Overused acting notes #3: I Can’t Hear You

If there were $$s for every time this note were given in rehearsal, there’d be a pot o’ cash worth fighting for. Not being heard can relate to so many problems: insecurity over lines and their meaning, a lack of self-confidence, through to poor technique … breath support and sloppy articulation being two of the biggest culprits, because not hearing can also mean not understanding the words being spoken.

A voice coach is probably better placed to deal with the implications of this note than the director, though some good directors understand the problem very well. Too often, and born of frustration the note can become ‘louder’ or ‘louder and slow down!’ Whilst this can often cut right to the heart of the problem, the downside is lack of subtlety, and specificity of meaning; a shout-fest can result. The problem for the actor compounds into a possible new note: ‘I don’t understand what you mean …’ And so it goes.

To be heard, an actor needs good technique, a sense of the space in which s/he is working and the amount and kind of physical and vocal energy adjustment required to ‘fill the space’ (but no more), confidence in the meaning of every line, and a commitment to the complicité of performance … with scene partners and the audience.

Overused acting notes #2: Centre Yourself!

In this jargon-ridden acting business, the notion of ‘centre-ing’ is one that gets a daily work over in most classes and on the rehearsal room floor. I wonder what most actors make of this instruction by well-meaning directors, teachers, coaches? I’ve found it means different things to different people, so it’s worth checking through the list to ensure I’m on the same page as my actors when they or I use the term. This is how I understand it.

Centre yourself … get balanced, on alignment … probably the most basic of all. As a voice teacher I harp on the alignment, balance thing. It’s also the easiest to check and adjust. And speaking of voice, ‘breathe from your centre’ is another direction, again not too hard to check and correct. It’s about ensuring full rib-swing, and intercostal diaphragmatic breathing … in this use of the term, the centre is the solar-plexus.

‘Find your character’s centre.’ Now we are getting into esoteric territory. First up, ‘centre’ here means something like ‘where your character finds his or her energy’ and ‘where his or her centre of gravity is’ … the latter referring to work on alignment and general body-masking. The former reference ‘where your character finds his or her energy’ is the use of the term that eludes many. It is probably the least accessible or understood in practical terms, but does have some currency in talking about character; it’s a metaphor, not unlike the ancient theory of humours, in which people’s temperament was supposed to be determined by a part of their physical makeup. In that sense, it is somewhat useful but it’s not the be-all. It doesn’t necessarily translate in practical, physical terms; as with most metaphors, it works to inspire the imagination.

And then, there is the notion of the actor’s centre, another metaphor. Here, the term relates to finding the inner calm to perform in public (Stanislavski’s ‘public solitude’) whilst under stress in performance. ‘Finding’ this centre is not a grail quest, but part of the process of acting, and related to relaxation.

Centre yourself is not a bad instruction or self-check, but be clear about what it is you’re doing.

Overused acting notes #1: Being in the Moment

If there’s one phrase that an actor can get tired of, it’s that old favourite ‘being in the moment.’ I count myself as one who finds it tedious. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pay attention to it, or that it isn’t relevant … a lot of the notes I’ve given and received have been about this lack of ‘being in …. .’ But as an acting principle, it can be misunderstood. Bear with me.

There are a couple of states of being at any moment when acting … you the actor, and you the actor as if character. To deny these states of being is a misunderstanding of the basics of acting as well as the human capacity to engage imaginatively (or otherwise) with more than one thing at a time. I’ve had students who got the whole idea of characterisation mixed up with who they were supposed to ‘be’ at any given time on stage. You can’t be ‘you’ and the ‘character’ at one and the same time? Well, hello … who is it up there? We’re talking art here people.

Being in the moment for me means being fully present as actor and actor as character; I am available as needed moment by moment, beat by beat as I engage with stage action. I retain aesthetic awareness … control over the performance, and remain open to the small and large variations in the playing ‘as if’ I were Hamlet’s mother, for example. But it’s a balancing act.

If I slip too far one way or another, I am likely to find my actor’s sensibility jumping to the next page and disengaging from the character’s understanding of what’s going on. ‘Don’t play what’s on the next page’ is a note I find myself giving, and a check I need to keep giving myself as I perform. If I’m too immersed in actor as character, I run the risk of self-indulging and losing touch with the audience and the tempo-rhythms of the scene. Balancing act indeed, and part of the art of acting, being fully ‘in the moment’ as the artist. No wonder Stanislavski paid so much attention to relaxation and concentration.

‘Being in the moment’ is one of those principles of good timing and good acting hygiene that we need to keep learning again and again. Perhaps that’s why I find it tedious!

Image: Artistry

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Acting: three things you need to learn

Konstantin Stanislavski a portrait by Valentin...
Image via Wikipedia

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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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. Notmyshoes.net

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.