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The 12 Rules for Stage Acting

April 11, 2018
"Acting is ephemeral. You can't hang it on a wall. You can't throw it off. And you can't bring it out of a closet. It's there one night and it's gone the next, at least with stage acting anyhow." -Charles Durning

If you have ever contemplated a career in acting knows that there is a long road and rough path ahead. But it’s also one filled with joyous achievements and artistic milestones if you’re passionate, dedicated, and willing to work at your craft.

As an actor, beginning to move forward is often the hardest step in this process. When I first became an actor and magician, I was truly confused as to what that meant. I knew I wanted to act and create stories to entertain people—it was all I ever wanted to do with my life. But I wasn’t exactly sure how to get there.

So, if you’re an aspiring actor thinking about striking out on your own, let me illuminate some of the unknowns to help get you on your way and how to get out of your own way.

1. Rising above the competition.

"Who wants it more?" is true. Unfortunately that means mastering the undetectable ways of undermining your fellow actor. It's a learned art, acquired through years of experience, but if you are conscious of it, even a young actor will start to spot opportunities. Get them off-balance, get in their head, pounce on any wobble, and then take your moment and become more than yourself.

This doesn't mean to become an self absorbed ego-maniac, NO ONE wants to work with that. Win the part, by playing well with others and being the best of yourself and bringing your unique view to life. Your not competing for just the part, your auditioning for how you fit into the larger cast of performers and how they relate to each other. Keep your eyes on the prize: the chance to perform your art!

2. Push. 

Just keep that word as your mantra when nerves take over. If it doesn't work try this tip, however weird it sounds: Hold your breath and clench your sphincter. Remember: Tension in the Body builds Drama on the Stage.

3. Wait, then speak.

Don't speak until you can feel it. We will wait, gladly, for your authentic voice. Silence before speaking tells us that the character is listening and then really thinking and not just "saying lines." If you don't pause, you will ramble verbally, thus breaking the suspense the audience has waiting for the next line.

4. Hide. 

Plays are written about the important, precarious moments in life. Don't be afraid to share with us how vulnerable inhabiting these moments are for you. Look at the floor or turn upstage. We don't need to see your face, that gives it all away! Let us be a participant in the storytelling and imagine what you look like. The crown of the head and the buttocks are the true windows into the soul. A good director can help this by blocking the scene so that you are upstage in moody lighting. The more important the information is to the plot, the more the audience will want to fill it in themselves.

5. Cry. 

It's one of the clearest indicators of craft. If the physical toll of tears chokes off your voice, the sacrifice of understandable words is a small price to play for this level of truth. It can be hard, but it's an enormous reward for the audience when we hear finally hear a heartbreaking snuffle or see someone forced to wipe their eyes. The payoff for you is the that the physical sensation of crying, of your throat clenching, is like a bell ringing confirming that you are are really IN IT. See Rules 2-4.

6. Less is More. 

There is enormous power in stillness. Try doing your entire scene or monologue without moving or making sound. More often than not, you'll be surprised to discover that even that can be too much.

7. Louder, Faster.

This rule might seem to contradict rules 3, 4 & 6. Many actors fall into the trap of digging too deeply into the specificity of language, and end up making mountains out of a molehills, arbitrarily imposing "shape" and "variety." Practice a scene, long speech or monologue at a consistent and constant level of a) elevated volume, b) rapid delivery and c) high pitch. Screaming and yelling for sustained moments, fulfills one of the fundamental mandates of the theatre: to shock an audience out of its complacency.

8. Trust yourself.

The playwright has written the play. He or she is trusting you to bring your own words to supplement and replace the words on the page. YOU are the character, and only YOU truly know how they speak. Most of the time it's not Shakespeare, relax, your an actor and know how play with words.

9. Keep it real.

While film/television has camera angles and the vocal intimacy that microphones can provide, stage acting needs to keep up. An audience can spot someone just nervous or muddling through through a part. Drama is built around challenging moments, and in real life, at those times it can be hard to speak. So it's ok if it's hard to hear. As per rule 4.

10. "play". 

The word is perhaps the most misunderstood in actor training. In truth it's a misnomer. Do not confuse the "Play" (capitalized noun) with what children do collectively making up stories "play" (lower case verb) The first "Play" is like capitalism: competitive marketplace where individuals (actors) compete to sell their services (themselves) to a market (the audience), all under the guise of "telling a story."

The second, "play" is like communism: a utopian fantasyland that relies to a fault on quaint but ultimately useless ephemera like imagination, collaboration and empathy. While well-intentioned, it is inevitably outgrown, and has been thoroughly discredited.

11. Look the best version of yourself.

The stage is a gateway to work on other shows and employment on camera. So look good, regardless of your age, wealth or social status. A little glamour never hurt anybody, so avail yourself of stage makeup, including false eyelashes, even in small houses. A little bit goes a long way. Bottom line: Nobody wants to see ugly. yuck.

12. Bow with humility. 

We should never expect applause, and so it should always come as a surprise. Our challenge is to continue to register that surprise and delight "as if" for the first time. Don't ever get used to it! Share your surprise with them as sincerely and demonstratively as you can. If you have followed rules 5 & 9 faithfully, any audience member will be able to lip-read "Thank You", and understand what a gesture to your heart and the shine in your eyes mean. You want them to feel like they are the best audience you've ever had.

Yours truly, Griffin Cloudwalker
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