Posts Tagged ‘ stagecraft ’

Finding my light

Every new show I do means learning new things.  Not just new lines, songs or dance steps, but new aspects of technique and stagecraft.  There is an awful lot to learn about doing theatre, or at least about doing it well, and I most certainly want to do it well.  My latest learning curve is to do with finding my light.

In our show (currently running) about the life and music of Richard Rodgers, I am frequently in a small pool of light on the stage.  Sometimes singing, sometimes engaged in a telephone conversation and sometimes addressing the audience directly.  It is considered important that the audience should be able to see me at these times, and the only way that will happen is if I can find my light.  I’m not quite sure how I have managed to go through quite so many musicals and operas without learning this, but it is something that I have struggled with this week.

Firstly, there is the exciting situation at the opening of the show, when the light is supposed to come up on me.  Only it didn’t on the first night.  It came up to my right and in front of me, as I had misjudged where it would appear.  I had to do an exciting little shimmy during the first lines of ‘With a Song in My Heart’ to get into position, which probably looked somewhat silly.  Even after my improvised movement, I wasn’t quite where I should be, but decided it would be too awful to try and move again.  There is now a little mark on the floor to show me where I should be.  I must just hope I can find it in the gloom!

Then, there was my misunderstanding about precisely where to stand.  I assumed that the centre of a pool of light was the ideal place to stand, but this is not the case.  As the lanterns are generally hung in front of the stage and the light is travelling downwards as well as towards the stage, it is actually wisest to stand right at the very front of the circle, where you can guarantee that your face (which, let’s face it, is probably what the audience most wants to look at in most cases) will be caught in the beam as it heads towards the stage floor.

There is a subtle art to finding light, which I am having to learn at speed.  It is important to be seen, but it is also important to be subtle about it, to move naturally into position without it looking like you are simply walking into the light, even if that is exactly what you’re doing.  The character should want to be standing there, rather than the actor.  It’s not easy, particularly trying to do it without looking at the floor, but there is one great help – heat.  Light, particularly the intensity of light produced by lanterns in the theatre, also equals heat, and this heat can be felt on the performer’s face if they look upwards.  There’s no guarantee that a warm face means that the top of your hair is caught in the light, but it’s a good indicator.

Stagecraft, whether it be finding light, covering for mistakes, adapting to different audiences, keeping in time with the musicians, projecting the voice or any one of a whole host of other things, does not come naturally.  It must be learned, and takes as much concentration as any other aspect of performing.  Now I know how to find my light.  Who knows what I’ll learn in the next show?

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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Baring all for art

Oh, dear.  Not content with attending the powerful, moving play Equus simply for the chance to see Daniel Radcliffe in his birthday suit, the great British public is now being alarmed by Sir Ian McKellen ‘s on-stage nudity as King Lear, in a scene which always seems odd when the actor doesn’t take his clothes off.  It doesn’t help that certain other productions in London at the moment are using naked actors for what seems like pure shock value,as neither of these instances should be titillating or shocking as such, but are a small part of the wonderful plays being performed.  When Equus first opened, I became quite angry with the endless tabloid press stories on the play, which were mostly getting worked up about ‘Harry Potter getting his kit off’.  If they knew the play, they’d be much more concerned by the fact that ‘Harry Potter’ blinds some horses, and, by the way, that’s not Harry Potter (who, I hate to say it, doesn’t exist) on the stage at the Gielgud, that’s Daniel Radcliffe, an actor who will have to play more than one part if he wants to have a career.  Hmph.

Having criticised public and press for getting terribly worked up about dangly bits on stage, I have to confess that I can’t ever see myself going for a role which required me to bare all.  For a start, I think there are very few theatrical situations that truly justify it.  But mostly, I’d just be too embarrassed, though I’d probably use the excuse that I was sparing the audience from nightmares.  It’s strange, as going on stage at all means shedding a whole host of inhibitions, and both acting and blogging could be compared to baring your soul.  I have no qualms about making a fool of myself (as long as I’m playing a role) or taking on a completely ridiculous part.  And on a related note, when the time inevitably comes that I find myself in a stage kiss, I suspect that this will be more problematic in rehearsals than in performance.  I sometimes wonder what other lines I may draw in the sand when it comes to on stage performance, but I know that being a naked librarian is a step too far. 

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Acting like a duck

You keep paddling like the clappers,
Just keep paddling with your flappers,
While seeming to be dreaming and calm.
Just beneath the surface
You may struggle to get by.
But nothing can deter you
If you hold your head up high.

So sing a mother and son pair of ducks in Honk! as the ugly duckling learns to swim.  The image of a duck or swan gliding serenely across the water while its legs are working nineteen to the dozen beneath the surface is particularly apt for theatre.  No matter how polished a performance the audience may experience, you can guarantee that backstage is complete chaos, involving many people whose existence would surprise the paying punters in the audience.  Actors may be dashing about at breakneck speed, changing costumes and locating props.  Crew members all in black will be changing microphones, getting sets into position, acting as crowd control, clearing the stage of hazards, grappling with velcro, safety pins and gaffa tape.  There’ll be a deputy stage manager constantly whispering into his or her headpiece to communicate with cast, crew, lighting people, sound people and more.  Miles of electrical cable coil like snakes around the building, clothing rails are hidden in the strangest places, the sewing machine is very rarely turned off and at any given point, several people will be in the middle of a nervous breakdown.

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Can someone strike the stage left flat?

Every profession and hobby has its own language, the words that make sense to those in the know, but sound like gibberish to everyone else.  Social groupings have them as well, of course, but these seem to serve a different purpose.  Professional jargon is what I’m talking about here, and specifically the jargon of the theatre.  Every production I’ve done as an adult has been in a professional theatre of some size or other, so I’m becoming a fairly fluent speaker, and every production has involved at least one first-time performer who had to get up to speed on theatre talk very quickly.

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Singing Librarian flashback: Die Fledermaus

I recently added a page to the blog on my on stage exploits, and thought I’d use occasional posts to peel back the curtains and give you a peek at backstage life as I’ve experienced it during some of these productions.   Sometimes the things the audience doesn’t see can be just as interesting as the things they do see.  So let’s begin…

Summer 2002.  The Gulbenkian Theatre.  Die Fledermaus, with a cast consisting of a mixture of professionals and local singers.  I won’t explain the plot, as it would take far too long to go into the multitudinous twists and turns, but it’s a silly tale of multiple mistaken identities, most of them deliberate.  We set it in the swinging sixties in New York City, which meant that the pivotal party had guests ranging from Andy Warhol to a guitar-toting hippie (me).  I present to you three scenes from the University of Kent Summer Opera production of Die Fledermaus. Continue reading

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