Welcome to the first issue of "Ask Blair," a weekly online column of practical advice for actors.
Thanks to all who submitted questions. I selected only one question this time because it was a biggie, and I thought the answer covered a lot of ground for many actors.
Please continue to submit your questions, and keep breaking those legs so you can get "cast."
I'm a musical theatre student at East Carolina U. In class, we are doing numbers in context and do all the analysis, character, and scene work. Yesterday, we had a great class. We were really cooking in giving help to other people's scenes. The teacher noted that it was great for him to see that we can talk in an analytical, informed manner, but how come we can't easily do that for our own scenes. How do you pull yourself away to see that what you are doing is right for that piece?
Dear William, Congratulations! You were the first person to "Ask, Blair." Thanks for asking such an intelligent question. The full answer could make a book.
Isn't it amazing how easily you can see what another actor needs to do to "get the scene right" -- but when you're up there onstage it can be so difficult?
So your question... "How do you pull yourself away to see that what you are doing is right for that piece?"
Well, the first thing that comes to my mind is, while you're acting, you really don't want to "pull yourself away." That's the director's job--since he's not IN the play, he can SEE the play, and provide a perspective that brings cohesiveness and structure to it.
When you are truly IN a scene , with heart, mind, body, and soul, there is no question that what you are doing is right. (Incidentally, I'd steer clear of using the words 'right' and 'wrong' in the process of acting. They become enemies to the creative flow; like when you're trying to be there in a scene--they'll creep up behind you and snatch you out of your impulses, bring you out of the moment and say things like "am I doing this right here?"; "Wait--would my character really touch this person now?")
When you're IN the scene, you're just there, responding intuitively to what is being said and done, and it's true.
How do you get IN the scene? It not a quick-fix answer. Here are some tips on how to rehearse to find your way into a scene, into connection with the character so you and the character move as one and what you're doing naturally works for the piece:
Before you meet with your partner spend ample time alone, with and without the script, or song. As you "do your analysis" and figure out who your character is, refer to your character as "I" and not by his name. Avoid forcing yourself to behave or emote in the way you think he's feeling from your interpretation of the text. Instead, discover how you feel when you put yourself in his time frame, in his physical space, in his situation, really allowing yourself to be affected by the character's circumstances. Instead of "pulling yourself away", put yourself IN the scene. Be very specific with what you see and how you feel physically, emotionally, mentally.
When you get together with your partner and figure out what the scene or song is about, instead of separating yourself from the characters, ask, "What are we doing together, having this conversation at this moment in time?" "What do we want, need from each other?," "Why are we in the location that the scene takes place in?" Look deeply within yourself for answers. Though it may be uncomfortable at first, if you allow the process of acting to be intimate, your work will come from you and it will be very rich.
To increase the connection between you and your scene partner, explore the history of the characters' relationship, if they have one. The history that's not provided in the text, you can make up together and do some improvs about. Sing the scene without worrying about the correct lyrics or music to get a feel for the behavior happening between them. This will help greatly when you start moving towards the scene, because you will have built trust and a deeper connection with your partner. You keep learning more about the characters and the scene as you go.
As you move towards the text or song, try to let all the ideas about who you think your character is and how he should respond slip away. Avoid forcing responses. Just be with your partner, respond spontaneously to him or her as you would respond if someone was really saying what they are saying to YOU at that moment. REALLY LISTEN. Listening is SO important. It brings aliveness and truth to the scene.
If you are having responses that you feel are bland or different from what the lines imply at first, that's okay. After you've gone through the scene, take stock of your responses vs. the text. For example, if your character seems to be very angry at one point and you didn't feel angry, maybe you weren't connected to the needs of the character deeply enough. Are you resistant to feeling that vulnerable or uncomfortable? Maybe your partner wasn't really pushing you to become upset at that moment.
Explore your scenes in this way, slowly, and have a lot of fun. You and your partner can create a wonderful and alive scene, and since you'll have put yourselves fully into your work, the director or teacher's job will be very easy.
Good luck in class, William.
-- Blair Glaser
Blair Glaser coaches actors privately in NYC. For Blair's bio or information about classes, click here.