Who are the truly great actors of our generation? And what makes them great?
It is easy to imitate a character or even an emotion, but is there realism in that? Can you do it again?
Creating realistic characters comes from knowing the character inside and out. This comes from a process of devouring the text/script. Learn everything you can about the character: what they look like, what their history is, how they think, feel, respond. Study everything that the script says about them and everything they say about themselves.
Aim to play this person as truthfully as possible. Don’t merely create a caricature. Be real. So many times people just recite lines. That isn’t acting at all.
I’m sure you have heard these questions before: 1. Who am I? 2. Where am I? 3. When is it? 4. Where have I been? 5. Where was I just before entering? 6. Why am I in the scene? What do I want? 7. Why do I want it? 8. What is this scene without me? 9. How will I get what I want? 10. What stands in my way?
Acting takes work. Consider having a notebook and recording all the answers to the questions above.
Next research history. What does history say about this time period or topic? What were politics, art, literature, foods, fashion and even religion like? Cut out pictures and descriptions and fill your notebook with those images.
You will not be able to find every detail about the character you have been given the responsibility to portray. So after you have finished your research, use your imagination to fill in the details and bring your character to life.
Use research and imagination together. Never use one without the other.
Once in awhile an actor comes along who is truly great. You can’t always teach someone how to become a good actor. But using this technique will help start the process.
Sometimes getting to know a character takes more time than others. Recently, Overshadowed was two weeks into a performance run when COVID shut us down. Months later we reopened to finish our run. Our characters changed. Why? We had more time to really get to know them. We thought about them for months. Also, we changed. I saw the desperation of Carrie Watts through different eyes.
We talk about that experience in a new episode of our new You Tube channel.
We are still trying to grow our You Tube so that people at least can find it when they search. We have been told that we need more subscribers before that will happen. Would you take a moment to join us?
Do you have a chosen technique to assure that your character is real? I’d love to hear about it.
Here’s to moments on the stage that leave the audience breathless. Let’s create them together.
One of the most common phrases you will hear when you are acting is “Live in the moment.”
It is a command I’ve given as a director and one I’ve received as an actor. I have experienced moments that I was truly connected to my character and connected to everything that was happening on stage and other moments that I was thinking about everything that was happening around me instead of “living” the moment that the character was living.
My most embarrassing moment came during a production of “The Christmas Wish” an Overshadowed original play that we obtained permission to create from a book with the same title. (We got the idea from a Hallmark movie that carried the same name.) I played the Grandmother. I was trying hard not to direct in my head-which is quite difficult for me since that is the area of theater in which I have the most confidence. I walked onto the stage through the door that represented the living room of my character’s house. As I began to say my lines I noticed that the desk hadn’t made it’s way entirely onto the stage and was in fact now half way behind the wall attached to the door I had just entered. My director head noticed and immediately I panicked. I completely stopped listening to the lines that my “grandson” was delivering as I thought about how I was going to get the diary out of that desk. Important, because that was what the play was about. I knew I couldn’t get it out by myself and I didn’t want to do something as unprofessional as move the wall to make the drawer accessible. All of I sudden I noticed that Tim, the other actor, had stopped talking. I looked up at him. He looked at me quizzically. I waited a beat and shrugged my shoulders. Hopefully signifying what I was thinking. “Help! I got nothing!” It must have worked because Tim started talking and covered for me.
That moment has haunted me for years.
I was living in my moment. Not my character’s.
Living in the moment takes an extraordinary amount of concentration. You can totally be in the zone and all of a sudden you become aware of the audience and “Snap!” you are no longer in the moment. It is a very bizarre idea this goal of living in the moment, but the more you think about it the more it takes you out of the moment.
So how can you fix this problem?
Concentration and relaxing exercises. Many beginning actors scoff at these exercises, but I find that the routine you establish is one of the most valuable practices you can have as an actor. We all have different areas that are more difficult to relax so you need to discover those for yourself and focus on those areas. For me, it is my neck and jaw. I need 15-30 mins before I go on stage. I start with relaxation exercises and work my whole body. Next, I listen to music that suits my character and begin to think, meditate, concentrate (Any of those that work for you) about my character. I try to really get into my head. Where is my character? What is she doing? All the things that lead me up to the moment I walk on stage.
Listen. Many times I see actors that say their line, wait for the other characters to talk. They then breathe and then say their next line. Instead, listen to what the other characters are saying. Focus on what they are doing. React. Living in the moment means that you don’t “prepare” to speak. Instead, you hear the line and then respond in truth to it.
Absorb your character and lines. As a director, I know that I am not going to really be able to push my cast until they know their lines. We discuss characters and blocking and relationships beforehand, but the real work comes when they start to commit everything to memory. Only then is the mind free to interpret. Before that it is struggling to learn, discover and remember. Magic is created when you know your lines so well that you don’t have to think about what comes next.
Some actors create from the outside in and others from the inside out. It doesn’t really matter what the process is as long as it is thorough and complete.
4. Don’t be mechanical. Some people prepare so much that they know exactly when they are going to gesture and how they will move. Some people get into such a rhythm that they always say each line exactly the same way. The danger in this is that you become a “rote’ character. You no longer “live in the moment” but instead you are just going through the motions instead of creating the motion yourself! I think that is my biggest struggle as an actor. I analyze constantly…”oh, I didn’t say that correctly” or “I wonder why the audience didn’t laugh at that” or a thousand other critiques. Concentrate on your character not on you!
Recently, I came across an article from an interview with Leslie Odom, Jr., who plays Aaron Burr, in Hamilton! In it he talks about the moment every night when Lin-Manuel Miranda, as Alexander Hamilton, hurled the insult that caused Burr to challenge Hamilton to a duel and ultimately, to kill him, simultaneously ending his own political career.
He said, “Every night, I’m looking for it in his eyes — I want him to make different decisions. I want it to end differently.”
That’s what it is all about. That is when you know you are completely in the zone. When you are so caught up in what your character is feeling that you actually want what your character wants, hope for it to be so, even though you know it can’t happen any other way.….welcome to “living in the moment.”
Did you like this article? I’d love to hear what you think or hear your acting stories!
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This quarantine has provided me with some rare opportunities as I’m sure it has to you. (Positive thinking, people!) Maybe you found time to finally deep clean the garage or that closet? Or…just to sleep! I’ve found time for two of my favorite things: cooking and reading (make that 3 – eating – let’s be real). In addition to my favorite genres, history and fiction, I’ve been reading more plays (and eating more…and…riding my bike more – gotta combat the COVID 20!…Pounds that is).
I´ve been thinking about how I would stage and develop these plays (I have a few shelf fulls I´ve been working my way through). In thinking (and eating, of course) during all of this, I discovered the topic for this blog!
Cooking up Characters with Kady! (did you like that alliteration?) Seriously though, there are so many parallels between cooking and directing that once I started, I just couldn’t stop seeing the similarities. So, here are some ´tasty´ thoughts about how to ´cook´ up and serve characters and actually, the whole show, as a director.
First, and absolutely the most essential, is the visualization. I have always been fascinated with the process of taking raw ingredients and reshaping them into a new cohesive whole, which is why I love cooking. (plus I love eating, gotta be real folks). Taking ´raw´ ideas and reshaping them into living breathing characters in a ´real´ world is why I love directing. Both cooking and directing spring from visualizing the final product.
An important caveat: I make no claims to be a professional or even a remotely good cook! (and definitely not baking – I have not conquered the opera cake yet – plus I haven’t deboned a duck…let alone a chicken) And I am most definitely not a Broadway director. I direct summer camps for Overshadowed and direct my school´s drama program/plays. Broadway someday? I can dream. But in the meantime, I absolutely L-O-V-E what I do. So back to it.
I almost (not completely because I l-o-v-e to eat) enjoy imagining the combination of flavors, texture, and plating more than creating the actual dish. Why? It’s the wonder of possibilities! It’s the magic of ´before´ reality hits and all the obstacles jump up to bonk you in the nose. As I read a script, the same thing happens. Oh the possibilities! I imagine the world with the movie or I should say, the ´stage of the mind´. And while the show plays, I ask questions: What do I think the forest of Oberon and Titania actually looks like?Should the 39 Steps be staged as a radio drama or can it be ´live action´?And Jane Eyre..modern or historical?How should Don John hide his perfidy from the characters but not the audience in Much Ado About Nothing? How would an audience react to a production of Raisin in the Sun?How actually should I create the creatures of The Hobbit? (that one was answered brilliantly by my creative team!)
Sometimes the visualization doesn’t start with a script. It sometimes happens like my grocery shopping (especially when I´m hungry). Sometimes, I will see a unique ingredient (like a kumquat) and think, ´I´ve never cooked with that before. I wonder how it can be used and what other ingredients will go with it?´ Then, I pull out my phone right there and look up ideas, nutritional facts, and common or unique ways to cook it. And then into the cart it goes and the adventure begins! Sometimes I´m introduced to a new idea I´ve never used before, or a story I´ve never heard of, or a design element or tool I’d absolutely love to use. The research begins and ´Oh the possibilities´!
And once the mind, and sometimes the heart, are full of all the possibilities, I have found I need a lot of help to make that dream a reality.
Which of course leads to the next step: the collaboration.
With the ´recipe´ of the visualization in hand, I turn to my team. As a director or the visionary of any creative endeavor, this is the most essential task – getting your vision, ideas, tastes, textures, mood, hopes, fears, wish lists, and the world across to your creative team.
Not just so they understand what is being created, but so that they catch your hunger; so that they take ownership of the vision as well. Any chef knows the explanation of a recipe must be absolutely clear or what will be presented to the diner will be a muddied catastrophe. The director must be absolutely clear in establishing the framework and details the world his/her team is to work within. They become your sous chefs in their respective areas of expertise. Lighting, costuming, makeup/hair, sound, house, set, props, stage crew, marketing – you name it. This utterly essential team must hunger for exactly what you´re hungering for. If you pick well, as I have thankfully often experienced, they will love your vision as much as you do. And as such, will willingly share in the burden of creation.
The creative team is not just there to share in the burden, they´re there to add to the dish. Having other’s input adds flavor, shape, and foresight or resolution to problems you couldn’t see (I tend to dream big, my team helps keep my feet on the ground). Plus, someone else’s creativity and skill can make all the difference. That doesn’t mean the recipe loses its intrinsic value, its central identity, or that the director loses ownership. It simply means a new perspective of costuming, some expertise on how to actually make those puppets work, a composition of the mood you wanted to convey through music, or a unique way of enhancing audience interaction will all help create an authentic performance. That is simply invaluable. This team will become your fellow visionaries, and in some cases, dear friends with whom you can share and bolster the creative process through all the possibilities.
The third step (which I adore) is the preparation, or the creation of the characters. This is the step of pulling the characters from the page into the world that has been envisioned and is being created. This step requires reliance on the sous chefs/line cooks.
I think actors generally fall in the range of both. (I speak as an actor as well). What I mean is this: My niece is 14, precocious, opinionated, very chatty, beautiful, creative, and did I mention opinionated? My nephew is 16, tall, handsome, a sweetheart, intelligent (single) and follows instructions well. (I love them…clearly) When my sister and I cook or bake (Which we love to do! She could open her own restaurant), we do enjoy making it a family affair, which means pulling my niece or nephew into the adventure. Both enjoy cooking in my sisters kitchen, but one is a sous chef and one is more of a line cook. My nephew takes the instructions and performs with minimal questions. Need something diced? Grilled? He’s on it. If he doesn’t know how, a demonstration or explanation is given and he’s good. My niece, on the other hand, needs to know why. Always. ´Why not julienned instead of diced? It will look prettier, Aunt Kady!´ Oy vey! I have learned that after explanation, and after she has defended her point of view (vociferously), I have a choice. I can modify per her suggestion, or if that modification takes us outside the parameters of the recipe, I can choose not to. But I had better clearly explain why not to her before she is willing to move on. And she does, and dices with absolute precision. She does so because she owns her understanding of why. It’s now her mission, her task, her recipe too. Now I know sous chefs are second in command in the kitchen. I´m not saying actors are assistant directors. But, when it comes to character creation, the directorial vision has to be handed over to the ´assistant´ creators of those characters – which is the actors.
I have found that despite training (Meisner, Method, College degree, or complete amateur), actors generally land somewhere between my neice or my nephew. I enjoy both the line cooks and the sous chefs. Those like my nephew take the instruction and go with it. If they need direction they ask or accept it, then take it and go. They have already signed up to your vision because they trust it’s gonna ´taste´ good (especially if it’s pasta). They really thrive when the director is ´hands on´ in the early stages of laying out the elements of the character that he/she want to see brought to life and then stepping back and allowing the actor to take on the responsibility progressively throughout the entire process until of course they present the character on stage before an audience. Others…well…are my niece. They may question your vision from the very start. It doesn’t matter if they are highly trained or complete newbies. These are more sous chefs than line chefs and need to own the ´recipe´ of their characters as their own. This means you have to explain the vision and it needs to make sense to them. They need to understand the world their character lives in. And if it doesn’t make sense and they just can’t claim ownership of it, well… there have been times I’ve kicked my niece out of the kitchen. But when they do own the vision, when they are allowed to add their flavor to it… the performance that results from such an intensive shaping can be so enriched and authentic. In the world that’s been created by a team fully committed to the vision, adding a performance that has been relentlessly picked apart, lovelingly shaped together, and executed with absolute belief is utterly glorious! I guarantee that your audience won’t soon forget it. It is a beautiful preparation.
From visualization to collaboration to preparation, we’ve arrived at the final flourish, the lifting of the silver dome – the presentation! What a wonder it is when that curtain finally rises! A chef can indeed cook alone and create an adventure on a plate that the diner won’t soon forget.
But theater is not a solo endeavor.
Besides creativity and teamwork, its most important ingredient is trust. The playwright must trust that their story will be told with integrity, even with creative license. The director must trust that the world he/she envisioned will truly be brought to life by the design team, the crew, and the actors. And when the audience sits down to dine on the feast that is truly the ´theater experience´, they trust that the performance they are about to partake in has been cooked up with the greatest love, professionalism, care, detail, and creativity, with a dash of magic. Bon appetit!