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Posts tagged ‘Acting Basics’

Physical Performance for Singers – PART I – the “why”

Creating an environment for worship without being a distraction is probably one of the toughest challenges praise team members face.  There is so much more to this than sheet music! First, you iron out all the musicality, the vocal technique, the style, the acoustics, the sound system … and then comes the hardest problem of all…. looking “right” on stage. 

Don’t get me wrong.  This is not about your personal “looks” or how you dress.  I am a chunky monkey and the poster child for the “BEFORE” part of What Not To Wear – so don’t expect me to go there.  The topic of this post is how you physically present yourself on stage.  Recent studies show only 7% of our communication of attitudes and feelings is verbal.  Over 90% of the way we share our attitudes and feelings is NON-VERBAL.     

At RMCC,  our auditorium seats something like 1200 people.  LOTS of folks like to sit in the back, and there, they can’t actually see facial expressions without looking at the overhead screens.  (Your face counts too when it is 8′ high on the wall behind you!)  If the congregation looks at YOU, not the screen, from that distance, will they know what you are singing about?  Or does your performance say, “I am stuck in the 1980’s”  or “Petrified for Jesus”  or “Really Don’t Give A Rip About You, This Is The Only Time I Spend With God All Week!” or my personal pet peeve… “It’s just me and Jesus up here in our own little world.”  That expression/posture totally has its place in authentic worship, but if I have to sit there every Sunday for a 15-minute worship set watching you in a spotlight,  clinching your hands over your chest, eyes squeezed shut with a look of pained, self-indulgent rapture on your face, Im’ma get up and go the Perks and Pages coffee shop for a latte until the preacher gets here.

When we are on stage leading worship on Sunday morning, the part we play in the service is to warm the hearts and focus the minds of the congregation so they can hear the rest of the message.  The message in song is usually more about attitudes and feelings and less about conducting a lecture on fracture mechanics, wouldn’t you say?  So according to that study, physicality counts in what we do.  It matters. 

The Bible is full of examples of the use of physicality and gestures to powerful effect.  

C.H. parts the Red Sea. Notice how he "commands" our attention with a simple gesture. Get it? Snort.

Moses held his arms up in the air to signal battle (he could have just used messengers, but he stood in plain sight with his arms in the air).   Charlton Heston used lots of grand gestures in his role of Moses in the movie “The Ten Commandments.”  His portrayal of this Biblical character has probably defined the mental picture of Moses in the minds of more than one generation.


Entering Jerusalem

Christ  rode a donkey into Jerusalem with the crowd waiving palm branches and shouting (talk about an entrance!)

David Dancing by Richard McBee

2 Sam 6:13  David danced before the Lord with all his might.

Israel Blesses Ephraim with the Birthright, by Keith Larson

In Gen 48, Joseph takes his two sons to be blessed by their grand-father Jacob.  Jacob crossed his arms, significantly placing his right hand on the head of the younger brother  and his left hand on the older grandson.  With this physical gesture, he made the point that the younger son would be the greater man.

One of my favorite stories about Jesus is full of drama, intrigue, mystery, danger, and scandal.  It’s that of the woman caught in adultery. 

Why this physical gesture?

When asked by the religious leaders of the day what they should do with the woman, Jesus said basically, Hey, if your conscience is clean, throw the first rock to kill her.  That’s important, but heeeeeere’s the part that intrigues me…   Not much happened when Jesus talked … but then…. Christ stopped talking and made a simple physical gesture.  He stooped down and wrote in the dirt.  In the middle of a highly charged, potentially violent situation where a woman’s life was at stake!? Whah?!  (John 8)  Why that?  Why stoop down and write in the dirt? Why do it twice? Could he have been physically expressing Jeremiah 17:13 by writing the names of the accusers?   ” Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water”? Talk about a visual analogy!! What an interesting physical choice the Lord made in that moment.  But the Bible is clear. The gesture was the turning point.  The physical statement Jesus made was just as powerful as the words he spoke on that day.

If your physical presence on the stage were not important, your church leaders could just project the latest artists on screens at the front of the auditorium and ensure perfectly produced sound and visuals.  But it’s your physical presence that matters to your congregation. Your being there in person creates the worshipful environment and personal connection that is so meaningful to the audience.  Presenting a worshipful presence to a room full of people can be harder than you might think.  Is what you think you look like on stage what you actually look like?  Is the physical story you tell the minute you step on stage the one you are actually trying to tell?  Often there is a reality gap between what we feel and how we look.

Praise Team members are wonderfully diverse! This isn’t about how you look, it’s about how you move.

 It’s not about age, or weight, or height, or how many tattoos you do (or do not) have, or the body shape of the performer. It is about physical gestures and postures that you MUST learn to control so that you can communicate with the audience.

A big complaint we often hear from beginners is, “This just doesn’t feel “natural” and “How can I worship if I feel fake up here?”  Most of these same people will say that singing feels natural but moving around on stage does not.   So I ask this…  Does the physical act of singing really come “naturally” to us?  If you answered “yes”, let me ask you how often you resort to song in your day-to-day activities.  Do you “sing” your thanks to the grocery clerk, or sing your fast food order at the drive thru window? Do you sing “please pass the salt” at the dinner table?  Reaching for the salt is far more natural than singing about it.  SO!  No more nonsense about “singing is natural” and “physicality” is not, OK?  Singing is a LEARNED SKILL, you may have learned it very early in your life, but singing and speaking are NOT “natural” behaviors.  They are learned, practiced, and refined over our lives so that we can better express ourselves to each other.  It takes a lot of hard work to learn to speak and sing and walk.  

EFFECTIVE physical communication works the same way.   In an adult, awkward physicality does not appear “natural” to an audience, it usually just gets in the way of the message you want to share as a performer.  (unless your name is Mick Jagger).  However, a skilled physical performer can actually create an intense feeling of intimacy and trust between the audience member and the performer.  As a worship leader you wash the feet of those you serve with your gifts, so set your ego aside and get to the business of presenting your story with ALL your self, not just your singing voice. 

Sometimes, you have to de-construct bad physical performance habits that interfere with your ability to show your honest feelings on stage.  Sometimes, you will have to practice movements and postures that will not feel comfortable at first.  Like riding a bike, dancing, or perfecting a golf swing, think consciously about what you are doing, find a coach you trust, use the mirror, and soon your body will be able to reflect your heart from across a progressively larger area. 

Hal Holbrook plays the drunk in Mark Twain Tonight

Recently, I was fortunate to see a live performance of Hal Holbrook playing his famous Mark Twain character.   Below is a link to the part of the show where Hal’s physical acting really shines……  (caution, this clip is an excerpt from Huckleberry Finn which portrays drunkenness and use of the n-word) .  You will see him play a middle-aged drunk, a 12-year-old boy wrestling with a life-changing question,  and if you watch to the end, he steps back into the role of Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) with the simple act of closing a book and lighting a cigar.    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-JtcC7mRTw&feature=relatedAfter After procrastinating about buying tickets, they were almost sold out.  We sat literally against the back wall of a large auditorium. We were too far away to see facial expressions without opera glasses, but I was riveted by his physical performance. Hal is 80 years old and  even though he was standing there with wild Mark Twain hair and a Colonel Sanders white suit, he carried us with him down the Mississippi River.   I sat there wondering if I could “reach” an audience member in the back row of our church auditorium.

You may not want to spend the time and effort required to become a master actor and story-teller like Mr. Holbrook, but setting the modest goal of thinking through the motions of your next song would be a great first step! 

Changing your physical performance can feel artificial at first, so begin with small, deliberate observations and changes.  Pay attention to what you are doing with your hands and feet.   Learn a few easy tricks of the trade, and soon your congregation will be focused on your message and not your stage fright or the “canned” moves you think look so praise-filled.

Mick's signature moves never change do they? Like, ever?

We all have our “go-to” moves.  Those automatic gestures we use over and over again.  If you don’t know what yours are, you are simply not paying attention.  Whitney Houston and Carrie Underwood flick their fingers up and down on the microphone,  Nicole C. Mullens covers here heart with her hands a lot, comedians have fun with all Mick Jagger’s mannerisms. 

In part two on this topic, we’ll look at some specific, practical things to be aware of… but for now turn an ANALYTICAL eye toward some of these examples of Singers who are also Great Story-Tellers with their Physicality.

Nicole also gets the award for most beautiful arms on the planet, btw.

 Nicole C. Mullins – When I call on Jesus – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpHSGP6U1Ws&feature=channel   What a wonderful graceful performance.  Note the movements get bigger when the song gets bigger.  Nicole is a dancer, and her complete performance is probably beyond the average beginner, but is there a hand gesture or the angle of her head and arms that might fit into your movement repertoire?

These rascals know how to perform

Rascal Flats – Broken Road – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkWGwY5nq7A&feature=channel   Studied, subtle, relaxed and intimate performance.  Note the guitar player’s posture sitting on the stool. All he can really do is lean forward and back and tilt his head, tense and relax his legs and shoulders… but he uses those limited movements to great effect.   Men, you do not have to dance like David or wave your arms around wildly to have a powerful stage presence.  You do need to be deliberate about the way you move, though.

Elvis is trying to get to us.

Elvis – Trying to get to you – http://www.youtube.com/user/elvis?blend=1&ob=4#p/u/7/2xtfazXu45U  (this link is kinda flaky, just look for the song in the right colum on the page when you get to the site) in this tune about a man’s romantic frustration, Elvis masterfully controls his audience with his movements (no racy stuff here).  By moving in and out of extreme tension on his face and in his body, the performer tells his story.  Watch the girls react to him at time marker 2:15 when he looks like he’s going to charge out of his seat.  But he keeps it light, tongue-in-cheek, by nearly laughing at himself several times.  It’s all fun, we’re all in on the joke (which creates intimacy with the performer), but when he wants to turn on the masculine charm, he knows how to do it without vulgarity.  Just good ‘ol physical story-telling, the man holding back the tiger inside.

Sanctus Real is alright!

Sanctus Real – I’m Not Alright – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J2LCvCBaqVg  great illustration of some fairly “stock” movements used to very good effect.  This is a textbook example of how powerful the simple act of opening and closing your eyes can be.  He is very introspective when his eyes are closed, but looks right into your soul with eyes open.  He doesn’t spend the whole song with his eyes shut! These guys have a young, awkward all elbows-and-knees attitude, which works perfectly for them.  You don’t have to be a dancer to use studied movement to great effect.

Stay Tuned for “Physical Performance for Singers – PART II”  which will have less theory and more practical examples.                     hugs, V-


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-

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.      



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