Reputation; Rigidity; Comedy

Reputation; Rigidity; Comedy Once again, hello and thank you to all creative-advice seekers. This week's column offers advice about when it's okay to quit a job, handling rigidity, and some tips on comedy. 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!
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Once again, hello and thank you to all creative-advice seekers. This week's column offers advice about when it's okay to quit a job, handling rigidity, and some tips on comedy. 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
Dear Ms. Glaser:
I am an upstate NY actress with many local theatre and film roles on my resume. I recently had an experience that in the six years I've been acting, I never thought could happen -- I quit a show. Three weeks before the show went up, I walked out. The reasons were many, but the main ones were having to rehearse in the director's tiny apartment most of the time, a leading man with no experience, and finally extreme verbal abuse from the director. This was a non-Equity production with no pay. I had reservations about the production after the first week, and probably should have quit then, but I stayed out of my sense of commitment. I recently found out that the leading actress in the last show produced by this company walked during production week.
My question is this: Even though I have a very good reputation for professionalism and commitment to my shows, I am petrified that other directors will hear that I walked, and treat me unfairly at auditions- What do I say if I'm confronted with a question about it? Is this a common occurrence?
Worried in Upstate New York

Dear Worried,
I don't think you have to be. Actors tend to stay in all sorts of abusive situations because they have the same fears that you did: they feel that at least they have work now and if they leave they'll never work again, etc.. I think you made a very empowering choice. It is unlikely you will get a bad reputation for your work because, as you wrote, you have already established yourself, and, you left with integrity.

You didn't leave to make trouble, you left to protect yourself. To me, this is the opposite of being irresponsible or fickle. Know this and stay true to yourself. If anyone asks you why you left, you can report that you refuse to work under abusive conditions regardless of the circumstances, and it is no reflection of your commitment or your work ethic.

Best of luck, and congrats on getting out. Question
Okay, here's my current problem--I'm a senior majoring in theatre at the local University, and I am engrossed in the second year of their three-year acting program, and I'm having a hard time, to the point where the professor has told me I might not be able to move on to the next class, which would prevent my going on, and might affect when I graduate, which I don't want. (I'm looking at five years as it is -- six, especially just to finish the acting series is something I really want to avoid.)
She says that I tend to be very rigid in my physical movements, which probably comes from pushing too hard. I love acting more than I can describe, and she says that she recognizes that and how much I do want it. But [she says] when I get onstage, it seems as though I push too hard, am not enjoying it, and that I end up looking very stiff and rigid. She can see the mechanism working, but not the results I'm trying to achieve. The problem is that I don't know how to keep from doing this -- I don't know how to "not try so hard" as I have been told several times. I did fine in the earlier acting classes, but I feel though this is a major sticking point for me, and one that I want (and NEED) work through, but I really don't know how to do it. I would tremendously appreciate any advice you can provide.
-- Matthew Murray

Dear Matthew,
Thanks so much for writing me with your issue. It is a big one. The first thing you should ask yourself, is, what would happen if I didn't work so hard? How would I feel? Even though it is not helping you artistically, "working too hard" is somehow serving some part of you right now. For example, you may have been taught that if no one can "see" you working, you are not really acting. In this case, why would you want to stop? It is important to contemplate what you get out of working so hard, because it will help you to naturally move away from it.

I also recommend you explore in your mind's eye what it would look and feel like to just be you on stage. Many times we actors manipulate ourselves to fit our images and ideas of the character, when in reality we would achieve a much deeper connection to the character simply by being present with the other actors onstage. You cannot act ideas. Instead of offering rehearsed renditions of the lines that fit your concepts of who the character is, just for some time, allow yourself to respond naturally on stage, even if you think you will be boring or "wrong." This will help you to feel more relaxed, and you'll probably be surprised at how creative you are with out having to WORK so hard at it.

I also strongly recommend you begin to address your problem physically. There are many physically softening and aligning disciplines to explore, such as: yoga, Alexander Technique, Pilates, and Tai Chi. In case you don't already know, Tai Chi Chuan is a meditative martial art, generally never used for combat, but more for its calming, focusing effects on the mind and body. I think it is excellent for helping one to slow down and learn to take action from the center of one's being, instead of just from the head. Pilates incorporates a number of gentle exercises for strength and alignment, and Alexander is a technique to help relaxation and uses imagery for proper alignment.

Whatever discipline you choose, find a teacher or a master who is willing to pay attention to you. Get into it. Really focus on your practice, do it almost every day. I bet you will notice perceptible changes in your acting.

Rigidity is a common response to trauma. You may want to get help from a counselor gently to contemplate--but whatever you do, please do not work too hard at not working so hard. If you can do your physical stuff, class work and simply remember to breathe (conscious breathing helps you relax and focus, both on stage and off), things will start to change automatically. Have patience.

Good luck. Let me know how it goes.

Question
I've been very busy in rehearsal for the play called "The Foreigner" by Larry Shue. I play the part of Betty Meeks. She is supposed to be 70 years old, but because community theater has it limitations, I'm playing her as a younger widow. I can be made to look at least 50 yrs. old. It would be acceptable. I'm playing her as a Marjorie Main type character. A sort of strong, handle-any-situation character.
There are personality changes that Betty goes through as the play progresses. At first she is depressed and sees things as hopeless, but as situations change she becomes brighter. The humor in the play is done in the dialogue and doesn't depend on the physical. The situations are already funny. Of course, it's much harder to make people laugh with words. This play would be similar to something written by Neil Simon, John Patrick or Jean Kerr. They deal with real people and the situations are believable.
If you have any insightful comments on what I said, I would be grateful.
Stay in peace,
Jennet

Dear Jennet,
How are you, ole e-pal? Congrats on being in a play. I saw The Foreigner a long time ago in NY, and thought it was very funny. Two things I know about comedy: 1) On some level it's always physical; 2) Trying to make people laugh never works.
Think about comedians you love. Then think of their bodies in performance. Woody Allen has a whole physicality that comes with his character. Even Jerry Seinfeld, in stand-up where the focus is on the joke -- his gestures are subtly comic. If you are having a hard time with the comedy I suggest two things:
1) Develop and play with a character quirk(s). Does this character repeatedly wring her hands, play with her glasses, wipe her nose? Reverting to the quirk is a really useful character grounding and comic tool--because you automatically begin to use it a poignant moments.
2) Instead of focusing on being funny, making people laugh, or on the emotional states of your character (at this point in the play she's depressed, now she opens up, etc.) use the magic "as if" to put yourself in her shoes. NOT, if I WERE her I would feel . . .but I AM this many years old, and this person is talking to me like this, and it makes me feel. . . Ground yourself in the reality of this character--and be aware of a slight urgency. Comic situations are always heightened in intensity--that's one of the things that makes them comic.

Audiences more often than not laugh at what actors do and not what they say. If the behavior is true and recognizable it is funny. This means, if your character is feeling hopeless, you really commit to and exaggerate your own feelings of hopelessness. Experience it in your body and your posture and your sound. The more you focus this way, and isolate what you as the character want from the other people on stage, and then just react to them from you, the funnier you will become.

I hope this advice is useful and the production goes well. Feel free to write with any specific Q's. Best of luck.