Intro to Acting

George Burns

George Burns

Nicholas Muni
Developing the Singer-Actor

“Acting is all about 100% honesty. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
George Burns, American Comedian

The material below is fairly comprehensive but most of the core ideas can be covered well in an intensive seminar. My basic approach is to give students tools they can apply to whatever they do–as opposed to dictating details on expression and interpretation of a given piece. I stimulate the singers’ imagination through creative questioning and probing below the surface of the text and the character. At the same time, I leave them with practical stagecraft techniques that immediately make them more effective onstage.

A five-pronged approach to train the professional Singer-actor
1) The Intuitive: Accessing the sub-conscious; unlocking the imagination
2) The Analytical: Tools to develop interpretative choices
3) The Stagecraft: Tools to communicate the interpretation clearly
3) The Artist: Developing an artistic voice
4) The Professional: Building and sustaining a career

Each of us has enough life experience as well as emotional and psychological material stored within our sub-conscious to be interesting onstage. However, being conversant with that richness within and having access to draw upon it at will is an acquired skill.

Analyzing the author’s material, doing research into the context, methodically developing the character, exploring the story through discussion and improvisation will lead to your interpretation.

Once you have gained access to the unconscious and have prepared the interpretation, communicating that richness to an audience is a learned skill. That is stagecraft.

Using stagecraft to communicate your personal richness for the greater good of your community is artistry.

Doing all the above on demand, whether you feel like doing it or not, is professionalism.

Acting Technique
Acting is simple but difficult

Much of the time, we unnecessarily complicate acting technique. If we had to do only one thing in our acting work, I would propose this:
receive all communications and send out all communications, as if for the first time. If you become adept at giving this impression to your audience, you will automatically be celebrated as an excellent actor, because you will be perceived as a character.

The fundamental secret of good acting
Answer these Five Magic Questions
1) Objective: What do I want/need? (noun or noun phrase)
2) Alternative: What is the best way to achieve the goal?
(Hint: if your answer is anything other than “sing this aria”, then you must re-address question #1)
3) Obstacle: Who/What is stopping me? (noun)
4) Action: What must I do to transform or overcome the obstacle? (transitive, juicy verb phrase)
5) Risk/Reward: What do I fear if I fail? What do I hope for if I succeed?

The second fundamental secret of good acting
The ability to completely separate what the actor knows from what the character knows.

What the actor knows or needs to know is absolutely vital — but it must remain completely invisible to the audience, a program running in the background.

What the Actor knows:
1) How the story ends, how the scene ends, what the other characters will say/do next
2) Memorized text
3) Memorized music
4) Memorized blocking/action
5) He/she is in an opera, in front of an audience

What the Character knows:
1) They want/need something very specific. Now.
2) What is preventing them from attaining what they want/need
3) What they must do to attain their goal
4) What has happened to them in the past
5) What environment they are in, who they are with, etc.

The third fundamental secret of good acting
Transform your target.
The target is the entity that is your obstacle. It can be another person, it can be a part of yourself or it can be an abstract (God, Fate, Luck, Love, etc.). You must overcome this obstacle by transforming it. For example, transforming a resistant father into and open-minded father.

The Fundamental Sequence: Believe >> Infer >> Invest >> Feel
I think we could all agree that our main goal is to lead the audience into a deeply feeling state. Nothing is more exciting or satisfying than an audience that is deeply moved.

Of the four steps in the above sequence, the only one that the actor has complete control over is the first one: belief. It is the actors’ prime responsibility to make sure that every moment of their onstage character life is completely believable. Only when the audience believes, can they begin to infer, invest and, ultimately, feel.

Packet Exchange
Input creates Output.  In order to transform your target, you need to monitor your progress to know if your tactic is working or not. The only way to do that is to concentrate fully on the target’s expressions–and interpret them. This input will dictate your output.

Alternative action
The given text and plot is only one way the characters might proceed. By exploring the question “what else could the character have done here, said here?” we build the character from the inside out by endowing them with a sense of choice rather than seeming to blindly follow the author. Although eventually, of course, we will say and sing what the authors have given us, focusing on the alternative action fleshes the character out into a seemingly independent entity. The value of alternative action work is that it enriches the given text/action through contrast and appreciation.

Text work
Stripping away the music to feel and then fill the void of silence. Working with text only. Singer-actors can inadvertently become lazy because music supplies so much information: pacing, tone, mood, inflection, emphasis. By stripping it away, the singer-actor is forced to grapple with that workload.

Translating the text:
1) Literal               (word for word meaning)
2) Syntactical       (English word order)
3) Paraphrase       (in your own words)

The great equalizer; the singer-actor as author. Say the intent of the text in your own words, the way you would say it. Speak spontaneously from the heart.

Subtext, Inner Monologue
What are they? Why are they necessary?

Subtext is what the character truly means by the words s/he says, when the words do not explicitly convey that meaning.
Inner Monologue is what the character says silently, it is always what s/he truly means.

Subtext is vital to creating richness, depth and complexity by creating counterpoint to the given text. Inner monologue is necessary to create through-line character life; uninterrupted action (a great tool to bring musical preludes/interludes/postludes to life.)

Common Conundrums
Conundrum #1: How do I make my gestures and movements  “big” and believable at the same time?
Conundrum #2: How do I come across as emotional without getting so emotional that I can’t sing? Do I need to feel emotion in order for the audience to feel emotion?
Conundrum #3: How do I keep acting when I have to concentrate all my efforts on singing that high note?

Accidentally on purpose

1)  Allow the audience to eavesdrop on your expressions without you appearing to be showing anything to them; staying within the “30º pie” a.k.a., Cheating out in an “organic” way
2)  Contact with Conductor: See without Looking
3)  The organic movement sequence: Thought>>>Eyes/Head>>>Body
4)  Vocal Technique is our most important friend: but the audience doesn’t want to see evidence of it. How do we successfully disguise it?
5)  Time stretch: stretching an action or gesture to expanded musical time without looking fake or “gooey”
6)  Resistance and explosiveness: proper build up to an explosive action or gesture
7)  “Afterglow” — making the end of a gesture or action feather off
8)  Doing violent scenes without tensing up your body
9)  Running onstage: how to make it look “natural”
10) Fainting, kneeling, sitting, slaps, falls, hair pulls, grabbing arms without bruising, fundamentals of safe violence.
11) How to play a convincing death scene.
12) “Wall acting”, “floor acting”, how to simulate “freaking out”; conveying madness; conveying extreme angst

Body Language
The universal language “a picture is worth a thousand words”
1) Discover Body Neutral: ability to sing while remaining in body neutral
2) Characteristics: Old Age, Toddler, Drunk, Sexy, Introvert, Feminine, Masculine, Nobility
3) Tips on Dying, Fainting, Love duets, Use of props, Making a story with just your body

Where and how you focus, tells story; when you change focus, it punctuates and defines story
1) Near Focus: gives the impression you are with yourself, your own thoughts, drawing the audience to you as a voyeur
2) Far focus: gives the impression you are connecting to someone/something else outside of yourself, could be close or distant
3) Infinite Focus: gives the impression you are in an altered state, neither focusing on yourself nor on another entity

Costumes and Props
1) Imbuing a prop with meaning and emotional resonance
2) Absorbing clothing into the emotional life of your character
3) Trains, veils, hoop skirts
4) Eyeglasses

Understanding the “physics” of drama, the key fundamentals
There is an unspoken contract between audiences and performers
1) Voyeur: each audience member wants to be a voyeur
2) Artifice: everyone agrees it is all artifice, but don’t want to notice it as such
3) Improvised: the illusion that it’s all happening as if for the first time
4) Choice: Everything that is witnessed is assumed to be an artistic choice, regardless of whether or not you are making choices

The four types of Choice:
1) No Choice
2) Random Choice
3) Informed Choice
4) Inspired Choice

Action versus Activity: what is the difference?
There can be action with very little activity but there should never be activity without action. Activity and Movement is not automatically or necessarily action, it is the outward manifestation of action. Action is intent to achieve a specific by transforming the obstacle in order to succeed. It may require lots of activity and movement or require almost none. The fail-safe action when you fail to identify what the action is: find the perfect words to transform your obstacle and achieve your goal.

Character versus Characteristics
What we do defines our character. Same thing is true on stage. The action is what will determine character.  Characteristics are the style with which we do the action: appearance, decorum, mood, tactic, etc.– what the audience immediately sees — the adjectives. It is vital to distinguish between these two.

Great acting requires both.

Tension versus Dramatic Tension
You are not alone

No individual can create dramatic tension–shocking, but true. We are conditioned to believe that we, as individuals, can and must create all the tension in performance. But that is actually impossible to do.  What creates tension is a combination of what the individual actors do and three invisible, but very potent, forces: Context, Expectation and Inference

Context: this is what happens before you enter the stage, it is the set-up, the framework. Without this, your character has no traction, and can create no friction. If context did not exist, you would have to create it in order to be able to create tension. For example, one contemporary provider of context is surtitles. Simply by providing information (context), surtitles partner in creating dramatic tension.

Expectation is created partly by context and partly by audience inference. In any case, expectation is a force that can be harnessed by the actor to create dramatic tension.

Inference is what the audience does in their individual minds as you perform. The audience is actively filling in the story, guessing at meaning, supplying meaning, etc. It is actually quite a powerful thing–and something else that the actor can harness to create dramatic tension. You just need to know it is there, understand how it functions and trust in its power.

What is it? How do you create it? Spannung is the noun form of the German verb spannen which means to stretch or to tighten = dramatic tension

Spannung Partners
1)  Listening as if for the first time
2)  Expressing (text, movement, music) as if for the first time
3)  Making everything appear to be improvised
4)  Counterpoint to music and text
5)  Resistance to, then releasing the primal flood of emotion
6)  Context
7)  Surtitles
8)  Tone/mood shifts
9)  The conceptual idea of a production, a scene, a moment
10) Scenery, Clothing, Lighting

Spannung Killers
1)  Anything that seems memorized or rehearsed
2)  Faking it
3)  Indicating or Exhibition acting
4)  Redundancy: mirroring overt quality of the music and overt meaning of text
5)  Flat-lining: when the action does not evolve
6)  Opera Goo
7)  Opera Lurch
8)  Opera Creep
9)  “Mouse Farts”
10) Mugmaster
11) Emotion Semaphore

The Law of One
Redundancy is a big no-no. There must never be repeats (unless repetition is critical to the action), even if the music and text repeat, the character’s action and expression is always evolving–and is therefore different.

Actor as Magician
The fascination we have with magicians is that we know it’s artificial but we can’t figure out how they make us believe it is real. That is the actor’s job as well.

Your relationship with the Music
1) Mirroring the overt qualities of the music (mood, tempo and texture) = Redundant = Obvious = Flat (theatrical junk food)
2) Interpretations that are in counterpoint with the music (opposition) = Mysterious = Rich = Fascinating (organic, nutritious, whole food)

Your relationship with the Text
1) Playing the overt meaning of the text = mirroring the plot = redundancy = flat
2) Playing what your character means by the text = subtext = true meaning = riveting

What makes a singer-actor appear to be “expressive”?
1) Playing the mood or emotion = obvious and therefore flat
2) Playing the action = creates believability and opens the range of audience inference

The “Primal Moment” of the piece or the scene
1) This is the moment when bottom line truth comes out–in this moment, we must play the overt quality of the music and text
2) Up until this point, the character resists feeling/expressing the bottom line truth. That resistance, in and of itself, creates dramatic tension.

Creating a Character from the ground up
The Artist is the Character but the Character is never the Artist. Separating yourself from the character in order to become the character
1) The actor appears to be the character (Harrison Ford)
2) The actor disappears into the character (Daniel Day Lewis)

Visible Reality versus Invisible Reality of the character
1) Visible Reality is what the audience hears and sees, what the author has chosen to expose. This is like the proverbial “tip of the iceberg”.
2) Invisible Reality is the existence of the character that is not shown onstage. It is the 8/9 of the iceberg that is below the water which supports the visible tip.
3) The more developed your 8/9 is, the richer the tip is. How do we develop the 8/9? SPECIFICITY, discussion, improvisation.
4) The more specific your 8/9 is, the more believable your character will feel to the audience.
5) Because the invisible reality is unscripted, it always needs much more work.

“Unseen Scenes”
The scenes which the author left out that have direct bearing on the scenes which are written. Exploring these scenes through discussion and improvisation is one of the best ways to develop the invisible reality of your character.

Character Sleuthing
A systematic approach for research using a comprehensive questionnaire

How to research
From the obvious to the more subtle threads

Period Decorum
Researching and understanding the accepted behavior, manners, protocol and attitudes in a given period/culture add the veneer of authenticity. But these must all be ingested so thoroughly that they do not distract you from concentrating on the action at hand. Decorum without action is merely a shell.

Broadening horizons and expanding the comfort zone
Each of us explores the human condition in various ways in order to know ourselves, to grow, to evolve, to discover and/or affirm who/what we are.  The ritual of theater allows us to embark on this exploration in a way that is safe, vicarious and poetic. But it is still the exploration of the human condition. In fact, we could say theater is the exploration of the extreme or unusual human condition.

In order to be successful in today’s operatic environment, it is essential to develop as broad a comfort zone as possible, in order to present the human condition at its most unusual and/or extreme. Opera, in particular, highlights the in extremis condition. While there is truth in the notion that in opera the human condition is expressed in the music and through the voice, it is not the entire truth. Opera also expresses it through the physical, the kinetic, the acting values. For better or worse, Opera in America has been increasingly emphasizing the theatrical aspects. Therefore, part of the training for the successful singing actor must be to expand the comfort zone and what the student is willing, able and experienced enough to offer.

Extreme aria is one tool used in this quest. The student brings in an aria they know backwards and forwards so that their full concentration can be focused on exploring an unusual interpretation of that aria, both in physical terms and in acting terms.  In the safety of the lab setting, any issues that come up can be discussed, experimented with, put into the context of contemporary opera production and put the student in touch with what is in or out of their comfort zone–and how to deal with that.

Additional Seminar Topics

The Joy of Singing: Vocational or Avocational?
“Inside out” versus “Outside in” what do these terms mean?
Fach, Type and Career Friction: Determining where you fit in
Auditioning: A Necessary Evil
The Future of Opera
Art in America versus Art in Europe
Priorities and Dedication: Opera or Curing Cancer?
Traditional versus Non-Traditional Productions
What is “Genius”?
Art:  when does “Clear” become Flat; when does “Mysterious” become Confusing?

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