Tuesday, February 3, 2009

While Michelangelo's worldwide historical renown as a painter is inarguable, it was his skill as a sculptor that most impresses me. Legend has it that the great rennaissance artist, when asked where the inspiration came from for a sculpture, to have said something to the effect that the stone itself spoke to him and seemed to have some living form waiting to be revealed. It was his job to free that form from the solid marble with delicate strokes of mallet and chisel.
We as directors have somewhat the same task, only with actors instead of marble, and hopefully you're not using a hammer and chisel to bring out the best in your cast, but we must see that character in the actor at casting. Much like the artist selects the right stone to be cut for each work, or in the case of Michelangelo, allows the stone to reveal its own form, we must find those characters inside the actors themselves.
Much can be done to dress up the outward appearance. There is much to be said for the role of imagination in character development. But, it comes down to finding some point of connection, some way in which the actor can identify the desire of his character and find in himself something equal that resonates.
How does this look like sculpting you may ask. Well, it has long been my belief that a character is built more by suppressing or removing those things that do not communicate the desired effect than by adding to what is already there. By learning how to help actors eliminate false communication (static, or self conscious gestures, things that belong to us as people but do not make sense for the character) we as directors can allow them to free that angelic form from the marble slab.
Yeah, esoteric and a little fruity, but let me give you an example. Most actors equate “energy” (a good thing) with volume and speed (also good in their place but frequently misused) some characters express themselves with equal intensity, but on a quieter, or more sedate level. By learning to slow down and play these characters as who they are, not who we are, we begin to get to the heart of them. This must be done in a way that makes sense for the actor, they must find that part of themselves that most closely resembles that part of the character.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Understudies, who needs 'em?

Understudies, what are they and why do I need them? Brilliantly talented actors, in my professional opinion, are frequently the least reliable individuals on God’s green earth. Talent is not a guarantee of discipline which is an essential ingredient for success in almost any endeavor in life.

More frustrating by far than dealing with a less than excellent actor is dealing with one that is never there, frequently leaves early without apology or explanation, or gives excuses instead of results when it comes to being prepared for rehearsal.

In comes the unsung hero of the theatre, the understudy. First let me say that understudies should not be the leftovers, although frequently they are, if you have the luxury of choosing your understudies from a selection of qualified candidates, choose them with the same care you chose your first string.

But regardless of the reality of your situation, make sure that you treat these people as a valuable asset to the team. They may indeed end up being your lifeline.

So, how do you know when it’s time to pull the plug on the wayward virtuoso in favor of the understudy? A couple of factors I recommend you keep in mind. First, if your understudy could have been first team to begin with, you can make the switch with confidence. If, however, they are less than 100%, you may want to make absolutely certain that the offending actor will not straighten up and fly right in time to avoid catastrophe.

There is no hard, fast rule, but make sure of the following: do not lose the confidence of the rest of the cast waiting for a miracle, do not allow your emotions to over rule your common sense, do not harm your relationship with the actor by falsely being nice in extending grace beyond the realm of reason, above all whatever happens do not allow this to become a personal or partisan conflict, keep it professional.

Try to make the decision early enough to be fair to the understudy and the rest of the actors who will be adjusting to make allowances for the new talent. Once the decision has been made stick with it, add rehearsals, work extra with the understudy, under no circumstances should you go back and beg the actor to return, they will own you!

Many of these conflicts can be avoided by taking this advice in the casting process; avoid begging, pleading, or manipulating ANYONE into auditioning or accepting a part. If they hesitate, leave the offer on the table and walk away for twenty-four hours, then come back, if the answer is no, you dodged a bullet, go find another leading man.

Here is a little hope. It has been my experience that an understudy who sticks with you will often give a better performance, regardless of talent, than the flaky star you thought you wanted.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Give them something to shoot for.

Here is a little exercise that I use to help my actors understand how important it is for us to have a common goal. I divide the class into two groups. I seperate the two groups into seperate rooms. I then give each group a paperclip, a pencil and a sheet of paper.To the first group I give the following instructions, "Using this paperclip as an example I want you to write down as many uses for a paperclip as you can think of." I answer no questions, give no examples, I leave the room and go to my other group where I say this, "Okay, I want (pick someone reasonably responsible) this person to be our secretary. Now here's what we're going to do. I want you to come up with one hudred uses for a paperclip, I am giving you five minutes to complete the list. They don't all have to be good ideas, any idea will do." Then
I usually give them one or two examples which I tell them they are free to use.

From that poin on I check on both groups about once a minute. I do not talk to my first group, I continue to encourage the second and keep them posted on how much time, etc. is left.

When the five minutes are up I bring both groups together. Invariably, even with students who know the game, the second group outproduces the first three or four to one. If the first group got 30 ideas, the second will have 90. It never fails.

So break it down to directing. i come into a rehearsal with no goals in mind, maybe not even any blocking notes, I laze around getting started, don't encourage my actors or present them with a specific list of what we are going over, I get crap!

Versus, I come in with notes, tell them what I want to do tonight, get straight to work, amazing results!

One hundred percent of the goals that do not get set will never be reached, try it!

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Casting: The Care and Feeding of Actors

So, you chose your script, you found your space, you successfully executed a great audition, now what? You are faced with stacks of audition forms, pictures of strangers and a list of parts to be filled. Good Luck! You're going to need it!

If you find faith at the center of your life you can start where I do, pray! After beseeching the almighty for wisdom sharpen up the old pencil and dig in, because unless you know a trick I don't he whispers advice but he won't write the list for you.

I like to start by dividing the stack into several categories. A: These are the ones you know can handle principal roles, they have the skills and are ready to go. (remember depending on what level you are directing at you might have to grade on the curve, but these are the cream of your crop) B: These are people who are competent, or at least won't fall apart. and C: Here we have those who cannot handle the rigors of the bright lights, but should you be in a position to develop new talent don't discard them completely, recruit here for crew and understudy positions.

If you have the luxury of having more actors than you need to field a team you can immediately remove from consideration the Cs. Next cast anyone that you are already decided in and get them out of the way. I usually have help from an assistant director, choreographer music director and the like. Someone needs to be writing this down. Make a character list and ad the actor's names as the choices are made, also noting on their forms which parts were assigned. Here is a link to a PDF of our most recent incarnation of audition form.

When considering how best to use each actor there are more factors than just talent. A more experienced actor will come to the table with a greater understanding of what it means to act, but can also bring preconceived notions of how they will work that can be difficult to overcome. Rookies can be fresh and willing to try anything, or frightened and unsure, use your best judgement.

There is also the question of availability and willingness to work. If you feel that an actor is brilliant, ask a few questions to try and determine how hard they work at that brilliance. If they are going to rely on talent alone, consider passing them up for your second choice who may be a harder worker. Give the brilliant one a supporting role this time around and check their attitude, you may be glad you did.

Try to consider the whole audition. Were they on time. Did they cop an attitude with the script girl or stage manager only to kiss your hand and smile sweetly? Did they treat other actors with respect and give them what they needed in reading or were they only concerned with themselves?

In addition to thinking of them as individuals you must also take into account how they will work together. Make sure to cast people you believe will be able to get along in principal roles, even if their characters will hate each other. Trust me weeks of backbiting and petty bickering can make you wonder why you do this at all.

Once you have decide on your cast, unless fate intervenes to make it impossible, stick to your guns. Do not waiver or feel the need to over explain anything about your decisions. If an actor truly wants feedback on what to improve for next time,do the best you can to give it. Remember you are here to tell the best story you can with the available resources, not make everybody ecstatically happy.

Hopefully you are working with a group of well balanced mature adults who will take the casting decisions in stride and make the best of it. (What am I saying these are actors, the most neurotic imbalanced people you ever want to meet, I love these guys!) But anyway most people will be Happy to have the opportunity you are providing and will work hard to get it right for you.

Remember to respect them and say please and thank you. try not to be too demanding and always give them your best by being confident and prepared for rehearsal.

One last thing. Be sure to get the list out when you promised, even if you have to stay up late to get it done, they are waiting for it, no matter what they say.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

How to host a perfect audition! (well almost)

If actors think its tough going to auditions they should step on the other side of the curtain and try hosting their first one! While there are many pieces to organizing a successful audition, breaking it into the following steps should make it easier!
You’ve already picked your script, hopefully you have your crew and a theatre.

1. Prepare your audition materials. Take your script and select several scenes that you feel give you a good idea of what your potential actors are capable of. Remember not to pick all the same kind of stuff. It might be exciting to pick all highly emotional material but you may want to know if your leading man can carry on a convincing conversation. Also, now is the time to decide if you would like to hear prepared monologues, improv scenes or any other “special elements”. Once you have decided what all you will be using, make enough clearly marked copies to go around for two or three groups of actors at one time. Allowing them at least a little time to look over the material will make it easier for you and them.

2. Prepare your audition form and rehearsal schedule. You will need some kind of method for keeping track of all those wonderful performances. An audition form is the easiest way to do this. You may also want to ask actors to provide headshots and resumes, or you might take digital or Polaroid pictures to help you remember who’s who. Here is a copy of the form we use. Rehearsal schedules should be available to actors at the audition. Include all known rehearsal and performance dates and times. The more detail the better. Make sure your actors know what they are committing to.

3. Promote your audition. Setting your date two or three weeks ahead of promoting the audition will be more likely to insure you a good turn out. Be sure to invite all of your former actors, students and supporters, then make sure you get your notice in every free calendar of events you can. You might want to send out a press release. Notices in the form of flyers can also be posted at high schools, universities, acting schools etc. The more people you invite the better your turn out, the better your chances of finding the people you need.

4. Hold your audition. Never been to one? Find one to observe, or go audition for something before putting people through it. Be sure you treat everyone with respect. Simon Cowell gets paid millions to be a jerk, trust me, act like him and ask for volunteer actors and you will do a lot of one man shows! Try to keep things moving, no one likes to have their time wasted! Make sure to say thank you to the actors, you never know what they might be right for the next time around, or how much they may grow before you see them again, never burn bridges! Once you’ve seen what you need keep those forms, you can call them the next time you have a project to cast! Now get on with casting and rehearsal!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Good books every director should read

Next to my Bible there are a few books that it seems I refer to on almost a daily basis. I should probably tell you that, lacking a college education I have made it my mission in life to collect and read every theatre text known to man. I have over two hundred at last count. Many of them are utterly worthless, many others are just rehashing what so many have said better, then there are the gems, that say something new in a unique way and when you try it, it works. here are my favorites.

1. Technical Theatre for Nontechnical People: This is a great book no matter what your level of expertise. If you are a tech moron it will make you feel smart and give you tons of great practical advice. If you are a tech know-it-all you can use it as a translation guide for the times you must come down from the mountain and enlighten the masses. Covering everything from lighting to set construction this one is a must have!

2. Acting Power by Robert Cohen: This is the best book on acting I have ever read. Cohen's practical approach to intercharacter relationships will not only help you understand acting it will change how you view communication. CAUTION! While Cohen has written some of the best books out there on theatre some of his subject matter may not be appropriate for young students to read unsupervised. While far from obscene he does make mention of sensitive issues.

3. Instant Acting: This is a fun one. I found it in a little bookstore one time and the title alone convinced me to take it home. Written by acting teacher Jeremy Whelan it outlines a rehearsal process he calls the Whelan tape technique. It require actors to record their lines and immediately act out the scene to the soundtrack of their recording. It works! Having used it on about a half dozen major shows over the years I can tell you it does work, check it out for yourself.

4.Actor's Field Guide: by Ed Hooks. In brief digest form Mr. Hooks lays out the wisdom of his decades of acting coaching in Hollywood. Most of the entries are no more than three paragraphs but it is peppered with fun stories and examples. CAUTION! Another PG rating here but works great to read snippets aloud in an acting class.

5. Stage Makeup: in any edition, I think I have five or six. Try ebay or save up your nickels and dimes because this one is a classic. Each edition gets better! Covering everything there is to know about stage makeup between the covers of one book is impossible but these guys come darn close. Lots of great pictures and down to earth, easy to follow instructions.

Well there's my top five, enjoy!

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Stage directions and what they mean

Why is downstage downstage?

Ever wondered? Well way back in the day theatres used to have flat floors and flat stages. This worked great for the fellas in the first three rows, but beyond that things got a little fuzzy, it was hard to see what was what!

Nobody really knows who was the first to come up with the idea but most of the books I've read blame it on the Italians. See in the Italian theatre the directors were actually scenic painters and they didn't like the idea of people not being able to see their elaborate scenery (my interpretation) so they built what's called a raked stage.

This was a platform that was slightly slanted up from front to back. So an actor moving away from the audience was moving slightly uphill and conversely the closer to the audience you got the further downhill you would be. After awhile architects realized that if they raised the seating on a slope or stairs everyone could see and the actors wouldn't have to work so hard to stand up!

Nowadays raked stages can be seen whenever a theatre company needs to do something original. Most stages are flat but the tradition remains! So an actor moving toward the audience goes downstage, if he moves away, he goes up!

Now on to other confusions. Right and left are relative it seems and in the theatre stage right is located to the actors right as he stands facing his audience, stage left is on the left.

I usually work with a nine section stage direction grid as pictured above. There are three ranks (columns from front to back) and three rows. The intersection of these ranks and rows gives us a grid that makes blocking much simpler, kind of like a road map.

The ranks are Stage Left, Center Stage, and Stage Right. The Rows are downstage, center stage, and upstage. The abbreviations on the diagram above can be used to mark blocking notation such as: Paul enters SL,X to DC (the x stands for a cross)

Here are some other fairly common abbreviations you might find useful:

DS = Downstage
US = Upstage
SR = Stage Right
CS = Centre stage
SL = Stage Left
RC = Right of centre stage
LC = Left of centre stage
DR = Down right
DL = Down left
UR = Up right
UL = Up left
UC = Up centre
DC = Down centre
C/L = Centre line
X = Cross

Two more pieces of the above diagram require some explanation. An apron is the edge of any stage platform, it is also the part of a stage in front of the curtain. In musical theatre it is common for small scenes to be played as "crossovers" in front of the curtain, on the apron, while scene changes are made behind it.

The areas out of sight of the audience to either side of the stage are called wings. These areas, contrary to popular belief, are not spectator galleries for actors. They are primarily the property of the stage hands, and while actors enter and exit through them, they mostly get used as staging areas for scene changes.