We’re all Actors!
Regardless of what we think about acting as a profession or as an art form, we have to realize that as human beings, we are all actors. The nature of acting is part of our human experience, often in many more ways than we might imagine! For example, consider that as we children we often learn how to be grownups through imitating our parents or other role models. We “play” by pretending or play-acting to be the characters we see in movies and on TV. This type of play-acting or role-playing is part of our nature. We take on roles to learn.
In addition to the role playing we do as children, we continue to act as we get older. We take on different roles in different social situations. Often these are not totally different personas, but are instead, parts of our true selves that we emphasize in particular situations. For example, we take on the roles of “teacher” and “student” in the classroom. We may have distinct roles that we take on when at a party with close friends and another when sitting in church or talking with a grandparent. We may have many roles in our lifetimes, from father, mother, daughter, son, boss, employee, student, teacher, etc. In each of these situations there are specific expectations that we have for ourselves and for others. How we choose to comply with or go against those expectations are part of our “character” in that moment.
Speaking of character, we often define ourselves and others by mentioning a person’s character. What does that mean? Clearly, it comes, in part, from our history of recognizing differences in behavior in different situations. For example, someone might have the character trait of being a braggart, or a showoff, or a liar, or a cheat. Who amongst us can identify the “class clown”? These personal roles are adaptations that we take on to our basic personal traits in given situations these personal roles tend to become identified as our character or our identity.
Acting on Stage
In the 21st century, acting on stage is distinctly different than it was at the beginning of theatre in ancient Greece, or even throughout much of the history of theatre. In fact, it wasn’t until the very early 20th century that acting came to be what it is today, essentially a realistic mirror of true human behavior. That type of acting has three significant challenges, and they are the following:
3 challenges of acting
Making characters believable
Physicality – using voice and body
Synthesis and integration – blending inner and outer methods and skills
Now, let’s look at each of these challenges a little more closely.
Challenge 1: Believable acting
Believability in acting really refers to whether or not the audience is willing to believe the characters are real, despite knowing that they are fictional creations by actors. This is a very difficult challenge to overcome. However, in the late 19th /early 20th century, a Russian actor and director, Konstantin Stanislavski, realized that many of the actors around him did not know how to portray believable characters. Instead, they relied on the previous technique of standing and merely declaiming lines to the audience seated directly in front of them. However, he also noticed that some actors were much more successful at making characters that seemed move and speak like “real people.” He researched those successful actors’ processes and techniques and developed a system of methods that he wrote down and began to teach to his own actors. This method, or system, has been developed and modified in the last century, but his ideas remain the basis for almost all believable acting in the 21st century. If you ever hear an actor referred to as a “method actor,” then it refers to the fact that the actor uses Stanislavski’s techniques to create believable characters on stage.
Stanislavski’s formula or method includes 7 elements: Relaxation, Concentration & observation, Specificity, Inner truth – “magic if,” Purposeful action, Through-line of the character, and Ensemble playing. Let’s look briefly at each of these to get an idea what each of these elements refers to and how they help an actor create a realistic, believable character.
Relaxation – relaxing for the actor means to let go of physical and mental stress and tension in order to be able to call upon the body, mind, and spirit to work clearly on developing and manifesting (bringing to life) the character that is being called for in the script. It usually involves a series of practices using breathing exercises, stretching, centering, and meditation to rid oneself of personal issues and stress.
Concentration & observation – most modern actors are keen observers of human behavior. In fact, that is one way that actors develop a “repertoire” of physical actions and emotional responses to a wide variety of possible experiences. Not everyone reacts the same way in a particular situation, and an actor observes others to identify and select a variety of possible ways that the character might react. This tool kit of various reactions, both physically and emotionally, becomes quite useful when an actor wants to differentiate the character from the actor more distinctly. The other part of this element is concentration. This refers to the fact that an actor has to remain believable while there are many distractions going on around him or her: Noises and movements in the audience, or flashes of light as an auditorium door opens and closes, or movement or odd noises from backstage from actors or stagehands waiting in the wings. At any given moment, an actor can usually see at least one other thing than what the character is supposed to be able to see. That means the actor must develop keen concentration to keep focus on the character’s reality in the scene while still being aware of and reacting (if necessary) to what is going on in the actor’s real world on stage. This split between the actor’s concentration is best developed with frequent practice and thorough understanding of the character’s development.
Specificity – the skill needed to bring about a realistic character involves making very specific choices in actions and mannerisms. When we think if people, we usually think of those traits and actions that make this unique amongst all the people we know. An actor has to make those kinds of specific choices to animate the character to make it stand out from a stereotype or cartoonish character instead of a realistic character.
Inner truth – “magic if” – an actor can make a character more believable if he or she can not only portray the character’s actions and behaviors but can also make the character’s feelings believable. After all, we can usually detect when someone is “just going through the motions” and not being true to their own feelings. The same is true of an actor on stage. To have an inner truth means that the actor’s feelings match the character’s actions and what the character would be feeling in any given moment. Stanislavski realized that isn’t always an easy task, especially if the actor has not actually personally experienced what the character is experiencing. How then can the actor create a sense of inner, emotional truth? Stanislavski calls the method he taught, the magic if. This basically gives the actor an opportunity, during character development, to ask a question, “What would I do if I were in this same situation as the character?” This reflects that fact that an actor usually draws on a lot of him or herself to create a believable character. The playwright only gives the actor the details that make the character unique. The actor has to add those to his or her own persona to make the character fully developed. As a result, when an actor asks the magic if question, it brings the actor’s self to bear in making the character believable.
Purposeful action – this trait is one that seems pretty simple on the surface, but it requires a deep self-understanding on the part of the actor. The idea of purposeful action refers to the notion that nothing an actor does on stage should detract from the character’s purpose and goals. That means the actor’s own nervous twitches, swaying, other kinds of motions or facial expressions should NOT make an appearance in the character unless they help the CHARACTER to be believable.
Through-line of the character – we all have motivations for what we do. We have short-term and long-term goals that we use to help us make choices. Ideally, whenever we are faced with a choice in life, we consider which option will take us closer to our goals. That then motivates us to make considered choices that will help get closer to those goals. The same is true for the life of the character. Even though the character is fictional, to make it realistic, the actor must analyze the character to determine what goals the character uses to guide the choices the character makes. Those goals, and their impact on the character’s choices and actions is what Stanislavski referred to as the through-line of the character.
Ensemble playing – all of the elements up to this point have been centered on the individual actor and his or her character. However, it is a rare moment when a character in a play is on stage alone for any length of time. Since most actors work in groups and thus have groups of characters on stage at the same time, an awareness, on the part of each individual actor, of the believability and realness of the other actors’ characters is necessary. For one to be successful, all need to work together to be successful.
As mentioned earlier, Stanislavski’s system has grown and adapted since it was first developed. Here are some of the more significant developments made by Stanislavski himself, and some of his students, their students, and other acting teachers.
Psychophysical Action – after he developed his method, Stanislavski realized the difficulties for creating inner truth, despite the effectiveness of the “magic if.” So, he added an option to help develop and inner truth of believable emotion, drawn from the psychology of the first part of the 20th century. Essentially, Stanislavski embraced the idea of psychophysical action. Basically, this refers to the idea that if we go through the physical actions associated with an inner emotion, we will then begin to feel the inner emotion associated with those actions. We sometimes see this in action in cognitive therapy today. If you act happy, you will begin to feel happy.
Emotional Recall – a student of the Stanislavski method, Uta Hagen, added another technique in the mid-20th century to assist in creating emotional “truth” on stage. The idea of emotional recall refers to the idea that if an actor does not know the true feeling associated with the character, he or she can draw on a recalled similar emotion from the actor’s own experience. For example, the character may be sad at the death of a parent, but the actor may not have had that experience. The actor can recall another moment of loss, say of a pet or a favorite toy, and use that sadness to add an element of real sadness to the character’s sadness that is being played by the actor.
Text as Instrument of Action – another student of the Stanislavski system, Robert Cohen has explored another method of developing emotional truth. Instead of drawing on emotions as inspiration (either developed thorough external action or emotional recall) Cohen focuses on the text. He taches that the words of the text will convey their truth directly. If the character is sad, the words selected, and the actions defined by the script, will lead to the believability of the emotional truth. Essentially, he posits that words focus the emotions and the action, and in doing so the believability will exist in the text itself.
Body as tool – a teacher of the Stanislavski system in the latter half of the 20th century, Robert Benedetti, focuses on the physicality of acting to communicate the emotional truth of a character. The premise here is that we can only read someone else’s emotional state by seeing and interpreting their physical actions. As a result, Benedetti teaches that as long as the physical actions of the actor convey a true emotional state, the actor’s own inner emotional state are not really a factor. He says that outward appearance and physicality of action define the emotional essence.
Challenge 2: Physicality
The next major challenge that an actor faces is the training and effective use of the actor’s instrument – the body and the voice. These are the tools at the actor’s disposal for creating a character and communicating that to an audience during a performance. To perfect these tools, an actor must practice, rehearse, and develop effective exercise and toning routines. In fact, an actor may spend anywhere from 40-60% of training time on physical and vocal exercise. One of Stanislavski’s elements also plays into this part of the actor’s challenge: Relaxation. When relaxed physically and mentally, an actor is ready to react to whatever may happen in a performance and to every need of the character in a play. Some of the exercises that an actor must use include the following:
Breathing exercises – to aid in relaxation and to maximize breath support for the body’s energy and to allow the actor to project the voice without straining it.
Flexibility/Isolation exercises – these focus on each individual part of the body to ensure that the actor has immediate, intentional, and positive control over every part of the body to accomplish what must be done to express the character’s actions and motivations.
Centering Exercises – these give the actor a very real sense of his or he own body, through identifying and understanding the body’s center of mass and the importance of being centered physically and emotionally.
Dance Exercises – these are very useful for both flexibility and balance
Stage Combat – though generally targeted at learning specific skills like fencing, and hand-to-hand fighting that looks real but does not injure, these training exercises also hone flexibility, balance, reaction times, and hand-to-eye coordination
There are a number of special skills that an actor might need and therefore add to the practice routine. They include the following:
Musicals – singing & dancing (specific styles and techniques)
Dialects – various cultural and national dialects can add to a character in many plays where needed
Pantomime – all body (focus only on clarity and distinctness of movements)
Avant-garde – various demands such as tumbling, gymnastics, contortion, acrobatics, extreme dance and voice demands
Challenge 3: Synthesis & Integration
The last challenge that an actor faces in making a character believable is the synthesis of the character with the actor’s self and integration of the actor’s instrument with the character development and inner truth. Making the body and voice reflect the needs of the character’s actions and feelings can be complex. It is one of the reasons that there needs to be somewhat lengthy rehearsal periods before a play is ready. With experience and plenty of practice and exercise, an actor can learn to blend the character with him or herself to make the resulting performance believable. To do this, there must be flexibility in the instrument and clear ability to coordinate specific movements on command. The external manners, movements, and other outward signs of character need to reflect the inner truth – or at least be able to be seen as being true.
There are some other traits that an actor may have that are not necessarily needed but can often add to the believability of a character. These include the following:
Stage presence – the quality that makes an audience pay attention to an actor just because the actor appears on stage – many of today’s stage and movie “stars” have this quality, which helps them to achieve that star status
Charisma – refers to the trait that an actor may have that makes the audience want to like the actor’s portrayal – it’s that something “special” that many current stars also have
Personality – the personal traits that an actor has that make him or he truly stand out from the rest of the actors – often times these can be very noticeable, like the personality that Johnny Depp brought to the Captain Jack Sparrow character
“Star quality” – Whatever this is, it is one of those things that people in the business of stage or film production can usually spot – it might be related to physical traits or personality traits that an actor has that immediately make that actor attractive and interesting to an audience
Director, Dramaturg, & Producer
Plays have not always had the benefit of a director. Early in theatre history, the playwright or the leading actor would take charge and make sure that the play presented the script in the best possible way. This continued for a long time in theatre, all the way up to the 1800s.
In the 19th century, in Germany, a nobleman by the name of George II, Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, began to take charge of his sponsored theatre group’s plays. He wanted them to reflect a particular taste and impression for the audiences, so he stood back from the performers and coordinated every aspect of the production to ensure it had a uniform production style and effect.
This coordination of all the performance elements to create a uniform style and quality is the purpose of the director today. The director gives “shape” to the entire production and takes the position of being the stand-in for the audience during the preparation of a play’s production.
The 21st century director usually is of one of two types, the traditional director or a non-traditional director. To begin, we will look at what a traditional director normally does for a play. We’ll see that a director in the 21st century is the most important part of a play, in many ways.
The Traditional Director’s tasks
Select the script – this is usually the first thing a director does. However, in some locations the script is selected by a committee or the producer or the dramaturg, and then the director is offered the opportunity to direct. In a way, the director still has a choice in the script, but sometimes that choice is whether or not to direct a play already chosen by others.
Identify the “Spine” or main action of the play – the next significant task of the director is to read and analyze the script and determine the spine of the play. This refers to the main or fundamental conflict, what leads to it, why does it happen, who is involved, and how it manifests itself. This is also usually wrapped in the main character’s objectives and goals. These ideas will point the director the central focus of the play as all these things build to and are resolved in the main climax of the play. They will form the central action of the play around which all of the other events and actions of the plot will come together.
As long as the director remains true to the spirit and action of the play, there might be several possible interpretations of the spine of the play. If the director builds the interpretation on what is actually provided in the script and the characters of the play, then the spine he or she chooses to put at the center of the play, and uses to focus the approach to the play, will be effective.
Select the Style – the director will also determine the style of the play. Basically, that refers to the way that the play is presented. The specifics of each of these will be dealt with in other sections of the course, but for now know that the director will select between approaching the play realistically or by using a departure from realism.
Heightened Realism (Selective Realism)
Non-Realism/Departures from Realism
Develop the Director’s concept – Once the director has established the spine of the play and the style to be used, the director then will determine the Director’s Concept. This is usually expressed as a metaphor. What this does is give the director, all the designers, and the performers a unifying image to focus the production. It will ultimately be reflected by and often influence the following elements of the production and the decisions associated with them:
the period and location (time frame of the setting)
the central image – controlling motif or symbol/image
the purpose – should be true to the spirit and meaning of the play
The Dramaturg was mentioned previously as one person who might be responsible for selecting a script to be produced. However, the remaining functions of the Dramaturg are generally associated in terms of assisting the Director in terms of the script. Not all theatre organizations have a Dramaturg, but the larger groups do, and they are growing in importance and use across the whole world of theatre production. Basically, the Dramaturg does many of the things that are directly related to the script instead of the staging of the production. This position is essentially the theatre organization’s Literary Manager. The Dramaturg will aid the director in the following ways:
Reads and reviews new plays that might be considered for production
Works with writers on new scripts that will be workshopped and showcased in the theatre organization
Evaluates under-performed scripts from the past for possible inclusion in future seasons
Works with educational groups to provide exposure to the process of bringing the script to life on the stage
Writes background material for programs about the play and the context of the play
Researches past productions of classic plays to use as possible references for current productions in terms of the following:
Methods, styles, directorial approaches
Criticism and interpretations
Other Director approaches
Up to this point we have been looking primarily at the role of the Traditional Director. However, there are some other types of directors that are more non-traditional than not. Here are two of the more significant variations of the non-traditional director that might be encountered in the 21st century theatre.
Auteur director –
The first of these non-traditional directors is called the Auteur Director. The word “auteur” derives from the French word for author. Essentially, that’s what this type of director does. Instead of focusing decisions and directorial choices on the script and the spirit of the script, the Auteur Director dominates the production and gives the text secondary emphasis. The text of the script is just a tool to be used to model the Auteur’s personal ideas and approaches. It loses the essential nature that a Traditional Director would use. The Auteur Director actively shapes the production, freely altering/transforming the material of the play, including the script – sometimes drastically.
Essentially, the play as staged reflects the director’s ideas – sometimes more than the text’s ideas.
Postmodern director –
This is a second type of non-traditional director that might be encountered in a play production today is the Postmodern Director. “Postmodern” refers to the literary period that followed the “modern” era which was called that in the early 20th century. Once styles changed after the “modern” period there was some question as to what to refer to the newer styles. The term “postmodern” simply means that which follows “modern”!
The Postmodern theatre Director generally goes beyond the limits of text and standard theatrical practices. He or she will once again use the text as a tool and will feel free to deconstruct the text (rearrange, delete, take out of context) to meet a perceived message that may or may not ultimately be true to the spirit of the original play. Frequently, they will abandon of linear structure that follows a climactic or episodic structure and instead use segments, tableaux, and/or non-sequential scenes. There may be odd casting choices or changes in characters (in terms of gender, race, significance of the role, etc.). Since the script is not held to be as important as the impact of the production, the Postmodern Director might add elements of dance, film, video, computer generated material, or other type of special visual or auditory effects. The final focus for the Postmodern Director is usually on the “effect” of the production on the audience instead of the message.
Directors work with Designers
Regardless of the type of director, he or she is the individual who is central to the entire production. The director will also work with the rest of the specialists who are needed to put together the production, not just the performers. These relationships will be discussed a little more thoroughly in later sections of the class, but here is a list the primary assistants to the Director in terms of other production elements:
All these designers work with the Director to integrate the Director’s Concept and stylistic vision into every element of the production. Again, these will all be addressed more thoroughly in upcoming sections of the class.
Putting the play together & Rehearsing
The director also works with the actors to ensure a uniform understanding of the play, and a comprehensive view of the play as performed for the audience. The first step in working with the actors is to select the actors who will be performing in the play. The director is involved with that process, which is called casting. Casting is normally done through auditions. In some cases, these auditions are a single audition type, and in others a series of “call backs” may be used to fine tune the decision process. In whatever way that the casting audition are conducted, the result is the selection of the people who will perform the specific roles in the play called for by the script.
Throughout the entire process of getting the play ready to be seen by an audience, the director must serve as the “Audience’s Eye.” That means that the director will work to achieve the vision of the script, in performance, that he or she wants the audience to see. To establish the actors’ performance criteria, the director will use blocking. This is the term applied to the giving actors the movements necessary on stage to have them in the correct positions at the right time in the action. A director usually uses basic stage directions using the general stage layout seen below.
In this diagram, UR = upstage right, UC = upstage center, UL = upstage left, RC = right center, C = center stage, LC = left center, DR = down right, DC = down center, DL + down left. These terms, and how they are used will be explained more thoroughly in a later lesson.
The director gives the actors their blocking in order to create what is called a stage picture. This refers to the overall visual image of the play that the audience will see during the performance. The stage picture is, of course, not a static picture, like a painting. Instead, it is a constantly evolving picture over time, so the director also has to deal with the concepts of pace, movement, and rhythm of the actors’ movements and the overall flow of the scene. In some ways, it is similar to choreographing a dance at times. Pace in theatre refers to the general speed of the action, which may vary depending on the needs of the scene. The movement is the “how” a character or group of characters moves. The rhythm refers to the varying speeds of both movement and pace that often serve as a means of keeping the dynamic energy of a scene in focus.
The director also has to tie in the other elements of the production that have a visual impact on the audience, such as the set (which refers to the scenery around the actors), the lights, and the costumes.
The director works directly with the actors in the rehearsals that lead up to the performance. Once the cast is selected, the director conducts rehearsals that fall into one of four types. They include the following:
Scene work – character development: These are rehearsals where the director works with the cast members to guide them through their character development and helps them work with each other as an ensemble.
Run through – These rehearsals are just what they sound like. The director has the cast go straight through a scene, an act, or the entire play to see how the whole arc of the play is progressing. That can be difficult to detect when working on small units of the play. The cast also benefits from this type of rehearsal because they can then see how all the little pieces go together to create the “big picture.”
Technical rehearsals – Technical rehearsals usually come near the end of the rehearsal process. These are rehearsals where the Director works with the Technical Director and the Stage Manager to coordinate all the technical elements of the production, including, light cues, sound cues, set changes, etc.
Dress rehearsals – A dress rehearsal is usually conducted just before opening night. These are run through rehearsals that include all of the elements of the play, just as if an audience were attending the play. This allows the director, the audience’s eyes, to see just what the audience will see when the play opens for an audience. There is usually at least one, but possibly more than one of these rehearsals – depending on the complexity of the show and whether it is a professional requirement or not.
The producer is not normally a person with whom the general audience will come into contact, but the Producer does play a very important part of putting together a play. Basically, just as the Director takes care of the performance side of things, the Producer handles the business side of the entire production. Basically, if it has to do with money, the producer is in charge of it. Some of the things that the Producer is responsible for include the following:
Raising money from supporters and financiers for the production
Securing het licensing rights to perform the script (the royalties)
Hiring and dealing with the agents for the playwright (if needed), the director, the designers, the stage crews, and the actors
Dealing with the theatrical unions and technicians unions
Renting the necessary performance space
Supervising the work of the various front of theatre workers: box office, auditorium staffing, and the business office
Supervising the advertising of the performances
Monitoring the overall budget and reviewing week-to-week financial management of the production