This post is the second of three posts about preparing for the typical high school competition. Part One looked at the most important question when choosing your competition piece, and in Part Two we’re going to look at the most common performance issues and how to fix them in rehearsal.
Believe it or not, it’s not as daunting as it sounds to adjudicate 22 plays in a 2 day period. It is a lot of work, and it does definitely max out my brain power. It’s not daunting for two reasons, one positive and one negative. On the positive side, you get to see wonderful flashes of theatricality and sincere moments of pure joy on stage. Those moments make the experience absolutely worthwhile.
On the negative side, you find yourself repeating the same comments over and over again, because they keep cropping up over and over again: Watch your diction. There’s a difference between telling a story and having a character share a story. Physicalize your character. In your blocking think in terms of shapes, not lines. What drives the play? The pace peters out at the end. Over and over again.
Here are the top three performance issues and a rehearsal strategy to solve them.
1. Vocal Issues
The big trio of articulation, diction and projection. Not having a handle on one, two or all three are by far the biggest performance issues I saw in competition. You can act till you’re blue in the face, if your judges can’t hear or understand what you’re saying, you will not advance.
There are two ways to solve this. One, make vocal drills the first thing you do at every rehearsal. Make it a habit. Don’t wait till performance day. The only way to improve your vocal quality is to get in the habit of speaking clearly. Use tongue twisters. Get in the habit of speaking in full voice, even when the scene demands quiet. And remember projection doesn’t mean yelling. If you push the voice you’ll hurt yourself. Projecting is about communicating to the back row. Practice scenes in which actors have to “communicate” a quiet situation across a large space. Practice the difference between speaking fully and yelling. Always ask yourself, how am I communicating my lines to the audience? Record a rehearsal so that every actor can hear how their voice sounds to an audience. It’s amazing what the difference can be between how we think we sound compared to reality.
The second way to solve vocal issues is through character. One of the most common causes of poor vocal quality is actors who don’t understand why they’re speaking. Who haven’t clarified their character’s goals. All they’re doing is just trying to get through their lines, so they rush like a freight train. They speak without any connection or inflection. In rehearsal determine what each character wants, and how each line accomplishes or detracts from that want. What is the investment of each line? Knowing who you are and what your drive is, will naturally allow an actor to determine how to communicate a line. This is the same for a comedy or a drama – in a comedy the wants might be more exaggerated, but there is still something for characters to drive toward. Have actors finish the sentence “I want to say this line because….” for each line they have. Every line has a purpose – it may be something as simple as “I want to say this line to communicate a piece of information to the audience.”
It’s easy to get wrapped up in learning the lines, figuring out entrances and exits, and just getting from the beginning to the end of the play. What ends up happening is that every character looks exactly the same on stage – very vertical, up and down with no thought paid to how a character stands, moves, gestures. When an audience takes in a performance it’s 60% visual, 30% aural and 10% text. That means if you as an actor aren’t spending 60% of your time on thinking how to physicalize your character you’re missing out on a prime connection to your audience.
Rehearse a scene where all the actors are animals. What kind of animal would each character be? Because animals naturally take up space differently than humans, it’s a great way to find different shapes for your characters on stage. Then when you go back to being human, think about how to retain some of those shapes as you move through the play. Think about specific body parts – shoulders, for example, and determine how each character lives in that body part. Are their shoulders relaxed? Tight to the ears? Thrust back or rounded forward? Something as easy as defining a dominant body part for each character can go a long way in physicalization. Another exercise is to do scenes without any dialogue. Can those watching determine what’s happening? What the emotional stakes are simply by seeing the action and not hearing any lines?
Two specific types of plays commonly have characterization issues: Plays that switch between ensemble speaking and monologue, and plays with narration. Over and over in competition I saw a real lack of attention paid to pushing students to create individual characters in each of these scenarios. The ensemble work would be precise and on point, the unison speaking would be crisp and clear…..but individual monologues would be flat without any defining detail. When actors acted as narrators they wouldn’t invest at all in their words – perhaps because they felt that if there’s no character attached to the lines, they don’t need to create one? But the fact is, if an actor doesn’t invest in a story, why should an audience? Communicate to the audience. There is a difference between telling a story and sharing a story.
Narrators need to be people too. If the play doesn’t create a full character for them, then it’s up to the actors. Create a character profile. Profiles are all about coming up with the small details that make a character three-dimensional, human. Think of the small details that make up you as a human being: name, age, family make up, likes dislikes, secrets, pet peeves, dream jobs, and so on. It’s amazing how fully a character can be brought to life by creating a few simple personality traits. Have actors, especially narrators, answer the question: “Why am I speaking?” Is it to share? To reveal? To force? To impose? By answering the question you create a reason for speaking. And that can make all the difference.
In Part Three I’ll talk about some do’s and don’ts for performance day.