I AM THIS CHARACTER

Sometimes in your career, whether it be school or community or professional theatre, you will find yourself playing a character very close to yourself.  The character may have the same family situation that you came from, or a close relationship with a friend that mirrors yours. At first, this seems like opening a puzzle that’s already half finished- a gift of sorts.  Beware.  You must summon all your talent and enlist the help of every supporting cast member, as well as the director, NOT to have the parallels too close.

I know that you have suffered a great deal.  I also know that you have come a very long way and worked very hard to put certain experiences and people behind you.  Actors are very suggestible people- that’s what makes them such a special breed of human.  Actors with any decent training can summon images of frightening realism from just a word, or smell, or phrase of music.  It is, unfortunately, an ability that does not always wait to be summoned.  When drawing on personal experiences, the actor must be very careful to note what is surrounding him or her in the physical reality.  For instance, when you are playing a scene of a fight with your mother, using recall of an actual fight with your actual mother is not a great idea.  It is very likely that you could look at the actress playing your mother and see your own mother, plain as day. If it hasn’t happened to you yet, be grateful.  It is one of the most terrifying experiences an actor can have.  I have had students faint, vomit, or cry uncontrollably as a result of this phenomena.

Needless to say, rehearsals of this sort cannot continue, and valuable work time is lost.  The other detrimental effect is that once this kind of thing has happened, the actor is frightened of it happening again.  Completely understandable.  I would not put anyone in the world through that kind of experience deliberately.  However, the scene must still be played, and the show must go on.  Here is my advice in both scenarios:

  1. Distance yourself with a physical trait. If you are just starting rehearsals, and you have not had a “flashback” experience yet, wonderful.  Please don’t try it.  It’s a bad trip.  Find as many differences between the character’s life and situation and your own, and play them up. If you still feel too close to yourself, try adding a habit to your character that he or she does in times of stress. Choose something you never do, like messing up your hair or fiddling with a piece of jewelry (which you could add).  If the director objects, explain the reason- that you are feeling too close to the character, and you need to find ways to be different.
  2. Take control. The main power that triggers hold over you is your helplessness and inability to control them. You are now in a place and situation where you have a lot of control. Once you have identified the trigger, you can approach it from a place of control. You can even create a mantra or a song or a physical action to remind yourself that you are in control. You can stop this at any time. You can change the way you react. By yourself, away from rehearsal/performance, in a mirror if you can handle it, you can even talk directly to the trigger. Say something like, “You used to control me when XXXX was going on. That was then. This is now, and it’s my space, my time. I choose to work with you. But you are mine, and I have control over you. ” You can also take some time to confront that trigger as you wish you had confronted what created it. If you were in a difficult situation where you were out of control, you can yell at this thing/person/conversation. Tell them what you should have told them before. Tell them they no longer have the power to hurt or frighten you. Then give yourself a little physical reminder- it can be as simple as touching two fingers together- to remind yourself that you have done this, and you are OK.
  3. Ask for help. The director may be able to help you as well, if you are at a loss.  Your director (if he/she has any real experience) will recognize the problem as valid immediately, and will definitely work with you so as to avoid any type of breakdown.  They’re messy, and take a long time to clean up.  IF, by the second week of rehearsal, you are still uncomfortably close and feel like there might be a problem, request a meeting with the director to talk about it.  Put your emotional health first in this situation- if the director can’t help you, or dismisses your concern as silly, quit the show.  As I will explain later, actors are very replaceable.  You will not regret it.
  4. Be specific. Look at the script, and the other actors, and the set, and craft services, and the costumes, and everything else in the situation, and figure out exactly what is causing the trigger for you. If it is a word, words can sometimes be changed. A costume piece or a paint color can be changed. A relationship probably can’t. Find out exactly what the problem is, and if it’s changeable, change it, or ask discreetly for it to be changed. The changes may be slight, but they must be definite and tangible.  If it can’t be changed, see #1. Find some way to make it different.
  5. Ask for help again. If you are seeing a counselor or a therapist, tell them what you are going through and why. They are there to help you. Really. Even if they don’t get theatre, they get triggers. If you are not seeing someone, and you have a decent school counselor, find a time to chat with them. You may be surprised. They are actually trained in this kind of thing, and can give you even better advice than I can. Hard to believe, I know.
  6. Ask for more help. If you have already seen or been through something on stage that you thought was behind you, then you know the terror and rage that I speak of. You have the option to quit the show, of course, but I challenge you at this point to turn around and get back on the horse.  This does not mean to show up and recite your lines, staying way back from the cliff you fell off of.  It’s too late- your director and supporting cast have already seen the depths of your capabilities, and not much less will be demanded. I urge you to meet alone with the director outside of rehearsal time in a neutral territory to discuss the event.  Explain that you need some different images or motivations to get back to where you were in terms of intensity.  Once that is achieved, follow my instructions above as to a habit (which is actually a programmed stress response) that is appropriate for your character but foreign to you. If there are fellow cast members whom you trust (and I say there’d better be), also explain to them what you are doing differently and why.  Then trust them to catch you if you fall, and to help steer you away from the cliff at the last minute.  You MUST, however, go back to that cliff and walk the edge.  You will be exhilarated, in control, and applauded for it.  And I know that’s what you are seeking.  Go forth, young Grasshopper.

 

Silence and Stillness

This is an area that tends to get overlooked in acting classes and in the rehearsal process. The power of silence and stillness is incredible, yet it is often not used at all or not used well. Here are my thoughts on it, and the great part is that you can practice it any time!

Stillness and silence are obviously not the same thing. You can be physically still while speaking or singing, and you can be silent while moving like a whirlwind. You will have to work with your director, coach, teacher, whatever to decide when and how to use each. But here are a few thoughts on where to look:

TO USE…

When the words are enough. If you have been gifted by the playwright or lyricist with words that tell the story perfectly, that convey exactly what needs to be said, and that create change and power all on their own, then explore stillness there. If you can lend your own power to the words, without distracting with movement or choreography, that can be effective beyond measure.

When the words are too much. Sometimes you will come up against a script or a song that is so packed with emotional shifts, or so charged with pain or joy that there needs to be a point at which the character either must take a moment to digest something fully, or to make the next decision, or to allow the emotion of the piece blossom before going on to the next sentence. I’ve told the story before about watching Tyne Daly take a full 30 seconds, maybe more, silently weeping in the middle of a song. We would have waited an hour. It needed to be there.

When you’re not sure how to start. I’m a big fan, especially in audition pieces, to allow the emotion to produce the words and movement, rather than the other way around. We seldom speak or move before we feel we need to in the real world, so why change that in the imaginary world? Take the time you need, especially in rehearsal, to fully understand and experience what it is that is causing you to break the silence and stillness of your character’s world.

When something momentous happens. I mean big things. Deaths, sudden appearances of unexpected people, births, disappearances, a sudden change in circumstance in any direction. We tend to need time to process those. Those of you who have lost someone suddenly, or gain someone suddenly, you know that there is a little bit of time where you don’t fully believe or understand what has happened. Take that time and allow yourself to experience all the colors and physical feelings of that process, and see where it takes you.

When should you combine? The stillness and silence, that is. Whenever it serves the story best. But choose those moments carefully, place them strategically, and don’t use them too often. Like anything else on stage, high usage dilutes the power.

…OR NOT TO USE

When you are using it to search for lines. Taking great dramatic, emotion-filled, still and/or silent pauses while you search for your next line will fatigue your audience and confuse the story, not to mention adding on minutes and minutes to the run time unnecessarily. Learn your lines, earn your pauses.

When it’s someone else’s moment. This is a tricky one, you want to be still and silent, of course, when the focus should be on another actor or area; but if you are too intensely focused on your own character at that moment, you can pull focus. Be authentic, but be aware of the actual focal point of the moment. You CAN use your stillness/silence TOWARD the moment. That takes practice, a little higher level thinking. You can totally experiment in rehearsal/class with that one.

When it’s too soon after the last time. These moments are a little like going to the bathroom. They are necessary, have great urgency, and can be overused very quickly. As you know from your many bathroom trips of your life, going too often can leave you dry when you need it. Wait for it to be urgent.

WHAT ABOUT COMEDY?

Great question. I can always count on you to get me where I want to go next. Comedy is all about timing, and like I’ve said before, to your character, there is absolutely nothing funny about what is going on. Therefore, in general, the same thoughts apply as in drama, with one small caveat:

Earn your pauses in comedy. The short answer is, same thing, but faster and less often. Comedy tends to be pretty fast-paced, especially in farce (watch Noises Off!) so pauses, whenever they come, need to be EXTREMELY strategic. In comedy you may not have enough time to fully realize an emotional state without needing to move or speak, because so much of the rest of the comedy depends on precise and predictable timing. You will usually have to coordinate your still or silent moments with other actors, actions, music, doors, dogs, you never know. Stay authentic, but then speed it up and stay predictable.

In general, comedy, drama, Shakespeare, musical, audition, whatever, you and your director will decide on the strategic placement of these moments. But coming in with an eye towards their existence, their power, and their effectiveness in the storytelling will give you yet another tool in your belt. Of course, when you get your chance to experiment with silence/stillness, you should be prepared with an idea of what to do with that moment. So here’s an exercise that can help you get ready.

YOU ARE ENOUGH

Among the first steps to being an authentic and powerful performer is to start with just you. You, with your own experiences, foibles, flaws, failures, fantasies, and extreme gifts are enough to fill an auditorium with authentic emotion at any given time. The trick is being able to access it at will, and allow it to fill you at the silent and still level. You don’t need a script, a mirror, a partner, anything really, except a little time and space.

Write down (on a series of index cards if you are a tad organized, or just a list wherever- eyebrow pencil on paper towel works too) a list of ten emotions.  They can be whatever you want, but they must alternate between positive and negative. They can’t all be emo sludge, or you’ll hospitalize yourself. Here is an example list:

Fear
Excitement
Grief
Joy
Anger
Surprise (good)
Disappointment
Love
Outrage
Contentment

I recommend starting with a negative emotion, as they are easier to access, and then you can end with a positive one, which is always a good practice.

Then, with this list, spend time with each one in silence and stillness. If you want to use a focal point to direct the emotion, go for it; but you can just do this sitting, lying down, standing, whatever. I like to sit, because I can pay best attention to my body that way. But whatever works for you. But the place and time should be quiet and private, when you know you won’t be disturbed for a while.

Here are the steps you should go through:

  1. Explore the word itself and the images it brings to you. These may be memories, fantasies, even clips of movies or TV, things you’ve seen onstage, whatever.
  2. Allow the emotion itself to start to take shape inside you. There may be a specific scenario in your mind, it could be nothing but colors and sensation, anything in between.
  3. Don’t move.
  4. As the emotion is building inside you, become aware of the physical sensations that you feel.
    1. Where in your body do you feel this emotion first?
    2. Where does it radiate (move) to as you feel lit more intensely?
    3. What does it do to your face?
    4. What does it do to your hands and arms?
    5. Touch each part of your body that becomes affected physically by the emotion.
  5. Don’t move.
  6. When you are feeling so intensely that you absolutely must move, go ahead and do what you feel like you have to do with your body. This could be standing, sitting, lying down, running, jumping, crying, curling up in a fetal position, or just a bunch of random movements of your hands and arms. Whatever comes organically from this.
  7. Begin to pull it back in, moving backwards in steps 5-1.
  8. When you have come all the way back to a neutral space, take a break. Come back and do the next one.

This may take you a week to get through all ten. Or a month. or a year. But keep at it. Stillness and silence lead to great things.

 

Apologies

There are a lot of things in this world to apologize for. There are certainly a lot of things that people should apologize for. However, there are also a lot of things that no one should apologize for, and there are times when apologies can be downright annoying. It’s important that you understand how and when to apologize, and when not to.

I hear a lot of young actors- and adult actors- saying “I’m sorry” for things that they don’t need to apologize for. They are usually well-intentioned; but sometimes self-deprecating and sometimes even self-serving. I will explain. I always do.

First, I am going to explain the purpose and art of a true apology. Then I’m going to give you some times and techniques to use alternative phrases that are more appropriate for the instances in which most actors apologize.

A TRUE APOLOGY

A true apology is about the other person’s experience. Not yours. A real apology has to do with what the other person went through, or is about to go through, on account of you. It does not have anything to do with your reasons, your guilt, your intentions, your promises to improve/stop/fix whatever you did wrong. An apology is about how sorry you are that the other person is in a bad place because of something you did/said/neglected, etc. Any apology that starts with “I’m sorry, but” is not a true apology. One that starts with, “I’m so sorry, let me explain” is also not a true apology. In a true apology, the “I” in “I’m sorry” is the last time you should mention yourself until the other person asks you for more.

Things you cannot say immediately following a true apology:
1. But
2. Let me explain
3. I promise
4. I never
5. I swear
6. It wasn’t as bad as
7. This was the only time
8. It was (someone else)’s fault
9. I feel terrible
10. I’m an awful person

And anything else that involves you.

Things you can say immediately following a true apology:

  1. That you are hurting
  2. That you are going through this
  3. That you are disappointed
  4. That you are so sad
  5. That you are so angry
  6. This is a big deal
  7. This is/is going to be so hard on you
  8. That I have betrayed you (this one is OK as long as you keep the focus on them)

And anything else that involves them.

Then you follow their lead. If and when they want your reasons/intentions/explanations/ penance, they will ask you or tell you. If they don’t want any of that, don’t give it to them. It won’t help their experience, only yours, and that’s not what apologizing is about.

That being said, isn’t there a place for common courtesy apologies? Of course! Saying “I’m sorry” or “excuse me” when you bump into someone is fine, but you wouldn’t bump into someone and then launch into “I’m sorry, I was just walking and I guess I got distracted blah blah..” No. You apologize, and you make sure that person is OK before moving on. But in terms of actual things people apologize for, especially as actors, we do it too much and for the wrong reasons. If you have not caused someone else significant pain or inconvenience, then apology may not be the best, or even the most professional, avenue.

The thing about apologies is that they kind of require a response. They require a forgiveness or a rejection, some kind of “that’s ok” “forget it” “don’t worry about it.” But we really don’t have the time or the emotional energy to spend on that kind of exchange during rehearsal. Your typical apology exchange lasts an average of 5 seconds. Do that 12 times in a rehearsal, and you’ve wasted a full minute of rehearsal time apologizing. And time is money, as I’ve said before- going one minute over in your space could mean paying the whole crew overtime. Not cool. So here are some time- and energy-saving ways to approach those “I’m sorry” moments in rehearsal:

  1. “I’m sorry that we have to stop.” If you have, for whatever reason, interrupted rehearsal or have been the reason that something needs to be repeated or retaught, there is an impulse to apologize.  This comes from the right place. Of course, you want to acknowledge the time and energy of others that you are now monopolizing. However, The quicker way to do it is “thanks for your patience, guys” and moving directly on. That validates and thanks them for what they are giving you already, and they don’t have to be gracious or forgiving. Especially if they don’t feel it. Being forced to forgive someone who really is taking up time when you are already cranky doesn’t make for good cast relations.
  2. “I’m sorry that I’m late.” Ugh. Again, DON”T BE LATE. If you are, DON’T SAY ANYTHING to the cast, the best way to make up for wasting other people’s time is not to waste another single second of it. Just get in there and do what you need to do. Check in with the stage manager at the first break to see what you missed and to give them your reason and your solemn oath never to do that again.
  3. “I’m sorry that I suck.” This is something I actually hear young and adult actors say. Sometimes exactly like this, sometimes in other more subtle ways. An apology to a dance partner that you can tell wanted someone different; to a duet partner above your ability level; any other place where you feel like you are bringing the quality of experience down due to your own current ability level. It’s a tough spot, I’ve been there, I get it. But this apology is still more about your experience than theirs. You are hoping they will say, “You’re not that bad” or “actually, you’re brilliant” or “you’re exactly what we were hoping for” or something along that line. You are certainly not hoping they will say, “I forgive you.” So resist the urge to fish for the encouragement that you need. Instead, you could ask for it. Say to your dance partner, “Show me where/how I can do this better,” or “who should I copy or learn from for this? Who really has this down?” Ask anyone that you think is better than you, “What/how/where can I improve?” They may tell you, they may not; but they certainly won’t if you just apologize, and the best an apology is going to get you is forgiveness. And no artist ever improved as an artist by gaining forgiveness only.
  4. “I’m sorry that I’m unprepared.” This you should be sorry for, but you need to make this into a true apology. That means that you cannot allow the apology itself to be the end of it. You need to acknowledge and take action on the experience of your fellow actors. If you don’t know your lines and it is off book day, rather than calling “line” and self-flagellating every two seconds, say “I’m going to respect your time, thank you for being prepared everyone, I apologize; I will carry book for this scene/day and be ready tomorrow.” And then DO WHATEVER YOU NEED TO DO to make that come true. If you are clumsy in a dance, step out of it for the safety of others and get with the dance captain or whoever can help you and make it happen. If you don’t know a song, mark it as well as you can, act through  on la-la’s without lyrics, and get the job done as soon as you are physically able without using up the cast’s time. Remember that it is about their experience, not yours. I’m sure as people they care about your homework load, your parents, your injuries/illness, your transportation issues, whatever is keeping you from doing the job, but as professionals, no one can afford to care. Gotta get it done.
  5. “I’m sorry” as a response to a note or direction. The safest and most professional response to a note or direction is “thank you.” And if you really did something wrong and hadn’t realized it, you could perhaps add a “whoops” or an “oops” to mark the fact that you hadn’t intended the way you’d done things, followed by the “thank you.” But again, don’t waste time with the “I’m sorry- I forgot/thought you wanted/there was a thing in the way/whatever”. Another post on taking notes later, but no time for apology/forgiveness during notes for sure.
  6. “I’m sorry, could you stop that?” Apologizing for things that other people need to be apologizing for is both a poor use of an apology, and also passive-aggressive, which is something that actors are especially good at. If you want something to stop, ask politely for it to stop. “Would you guys mind spraying that outside? It triggers my asthma.” “Can you guys maybe talk over there? I can’t hear my cue.” “If you all could keep it to a dull roar in this area, I’d appreciate it.” Or deal with it, if you’re not comfortable asking. But don’t apologize.
  7. “I’m sorry, could you do something for me?” Same kind of thing. If you want/need something, ask for it, and then thank whoever does it for you. No place for an apology there.
  8. “I’m sorry, I don’t want to go out with you.” Or any other rebuff of any kind of an advance made by any member of any company in any capacity. You do not EVER have to apologize for turning someone down. You can tell them that you are not interested, that you like them as a friend, that you don’t want to kiss them, that you don’t want them to touch you that way, or that your lawyer will contact them. But you do not, should not, must not apologize to them. Even if you feel that you have “led them on,” you can say “maybe this got out of hand,” or “I think you and I have different ideas about where things are going here,” but “I’m sorry” is NOT something that needs to be said. Not by you. Possibly after you have judo chopped them or kneed them to get their hands off you… no, actually, not then either.

When then, as an actor, do you need to make a true apology?

Great question.

Like I said, if you have directly cause someone significant pain, distress, or inconvenience. Being unprepared can definitely fall under that. Here are a few more, and by the way, all of these are generally avoidable:

  1. Quitting. (See I Quit)
  2. Injuring someone.
  3. Missing an entrance or other cue.
  4. Lying (Don’t do this. We are actors, we lie for a living, we’re really good at spotting it. More on that later).
  5. Trying to insert a major conflict after rehearsals have already begun.
  6. Betrayal. This includes believing and/or spreading rumors that are false.
  7. Damaging/losing a prop, set piece or costume to the point that someone else needs to take time and/or money to fix/replace it for you.

You get the idea. When apologizing for any of the above (or the others that I’m sure will come to mind), follow the rules for a True Apology, and you can add, “please let me know what I can do to make up for this.” But don’t necessarily expect an answer right away. And if you do get one, it may not be spoken in a super forgiving way. But that’s part of their experience. Not yours.

 

Weaponry

Hello all my friends! Thanks for coming back. I’ve been working hard at my next career move. Exciting, exhausting, exhilarating, and time consuming. I appreciate you checking back in. Spread the word  that I am back online. I’ll do my best to post regularly, but I can’t promise anything, since I don’t know exactly how much time this new career will eat up.

But to the point at hand!

Weapons are very cool.

I say this as a diehard pacifist, as someone who was never allowed to have or pretend I had guns or any other kind of weapons in play, and required the same abstention of my own kids. However. The reality stands that weapons are very cool, especially when you know that they are fake. The stakes are lower, there’s a whole lot less pressure or aura of mystery surrounding the weapons.

Unfortunately, that is absolutely and frighteningly untrue.

Not that weapons are cool- that is true, and that is exactly why they are SO incredibly dangerous. ESPECIALLY when they are fake. We are likely to not take the same care, precautions, healthy respect and fear of the weapons if we believe that we cannot actually hurt anyone with those fake weapons. This is exactly the wrong way to think.

Which is kind of a bummer, since weapons are so cool. And if you are especially interested in theatre because of the great fights and weaponry that you get to mess around with in Shakespeare, in Peter Pan, in all kinds of amazing shows. No worries- you can still do all that thrilling and fabulous and chilling combat. You can fire guns, swordfight, cloak and dagger, switchblade fight (think West Side Story), clubs, sticks, whatever. But you are going to be able to do this in such a way that is safe and brilliant.

That I’ve already spoken about. That’s back in the safety post. Go read that if you need a refresher.

What I really want to talk about here is the care and feeding of stage weapons in general, and the proper respect and handling of them. Knowing this stuff makes you a head and a half above the amateurs who grab the first weapon they see from the prop table and run around playing with it until the stage manager catches them and either grinds them into submission with the Stage Manager SuperStare, or fires them from the show. And believe me, the SM is well within their rights to do either. So don’t be that actor. Be the one that knows the rules below. You want the roles that let you work with weapons, so you want to be the actor that can be trusted with weapons. Simple, right? Like everything else in the business…

  1. IF IT’S NOT YOURS, DON’T TOUCH IT. This should be a no-brainer at this point. As with any prop, if you have not been blocked to use it, don’t even think about it. The stakes are higher with weapons, as they are much more tempting than other props, and you can’t get fired for touching someone’s rubber fish.
  2. IF IT’S YOURS, ONLY TOUCH IT AFTER YOU’VE BEEN TRAINED AND BRIEFED. In all professional and semi-professional companies, and most community theatre groups, the stage manager and/or the director and/or the weapons master and/or the fight choreographer will have a specific time in which they will instruct you in the use of the weapon. They will tell you how to hold it, where to point it, where not to touch it, how it attaches to your costume, and what to expect when you are using it. If they don’t, if you are expected to just pick up a weapon and shake it at another actor, REFUSE TO DO THIS until someone who knows about it takes the lead in helping you.
  3. DO NOT ASSUME THAT YOU KNOW HOW TO USE A WEAPON, EVEN IF YOU HAVE USED ONE BEFORE. Every firearm, every sword, every knife, every stick and rock is different. They are different weights, lengths, sizes. The same starter pistol you used in Oklahoma last year may have been loaded with a .22 caliber blank, and now there’s a .32 in there. Until you’ve been walked through it, don’t go there.
  4. ASK WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW. Ask ALL questions you have, even if you are in the middle of a rehearsal, in the middle of a line, in the middle of a word. Your safety and the safety of the rest of the company takes precedent over anything else. If you get to the point where you are even supposed to drop the gun, and you realize that you’re not positive that that’s something that you were walked through, STOP. Call for someone to help you. It does NOT make you look stupid or wimpy or weird, it makes you look professional. Dropping a gun and having a blank accidentally go off and burn or injure someone will make you look way worse, believe me. ASK.

Those are the basics that go with all stage weaponry. Here are some of the weapon-specific things you need to know:

GUNS

Guns are extremely tempting, and extremely dangerous. Even the fake ones.

  1. ASSUME THAT EVERY GUN CAN KILL. You need to treat every stage gun as if it is a live and loaded firearm. It’s just a safe and respectful habit to have. This includes squirt guns, plastic guns, guns that are falling apart in your hands, guns that have no holes for bullets and no triggers. Guns that are carved out of wood. Guns that are cut out of cardboard. Every. One. It’s a fine thing to be laughed at for, for treating all guns as if they are deadly weapons. You can handle it.
  2. GUNS CAN HARM WITHOUT BULLETS. In two major ways.
    1. First, a blank, which is the little thing that is loaded into a prop gun or starter pistol that makes the loud noise, is basically everything but the bullet tip itself. The gunpowder, the shell casing, and the cotton wad are all there, and they really do go off when the trigger is pulled. For this reason, you NEVER POINT A PROP GUN DIRECTLY AT ANOTHER PERSON. Even the one you are on stage with, that you are supposed to threaten or shoot. You will always be aiming to the side or above them, a  specific point determined by the director or fight choreographer and that is rehearsed in every fight call. If you are asked to point a prop gun directly at another person, REFUSE. You can come up with a thousand reasons, not the least of which can be “I’m not comfortable pointing a gun at someone.” Not just actors- make sure you are not being asked to fire a gun that is pointed into the audience, sometimes an issue when you are in the round or 3/4 thrust spaces. Not your problem to solve. Your responsibility is to be sure you are not pointing it at someone else.
    2. Guns are a trigger (no pun intended) for traumatic responses in many of the people you are going to be working with. Artists, as I’ve mentioned, have often been through hell and a half, and you may not know someone else’s hell until you see their reaction to a gun. You could come into rehearsal one day, see the gun you have been waiting for to do your big scene with; you say, “Heck yeah! It’s finally here!” And you grab it off the prop table and do your best James Bond pose with it pointed ahead of you just as someone walks in whose brother was shot in a robbery two years ago. They pass out, or become fetal, or vomit, or beat the living crap out of you before they realize that it wasn’t real. I’ve seen it, you don’t want to. Trust me. Let someone else introduce the gun to the cast, and you are just a person entrusted with something incredibly dangerous on many levels. Respect that trust. Earn and keep it.
  3. GUNS NEED CARE. You should not be the one caring for the gun. The actor should NEVER be the person loading, unloading, cleaning, oiling, setting, or retrieving the gun. All of that should be stage management or weapons master. Again, if you are asked to do any of those things, REFUSE. You absolutely can. It’s not safe for an actor who is not a weapons master to be taking a weapon apart and dealing with it. Besides the fact that it’s not physically safe, it’s not artistically safe. If you put the thing back together backwards (easier than you might think), you could destroy it the next time it’s fired. And prop guns are expensive. Not that you couldn’t do it, but that you shouldn’t. If you want to become a weapons master, do it! We need more of them. But as an actor, let someone else be responsible for that. You have enough to  think about.

Moving on.

SWORDS

Swords are cool. Swords are very, very cool. I am possessed of a very high opinion of steel and especially great stage swordfights. They are also extremely dangerous, and here’s what you need to know about swords:

  1. ASSUME SWORDS CAN KILL. Because they can. Even the old rattly ones, the beat up ones, wooden ones, and the ones with little buttons on the ends. Especially those, in fact. The plastic ones or the foam ones… ok, they pretty much can’t, but still treat them like they could. It’s good practice, and it can’t hurt. The number one cause of people getting injured or killed by stage swords are the swords breaking, and the actor wielding the broken weapon is out of control. Again, I’ve seen this really happen, so I’m’ begging you to trust me.
  2. SWORDS ARE NOT TOYS. Even the toy swords. When I was in The Nutcracker, the Toy Soldiers had little wooden swords. Two young Soldiers were playing with their swords in a pretend swordfight backstage, and one of the swords snapped off and one of the two young dancers ended up with several stitches in her cheek. The safest swords, in fact, are the well-made fightworthy swords and foils that are used by the high-level company. But even those are known to break or fly out of control when their actors are not careful and respectful. Another company I worked with had an unbelievably professional weapons corps, who trained for years together and really knew their stuff. They did everything right, and still, in one weekend, their fight choreographer lost an earlobe during fight call; one fighter was stabbed in the leg because he was out of alignment with his partner; and one fighter lost her grip on a weapon which flew into the air and cracked the skull of another actor. If that’s what can happen in a super tight, everything-right weekend, imagine what could happen in a place where people who don’t know what they are doing just play with swords.
  3. DON’T TOUCH THE BLADE. Unless you are specifically blocked to do so, don’t touch the blade with your fingers or hands. The oil on your skin can cause rust and weakening of the blade. Also, if you are on stage and you grab the blade of your sword, the audience just thinks, “OUCH.” Because if it was a real sword, you would have just cut your hand to ribbons.

 

OK, you get the idea. I’m not going into knives, sticks, rocks, bottles, etc. You can pretty much apply everything I’ve written here to any weapons.

Weapons are still cool. And you are WAY cool when you know how to approach weapons like a pro.

 

 

 

On Hiatus

Yes, really me this time. I’m taking a small break as I prepare for an interstate move. But I will be up and posting again in a few weeks. I’ll leave you with these thoughts:

1. If it’s not working, try something else.

2. If you are repeating yourself in a script, there’s a reason for it. Find the reason for the repetition.

3. If it’s after 11:00 at night, and it seems like a good idea, it’s probably not.

4. Unless that idea is to sleep. That’s a good idea.

5. Celebrate your mistakes. They are making you grow and change.

 

Catch you on the flip side.

 

 

I QUIT!

No, not me, silly. I won’t quit as long as you are reading my stuff. However, let’s talk about you.

Just to be clear, everyone in this business wants to quit at some point. At many points, in fact. Sometimes several times within one production. Within one rehearsal. It is rarely worth it and even more rarely pleasant. Let’s talk about all that.

When you are feeling like chucking the whole thing and becoming a debate champion, synchronized swimming captain or math whiz, you need to seriously consider that decision and make sure that if it really is your decision, that you do it in a professional and courteous manner. The first thing to consider of course, are your reasons for wanting to quit.

There are good reasons to quit. There are many, many more bad reasons to quit. First, let’s examine the bad reasons to quit a show.

BAD REASONS TO QUIT

  1. I HATE THE DIRECTOR.

This is a bad reason for quitting. You are going to work with some real pieces of work in this business, so you’d better start learning how to deal with them now. More extensive advice on that in another post. Your director is the one yelling at you daily, telling at your friends daily, being a raving jerk and putting up a crappy show. Maybe. But you are the one who will be either onstage, joining together with others to make a brilliant piece of art, or backstage, helping to create all the magic pieces that will make up that piece of art. You have accepted a responsibility and a privilege, very little of which has to do with the director in the most important moments. The director is temporary. Your mark on that production and the lives it touches is permanent.

  1. MY PART IS TOO SMALL/TOO HARD/BORING/NOT WHAT I WANTED.

I’m just going to take a moment to suppress my gag reflex. OK, I’m back. The Golden Rule is that if you would be happy to rock this part on Broadway, be happy to rock it anywhere. Because one, it makes the whole show better when you do your part to the best of your ability, and two, those are the parts you are most likely going to need to rock when you first get to the big leagues, so don’t start now thinking you are too good for them. No one, I don’t care who they are, no one is too good for any role. The most talented people are often put into the smallest roles. More on that in another post. If your role is daunting you, there are dozens of people around you who would love to help. But you have to ask.

  1. SOMETHING ELSE CAME UP.

Choir trips, desire for a job, friends going on a 2-week road trip, captain position on a sports team- lots of stuff is possible. But. You have committed to this production, and you need to fulfil that commitment. I know that’s hard when the Something is something you have wanted for a long time, is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, or is just really, really appealing as an alternative to the grueling/boring/frustrating work on a show. But besides the commitment you’ve made to all involved, you also need to build personal integrity by standing by your word, following through with what you have promised to do.

  1. BALANCING SCHOOL AND SHOW AND LIFE IS TOO HARD.

It is hard, for sure. And it is exhausting. And frustrating. But not impossible, and you are not alone. But there are some compromises you may be able to make; if you are a 4.0 student and that is super important to you, talk with your teachers. Sometimes one or two of them may be persuaded to wait for a certain paper or project, scheduled to be due during tech, until after you have opened. Some might even let you report on your experience in the show in lieu of another type of research or creative project. Others will be totally inflexible. But you don’t know until you ask. Try to make dates with your significant other (if they are not also involved in the show) that are short and frequent, or every other week for an intense bit. Or get them involved (don’t get distracted). Life… goes on. When you are in a show, it can feel like you are in a little bubble of another world and time/friends/experiences are passing you by as you watch through the stage door window. In reality, the show is very temporary (as you will feel on closing night), and you can and will rejoin those things soon. You may feel like you are not able to put in the time to do a good job on the show; again, there are people who want to help you. They want to help you run lines, fix dialect, drill dance steps, even tutor you in the classes where you are falling behind. But you HAVE TO ASK.

  1. IT’S NOT WHAT I THOUGHT IT WOULD BE.

Yeah, life seldom is. When you joined costume crew, maybe you thought you’d be sewing more. Or on lights, maybe you hoped to actually make artistic choices. Or as an actor, maybe it sounded easier or more fun than it turned out. The first step to getting rid of that feeling of disappointment and disillusionment is to forget about what you had hoped for and look at the good parts of what you are expected to do. Make a list of 10 things that you like about your job on the show, and then concentrate on really enjoying those 10 things. Again, temporary. And personal integrity.

GOOD REASONS TO QUIT

There are a few, and here they are:

  1. FAMILY EMERGENCY

When you have a major unexpected (or even expected, but hoping that it wouldn’t happen so soon) event in your family, sometimes you need to leave a show. If someone dies, especially a parent or sibling, you need time with your family to grieve and process. Sometimes you can want to hold onto your theatre family too, and you need the daily routine of being someone else somewhere else to forget about the pain, but I would caution you there. Go home. And if the event is that your family is suddenly going to need to move for some reason, that can be great and exciting, but makes it impossible to continue with the show. These kinds of things are out of your control, and there is nothing anyone can do to change the circumstances.

  1. I’M NOT SAFE.

If you are feeling unsafe within the rehearsal process, you absolutely need to remove yourself from it. Unsafe can mean several things; if you feel threatened, either physically, emotionally or sexually, by any member of the cast, crew, or production team, immediately report it to the director. If it is the director that you feel threatened by, go directly to your principal if it’s a school show or to the artistic director if it is a community or professional show. That is not your fault, and you will not be the last person that that individual threatens, so quitting only removes you from your immediate danger. The report can help protect other artists from what you are going through. If the danger comes from unsafe conditions in the building or set, or if you are being asked to do something unsafe onstage, such as a fight without choreography and supervision or a sexual assault scene without a safe word, a report is also in order there. If the danger is coming from yourself, and that is absolutely a real thing, pay attention. If you are feeling stressed to the point of self harm, like cutting, extreme dieting, suicidal thoughts, or other frightening thoughts, again, it’s important to get yourself to a safe place with safe people. Go to an adult you trust and tell them what is going on. You are not alone, and there are people waiting to help you to feel better and more in control.

  1. I’M ILL.

If you are physically or mentally ill, or become injured, and you are unable to continue with the show due to treatment; or if the circumstances of the show are too difficult for your illness/injury to bear- this is a good reason to quit. But listen carefully to your body. Tell the director, choreographer, stage manager, and anyone else that you care to share the information with about your condition at the beginning, if you know it. Tell them what hurts, what helps, and what and where your medications are in case of emergency. That can cut down on the possibility that you have to use this reason.

  1. MY PARENTS INSIST.

Again, this is out of your control. If your parents are forcing you to quit for academic reasons, to help at home, or as a consequence of other behavior or circumstance, there is not much you can do about it. If your parents have laid out quitting the show as a possible consequence for something, though, do whatever you can to avoid it.

CONSEQUENCES

Everything in the world has consequence. You need to carefully consider the consequences of quitting to yourself and others. Consider these before making the decision. If it’s a school production:

  • How does your program work? Does quitting make you ineligible to do another show in the future?
  • Are you likely to lose a friend or two over it?
  • Could your quitting make it necessary for friends and others to choose sides?
  • Might other people follow you in quitting?
  • Is there someone that you can think of who might replace you?

If you are considering leaving a community production,

  • How badly will it damage your reputation, and your chances for a future with them?

If you are in a professional production,

  • Read your contract carefully.
  • What will it mean in terms of your contract? Are you even allowed to pull out of the show for the reasons that you have?
  • Could you be sued for breach of contract?

And in any quitting situation, remember the universal truth that Everyone Talks, and your quitting will have an effect on your reputation, no matter your reasons.

So.

Having laid out the good reasons and bad reasons to quit, and the possible consequences involved, let’s just say that you have analyzed the situation and decided that you want out. At least do this right. Here’s how.

  1. QUIT WITH A CLEAR HEAD. Don’t storm out of a rehearsal in anger and never return. Don’t call a director in the middle of the night crying and tell her you can’t do it anymore. Wait till you are calm and clear, in the light of day.
  2. BE TRUTHFUL. Don’t lie and say your parents are making you quit when you are just plain bored. Your director will find out. Don’t ask how. They always do.
  3. SOONER RATHER THAN LATER. Do this if you are considering quitting for one of the Bad Reasons especially. The earlier you pull out, the less other people have to work to replace you. As an actor, your quitting means extra work for everyone involved- costumes have been pulled and/or fabric has been purchased for your costume, lights and sound levels are tailored to you and your balance in the cast, relationships onstage have been built, you may be involved in scene shifts. Not only does your spot need to be filled, but every single person need to put in extra time and energy to change the entire dynamic of the show. As crew, you are depended on by the entire cast, no matter how insignificant you perceive your bit to be. Your absence is felt. Everyone is replaceable, yes, but it costs time, money, energy, and emotional investment, all of which are in short supply on any production.
  4. DO IT IN PERSON. Do NOT send a text or email. Certainly do NOT send someone else to tell the director that you are not continuing. And under no circumstances should you simply disappear. Speak to the director privately (with another person to witness is totally fine), and not right at the beginning of a rehearsal when there are a thousand other things that need the director’s attention. A time outside of rehearsal, even at the end of rehearsal is better than the beginning.
  5. GIVE SOME LEAD TIME. If you are able to, give some notice. That way you can take on some of that time and energy burden getting your replacement up to speed.
  6. APOLOGIZE. No matter how good your reason, you are creating a rift in an artistic process. Even if you don’t feel it, say it. It’s professional, and you owe them at least that, if nothing else.

Having said all of that, now I’ll say this. No matter the reason, I know many, many people (including myself) who have regretted quitting a show, and I can’t think of a one (including myself) who was glad that they did. Consider that too.

Why Tech?

I’m going to recommend to all of you, if you have not already done so, to spend at least one production on the tech crew in some form. Why? Great question! You always ask such good ones. Let me answer it. Starting with a story, because I’m a storyteller, just like you.

I was a dresser on a show called Greater Tuna, in which two actors play the entire population of the town of Tuna, Texas. There were two dressers- one for each actor- and between us we made sure that these two actors made over 70 costume changes, none of them with more than 10 seconds, most 5 or less. Not an easy job, right? And absolutely NEVER made a mistake the whole run (in rehearsal though- lots of them. That’s where you make them so you can get to the perfection point). Anyhow, before the show one night, there was a backstage tour for some donors who had given a bunch of money to the theatre. The other dresser and I stayed backstage to guard our preset costumes, because one person messing with one thing could derail the show. So there we were. As the donors came through with their glasses of wine, one of them looked at me and asked, “So, do you do this because you’re an actress who can’t get cast?” I was momentarily dumbfounded (though that seldom lasts long with me), since the local paper had actually done a two-page spread story on myself and the other dresser on the show, revealing to the world how difficult a job it is. I recovered quickly, and, setting aside all the myriad stinging comebacks that leapt to mind, just said very calmly, “No, I do it because I’m really, really good at it.”  I did give him what’s known as a withering look, and he had the decency to blush.

Tech has a bad rep.

Tech crew has often been seen as the trough into which those people fall who fail at being onstage. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is also, in some youth programs, even used as a punishment- you are required to do crew duties if you are late or don’t hang up your costume. This is also a huge mistake. Spend one show on the tech crew and you will understand what I mean. Tech is filled with the amazing, creative, strong, focused, consistent people that no show can run without. If a cast is not solidly supported by their tech, it can literally fall apart. If you have ever been in a show with not enough tech people or techies who are not experienced or who don’t care, you know what I’m talking about.

The tech crew is responsible for EVERYTHING that the actors don’t do, and what they do do is to show up, learn their lines, and not bump into the furniture. What furniture? Right; the furniture that the designers have researched and procured, or the crew has built; that the crew is maintaining every time it gets torn or dinged; that the crew has reinforced so it’s safe to stand on; rigged for effects; that the crew is setting, moving to the correct spots, and resetting every single time it’s needed. That on the set that the crew and designers have dreamed up, shopped for, built, sanded, safety-tested, and painted. The lines are spoken through the microphones that the crew has mixed, assigned, continues to tweak throughout each performance, makes sure there are working batteries in and straps to the actors’ bodies. The story can’t be told in the dark, so the lighting designer and crew is making sure that everyone can be seen and that the lights are heightening and helping the story, follow spot operators keeping singers and dancers in tight dramatic worlds, and a stage manager timing everything perfectly. The actors walk out there dressed in clothes that the designers and crew have researched, chosen, bought, rented, built from scratch, altered, repaired, rigged for quick changes and effects, and that the crew will maintain and keep clean throughout the run. Makeup and hair has also been designed, and often assisted by the crew. At higher levels, hair and makeup will be done for the actors, especially when it’s high specialty.

It is not unusual for a show to have more tech people than cast members. and it’s necessary.

OK, at this point, you get it, right? The tech crew has mad skills, and as an actor, you need to respect them. But not just that; you really need to get in there. For two big reasons. First, to truly understand and appreciate what it is that goes into producing a show from the tech end of things. And second, to see if you have any of those mad skills. Because here is a truth you need to know: Tech skills are marketable. AKA, you can actually make money as a techie.

Actors have a very, very hard time making a living just acting. Usually you need to be able to do something else. You need to teach, or get certified as a freelance electrician or photographer or medical transcriptionist or something, OR, you can work in technical theatre. There is a HUGE demand for good stage management- if you find you are good at it and you like it, you will never have to look for work again. Ditto as a carpenter, rigger, fly system operator, or followspot operator. If you find yourself with talent as a sound operator or designer, able to maintain and style wigs, or a stitcher on costumes, you can also be in a really good position to fill your non-acting time with work that actually pays you something approximating what you are worth.

Start by examining your options. At your school, you may have a program that’s not very well funded or there is just little tech knowledge available, and you may have options only to try working on costumes or lights. You may have a program that’s more technically advanced, and you can take a technical theatre class, and choose what to do on a production. Talk to the director, I’m sure they will jump at the chance to have you on crew. If you want to go outside your school, check the websites of local theatre companies. There is usually a tab somewhere around “About Us” or “Work With Us” or “Volunteer” that will put you in touch with the person there who can set you up on a tech project. Depending on the needs of the theatre, you could be allowed to volunteer to help paint, or you might suddenly be in front of a light board that you know nothing about. Relax, you can learn just about anything. Most of us learn on the job, and the more jobs we do, the more we learn. Try several different things- if you can get a technical internship somewhere, you are GOLDEN, because not only will you get to learn a ton about several different areas, you get school credit for it too! Bonus…

If you like tech, and you want to be able to make it part of your master plan to make a living in the arts, you will probably want to join the tech union. It’s called IATSE, which stands for International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. Check out the website. There are chapters all over the United States, its Territories and Canada. On that website, find your Local chapter, and check out their website. That will tell you what you have to do to join the local. There is often what is called Overflow Work, which means that there is too much work for their local members to handle, and they need people with basic skills to take on the extra basic stuff so that their members can get freed up to do the more highly skilled work. You usually have to be 18 to apply, but once you are on the list, you can get called to do all kinds of things- loading in and out for concerts and touring shows, moving big stuff around, and even helping to run big shows from backstage. It’s a good way to earn money, experience, and contacts. Once you have developed some amazing skills, you can take whatever tests are necessary to get into the union, pay your yearly dues, and then you have solid work. Some is hard, some is super easy. When you are first starting out, you should say yes to every job they offer you, and when you get further up the list you can start turning down work you aren’t interested in once in a while. But the union then keeps you working, protects your break times, overtime, and minimum pay, covers your health insurance etc. and is behind you in a dispute. It’s big grownup stuff.

Bottom line: Do some tech. It is rewarding, important, creative, difficult, necessary, and marketable. Also thankless, unseen, and often stepped on. Especially if you are building stairs. See what I did there? 🙂

 

 

The Fraud Police

You are discovering the interesting and somewhat terrifying truth that personality is fluid, can change and be manipulated to appear different in different situations. Such as, for example, onstage. That’s obvious. But you are also developing several selves for your day to day life; you are a different person at school than at home, different maybe at camp or with close friends. You may even be experimenting with putting on a character when you are out and about (I once had several co-workers at a new job convinced I was from Texas for a month before I dropped the accent and told them I was just working on a character). So that means… basically, you could be anyone, so who the heck are you? And when is Someone going to Find Out that you are taking basically your entire life? You may feel like someone, soon, is going to expose you for the fraud you are. Someone will figure out that you are just getting whatever awards or roles or public praise that you are getting based on luck and the fact that you are a sham. Here is the big life secret, OK? Are you ready?

Pretty much everyone feels like this, at some level, all the time.

Your parents, teachers, peers, bus driver, the President of the United States, all have that feeling that they are flying blind, flailing around and only figuring things out by dumb luck or other nefarious circumstances, and one day it will all catch up to them. The people who don’t feel like this tend to be psychopaths and sociopaths, people who have no empathy or awareness of the fact that there are other people in the world with them whose opinions of them are important. The fact that you feel this way means you are normal and healthy. That’s good news!

The bad news is that it doesn’t really ever go away. You will always have this nagging peripheral feeling that the Fraud Police are following you, and could at any time decide to pull your disguise away and show you for who you are. But here’s the really great news: who you really are is enough. You are truly and honestly valuable and necessary in the world, completely defrocked and exposed. That’s something you need to keep in your mind, whenever you feel like the Fraud Police are getting close, and that today might be the day that all the facades crumble: if and when that happens, you are still enough, in your purest form.

When I first started my professional stage management apprenticeship, I had a dream that I was at the stage management table with the stage manager and the Production Assistant, who was sort of my most immediate peer in the job. In the dream, the SM asked me to get something from across the room, and when I got up, I realized that I was naked from the waist down. I ran back to behind the table, trying to cover myself with my sweatshirt, and noticed that the PA was sitting there completely naked. It didn’t seem to bother her. I asked her, “Um, I’m naked, so are you, shouldn’t we do something?” And she looked up and said dismissively, “Oh, if they haven’t figured out yet that I’m naked, they’ll never notice that you are.” And I figured that was probably true, so I went about my business.

The message of the dream is, we’re all feeling naked and exposed, so most of the time, the other people that you are working with are going to be way more focused on keeping their own face on and their own act going on to notice if your face slips or your inexperience is showing. You are in good company.

The Fraud Police serve an important purpose. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be a part of just about everyone’s daily lives. Their purpose is to remind us that we still have work to do. We are not There yet. That there are people counting on us for stuff that we need to do our best to live up to, whether or not we believe ourselves to be qualified/talented/experienced enough. That we are not the best thing in the entire world, we don’t know everything, we are not the Gift of the Artistic Universe. They keep us humble and working and improving, which is a good thing. It’s when they get in our way and stop us from moving forward that they need to be told who is the boss of you, which is not them. Thank them if you can catch them (PS, they are afraid of you, too).

There is a great song from a show called (title of show) -yes, that is the name of the show, (title of show), look it up- called “Die, Vampire, Die.” It does a super job of illustrating what it feels like when something truly amazing is within your ability and an opportunity presents itself. The trick is, once you have accepted the Fraud Police as your constant companions, how to keep them from interfering with your work and your progress.

Let’s say that there’s a show with a role that’s perfect for you, and you prepared for the audition, and you get a callback. How to keep those self-doubts away for long enough to do a fantastic job? How to freeze, for just a little while, the belief that Someone Else is probably better for this than you? That is a tough one, and it’s something that should definitely be a part of your preparation for auditions, callbacks, scene study finals, and any other times when you have something at stake. I have a few things you can try, and definitely get creative, see what works for you.

1. Give Them A Face. Part of what gives them power over you is that you can’t confront them. But you can. See if you can create the monster, give this entity a form that you can actually have a conversation with (you are not crazy, this is OK). My Fraud Police are in classic form, two humans in trenchcoats and fedoras, dark glasses, the works. Yours might be a wolf, or a space alien. A friend of mine has hers as a spotlight, ready to turn on at any moment and show everyone who she really is when the light hits her. Give yours a shape, and a name if you can. The more you can take control of them, the less they control you.

2. Coexist. They are not going anywhere. They will not leave you permanently, ever.  So you need to be able to know that they are there, and consciously allow them into your space. Like seeing the spider on the wall and leaving it there rather than breaking your dad’s basketball trophy throwing it at the spider. But you are in charge. Which brings me to my third point:

3. Give Them A Break. You can’t tell them to take a permanent hike, but you can tell them to go to Starbucks while you are in an audition, or have them go count the cars in the parking lot while you are performing, or that you just need them to take a shower while you are working on a scene with a new partner. Actually telling them, out loud or in your head, that for the next XYZ minutes they are to leave you alone, can break them away for a little bit, and you are free to be whatever it is you are. Which, by the way, is exactly what you need to be.

Fraud Police are like everything else in this business; a little bit good, a little bit of a pain in the neck, and a lot necessary. Good luck with them; make peace with them, they are going to be with you for a long, long time.

 

 

 

Terminology

I once worked at a youth theater program, where at the end of each rehearsal, we asked all the kids to put their props and costumes on the apron of the stage so we could pick them up later. They always did. The apron of the stage is the front part that sticks out from the rest of it, but we never explained that. So when I had a private rehearsal with one young actress and I told her at the end to place her mask on the apron before she went home, she just stood there, panicked. I reassured her that it was ok, I’d put it away, she just needed to put it down on the apron. She burst into tears, wailing, “I don’t know what that is!” For weeks, she had just been following everyone else, thinking there must be an actual apron around that everyone else was seeing that she wasn’t, and afraid that we were going to find out that she was stupid. I felt really bad, so I’m going to share with you some of the terms that we might use without explaining. This is not a glossary or an exhaustive list- there is one of those HERE, but there are some things that are even missing from that. This is just a smattering of what I’m thinking you will probably come up against regularly as an actor.

Ad Lib– Short for “At Liberty.” It means to make up lines that are not in the written script. Ensemble and crowd scenes will sometimes call for ad libs, some directors are against using them at all ever and prefer that crowds say “peas and carrots” or just wordless vocal reactions. It comes in handy when things go wrong.

Amateur– This term has several meanings, and you can take and use it as any. It can be to describe an artist who is not paid in money for their work, as the counterpart of a professional. It can also mean someone who doesn’t do a very good job, or doesn’t understand the business well. It comes from the same Latin root as Amour, or Ami, the root meaning “to love.” It came about as someone who does what they do for the love of it rather than for the profit. Which I think describes most of us, whether we are paid or not.

Apron– The front part of the stage that sticks out in front of the arch, toward the orchestra pit. Not all stages have one.

At Rise– The way the stage will look “at the rise of the curtain.” In the absence of a curtain, of course, when the lights first come up. It’s where everyone and everything should be placed at the very beginning of the story.

Avant Garde- Something daring or unusual, it can be a whole play, or a concept, or a set or costume choice. Something new and exciting and edgy.

Backdrop– A large painted fabric scenery piece, hung at the back wall of the stage. Something you will see less and less of as projections become more popular, but many theaters, especially in schools, still use them.

Ballad– A slow, dramatic song. A pretty song. Slow tempo, elongated notes, lots of emotion.

Ballyhoo– Moving a followspot in a figure-8 pattern, like a searchlight or a concert light.

Barn Doors– Little flaps that attach to the frame of a lighting instrument to direct and contain the light. They are hinged, so you can open and close them to various points, like barn doors. Hence, the name.

Black or Blacks- Two meanings- 1- The black curtains used to mask parts of the stage. 2- The black clothing worn by crew during performances.

Black Box– A small theatre, usually a large room (painted black, hence, the name) with four walls. Often there is no specified seating or playing or backstage areas. Those areas are built differently with each production. In some black boxes the seating can be configured in many different ways, with actors on the floor, or on a platform; the audience can also be seated on the floor or on platforms. Some high schools only have a black box, some only an auditorium stage, some lucky places have both.

Blackout– No onstage light. Usually at the end of a scene, act or production. Backstage lights stay on, and sometimes there is a little bit of blue light for a scene change to happen. A Dead Blackout is when the only lights on are the exit or emergency lights.

Blank– A blank is a cartridge fired from a stage gun. It contains basically all the components of a bullet except the bullet tip itself- there is gunpowder and a compressed wad of cotton, which is sometimes expelled with a shot. Blanks should always be handled and treated as if they are true bullets. More on that later.

Blocking– Where actors move during a scene. You will be blocked to move, and sometimes you will be blocked to block someone from moving. Go figure.

ClearCom- The brand name for the most popular headsets that stage management and crew use to communicate. Even if it’s not the kind they are using, they will often refer to any headset as Clearcom or just com.

Comp– Short for “complimentary,” a comp is a free ticket. You will usually (outside of school) get a certain number of comps for family or friends. You can sometimes ask for “professional comps,” specifically for your agent, someone you want to be your agent, a voice teacher or coach who is coming to see you. Those can be negotiated as in addition to your regular comps.

Cyc– (Pronounced “Sike”) Short for cyclorama. This is the big blank curtain-like drop at the back of the set in some theatres. It’s there to mask crossovers in the absence of a backdrop or other scenery, and to put special lights and/or projections on. Very expensive. Don’t tear or touch.

Denoument– Means “pulling it all together.” It’s the end of the story, when the climax of the story has happened and all the loose ends get tied up.

Deus Ex Machina– Greek for “God of the Machine.” Used to describe an unlikely or unusual solution to the main conflict of a play. It means basically a god stepped in and fixed things.

Downstage– Toward the audience. Stages used to be tilted (raked) toward the audience so that everyone could see the whole stage. Today’s audiences are raked and the stage stays flat; but downstage is still downstage.

Dramaturg– A person whose job it is to research the play historically and socially, and provide interesting and helpful material about the time the play is set, or the writing of it, or the social and political norms of the time, etc, to the actors and the entire production team. Read your dramaturgy packet, if you are lucky enough to get one.

Dry Tech– When the tech crew and stage manager will work through the show technically without the actors.

Dumb Show– Not the worst play you ever did. This is a pantomimed or danced mini-story. It is used most often in Shakespeare, but often used when a character is telling a dream or a story of importance to the play.

Equity– Actors Equity Association, the labor union for actors and stage managers. check out www.actorsequity.org for more information.

False Proscenium– Sometimes shortened to “False Pros.” The proscenium is the opening at the front of the stage; if there is something built onto that that changes the shape and size of the arch, that’s the false proscenium.

Feed Lines– To “feed lines” means to give an actor a line that has been forgotten. In rehearsal, the only person feeding lines should be the person on book. It can also mean to speak a cue line to lead into the next action.

Fly– And flyspace, fly bar, anything connected with flying. Usually not people- that’s referred to as “Foy” or “Flying by Foy.”Flying is usually meaning scenery, props, backdrops, etc. attached to bars (sometimes pulleys or other apparatus) that go up into the air.

Fourth Wall– You’ll hear a lot about this. It refers to the “wall” between the actors and the audience. Originally coined because of the three walls that encase the actors, the fourth wall being the invisible one downstage. Consider it more like a bubble that encloses the story, if you are in a different space. There are times when you are asked to “break the fourth wall” which means to go ahead and acknowledge the audience, speak to them or interact with them. Do not do so unless specifically directed.

French Scene– A portion of a scene marked by the entrance of exit of a character or group of characters. Directors will sometimes break up long scenes or acts without scenes for rehearsal this way. A French scene plot or breakdown will tell you exactly which pages your character is actively onstage, and is often used to determine when you are called for rehearsals. If your stage manager gives you one, hold onto it and use it.

Front of House– Everything that happens with the audience. Box office, seating, ushering, programs, signage for the audience, all that.

Gaff or Gaff Tape– Special heavy-duty tape about 2-3″ wide. Usually black or white. Can be used to fix or hang or cover just about anything. Expensive and not to be played with. NOT to be confused with duct tape.

Ghost Light– The one light left on at night, usually in the middle of the stage. Superstition is to keep friendly ghosts company and to keep unfriendly ones away. For practical reasons, it keeps people from injuring themselves in a dark theater while trying to figure out how to turn on the lights.

Green Room– The area where actors can hang out before and during a show. Originally painted green because green is a calming color. Seldom green these days. Go figure.

Ham– An overactor, someone who plays more for the laughs than to serve the story. Don’t be one.

House– The auditorium and the seats within it.

Improvisation– Making it up as you go along. A valuable skill, also an entire art form in its own right.

Instrument– A stage light.

Legitimate– An odd way to refer to a non-musical play, produced on a stage. As opposed to theater in the park, variety shows, movies, etc.

Linethru (or Line Through)– A rehearsal just for lines, usually no blocking or other movement.

Mark– Two definitions: 1. As in “hit your mark”- to get to the correct spot on the stage to do your thing, usually where the light is. 1. As in “mark it this time”- just going through the basic motions of a dance, fight, or stunt, rather than actually doing it fully. If there has been no fight call, or someone is missing or injured, you might mark. You can also mark vocally, if one is vocally tired or ill, or if you are going to be doing a song several times in a row for tech.

Method Acting- Refers to the Stanislavski Method of Acting; loosely used it describes an actor who taps into their personal experiences to endow a character, or who creates an experience for themselves to mimic that of their character’s in order to understand the perspective of the character. More on the Method later.

Paper the House– Give away a bunch of free tickets to bolster audience numbers. Done for a variety of reasons- low ticket sales, hope for a large word of mouth campaign, as a courtesy to the company, and others.

Pickup Rehearsal– A rehearsal after the opening of the play, usually the day before the next scheduled performance. Usually done with young casts, musicals and highly physical plays.

Pratfall– A silly, comedic, exaggerated fall. Requires choreography and fight calls.

Proscenium– The opening from the stage to the audience. Also known as the proscenium arch.

Quickchange– A costume change that needs to happen very quickly. Usually the rule of thumb is anything under one minute for theater, but it’s anything that might need assistance in order to make it back onstage in time, or needs to be changed backstage as opposed to the dressing room. For opera, it’s anything under 20 minutes. Not sure why.

Rake– Slope or tilt. A whole stage can be raked, or just parts of it. There are regulations as to how steep a rake can be for safety reasons.

Rig– A prop, set piece, or costume can be rigged, that is built to do something that it normally wouldn’t do. A costume can be rigged for a quick change, or to be “torn” onstage; a knife might be rigged to bleed; a wall can be rigged to be torn down or broken through.

Run Plot or Run List- The plan for how the show will run from backstage in terms of scenery moving, props being moved around, costume changes that have to happen outside of the dressing room. It’s a stage management responsibility, but any actors assisting  in scene or costume changes or anything else backstage should have and refer to a run plot. If stage management doesn’t give you one, ask for it till you get it.

Scene Shift (or just Shift)- Moving from one scene to the next, all actors, scenery, props.

Scrim– A translucent fabric used for special effects. The fabric appears solid when lit from the front, but effectively disappears when lit from behind. It’s really cool and can be creepy and/or magical.

Slate– When the actor states their name and the information about their audition material prior to auditioning. In silent film screen tests, an actor used to hold a slate with all of that written on it for the camera. Hence, the name.

Spike– Not in the least sharp or dangerous, unless it is missing. A spike is a mark made in colored tape on the stage floor to show where to place set pieces, large props, and sometimes actors.

Stage Right/Left- The direction on the stage from the point of view of the actor facing the audience.

Step on- You can step on lines, laughs, or applause; it means to cut the next thing short. Sometimes OK, but only if directed. Usually we like applause, laughs and lines to go on as long as they are supposed to.

Strike– Two definitions: 1. Taking anything off the stage. 2. Tearing down the set, putting away costumes and props, basically putting the show to bed. Always volunteer to help with strike, and do everything you can to help.

Swing– An ensemble member who understudies multiple lead roles. They usually don’t have a named character in the ensemble.

Tabs– Also known as “legs”- the vertical curtains that hang in the wings.

Teaser– The little curtain that hangs along the stage ceiling or in line with the top of the proscenium arch, usually to mask lighting instruments or hanging set pieces.

Tracking- This means many things, but in general it usually means to keep track of props, costume pieces, set pieces, etc. But it also means when a prop or other piece  comes off the stage in one place and it needs to come back on from a different place. Then it needs to be “tracked” from the one place to the other.

Tracking Sheet– Made by each actor to make a “map” of their movements, costume changes, prop needs, and any scene shifts they are assisting with. More on those later.

Upstage– Three definitions: 1. The area/direction away from the audience, toward the back wall. 2. To draw focus away from the action or another character. Flapping around in a corner can upstage a love scene down center. A wine glass at the edge of a table can upstage an entire musical number. A cute dog onstage can upstage the entire cast. 3. You can also upstage yourself by turning away from the audience to speak to another character or in other ways minimize the audience’s ability to see, hear or understand you.

Vom– Short for vomitorium. An entrance/exit point that is through the audience at the floor level, usually going out to the lobby or down to the dressing room area. The name comes from the idea that the audience area is sort of vomiting actors onto the stage. Weird, but it stuck.

Wagon– A rolling platform with scenery and sometimes actors that can go out as a ready-set scene.

 

That’s what I have for you. In general, like I said, if you don’t understand a term, ASK. Some things seem to be straightforward, but often not so much. So ask. That’s one of the ways we learn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Auditioning Part V- At School

Happy New Year!

OK, auditioning at school is a bit different and a bit the same as auditioning outside. The same because you should always prepare, dress, and treat every audition as if it were Broadway. Different because due to lack of time and other resources, things are run differently in every program.

There is likely no posting of audition requirements. There might be, if you are lucky, but in general it’s best to go straight to whomever is directing the play that year and ask what you will need to do. Some want a full-on prepared monologue and song, some may want to have you sing a capella, tell a joke, or cold read from the script. If you are told “sides will be at the audition” it doesn’t mean mashed potatoes or a side of beef. It means copied portions of the script. That’s a “side,” and you’ll hear that a lot. I have NO idea why it’s called that, but we will get into terminology at some point later.

I digress.

Whatever you can prepare, do. If the play has been announced, READ IT. Get a feel for which characters you like or think you might have a good chance for. Especially if you have difficulty reading aloud without preparation, READ THE PLAY. Read it a few times.

If the audition is going to be cold readings, and you do have difficulty reading aloud- whether it is dyslexia, a stutter, sheer terror, or you are just not a great reader- ask the teacher if there is a chance that you could get the sides ahead of time. Promise not to share them or to tell others that you’ve got them, that these are just for your personal use to be ready because you have a difficulty that could really get in the way at the audition. This is a good thing to ask, not only because it will genuinely help you, but because it is showing that you have an awareness of your own needs as an actor and you are willing to do what’s necessary to give your best work, even if it is a tad embarrassing or whatever.

Resist the urge to have a friend audition “with” you.  Most of your drama friends will be there anyway, and depending on how your drama program is run, some have “a part for everyone”policy, and some do “survival of the fittest.” It’s tempting to do the “safety in numbers” thing to try to assuage nerves (look it up), but it can backfire if your friend is more nervous or more talented, or you get in and your friend doesn’t, vice versa, or a myriad other pitfalls. Go on your own.  Socialize if you like, but be there just for you.

Show up. On time. With your resume, even if no one else has one. Fill out forms. Listen carefully during the process to the director, to the stage manager, and anyone else in apparent authority.  Things can change quickly, and folks in charge hate few things more than having to repeat themselves six times about a change just to have the next 10 people have not heard a word.  Be the good one.

When the time comes for you to shine, shine.  This may be your only chance to play this role, so in your few minutes up there with whomever it is, play it like you want to play it.  Don’t worry about what the director wants.  The director will direct you if they want to, but first, play it to the hilt.  Read Michael Shurtleff’s book for more on this part.

THE CAST LIST

When the cast list goes up, it’s a sociology experiment in public humiliation. When on the wall at school there is a list posted of who got what and your name is not on that list, life is really difficult. It is almost impossible to mask your first reaction to what you see, whether it is joy, confusion, panic, disbelief, disappointment, anger, or devastation. It’s also multiplied by the Artist Factor. So. How to deal with the cast list. I have a few suggestions:

  • Ask the teacher if they would consider emailing the cast list to those who were called back the night before it’s posted so you all have a chance to digest the news and decide what face to put on it. I have made this a practice myself, and it works very well for me. It may be something they have never considered, or they may have some kind of policy against it. But it’s worth asking.
  • As with everything else in this business, preparation is key. Rehearse. Play the scene. Your name is not on that list. Your name is exactly where you hope against hope it will be. Your name is where you are really hoping it will not be. Your name is somewhere you never expected it to be. Your name is where you expected your friend’s to be. Try every scenario that you can think of, and physically walk through how you believe you will feel, and let yourself go ahead and feel that. Go through that disappointment, cry and whatever else you need to do. Feel that elation and surprise. Feel that total weirdness. Then decide how best to show, not show, or to escape those feelings when the list goes up. Practice that too.
  • You all want to be first to see the list. And everyone wants to see it alone. Both will not be possible. Understand that if you want to see the list with no one else around, you will likely have to wait till the crowd dies down, at which point you will probably have heard just about everything you need to know anyway. But if you need to avoid people and not hear the spoilers, know that and do what you can to avoid it. Or, do what you need to to be among the first crush.
  • You can have a friend look at the list for you while you wait in the bathroom. No shame. Then you can process your reaction in there with or without your friend for support, and if you are going to wet your pants or throw up, you are in the right place.

The one reaction I am going to caution you greatly about is anger. It is perfectly OK to feel like you were not treated fairly. It’s natural. Did I mention that NOTHING about this business is fair? And it is absolutely fine to believe absolutely that the director has made the wrong choice.

However.

You CANNOT telegraph that reaction in ANY way to ANYONE. Go into the restroom, kick the walls a few times, write “I HATE MY LIFE” or “MS. B IS AN IDIOT” a hundred times in your journal, go into your own backyard and scream about it, even call your grandma and vent, but NOT at school, NOT to the rest of the cast or ANY other students, NOT to the director. Your best friend is OK as long as you trust them beyond all probability that they will indeed keep their mouth shut.

Directors do make mistakes. It happens. But it is rare, and it doesn’t usually become apparent until well into the rehearsal process. You have to trust them. Not because they are right, but because they could be, and it is up to you to prove that they did make the right choice by entrusting you with the part you were given. Sometimes it is tempting to not accept a role. Whatever your reasons- you feel like it’s a waste of your time, you think you deserve a lead, you don’t think you can handle that large a part, you can’t stand the person playing your love interest- DON’T TURN IT DOWN. You will regret it, I can almost guarantee you. Take it, do your very best with it, and learn everything you can while you serve the story. More on that later.

You are not too good for whatever part you were cast in. Guaranteed. No way. If you would be thrilled to take this part on Broadway, in a major motion picture, in the West End, then you need to be thrilled to take it here. I have NEVER in my life (and I have seen a lot) seen a show where there was a person in there too good for their role. I’ve seen the opposite, though… and so often that’s because they thought they were too good, and didn’t serve the story. That attitude doesn’t help anyone or anything, only limits you severely and tells the director that they did make a mistake by casting you at all.

Circumstances under which you CAN turn down a part include:

  • A major scheduling conflict that you weren’t aware of prior to auditions- with your family, another sport or activity, whatever.
  • A moral or religious objection to what the character would be asked to do. A character who must appear in their slip, or someone who commits several murders, or who wears real fur as a costume. Though you should be clear about this kind of thing before the auditions if possible (that’s where reading the play ahead of time can help a lot…).
  • Your grades are low, and you really need to not do the show in order to get them up.
  • Your parents demand it. For whatever reason.

Notice, for the majority of these, I’m saying you are turning down the show, not just the part. When you audition, you are agreeing to do whatever part you are given.

Take the part. Do it like you are working in the best house in town. Walk away proud and happy. Otherwise, why are you here?