learning how to act

Acting Out In Public

by Paul Strikwerda in Articles, Career 20 Comments

Paul Strikwerda as Thomas PaineJokes about actors.

I bet you know a few…

Q: How many actors does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Just one. He stands there, and waits for the world to revolve around him.

Q: How do you get an actor off of your front porch?
A: Pay him for the pizza.

Q: What’s the difference between an actor and a pizza?
A: A pizza can feed a family of four.

Ouch!

That’s why many worried parents will jump for joy when their son or daughter announces:

“I have decided not to pursue an acting career. I think I’ll get a real job instead.”

In a world where ninety percent of actors are out of work ninety percent of the time, this seems like a wise decision. What do you think?

THE GLASS HOUSE

I’ve never really thought about becoming a stage or screen actor, although I’ve always been okay in front of an audience. It had to do with my upbringing.

As the son of a minister, I was used to having the spotlight on my family and myself. We didn’t have a crystal cathedral, but we certainly lived in a glass house. It was more or less expected of me to take part in Sunday School productions which my mother directed. I didn’t mind. Another Christmas. Another Nativity play.

When music became a big part of my life, I never shied away from solos, and in my student years I often starred in cabarets for which I’d written the skits, the music, and the lyrics.

At seventeen I was hand-picked to produce and present a youth radio program on a well-known Dutch network, which launched my career in broadcasting. All of a sudden, I had a new audience. Little did I know that it would take thirty-four years before I’d finally appear in a real play on a historic stage.

Now, before you think that I joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, I should put things into perspective.

BACK TO THE PAST

A few months ago, I was asked to join a local group in Easton Pennsylvania called the “Bachmann Players.” They’re named after the Bachmann Publick House in my home town. The 1753 House is Easton’s only surviving 18th century tavern, and oldest standing building.

The building was once the home to Northampton’s Court, and people such as Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, General John Sullivan, William Ellery, and William Whipple (signers of the Declaration of Independence) were guests at the Bachmann.

The Bachmann Players is a group of Easton based amateur historians and actors. Mining Easton’s rich colonial history, they use letters, diaries, and other source materials to recreate the people and events of the 1700’s so that they can be experienced by a modern audience.

The Players are under the artistic guidance of Christopher Black, a veteran stage actor who spent over a decade as a member of the former Jean Cocteau Classical Repertory in New York. 

COMMON SENSE

For their latest production, An Evening with John Adams, Black needed someone to play the pompous Englishman Thomas Paine, a man who didn’t always see eye to eye with Adams. For some reason, Black had to think of modest me…

Knowing how humble and unpretentious I am, I’m sure you can understand that I could not say no to this small role. Anything that gets me out of my lonely recording booth, and that’s in some way beneficial to my voice-over career, is game for me. In fact, I believe many voice-overs have become way too comfortable in their isolated home studios. If you’re one of them, I challenge you to get out of your protective bubble, and find a stage.

Before you audition for your local community theater, I want to warn you. The step from voice acting to performing in front of a live audience is not as small as you may think. Here are a few obvious hurdles:

1. Learning lines

As voice actors, we are spoiled rotten. We never have to learn any lines. We’re masters at reading scripts in a way that sounds spontaneous and natural. When we’re done, we toss them away, and move on to the next thing. 

To me, it was shocking to find out how bad I had become at memorization. The only memory I rely on these days, is the RAM in my computer, and the chip in my smart phone. I’ll be honest with you. It took me three weeks to learn three lousy pages of copy. And at the dress rehearsal I managed to forget an entire paragraph. I was mortified.

2. Blocking

It’s a term used to describe how you move and where you move during a play or on a movie set. Being the lazy voice-over I am, I’m used to sitting behind the mic all day long. The only blocking I ever did was blocking my thoughts about auditions that didn’t work out. On stage, I had to make sure I remembered my lines, and I had to keep track of the “choreography” of the play. In the beginning, my brain only allowed me to do one or the other.

3. Taking directions

Most of my voice-over sessions are self-directed. I choose the tone, the tempo, and the timbre. Sometimes a client surprises me with some vague instructions. The only feedback I usually receive is a “thank you,” “well done,” and a check. At various times during the rehearsal of the play the director had to rein me in because I spoke too fast. I had to redo scene after scene, incorporating instructions about diction, movement, and facial expressions.

To me, getting all this feedback was a gift. As a coach, I’m usually the one giving feedback. However, I know quite a few voice-over colleagues who don’t have an easy time receiving instructions. They don’t like being scrutinized and criticized. That’s the way they see it. It makes them nervous; they become defensive, and they feel the need to justify themselves. 

4. Interaction

Acting is interacting. As a voice-over, there’s usually no need to interact. We’re loners. We have to be comfortable with our own company. The stage is very different. We’re not delivering our lines into a microphone or to an engineer hiding behind a thick wall of glass. On stage we have entire conversations with other people who look us in the eye. They respond to us and we respond to them. When they mess up their lines or get lost, we improvise until we get back on track. 

Voice actors like to talk. Stage and screen actors like to listen.

5. Audience

The audience is also part of this process. The audience responds. Sometimes with silence. Sometimes with laughter. Sometimes by being distracted. You can feel their energy. You can hear their whispers and their sighs. It’s instant, unfiltered feedback. Their criticism can crush you. Their applause is exhilarating. Their smiles will warm your heart. It’s something you’ll never experience if you stay enclosed by the carpeted double walls of your voice-over studio.

One actor put it this way:

“I never achieve ‘performance level’ in rehearsals, which is upsetting to directors until they see me on stage. The audience puts the final polish on the performance. They are really a large part of the whole theatrical happening.”

6. Transitory

The beauty of a live performance lies in the fact that it is ephemeral. It happens in the moment, and once the words are spoken, they only live on in memory. It’s magical, and it is merciless.

In contrast to voice- or screen acting, the stage doesn’t tolerate any retakes. If you mess up your lines, that’s too bad. There are no “take one” and “take two’s.” In that respect, stage acting is more like doing live radio. And there’s something else that’s different.

After the very last performance of a play, everything dissolves. Actors move on. The sets and costumes are stored, and the props are returned. The voice actors’ output is less fleeting.

Years from now, people will still listen to that audio book you recorded. They will still watch that documentary for which you were the narrator. That video your client put up on YouTube will still be there, ten years from now. Like photos, your fragile recorded moments in time may last forever.

7. Showing emotions publicly

If I were to make one generalization it is this. Voice actors tend to be introverted. They may come across as shy and reserved. Stage and screen actors are often extroverted. Their personalities can easily fill up a room and then some.

One actor once said to me:

“The hardest part about acting is letting yourself go, and exposing raw emotions in front of people you don’t know.”

Showing your feelings is even harder when you have performance anxiety, and when you’re not very comfortable around people. If that happens to be you, and you want to open up a little, joining an amateur theater group can be very therapeutic. You see, you don’t have to be yourself while acting. You’re only playing a role. It’s a good rehearsal for real life situations. 

My director kept on saying:

“Remember, this is called a PLAY for a reason. That means you get to play and have FUN!”

MORE RESPECT

Getting ready for An Evening with John Adams wasn’t a masterclass in method acting. We’re talking about amateur dinner theater in a historic setting. It’s hard to judge my own performance, but I think my Thomas Paine was more of a stereotype, instead of a real person. I’m certainly not ready for Tennessee Williams or Tom Stoppard.

This experience did give me much more respect for the people we see on stage, in the movies, and on television. 

I think that one of the reasons people assume acting is easy, is that good actors make it appear easy. It’s the same mistake people make about voice acting. We all know there’s more to it. Much more. And yet, if we do it right, no one will ever notice.

Back in my booth, I miss the camaraderie of the Bachmann Players. I miss having to put on silly colonial clothes to get into character. And I miss the electric energy of a live performance followed by a cast party. A party where we tell each other jokes…

Q. What’s the difference between an actor and a mutual fund?

A. Mutual funds eventually mature and make money.

Q. Did you hear about the actor who fell through the floor?

A. He was just going through a stage.

Paul Strikwerda ©nethervoice

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