Today is my 47th birthday: no big deal, except it marks the start of my fifth decade in theatre. It also marks opening night for Theater Artists Olympia's production of Tartuffe, in which I play Orgon and my wife is Dorine. Next month, I'll help guide actors through the grinder of Olympia Audition League generals, a summer event that recruits actors for productions all over the South Sound. Ergo, this seems an appropriate time to offer a list of ten guidelines for less experienced actors. Feel free to disagree; actors are good at that. But this is how I feel about our craft at this moment, informed by my particular series of influences, mentors and experiences.
1. Focus. If you want to get better at acting, you have to take it seriously. I know it's called "play," but it's work, too. Actors who believe differently tend to cause problems for castmates. As you prepare for an audition or read-through, look up difficult words, including proper nouns. Treat rehearsals as if your reputation depends upon your behavior there, because it does. Learn your lines as quickly as possible. Use the hour before a performance to get control of your body and mind. Leave the grab-ass and hijinks to dilettantes who will never get better. Avoid "theatre games" before a performance. I know they're fun, but rare is the show that benefits from tossing an imaginary ball around when you should be spending time concentrating on your lines and performance. In an audition, taking a moment to center yourself, breathe, and focus on your monologue will prevent the dreaded "Oops, can I start again?" (Don't start again, by the way. The damage is already done. Just take another breath, correct the problem, and move forward. Directors are impressed by calm recoveries.)
2. Imagine. Explore your range. Get to know all kinds of people, then ask yourself how you might go about portraying them. True, actors get shoved into types, but types are at least preferable to ruts. Why contribute to your own typecasting by playing the same performance note every time? A cold-reading audition or callback is a wonderful opportunity to show off your range, as it's an open invitation to play almost any character in the script. Use that!
3. Know thy instrument. You don't have to be in perfect shape. You don't have to be gorgeous. You don't have to sing like an opera star. You do have to be realistic about your body, voice and features, and keep track of the range of things they can actually do. If you're an alto, the soprano piece "No One Is Alone" from Into the Woods is a poor choice for an audition no matter how much you enjoy it or even love singing it. In other words, don't audition with a song unless you're 100% confident you can hit all its notes on your worst day. Keep track of what your face is doing; a surprising number of actors smile as they're performing tragic monologues, and that's just creepy.
4. Stand normally. Find a full-body mirror and watch yourself standing silently. See how your hands hang at your sides? Notice how you're standing perpendicular to the ground? Yeah. That's a good place to start. I can't tell you how many times I've watched auditioners sway from side to side like a metronome or flail their arms about like they were miming semaphore signals. I also roll my eyes when auditioners choose monologues that require them to act like they're talking on phones--which they usually represent by holding empty fists up to their ears. Don't they realize how silly that looks? Avoid monologues with phones. I mean that, okay? Just be present. Take a breath. It's all good. There isn't a person in that audition room who wants you to fail. They need you to be great just as much as, or perhaps even more than, you need them to admire your work. This is your house. Enjoy it.
5. Gobble life. Travel. Read a lot. Skinny dip. See great movies. Fall in love. Have an enviable sex life. Imbibe the world. Pay attention to people's accents, gestures, and expressions. Explore the many ways people signal they're in love or about to throw a punch. Generally speaking, it's easier to recall what you've experienced and reproduce it than invent a life experience on the spot.
6. Listen. The best actors are reactors. They pay attention to fellow actors and respond as seems fitting. It seldom matters what technique you use, so long as dialogue becomes conversation, but that can't happen if you're listening for a single cue word or contemplating the hottie in the front row. Often when an actor goes up on his or her lines, the previous dialogue included a question that demanded the very line that's gone missing as its answer.
7. Show respect. Sometimes that means showing respect for yourself. You do yourself no favors by performing loaded, letting yourself get treated like a worthless commodity, or snapping at directors or fellow actors. I'm not saying one should always be a doormat. I'm also not claiming a perfect track record myself when it comes to treating people fairly or politely. But by showing respect for everyone in the building, from the greenest cast or crew member all the way up to the artistic director, an actor establishes his or her professional identity. When I direct, I'd much rather cast a green actor who plays by the rules than a superstar who amps up a scene by attacking his fellow actors or takes physical liberties backstage. We're all in this together, folks. Let's play by the rules. They exist because they work.
8. Laugh. Pretending to be someone else is inherently ridiculous. We're grown adults, yet we put on bizarre costumes and recite rhyming couplets and fall in and out of love as drama dictates. That's what kids do. It's a craft, yes, and an art form as worthy as any. It's also what children do without breaking a sweat, so enjoy it as they do. Watch a kid playing army or Star Wars. Kids know how to play and take things seriously at the same time. Let that kid be your role model.
9. Learn. There's not an actor on earth who can't add to his or her tool chest. Every critic is right, from a certain point of view at least, whether he or she is panning you or praising you. A critic's (or audience member's) experience of your work is partly subjective, partly influenced by your mastery of craft, partly in the hands of other cast and crew members--not to mention the whims of fate. Your director is right about your work, too, even if/when he or she is being an absolute moron, because that's the way a moronic person perceived your performance. That, in theatre parlance, is how your work "read." Take it in, let it simmer a while, and extract whatever value you can from people's responses to what you do. A bad review's not the end of the world, no matter how much a thumbs-down might sting. But assuming you have nothing left to learn is the end of your progression as an actor. So why stop now when you've come so far?
10. Keep theatre holy. Look, I get that this sounds totally woo-woo, but the stage is my church. A grad professor described it as a "liminal space," a defined area in which the rules of surrounding culture are permitted (or encouraged) to change. I love my wife, but if a play calls for me to love another character while I'm in that liminal space, then I have, grab, and fully enjoy the obligation to do that. If my character's in conflict with another, I give myself the liberty to scream and cry and demand the very gods strike my enemy down on the spot. That, my friends, is why theatre is cathartic for actors even as it is for an audience. But remember: when you go back across the edge of that liminal space on your way to the dressing room, those rules have to change back. You have to let that love, anger, libido, power, you name it, slip away. In short, you have to go back to being you. It's the only way to keep sane in this business of show; and besides, it'll soon be time to reboot for your next grand theatrical adventure.
Break a leg!