I was listening to the radio the other day as my son and I drove to a recording session. On a talk show, someone mentioned they felt they were in Limbo, this place of waiting between two places. And I was suddenly struck with the idea that an actor should never be in Limbo. Acting is not a passive art, on the contrary it should be extremely active. There should never be a time onstage when an actor is just marking time, waiting to say the next line.Even an actor with few or no lines can fill a stage with the action of being present, in that scene, in that moment.
I direct a lot of young people, children and teens. One of the constant mantras I give my actors is never to be a "dead fish". By that I mean don't stand on stage, passive, observing, slack-jawed. I pride myself on having great backgrounds to all scenes. To get that, actors have to stay active, stay in the scene.
Right now I am directing a fun production of Pirates of Penzance Junior. At one point, I have dancers downstage, and the girls playing thier sisters upstage, a bit above them on a platform. The ladies on the platform could just stand there, passively watching the dance. Naturally, I don't let them. I encourage them to be a part of the whole scene. As they watch the dance, perhaps they laugh and love it, or long to join in, or think the dancers are acting silly. They can show any of those things facially and with body language. Or better still, turn and relate to the sister next to them, and share a thought about the dance. Now, I don't let them react so large that they steal focus, but I do make them a real part of the scene. Yesterday I told them they were not allowed to be zombies onstage! (Ok that may be unfair to zombies, they often have a clear purpose, usually the pursuit of tasty brains. I am thinking of the mindless, shambling, dead-faced zombies, not the Equity ones. :))
But being a zombie or being in Limbo isn't just a challenge for background or supporting actors. I have seen many plays with just a few actors onstage, where an actors speaks a line, then turns into a zombie, living in limbo, focused on nothing but the next cue when they can speak again, ACTORS ARE NEVER IN LIMBO, EVEN WHEN WAITING. They are angry at the situation, chomping the bit to be able to share news, happy to be with people they love, lonely and anxious, terrified and so on. They are always active, always in the scene.
This also applies to singers and dancers. Hear the lyrics, show me with face and body what you are feeling as you sing or dance. I have seen great dancers who just dance, and may as well be wearing a mask. Be like my dear friend Jenny Carlson, who not only dances brilliantly, but has a marvelous face that reflects what is going on in the dance.
Put yourself in Heaven. Put yourself in Hell. Don't just sit in Limbo. Act.
The Actor's Sensei
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