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Acting with a Capital A:
4 ways to help your performers become more truthful onstage
On the first day of my first acting class, the teacher told us about two kinds of performing: acting and Acting.

He said acting (with a little a) was about showing the audience what you were doing and how you were feeling. It involved gestures and facial expressions and deciding precisely how to deliver each line for Maximum Impact. If your character felt sick, you'd walk in holding your stomach and moaning. If your character was angry, you'd shake your fist and bare your teeth while yelling really loud.

With worn-out schtick like that, the teacher said, acting was obviously a bad idea. It was a shortcut to performances that looked fake and made audiences cringe.

But Acting with a capital A, he continued, meant striving for reality. You didn't make yourself feel something that you weren't. You didn't show the audience what you were doing. Instead, you used actions to place yourself in the reality of the situation—in some cases, half-forgetting that you had an audience watching! Real Acting, he assured us, was the ticket to believable work onstage.

I didn't completely understand what he meant, but he had my attention. I had to admit: I'd given my share of less-than-realistic performances over the years.

If you sometimes have the same problem in your drama troupe, these four exercises can help people become much more believable in their work onstage. Try them at your next rehearsal to guide actors away from unrealistic portrayals, and towards Acting with a Capital A!

Exercise 1: Being vs. Doing
Get things started by asking for a volunteer who'll stand in front of the group for 90 seconds.

Most people feel out of place when they're on display. Noses start to itch uncontrollably; folks start to giggle or can't figure out what to do with their hands. These are the same individuals who normally love being the center of attention! However, if you put them in the hot seat, things change. They usually feel awkward until they can distract themselves from self-consciousness. In other words: until they have something to do.

Of course, you don't want to tell your victim that—just watch her squirm! Then once the 90 seconds are up, give her an assignment. Request that she count all the floor tiles in the room before she sits down.

Ask your audience when the volunteer looked the most natural. (Chances are, it was while she was counting floor tiles!) Ask your volunteer when she felt the most comfortable. Usually, she'll give the same answer.

This activity illustrates an important truth: Acting (capital A) doesn't begin with being or showing. It begins with doing! In Exercise 2, you'll invite your whole group to join the fun.

Exercise 2: Putting On Your Shoes1
Divide your group into pairs. Direct the taller person in each twosome take off his shoes. He now has 60 seconds to put them back on. Simple, right?

Well, there's one little problem: the shorter person's goal is to keep him shoeless! The shorter person may only touch her partner's hands, arms, and shoes. But within those boundaries, anything goes!

You'll be amazed how much actors get into this exercise. They'll steal shoes and throw them across the room. They'll pry fingers off of laces. They'll play "keepaway." The bottom line is, very few people are likely to get their shoes back on in the allotted time.

After everyone has reclaimed their footwear, ask if folks were conscious that you were watching them. (They probably didn't even think about it.) Ask them to imagine what their performances could be like if every time they took stage, they had something that urgent; that competitive; that important to accomplish. Not only would they stop thinking about the audience—they'd be a lot of fun to watch!

Now comes Part II of the exercise. This time, the shorter person will take off her shoes, and the taller person will try to stop her from getting them back on. But here's the catch: the taller person cannot touch his partner or her shoes!

"That's impossible!" cries the taller person.

"No, it isn't," you say. "Our words are actions, too. We usually talk because we want something. So you're going to use words to achieve a goal: stopping your partner from putting on her shoes."

Explain that the shorter person must believe whatever the taller person tells her. For example, if he says, "There's a tarantula in your shoe!" the shorter person must stop, dump the invisible tarantula out of her shoe and squish it, then continue putting on the footwear. If her partner says, "Your shoelaces just turned into snakes!" the shorter person might reply, "Okay; it's a good thing I brought my magic wand to change them back." Then she might wave a pen over her shoes.

Give the pairs 60 seconds for this words-only version of the Shoe Game. If the taller person is sufficiently creative, he may come up with ideas to keep those sandals off the entire time!

Exercise 3: "I Can't Find My Keys!"
Once everyone has been restored to their rightful sneakers, it's time for all of your actors to lose their keys. (But only as an exercise . . . I hope.)

Your team members should rehearse and perform this scene individually. Each person will get the chance to set the stage, using whatever props and set pieces are available, to recreate a place at home or work. For example: one actor might set up her living room by shoving three chairs together as a couch and using a large table to represent her entertainment center. Note that actors should avoid pantomiming objects in this scene. If they need an object, whether it's as big as a couch or as small as a purse, they should find a tangible substitute.

Each actor must develop a 30-90 second scene of searching for his keys, without talking. (Of course, he hides the keys from himself before the scene begins.) Folks can decide individually whether they'll end the scene by finding their keys—or leave in frustration to take the bus.

Each actor needs an important and urgent reason for finding those keys—hopefully, something just as powerful as keeping one's partner from putting on her shoes! Here are two examples:

  • An Important and Urgent Reason: You're running late for a job interview. You really want this position—and you've heard the manager hates tardiness.
  • A Lame Reason: You'd like to find your keys so you can get a loaf of bread from Quik-E-Mart. But if you can't find them, it's no big deal—you'll just borrow your wife's.

Give them a few minutes to come up with an idea and rehearse. Then as you watch the performances, look for two major things:

  • Do you believe her? Do you buy all of the actor's actions as truthful, or is she "showing" the audience things—you know, acting with a little a? The actor who picks up her huge purse but only spends two seconds looking inside isn't believable. Neither is the actor who throws up her hands to show us she's frustrated. (Does anybody really do that?)
  • Does he have a reason? The audience doesn't need to know why this actor wants to find his keys. But everyone should be able to tell he has an important and urgent reason for looking! If he's strolling aimlessly around the room, there's something wrong with the scene.

Let everyone perform, and have the whole group critique the believability of their fellow performers. Then move on to Exercise 4 as a way of summarizing and wrapping up the whole lesson.

Exercise 4: Motivational Scenes
To begin, put your actors back into pairs, and give each twosome a conflict made up of two opposing goals. Instruct them to rehearse a 1-3 minute scene based on those goals. For example:

  • A store manager suspects one of her cashiers of stealing from the cash register. Her goal is to persuade the cashier to confess. The cashier's goal is to deny everything to keep her job.
  • A wife wants to convince her husband to put in a new kitchen. Her husband thinks it's a waste of money. He wants to talk sense into his wife.

Notice two things about those italicized actions. One, they're all strong verbs—action words that actors can sink their teeth into! Second, they make the characters need something from each other. (Remind your actors: "If you don't want anything from your scene partner, why don't you just walk away?")

If the first action a character tries in the scene doesn't achieve his goal, he needs to do something else. He should never stop reaching for the finish line! Most of us behave the same way in real life—we're very good at inventing ways to get what we want. Remind the actors that their job is not to entertain the audience with comedic scenes. Rather, it is to create believable actions (verbal and physical) to accomplish a goal! The scene ends when one character gets what she wants.

As an illustration, let's set up an imaginary scene between two young actors—a schoolyard Bully and his Victim. The Bully's goal is to steal his Victim's lunch money. Naturally, the Victim's goal is to keep his money!

  • First, the Bully pleads for money, claiming his Mom never gives him anything for lunch. But the Victim doesn't go for it—he accuses the Bully of lying. "I saw your Mom give you ten bucks when she dropped you off this morning!"
  • Next, the Bully tries threatening his Victim—"Give me your money or I'm gonna shove you in a locker!" The Victim runs away and hollers for a teacher.
  • Instead of chasing his Victim, the Bully starts teasing him—"Go ahead! Run and tattle, you little pansy." The Victim decides to prove he's not a pansy, so he stops running and turns around.2

At this point, maybe the Bully beats up his Victim. Or perhaps a Teacher hears the argument and takes away the Bully's recess for a week. It doesn't matter how it ends! The point is, both actors found creative actions to get what they wanted! That's what makes a scene believable and interesting.

Acting with a Capital A
Believe it or not, these silly games have just given your troupe a foundation in "Method" Acting—the fundamental technique used by skilled actors around the world.

In every scene (scripted or not) the actor's first job is to figure out his goal, or Objective. This goal is in the form of an action verb, and should always be found in the other person. In other words, the actor can't get what she wants without going through her scene partner! The Objective should be important and urgent.

An Objective will inevitably lead to Actions—both physical and verbal. (It doesn't do much good to stand around daydreaming about stealing somebody's lunch money, right? You need to take action!) If a particular plan isn't working, actors must try something new—just like in real life.

Actions shouldn't be designed to show the audience anything—instead, they should be carried out just as though no audience is watching, as a means of accomplishing that elusive goal. The different ways a character tries to get what he wants are known as Tactics. The stuff that gets in the way—like his partner in the Shoe Game turning his shoelaces into snakes—are called Obstacles.

The important thing isn't who "wins" or "loses"—the important thing is that both characters want something badly! Even though the actors know who comes out on top, the characters don't have a clue! When both actors play to win, as though they don't know the outcome, the audience will be treated to a fascinating scene.

Really, that's the whole goal of Acting with a Capital A: compelling drama that imitates life. So if your team tries these techniques in their next performance, most folks will never realize they're using a new acting method. They'll only know that those thespians are behaving like real people onstage. And isn't that what theatre is all about?

George Halitzka is a freelance playwright, director, and educator who loves to watch skilled actors do their thing. Visit him online at www.dramabygeorge.com.

1Thanks to Jessica Lewis, Actor Extraordinaire, for introducing me to this very cool exercise.

2You'll notice that at this point, the Victim actually forgets about his goal and plays right into the Bully’s hands! But that often happens in real life, too—someone "wins" an argument when the other person forgets what they’re fighting for.

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