Rehearsal Room Notes
Rehearsal Room Notes

Rehearsal Room Notes

I have maintained other blogs over the years, public and private … the latter for use as reflective places.

Here are some expanded notes – ones I’ve made over the years and which chart the learning paths I’ve wandered down and continue to traverse with others, especially the many acting students at the University of Southern Queensland with whom I worked during my tenure as Assoc Professor (1987-2008) and, latterly, with the inspiring Musical Theatre students at Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University where I have been teaching acting and directing since 2012.

So, in no particular order …

A quote that keeps insisting it be heard …
A character is the sum total of their inconsistencies. (Ben Kingsley)

This one really jogged me when I heard Ben Kingsley riff on it during one of the PLAYING SHAKESPEARE episodes (the John Barton ‘tapes’) from the RSC back in the 1980s.

Living Dangerously and Impulsively
In many ways, the approach I take in work with students on Shakespearean text is ‘dangerous.’ The basic work on ‘givens’ is accepted as having been done, and as the actor delves deeper into the exciting and truly creative realm of text interpretation, it’s possible to find yourself clinging on to the known, rather than letting go and responding to impulse and, with Shakespeare, to getting rid of the inherent cultural reverence which we pay to the greatest playwright of the English (and arguably any other) language.

For many years now I have been inspired by the philosophy and practice of the highly respected voice teacher Kristin Linklater. A lot of her exercises, which may be familiary to you, mention impulse. What is meant by this? Simply, that as in real life, we act as a result of an inner urge (impulse) to do something. Sometimes, and especially if this urge could result in an undesirable outcome … being sideswiped after running a red light for example, or saying something witty but hurtful … then we counter our impulses with a block, often drawn from previous experience, or some other form of socialisation. We resist the urge to run the amber, and bite back our smart comment.

Linklater’s approach is to encourage the actor to give way to the first ‘true’ impulse … at least to see where that urge leads you. This is the approach I take in text exercises, many of them developed by Dean Carey in his Masterclass series of books. I like to encourage students to work on subverting our impulse to reproduce what we know or think is ‘right’ – to ‘end-game’ as some acting coaches call it.

And why is this dangerous? Because the outcome is unknown, and as inherently conservative creatures, we humans tend to be rightly wary of the unknown. However, artists need to be equally wary of the counter-impulse, the ‘block’, the clinging to old ways, so as to make the break throughs that lead to exciting discoveries and eventually, to thrilling performances.

However …
You have to be readied to make the most of the impulse when it comes. When working on a text-based piece, I advise my students to use what I call the “3 – I” approach, a process in which investigation of text, then inference drawn from the text, and then invention occur – and in that order.

Subsequent steps in the process build upon the investigation foundation which consists of combing through the play, researching its background, and sorting given circumstances. This step is usually done in “table-work,” that first reading and discussion part of a rehearsal period. When an actor is fully immersed (another “I”) in a text they are better able to follow those impulses when they come and to create an individual interpretation grounded in the logic and the framework of the source.

An old saying … one I like
It is in reference to consideration of performance energy – that ‘extra-daily’ state referred to by Richard Schechner, and how it is we work on finding the right energy to fit the impulse, or in acting terms, the ‘right-sized’ impulse to feed the thought and its resulting action-outcome understood and given meaning in external actions.

The saying is

The heart of the art is knowing how much heart to put into the art.

We know the actor can often indulge and bluff when they are stuck, but this sort of acting is neither truthful nor acceptable. It rings false. Really the only time indulgence or bluff have a place on stage is when they are self-consciously ‘played’ by a character.

I find it valuable to explore a character’s impulses by raising the stakes a bit, and getting physical. We are conservative by nature i.e., we would rather hold back and play it cool, let our acculturation not to make a fuss, to be polite, or to ‘cope’ rule our choice of action and censor our body ‘talk,’ and to let speech dominate the body’s expression.

Let an action take over sometimes. Move to the interior monolog; you should be almost able to dance it exploring its tempo and intensity. And balance the head with as much heart as you can.

The question raised from time to time, ‘what do you do to exercise your imagination?’ got me thinking.
This is from eminent Canadian educator, Stephen Downes. His ‘Things You Really Need to Learn’ addresses this question.

Here they are: 10 things you really do need to learn and go on exercising all your life. These things are what fuel your imagination as a human being and an artist:

How to predict consequences
How to read
How to distinguish truth from fiction
How to empathise
How to be creative
How to communicate clearly
How to learn
How to stay healthy
How to value yourself
How to live meaningfully

I’d suggest you read Stephen’s article in full. It’s terrific.

The  reflective period in the semester.
A note I wrote to a class years ago. Still holds true.

“As the semester approaches the end of formal classes – those daily workshops where you learn and test out new craft skills, and put your process to work on new texts and projects – it’s good to reflect. Why? Because whilst it’s good sometimes to just do it, I think the learning is improved if we reflect on the doing, and especially if we map out or think about the next step, in art as well as life.”

I ask all of my acting students to keep a journal of their progress. This is a reflective tool to ‘unpack,’ chart progress, and ask questions. Why not look back over these and reflect for yourself. What have you learned; what haven’t you learned that you wish you had? Are you happy with the work? Is your work good enough to satisfy you? If not, why not? Can you see a way to get this to happen? If not, and you find the whole thing too hard, I would ask you to address the big question fearlessly and honestly.

Do you really need to be an actor?

Only you can answer this question, but if you don’t need to do this, don’t. Find something else to engage your creative life energies.

Students often come to me with the question, ‘How am I doing?’
Now that’s a good thing to be mulling over as an actor in training. I usually find myself asking a question back, ‘How do you think you are doing?’ I don’t do this because I’m trying to avoid the issue, but to put the focus back onto the person who should know the answer, i.e., you.

And that leads me to the topic of this thought about taking charge and setting goals … keeping your eye on what it is you are attempting out to achieve. In this way, you will know ‘how you are doing’ relative to the tasks, goals, aims, objectives … call them what you will … that you are seeking to achieve.

If you don’t keep aim firmly on one target at a time, then they will start moving, you’ll get dispirited, depending on someone else to tell you ‘how you are going,’ and you’ll never hit the bulls-eye.

Set a task and a goal per session, per week, per semester. Got the idea? Then ask your teachers for a discussion on what you have achieved, and perhaps, what you are aiming for next. Much better approach and a conversation they can enter into with you to assist you with ideas as to how you might proceed.

The voice workout
Whilst a warmup gets you ready for a particular task, the workout forms part of an ongoing training regimen for the actor. A voice workout is like taking your voice (along with the body and mind that it belongs to) to the gym.

A workout is not the same as a warmup.

A voice workout is composed of a series of exercises which focus on an individual part of the vocal mechanism. Beginning with awareness, stretching and alignment work, the exercises build incrementally to give the actor a full vocal workout across the board. Most workouts finish with articulation and diction drills. You should expect to spend around 40-50 minutes on a good workout.

The voice warmup
There can’t be too many actors who’ve trained during the past 30 or so years, who aren’t familiar with the warmup. It’s part of contemporary thinking about the nature of the actor as an ‘athlete of the heart’ with all the connotations of preparing to challenge the body, mind, and heart for the act of performance. For many actors, it would be impossible to imagine performing without going through a ritual that takes you ‘from where you are to where you need to be’ to work. Acknowledgements here to a couple of greats: Cicely Berry and Kristin Linklater.

Watch a group of actors doing a warmup, and you’ll see a range of styles, from the energetic to the focussed and intense. There are some actors who love to warmup with the others in the company; other actors can’t abide being distracted from their own personal process. Horses for courses. What is common to all is the recognition that a different energy is needed to perform. There is a commitment to getting the body-mind out of the daily and into the extra-daily state of being, and ready to go.

What many actors in training don’t do however, is to prepare for a rehearsal or a class. And many don’t have a process to help deal with the particular task. A rehearsal on a scene is very different from a performance; a class is another beast altogether. A warmup for a rehearsal or a class should take no more than 10 minutes of focussed preparation. This is what you should do:

A quick diagnostic humming up and down the range and then on full breath to check for missing notes.
Stretching, check alignment and spinal rolls. Spinal rolls during the diagnostic are good.
Focus on the task to come and leave what’s outside, outside.
Free the lips, tongue, soft palate and yawn. Open up the channel.
Finish with some text based on the class or rehearsal.
Don’t warm up lying down.
Don’t chat with others warming up. This is work.