During my first few years of teaching as director of the Method Actors’ Training Centre In Pretoria, South Africa, I stuck to how the classes were handled at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York during my time there (1981 – 1984).
What I did do differently, however, was to do year-end shows with my students. We either did a few existing short plays chosen around a theme or created original workshop productions based on improvisation as an ensemble, starting rehearsals in August and usually performing at the end of November or beginning of December. I believed very strongly that it would be pointless for students to study acting and learn how to apply Method acting techniques to scene work if the actors did not have the opportunity to perform in front of an audience at some point also. Actors need to learn how to solve both acting and technical problems under pressure, under the lights and while being watched by both strangers and loved ones. The stress and pressure you are under when performing for an audience is completely different to working in front of peers you know well within a class set-up and students must gain that experience and professionalism if they wish to enter into the industry as paid actors.
It soon became apparent, however, that my students were absolutely useless during blocking rehearsals! They didn’t have a clue how to behave on a stage; stumbling about, masking and blocking themselves and their fellow actors, not knowing what to do with their hands and feet, moving around like wooden dolls, placing set furnishings in ways that did not work at all and often behaving illogically and with a lack of awareness with regard to how to tell the story visually and theatrically. Not only that – they presented with major problems when it came to voice reproduction, of which the worst was that they could not be heard and that diction and articulation, in general, was extremely poor. I had been aware of these issues while watching scene work in class, of course, but since these weaknesses were paid no mind during my training I didn’t concern myself with it either.
Once you’re designing a set, telling a story, blocking a scene (requiring actors to do daily activities with an awareness of stage craft) and getting actors to move effectively for public performance to a paying audience, however, attention must be paid to the age-old theatrical conventions, whether we like it or not! While I do not subscribe to slavishly following each and every “rule” to the exclusion of real action and honest behavior, I do believe we should strive to honor the most basic aspects by making them our own and eventually executing them so naturally that they are not noticed at all. We should at least know the “rules” in order to break them effectively and towards a specific purpose should we feel so inclined.
The fact that actors must possess a strong, resonant voice with good tone which can be heard at the back of the theatre, that diction should be clear and that the characters’ thoughts and feelings should be meaningfully expressed is non-negotiable, as far as I’m concerned. The mumbling, inexpressive voice of the cliché Method actor who can barely be heard in the first row (even in the movie theatre!) is something many have complained about throughout the years and I was not going to allow this to be the case with my students.
So … I started adding voice classes and workshops in “non-method” aspects, not only because I needed my students to behave more professionally during rehearsals for the year-end shows but also because I required them to do more theatrically effective scene work in class – even if the main focus is teaching them how to apply relaxation, sense memory, emotional memory, animal work, etc. in practice. Surely this does not exclude working correctly with regard to wider performance and theatrical aspects and actually being heard by the audience (whether in theatre or film) also?
It helps to have a common language with directors and actors in the wider industry, for instance, since this makes communication and working together easier and would make the novice feel much more comfortable in professional company.
Actors and directors and stage managers need to know where “Prompt side” is and what “OP” means, that the stage is divided into 15 units, what these positions are called, where Centre or Down Right Centre or Up Left Centre, etc. would be, and where the most effective playing areas are (in case you wish to use them), how to write stage directions or notations in a text. It would make life easier to know that XDRC, pause, XUSC, out means: crosses down right centre, pauses, crosses upstage centre and exits, if the stage manager is absent and you’ve been asked to help out by giving fellow actors notes from the script.
Here follow a few simple suggestions based on Jean Lee Latham’s Do’s and Don’ts of Drama that my students and I have found helpful over the years, giving their performances a more “polished” and professional feel without taking away from the realness and honesty of their responses and emotions. The individual will choose whether to disregard or use them: