The bag of tricks is the collection of “stock” speech rhythms and pat responses that every actor has from the beginning. Even physical moves can be incorporated into the bag of tricks. A certain gesture, a way of smiling, a stance, that has drawn a good response in every role, can infiltrate an otherwise good actor’s performance. I say “otherwise good”, because these “tricks” can make a performance two-dimensional and phony, obviously rehearsed. The bag of tricks may include:
- Your stance- that is, how you stand, hold your hands, place your weight. Girls often keep their feet close together and clasp their hands at waist level. Boys tend to shift weight often (sometimes known as pacing or wandering)..
- Your vocal rhythm- a pattern of your speech that doesn’t vary, regardless of what you are actually saying. Some people slip into a quasi-British accent, some shout everything.
- Your hand gestures- things you do with your hands that may have little to do with anything in the script.
Why do we need our bag of tricks?
Actors, by definition, have low confidence levels. Anyone who thinks it takes a lot of courage and self-confidence to get on stage has no idea of the actual desperation of the craft. One of the chief needs of all actors is approval, and from more people, the better. Therefore, if something they do gains approval, they will continue to do it. This makes sense. If something they say gets laugh every time, of course they will continue to say it. The move becomes something to fall back on, a failsafe, a sure bet. This is indispensable to the actor, because just as approval is a need, rejection is devastating. If you don’t need to risk it by going outside the known commodity of the bag of tricks which work every time, why do so?
The bag of tricks is usually found, ironically, in actors who have been acting all their lives and wish to make a career of it. They started at an early age, and when they were told something was “good”, kept on doing it. A little girl flips her hair back and smiles, and keeps on doing it, because it gets her the lead in every school play. This is logical. The trouble is, at a professional level, this move is now unconscious and uncontrolled, and looks amateurish. What to do?
- Identify your Bag of Tricks. The best way to do this is also the hardest. Get a friend whom you trust, preferably one who has seen you in many productions, and ask them. Ask that person what you do EVERY show, or EVERY audition, or EVERY time you are speaking in front of people. Ask your acting teacher, your former directors, anyone who has seen you in more than one role. Your parents, though they (hopefully) have seen you perform, are not great sources for this exercise- they don’t like to criticize you, and they tend not to notice your faults as much as others (though it sometimes feels like that’s all they do). You can even do this on your own (though it’s harder), by recording yourself doing a monologue or song and watching it back, noting everything you do that you didn’t realize you did, or watching old videos of your plays and noticing the stuff that looks too familiar and not put there by the director. Take all the feedback without reacting, then get into a quiet place and think about it.
- Take Control. Your bag of tricks is not a bad thing. You should NOT get rid of those things you do! They are natural parts of your acting self that you are comfortable with, and they have been with you a long time. They have been good to you. The secret is to know what it is you do, and then know when to do or not to do those things. Here is the exercise to bring your bag of tricks into the conscious mind:
-Choose three tricks. Choose a monologue that you love and/or a song that you have done for many auditions.
-Get in front of a mirror.
-While doing the monologue or singing the song, incorporate those three tricks at totally inappropriate times. Repeat this several times, until you are doing those three tricks in order 1,2,3,1,2,3, throughout the entire monologue or song.
-Now, choose three and ONLY three spots in the monologue (or song) where it is appropriate for those moves, rhythms, or gestures. Now do your piece using those moves exactly where you intend to.
Congratulations. Your bag of tricks can now be put into your box of tools. You do not need to rely on them to save you in uncertain or uncontrolled moments. You have control over when and how you use those moves. You are a better actor, and you can have more confidence in your use of the craft.