Personal tools
  •  
You are here: Home Theatre Arts Understanding Theatre The Performing Arts of Theatre

The Performing Arts of Theatre

Document Actions
  • Content View
  • Bookmarks
  • CourseFeed
Acting   ::   Director   ::   Activities

Acting

Part 1:

Acting is certainly the most readily apparent of the theatrical arts. When many think "theatre" or "drama", they think acting. The art of acting goes back to prehistory. It is a primal and endemic human quality. When we want something, we often "act" to get it. This is no different than in a play, except that the actor is merely pretending to want something. So even if you are not an actor, you are an interacter with others.

I remember when I was a kid, I wanted a dog REALLLLLLY bad. A pug, to be precise. A pug is the last thing I would want now, but I really wanted one when I was 10 years old. My mom said "No." With my crafty and theatre-minded little brain going into overdrive, I devised how I could get a pug and carefully planned out my "performance." Late one night, when I knew that everyone was asleep, I positioned myself strategically in the hallway and began to cry. I was good! My eyes were like little broken, gushing fire hydrants. "I wanna pug!" I called out. My parents came rushing out of their room to see what all the racket was. They tried to soothe me. They offered me bribes. Nothing but pug would do.

. . . I didn't get the pug. My parents were moved by my performance, but they weren't stupid. They were an appreciative audience, but an unchanged one. Now I keep reptiles, and I don't have to cry to get them. I just have to convince my wife that it is actually okay to have a snake in the house.

Acting was perhaps first officially recognized as an art form in the western world when an individual named Thespis of the ancient Greek theatre got up in front of an audience and instead of merely reciting lines, actually showed characters by the way he manipulated his voice and body. To this day, actors are sometimes known as THESPIANS.

Though perspectives about how acting should be done have changed over the centuries since Thespis, there are some things about acting that have never really changed. The actor (and you as interacter) uses three basic components to hone this art form:

  1. Mind
  2. Body
  3. Voice

We'll explore each of these as we move on.

Part 2: Mind

It all begins here, folks. This is the easiest part of acting, and the hardest at the same time. Any actor must use his or her imagination. You remember how to use that, don't you? Alas, many of us have forgotten as we have grown up. But for this class, you'll need to remember how to do this again.

The first job of an actor is to simply BE THERE. Be in the virtual space of the play. The real space is the theatre; the virtual space is where the play takes place. So Hamlet must be in medieval Denmark. Macbeth must be in ancient Scotland. Juliet must be in Verona. Not only that, they must be specifically in a space: a castle, a moor, a balcony. As the actor, say for Juliet, creates this world around herself, it becomes real for an audience, too. Nothing will affect a performance more than the extent to which an actor is seeing things in her mind's eye. Nothing. Believe me. Nothing.

This "being there," most often called "visualization" includes all of the 7 senses: seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling, touch-feeling, seeing dead people, and emotion-feeling. It is so vital to remember that with acting, the actor is usually communicating images, and these images have to bee seen, felt, experienced, etc.

So it is easy, right? All you have to do, if you were an actor, is simply imagine that you are there in the virtual space of the play. Easy, right? Wrong.

There are a lot of distractions. First, you also have lines to say, and each of these lines must be evaluated and analyzed so that you are communicating with an audience what the playwright wants you to communicate. This is terribly difficult and it requires lots of rehearsal. Hopefully, by the time you get to the performance, you will have said the line clearly enough times that you can focus on seeing things and not on how to say the line.

When actors focus on how to say a line, it always comes out sounding false. This is called bad acting, and it is the number one cause of bad acting, for good acting requires that you be natural and interact with others on the stage as if you really were in that virtual space.

Other distractions include the blinding lights, heckling audience members, the wasp that's flying around, 300 eyes upon you, and so forth.

Acting is tough.

Once this basic visualization is understood, then the actor must use his mind to analyze and understand character and personality, psychology and objectives. These will be explored in Acting: Part 5.

Activity
"Acting: Mind"

Imagine that you are in a spooky museum at night where all the mummies are. It is dark. Write a short paragraph description of this virtual space. Make it come to life for yourself! See as an actor must see! Vividly and in great detail!

Part 3: Body

Some people call it "nonverbal" communication, but the fact of the matter is, you do it, and you use your body all of the time to communicate. The vital thing to remember is that your body is always affected by what you are VISUALIZING. Seeing things and being there make your body do things at a subconscious level. If you make up body movements without seeing things and being there, your actions will read as false and you will be charged and convicted of bad acting and sentenced to 10 years of waiting tables and saying, "You want fries with that?"

You (and all other actors and interacters) use three distinct elements when you use your body:

(1) Stance , or the way in which you hold your entire body. This can also be considered your posture. As an exercise, get up on your feet and use stance to communicate that you are a very, very old woman . . . Okay, I saw that. You were very convincing! I liked how you hunched over and used a cane. Very nice. The hunching over part was stance.

(2) Gesture , or the way you use your hands and other body appendages to communicate. As an exercise, say the following text while demonstrating with your hands how it was done:

"She walked into the bar and she hit the guy."

Excellent. I loved how you swung your hand out as if the guy was in front of you. You are more of a skilled actor than you may think! Say the line again, but indicate that she hit the guy "playfully." Go ahead. Do it . . . Very nice. See how with gesture you were able to communicate with some detail? We could do some more. Say she hit the guy "spitefully." How would you do that? Or & "accidentally"? Or "triumphantly"? I'm glad to see you actually doing this. See how this works? Gesture is an important tool for the actor.

(3) Facial Gestures , or the way we use our expressions to communicate. Imagine that you want a pug but your Mom said "no." Bummer, huh. Now make a sad puppy dog face and ask again, "Mom, can't I PLEEEEEZE have a pug?" Good job! I loved how big and watery your eyes got. Your down-turned mouth and poked out lip was an added touch. What mom could resist that? . . . Oh. Well, moms are pretty stoic, aren't they.

Activity
"Body"

Here is your task. You'll need to get a partner for this. Perform ONE of the following sentences, and make sure your partner can understand and see EXACTLY what you are talking about by the use of your body. You'll have to practice this at least 10 times before you can effectively communicate these images.

"Slowly, deliberately, the axe murder reached for another paper towel."

"As the snowflake gently landed onto her outstretched finger, it was magically transformed into a crystal sphere of water."

Record in your workbook how effective you think you were at communicating these images. Interview your partner. Did your partner find that your performance was effective? Describe in a short paragraph the things you did with your body to be effective.

Part 4: Voice

Voice is the most specialized and most difficult of the elements of acting to master. Professional actors spend much time and energy at making their "instrument" be more responsive.

Responsiveness is the key word. If you as an actor visualize an image that requires that you use your voice in a very specific way to communicate, your voice must be able to do what your brain wants it to do. While your brain can be wildly responsive and imaginative, your voice is much more limited. You cannot sing in chords, for example, though your brain may think that might be a cool thing. You may also not know how to speak with a Scottish or Russian accent. These things take great effort and great training.

More and more, actors get hired simply because they can be heard and because the directors who cast them can see that their voices are diverse instruments that can handle a wide range of challenges.

The elements of good vocal quality, in addition to responsiveness, include flexibility, relaxation (so that the voice does not become constricted), and muscular mastery (it takes working out just as you would to build other body muscles).

You may have been in a production of some kind either recently or when you were a small child. Remember how your teacher or director would always say "Louder!" This is a tricky word, but it describes perfectly how an actor must treat her voice.

If the actor were to simply shout, she might be heard, but she would also ruin her voice and after a few performances, she may have actually lost her voice. Shouting restricts the voice, it does not promote relaxation nor flexibility nor responsiveness.

Actors learn how to "project" their voices, which is entirely different from shouting. While projecting, an actor delivers an impulse to be stronger in voice to the brain. The body and mind, now well trained, know just how to react. First, the actor actually relaxes his throat and tongue muscles to widen the spaces there. He then breathes a bit more deeply and as the breath comes out, it brings up sound with it. The sound is not only louder, it is also more natural and flexible and responsive. Magic? No. Just lots of hard work and a lot of vocal exercises, warm-ups and training.

Part 5: Solving The Paradox of Acting

A famous 18th century acting theorist, Denis Diderot, stated that acting contained an inherent paradox. This is now called, oddly enough, "The Paradox of Acting." A paradox is a puzzle that is unsolvable, such as the universal statement of all humans: "damned if you do; damned if you don't!"

On the one hand, actors must show natural emotion to be effective (essentially: visualization and "being there"). On the other hand, actors need to control their performance intellectually, for it is an art form. So while they must appear natural, the stage requires that they ALTER their natural way of being (voice, body, etc.) so people can see and hear them. Which is it: emotions or intellect? Diderot maintained that only the greatest actors are able to solve this paradox.

Another paradox is simply the fact that an audience member watching an actor knows that she is just an actor, yet must simultaneosly believe that she is the character in the world of the play. This may be a paradox, but one that gets to the core of why theatre, and live theatre especially, is so fulfilling. Great actors are able to lull the audience into the world of the play more deeply and more readily by solving the other paradox suggested by Diderot.

Being Believable

What makes a good actor? Is it the extent to which he "becomes" another person on stage? Actually, it's not. Good acting is the extent to which he becomes believable in dramatic situations on stage. Take some of our favorite actors from the stage and screen such as John Wayne. John Wayne was always pretty much, well, John Wayne. Yet he is a legend of the screen. Fans went to see John Wayne because they wanted to see John Wayne. They enjoyed seeing him as different characters, and John Wayne was a good enough actor that he was believable in most of the roles that he played. The same could be said of Humphrey Bogart, Jim Carrey and Ben Affleck.

So the important part here is simply that good acting simply means that the actor is believable, and that happens when the actor is visualizing what is going on and is "there" in the virtual space of the play (or movie), interacting in authentic ways with the other characters.

So it's okay to think that John Wayne was a great actor. He was. He managed to overcome Diderot's paradox through a long list of films over several decades to become one of the most beloved screen stars of the 20th century.

Workbook Entry
Acting: Paradox

In a short paragraph, describe a recent play or film in which you thought a character was believable. Please select a character played by an actor you've seen in a different film or play. Try to determine what skills, manifestations, tools, ways, etc. this actor uses to be believable.


Acting relies on only a few basic elements, augmented with more specific approaches once an actor gets into some real complex roles. These more specific approaches make up the technique of the actor.

There are basically three main approaches to acting:

(1) Inside-out, or "internal" acting, in which the actor does all of the visualizing and complex character analysis first. She then lets these images and this psychological homework make her body and voice do their things. In other words, the more important part to inside- out actors is the mind work. The rehearsal period is then spent making sure the body and voice follow what the mind tells it to do.

The most famous proponent of this type of acting was Konstantin Stanislavski, a turn of the 20th century director and actor whose methods later in the century became known as "Method Acting." Method acting includes rigorous exercises in imagination and concentration that are intended to bring the world of the play and character to life in the mind of the performer.

One of the most famous tenets of method acting include what Stanislavski called, the "magic if": "What if I were in Romeo's predicament?" Note, it is NOT "What if I were Romeo?" Can you see a difference? Method acting also often calls upon the actor to remember past emotions and apply them to the role she is playing. This is called "Emotional Recall." If in a play a character's mother dies, for instance, the actor would try to recall when someone close to her died and apply those emotions to the situation on the stage.

Famous method actors include Dustin Hoffman, Marlon Brando, Matthew Modine, Ben Stiller and others.

(2) Outside-in, or "external" acting, in which the actor works on how his voice should sound and how his body should be used to communicate images most effectively. He then uses the rehearsal period to make sure that the images he is communicating are "filled in" with real visualization.

In this approach, the actor spends long rehearsal hours perfecting a gesture or vocal colorization of a word or phrase, noting that it is never perfect until strong and vivid images in the actors mind back up his gestures or voice.

Famous external actors include William Shatner, Laurence Olivier, and Jim Carrey.

(3) Integrated acting, is techniques that work on both internal and external acting techniques simultaneously. Famous actors in this category include Kenneth Branagh, Patrick Stewart, Robert DeNiro, and Meryl Streep.

In fact, most acting approaches today take an integrated approach, and experienced actors all know that both the internal and external must be effective in order to communicate the information and images found in a play.

Activity
"Types of Actors-1"

In your workbook, describe what kind of an actor you are. To do this, think back on the activities from earlier acting explorations done for this class (MIND, BODY, VOICE). Did it feel more natural to visualize first, then let these images influence the body and voice, or was it more natural to do a gesture first, then fill in with an image? Or did you kind of find yourself doing both at the same time.

Activity
"Types of Actors-2"

In this class, we are trying to connect the arts of theatre with real life and living. In our normal lives, what approach to acting do we take: Internal or External? If you can remember my story about how I wanted a pug (in Acting: Part 1), what approach did I take then? When saying "I love you" for the first time to your boyfriend/girlfriend, what approach do human generally take? Write a short paragraph explaining your position.

Part 7: Improvisation

One way to improve acting techniques in all three areas (Mind, Body, Voice) is to engage in improvisation exercises. These have been made very popular in many walks of life due to the success of TV shows like "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" in which actors perform improvisational games to the delight of many.

Improvisation has become an art form unto itself, and many improv troupes can be found in nearly every major city in the U.S.

Improvisation takes a quick mind, and more importantly, an ability to visualize very quickly!

Here are some improv games you can play with your friends or family! You probably know a bunch already. Use them all!

Changing Mall

A list of imaginary stores is collected from the audience. Two actors begin a store clerk/customer scene. At various times, the name of one of the stores is shouted out by a conductor and the scene changes to that store.

Silence & Sound

Get a catastrophe. Players begin to act out a a scene based around that catastrophe happening. A controller alternatively calls out 'silence' and 'sound' - when silence is called, the players act out the scene silently and then resume sound when sound is called.

Complaint Department

Naive customer trying to return audience-selected object to complaint department at store. Ends when customer guesses what object is. Works best if customer makes assumptions about object rather than trying '20 questions' style guessing.

World's Worst

Get suggestion of occupation, social situation, etc. Players line up then step out with the worst thing to say or do in that situation.

Old Job/New Job

All of the characters in a scene have the same job, but one of them has a previous occupation that affects the way he acts.

Slow Genius

Three players are seated on stage and are asked 'imponderable' questions. They answer together, trying to all say the same thing at the same time.

Group Activity

One player begins miming an action. As other players figure out what the action is, they enter the space and begin miming actions related to the first player. Players can interact. Eventually, everyone is involved in the same sort of activity.

Part 8: Characters & Objectives

Though most people think of characterization as the first job of the actor, I disagree. I posit that creating a virtual space is much more important as a first step. Why? Because then the world exists, and a world must exist before a character can exist in that world. As a character is created by the actor, the virtual world of the play is manipulated in the actor's mind to reflect her perspective. This influences everything she does as a character in the play and as an actor trying to be believable.

However, building a character is also extremely important. Plays would be boring if all characters were the same or if they were all generic when they were supposed to be deep and intricate.

Activity
"Character"

Imagine yourself as one of the characters in any of the plays you have read (or viewed) so far. Now, in one short paragraph, describe "your" bedroom, wallet, purse or other personal space from the perspective of that character (so as Hamlet, describe Hamlet's room). It is messy? Neat? What kinds of things are found? This is one way in which actors can begin to access character.

Now note clues from the play that inform you of this character's perspectives. How do you know he or she is messy or neat? How do you know what artifacts are found there?

Winning

Humans want to win. We all walk around and need and want things. Just ask my kids. They are always wanting things. See? Here I am trying to finish this sentence, and my son just came and wants a glass of milk. He only had to ask, but when characters in plays want things, they often must do intricate and extravagant things to get them. To the actor, these needs and desires are called objectives .

What does Oedipus the King want (refer to the lesson on Tragedy)? He wants to save his city, for one thing. He probably wants a plethora of other things as well, such as fame, comfort, power, etc. These kinds of complex objectives make this play interesting and make it a great play.

What does Cecily want from The Importance of Being Earnest ? She wants romance (on her terms, of course), control, love, "LOVE," and other things.

When things get in the way of characters' objectives, they are called obstacles . Obstacles make plays interesting by adding that essential ingredient of drama: CONFLICT. Without conflict, you don't have a play.

Copyright 2008, David Sidwell. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2005, October 07). The Performing Arts of Theatre. Retrieved January 08, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: http://ocw.usu.edu/Theatre_Arts/Understanding_Theatre/The_Performing_Arts_of_Theatre_1.html. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License