On the first day of my first acting class, the teacher told us about two kinds of performing: acting and Acting.
He said acting (with a little a) was about showing the audience what you were doing and how you were feeling. It involved gestures and facial expressions and deciding precisely how to deliver each line for Maximum Impact. If your character felt sick, you'd walk in holding your stomach and moaning. If your character was angry, you'd shake your fist and bare your teeth while yelling really loud.
With worn-out schtick like that, the teacher said, acting was obviously a bad idea. It was a shortcut to performances that looked fake and made audiences cringe.
But Acting with a capital A, he continued, meant striving for reality. You didn't make yourself feel something that you weren't. You didn't show the audience what you were doing. Instead, you used actions to place yourself in the reality of the situationin some cases, half-forgetting that you had an audience watching! Real Acting, he assured us, was the ticket to believable work onstage.
I didn't completely understand what he meant, but he had my attention. I had to admit: I'd given my share of less-than-realistic performances over the years.
If you sometimes have the same problem in your drama troupe, these four exercises can help people become much more believable in their work onstage. Try them at your next rehearsal to guide actors away from unrealistic portrayals, and towards Acting with a Capital A!
Exercise 1: Being vs. Doing
Get things started by asking for a volunteer who'll stand in front of the group for 90 seconds.
Most people feel out of place when they're on display. Noses start to itch uncontrollably; folks start to giggle or can't figure out what to do with their hands. These are the same individuals who normally love being the center of attention! However, if you put them in the hot seat, things change. They usually feel awkward until they can distract themselves from self-consciousness. In other words: until they have something to do.
Of course, you don't want to tell your victim thatjust watch her squirm! Then once the 90 seconds are up, give her an assignment. Request that she count all the floor tiles in the room before she sits down.
Ask your audience when the volunteer looked the most natural. (Chances are, it was while she was counting floor tiles!) Ask your volunteer when she felt the most comfortable. Usually, she'll give the same answer.
This activity illustrates an important truth: Acting (capital A) doesn't begin with being or showing. It begins with doing! In Exercise 2, you'll invite your whole group to join the fun.
Exercise 2: Putting On Your Shoes1
Divide your group into pairs. Direct the taller person in each twosome take off his shoes. He now has 60 seconds to put them back on. Simple, right?
Well, there's one little problem: the shorter person's goal is to keep him shoeless! The shorter person may only touch her partner's hands, arms, and shoes. But within those boundaries, anything goes!
You'll be amazed how much actors get into this exercise. They'll steal shoes and throw them across the room. They'll pry fingers off of laces. They'll play "keepaway." The bottom line is, very few people are likely to get their shoes back on in the allotted time.
After everyone has reclaimed their footwear, ask if folks were conscious that you were watching them. (They probably didn't even think about it.) Ask them to imagine what their performances could be like if every time they took stage, they had something that urgent; that competitive; that important to accomplish. Not only would they stop thinking about the audiencethey'd be a lot of fun to watch!
Now comes Part II of the exercise. This time, the shorter person will take off her shoes, and the taller person will try to stop her from getting them back on. But here's the catch: the taller person cannot touch his partner or her shoes!
"That's impossible!" cries the taller person.
"No, it isn't," you say. "Our words are actions, too. We usually talk because we want something. So you're going to use words to achieve a goal: stopping your partner from putting on her shoes."
Explain that the shorter person must believe whatever the taller person tells her. For example, if he says, "There's a tarantula in your shoe!" the shorter person must stop, dump the invisible tarantula out of her shoe and squish it, then continue putting on the footwear. If her partner says, "Your shoelaces just turned into snakes!" the shorter person might reply, "Okay; it's a good thing I brought my magic wand to change them back." Then she might wave a pen over her shoes.
Give the pairs 60 seconds for this words-only version of the Shoe Game. If the taller person is sufficiently creative, he may come up with ideas to keep those sandals off the entire time!
Exercise 3: "I Can't Find My Keys!"
Once everyone has been restored to their rightful sneakers, it's time for all of your actors to lose their keys. (But only as an exercise . . . I hope.)
Your team members should rehearse and perform this scene individually. Each person will get the chance to set the stage, using whatever props and set pieces are available, to recreate a place at home or work. For example: one actor might set up her living room by shoving three chairs together as a couch and using a large table to represent her entertainment center. Note that actors should avoid pantomiming objects in this scene. If they need an object, whether it's as big as a couch or as small as a purse, they should find a tangible substitute.
Each actor must develop a 30-90 second scene of searching for his keys, without talking. (Of course, he hides the keys from himself before the scene begins.) Folks can decide individually whether they'll end the scene by finding their keysor leave in frustration to take the bus.
Each actor needs an important and urgent reason for finding those keyshopefully, something just as powerful as keeping one's partner from putting on her shoes! Here are two examples:
- An Important and Urgent Reason: You're running late for a job interview. You really want this positionand you've heard the manager hates tardiness.
- A Lame Reason: You'd like to find your keys so you can get a loaf of bread from Quik-E-Mart. But if you can't find them, it's no big dealyou'll just borrow your wife's.
Give them a few minutes to come up with an idea and rehearse. Then as you watch the performances, look for two major things:
- Do you believe her? Do you buy all of the actor's actions as truthful, or is she "showing" the audience thingsyou know, acting with a little a? The actor who picks up her huge purse but only spends two seconds looking inside isn't believable. Neither is the actor who throws up her hands to show us she's frustrated. (Does anybody really do that?)
- Does he have a reason? The audience doesn't need to know why this actor wants to find his keys. But everyone should be able to tell he has an important and urgent reason for looking! If he's strolling aimlessly
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