Ask Blair: Keeping a Straight Face

Ask Blair: Keeping a Straight Face Once again, hello and thank you to all creative advice-seekers. This week's 70th column offers advice about keeping a straight face, and more specifics on agent contracts.

Once again, hello and thank you to all creative advice-seekers. This week's 70th column offers advice about keeping a straight face, and more specifics on agent contracts.

I invite actors of all ages to continue write me with any problems encountered at auditions, in class, or anything you feel could be standing between you and your talent. Make sure to check the previous columns to see if your question, or one like it, has been answered already!

Question
Hi Blair,
My problem is this that sometimes I have a tough time keeping a straight face when I'm doing comedy and we come across a particularly funny line.
Sometimes, by the time we've rehearsed the show a lot, I'm fine and can control my face, but when we get the show in front of an audience, it all seems new and fresh again, because other people are laughing at it. Almost like "Yes, that IS funny, isn't it?"
Does this mean that I'm not concentrating hard enough? Or that I'm not into my character enough? It's particularly hard now, because I'm in a musical where my character is described as harsh and humourless. Plus, I've worked with a lot of these actors before in a previous production, so we're quite good friends, who laugh a lot off-stage. It's not so much laughing when I deliver humourous lines, but my reaction to others (which in a way is a testimony to how well they're performing).
Any suggestions? Thanks!
Laughing Leah

Dear Laughing Leah,
Thanks for your question. The problem is not a biggie, and can be overcome with some patience and a little effort.

Even though in real life, we do laugh when someone else is funny (even when they don't intend to be), in high comedies like farce, it's usually stronger when actors don't respond to the "funny" character with laughter on stage. When all the actors on-stage take what is happening absolutely seriously, (while knowing how funny that makes it) it supports the reality within the play -- which makes it even funnier to the audience. So yes, I would say it is a matter of being more connected to your character. You used the terms harsh and humorless in the descriptions of your character. One of the ways to become more connected to character is through specifics. What does harsh and humorless mean to you? The vaguer it is in your mind, the vaguer it will be to play -- leaving more room for the laughter to come through.

The more specific you are about who your character is, the easier connecting, and thereby keeping a straight face, is. Who do you know that is harsh and humorless? Is there something humorous about the fact that this person is humorless? This is important, because as a comedic actor, you want to retain the awareness that there is something funny going on. Think of comic greats such as John Cleese or Lucille Ball. You can sense they knew how funny they were being while playing a scene totally straight. One teacher of mine used to put it like so: "You as the actor want to be wearing the smile behind the character."

In order to do this well, think about when you yourself have been harsh and humorless. What situations put yourself in that state of mind (Remember fighting over a taxi you've been waiting for for 20 minutes in the pouring rain and you're late)? How does it feel in your body to be that way? In the scenes where your co-actors are hysterically funny, this is where you need to be reacting from--and really do it up.

If you do find yourself laughing, despite upping the ante, be creative and try to incorporate the laughter into the scene so that you don't break character. Laughing most likely will not aid you (as the character) in getting what you want in the scene, so in that sense, your getting what you want depends on you not laughing. Think of it as your life depending on it.

For a while, you may battle with yourself, as your enjoyment of your scenemates strives to come through. A great way of curing yourself of this tendency is to have a rehearsal in which you just let it all hang out -- where the cast fully allows the laughs and enjoys each other. This may help actually move it out of you for good. But if not, and in performance you find the pull to join the audience and crack up, just remember what you are doing in the scene -- you are there to do or get something -- not to "enjoy the show."

I hope this helps. Let me know how it goes.

Blair,
Please be careful what you are telling young actors about agents and their commissions. The hard (and sometimes unpleasant) truth is that in a standard legit agency contract, ALL the work you do through a professional union is commissionable unless it falls below a set minimum (in the case of Actors Equity, that minimum is the Off-Broadway Contract minimum -- currently something like $425 a week). The standard contract does NOT distinguish between work that you get yourself, and work your agent gets for you. In other words, as long as you have a contract with the agency, YOU PAY THEM FOR EVERYTHING above the union minimums. I know many actors who choose to not pay their agents for work they get on their own, but legally they don't have a leg to stand on. Also, it is technically possible to sign a contract other than the standard one (i.e. one that excludes commission on certain work), but I've never heard of an actor or agency doing this.

Also, you may want to pass on to your readers that the standard contracts an actor signs with an agency are for dealings under various unions. In other words, a standard legit "signing" will include contracts for negotiations under SAG, AEA, and AFTRA contracts. And it is the unions who create the regulations regarding commissions. It's important for young actors to understand this significant, and often misunderstood element of signing with an agency.

Lastly, I enjoy your column, and look forward to reading more in the future.

Best of luck.
Zach

Dear Zach,
Thanks so much for the feedback and for bringing more clarity to the questions of agent contracts April 4-15. I appreciate your contribution.

Question
Hi Blair,
I'm a 16-year-old who loves musical theater. I audition often for community theater and have made 5 of 23 auditions so far (though people tell me that's actually a good ratio). I love to sing and have taken voice lessons on and off since I was 10. I would really love to be able to try for Broadway one day. My parents say I have the voice but not the discipline it would take, because I tend to be very reluctant to practice seriously as opposed to just singing for the fun of it, so I end up not always doing my best at auditions. I want to prove them wrong. What can I do to motivate myself to try harder?
-Angela

Dear Angela,
I think you have plenty of discipline. You are 16 and you have been on 23 auditions!!!! (And gotten 5 roles from them, a good ratio indeed).

If you just want to have fun right now, given your age, I think you should. I am going to trust that when your career and income depends upon your being prepared, you will.

Now, maybe your parents have a point. Maybe you do "sabotage" yourself by not preparing as well as you could. So you need to ask yourself some questions -- like, if you really want the parts you are auditioning for, or if you are rebelling against someone, or if you are scared to make it for one reason or another. How would it go over in your family if you really did make it? Would they be happy on the surface and make you feel uncomfortable in other ways? The fact that you are examining this at an early age is GREAT.

Who are you acting for? Remember, you are acting for YOU, and no one else. Trust yourself that you will prepare enough for the parts that mean the most to you. If you find yourself letting parts you really want slip by -sit with the questions above and take a different action with each new opportunity.

Hope this helps.

Book of the week:
The Actor's Script : If you lack confidence in your ability analyze a script, this book is for you. Charles S. Waxberg's book, subtitled "Script Analysis for Performers," reinforces the importance of honoring the text, reveals many aspects of techniques given to him by his teacher, the great Stella Adler, and is very readable with many clear examples of how to apply his suggestions.