Acting Tips Never Taught in Drama Class
by Ruth Kulerman
Tips to help you better read and perform from a written script.
The following five and a half acting tips are the result of working with actors, both as a fellow cast member and as a coach, actors who graduated from the best acting schools in America. Perhaps you have already discovered some of these tips on your own. If so, excellent! Continue your pursuit for more powerful skills sadly overlooked in drama school.
Short story: When my dear British acting coach came to my first production, his comment was, "At least you didn't lean on the furniture." Not much of a compliment. But even he had never mentioned the forbidden furniture-leaning rule and I certainly had never thought of it. It was pure dumb luck I hadn't propped myself up on the sofa back or leaned on the end table. My aim here is to bring to your attention some of the unmentioned--perhaps unknown--rules of acting.
1. The Ubiquitous Omnipotnet Comma. (Dethrone Immediately.)
Contrary to actors' beliefs, commas did not descend from Mount Sinai, written on stone tablets. Commas are the domain of a reader, not a speaker. Commas replace the missing human voice whose intonation helps decode written language and make it comprehensible -- a fancy way of saying, ignore commas when you act.
They belong on a page, not in a spoken line. Replace commas, not with pauses, but with vocal variety--or ignore the squiggly critters completely. Do not pause when commas cross your path. Slide right across them. We don't talk in commas, so don't act in commas either.
My slogan as the comma cop is DOWN WITH PAUSES CAUSED BY COMMAS!
There used to be a slogan for one of the soft drinks: "The pause that refreshes." And yet in acting I have heard eighteen billion pauses, mistakenly believed to be dramatic or pregnant or sensitive or something. ("We find the defendant pause pause pause pause not guilty.") London taught me: "You have to earn a pause." Otherwise they are self-indulgent, mistakenly thought to reveal a deep and powerful soul. NOT SO.
There are lots of ways to replace pauses with interesting acting moments. To mention a couple: Stretch out the vowel in the word before and after the place you would normally pause. Ignore the pause. Stretch the vowels. Listen to a master do it, Richard Burton.
Another "pause" substitute is to leap over the pause as if you are a verbal kangaroo. Raise the pitch and leap into the word that follows the ignored pause. You can discover many other ways to lead the pause to the slaughter. Do it.
2. The Invasion of the Valley Girl Question (No Admission. Scat!)
Maybe "Valley Girl" isn't a clear description. It refers to the dreadful habit of ending every sentence with a question mark in the voice: I went to the movies? I stood in line around the block? And in the speech of Olympic offenders, the middle of each sentence is also raised into that dratted question mark. The only thing missing is gum popping "Like, you know."
This Valley Girl inflection creeps not merely into ordinary speech but also into many line readings. The astounding thing is that not one teacher mentions it. An actor I worked with inserted the Valley Girl question mark not only at the end of every sentence but also at the end of every phrase in every sentence. He repeated this monotony eternally. It is irritating. It is distracting.
Unfortunately the omni-present question mark did not stop at the California state line. It has crept into people from Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Canada, Connecticut and South Korea--and that's in my studio alone! Multiply that by the hundreds of studios and schools and it becomes an epidemic.
The Valley Girl inflection knows no gender lines. It is a pattern in actors on national TV shows. When it hits our great dramatic actors, we will admit defeat and the contagious Valley Girl question mark will, like the cockroach, survive forever. Horrors!
Chase it with whatever weapon you have. Especially become aware of the habit in your own speech pattern. Rid yourself of it before it takes over and becomes "To be or not? to be. Like you know? Like huh." (And "know" has a meow in the long O.)
Which leads directly into the next unrecognized line disease.
3. Conquering the Question Mark (How to ask without asking.)
In normal American speech we ask a question in several ways: (1) The subject and verb are reversed: He is here -- Is he here? (2) Certain words often imply a question: who, where, why, when, what, how. (3) Most actors see a question mark and head for the lifted sentence ending. That way lies guaranteed monotony. (Its opposite, the dreaded ever-present drop at the end of each sentence, is equally as tedious.)
Let's consider making that question into a statement, especially if the words of the sentence are obviously written to produce a question; that is, if the sentence uses one of the "question" words or reverses the subject-verb order.
So instead of going up or raising the pitch at the end of a sentence, deliver the sentence as if it were making a statement (that is, the pitch remain exactly the same as its preceding few words or the pitch lowers a half tone). Try it out. It creates interest, adds variety, and avoids the expected delivery (always a goal to be aimed for). And don't run out of energy as you finish a line, whatever pitch you select.
4. Moxie. A Pox on Modesty (Moxie: The great unacknowledged star maker.)
MOXIE defined: 1. Energy, pep. 2. Courage, determination. 3. Know-how, expertise.
I have almost shouted from the Empire State Building that talent is not all. Yes, talent counts greatly. But it is not the final decision maker in casting or star-making.
A Verifiable Case of Moxie Casting:
A discouraged singer appeared on my horizon last November, to coach her songs and to work on acting. She sang opera but also happened to have a stunning voice for Broadway musicals and a drop dead Broadway Belt, not the usual equipment for a legit lyric soprano.
We tugged, yanked, pulled, threatened and scolded her out of the traditional opera hold-your-hands-in-front-of-you and stand-like-a-tree-trunk making beautiful music. We worked on how to enter the audition room, how to smile, what to wear, how to deliver a song by relating to the words. We selected songs for auditioning. "But I love that song." "It's too long, too slow, starts with poor me and ends with boo hoo. You have to grab them in five seconds." "But that's not the way this song was done on Broadway." "Tough. The words allow for drama. The music allows for drama. Dare to try drama. Relate to the words." Since then, she has booked four paying jobs in three months. And as of this writing, has two major callbacks. But...
A few days ago she had a Broadway audition. On the floor where she was to audition was an announcement board indicating that another invited audition was being held in another studio. Our once shy opera lass asked the director when he popped out of the room if she could sing for him. "I know XYZ," naming the most famous song from the musical. "Sure, why not. Wait around." Two hours later she auditioned. Two days later she landed the role. And...
When the Production Director called with the job, I mentioned her talent and her looks. "But," he replied, "there are lots of pretty, talented singers. What got her cast was her energy, her moxie, her personality and her sassiness. She has what it takes."
Notice, he mentioned talent--in passing. But talent did not land the job. The first thing he listed was energy; the second was moxie. Moral: Talent is seldom the final word in casting. Moxie is. Energy is. They work! When was the last time you saw MOXIE 101 on a college syllabus?
The truly astounding thing is the courage she had to ask firmly and charmingly if she could crash an invited audition. Now that took moxie. And that is what it takes. Seeing and then seizing an opportunity.
And the last thing you may never have learned in drama class:
5. Semaphore Acting. (Forget their heads! Off with their arms/hands.)
Statement: But I'm Italian, Greek, Martian. I have to use my arms. Response: You don't fling them around when you talk. Why do it when you act?
A true story: The instructor in one of my London classes saw me fling out an arm for some reason (or, more likely, for no reason). She slapped my arm as hard as she could. "You are allowed one arm gesture per act. Make it count."
The red mark on my arm faded. The lesson has lasted my career. She continued, "Act with your voice, your eyes, and slightly with your face. Do not wag your head. Keep it straight. Sit as the character. Walk as the character. Be in the character's body. But do not fling your arms around. Be still. The energy must be used to enhance, not to detract."
I cannot say it better.
There they are: Commas, Pauses, Question Marks, Moxie, and Semaphores. Five tips which, if used, will not only polish your acting but will help you stand heads above your competition, even if you're 4'8". So here's to high heads! And here's to moxie without pauses!