Putting the ‘fun’ in Acting Fundamentals

I taught my first Fundamentals of Acting class last week. I think it went really well – everyone left smiling and feeling jazzed and saying things like “Looking forward to next week!” I felt that way too. Oh, happy day!

I drove home after Class One. Couldn’t sleep. Too excited.  My mental skywriter was writing fluffy, looping “grateful grateful grateful” in the landscape of my mind.

Now it’s Sunday night, and I just finished my lesson plan for Class Two of Four (which has eaten considerably into the time I have for crafting a blog post). And I’m excited again, and nervous again, and grateful again.

I feel lucky and grateful for the opportunity to share my love of the theatre* while offering practical acting skills and advice (hopefully). I’m grateful for all of the wise and fabulous teachers/directors/actors who’ve taught me what (little) I do know, and I’m most especially grateful for the wise and fabulous folks I’ve partnered with to co-teach prior to this class. I feel lucky  to have observed so many great teachers at work. Do you feel like you carry those people into the classroom with you as resources? I do. Hmmm, what would Cheryl do? What would Nathan do? What would Rachel, Jay, Mary, Jeff, Ellen, Bill, Devon, Chris, Jody, Dan, Melissa, Dina, Adam, Lorm, Nancy, Johnny, Greg, Rafael, Laurie, Sumi, Tom, Jenny, Janice, Beth, Dana, Enoch, Dave, Hope do?* What would my Mom, a former kindergarten teacher, do? Thank you, my teachers! What gifts you are to the world.

As I mentioned, this is a four-part class on (trumpets, please!The Fundamentals of Acting. Huh. Initially, when I sat down to hammer out text to describe/advertise the class, all sorts of questions were triggered – like, most importantly — What are the Fundamentals of Acting?

So, I brainstormed the list below (not in any particular order, and no doubt, incomplete).

Brainstorm List of Acting Fundamentals:

  • Creating a character (external) – body, voice
  • Creating a character (internal) – given circumstances, relationships, motivation/tactics/intentions
  • Script analysis, world of the play, story
  • Basic stage etiquette, terminology, job descriptions, etc.
  • Basic vocal work – diction, volume, pitch, tempo, resonance
  • Basic physical work – gesture, neutral, weird actory things
  • Ensemble building — being with other people on-stage and off-stage
  • Performance experience – scene work, monologues, auditions
  • My list of acting pet peeves; list of acting favorites
  • Actor mind — Focus, relaxed concentration, memorization, openness, creativity, improvisation. Something about authenticity?
  • Fun? Acting is FUN.Yep.

I also spent an evening with my best friend Google, and added more to that list. A long long list with a lot of words and eight hours of teach-time. Huh. I got myself tangled up with prioritization and the fact that all of the items on the list overlap and intertwine and that it’s all much more subtle and nuanced and that I don’t know what I’m talking about. Ack, imposter syndrome. I searched my house feverishly for undergraduate readings by Uta Hagen and Sanford Meisner and Stanislavski and etcetera. I couldn’t find them. Have you seen ’em?

There’s a looooonnnnng list of items to accomplish in order to be a an ACTOR. It’s more complicated than I first thought. And of course, my fear is that if I’m not ticking most of those items off the list, then I’m just ACKIN’ up there on stage. Or worse, being a WHACKTOR. Geez. Been there, done that. Hopefully, not recently.

But I digress….the question here is What is Fundamental?

This is the final text that was distributed to the public about the class:

The purpose of Fundamentals of Acting is to give older teens and adults an opportunity to further explore and develop acting skills on a more advanced level, regardless of experience.  Participants will learn or build upon drama skills, including voice, movement, vocabulary and character development and scene work.

Through low-stress, structured exercises and performance, students will:

·         Review basic theatre terminology and etiquette

·         Examine voice, speech, and breath as acting tools

·         Build characters from the inside-out and outside-in

·         Learn to make clear and well-informed acting choices

·         Develop confidence and relaxation on-stage

Please bring water and a yoga mat or towel for gentle warm-up exercises. Wear clothing and shoes that you can move in.

My basic plan (subject to change) for the class is:

  • Class One: Body
  • Class Two: Voice
  • Class Three: Mind
  • Class Four: Performance

Now, what do you consider to be (trumpets, please!) acting fundamentals? I’d love to hear your thoughts and have a conversation with you.

Like most things, acting (good acting, any kind of acting) is very subjective. I don’t know if we could easily devise a short list that everyone would agree on, and I haven’t asked my friend Google if such a list exists. However, as an exercise for myself, I tried to boil everything down to five essential bullet points.

Actors need to:

  • Be heard (project!).
  • Be understood (diction!).
  • Make specific choices that hang together coherently.
  • Develop a particular character for a particular play.
  • Be a team-player.

In the broadest sense, do those cover the ‘must-dos’? Fundamentally?

In the end, however, I keep coming back to the phrase  — actors need to be alive on stage. In this moment, that idea seems essential.  Actors need to be alive on stage is sophisticated and fundamental — yikes, I don’t know exactly what I mean by it (another blog post) — but really, I think that there’s something about electric-focused-energy-aliveness that is directly related to a compelling performance and somehow naturally gathers up all of the other items on the list. Maybe it’s a chicken or an egg thing. I don’t know. What do you think?

Well. That’s what I’m working with and that’s where I am. To be continued….

Wish me luck.

Wishing you many alive moments on the stage.

*This class focuses on acting on stage, rather than on film. Based on my limited experience with film acting, there seem to be a few key differences of style and skill. I’m not a film acting expert, but I can become one if you want to put me in your film. Hee.

*This is not the list of all of the teachers I know and love — not even close. It’s just the list of people I can think of in the time allotted to write this in my somewhat distracted state, and it includes folks I’ve actually seen do some teaching. I have a long list of  ‘excellent teachers-I’d-love-to-see-in-action’ on my to-call list. Here’s hoping I get to that one day. Also, although I am really enjoying this solo teaching experience, I have a real heart for co-teaching too. 

2 thoughts on “Putting the ‘fun’ in Acting Fundamentals

  1. George Burns, when asked about the key(s) to good acting, supposedly said, “Sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Humor aside, it relates to what I have heard is fundamental to good acting: listening, which I suppose means, among other things, that sometimes you might take a beat or two before responding with words. Related to your 5th bullet point? In improvised music you can hear-feel the extent to which people are listening to one another.

    The analog with *written* music is in a different vein, personalizing your interpretation of someone else’s instructions. Compare actors in local commercials: “performing lines,” and just playing the notes. Soap operas: ___ and ___. Such examples can help make vivid the difference from preferred practice. Along these lines, I had a teacher who, when we made a mistake, would sometimes have us make that mistake on purpose, to feel the difference so that playing the right notes was a choice and not a myopic habit. Not sure there’s a good analogy in acting, however! A better analogy is the practice of trying something 1,000 different ways, including especially ways that you would never really ever want to do in public, as an exercise for your 3rd and 4th bullet points I imagine.

    • Arnie, thanks so much for your comment. I love your perspective as a musician and teacher. Yes, listening is key — and should probably be on that list of ‘must-dos’. I struggle with listening (on stage and off), so I guess it’s no wonder that I didn’t include it. Thanks for the reminder. I have a lot of thoughts around the ideas of mistakes and choices (perhaps too many for this comment). Both seem vital for art-making — and our reaction to those things also seems really important. To be continued…
      Thanks!

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