Posts Tagged ‘ acting ’

Not singing

For the first time since my Sixth Form days (way back in the 20th century!), I am acting in a play. True, in this century, I have played a whole host of characters in a pantomime, five operas and over two dozen musicals, but a play really does feel like a very different thing.  Some of my characters in these shows were non-singing, but I still added vocals to ensemble numbers, sometimes from the wings. I have always said that I approach a musical from the perspective of the words and the character, believing that if these are not in place, the music means nothing. But doing a play forces me to put my money where my mouth is. Can I act without music?

The play is The Year of the Hiker by John B. Keane. An Irish play first performed in 1963, it wasn’t one I’d ever heard of before. But I have grown to love it, as the characters have gradually revealed themselves during our rehearsal period. I am playing Joe Lacey, a young farmer who is forced to deal with some very complicated feelings. His father left 20 years ago, but returns in the play’s second scene. Joe has to work out how he feels about this and what to do when the reasons for his father’s return are revealed. He also has to negotiate a stormy relationship with his younger brother, and the conflicting demands of his other family members.

For the first act, Joe’s true feelings remain unseen. We see some flashes of anger, but not the reasons for them. We see that he doesn’t smile or laugh as much as his relatives, but we don’t find out why. This all comes out in a flood during the final scene, in one of the most emotional moments I have ever had to play. There is some resonance with characters I played in Footloose and When Midnight Strikes, dealing as they did with suppressed emotion in one case and serious daddy issues in the other. The balancing act of portraying a character who has all of this underneath the surface is hard – his eventual outburst needs to be surprising, yet not come out of nowhere.

When I do a musical, I can come offstage aching and sweaty. With the play, neither of these are true, yet I am still exhausted. Playing Joe is emotionally draining. And there are times during the play (particularly in the second act) when I don’t dare go back to the dressing room and sit down, despite having long periods offstage. To do that would break the spell – standing alone in the darkness backstage helps maintain my mood and focus. A musical requires a great deal of concentration too, but the need to stay in my character’s world here has a different quality to it, is more intense. I’m sure the professionals could cope much better, and snap into character in a moment, but I can’t, not for this. I need a bit of a run up!

Some audience members have told me that the show, and particularly one of my moments, has made them cry. I can’t remember anyone saying that since Footloose back in 2010. And there are times – not every time – when I really feel it, like a punch to the gut. I feel his hurt and anger, his bitterness, his incomprehension, his fortitude and later his lack of it. Some actors say they always experience this, that if they don’t feel the character’s emotions themselves, they can’t portray them. I don’t hold with that, but it is a powerful and somewhat frightening thing when it does happen to me.

It is often said of musicals that characters sing when words alone aren’t enough. Joe is a character who metaphorically can’t sing. He can hardly express himself in speech, and if an underscore were to start, I believe that there would be no melody, no harmony, no dance steps for him. His ability to sing and dance left him when his father walked out. He had to grow up overnight, and for Joe, part of that was leaving anything fun behind him. We get a hint that he had a social life, even a love life, once upon a time, but even that would have been a quiet, unemotional thing. As he puts it (speaking of filial affection) when he finally allows himself to sit down and talk to his father, “that kind of feeling isn’t in me.”

With two performances left, I am proud of what I have achieved here. I have proved to myself that I can act, not sing or perform (though I can do those things), but act. Take on a character and move an audience without the aid of music. And even when I’ve tied myself in knots with the script once or twice, I have been able to extricate myself and my fellow actors while remaining in character.

Will I do a play again? Absolutely. And hopefully it won’t be another 22 year gap between The Year of the Hiker and the next one, as there was between A Doll’s House and this. But I’m not going to give up musicals. Each is deeply challenging, each is deeply rewarding. The processes are much the same, but they feel so different and give differing qualities of satisfaction. I suspect I will remain a musicals man primarily, but now I know that I can be happy not singing.

The Year of the Hiker - flyer

Midnight Strikes again

WMS 2013 flyer

Lightning may or may not strike twice, but midnight most certainly can. During the last two weeks of August, I revisited a show I first performed in during 2010, When Midnight Strikes. Although this production of the show was with the same company as the first (Lights Up Productions), there were many differences – only a few cast members were the same, it was performed in a different venue, and we put it together over an intensive nine days of rehearsals. For me, though, a key difference was that I was playing a different character. Quite a challenge, and quite a fascinating experience seeing the show from a different perspective.

Last time I did the show, I was worried about letting others and myself down because the role was so different to the sorts of things I usually do. This time, I was worried because the role was quite similar to my usual casting – a character who exists almost entirely for comic purposes, a function much needed in what is quite an emotional show. What worried me was knowing that the comedy needed to be funny, but my character, Edward, needed to remain real. It would be detrimental to the style of the show if he came across as a broad caricature, and given that I have played several parts recently where hamming it up was strongly encouraged, I didn’t want to give in to that temptation.

Edward is one of the outsiders at the party which the show follows. Although he was invited (unlike some of the eventual ‘guests’), he does not fit in, to the extent that even the host and hostess don’t really want to talk to him. He falls in love at first sight with another character, but is far too nervous to actually talk to her, and makes a number of social mistakes throughout the course of the evening. For me, to make him real, I had to live inside his world for the whole show and think whatever he was thinking, even if I was sitting on a chair at the back of the set. Whether he was trying to join a conversation, working out how to talk to his intended love, or wondering whether a shocking announcement was true, he was always thinking something. And although he sometimes put on a cheerful front (particularly once the alcohol had been flowing for a while), there was a profound sadness to him. He desperately wanted to fit in, but knew that he didn’t. Even when things began to go his way, in his/my mind, he couldn’t quite believe it was really happening. Most of these thoughts and feelings would have gone completely unnoticed by the audience, but they helped me a great deal.

Nine days of rehearsal was a tight schedule, but still allowed for plenty of character work alongside the technical necessities of working out who goes where and when everyone’s head should move in the ensemble numbers. We would often stop to work out what each character’s reaction to a particular moment was, and we were strongly encouraged to develop our own storylines when we weren’t directly involved with the action. As the show is set at a party, we were all on stage for much of it – what were we doing, thinking, feeling during those times when we weren’t talking or even when we weren’t aware of what was being said by other characters? The ensemble nature of the show meant that the 12 different personalities interacted in numerous (sometimes quite complex) ways, and exploring these was fascinating.

Our director and musical director were both very keen on details. There were times when we all had to breathe in a song, regardless of whether we needed to take in air. There were head movements that had to happen at exactly the same time. Certain props needed to move from one place to another at exactly the right moment. Good enough was not good enough – we were aiming higher than that. All of this (in addition to the individual details) helped bring the ensemble together as a true ensemble. By the time we arrived in the theatre, the whole team (actors, musicians, stage management etc) was a team. We were all doing this together and it was worth doing.

We know it was worth doing from the reaction we’ve had since. People really enjoyed the show, and fed back positively about everyone involved. There really wasn’t a weak link in the cast (if we’re honest, we all know that there usually is, and we always know who it was) and it is a privilege to have been involved with the production. We coped with some major challenges, both emotional and technical and put on a great piece of theatre. Personally, I know I made a far better Edward than Christopher (the role I played last time). There are still things I’d like to have done better, but this was definitely a productive use of two weeks of my annual leave. There aren’t many shows I feel the need to revisit, but I would happily have midnight strike a third time in my life.


Related posts (about When Midnight Strikes, the first time around):

Singing Librarian flashbacks: Shouting!

One of my favourite lines in The Pajama Game comes from the female chorus during one of the songs.  The leading lady has been denying that she has feelings for the factory’s new superintendent (in a musical, a sure and certain sign that she most certainly does have feelings for him) and states “When I fall in love, there’ll be no doubt about it, cuz you will know from the way that I shout it!”  The girls wait for the slightest of moments and respond “You’re shouting…”  It makes me smile every time.  And shouting has become something that my stage personae do an awful lot of.

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Audiences – a vital ingredient

Theatre does not exist without an audience.  Live performance of any kind is only really performance if it is being watched – if not, then it might as well be a rehearsal, a game or a private jam session.  This is not simply due to the ego of those acting, singing or dancing, but it is a result of the vital role that audiences play. 

At any theatrical performance, the audience can enhance or detract from the production on offer.  Mobile phones, flash photography and random talking can be distracting (sometimes dangerous) for the cast and irritating for fellow theatregoers.  A badly timed noise can break the spell in a tense or moving moment, puncturing the suspension of disbelief that has been built up and reminding everyone that they are, after all, watching people pretending to be other people in a small, dark, warm building with mildly uncomfortable seats. 

For the actor, the response of the audience can be vital.  Continue reading

Rehearsals are odd: Cartoon cats, gorillas and diving boards

Rehearsals for West Side Story are continuing apace, as well they should with less than 2 weeks before we descend upon the paying public.  My role in the production has expanded somewhat since my last blog post from Doc to both Doc and Officer Krupke, with a side order of singing in the wings during ensemble numbers.  Playing two different named characters in the same show is an intriguing challenge and Wednesday’s rehearsal demonstrates the lengths that the director and acting coach are going to in their attempts to help me do this.

For me, the rehearsal started with work on Officer Krupke.  Finding two different ways of speaking for the two characters was proving tricky, particularly since both are supposed to be New Yorkers.  So, from the depths of childhood televisual memories, somebody recalled Top Cat, and the phrase “OK, T.C.!”, which gave birth to a wonderful way of speaking which the Jets should have no trouble imitating.  With lips pushed forward and the sound sitting somewhere in the back of my throat, poor old Krupke sounds very dumb indeed.  Which is fair enough, since he really doesn’t have that many brain cells to rub together.  It’s also not an easy voice to sustain, so I shall have to practice reciting nursery rhymes, memory verses and the like in Krupke’s fascinating accent.

Moving on from the vocal, there is also the physical.  Krupke is intimidating.  Or rather, Krupke thinks he’s intimidating.  And he also idolises Lieutenant Schrank to an extent, for the plain clothes man clearly commands some sort of grudging respect from the ‘punks’ on the street, something with Krupke cannot really claim.  He walks with chest puffed out, arms dangling somewhat (unless clutching his whistle).  His gait is rolling and his legs are slightly bent.  He could be compared to a gorilla, only his arms do not reach quite so close to the ground.  The true challenge came in transferring this walk to a run (for Krupke enters and exits one scene at a gallop and has to negotiate steps at speed).  A portion of the rehearsal time was spent running around the outside of Whitstable Castle in character, either alone or chasing the acting coach, which was a spectacle enjoyed not only by other cast members but by innocent members of the public as well.  This is, again, something which needs practice, but even as a fairly dedicated performer, I have no desire to run through the streets of Canterbury in character.  And certainly not in costume:

The Singing Librarian as Officer Krupke

The Singing Librarian as Officer Krupke

Voice, posture, walk and run settled, we worked through Krupke’s scenes, setting some character moments to show how he looks up to Schrank, how he fails to live up to Schrank, and how the kids can run rings around him.  All of which may well pass beneath the audience’s notice, but such is the way of things.

Then it was Doc’s turn, a complete change of gears.  The focus was the scene where Doc has to tell Tony some very bad news indeed.  He is already shaken, having witnessed the young men of the Jets going too far and having been (falsely) told the news that he now has to pass on.  The beginning of this scene worked well, but the moment when the new finally has to be imparted was, quite simply, not good.  So we played a little game.  Telling bad news is something that Doc knows he has to do, but also doesn’t quite have the nerve to do, so this was transferred to a similar sort of feeling – attempting to jump off a high diving board.  Approaching the edge.  Retreating.  Breathing deeply.  Steeling nerves.  And finally, finally, taking the plunge.  Back to the scene in question and much the same thing happened.  A long pause, perhaps even a very long pause, while Doc considered his words, tried to say something, failed and tried again, before the words came out in a rush.  Much better.  The messenger was thankfully not shot, but fulfilled his purpose properly.

So there we have it.  Two hours of rehearsal with two characters, which involved old cartoons, apes and a less than Olympic athlete to get the desired effects.  This acting lark is a strange one, but it’s a wonderful feeling when a scene suddenly feels right, no matter what route took you there.

6 essentials for life upon the wicked stage

Now that I’ve got a few months before I start rehearsals for any stage performances again (though there are a sprinkling of concerts over the coming months), I thought I’d share some things which are invaluable when messing around on stage.

A good anti-perspirant deodorant.  The level of sweating that goes on under those lights on stage is truly astonishing, and can have many adverse effects.  You can shine inappropriately, you can feel (and eventually smell) unpleasant, you can find things sticking to you when you’re trying to do a quick change, and sweat can affect microphone packs.  I find that most deodorants simply can’t cope with the demands of the theatre, which combines physical exertion with hot conditions and acute anxiety.  Hurrah for the Mitchum brand, which I have found to be very reliable indeed.

Five minutes.  Just a few moments to yourself to think about what you have to do, where you have to be, and what order things happen in.  Whether checking through a written list, or walking the show through in your head, it helps with relaxation and concentration.  It also ensures that all necessary props, costume items and the like are in the right place, as you check each one as you come to it on the list.  A clear head and the ability to concentrate can get you through untold disasters as the show goes on.

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Make ’em laugh

Comedy MaskLaughter in the theatre is almost always a fine thing, a sign that the actors and director are doing their jobs, that the script is up to scratch and the audience are enjoying themselves.  Sometimes, of course, it’s a sign that something has gone hideously and inappropriately wrong, or, if it happens on the other side of the ‘fourth wall’, that a private joke has accidentally wormed its way on to stage and caused a (hopefully) temporary fit of hysteria.

Getting a laugh as a performer is a wonderful thing, but it’s also rather tricky.  It has been my privilege to play two amusing characters over the last 2 years, very different but united in their ability to raise a chuckle from the audience.  Much of the work is done by the script, of course, but it is entirely possible to make a funny line land like a piece of wet lettuce, and also to bring out the humour in a moment that doesn’t absolutely have to be funny (“it’s the way that I tell ’em…”).  I’m certainly no expert, and I have yet to perform in a non-musical comedy (which would require much greater levels of discipline), but that won’t stop me from throwing in my tuppenceworth.

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