Elementary Technique For The Amateur
( Originally Published 1938 )
THE WAY in which an actor is to use his hands and feet, get on and off the stage, modulate his voice, or phrase a line to bring a reaction from a second actor is not instinctive with him. The director has to tell the actor how to behave on the stage and how to behave in an effective manner.
Technique provides a form which, if followed, will aid in securing certain effective results. The word technique is an imposing word for the matters we are to discuss. We shall take up only the elementary ways and means of behavior on the stage; beyond these, the actor should invent his own technique.
Yet, without a knowledge of elementary stage behavior, the director is likely to work too hard and the actor spend his time to no purpose. Without a simple technique, the actor has to rely upon enthusiasm, feeling, or the coaching of the director. A burst of enthusiasm may lead him to a moment of dramatic acting, but can he repeat what he has done? Can he depend on the motivating force of enthusiasm the second night ? In copying his coach the actor may put himself through the routine business of one play, but will it aid him in the next one?
Technique is something, consciously learned by the actor, which makes the action clearer to the audience; for a movement or a vocal trick, be it ever so clever, that does not re-veal its meaning to the audience fails completely.
The use of a technique by amateurs should proceed upon the following simple rules : Do one thing at a time, so that there will be no confusion (except when two technical factors are employed simultaneously to convey the same idea) ; do the thing clearly, so that the idea will be readily grasped by the audience; and do not overdo anything that will make the audience conscious, not of the thing, but of the doing of the thing.
Technique is not an end, but only a means to an end. In the beginning an actor, being concerned with his technique and with the way he is doing something, advertises to the spectator or auditor the fact that he is doing it. He has to practice his technique the same as the beginning musician has to practice his scales on the piano. After a time, it be-comes second nature to him. He knows what to do, and he can do it smoothly, perhaps unconsciously, without calling attention to the process. Technique should never be visible to the audience. We must think of it as a piece of machinery; it is the product which the machine turns out that is important.
Stage movement should be meaningful in the sense that it should express something which has theater meaning for the audience; at the same time, it should be in harmony with the character and the scene.
The suggestions that follow will not bring the director's imagined play to life. They are no more than minor rules—simple, mechanical details which have proved sure and easy ways of gaining effects. And rules, as we know, are frequently better broken than observed. Often the misuse or non-use of some of these rules is the very thing needed to gain the effect; however, no one can break a rule with the assurance that he will gain an effect until he knows the rule and what its usual effect is.
Entrances. When a person enters (if his entrance is from stage right or left), he should take several steps on stage be-fore he halts; this is to move him away from the very edge of the picture and into the scene; it also tends to give his character more positiveness.
When two persons enter, the speaker ordinarily comes second (if he speaks to the other immediately upon his en-trance) in order that he will not have to turn back and speak as he enters. However, if his entrance speech is emotionalized, or if he is intent upon gaining some spot in the room, he should come in first.
If attention is to be drawn to one of the two entering, the first may enter, halt, and allow the second (the one for whom attention is desired) to cross him. The first actor, by his pause, by the turn of his body, and by the direction of his eyes, focuses attention to the second.
Exits. The exit, as with other stage movements, should be made in a straight line. In the productions of a generation ago, there was often the walk to the door, the pause, the final line, and then the hurried exit. This pause in the exit movement gave the final line an emphasis. The practice has been overdone until it is now looked upon as a piece of conventional business which has lost its effectiveness.
An exit should not be made while another actor is speaking, for, obviously, that movement directs attention to itself and detracts from the speaker.
Emphasis to an exit may be given by an actor if he halts near the door and allows the second actor to precede him. The halted actor directs attention to the other in the manner we have described for the entrance.
Finally, in regard to exits, amateurs should be advised to take hold of the door knob (real or imaginary) and open the door, rather than push or kick it open, as nine out of ten of them always do!
Standing. Character, of course, suggests the position of the feet and the strength or weakness with which the actor should seem to be attached to the floor. Except to project character, an actor should not stand on one foot, with the toe of the second foot just touching the floor and the knee above it bent.
When the actor faces left, his upstage foot (the left) should be several inches forward of his right; when he faces right, the reverse is true. This gives the impression of not playing directly for the audience, but permits the audience to see his face clearly.
Although the old rule "always face front when you speak" lost much of its effectiveness when it developed into a convention, it, nevertheless, was based upon sense, and the actor should still think of his audience when he speaks and remember that an audience still wants to see an actor's face.
Movement about the stage. A good rule for all stage movement is for the actor to move in a straight line and with positiveness toward his goal.
A second rule suggests that the actor walk so that he is, at all times, completely visible to the audience; that is, he should not, ordinarily, walk behind furniture or behind other actors in moving from one stage position to another.
Crossing in front of another actor is no breach of etiquette on the stage; but an actor should not cross another while the second is speaking.
When an actor moves upstage, the movement seems to say of the actor, "I am excusing myself from the scene for a time." When he moves downstage, the movement suggests, "I am coming back into the action." When he moves center stage, the movement tells us, "I have something important to do or say."
In turning, it is advisable to swing toward, rather than away from, the audience on the turn.
When three people are talking on the stage, their natural position is that of a triangle—though not that of an isosceles triangle—since this gives the impression of a studied symmetry. If, for one reason or another, they are grouped in a line, the actors on either side of the center actor may talk past him or "through him," without the audience feeling uncomfortable or that anything is wrong; that is, when in a line it is not absolutely necessary for the right or left actor to change position when he speaks; and it is very inadvisable that he lean downstage or- upstage when speaking.
If the actor at left crosses the center actor to the actor at right, the accepted movement is for the center actor to first step a pace backward and then move down left a short distance, thus preserving the triangular pattern but not repeating the exact form used previously.
In starting to walk left, from a position facing left, the upstage foot, that is, the left foot (which is in advance of the right), leads off with a half step which is followed by a full step with the right foot. When starting a backward walk, the upstage foot again leads with a half step, followed by the downstage foot with a full step.
Kneeling, falling, and rising. When, in kneeling, it is desirable that only one knee touch the floor, it should be the downstage and not the upstage knee. This tends to throw the front of the body and the face toward, rather than away from, the audience.
In falling, the body should be relaxed. At no time should the body fall like a board to the floor. The actor may not only hurt himself, but the effect of this kind of fall is not good anyway. The body should crumple—the knee striking first, then the hip, then the hand or elbow, and, lastly, the shoulder or chest.
In the backward fall, one knee, the upstage knee, should touch the floor first, then the upstage hand, then the shoulder.
In rising, the actor should not try to gain his footing in one quick movement. Such a movement will appear either as an acrobatic feat or as an awkward effort. Push the body upward with the hand until it rests on one hip—one leg bent horizontally and lying on the floor, the other leg bent vertically with the foot flat upon the floor. With foot and hand the body is raised, the second foot is placed in position on the floor, and the actor comes easily to an upright position.
There is no logical reason for separating the subject of facial expression from that of gesture and pantomime. Custom, however, generally separates them; and we shall follow custom.
A face should be responsive in its expression to thought and emotion. Two areas of the face are expressive : the area around the mouth and the area around the eyes. These areas, together with the movement and position of the head, concern us in facial expression.
The face should reveal a visible language which expressses a change from thought to thought and from emotion to emotion. It should be able to say to the spectator, "I (the character) am changing my idea about this. . . . I fear some-thing. . . . I don't understand. . . . I am following every word that is said. . . . My mind tells me to do this, my heart to do that."
The few general rules we might offer are well known and are applied, naturally, without study. Such general rules include the following: the head inclined to one side suggests that the actor is listening; the head inclined forward de-notes thought; the chin up and head thrown back is the normal position in playing comedy.
Age may be suggested by eyes half closed, mouth loose and slightly open, and head bent forward; youth, by head thrown back, chin up, mouth firm, and eyes open. Strength is expressed in the chin thrust forward, mouth shut, lips tight, and eyes bold, almost to the point of a stare. Pain is expressed by some contortion of the face, perhaps by the teeth clenched, head back and at one side, and forehead contracted. These rules for expression, and many others, can readily be discovered by every director.
The expression is always the result of a thought or feeling. The facial expression is the first expression that follows the perception. It generally precedes any stage movement that the perception prompts, and always precedes speech.
A complete laboratory equipment for the study of facial expression is a mirror.
The effectiveness of gesture is dependent, first of all, upon the skillful control of bodily movement by the actor and, secondly, upon an understanding of certain principles which govern the making of gesture.
Granted that he has good control of his body, the first point an actor about to make a gesture should consider is that every movement (a hand gesture, shrugging of the shoulders, or crossing of the legs) must be subjected to the character test. The actor is playing a character. The individuality of this character determines the kind and quality of the gesture. The next point we should remember is that there should be a reason for every gesture, just as there should be a reason for everything else that takes place on the stage. The unmotivated gesture not only is meaning-less, but it may tend to destroy the conviction with which we accept the actor's character, or it may disturb the reality of the scene.
Beyond these two points, we may make a number of simple suggestions. All gestures should be clear cut. The actor should be sure that the gesture expresses what he wants it to express and be equally sure that it can be seen by the audience.
Short, jerky, or meaningless gestures (such as a continued throwing out of a hand, shifting of a foot, or raising of the shoulders) should be avoided. They generally express nothing and soon grow annoying to the spectator.
There should not be too many secondary movements within the principal movement. The most direct and the most economical means should be used. Directness does not necessarily imply straightness. Straight movements tend to angularity and possess no grace. The movement generally should be on a curve; but let it be direct. A simple, direct movement is much easier to follow than a many-jointed one.
The gesture should not be repeated to the point of monotony. A movement says (or should say) something. If, for instance, an arm movement says "I am angry," the statement loses force after several repetitions.
There are many common gestures that are used on the stage and in life: the raised hand, palm outward, which says "Stop!"; the arms extended outward from the elbows, palms upward, fingers extended, which, with a tilt of the head, says, "I don't know"; scratching the head and staring off into space, which says, "I am thinking." The first suggestion we would make about these common, overworked gestures is: Don't use them; try to think of something else. If you cannot think of anything else, give the gestures some freshness and individuality by making them fit the physical and mental characteristics of the character you are playing.
Every gesture should be completed. The return of the arm to its normal position at the side of the body is as much a part of the gesture as the outward thrust that tells the other characters to leave the room. Don't stop the gesture in the midde of the movement and permit the arm to flop lifeless to the side of the body.
Too little movement and too few gestures are preferable to too many; then, if the gestures have anything to say, they stand a better chance of being interpreted by the audience.
Some directors admonish their actors never to make a gesture across the body. This rule should admit of many exceptions. Gestures of withdrawal are frequently made across the body. Character may be suggested by a cross gesture. In fact, an important visualization of a character might be accomplished through having the character break every rule we have set down for gesture !
Pronunciation. In pronunciation, the director should re-member that it is the vowel sounds which contribute beauty, character, and vitality to the word. Except 1, m, and n, the consonants can be pronounced correctly, and that is about all we can do with them. Most speakers won't take the trouble to manipulate the speech organs so that they can pronounce the consonants correctly. They should do this, of course; however, it is upon the vowel sounds that time should be spent. It is the vowel sounds which can be inflected for color and meaning and held or released for the expression of emotion.
There may be no standard pronunciation in our country, but it is well to remember that the soft a (not the a in dance, nor in dance, but in dance) and the soft r have become accepted as marks of a cultivated person.
The actor should speak each word and not run words together as and he contracted to annie and give me contracted to gimme. Slovenliness of pronunciation of every variety should be avoided on the stage for clarity's sake, if for nothing else. Mourning should not sound like morning, nor disease the same as decease.
A habit of slovenliness is found in the shortening of diphthongs into a single vowel as tower when shortened to tahr, hour shortened to ahr. The reverse of this error likewise should be avoided: the giving of two syllables to the single vowel sound as in hand when pronounced ha-und, deal when pronounced de-uhl.
Every locality has its sectional pronunciations. We know of the flat a of parts of the South, the ir sound which in New York becomes oi, the â which is aw in Philadelphia, the short e which is often short i (as min for men, whin for when) in the Middle West. A director should, if he has time, tone down local pronunciations. Especially should he prevent one member of the cast from speaking locally when the remainder speak a more standard speech.
Peculiarities of speech, of whatever sort, should be avoided. Correct American speech will be accepted anywhere. Affected speech will suggest insincerity; careless speech will never suggest culture. Time spent on pronunciation is well spent.
In the above suggestions we have not taken character into account. It is understood that as long as we have realistic plays and realistic characters, the characters determine whether the speech shall be pure or have its peculiarities of pronunciation.
Voice and movement. In general, the movement precedes the speech. It is well, however, to think of this as a rule only when it applies to emotionalized speech. We know that when there is a strong emotional stimulus, we move before we speak. Our hand flies out before we say "Don't touch me!"; we jump before we say "What's that ?" If the speech is not motivated by emotion, especially if the logical meaning of the speech is important, the rule may be disregarded. We may say "The price is $250," and then make our arm gesture, rather than have the gesture followed by the speech. If the logical meaning is not as important as the emotional meaning, the gesture, as we have said, may precede or be given with the speech.
If the speech is honest and straightforward, voice and gesture should imply the same meaning; if the speech is dishonest or does not express the true thought or feeling of the speaker, then, if the gesture is out of harmony with the thought of the speech, we may convey this idea to the audience through the gesture. Inharmonious speech and gesture put a question in the minds of the audience.
For instance, if a person closes his two fists tight against his chest and speaks the line "If I had the money I would give it to you," his gesture denies his words. The harmonious gesture would be arms extended with open palms up-raised. Or, if a girl speaks the line "I do love you" with an arm across her chest, hand open and palm outward, she again denies her words. The gesture signifies that she is warding the man off.
Another good general rule is for the actor to move on his own speech and remain still while another actor is speaking. The reason is clear: his movement tends to shift interest from the speaker, since the eye always seems willing and able to divert the ear. This rule, like others, cannot apply in all cases. A gesture or movement during the speech of another may be effective as a reaction to the words being spoken, and so may serve as emphasis or interpretation for the speech.
Vocalization and emotion. We have a definite reaction to the quality of tone, and it is possible to make a general statement about the emotional effect of tone. The low, body-resonating tone seems to denote a true or profound emotion. This is the tone that "talks from the heart." As the tone thins out, as it becomes a high, head-resonating tone, it seems to belong to the lesser emotions and to mental, unemotional speech. It is as though the speech which comes from the heart were actually produced there; and the speech which comes from thought, not emotion, emanated from the head. With this general statement in mind, it is possible for the director to secure from his actor a tone which is the symbol for the type of emotion he wishes expressed.
It is common knowledge that emotion affects the voice. Under stress of fear or anger or grief or joy, the body itself departs from its natural behavior, and the voice, in every instance, is changed from the normal. Anger quickens the heart action; the breath comes more rapidly. Under these circumstances the tone may be harsh or spasmodic; and when breath control is reestablished, the tone may become loud and strident.
It is likewise common knowledge that much of the speech of a play is emotionalized, which means that often it is not the normal but the abnormal tone that is required. How is the actor to produce this tone? Is it necessary for him to become angry or be deeply grieved in order to find the proper voice tone? Certainly not. The amateur actor, remember, has had but little experience with the emotions, and it is more than possible that he could not feel the grief of his character if he tried. It is far more reasonable for the director to explain to the actor the quality of tone needed (and why), and let tone, gesture, and dialogue help the actor to an approximate realization of the emotion. And, in a final analysis, remember, that whether or not the actor feels the emotion has nothing to do with it; rather, the objective is that the actor uses the symbols for the emotions so convincingly that the audience believes them.
Voice and characterization. Just as a voice departs from the normal, in the expression of emotion, so it often changes from the natural speaking voice of the actor in the expression of character. The director may ask himself: How important should voice be in characterization? Perhaps we might answer by saying that there should be a harmony between the character and voice, which is one of the character's most important means of expression. If the character is a strong man of courage and authority, a thin voice is unacceptable; if the character is gay and frivolous, a low, heavy voice is out of harmony.
The character, then, dictates the voice; it suggests the tone quality, the degree of correctness in pronunciation; in brief, it dictates a voice that reveals as clearly as possible the character itself.
In our modern realistic drama, the creation of individual characters has become the actor's all-important task. We have been suggesting various ways and means of projecting our realistic drama through representational acting; we have not touched upon any technique for the creation of this character which forms the basis for so many of our technical suggestions.
To discuss this question thoroughly, we would have to discuss the whole problem of acting, which is a task this book cannot undertake. No technique for the creation of character has been discovered which is applicable to every individual actor; nevertheless, without going into great de-tail, a plan of work can be outlined which, if insisted upon by the director and followed by the actor, will give the actor a sure approach to his problem of characterization.
First, the actor, with the director's help, should be given a comprehensive idea of the whole play: its story, meaning, moods, and objectives.
Second, the actor should, through study and conference with his director, gain a clear conception of the particular character he is going to play. This character may be found and studied in the speeches that the character speaks, in the stage directions and the descriptions of the character as given by the author, and in the reaction in speech and movement of the other characters in the play to the actor's character.
Third, the actor can make his character seem more real if, for a time, he takes him out of the play and off the stage and imagines him as a character in actual life.
Fourth, this realization can be further strengthened if the actor, perhaps with the director's assistance, prepares a biography for the character so that he begins to think of him, not as a character who lives but the two hours of the play's action, but as one who has lived through many years of troubles and pleasures, of good and bad fortune—all of which have molded him into the character who finally emerges ready for the action of the play.
This plan, it is evident, requires mental work and is very different from the popular idea that an actor "just gets on the stage and acts." So far, the actor has progressed logically and thoughtfully. If possible, the four steps just enumerated should precede the work of memorization, for, with the background he has gained from his study, the actor should be able to memorize more easily and, certainly, more intelligently. Unfortunately, in our present method of "putting on plays," memorization has to begin too soon.
After he is fairly familiar with the lines, the actor is ready for the sixth step: the attempt to be the character he has comprehended and made real. He may do this by speaking the lines in the appropriate voice and with the inflection of the character, by moving about the stage as the character—in other words, by employing symbols expressive of the character at the same time the actor thinks and feels the character. (It is clear that the director, too, must thoroughly know the character, since he is often the one who suggests the movement and inflection for the actor.)
Perhaps, we say, knowledge of the character plus the imitation of his behavior will draw the actor into the character. Sensitiveness and imagination on the actor's part will determine the ease with which the metamorphosis is accomplished. If the knowledge he possesses and the initiation he attempts do not draw him into the character, he and his director try to make the character more real; he tries to think more clearly and more deeply; he affects the inner and outer behavior of the character over and over again with the result, let us hope, that he finally becomes the character. During these days, which are often discouraging days, the actor needs the help and sympathetic consideration of his director.
When the actor has at last succeeded in creating the character, he has to take one other step, and one which he will very rarely take without the director's insistence: He has to recognize that this character on whom he has been concentrating is only a part of a greater whole; with the director's help he now has to fit the character into his proper place, to give him his proper importance, and no more, in the scheme of the play.
A Final Word On Technique
We have hinted several times that the technical suggestions set down in this chapter are not to be taken as some-thing to be followed to the letter, at all times, under all circumstances. They should prove of help to the beginning director and give the beginning actor a start. But after the director has worked with them, mastered them, recognized why and how they gain their effects, then let him begin to search for other and fresher means of gaining his effects. There are other ways—new and fresh ways. It is for the director to discover them. Then, as he goes on season after season, his work will not become repetitious and monotonous, but will possess the desirable elements of change and growth.