Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fundamentals of Acting

I took an acting class my sophomore year of high school and really enjoyed it. There were no desks, just a random collection of chairs and couches with a small stage and props strewn about. The teacher appeared in random commercials and low budget movies, including the following public service announcement:

We learned to do monologues, mime, acting for both live and video audiences, lip sync (we chose the song Tequila, and yes I think it actually worked rather well), movie scenes, TV commercials, stage slapping (I'm still sorry about that, Lawrence), and more. It was great.

When I got to college and saw the option to do an acting class, I thought it would be more of the same fun, laid back atmosphere. It wasn't. Almost everything in college is bigger and more intense than high school, and acting was no different. About half the class was going into some type of theater-related major, and the other half of us seemed to be there because we thought it would be fun. It was fun but in a serious kind of way. It was a small class, well under 20 students, one of the smallest classes I've taken at the university. I stuck it out even though we were warned that the class was the third in a three class series that had been going all school year, but the computer didn't enforce the prerequisite, so you could register without having the other two classes first.

We learned all kinds of things from how to project your voice to standing up straighter (those actually went together well) to memorizing lines. I remember getting my wisdom teeth taken out over spring break and after returning having the TA for the class try to get me to open my mouth wider during some of the vocal drills we were doing. Sorry, man, not gonna happen.

There are many memorization techniques out there. For the particular one we happened to learn in that class, you used a partner. The partner had the script and would read the first word. The person memorizing would repeat it. The partner would then read two words, and the person memorizing would repeat both words. This would go on like a kind of non-electronic game of Simon. If you messed up, the partner would stop you and back you up to the last phrase you could repeat without mistakes. I found it to be quite an effective technique, at least for relatively short passages. I may use it to help my daughter memorize the Gettysburg Address, which she has to do for school.

One memorable event was when a girl doing a monologue accidentally lit for real the prop cigarette she was just supposed to pretend light. Between the Clean Air Act and the fire marshal, lit cigarettes inside the building are a no-no. But she was in character doing her act, and she handled it quite well. She didn't really react to it but just sort of flippantly waved it around a little like her character might have done and crushed the burning corner in the ashtray without missing a step. It was one of those things where you knew what she was doing, but if you didn't know, you would have never known.

Naturally, the final in the class was a scene. It was supposed to be more polished and a little longer than anything we had done yet up to that point in the class. Somehow I ended up doing a The Chalky White Substance, a short two-person one-act play, one of the last written by Tennessee Williams who would have turned 100 earlier this year. Other well-known works of his include A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I played a young boy watched over by an abusive older protector in a post-apocalyptic wasteland where water and women were scarce. My character lets slip the secret that there was an underground stream running under his house providing unlimited access to water, a precious enough commodity that I got to do a dramatic death scene. Sebastian Shaw would have been proud.

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