Sunday, June 26, 2011

Respect for Acting: The Characteristics of an Actor

I meet so many people nowadays who tell me they've always wanted to be on stage and perform, but didn't know if they had it in them, how far they could go with their natural talents.  Most of these people also aren't very familiar with the necessary training one needs to acquire to really harness the gift, but it all starts with a few personal traits and disciplines within yourself that will get you far.  Uta Hagen outlines a few characteristics of actors who are excellent at their craft in all fields in Respect for Acting.

"For a would-be actor, the prerequisite is talent.  You can only hope to God you've got it," Ms. Hagen writes.  I feel as if this could be a debatable point when it comes to 'natural talent' and if it's the foundation of successful acting.  Acting, apart from other artistic mediums, can be a primal trainwreck if out of control of the art itself.  The natural talent, I believe, comes from the understanding and awareness of the gift and the basic idea of how to control and manipulate it.  It's a trait that can be discovered anytime in life, but comes without formal training.  You may come from a family of artists or you may be the 'black sheep', but there's no denying whether you've got the 'talent' or not.  

Talent, as Ms. Hagen defines it, is:
"... an amalgam of high sensitivity; easy vulnerability; high sensory equipment (seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting - intensely); a vivid imagination as well as a grip on reality; the desire to communicate one's own experiences and sensations, to make one's self heard and seen."
To me, talent and ability walk a fine line together.  There are people with outgoing personalities and possess unique traits who don't fare as well as actors because of the lack of training and the focus that comes with it.  The natural ability makes the training much easier, almost necessary to understand the training itself.  I believe everyone has this natural ability because it lies as an innate reaction, albeit more dormant in some people than others.  The natural ability comes from having an open and curious mind to the world and to learn about it as much as you can in the short time that you have, and the talent lies in the desire to communicate what you've learned to the world.  Ultimately, you want your human experiences to be heard and seen, whether they are literal or translated through the character.  How do we develop such diverse skills in emotive and physical communication to successfully portray a 'natural' character?  What do we need to develop within and outside of ourselves as unique individuals to be able to connect with these characters we portray?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Synergy Festival of the Stars 2011!

Synergy's Festival of the Stars is an invitational recital to compete for scholarships!  These kids earned the top marks from their adjudicated SynergyFest performances and hope their extra practice and persistence will earn them free lessons with their favourite teachers!  Here's a few photos I snapped of the young musicians showing off their accomplishments with their families!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Stephen Sondheim's "COMPANY" Starring Neil Patrick Harris - in (Movie) Theatres!

Who wants to see HIMYM's Barney in a musical? 

First, thank you my friend and "Broadway geek" Jenna (from such adventures as The Book of Mormon) who introduced me to this show by handing me the PBS Great Performances DVD of the 2006 production of Stephen Sondheim's Company at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway.  The production was directed and choreographed by John Doyle, who is most popular for his work on the recent stage revival of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, having the actors themselves play instruments and provide the orchestral arrangements.  Such was the case for this 2006 production, starring Raúl Esparza as Bobby, the central character, playing piano and percussion.  Such is not the case for this particular production starring Neil Patrick Harris in the same role, but the character itself and the relationships he forms are not too far off from the charms and charisma of Barney in How I Met Your Mother.  He's a great choice, and I can't wait to see this production taped live on Broadway for movie theatres!

Company is a "concept musical" composed of short skits focusing around Bobby, a bachelor celebrating his 35th birthday, a close circle of friends consisting of five married couples and his three, um, 'lady friends'.  Although there is no conscious plot in the musical, it marks one of the first to deal with adult problems of the time through its content.  Dealing with societal and personal issues that are very real to the audience, that make deeper connections than they would like to admit when walking out the theatre, can become powerful statements in art.  Bobby is doted on by his married friends to find him a girl and settle down, yet he is witness to intimate moments in his friends' lives that question the happiness of the institution of marriage, along with his own fear of commitment.  Bobby acts as a proxy of sorts in regards to the collective fears of the audience in their own personal lives, blatantly asking of his friends some piece of wisdom to find true companionship beyond the complication.  Each vignette magnifies something specific and familiar, but unique to Bobby and his circle of friends as they are confronted with questioned fidelity, fear of abandonment, sexual confusion and mid-life identity crises ... these are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this colourful 'company'.

Sondheim addresses how he turned the art of distraction around on the audience he portrays in his musical.
"Company does deal with upper middle-class people with upper middle-class problems. Broadway theater has been for many years supported by those people. They really want to escape, and here we're saying we'll bring it right back in their faces ... what they came to a musical to avoid, they suddenly find facing them on the stage."
I'm really excited to see NPH's portrayal of Bobby, a character that gets more complex throughout the show, and an excellent role to add to his repertoire.  Not to be outdone, he's featured with an all-star cast with the likes of Stephen Colbert, John Cryer, Christina Hendricks, Martha Plimpton, Patti LuPone and more outstanding talent that will make for fantastic theatre.  Sondheim's artistic mark in Company is a revolutionary step, using the Broadway musical format as a direct criticism and depiction of society.  It'll be one of your favourites, too, it's so scything yet sweet at times.  

My most anticipated moment for this show: Patti LuPone performing "Ladies Who Lunch" - in full character.  Patti will play Joanne, a cynical 'upper crust' society woman with contempt for happiness and rather happy to wash it away with a good cocktail.  "Ladies Who Lunch" is a torch song for Joanne as she criticizes the well-to-do women who have nothing better to do with their time than "lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch / on their own behalf", only to find at the end she just may be the worst of them all, judging while she has nothing better to show.  Check out Patti Lupone's performance on a television special celebrating Stephen Sondheim's 80th Birthday Celebration.  (Easter egg!  The woman to stage left - your right looking at the video - is Elaine Stritch, the woman who originated the role of Joanne in 1970 in its first Broadway production!)

Check out my Tonys 2011: Best Musical Moments for a performance by the entire cast - yes, Stephen Colbert, too!  Limited runs have started June 15th - check your local movie theatres!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Tony Awards 2011: Best Musical Moments

The 65th Annual Tony Awards marked a powerful season on Broadway.  Many of the issues of the characters in these plays and musicals resemble significant changes in today's society; theatre's way of 'holding up a mirror' to the world, allowing conversation to happen and people to connect.  Topics of AIDS, poverty, war, racism and religion were presented in satirical, hilarious, sincere, grotesque and heroic moments in theatre history.  I've rediscovered some powerful performances, found some new favourites and have a bit of a gay-man-crush on Neil Patrick Harris because he is so awesome.  I'll be featuring my favourite musical performances of the evening, with a special feature about the powerful pieces of theatre and drama that were featured and nominated from this year's Broadway season.

There were lots of favourite musical moments of the night, as well as some amazing music and talent to be discovered.  "Teen heartthrob" Neil Patrick Harris set the tone for the evening, celebrating the wide diversity that has come to Broadway in recent years, with a rousing musical number featuring appearances from the nominated productions of Catch Me If You Can, Sister Act, The Book of Mormon, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying! and Anything Goes.  Former Tony host Hugh Jackman even came onstage to offer NPH some helpful hints on the night's progress, only to turn into a battle of showmanship.  In the end, it's all about "acquiring better gift bags."  We were also treated to a performance mid-evening from the cast of Company, with NPH in the role of Bobby.  You'll also find some hidden talents from castmates Stephen Colbert, Christina Hendricks, Martha Plimpton and John Cryer.

Daniel Radcliffe made his professional debut in London's West End the psychological drama Equus with his Harry Potter costar, Richard Griffiths, in 2007.  (Richard played Vernon Dursley, Harry's abusive uncle, to save you the search.)  He was applauded, as well as receiving harsh criticism for his courageous yet disturbing performance as Alan Strang that was far beyond the comfort level many people were used to seeing him in.  The production was brought to Broadway for a limited run, establishing Daniel's 'star power' and talent on the stage.  There's no doubt his movie career has trained him in endurance for his performance as J. Pierrepont Finch in the 50th anniversary revival production of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying!  (I'd like to see a dance-off between Harry and Voldemort!)  The production received a nomination for Best Revival, and John Larroquette took home the Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical!

The Scottsboro Boys recounts a moment of history in the American South in 1931, where nine black boys are accused of a terrible crime and sent to prison without fair trial.  The case is widely considered a modern miscarriage of justice and has been examined by many artists, scholars and historians as a prominent change in Alabama law.  Controversy surrounded the show in regards to its use of "minstrelsy and (apparent) blackface were racist".  Whoopi Goldberg had said on The View in response to the protests growing outside their theatre:  "The people who are protesting this show, 90% of the people have not seen it ... People are protesting saying that it shouldn't be in a minstrel show, this is too serious. What people don't understand is that you have to bring information to people in an most-invigorating way."  That's how theatre reaches you!  The production had received 12 nominations at this years' ceremonies, second only to The Book of Mormon: The Musical.  Sadly - really - it didn't receive any awards.  Before the boys suffer their tragic tale, they had high hopes of a free life riding a boxcar and seeing the wide open spaces in the number "Commencing to Chattanooga", featuring Joshua Henry. 

I was really wondering what song would be performed from The Book of Mormon: The Musical.  Considering myself part of a lucky club who has seen this wonderful, wonderful masterpiece of musical theatre (read about it here!), I also keep in mind the television-friendly content - if any.  The choice of "I Believe", performed by Tony-nominated Andrew Rannells for his role of Elder Price, was a great way to show the sweetness of the whole absurdity in this musical, that these Mormon folk will take a leap of faith for you, no matter who you are.  The song demonstrates the personal leaps of faith Mormons take when it comes to the doctrine of their religion; some of it is rather questionable, some of it controversial, but something that Trey Parker and Matt Stone have stated in their press interviews for the show is that they have "nothing bad to say about Mormons" because they're "such nice people!"  Looks like Broadway loves Mormons, too - earning nine awards out of the 14 nominations they received, including Best Musical!  I hear there's a waiting list, and even cast and crew are having a hard time getting tickets for their family and friends.  I only hope for the sake of the rest of you it becomes a touring show!

I love being surprised by someone's 'hidden talent'.  Take Sutton Foster, for instance.  I first saw Ms. Foster onstage in a fantastic performance as Janet van de Graaf in The Drowsy Chaperone a few years ago in Toronto, a nostalgic spoof of 1920s musicals.  She's got a great 'fresh vintage' look, fantastic dance form and a beautiful belting voice that has earned her roles in many revivals, including the current - and Tony nominated - production of Anything Goes, a farce set below decks of a prestigious ocean liner sailing from London to New York.  I did not realize until after the ceremonies that Ms. Foster also plays Brett's sign-holding girlfriend Coco in Flight of the Conchords - y'know, the mousy, quiet one?  Yeah, I know, right!  Ms. Foster took home Best Performance of an Actress in a Musical and the production won Best Revival - see why as they perform the title song from the show at this year's Tonys.   

Norbert Leo Butz is just awesome altogether.  I got a first-hand account of his awesomeness when I saw him as Freddy "Buzz" Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: The Musical on Broadway in 2006.  (We had just missed John Lithgow as Lawrence Jameson, but were treated to Jonathan Pryce in the role - hilarity ensued!) His performance as Carl Hanratty in the new musical Catch Me If You Can, the detective chasing 16-year-old con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr., earned him Best Performance by a Lead Actor in a Musical, and quite a role to remember.  Believe it or not, for you Wicked fans - this mustachioed grumbler had played Fiyero in one of the first Broadway casts!  Watch him and the cast perform "Don't Break The Rules" from the musical.

Stay tuned for the next 'Tony' post of some incredible dramatic plays included in this year's Broadway season!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Respect for Acting: Representational vs. Presentational, Outer vs. Inner Techniques

I am a student of Stanislavski when it comes to building acting technique, learning about how his method is much like a fine-tailored suit specifically for the actor wearing it.  However, my suit won't fit you perfectly, it will need to be altered for your form in certain ways for your own preferences.  Stanislavski himself interviewed the finest actors of his day to determine the formula for a successful actor in his craft, finding that although certain techniques were common, they were given different approaches depending on the actor's conditioning.  It can all relate to our own personalities and how we retain those experiences, how we recall them when retelling anecdotes from days or years ago.  Whether they're childhood memories, personal morals or even table manners, they have all created a system of responses that are at your fingertips when it comes to a reference library to use in your acting technique.  The question is now how to apply them.

Friday, June 10, 2011

SynergyFest 2011!

Recital time!  SynergyFest is an adjudicated performance recital with kids doing their best in earning top marks and receiving an invitation to the Festival of the Stars - and a chance to win a scholarship!  Piano, guitar and voice were performed by student in our Grand Ballroom dance studio in front of over fifty of their friends and families.  There were so many friends and family in attendance it was difficult to get many pictures, but I've got a few here!

Congrats to all the students!

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Building 'Respect for Acting'

"Overcome the notion that you must be regular.  It robs you of a chance to be extraordinary."  -Uta Hagen

It seems at the most serendipitous times, the universe gives you what you ask for ... even when you haven't asked for it yet.  When it came to my acting skill, I have to admit that it's all a God-given gift with high-school training and work experience.  My first mentor in the theatre arts, Harry Wilson, was my high school drama arts teacher who saw potential in my untamed energy.  (Seriously - I needed a helmet in freshman year, I was bouncing off walls!)  I have fond memories of late nights with cast and crew of students and 'Mr. Wilson' performing a labour of love for Sears Drama Festival plays or Remembrance Day assemblies.  He taught me about Stanislavski and how his 'actor's suit' had to be tailored for each actor, because each one requires a different fit.  Each actor has his or her own rituals and mental processes of connecting with a character, but may not suit another actor's technique or opinion.  Each actor has a personal technique tied with something that has been learned and refined, which is a constant process.  Any artist who's told you he's learned all he needs to know is lying!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Links of the Week: Hitchcock, "Liars" & Roughhousing

As an actor and artist, it is always important to be aware of the continuing social changes in the world around you.  Sometimes, even those small, poignant moments can cause a flurry of activity that change hearts and minds.  This can affect our art in certain ways we may not notice immediately, but can certainly shape our voices in a vast sea of creation.  The internet is a great resource of information that can help create opinions and shape moments that can be used in the craft, as well as an understanding of our art and how people react, behave, come together or are torn apart in times of change.  I also occasionally find the awesome 'geek link'; 'Easter eggs' about favourite movie and television franchises, production news for upcoming projects and the like.  All stuff to excite you about the art and keep you informed about the art around you.

I'm always on news sites, bookmarking current events from the all over the world that interest me or affect me in some way.  Along with those, I'll be sharing them every so often with you here for your enjoyment and education.  Please feel free to share any cool links, as well ... Enjoy this week's picks!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

My Personal Library

Books are great.  I love books.  I've been a bookworm since I was a kid, my nose usually stuck in some story book with ideas on how to act them out later.  I imagined that I would have a large two-storey mahogany library full of books with a fireplace and those wheeley-ladders you'd need to get to the highest shelf.  I will never have a big enough book collection, and it's getting almost ridiculous.  I have books about everything - science, art, music, psychology, medicine, history, religion, children's stories, philosophy, biographies ... Well, here.  This is what's directly across from me at the moment; you'd have the same view if you were sitting beside me on my couch.  Have a look.  It's not everything, but it's most.

We have yet to find a 'bookshelf' that we really like.  In the meantime, my boyfriend had found this gurney in a 'free stuff' pile outside Peel Memorial Hospital.  It's currently being supported by a couple of milk crates on either side, those ones are holding magazines and paperbacks.  This is the bulk of it, more of it is scattered around the apartment.  Within arms reach anywhere in the apartment, you'll hit a stack of books.  I've got rainy afternoons, lazy Sundays and sick days taken care of!

I love the fluid motion of turning pages, how words on paper can create images in the mind's eye, fleshing out people we feel connections with and places that we dreamed before.  Reading is the best exercise we can give our minds and imaginations, not to mention our vocabulary.  It can open up so many doors and endless possibilities of communication and compassion, help up conquer and overcome our deepest fears and better ourselves through education and knowledge.  It can also help us understand ourselves better, as individuals and how we are connected through history and storytelling.  An actor's ability to use the 'mind's eye' to 'flesh out characters' is important when it comes to reading scripts, and reading is the best way to exercise that 'mental muscle'.

An actor's ability to become a character from paper all comes, first and foremost, from the script.  Words are crafted in a certain way to show a specific intent, whether it's made obvious in a spoken line or dubious in a veiled action (sometimes such instructions that'll show up in the script usually in parenthesis and italics, for those who haven't read a script format).  For an actor who truly wants to 'create' the character as supposed to 'represent' a character, one would be studying the human reaction within the script as supposed to recreating someone else's performance in the same production.  We do this when we read our favourite novel, but the author has done us the favour by including detailed descriptions of the atmosphere, affecting the character's mood, which in turn reveals the 'inner monologue' - we could only ask for such luxury in a script!  We receive a few paragraphs of the room in which the scene takes place, followed by the characters' lines in order with the few occasional directions of interaction with the set and props, as well as direction of emotional speech.  Read a script - you'll see the difference!  

I've got a pretty good collection of scripts and classic theatre plays, as well.  Stuff ranging from Sophocles and Shakespeare to Shaw and Sondheim ... and a few more in between.  Again, above isn't everything, but a good chunk.  I'm excited to revisit these favourites, and some I haven't even the chance to sit down and read myself.  Shakespeare is my favourite to read because of the language itself, how iconic it becomes when you really pay attention to the symbolism and poetry.  The theatre of ancient Greece and Rome has always fascinated me, as it served as a sort of worship to deities and leaders when actors and musicians would reenact victorious battles and historical moments.  I have a great collection of modern classics I'm excited to read through again, having not really touched them since high school.  All of this stuff I'm excited to share with my new students at Synergy, because these are beautiful works of art that will broaden their repertoires, shape their technique as actors, and deepen their compassion as human beings.

But ... first thing's first.  Let's get my technique down, shall we?

The first book I'm reading is something I've already read, but I'm now defacing it with margin notes and highlighter: Respect for Acting by Uta Hagen.  I've heard this is used as a textbook in most colleges, which makes me a little more excited that I found this in a thrift store.  Ms. Hagen is a brilliant teacher at HB Studios in New York City, where she has been a stage and screen actress and teacher for more than 20 years.  I've gotten about a chapter and a half into the book with copious notes, incredibly introspective into building an actor's technique by using human experience and instinct.

My boyfriend and I don't subscribe to cable television, which relieves a 'tether' on us, where we flip it on and plant ourselves on the couch, and suddenly - whoa, where'd the past three hours go?  I do that with books now, and I feel a heck of a lot more productive, and take my afternoon nap with a lot less guilt.  Don't get me wrong - sometimes Lost is playing in the background, but it's on our schedule.  I feel like I have 'all the time in the world' to finish my library, because books are my television.  I'd be happy to share book recommendations for you; between me and a few other friends, we've got a rather large library to stock!

Read, read, read kids!  Your imaginations can do a million things more than any television can think of!
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