we talked about in that show that I still apply to my life today; mostly how to change my perception of a bad situation and stay empathetic to other people.

Stop Sign [Language] – This was a solo show created by Eleni Papaleonardos about her growing up with dyslexia. It gave me insight into what it’s like to perceive the world in that way and it showed me some of the challenges that a person with dyslexia faces, some of which I had never even considered before. It also had stunning movement, lighting and projections.

The Food Play – We researched this play extensively and performed it at the North Market. After being a part of this production, I was much more conscious of what food I put into my body. It also made me aware of food deserts, industrial corn, confined animal feeding operations and just how beneficial local, organic farming really is to a community.

John Cage 101 – This show talked about letting art come naturally to the artist (and audience) instead of filtering it through the artist’s perception. It introduced me to the idea of allowing every sound to be a part of the theatrical experience. Since doing this show, it has been easier for me to handle people opening their candy wrappers and coughing during a production. I still think they are being rude, but it doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of the piece as much as it used to.

These are just a few of the ways that doing original works have helped me to have insight into my own life. I’ve also had people come up to me, sometimes months after a show, and tell me how much it influenced them. I’m grateful for the chance to be a part of these productions and I look forward to seeing how we continue to grow as a theatre company and as individuals.