Timeline's The Audience: Using Movement Effectively Creates Magic!

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Last week, I had the pleasure of attending Timeline Theatre Company’s production of The Audience by Peter Morgan.  Timeline is a company that specializes in plays dealing with history and oftentimes, it produces material that includes characters based on actual figures from the past.  This most recent production centers on Queen Elizabeth II and her unique relationships with eight former Prime Ministers.  I found that one extraordinary thing about this production was that just TWO ACTORS (Matt DeCaro and Mark Ulrich) played seven of the eight Prime Minister roles!  From scene to scene, the two artists switched into new and completely distinct characters. 

In observing the work, the extent to which movement served as a key aspect in the expression of character was striking.  The actors’ physical choices were so specific!  Both actors imbued their characters with detailed postures, unique tempos of movement, and idiosyncratic gestures (or lack thereof).  At one point, it actually seemed as though an actor grew in height between scenes/characters, simply an illusion created by a few precise acting choices (e.g. upright posture; a slower, smoother gait; a lifted head and chin; and consistent eye contact).  Further, through the actors’ physical choices, it was clear that these Prime Ministers were of various ages and degrees of health during their tenures, and most importantly, had unique relationships and levels of intimacy with Queen.  Seeing the overt yet fully filled and committed physical choices served as a poignant reminder that movement can be a source of inspiration for the actor as well as a clear avenue into inhabiting a role.

Acting Inspires Creativity

When teaching acting, I aim to help students recognize and employ natural talents and gifts, and also to build upon any experience or training they may already have had.  To facilitate this process, I share techniques that allow actors to more easily access and release their potential.  Sometimes though, I find that what my efforts really build in others is a more expansive sense and grasp of inherent creativityCreativity is something that we all have, whether we consider ourselves “actors” or “artists” or not.  

I especially found this to be true while teaching at Two Roads Theatre Project’s inaugural Summer Acting Lab this July.  I think that the time spent doing Acting exercises sparked creativity in the students, which in turn, showed up in areas other than Acting, such as the Visual Arts.  Maybe the burgeoning creativity I observed in the students was more heightened because of our collective goal of devising a piece (i.e., students in the Acting Lab created a unique performance piece that was presented on the final night to a live audience), a process that in itself does lead to an increased sense of creative freedom.  Regardless of its source, what is certain is that creativity abounded, and further, it transcended the domain of acting alone.  Students would not just come up with interesting character choices, but bring in original works of art for the set design!  They wrote poetic lyrics, designed unique costumes, and experimented with movement.  The original drawing accompanying this post is one such example, created by acting student Edgar Nava and used as part of the set for our devised piece entitled, Larlaguar

Acting provides an opportunity for all of us to rehearse, or to practice, using our creativity.  This creativity can be used in any life endeavor, and sharing it allows each of us to be a fuller version of our self! 

Just enjoy yourself and good things will come

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the launch party for Northwestern University’s new Institute for Developmental Science (DevSci), during which my husband Vijay (who is a member of the Institute and professor at Northwestern) had the opportunity to say a few words.  The speech had to do with science, but as with any public speaking performance, there were lessons from Vijay’s talk that can be transferred and applied to the art of acting.  One lesson in particular is that if you (the performer) are having a good time on stage, then it is very likely that the audience will have a good time too!

My husband Vijay is a wonderful speaker.  Nevertheless, he still gets nervous from time to time before a speech, as most of us do.  These nerves can really get in the way of clearly communicating and keeping the audience engaged.  However, last night, Vijay made the conscious choice to enjoy sharing his speech, and in turn, the speech really came to life!  He had fun, so we as the audience had fun listening to him.  Having fun also seems to breed other qualities, like confidence and ease.  Vijay was at ease; so we were at ease.  He was confident; so we were confident in him.

This all applies to acting, and is perhaps why I wholeheartedly believe everyone can benefit from acting class!  Whether in an audition or on stage in a performance, the performers who reveal a sense of joy in the doing of their work, are in turn, a delight to watch.  It is actually a bit difficult not to do a good job when you are having fun.  For me, it was definitely this quality in Vijay’s speech that made his talk a memorable moment of an exciting evening.

Devising

Acting class is always one of my favorite places to be, so my growing excitement about the upcoming July Summer Acting Lab may not seem peculiar at all.  However, one of the outcomes of the time spent in the Acting studio this July will be a student driven piece and there is something about facilitating the student devising of this piece that I am finding uniquely thrilling.   

Upon reflection, I suppose the excitement is coming from. . . fear.  It is scary to jump into the unknown and to recognize that the actors will share a short performance on Day Ten, but on Day One have no clue what that performance will be . . . or be about.  I find that fear and excitement really are two sides of the same coin!  It is kind of like riding a roller coaster: if it weren’t a little scary, would it really be any fun?

Second, I am learning a lot in my preparation, which is exhilarating.  Digging through readings and gathering some new ideas to bring into the classroom allows me to grow and expand along with my students.  I feel inspired by the some of the brilliant devising companies like Complicite, who say on their website in regard to their process, “there is no Complicite method- what is essential is collaboration . . .”.

Third, I am excited for the students to glean that, as actors, they are truly artists.  What better way to emphasize this notion than through devising, creating a performance essentially from scratch, as a team.  In devising, actors are not just breathing life into other people’s words, but are actually creating the language, content, and structure.  How exciting!

Acting the Song

I always love to go to dramatic plays in Chicago and New York to see fine acting.  However, after watching the Tony Awards this past Sunday, I am left wondering that if I am interested in seeing great acting, then perhaps I should get tickets for the musicals as well!  I love musicals, and personally, am always partial to the acting element in any show, musical or play (heehee, I suppose that is no surprise!).  Sometimes though, I think that the acting element is deemed not as vital to the success of the storytelling in musical theater, as compared to the singing or dancing.  That certainly was not the case this year! 

From David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder in Hello Dolly! to Eva Noblezada as Kim in Miss Saigon, I think it was the acting that turned these into Tony-nominated performances.  I was particularly struck by the beautiful performance by Andy Karl in Groundhog Day.  From the first moment of Karl’s singing, I was immediately moved.  It was clear that his character had been on a journey, and the baggage from this journey was subtly, yet fully, there in Karl’s performance.  Reflecting back on the number, I can’t remember what Karl’s voice sounded like per se; I only remember the effect that his simple yet specific acting choices had on me as an audience member, watching the live telecast in my living room.  His ease and sincerity, along with his groundedness, vulnerability, and focused presence were all interlaced, and taken together, this captivated me and allowed for me to connect with and care about the character of Phil Connors. It was a really touching performance full of many acting lessons. 

The most important lesson perhaps is that acting a song, in addition to singing a song, is powerful and can give a musical performance the oomph it might need to turn it into a work of art.

Chicago is a place for acting!

While traveling around to the many of our Chicago neighborhoods and sharing information about Two Roads Theatre Project, I have had the most wonderful interactions with store owners and passers by, as well as with the local online communities.  It has been truly humbling and incredibly inspiring to learn about how excited and enthusiastic Chicagoans are about theater and acting! 

Each of the neighborhoods has its own unique charm, but I find that there are two things that they all have in common: they are all very welcoming and they all support the arts.  When I flyer, I run out of materials right away.  When I talk to parents, people walking by stop to join in our conversations.  I hear about amazing shows people have just seen, presented by one of our many talented local companies.  When I post on the web, I receive the most amazing supportive comments and feedback.  Locals are very proud of their city, and eager to contribute to making it an even better place. 

Thank you Chicago!  I love living here, and feel honored to teach acting in this community.

Be yourself

Acting is doing . . . but it is also being.  In fact, it is being yourself; maybe not your everyday self, but your self nonetheless.  You are the person playing the character and who you are shines through. 

Shine on dear actors!

 

My Number One Fan

It was my mother, who first nurtured my love of acting.  Later, it was her who encouraged me to develop skills, driving me to countless lessons, and helping me to find a like-minded community of peers and dedicated thoughtful teachers at Pittsburgh Musical Theater.  Our family had grown, and my mother had adopted a host of eager additional young actors to mentor!  Then in high school and college, and later, when I was working professionally, through all of my trials and tribulations, she stuck with me, and provided steady unwavering encouragement. During the times I doubted if the field was right for me, and during the times when I knew I could never do anything else, my mom was right there by my side.   As I take on this new adventure, teaching acting classes here in Chicago, I know I can do it because if things get hard I will always have my number one fan to lean on.   Thanks so much for everything Mom- Happy Mothers Day.

Making Choices

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost is one of my favorite poems.  So much is said in only 20 lines, and in different times of my life or on different days even, the poem has said something unique to me.  While the piece is not the only inspiration for the name Two Roads Theatre Project, it is an important influence. 

I initially encountered the poem as a first-year acting student at Carnegie Mellon University in a Voice and Speech class.  My goal at the time was simply to recite it accurately by memory, hoping to employ the correct sounds of Standard American English with each and every word!  At the time, I barely thought about the underlying message, or what it meant to me personally, as someone walking down a road in life.  I also did not think about if what it means and what it means to me are, or need to be, one the same.  However, despite this lack of contemplation about The Road Not Taken, it stayed firmly implanted in my mind, while all of the other many wonderful poems that I had memorized during that fall semester quickly receded from my memory.

Years later, when teaching my first college acting class at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I pondered how to best begin the course for undergraduate students, many of whom had never studied acting before.  I decided to have everyone memorize and recite a poem, as it would be a safe way for the students to get a sense of what it feels like to be on stage alone in front of peers, presenting material, while also having a clear, structured task.  In my class, the beginning actors would all do the same piece.  I chose The Road Not Taken, of course!

In making and executing this pedagogical decision, I subsequently realized something: The Road Not Taken is an ideal poem for acting students to deliver!  The meaning is ambiguous, or perhaps quite concrete but just hidden.  Or seemingly, the meaning is simple, which can be a very beautiful way to portray the poem.  Or contrarily, multiple meanings might co-exist and overlap in Frost’s words.  In performing this poem then, the actor has a job to do: to interpret.  The actor, like the speaker in the poem, needs to make a choice.  The actor needs to say something, to breathe life into the words in a very specific way. 

Though again, I only realized the utility of this poem within my acting class after having selected it for the students and then watching their performances.  The meaning came after the choice.  Many would actually say that that is the point of Frost’s poem.  

New Blog on Acting Instruction

Each week I will share thoughts on acting education and training, or discuss events (e.g., other classes, shows, artistic performances) that may be of interest to the acting community or to my wonderful students!  Please feel free to comment on my posts as well.