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Archive for the ‘Acting Basics’ Category

Memorizing tips

It’s late at night, and once again I find myself sitting up in bed reviewing my lines for a performance tomorrow.  During the Rush Hour season, the memorizin’ requirements can be substantial, so here are some tips…

Memorization gets easier with time.  The more you do it, the easier it becomes. 

Start in a quiet place.  Minimize distractions until you really have your lines down.  At THAT point, distraction can actually become helpful!

READ IT FIRST!  Read the entire piece through at least 3 times before you try to memorize the first line.  This technique will help you understand what you are learning, how the words flow and what other characters are doing… all of which will add meaning to what you are learning, making it easier to remember.  This is a MUST DO for memorizing music!  Always be really, really familiar with the way an entire song sounds so that you can memorize your part in context. 

Say the lines out loud.

I write my lines down.  Just like spelling practice as a kid. As I get faster, I just write the first letter of each word until I can say the lines faster than I can write or scribble them down.

MOVE AROUND!  Once you think you know the lines, walk around.  Imagine the audience as you speak, envision the theatrical environment.  This will help prevent the deer in the headlights moments when you have to add blocking later (see glossary).

I use gestures to help me memorize.  Adding a specific movement to a line can trigger the words.  Just keep things natural looking, and don’t add a movement for every word! 

Add distraction.  Once you have the lines down pretty well, let the dogs in the house and keep practicing.  Go in the same room as the kids, turn the radio or the TV on, and keep working!  If you have kids old enough to read, hand them a script and have them read the other character’s lines.  Be sure to tell them not to rescue you unless you ask for help.  Be fair to your rehearsal partner by stating your expectations clearly before you start. Do you want them to correct you?  If so, should they correct every minor mistake, or just make sure you get the general idea of the line. 

Don’t memorize the “ACTING” as you learn the lines.  Unless you are directing yourself, memorizing HOW you will deliver the lines as you learn the words themselves can set your performance in stone, and cause problems when you begin acting with others.   A director may want a different interpretation and you may be so sure of your character’s own motivations that you don’t leave room for the other actors to explore THEIR parts because yours is so locked down.  Try memorizing the lines in a monotone at first, THEN memorize them using a different interpretation every time you read the line.   Play with different emotions, say the line happy, silly, angry, sarcastic, evil, with a lisp, with an accent.  Take a line and add an emphasis to a different word each time you say it. 

     example:  HOW now brown cow.  how NOW brown cow?  how now BROWN cow.  how now brown COW! 

I use that same technique when I am not sure how to interpret a line.  By changing the emphasis of each word, you can explore the writer’s intent in a variety of ways.

  Try this example out loud:  I will not go to the corner store right now.  I WILL not go to the corner store right now.  I will NOT go to the corner store right now.  I will not GO to the corner store right now.  I will not go to the CORNER store …. OK, you get the picture.

All the repetition helps. 

I have a friend who has a recorder app on his phone.  He records the entire script in various character voices including his own lines and listens to it over and over saying his lines “with himself.”  He records a second version where he omits his own lines and reads all the other characters’ lines.  He uses the first recording until he has it down, and uses the second version to test himself.

Often I get STUCK on the same line, forgetting in the same spot each time I come to it in a script.  If  I can’t remember what comes in the next sentence, I drill and drill about 5-6 words, over and over, taking the last few words I know and the first few words of the next line where I get stuck and repeating them. No breaks, no “punctuation”… just the words flowing from the solid phrase right into the trouble phrase.

Example:   “Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.”   Let’s say I get the first half, but can’t remember the method part… here’s the way I would say it over and over…. “madness yet, madness yet, madness yet”  Then add more….” madness yet there is method, madness yet there is method, madness yet there is method.”  Then I would do the whole phrase until I had it down.  THEN, and only then, would I allow myself to add the phrasing and interpretation for meaning.

I might set myself a goal such as saying a line perfectly 10 times before I allow myself to go onto the next line.

This will vary according to your own group and director’s preference, but generally… during a rehearsal, don’t keep your script open and in your hands… know your lines well enough to roll them up in your back pocket, tuck it under your arm, toss it on the floor nearby.  A rehearsal is not a first read-through… be better prepared than that if you possibly can.  (This assumes, of course, that it is not a blocking rehearsal that requires you to make notes on your script).

During a rehearsal, there should be someone on book (watching lines) for you.   If there is, just say “LINE”  clearly and HOLD CHARACTER until you hear the line.  If there is no prompter… pick up your script, find the line and carry on with as little fuss as possible. 

Saving my number one tip for last…. I work on my lines right before I go to sleep.  I find that they solidify in my mind overnight. When I wake up, I review them in my head before I get up.  If there are weak spots, I work those that morning and voila!  I find giving myself two nights to sleep on it, cements things in very well.  For beginners, have your lines learned at least a week before you are expected to have them down, if at all possible. Then shorten the prep time as you get better at it.

NEVER wait until the day of the performance to memorize your lines.  Show up for the final run-through with a script in your hand???  Dont.  Just dont. That is the BEST way to send an entire cast into panic mode. When a director doesn’t trust you to be prepared, they will start making rules… rules that affect the whole cast and can cause hard feelings… and since creative people like us tend to dislike rules anyway, ‘tiz a far, far better thing thou doest when thou cometh to the play prepared.     

hugs,   v-


Three types of Acting… Movies, TV, Rush Hour

Ever hear a director ask you to “go bigger?”  What they are saying is that your movements are too small, not dramatic enough.  For beginning actors, breaking out of a constrained physical style can be very hard to do.  So I ask our actors to consider this…

Americans are generally exposed to three types of acting. 


  1. The most commonly viewed type is probably TV acting. 
  2. The second most common style we see is movie acting, originally filmed for screens that project a face (close-up) over eight feet high. 
  3. The third type of acting American see is probably stage acting.  Your local dinner theatre, for instance. 

Rush Hour acting is closest to the third type (stage acting), but really over the top.  Think of Lucille Ball in the famous grape crushing scene from “I Love Lucy.”

Most beginning actors hold back their physicality.  This always looks like a “movie” acting style to me.  If you filmed a Rush Hour actor, they would probably come across on screen looking like Jim Carey… big, over the top.  A movie camera can pick up micro-expressions on an actor’s face, so less is more when acting for film.  Unless you are doing an action or wildly physical comedy film. 

Sit-com acting on TV is a mid-range acting style.  It’s called acting for the “small screen.”  The TV style of acting can be a little bigger, a little more physical.  A TV set may have fewer cameras and a weekly production schedule that just won’t allow for take after take with multiple camera angles to get just the perfect shot like a film director can request.  So a situation comedy (sit-com) may be shot from further away in a slightly more theatrical style than a movie shoot.  With the camera farther away, actors can worry less about staying in the shot, and less about being over-the-top with a physical bit. 

BUT!  That style is STILL not “big” or “dramatic” enough physically to tell a story from a theatrical stage.  The expressions and movements have to be much bigger on stage, because the audience is generally too far away to see the subtlety required for big screen or small screen acting (movies or TV).  Imagine trying to flirt with someone who is across the room from you.  A movie actress might just look into the strangers eyes and THINK about how much she wants to meet that guy.  A TV actress might tilt her head and wink from across the room. A stage actress would probably use her whole body in a coy pose and smile.  Taking things even further, for Rush Hour, I would probably ask the actress to wave a hankie in the air, coyly shift from one foot to the other and hollar, “yoooo hooo!” 

Here’s another example… The actor reads this in a script:    actor reacts to seeing someone cross the room wearing a duck costume.

 The big screen (movie) director could simply film a reaction shot of an actors eyes and they watch an imaginary duck-man cross the room.  The TV director might shoot the whole face.  In Rush Hour, we would ask the actor to stand up, point, and follow the action with their whole body. 

These video clips may help explain what I mean.  hugs, v-

A note on upstaging

I pulled much of the following from my glossary because it was too wordy.  I guess I had a little more to say about “upstaging.”    

UPSTAGING   refers to an actor (or another event in the theatre) who inappropriately pulls focus from the actor that should be the center of attention at that moment.  The term comes from the fact that if an actor stands in an up-stage position and draws the attention of the audience, the actors further downstage cannot see or react to them. This can make the actor downstage look foolish and places them at a disadvantage.     

Which actor draws your attention?


Simply wiggling too much on stage can be upstaging if it happens at the wrong moment.  Looking off in the wrong direction can pull focus from another actor.  If deliberate, this can be hilarious.  Use it sparingly, though.  As a theatrical device, it gets old to the audience really fast. As a joke, or just from a lack of technique or discipline, it can cause resentment among actors.      

Lots of things can upstage an actor.  A sneeze from the audience or a deliberate heckler, a lit doorway opening in the back of the theatre, a poorly planned tech event like a scene change behind a monologue,  background music that is too loud, over-zealous lighting design.  Even a brilliant set design can upstage if the audience is not given the time to appreciate it before the action begins.  Picking an overly enthusiastic person to talk to during an audience participation moment is an easy way to upstage yourself.  Pick the guy who looks like he wants to crawl under his seat, not the one who wants his 2 minutes of fame at your expense.    

I get this question a lot… “How do I stay in character while another actor is speaking if I can’t MOVE around without upstaging them?”  My answer is usually to encourage the actor to make their movements smaller, expressions less wild, and to LISTEN to the other character who is speaking.  I tell actors to react to what someone else is  saying instead of just trying to be funny or dramatic. They can go ahead and “go big” when it’s their turn, when the other actor pauses, etc.  It’s ok if they are really listening to the other actor and not just hogging the spotlight. I encourage actors to definitely react, absolutely DO stay in character, just don’t be selfish about it.     

By the way, I work with two actors (they know who they are!) who have developed such strong stage presence they can pull focus JUST STANDING STILL!  I rarely let them stand behind (upstage of) another actor, and I often have to angle them away from the audience (standing in profile, for instance) or place them in weaker positions on stage (sitting, off stage right or left from the main action) to make sure the focus in a scene stays where it belongs.  These guys are NOT selfish, they just have a super-strong physical stage presence.     

As a director, sometimes it’s hard to tell when someone has gone over the top and is upstaging, or if they are just out-acting another actor on stage.  You never want to direct in a way that makes a great actor lower their standards to the level of a less experienced actor, so the attention from the director may need to go toward the less-strong actor, not the one who looks like she is upstaging.     

Pacing and pauses are important as well… make sure an actor delivering a long speech builds in pauses and looks to the other actors on stage for their reactions so the focus can move from the actor speaking to the actor reacting and back again.  This can happen in a split second and doesn’t necessarily have to make a scene drag.     

As an actor, resist the temptation to have fun at another actor’s expense.  A good ensemble actor plays like a good soccer player, the ball is the focus of the audience and has to be passed from one actor to another if you want to score with the audience.     

As a director, be careful not to let self-indulgence rule the day… from an actor or from you.  It’s so easy to encourage upstaging because clowning around upstage makes you laugh yourself.  But ask yourself if the extra stuff advances the plot or serves a purpose in telling the story.  If not, have the discipline to rein it in.      



Three types of stage configurations

There are three commonly used stage configurations.  A proscenium stage, a thrust stage, and theatre in the round.  A proscenium is probably what you saw in high school or your elementary school cafeteria.        

The proscenium stage


When you think of a thrust stage, think of the Miss America pageant or a New York fashion show with runway models.  Theatre in the round means the audience is on all sides, and the actors have to be aware of their stage positions as seen from 360 degrees.      


A thrust stage setup


My favorite?  Theatre in the round, of course.  It’s the most challenging and I like a challenge. I spent two years in junior college learning to be aware of 360-degree acting.  There is nothing like it.  Ever notice how Jack Nicholson can even act with his BACK!?  I bet he spent some time doing theatre in the round. Just a guess.  If you know Jack, point him to my blog so he can tell us himself.        

Of course the old Casper College theatre in the round is a computer lab now, and my Junior college has a newer stage that is sort of a thrust/proscenium hybrid.          

Best stage for beginners?  It might surprise you, but I would not say a pure proscenium.  I would say a modified proscenium with a generous apron on the front.  Sight lines can be harder to manage on an old-school proscenium stage with just 2-3 feet of space in front of the curtain. (see my glossary for term definitions).       

Theatre in the round


Things get really interesting when you start to combine aspects of these various stages.  By adding an extention onto the front of a proscenium stage, you can extend your acting space and make it a modified thrust. That approach may overcome the problem with a proscenium stage where all the action happens near the back wall and half the audience can’t see what’s going on.  By removing one set of seats from a theatre in the round, you can add set pieces and a backdrop to one side of the room and turn it into a modified thrust as well.       

Picture in your mind the American idol stage when the judges sit facing center stage and the stage configuration allows the performers to walk on a platform around the back of the judges.  That stage is a total hybrid proscenium that has elements of a theatre in the round depending upon where the singer is performing.  It can also be used as a thrust stage if the vocalists walk up to the area just in front of the judges table.  Sweet stage design.       

Want to give your actors the experience of the different stage setups?  Get in an empty room with a bunch of actors and mark the various stage types on the floor with masking tape.  Do some improvs or scene work in pairs. Have the other actors sit where the audience would normally sit, and ask them to complain if they can’t see something or if they get tired of staring at an actor’s back.        



Stage Directions

Soooo, why do they call it “upstage” or “downstage”?  Because stages used to be built on an angle so the audience (who stood on flat ground) could see the whole stage.  If you rolled a ball from the back of the stage to the front, it would roll down the stage toward the audience. 

Stage directions are always from the actor’s point of view. So stage right is the actor’s right.  Stage left is the actor’s left.  Upstage is away from the audience, downstage is toward the audience. 



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