Acting: three things you need to learn

Konstantin Stanislavski a portrait by Valentin...
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I’ve been re-reading Robert Hornby’s book ‘The End of Acting: a radical view’ I first met this nicely provocative work in 1993 during grad school at UH. Hornby’s spray on the US actor-training establishment, especially of the Method variety, resonated for me. I liked his writing style and opinion, born out of long experience as an actor and teacher in the Stanislavski tradition. Hornby knew what he was talking about, and wasn’t afraid to say so. I guess we clicked.

One aspect of the book which I recall often with students is what I call the ‘3 learnings.’ The theory of acting may appear complex, and indeed much of it can be, especially if students get hung up on the jargon coming at them from all directions. Clear hand-holds like these 3 learnings remind us teachers and our fledgling actors of the basics. This is where you need to concentrate the work. And the 3 learnings based on Stanislavski’s enabling approach are:

how to relax
how to relate to your scene partner, given circumstances, and imaginary circumstances
how to pursue objectives

That’s it. As Hornby notes, these are means to an end, ‘skills rather than art itself, and like all artistic skills must be learned to the point of becoming second nature. Only then does acting begin.’

Hornby, Robert. The End of Acting: a radical view. NY: Applause, 1992.

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The siren call of the callback …

Is there a sweeter phone call for the actor than the one that says, “Callback?” Yes! It’s the one that says, “We want you” but one step at a time please … I got the first call this morning as I was leaving for work. Fair put a spring in me step it did. Some things never change.

So, tonight, to the callback with a still-standing (well, sitting actually) panel behind the desk. They were still smiling god love ’em. Must have been a big weekend. Anyhow, I had fun playing with some of my fellow callback-ees. The director put us through our paces. Playing ‘what ifs’ is the part of rehearsing I like best. Sniff out the possibilities, the choices. The taste tonight of the possibilities of working this way again has left me with more than fingers crossed. Now I want this thing! Come on phone, ring!

Post Audition

Well, OK, not bad … but then what would I know! It’s the way of the audition; in, out, and done. One way to get through the ‘Oh my god what a disaster’ or even ‘Hmm, not sures’ after an audition, is to stay busy. Worst thing is to post-mortem, and try to second guess what was going on in their heads.

It was actually all very friendly and I was made to feel most welcome and relaxed, despite the could-be-if-you-let-it-be-daunting panel behind the long table: director (the charming and witty Lewis Jones), musical director, choreographer, musical director, designer, apprentices, uncle Tom Cobbly and all. Actually this was nice as it gave me an audience to play for. I had a chance to run through my song with the accompaniste on stage before hand; this helped to loosen me up a bit, calm the nerves. Then back into the studio for an acting read, then the song, a few scales, the ‘thank-yous’ and back into the real world. Didn’t have to do a movement audition. Nice.

The waiting begins …

Here we go again!

It’s been a while. I haven’t been on stage for several years now, and my plan is to start a gentle return. To which end, and excited at the prospect, I’ve lined up for an audition for a new production of the brilliant Kander and Ebb musical play Cabaret. I saw a striking production in London in July and was gobsmacked by its power. I went out of curiosity into the theatre that afternoon with nary of a thought of my potential involvement in the Empire Theatre’s production in April 2008. I came out feeling charged up and ready to have a go at the role of Fraulein Schneider, the elderly boarding house owner where Sally and Cliff and Herr Schulz, Schneider’s Jewish fiancee all live in 1930s Berlin.

So, several singing lessons later (didn’t that feel odd being on the receiving end for once), and prepped as well as I can be, I’m fronting in the line this morning for an audition with director, Lewis Jones. I’ve always felt a teacher should find out from time to time what it feels like to be on the receiving end. Whether or not I get the gig, the audition is going to be very interesting (and exciting). The exciting part feels nice and as I remember it.

Didn’t someone once say that the audition is the least fair part of acting? Stay tuned.

Goodbye: another night in the theatre

But not any old night. Another class of actors enters the industry at their showcase performance and end of three years of intensive training. Their lovely talent shone through despite the grunginess of the venue. As always, I felt as though a bunch of fledglings was leading the nest and needed protection. No, let them go and hopefully fly. Along with many other actor-trainers, I hate showcases. They are artificial exercises designed to market a human product; they always make me feel incredibly sad and proud in equal measure.

I wanted it to go so well for them all, dressed up, hopefully clutching their business cards, learning how to pick their way through the minefield of industry schmoozing required to get agents, casting calls, auditions, jobs. It’s a tough business. Many will walk away finding it too hard, too compromising, too … .

Break a leg and never give up!

Notes Session: reflections on work

I maintain other blogs, private ones, for use with my acting students … as reflective places. Here are some extracts which chart the learning paths we’ve wandered in.

A quote that keeps insisting it be heard …
A character is the sum total of her inconsistencies.

Living Dangerously and Impulsively
In many ways, the approach we have taken to work on Shakespearean text
this semester has been ‘dangerous.’ The basic work on ‘givens’ is
accepted as having been done, and as you delve 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.

Kristin Linklater’s approach, and a lot of her workout, mentions 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. We resist the
urge to run the amber, and bite back our smart comment.

wants you to give way to the first ‘true’ impulse … at least to see
where that urge leads you. This is what we have been doing in the text
exercises, many of them developed by Dean Carey in his Masterclass
series of books. We’ve worked on subverting our impulse to reproduce
what we know, or to end-game.

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, as an artist, you 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.

I mentioned an old saying in class early this week.
It was with reference
to our consideration of performance energy, 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

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 s/he is
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.

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.

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.

question raised this week on ‘what do you do to exercise your
imagination?’ got me thinking.
Serendipitously, I came across a posting
this morning from an eminent Canadian educator. His names is Stephen
Downes. His posting ‘Things You Really Need to Learn’ addresses this

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.

We’re coming to what I always
think of as the reflective period in the semester.

We’re nearly
finished with formal classes, daily workshops where you learn and test
out new craft skills, and put your process to work on new texts and
projects. Why reflective? 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.
put a couple of questions to you in these posts. Look back over some of 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 it 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.




Looking for a monologue?
Look no further! Go this
great database of monologues listed according to playwright and play.
There’s something here for everyone.

Happy hunting.



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.

that leads me to the topic of this post, 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

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

whilst it’s not the only great theatre in the UK, it is the best in my
humble opinion.

It’s the National Theatre of Great Britain, or NT to
those in the know. It’s also one of my favourite haunts when I am in
London. Why? Well, not only is the theatre great … I saw two
outstanding productions out of two when I was there this summer … the
ambience is great. You can sit outdoors by the river or indoors with a
coffee or drink, spend your spare change in the most insanely good
bookshop, listen to musicians or a talk, or to interviews with actors,
directors and other creatives. You can get a cheap ticket … see
something for free, eat, snooze (not really), breathe theatre in fact,
and generally bemoan the lack of this kind of thing in a suburb near

But when you can’t be there, the NT website
is pretty good too. There you can read about what’s on, see some pretty
cool ‘trailers’ of shows, and subscribe to their regular podcasts (Judy Dench among others talking about what she does).


To listen or watch talks, interviews, and trailers, go to the Resources page on the site. From here, you can listen or subscribe to podcasts or vidcasts. Just hit the subscribe button, or paste the URL into iTunes or your favourite podcast application, and it will do the rest.

The NT also has a great collection of short movies, trailers of productions and interviews on their YouTube site. What you will find useful I am sure is this interview with the young cast of Chatroom/Citizenship.
It’s a goldmine sample of EE (Estuary English). Click on the link and
listen, but you should grab the URL feed from YouTube. If you haven’t
already got one, you should make yourself an online archive with links
to your collection of sound and video files.


The voice workout is
different from a warmup.

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.

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
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.

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.


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.