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Sunday, January 27, 2013

SOLUTIONS TO PRACTICAL PROBLEMS IN APPLYING METHOD PRINCIPLES #3



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:

STAGE SETTING

1.    Don’t place furniture so it hides an important entrance/exit.
2.    Keep the stage balanced by placing furniture left and right of centre, not on one side only.
3.    Give the stage setting depth by placing furniture upstage and downstage.
4.    Guard against the monotony of straight lines when placing furniture.
5.    See to it that one piece of large furniture does not block the view from another piece, such as a sofa, where important action is to occur. The audience must see the action.
6.    Place furniture around which important action is to occur, within effective playing areas.
7.    Place a chair in which an important scene is to occur where all audience members can see the occupant.
8.    Do not place furniture in such a way that actors upstage themselves when doing activities.
9.    Don’t place furniture in the main playing areas so far upstage or downstage that the actors are forced to play behind it (DS) or - if placed US - the stage looks top-heavy and the actors find it hard to dominate the audience.

EFFECTIVE STAGING: ENTRANCES & EXITS

1.    First rule in staging an entrance: Clear the doorway of other actors for entrances and exits so the audience may have an unobstructed view of the character entering.
2.    Give him/her room to walk into the scene so s/he is not stuck at the door or against a wall.
3.    Minor characters should not obstruct the view with regard to major characters and/or important action.
4.    The more important character should have a position US of the other, where s/he can dominate the scene/face the audience.
5.    When a major character enters to join a group, use motivated movement to get non-essential characters out of the way so s/he can walk into the scene and address the other major character(s) with ease.

BLOCKING: KEEPING THE STAGE BALANCED

1.    The importance of a character has as much weight as the number of characters. In other words, one major character is as important as several minor characters and may therefore be placed separately without the stage becoming unbalanced.
2.    Use the whole stage and different levels – standing, sitting etc. - when blocking.
3.    Variety in blocking is very important. Vary moving your character(s) or placing the action DSC to RC to DSL etc., when blocking scenes played one after the other.
4.    Do not simply move characters up and down and left and right in straight lines – move them US and DS, SR and SL in straight as well as diagonal lines. Mix it up.
5.    Keep the following in mind:
(a)    keep the stage balanced – do not place all or most of your characters or action in one area only, leaving the rest of the stage empty for long periods of time
(b)    give the main character place of prominence (if relevant)
(c)    don’t allow one character to mask or block another
(d)    don’t allow your characters to upstage themselves when involved in an important scene or action
(e)    keep the main characters in the effective playing areas or where the action can be clearly seen
(f)      always use a direct route from one position to another on the stage unless there is a definite reason for doing otherwise (the character is dawdling, unsure or playing for time)

STAGE TECHNIQUE

1.    When holding a gun/glass/newspaper etc., use your US hand. Tip: In rehearsal, move your script to your DS hand, which will force you to use the US hand for activities etc.
2.    When you start walking, make the first step with your US foot. You do not want to block your body or cross yourself with your first step – keep an open position.
3.    A seated character should not cross the DS leg over the US leg since this blocks the body. Keep the body open towards the audience by crossing the legs the other way around. 
4.    Always position a character watching action off-stage (looking out of a window/door etc.) in profile rather than with the back to the audience. Profile gives the opportunity to view facial expressions and hear dialogue.
5.    Dialogue can frequently not be heard when an actor faces US and away from the audience, unless s/he has a very strong voice. Weaker voices should always face toward the audience in order to be heard.
6.    Playing with your back to the audience can be very effective, but this choice must be made with caution and for very specific reasons.
7.    Two or more actors should not walk next to or directly behind each other on stage unless specifically required for effect. Rather let one walk slightly behind and to the side of the other when exiting together or changing on-stage positions in order that the audience may still see both characters clearly.
8.    Try not to have two characters walking to different positions on-stage together or crossing [X] each other. Let one character move and once s/he gets to the required position let the other character move.

TELLING YOUR STORY VISUALLY

Always look for ways to bring meaning and/or subtext across visually, through placement on-stage and/or action and activities and not only through what characters are saying. Do this with subtlety and insight with regard to a character’s intent, motivation, what is really meant underneath what is being verbally stated, etc. Don’t hit the audience over the head with a sledgehammer though! Some examples:
Friendly Scenes: Place the characters closer to each other for greater intimacy. Distance may be better suited to broad comedy or the highly dramatic or hostility, depending on how it is handled.
Dramatic Clash: Don’t place minor characters in-between the two majors during a conflict scene – get them out of the way in order that the characters in conflict may communicate and play off each other without difficulty.
Tension between characters: Consider putting distance between them or having them turn their bodies away from each other or try out “closed” body language (arms crossing over the chest), etc. Daily activities can also be very expressive so pick these carefully and look at how different meanings can be expressed through how the activities are executed.

VOICE

Voice work forms part of my Method Course. The students have to attend weekly one-hour Voice classes in order to develop this all-important part of the actor’s instrument. Since honest expressiveness is essential I work according to Kristin Linklater’s techniques with regard to Freeing the Natural Voice. 

I train my actors to attain physical relaxation; release of the breathing centre and speech channel, correct breath and voice placement; strong resonance; rich, full voice tone; effective voice projection and volume as well as clear articulation / diction and truthful verbal expression of thought and feeling.

Developing effective voices remains a frustrating struggle since students don’t do the required work at home in order to fully develop their voices as instruments. They stubbornly believe they can get away with doing the minimum, as most students do, and we pay the price when performing the year-end show every time. Lack of volume, thin voice tone, weak resonance and woolly diction have haunted me for the past twenty-two years. Even so, I keep hoping that my actors are doing better in the Voice department than they would have if I had not spent the time trying to develop effective verbal instruments at all. I like to believe they are! 

Written by: Stephanie van Niekerk
Director, Method Actors' Training Centre

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