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How to Solve Common Beginning Actors’ Mistakes

Beginning actors make mistakes. Mostly it’s because, well, they’re beginners! I prefer thinking of them is missteps rather than mistakes – they are things the beginning actor hasn’t considered. And it’s always a great time to change that! If you’re a beginning actor, if you teach beginning actors, review this list and take a step in the right direction. Every misstep provides at least one way to solve the problem.

1) Forgetting the audience

Beginning actors often think their acting space ends at the lip of the stage and that no one in the audience can see them when they stop talking. Beginners talk directly to other actors forgetting that the audience needs to hear them too. Beginners often turn upstage leaving their backs to the audience. They break character whenever they’re not talking.

How do we solve this?
Think of the audience as your acting partner and part of the scene. You want them to see, hear, and engage with you. It doesn’t hurt to remember the three-quarters rule either. If you’re standing still, three-quarters of your body should be turned toward the audience. This way you can connect with the audience even if your head is facing upstage. Focus on connecting to the audience and you’ll always face the right direction.

2) Acting with the voice and not with the body

Beginning actors spend so much time thinking about their lines and their blocking, they neglect to incorporate the physical world into their acting prep. It’s important to remember that the first connection the audience makes with an actor is visual – what they see. And if what they see is boring, you’re off to a rocky start.

How do we solve this?
Use exercises that take the voice out of the equation so beginners can practice using their body to communicate character. For example: Entrances and exits. Create an entrance and exit that is singular to your character’s personality. Those watching should know what character you’re playing simply by how you move. Put as much effort into the physical nature of your character as you do learning your lines. Actors should create a pose, a walk, and a significant gesture for every role.

3) Acting too close to their own personality

While it’s OK to play a part that is familiar and comfortable (professional actors are often cast in roles that fit them like a glove) beginning actors sometimes can’t get out of their own groove. There’s no difference between how the actor and their character moves, walks, and sounds. The character is stuck in a box, which is hardly fun to play.

How do we solve this?
Character analysis. Define the similarities and differences between you and your character. Highlight the differences and choose specific moments where you play them up. It may feel odd because it’s different than how you usually act, but that’s the idea. Playing outside your comfort zone will give you a challenge and make you a better actor.

4) Neglecting diction, articulation and volume

The technical aspects of acting are essential to connecting with an audience. How can the audience appreciate the performance if they can’t hear or understand you? Beginning actors hear themselves talking normally (as they do on a daily basis) and think that’s good enough. If it works in real life, it works on stage, right? The fact is, actors need to project to the back of the room and articulate more than they would in real life. They have to make sure they’re being heard and understood in a theatrical context.

How do we solve this?
There are two ways to solve this issue. The first is technical drills. Learn what it feels like to speak at the correct volume and then practice hitting that volume over and over again. Practice tongue twisters. Practice speaking with your mouth closed to force crisp articulation. Secondly, record your performance placing the camera at the back of the audience so you can hear exactly how you sound. Video does not lie.

5) Overwhelming stage fright

The first time an actor steps on stage can be terrifying. The audience is right there waiting for you to do something. Anything. So hurry up! This can easily derail the beginning actor into doing nothing at all, frozen with stage fright.

How do we solve this?
The more you get out in front of an audience, the less of an issue stage fright becomes. Start out performing in front of small numbers until you build your confidence.

But stage fright never goes away for some actors. Even professionals get a case of the butterflies. So you may have to learn techniques to control your nerves. Breathing exercises always help – stand in the wings well before you’re supposed to go on. Breathe in slowly on a four count and out on a four count. Focus just on counting your breath in and out. Don’t think about what could happen on stage, just breathe…. and then go! Remember that you’re not alone, you’re surrounded by actors who are probably having the exact same fears. Get those fears out in the open, talk about them, don’t leave them to fester in your head. And lastly, remember that you had the courage to audition, you got the part and you’re there ready to go on. So get out there and do it!

6) Breaking character when something goes wrong

Acting requires focus and concentration. Lose your focus and you can lose your place in the play, lose your lines, and cause a silence hole big enough to drive a truck through. When experienced actors have these moments, they know it’s their job to get back on track. When beginning actors have these moments, the first thing that usually happens is they break out of character and say “sorry” to the audience. This is a huge acting no-no.

How do we solve this?
Practice line exercises that purposefully try to throw you off your lines. Rehearse your lines out of sequence. Get in the habit of finding your way back on track, while staying in character. An audience will have no idea you’ve forgotten your lines until you break character and tell them. The way to get out of a sticky line situation is to stay in character and start talking. Never stand there in silence thinking someone else will solve your problem. Take it upon yourself. The more you practice this the easier it will become if something goes awry on stage.

7) Thinking they are the invisible actor

Many beginning actors feel that once they stop talking, they become invisible to the audience. They can squirm, they can talk to their neighbour, they can break character or stand looking totally bored. And the worst thing is when actors goof off backstage because they think no one is paying attention.

How do we solve this?
It’s a very simple rule. If you can see the audience, they can see you. If you’re backstage, if you can hear the actors, then the audience can hear you. If you’re not the focus of the scene and you break character you will stand out. You could stand out so much that you will pull the focus away from the action. That is not being a good team player.

8) Falling on excuses – “I didn’t know.”

Beginning actors shouldn’t be expected to know every single aspect to the acting process. There’s a lot to learn along the way: come to rehearsal with a pencil and write down all your blocking. Wear comfortable clothes in rehearsal for ease of movement. A 4:00 rehearsal doesn’t mean you show up at 4:00, it means you’ve arrived, you’re warmed up, you have your script out and you’re ready to work at 4:00. But at some point you have to stop saying “I didn’t know” and take action.

How do we solve this?
Pay attention. Watch what experienced actors do and copy them. And if you don’t know, ask. Don’t have an excuse at the ready, have an action at the ready. And it’s ok to make a mistake, once. If you’re making that same mistake twice, three times, falling on excuses and you’ll get the reputation of an unreliable actor.

9) Leaning on character stereotypes

Sometimes the easiest way into a character is to focus on common and broad personality traits, or stereotypes. This leads to teenagers playing grandmothers as if they can barely walk, with a shaky voice and grey hair. Beginning actors also lean on stereotypes when they’re trying to get a laugh. Beginners go for the easy laugh because they don’t know any other way. Even in a wacky comedy it’s best to take the time to build a three-dimensional character. Find the laughter through action and the pursuit of a want rather than trying to trick the audience into an easy laugh.

How do we solve this?
Write up character profiles. If the playwright doesn’t provide enough detail, fill in the blanks. Who is your character? Where do they come from? What is the makeup of their family? What do they like/dislike? What memories do they hold dear? What are the significant moments from their life? Define and write down exactly what your character wants and how they pursue that want in every scene. Will they go to extremes? Do something out of character? Figure out what stands in the way of your character getting what they want and how they’re going to deal with this obstacle – that’s where you’ll find the funny.

10) Not taking director’s notes seriously

It’s a frustrating moment for a director when they’ve gone to the trouble of taking notes, sharing them with their actors, getting the actor’s assurance that they’ll take the note into consideration…. and the same problem arises the very next rehearsal. Rehearsal notes are not for the benefit of the director, they’re not going to be on stage. Rehearsal notes are to help actors make the performance the best it can be. The worst thing a beginning actor can do is disregard any note that is sent their way.

How do we solve this?
Get into the habit of writing down any and all notes and then review those notes right before the next rehearsal. Make the note fresh in your mind, so you never fall on the excuse “I forgot…. I didn’t know it was for me…..” You can help make the play better by improving your own on stage action.

And if you disagree with a note, never ignore it just because you don’t like it. Make time with the director to discuss the note. And you better have a clear, concise reason for disregarding the note. Being able to clearly state why your character does something, or standing up for why a character wouldn’t do something will improve your skills and take your acting to the next level.

Bonus Giveaway!

Here are some of the highlights from this post into a downloadable and printable poster. Hang it in your classroom. Hang it up backstage. Hand it out to your student actors.

Click here to download the poster!
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