Here are my class notes, based on the course I teach at ArtsEd, the leading 3 year course for Musical Theatre performers in London. I also teach Masterclasses around the world and have taught at the Larry School in South Korea, the DAMA programme in Kuala Lumpur, as well as the Royal College of Music, Trinity College, London School of Musical Theatre (LSMT) and the Music Theatre Academy MTA, London.
These notes are intended for the wonderful students that I have worked with but, if you are just curious, do have a look through. I hope you find them useful.
If you wish to enquire about private coaching in London do get in touch via the website and I will endeavour to arrange a class around my commitments. I do love teaching. If you are thinking of a career in Musical Theatre I will be more than happy to advise you on which course is right for you.
The Need For Theatre
Something Familiar, Something Peculiar
Why do we go to theatre? Why does Theatre even exist?
When asked, most people will say’ “to be entertained,” or “to escape”. There will always be one who proffers “to be educated” -but I know few people who go to the theatre, rather than a school, specifically for ‘education’, though it is often a bi-product of the theatrical experience.
The roots for Theatre’s existence dig deeper into the subconscious and lie in something much more primeval. For we know of no society where the ritual of theatre never happens. From South American Tribe to a conurbation such as London or New York, there is nowhere on the planet where there is not a place, often a sacred space, that is specifically set aside for the telling of stories. Isn’t that mysterious? For millennia, human beings have assembled in a space, divided into two parts, one of which enacts stories for the remainder. So it appears that humanity has a profound need to assemble and witness acted-out representations, from Soap Opera and Comedy to Grand Opera and Greek Tragedy.
Here is how Declan Donellan, director of the theatre company Cheek by Jowl, describes the role of Theatre:
‘A theatre is not only a literal place, but also a space where we dream together: not merely a building, but a space that is both imaginative and collective. Theatre provides a safe frame within which we can explore dangerous extremities in the comfort of fantasy and the reassurance of a group. If every theatre were razed to the ground, theatre would survive, because the hunger in each of us to be acted to is genetic. This intense hunger even crosses the threshold for sleep. For we direct, perform and witness performances every night in our dreams. Theatre cannot die unless the last dream has been dreamt. ‘
‘People, even though they may not know it, come to the theatre to hear the truth and celebrate it with each other. Though they are continually disappointed, the urge is so inbred and primal they still come.’ David Mamet
The word theatre comes from the ancient Greek word ‘theatron’, which is the verb to see, in both its meanings of viewing and understanding.
‘Seeing the Truth’ is at the heart of why Theatre exists, and if people believe the lie of the actor playing someone else in a set of circumstances, then other, powerful and wonderful, things start to happen to the observer. However deceitful people may be living their lives, if they are shown truth, whether by characters who are equally deceitful, or by people living an authentic and generous life, they will be shown a mirror, given in front of their eyes a moral compass by which they will measure themselves.
I have known people to be healed by theatre. Two fans, mother and daughter, would come to see Les Miserables in order to give themselves permission to cry in the company of the audience who were also crying, in order to grieve for a recently deceased relative. Over time, the grief-induced psoriasis, which covered the mother’s body, abated. Theatre had literally healed her.
A lady came up to me after a performance of Baby who was pregnant in her later years and didn’t want to keep the child because she felt she that, in becoming a mother, she had forgotten her reasons for being a wife (which is one of the character’s dilemmas in the show). She was empowered by the piece because she realized that she was not alone in her thoughts. “I had never seen my story represented before,’ she cried, “and I thought I was alone.”
I think the need of ‘belonging’ is a huge part of theatre. We don’t go to theatre to see something alone. We go to experience together as a ‘tribe’, to know that we feel the same and connect with our fellow human beings. We may not experience it on pubic transport but we are social beings. We go to theatre to cry together, to laugh together. We go to share an experience.
Indeed, London is built upon three early settlements or gathering places: one at Ludgate Hill, one at the Island of Westminster, and the other to the north- west. It is surely no coincidence that these places are where St. Paul’s Cathedral (the story telling of religion and a place for spiritual connection), Westminster (the arena of debate and Church) and Wembley (the theatre and ‘religion’ of sport) now stand. In assembling together, theatre humanizes us.
As well as empowerment, theatre can ennoble and remind humanity of its possibility. When the actor- manager of the Sarajevo National Theatre was asked by Vanessa Redgrave why he continued to perform to packed houses, even as the bombs were falling on the city, he replied that ‘it was the only reminder that they came from angels.’ This was the only reminder they were capable of better. What was the production which continued to play to those facing death and bereavement in Sarajevo? King Lear? Hamlet? The Cherry Orchard? No, it was Hair, and the evergreen ‘Let the Sunshine In’ became the unofficial anthem to conjure the end of ethnic cleansing.
This is fundamentally what escapism is about- it is not to forget who we are, but to remind us of our potential (for good or evil) and to empower us to seek new adventures were we to leave the mundane workings of our lives. It is no surprise that the two longest running shows in the West End, Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera are both tales of transformation through love. It is innate in us to feel we are on a journey of betterment.
‘It is precisely in a broken age that we need mystery and a reawakened sense of wonder: we need them to feel whole again. ‘ Ben Okri
Actually, when people say they go to theatre to be ‘entertained’, they don’t realize what truth they speak. In its earliest 14th Century meaning, to ‘entertain’ meant to ‘maintain or support’. Its derivation was from two old French words meaning to be amongst (the Latin inter-) and tenir, to be held, or to grip (where we get the words ‘tenet’, meaning a held belief, and ‘tendril’, by which a plant holds on to a support.) In another sense we go to the theatre to be held within its power, literally to ‘be gripped’. We go expecting a lie but, if it is served well, to be given the truth.
‘Truth invites examination.’ Aristotle
The audience goes to a theatre expecting a place in which lies take place. It is the actor’s job to speak the truth.
‘Acting is not a genteel profession. Actors used to be buried at crossroads with a stake through the heart. Those people’s performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts: an awesome compliment. Those players moved the audience not such that they were admitted to a graduate school, or receive a complimentary review but such that the audience feared for their soul. Now that seems to me something to aim for.’ David Mamet
"Theatre as an art form cannot die, for the simple reason that people need it. For me this is a self evident obvious fact. The theatre dreams on behalf of the spectator and, simultaneously, allows him to experience the products of his fantasy. You may have noticed, that almost all plays feature a criminal incident - indeed, the vast majority of all dramatic heroes right down to the extras are guilty of some crime, they are not honorable gentlemen! Isn't it strange that people buy a ticket and go to the theatre, dress nicely and put on perfume in order to eavesdrop on more or less slanderous things or watch how someone or several people are killed - and hereafter leave the theatre in a festive mood, ethically excited. What is going on in the individual spectator? The following: his apparent abhorrence of criminal proceedings on the stage is no true indignation, but in actual fact a participation, an experiencing, and through this experiencing a gratification of antisocial cravings. So the spectator is appalled by himself. This condition is called edification." Horvath
That is our job: we are truth-sayers; the gate-keepers of quality and humanity through truth.
‘’Beauty is Truth, and Truth beauty. That is all ye know and all ye need to know’ Keats
“Theatre is the mystical endorsement of truth: within the theatre truth burns between performer and audience.’ Peter Brooke
‘The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnified world itself.’ Henry Miller
An ancient Sanskrit treatise on art, the Natya Shastra, suggests that all good theatre accomplishes three tasks simultaneously: 1. it entertains the drunk; 2. it answers the question “how to live?” and 3. it answers the question “How does the universe work?
The Power of Music
It started out like a song
In transcending language, image and symbol, Music and Dance have touched the human soul across all boundaries of time, space, and genre. For centuries both have been linked to healing, tribe identification, altered and heightened states of consciousness, incantation, seduction, and magic.
Anthony Storr, in his book, Music and the Mind, stresses that in all societies, a primary function of music is collective and communal; to bring and bind people together. Like theatre, in every culture, people sing and dance together to belong. Quantum physics says that we are nothing but vibration: we are sound itself. No wonder we are so affected by it.
Tales of healing through music are many in world literature. An account involving two of the legendary kings of Israel is thought to have been written during the reign of Solomon. "And whenever the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand; so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him."
"Music has charms to soothe a savage breast," William Congreve
"Healing? I think that is what music is all about. Don't you?" Yo-Yo Ma
Singing bowls have been used in Tibet and Japan for centuries as a method of healing: a bowl is filled with hot water and oil and placed on to the part of the patient which is diseased. The bowl is then struck around the rim creating harmonic notes perceived to resonate different vital organs; the smaller the bowl the higher the sound, the denser the tissue. In modern medicine, ultrasound operates in exactly the same way- vibration causes more rapid healing in damaged tissue.
Music is more than merely organized sound.
The motor power of rhythm cannot be underestimated as a therapeutic effect. For patients with Parkinson Disease, in whom movements tend to be incontinently fast, slow or frozen, exposure to a regular tempo can overcome the disorder. The composer, Lukas Foss, for example, could control his Parkinson disease by playing Chopin Nocturnes, only to freeze when the piece he was playing had finished. Music is also been known to control frontal lobe disorders, Tourette Syndrome and Autism. We know that music can move us and induce feelings and moods, so the evocative power can be of immense value in people who have little access to strong, emotional states.
Furthermore, people with Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, who have ceased to respond to language and immediate stimuli, respond to familiar music that may evoke in them memories of earlier times, events or states of mind and may bring them briefly to a time when the world was richer for them. Of course there are also links to madness and music. Oliver Sachs, author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, had a patient, Eric M, a musician, who suffered from ‘musicogenic epilepsy’. He would hear music during his seizures which he couldn’t identify.
The opposite is also true: Music as pacifier and humaniser can be witnessed at Brixton Underground Station, which has measured a significant drop in crime since classical music has been played over the station’s tannoy system.
“Since singing is so good a thing, I wish all men would learn to sing.” William Byrd
Such sweet compulsion doth in music lie.” Milton
In the Sufi tradition, Dervishes whirl and sing wildly in order to reach a state akin to the divine and there are many examples in religion of music being used to come closer to the Creator.
“We have fallen to a place where everything is music. The strumming and the flute notes rise into the atmosphere, and even if the whole world’s harp should burn up, there will still be hidden instruments playing.” Rumi,13th Century Sufi Poet
In Classical Mythology, Gods and heightened states are linked to music: Apollo and Orpheus both played the Lyre, Pan and Bacchus, the pipes, and Sirens sang to lure seamen to their deaths in the same way that the Piper of Hamelin seduced the children and rats to follow him to the underworld. The Bible speaks of angelic choirs and the destruction of Jericho by trumpet-sound. In the Native American tradition the Shaman will sing to invoke his relatives who have joined the Gods.
In the 16th century it was believed that the stars and planets revolved around the earth on spheres, each of which had a musical note which together made a literally heavenly sound, the ‘music of the spheres.’
More diabolically, the augmented 4th (or tritone) was called the ‘Devil’s interval’, and was unofficially banned. This interval was perceived to be dangerous, insidious and unsettling to the ear, and from the middle ages to the Baroque it was avoided unless evil was its aim. There are stories that composers were excommunicated were they to use it. Bernstein uses this tritone to great effect in West Side Story, setting up the conflict between the rival gangs, which is only resolved (through the healing power of love) when Tony sings Maria. On another devilish note, the virtuoso violinist, Paganini, was deemed so masterful at his instrument (and therefore in league with the Devil) that he was denied a Catholic burial.
As a tribe identifier, we use music as National Anthem, Protest Song and Football Chant. In the Polish ghetto during World War II, Klezmer music embodied the identity and courage of a race on the edge of annihilation. (It was therefore unforgiveable that the musical Imagine This, unlike the play Ghetto and the musical The Green Violin, chose to ignore Klezmer in its score, even though it was set amongst musicians in the ghetto).
We sing to belong, to feel not alone.
It requires a letting go of literal, rational, linear patterns of thought and an acceptance of an intuitive, imaginal, metaphoric way of experiencing reality (expressed in some traditions as a shift from head to heart). It is associated with a sense of enriched personal meaning and a sense of connectedness…Perhaps, in its vibratory nature, music opens us to a greater appreciation of our essential connectedness to the cosmos, our oneness with all that is. Eric Flanders, Professor of Palliative Medicine, McGill University
If singing is to speaking as dancing is to walking, then we sing in order to express something which is beyond the normal field of experience. That music is powerful there is no doubt: how powerful then, when used in theatre to heighten even more the experience for the audience.
‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ Spiderman
“Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it wont come out your horn.’ Charlie Parker
‘Most convicted felons are just people who were never taken to museums or Broadway musicals as children.’ Libby Gelman-Waxner
The Failure of Language
Go on, say it…tell me not to go!
‘When the heart is truly touched, not many words are needed.’ Native American Indian Proverb
‘Words without thought never go to heaven’ Shakespeare (Hamlet)
‘A great silence overcomes me, and I wonder why I ever thought to use language.’ Rumi
There is such an abundance of stimuli in our modern culture; stimuli which we seek to express in language. From material objects, to sophisticated thought, feeling and expression, we have particularized and specificised our vocabulary. Even a simple ‘shoe’, which for many millennia would require only one word to describe it , has so many names now in order to set it apart and describe it more specifically: brogue, trainer, pump, spat, dress etc. We have literally sabotaged its power (from the Old French word for clog, sabot ). The need to differentiate between one thing and another has meant that our language has become particular and specific, whilst losing any relationship to what the object actually is, what purpose it serves, or indeed, what our relationship to that object is.
‘Words are mere utterances, noises that stand for feelings, thoughts and experience. They are symbols, signs, insigmas. They are not the truth. They are not the real thing. Words may help you understand something. Experience allows you to know. Neal Donald Walsch
Place ten objects in a room and ask a non English-speaking person to point to a ‘chair’ and that word gives them no clues as to which of the ten objects a ‘chair’ is. This is because modern language has become literal. However, go back through millennia and all language was ‘mantric’, in that a word for something did have a relationship to what it was and what our relationship to it was.
Here is an example. One of the earliest versions of ‘The Lords Prayer’ was in Aramaic/ Cyrillic. It begins ‘Abwundvashmaya!’ Start to split this word up and it begins ‘A’ as in ‘Ah’- something which is huge, which takes our breath away, powerful and mighty, which causes us to breathe, and so profound and limitless that it cannot be contained, even by consonants (incidentally, many words for powerful people have this ‘ah’ sound: Allah, Tsar, Maharaja).The ‘bw’ is the sound of vibration, and so contains within it the sense of life force and energy (as I have said, quantum physics says we are nothing but vibration), the ‘wu’ was a journey, the wind travelling in the trees (wu-weh is still the Chinese element of air and wood) and a physical path through life. Even in these three short constructions we have painted a much more vivid description of God than ‘Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name’. We have so particularized God we have even given God a gender.
So, even if the language has failed in expressing the mystery of the Divine, it still has tremendous power when it comes to the sublimation of women and the negation of the female creator of most ancient and pagan religions. According to Jewish Tradition, the name of God is too holy to pronounce, and so YHWH was used, or Adonai meaning Lord.
Occasionally we come across a word which is mantric, most often in onomatopoeic words. Poets use language mantrically to this day, and hopefully lyricists do too but this is often not the case.
To sum up then, language always fails us because every noun, verb, adjective and adverb we use can neither truly represent what that word is trying to convey nor our relationship to it. So it is up to the actor to colour the word with the character’s experience of that word. Also, you can only colour the word if you know what your character’s relationship to that word is. A word of warning: do not seek to colour that word just for the sake of colouring- your work is to know the relationship to the word/image and it will colour itself. It is exactly the same as seeing who is in the room with you (the target) and knowing your exact relationship to them- after you have done that work and become very specific in your choices, the other will inform you (or indeed colour you) and not the other way around. Once again, seeing IS believing.
‘In fact, in Adler’s opinion, seeing was the key to acting.’ Joanna Rotte
‘More particulars must justify my knowledge.’ Shakespeare (Cymbeline)
‘The most powerful things are those that have no words.’ Meryl Streep
Since musical theatre is a modern art form, the characters therein do not speak their thoughts as eruditely as in classical text. (Even when they do, Juliet would say that ‘gallop apace you fiery footed steeds, STILL doesn’t sum up exactly how she is feeling!) Also, because Musicals are seldom concerned with political argument, the expression of ideas , or didactic ( exceptions include the works of Brecht/ Weill), the characters are often in an emotional, rather than an intellectual, state; the latter being where the speaker has had time to prepare, express and fulfill a thought with any success.
‘Nothing comes off the tongue that quickly. It is planned speeches that contain lies or disseminations, not what you blurt out so spontaneously in one instant.’ Tennessee Williams
‘You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts: And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime. And in much of your talking, thinking is half-murdered. For thought is a space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.’ Kahlil Gibran from The Prophet
The Uniqueness of You
Here’s to us, who’s like us, damn few!
Because your experience and your body are unique there is no one like you, has never been someone as you in history before, and therefore, no actor like you. Why do some actors seem better than others? Because they have totally immersed themselves to the role and released any shame or interference from their own identity or ego. The role of the artist is a humble one. We are called ‘gifted’ because it is a gift to be given with love and generosity, not held close to ourselves to be admired. We are at the core of humanity because of our gifts, not separate and exalted because we are deemed ‘gifted’.
“Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new, give us more to see.” Sondheim
There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, that is transformed through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. Martha Graham
You were born to add value to this world. What will you do with the moment? How will you seize the moment? No one else can dance your dance. No one else can sing your song. No one else can write your story. Who you are, what you do, begins right now. Joseph Campbell
You are not one of the myriad of interchangeable pieces, but a unique human being, and if you’ve got something to say, say it, and think well of yourself while you’re learning to say it better. David Mamet
‘There is room for everyone on this earth. No one is taking up anybody else’s place.’ Stella Adler
Knowing that you are unique and the acceptance of that will free you from envy and jealousy when you see others seemingly gain ground in the profession. Respect your journey. It is yours and no one elses.
‘Inside you there’s an artist you don’t know about.- say yes quickly, if you know, if you’ve known it before the beginning of the universe.’ Rumi
So, it is fundamentally untrue to say one actor is ‘better’ than another. It is freer and more appropriate to say that one actor is less blocked than another. All human beings never stop acting: therefore one cannot teach how to act because we act every moment of our lives.
If, as already described, theatre is a place ‘in which we can explore dangerous extremities in the comfort of fantasy and the reassurance of a group’ we learn theatre from the earliest moment; the interplay between mother and child. Our first game is peek-a-boo in which a baby, unknowingly, explores abandonment through an innocent game with the mother: the child is being prepared for the most painful event of separation through play. This is then developed later as the child learns separation through ‘hide and seek’, but, importantly, it is now the child moving away from the mother- which prepares the child to this most adult of initiations. Theatre is innate in us. As we grow up we learn to deal with people in different ways, to use skills we have learnt, firstly from our parents and then our siblings and friends: to lie, to play status, to relax in a situation we have experienced before, to learn from a new experience. We are, at any one time, a child/a brother/sister/higher status/lower status/aggressor/victim depending on where we are and with whom we are and how much we need what we want.
So we cannot be taught to act, but we can be taught to unblock and be clear and free to feel the impulses that arise when we are being ‘other’. We go to Acting School, not to learn how to act, but to learn to unblock.
‘maybe you could show me how to let go, lower my guard, learn to be free.’ Sondheim
Blocks & Fear
It is the purpose of class to get accustomed to being unblocked and open, a rightful conduit for your craft. This sense of self-sabotage we often get can be very frustrating.
‘Do you know I sometimes feel that I am a man of genius half-finished? The genius has been left out, the faculty of expression is wanting but the need for expression remains, and I spend my days groping for the latch of a closed door.’ Henry James from Roderick Hudson
So if we are all actors, what makes us blocked when we are called upon to be someone else, or to reveal ourselves? Fear.
Fear of the future is delivered to our bodies as anxiety. Fear of the past is delivered in guilt. The only moment which remains untarnished by fear is the present one.
‘Fear of the act is always worse than the act itself.’ English Proverb
Both anxiety and guilt are linked to ‘saboteurs’: people or experiences in our past who/which have shamed us and our internal critic reminds us of these experiences. Shame is the last thing we need as actors. I bet you that all the actors/performers you feel are true and exciting artists share a sense that nothing holds them back-they have no shame.
Conversely sometimes our outside eye, which normally criticizes you, commends us for doing a moment really well - but even that has damaged our truth and we have stepped out of the world of the character.
‘As blocked creatives we focus not on our responsibilities to ourselves, but on our responsibilities to others. We tend to think such behavior makes us good people. It doesn’t. It makes us frustrated people. Julia Cameron The Artists’ Way
So how do we free ourselves from thoughts about ourselves? We make the outside so alive that we don’t have time to think of ourselves. To, literally, lose ourselves in the pursuit of seeing. All techniques are based on seeing and responding. We should really be called ‘reactors’, not ‘actors’, because all we need to do is respond to the given circumstance. Also, ‘reactor’ has that sense of being a powerful, charged furnace of emotion, a powerhouse.
Before we begin with different techniques, let us remind ourselves why we rehearse. I once worked with an actress who thought that rehearsals were only there to help her learn her lines. So busy with that task she forgot to explore the character!
The Purpose of Rehearsal
Visible v Invisible Work
At work, the actor’s life is divided into two: the rehearsal and the performance.
The rehearsal is used to investigate and shift from ourselves, so that we begin to see the world as the character sees the world, to realize their impulses, to research the world (for everyone is a product of their times) and to bring into play the landscape of the piece and our character’s unique place in that world. This is the ‘invisible’ work because it is something that informs our character but not something we can actually play. Words are at the end of an incredibly complex process. Invisible work investigates this process.
‘Before a performance, most actors carefully make themselves up to look as much as possible like their characters. But they forget the most important thing, the interior preparation. Why devote so much time to the external appearance? Why not rather make the soul.’ Stanislavski
It is the invisible work which gives your character a life that transcends the mere words on the page and gives you energy which makes you appear real and truthful.
‘There is a great deal of unmapped country within us which would have to be taken into account in an explanation of our gusts and storms’ George Elliott from Daniel Daronda
There is never one way to play the scene. The Invisible work takes you to a place where you are aware of all the possibilities of a scene, and in the moment of performance your body and voice will go with a choice that rings true in that moment. If you like, the invisible work, the exercises, the research, the discoveries, the use of techniques and play are all for the moment before or the moment to come- not for the burning, spontaneous moment of now.
‘The purpose of Art is not rarified, intellectual distillate- it is life intensified, brilliant life’
‘Learn the rules so you know how to break them properly.’ Dalai Lama
‘The purpose of technique is to prepare the ground for inspiration’ Judith Weston
Any technique or invisible work prepares your choices but does not replace the moment you are in. You do not play the work. You allow yourself to play.
‘I want to thank our director Tony Richardson for…giving us actors permission to play.’ Jessica Lange’s acceptance speech for her Academy Award for ‘Blue Sky’
The Nine Fundamentals
Before we investigate our first technique, there are some ‘givens’ in theatre which we need to remind ourselves of. These are non-negotiable.
- Your character has never played this scene before although you have rehearsed it.
- Your character has never seen how the other person in the scene reacts although you may have prepared for it.
- Your character has never heard themselves say these words before though you have.
- Your character has never seen what your character is seeing although you have.
- Your character has never felt this scene before though you may have in rehearsal.
- Your character does not know how the scene will end (although he may have planned its outcome or have some objective to be achieved).
- All text changes belief. All text attempts to alter a perspective. If characters agree there is no drama.
- All text is a reaction to a previous action whether seen by the audience or not. No moment starts from nothing. (If unseen by the audience we must know what the ‘trigger’ is to sing- why this moment now? Why does the singer need this song?)
- Everything that your character does fails. Every reaction fails otherwise they would not go on, the play would stop. There is always something to achieve. Everything your character says fails because language, however eloquent, can never fully express what the character is feeling or hoping to convey.(re. Chapter 3 The Failure of Language).
What moves men of genius, or rather what inspires their work, is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough. Delacroix
The Art of Seeing
No One is Alone
‘What you don’t see with your eyes don’t invent with your mouth’ Old English Proverb
The basis of this work is to look outside ourselves for what we need to play the character and situation. When asked what our earliest memory is, how are we feeling now, or where do we wish to be in 10 years time, we look out and wait for an image to come to us and then we express that image through word. We have a relationship to seeing the image, which then shows on our face without us playing anything. It changes us.
Our role as conduit for the expression of the writer is to justify the template given to us. No matter whether the writing be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ we have to give full expression to every moment of the text. The words we sing/act must be the product of a whole series of impulses which lead us to those words and no others- and those impulses are defined by three things:
- The character can do nothing unless there is an ‘other’ to do it to. You can never know what you are doing unless you know first who you are doing it to. )? Who am I talking to/about and what do they do to me?
- You can also never know what you are doing unless you know where you are doing it (what does the space do to me? And not, where am I?).
- How do the times in which I exist affect me? In what times am I in and how does that change my means of expression? How am I a product of my times?
These three questions will lead you away from the immortal actors’ question- I don’t know who I am. In fact, avoid all questions in which ‘I’ is the subject. Even when the character seems alone, as often happens in a solo moment in a show, the character is trying to convince himself or sometimes the audience to change their point of view. In cases of true soliloquy we see ourselves outside in a situation which exposed us for our weakness (As in ‘Funny’ from City of Angels) and that fear of being humiliated again propels us to sing and hammer out what needs to change in us. Indeed, we continue singing/acting because what we want (to hear/to say) is still not expressed. Otherwise there is no drama because there is no opinion to be changed, no conflict.
Rule 1 There is always another to whom you express.
Rule 2 The other is always outside of you.
We have seen with the memory exercise that recollection of an image happens outside you. We search for an image outside of ourselves. When we try and remember where we know someone from, we search for the occasion or physical background and if the person appears in the right context the image yields to you and then the background fills up- if it was a party you suddenly remember the host, the smell of alcohol, perhaps the music playing at the time.
Rule 3 The other exists before you need it.
When doing the exercise foreseeing a future event (as in ‘where do you dream you’ll be in 10 years time?), people will search the outside even if it has not happened yet, and discover by summoning up pictures and rejecting the less wanted options, what their dream will be. Using the example above, the party was always there to be remembered before you conjured the memory.
Rule 4 The other is always specific.
A blade to Sweeney Todd is first a friend, thena reminder of his former life as a barber, then a means for revenge as he sees the blood glisten off it, then an extension of his own arm. He stops singing because ‘at last my arm is complete’: he has found the means to wreak revenge and the first journey of his has concluded successfully. The more specific you can make the other the better.
Rule 5 The other is always changing.
The other is always doing something, is always active- even inanimate objects. How? Take ‘the Bus’ from Caroline or Change. For Caroline not only is the Bus physically moving but it is a symbol of racism and all the times of racism come back to her as she watches it draw nearer. Even if the Bus were parked it would still be active with the memories. The target is always giving something back.
As in the last example, or in the pies Mrs. Lovett ascribes to different victims, the pies, though inanimate are always transforming. Take the song ‘I Wont Mind’. This song to a baby is very much affected by how the baby is receiving it- is it crying , laughing, smiling, enjoying, about to cry etc. An example from real life: when breaking up with someone you read their faces all the time to see if you can continue the approach or have to change the way in which you divulge the information. A song to someone who can harm you is different from someone you want to harm.
Because the target is outside of you and is a product of your imagination it is inexhaustible and will give you endless energy.
‘The world of reality has its limits; the world of your imagination is boundless.’ Rousseau
So you must be sure who you are singing to. You must always know what your relationship is with that person and see the effect each line is having on your subject. Giving the responsibility of the scene to the other in your imagination frees you from self- consciousness. Because your imagination is boundless it will never run out. Give the changing of the other your complete energy and your voices of sabotage will stop.
Secondly, ask not ‘where am I?’ but what do my surroundings do to me? A seemingly harmless place like a baby’s bedroom in which you are singing a lullaby (for I Wont Mind) is not all what it seems when we realize that the person singing should not be there and is not the parent. So the singer has to know that at any moment the parent might walk in. It is not a safe space. What is my relationship to where I am? Or better, what do I see and how does that affect me. For every three minute improvisation set by Stella Adler, she said there was an hour’s work of exploration of the space alone.
Lastly, after considering ‘Who I am’ and ‘where I am’ there is ‘When I am’- or how the world in which I exist changes me. Caroline in Caroline or Change will have a different world picture than Mimi from Rent and both will move differently because of the social, sexual, and political place a maid in 1943 has compared to a drug addict in modern Manhattan. You will need to research the Women’s Suffrage Movement in order to play Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins, or American politics for 1776.
Everything in a scene, be it who you are with, where you are, when you are, affect you. Your character must have a relationship to every image you use as well as the physical place you are in.
Most importantly, and what will most liberate you, is that after you have made choices through research and investigating the world of the play, and give the responsibility of the scene to the ‘other’, or ‘the target’ as it is sometimes called, whether the other is there or not (as they would not be in an audition), you stop monitoring yourself. Give the responsibility of the scene to the imagination and, because the imagination is inexhaustible, it will never fail you. Your imagination will be fed by all the invisible work you have done yourself and in rehearsing with others.
Although the word and ideas of the ‘Target’ were propounded by Declan Donellan, the idea of the outside being created by your imagination and that outside giving us what we need is central to most acting techniques because it most mirrors how we perceive the world as real people. Here are two examples from two exponents of American Theatre:
‘In real life, the mother begging for her child’s life, the criminal begging for a pardon, the atoning lover pleading for one last chance- these people give no attention whatever to their own state, and all attention to the state of that person from whom they require their object. This outward-directedness brings the actor in real life to a state of magnificent responsiveness and makes his progress thrilling to watch. On the stage, similarly, it is the progress of the outward-directed actor, who behaves with no regard to his personal state, but with all regard for the responses of his antagonists which thrills the viewers.’
David Mamet from True and False
‘Actions depend on the actor’s ability to see specific, dynamic images. They require the actor to summon ‘a mental motion picture’ ( a phrase Adler attributed to Stanislavski). The actor develops a movie in his mind, projects it outside, and views it there in front of himself, so to speak. In other words, the actor externalizes the movie.’ Joanna Rotte from Acting with Adler
‘Ideas are the beginning of all achievement’ Bruce Lee
‘Receive the other.’ Uta Hagen
The Legacy of Stanislavski
How to let go, lower my guard, learn to be free
‘All stimuli create energy’ so, when working on a character, where do we go to get stimulated? There seem to be a vast array of books about acting and the different techniques expounded have their separate adherents and acolytes who would have you believe you can be devoted to one technique and one technique only. However, I think as artists we are like sharks, with a voracious appetite for exploration. Furthermore, like these feeders, if we sink to the bottom we die so we have to keep moving, and so if one technique seems not to be yielding any stimuli then we look elsewhere for inspiration. To use another analogy, when Mother Hubbard finds the cupboard bare she doesn’t keep staring at the empty cupboard ( or she would die)- she goes out shopping to replenish and nourish herself.
This chapter should only be seen as a perfunctory taster for the different techniques on offer and I have included a reading list if your Artist responds especially to one technique. Even better, see what courses are on offer once you leave, for Acting is a physical, experiential exercise and reading about a technique will never be as good as doing a class in it.
So here are the main four resources for investigating your character:
1 Memory – inside out: use of the personal experience as stimuli, internalisation (Method)
2 Observation –outside in: use of external stimuli not experienced (English Tradition)
3 Imagination –outside in: use of image, texture, to see memory outside, externalisation (Stella Adler, Declan Donellan)
4 Spontaneity – momentary creativity, immediate experience (Meisner)
Techniques using your personal experience so that an emotion is authentic and connected, as taught by Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. The method was to train the actor so that his emotional resource was always near the surface, and that emotion was the connection between the character and the need to speak. Many exercises are used specifically to re-explore trauma. It was this over- dependence on the emotional training of the actor which led Stella Adler to reject this approach as un-integrated. The danger with the Method is that the actor becomes self indulgent and the exercise becomes about therapy. Also, because we are often playing characters outside the realm of trauma most of us have experienced, we might diminish that trauma of the character if we base it on something smaller which we have experienced ourselves. Nevertheless, memory is incredibly useful and can indeed lead us to a truth in our acting through the two types of exercise Strasburg developed based on what he called sense memory and affective memory.
Sense Memory: by which we recreate the sensory information and the effects on the body of a physical sensation. Examples of this in musical theatre are the digging in the prologue of Les Miserableswhere we were urged to go home and explore the weight of the spade, the weight of the earth thereon, the muscles needed to lift the spade etc in order to recreate that on stage through mime. In such exploration is it often useful to close your eyes, as we tend to overuse this sense. Other examples of sense memory would be the effects of gin on the body in Wild Party (I bet you’d love exploring that one!), or going blindfold for Floyd Collins. Even something as prosaic as how we hold and drink a hot cup of coffee is important to explore for real when on stage the drink would be cold (good old health and safety!). The ultimate sense memory is of course Macbeth’s dagger- you must be able to know and see the dagger in order to be able to summon it for the scene.
Affective Memory: by which you summon a personal memory in order to reach an emotion for your character. By recreating the circumstances of a personal trauma (and definitely not trying to remember the emotion itself) by inhabiting the physical world of the memory: what colour were the walls, what happened to my body when he first touched me, the smell of her perfume which made me sick etc.
An extension of the affective memory was called substitution (sometimes referred to as ‘as if’), where one imagined one’s own sister dead instead of that of your character.
Lee Strasburg believed that with practice of effective memory, the emotional charge would be at the actor’s grasp.
This is the use of external stimuli not experienced by the actor, sometimes referred to as the ‘English’ tradition. You may find someone in real life whose life seems parallel to that of the character’. Ian McKellen was said to have based one character of his on watching John McEnroe having temper tantrums on centre court. As actors we are collectors of human behavior and so we may use something we have seen to support the physicalisation of the character: a woman purses her lips after applying make-up on the tube, a nervous man keeps flattening his hair, another rocks in his chair like a damaged child. One would use observation when playing someone who ages over the course of the play eg Dot in Sunday in the Park with George.
The actor must be careful with external approaches, especially vocal mannerisms and physical deformities, as these are easy to ‘play’ but harder to ‘own’. If we are playing the Phantom, Quasimodo, Elphaba or the Beast we have to find their need to belong, to be loved or accepted, or their hatred of those ‘gifted’ with normality. In that way we will see their humanity. After all, we cannot play ‘green’ or ‘deformed’, they are just the physical exterior.
Animals can be a useful resource as they often yield physical choices we would not normally embrace. Obviously useful in Lion King, Just So and Honk , but Bryn Terfel seemed to embody a bear when he played Sweeney at the RFH last year opposite Maria Friedman’s ageing Kangaroo! Whether this was part of their process I’m not sure. Certainly Judi Dench investigated a gorilla’s physicality for her performance as Mother Courage.
Of course, the nearer to poverty or depravation, the more characters behave like animals. It might be interesting to stage LaChiusa’s Wild Party using animal work: the drunker and more desperate the party-goers become, the more they become their innate carnal predators.
Imagination is our greatest tool because it is inexhaustible. The idea that the more the actor sees, the more he is propelled into exploring the unconscious life of the character. The use of abstract ideas to inform the character: what texture am I? What colour am I? How do I change the molecules of the room? When Glenn Close told Zefferelli that she was having trouble imagining that Elsinore was her property in the film Hamlet, he told her to imagine that every wall was suffused with her scent. Images are especially useful when playing madness or breakdown because a character’s normal relationships to the external are distorted, so in I’m only a Housewife from Working it may be useful for the actress to see all her laundry and objects of her daily chores starting to whirl around her and swallow her up as she collapses on the floor. Certainly most of the characters in Assassins have very strange relationships to their outer world.
For A Bit of Earth from Secret Garden it may be useful for the actor to see Mary in the room as a fearful emotional eddy in to which he is afraid to be drawn, a vortex which demands that he grieve for Lily. Nevertheless whenever he sings the title of the song he is seeing not only the garden which had been Lily’s in life, but also the cold clod which he threw onto her coffin the last time he would be in her presence.
Stella Adler believed that ‘Imagination is 9/10th of acting. Imagination makes the actors work honest.’ She also believed the actor’s goal, via the imagination, was to bring life and to personalize every element given by the playwright. The playwright depicts the present and suggests the past, and it is the actor’s responsibility to create a past which is logical to the information in the play, and invade the present with that past. Everything we see with our eyes, we have a relationship to, because we are informed by our past experiences or’ a priori’. (This is why we have a mental hiccough when we step on an escalator only to find it is broken. We have to reconfigure our minds and tell it that it is stairs and not the escalator we keep seeing with our eyes). Our characters happen to have different relationships to everything than we have- sometimes only slightly, sometimes hugely. In that way, everything we see contains our past.
As I have said before, having done the work on relationships, how the world is viewed by your character, the learning of the score and book, one has to throw it away in order to create the moment anew, each night. This will save you from boredom and artistic stagnation. The artist needs and wants to breathe in the moment. As an ephemeral art form the ‘now’ is all we have, and the living of the now in the actor is what separates the artist from the amateur. The now of the play is the actors focus and contains all that exists. If you are singing a dilemma song, such as Where Is the Warmth? From The Bakers Wife or A World Without You from Children of Eden the dilemma must be happening in the now for the actor so it is happening in the now for the audience.
‘The drama is the drama of the unfolding sight’ Anne Bogart
This means the actor must not know the outcome of the song’s argument, but fight for some solution as to how to live. (A diversion: with dilemma songs we can only play the’ yes’ and ‘no’ of each decision as it happens i.e I go with God or I side with Eve. We cannot play ‘maybe’ as this immediately drops the energy. Even in life, maybe is just ‘yes’s and no’s happening very quickly).
It was Stanford Meisner who saw that American Theatre acting was becoming less spontaneous. Through his techniques using repetition, he taught the actor to trust what was happening in the moment, and that all you needed was in the moment also.
‘We must continually be in response to what is happening. What makes us say the lines are our impulses to respond, and these come from our availability that is coming our way.’
Through his exercises based on a person in a room having an activity and the acting partner knocking on the door and entering, Meisner makes it safe to be in the moment: ‘let yourself be taken- by the activity (what you are doing in the scene) and its deep meaning’, by the reason you knocked on the door, and most of all by what the other offers you in energy and response.
The Seduction of Generalisation
Bring on the Lovers, Liars and Clowns
Choices you mustn’t make to avoid generalization
The world of Musical Theatre is filled with archetypes: princesses and princesses, witches and innocents, dumb blondes, nerds and jocks. What we have to be careful of is that they don’t become stereotypes. To avoid this we must be careful not to play generalizations but seek the human being behind the archetype and discover their needs, the reason for their journey. Stella Adler provided an answer to the problem of playing stereotypes. She suggested that we find the needs and foibles of the character and then play it as if viewed by their enemy, who would naturally only see the needs and foibles they loathe magnified.
We do it all the time. We make judgments on others based on their appearance but we are often caught off-guard. A famous example is of a news item about a manslaughter on which they posted a picture of a man with a beard and disheveled hair. Ah yes, America gasped, “that’s what a killer looks like”, and then the reporter informed the viewers that the picture was of a heroic priest who saved many from being shot.
“The audience will accept anything they are not given a reason to disbelieve.’ David Mamet
Professions & Status: Priests are not always pious and smiling. Undertakers can be happy. Millionaires can buy second hand clothes. You cannot play a profession, wealth or status; you can only play the person the writer has provided (even if the author has conformed to the stereotype- which unfortunately happen a lot in Musical theatre). With archetypes like a witch, what makes Elphaba in Wicked interesting is her need to belong. What is interesting about Javert in Les Miserables is not that he is the villain or a policeman but the injustice of having been ‘born inside a jail’.
It is up to others to give you status. It is up to your costume to suggest wealth (or not, if your character hates their wealth).
‘The work of the characterization has or has not been done by the author. It’s not your job, and it’s not your look-out. You don’t have to portray the hero or the villain. That’s been done for you by the script.’ David Mamet
Diseases: you will have to learn how the disease manifests itself but you must search the script as to who the person is and how he sees the world. The Beast is a loving, if frustrated, empathic creature, the Phantom is a monster in silk who has no idea how to deal with others, Mimi and Roger from Rent both burn with life though living with HIV. How does their illness make them see the world?
Judgments: The audience gets to judge the character, not the actor. It’s not the job of the actor to feel sorry or otherwise, merely to be inside of the character, to experience them. Especially beware of negative judgments:’ they are a jerk, evil, poisonous, stupid, boring, etc.’ Characters get to be who they are because of the needs they have and how much they need them (called the stakes- more of that later). A nerd yearns to be a jock, boring people think they are so very interesting. Romeo isn’t weak; his choices are based on his love of Juliet to the cost of anything else. You cannot even play ‘sexy’ because one person’s idea of sexy is not another’s . Thank goodness! You cannot play evil or good. Hitler didn’t know he was evil, he thought he was saving his country. Compare Brian Cox playing Hannibal Lechter in Manhunter and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs and I hope you find Cox much more chilling because of his normality, not because he is playing evil.
Emotion/Moods: You cannot play emotions because they don’t exist: they are a bi-product of how the target makes you feel when you see them. My father lost his voice for three months after his parents died, a friend I knew could only think of what she was going to do with her late husband’s dinner. These are all examples of grief. Grief is as specific as the relationship you had with the person who has died. Grief arises from pictures in your head of the times spent and the times lost with the deceased. It, like all emotion, is a bi-product of seeing.
‘At the beginning of our training, we predictably thought that acting is feeling. Adler corrected the misunderstanding. Acting is doing. But when imagination is applied to doing the action, feelings emerge. Adler taught us that it is useless to attempt to feel. Making an effort to emote, which she called “pushing” or “squeezing”, was the surest indication of bad acting or a lack of technique. To play the mood (and she noted that “mood spelled backwards is doom”) or to suffer the emotion is to act without an action, that is, without a foundation.’
Joanna Rotte from Acting with Adler
Not playing mood is especially important if we approach any song thinking it is a ‘sad or happy song’. People are amazingly witty, erudite and funny in adversity, sometimes laughing at their own stupidity or loss. Remembering the good times and then realizing they are over is what makes you sad, not playing a general wash of sadness. ‘Patterns’ from Baby (”here I am on cue again”), and ‘Send in the Clowns’ (“losing my timing this late in my career”) from A Little Night Music, are examples of great wit and humour in the face of a crumbling world picture.
The Open Body
What More Do I Need?
So what state do we need to be in, so that we are open to inspiration and the moment? It is a misconception that concentration and relaxation can be achieved at the same moment. Far more useful to the actor is the idea, not of concentration, but of ‘paying attention to’. Also it is far more preferable to ‘see’ rather than ‘look at’. Both ‘paying attention’ and ‘seeing’ actually increase the field of perception, whereas ‘looking at’ and concentrating on’ do the opposite. When attending to the outside world you pay less attention to yourself.
‘White. A Blank page or canvas…so many possibilities’
Calling In: an exercise in relaxation
Obviously we need some tension in our bodies to perform the simplest of tasks, let alone sing and dance. Furthermore, having explored your character you may realize they may have tensions of their own. However we must recognize which tensions are useful and necessary to the actors, and which are the products of blocking, injury, tension or tiredness.
Purpose: to recognize tension, regain control of the breath, restore a sense of balance, to become aware of the present moment and to energize the body.
Be seated with the feet on the floor with your palms resting on your knees. Ideally your knees are parallel to your hips. Close your eyes, be aware of the rise and fall of your breath, the expansion of your lungs, the cool air entering your body, the warm air leaving your body. Draw strength from the Earth through your feet as if you can ‘plug in’. Become aware of the heat (energy) moving from your palms into your legs and vise versa. Envisage a well in front of you, the bottom of which you cannot see. Explore where you are holding most tension and name that body part out loud, throwing it like a pebble into a well in front of you.
Now give that tension an abstract noun, verb, adverb or adjective. Be as specific as possible, (there are no rules and it need not seem logical e.g. cactus, clod, bulbous, etc) and then again throw that metaphor as a pebble into the well before you. Watch the physical word/metaphor disappear down the well.Listen to your breathing again and when ready, open your eyes.
This fragment of poem, by Longfellow, may help you clear your head for this exercise;‘Sit in reverie, and watch the changing colour of the waves that break upon the idle seashore of the mind.’
After this exercise you should feel refreshed and cleansed- a good energised form of neutrality from which to shift into the physical space of the song.
‘The link in human consciousness is contagious and kinetic…I have arrived at a point of stillness. I am moving so fast, that everything is simultaneous.’ Fegrades
Take time to work, it is the price of success. Take time to meditate, It is the source of power. Take time to play, It is the secret of perpetual youth. Take time to read, It is the way to knowledge. Take time to be friendly, it is the road to happiness. Take time to laugh, It is the music of the soul. And take time to love and be loved.’ Old Irish Prayer
As for your bodies. An open body is different to a neutral body. We must learn where neutrality is in our bodies and then make a choice how your character’s body is off neutral i.e. how does the space affect my body? How does the person I am with affect my body? How do my times affect how I move? (corsets, sleeves, ball gowns etc). Neutrality is needed for cabaret when we are fixed in front of a microphone, not for theatre where it shows a lack of choice.
The Power of Now
This was just a moment in the woods, our moment
So how can we be in the moment and have an impulse to make us speak when we already know the text we are speaking and when to speak it?
As actors we have to be in a state of knowing and non-knowing at the same time. The answer is: once we have done the exploratory work of how our character thinks and behaves we have to throw that away and be in the present moment.
‘It took me years to understand fully why (my teacher) was right and..never to plan how to say a line, only to think of the situation, and listen to the other actors…what is hard, and really has to be worked at, is being able to go with whatever comes up from other actors or the director, or indeed yourself, at each moment of the performance and not try to force repetition of something that went well the day before. The real work of acting is letting go.’
‘The only thing we have but do not possess is the present moment’ Thich Nhat Hanh
Essentially, you throw it (the preparation) all away. I mean, you use it as your foundation and then you allow yourself the pleasant surprise of what’s going to happen to you when you’re in there: available stimuli; living in the moment.’ Johnny Depp
‘When you take time to BE and know that the great gift you give the audience is BEING, then you use much more energy transmitting this gift than you do overcoming fear.’ Jean Morreau
‘The now of the play is the actor’s focus and contains all that exists’. Stella Adler
‘To act the truth of the moment when the audience would rather not hear it; to stand up for the play, the theatre, the life you would like to lead. There is nothing more pragmatic than idealism.’ David Mamet
‘You are lost the instant you know what the result will be.’ Juan Gris (Cubist painter)
‘The difference in quality between one performance and another is not technique alone, but the surge of life that makes that technique seem invisible; the years of training must seem to evaporate in the heat of life. Truly great technique has the generosity to vanish and take no credit.’ Declan Donellan
‘She doesn’t hit the notes but she is in a place of joy.’ William Finn
What does this feel like- this knowing and non-knowing?
Simon McBurney, award winning director of Theatre Complicité describes it thus:
‘Right now I have to be here, forgetting last night. How do you forget? You can’t. But you can let go…It’s like trying to stop thinking of the ground beneath you when you are 2,000ft up in the air, watching a landscape spread out beneath you. One false move and nothing means anything. So you must be ready to react, instantly at every moment. You just have to be there. Forget, be present- and let it happen.’
This quote from Jonathan Livingstone Seagull seems to sum it all up for me:
‘”The only true law is that which leads to freedom”, Jonathan said.”There is no other.”
“How do you expect us to fly as you fly?” came another voice.”You are special and gifted and divine, above all other birds.”
“No more than you are, no more than I am. The only difference, the very only one, is that I have become to understand what I really am and have begun to practice it.” Richard Bach
So, do the investigative work, hone your choices by being particular, specific and meticulous, and then fly… but do not expect to fly without first doing the ‘work’, which is what I call ‘Serious Play’.
‘You are only as good as your choices.’ Stella Adler
Further Reading & Sources
The Actor & The Target Declan Donellan
Acting With Adler Joanna Rotte
And Then You Act Anne Bogart
The Empty Space Peter Brook
The Stanford Meisner Approach Larry Silverberg
Respect For Acting Uta Hagen
The Invisible Actor Yoshi Oida
Different Every night Mike Alfreds
True and False David Mamet
Directing Actors Judith Weston
The Actor Prepares Constantin Stanislavski
Acting on Impulse (Stanislavski) John Gillett
Stanislavski & the Actor Jean Benedetti
Acting the Song Moore & Bergman
The Artists Way Julia Cameron
Year of the King Antony Sher
Being an Actor Simon Callow
Acting & Spirituality
The Way of the Actor Brian Bates