Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Acting in a British comedy vs. Acting in an American Comedy

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Most American actors have a lot of experience acting with an American audience. When acting in a play written in Britain, however, most actors don’t realize how much they have to change their style in order to make a British comedy accessible to an American audience. Most American theaters, in the age of high action films, are prepared for very physical, very loud comedy. Because of new technology, American audiences like their jokes handed to them, and most expect the theater to be the same reactive experience as a film, as opposed to the interactive experience it actually is. Most American actors acting in a British comedy will realize the first time they step onto the stage that they will need to conform their style to the script, and not vice-versa.

Another important aspect of the acting experience is the director of the show. At least one time in an actor’s career, he or she will most likely work with a student director. To make this experience the most enjoyable one possible, there are changes in attitude and outlook that need to be made. Most oftentimes actors who work with a student director have found it more tight-knit and more personal due to their interaction with the director and the typically small cast. Acting in a British comedy is different than acting in an American comedy in the realms of movement and physicalization, speech patterns, and interaction with the audience. Working with a student director is unique because of the changes that need to be made in attitude, treatment and involvement in the show.

Most British plays, especially ones that were not set in a modern time period, have a lot of emphasis on movement and physicalization; or lack thereof. On the major areas of British stage movement is posture. Even in stage introductions of a character in a script it will say ‘He has a very tall and stately manner’. This emphasis on posture cannot only be seen in older scripts, but also in very modern comedic stereotypes of British people. Therefore, while acting in a British comedy whether it is satirical or not, the actor will have to change their posture significantly. Standing up straight and sitting up straight can also be done with the use of corsets and limbering warm-up exercises. By warming up an actor’s body first, the muscles will not be as objective to staying in almost one position of two hours. Movement in British comedies is also very controlled. Most comedy is not physical, but verbal. This means that to an actor who is onstage, possibly making a joke with the audience, small, controlled movements can mean everything. Audiences will become more ‘trained’ to look at every actor’s smallest movement to absorb more humor from the script. By using the actor’s body in controlled movements, he/she can better explain small subtleties in the script to the audience. If the actor does warm-ups involving fluid movements, this should help convey the feeling of a British script to the audience. Most people in Britain, especially in the 100’s, had a much more fluid range of motion than Americans. By practicing a ‘gliding’ motion with the feet for the ladies, and a very stately movement for the men, this should give the illusion (or the reality) of being completely in control of your body, and this allows any physical movement to be more determined and pronounced among a script that typically may not have much movement. Besides movement, there are many other ways actors try their best to convey an idea or an emotion, one of these such ways is through speech patterns.

Especially with American actors, speech patterns and consistency can be a very difficult thing. If the actor does not already have a British accent, they must practice developing their British accent, and keeping it for a long time. To do this, an actor must first decide what region of Britain they are from, and, after doing research and listening to British people from that region, an actor must recognize the subtle differences in speech and pronunciation that these people have from people from other regions. After doing research, the actor must then practice, practice, and practice some more. This may even be to the extent of going for days talking in this British accent. The biggest problem American actors have with British accents is keeping them consistent throughout a full-length show. If the actor makes large mistakes in pronunciation on continually drops the British accent, it makes for a very much less entertaining show. Practicing and establishing the British accent even before the actor has the script memorized or even before the actor gets on stage will help immensely. Once the actor gets on the stage, their main focus needs to be on acting, not the accent they’re speaking. So, by fully establishing an accent before even walking on stage, the actor can be well focused in both aspects of speech and acting, making for a very well rounded show. Also while speaking, actors need to realize that they are not speaking to a British audience also. So, while the actor may have a very good and well-established British accent, the audience will not understand it unless they speak slowly. This is true of any speech patterns or accents on stage, but even more so for a foreign accent. The actors in the show who have rehearsed for countless hours before opening night need to understand that the audience is hearing the script for the first time. For them to be able to get every joke, and process a new accent will be very hard for them. By slowing down and working on enunciation, the actor will ensure that everyone in the audience will be hearing the same thing.

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Most British wit is very verbal, which ties in with controlled movements, and so neither the actor, nor the audience wants to miss those gems of wit hidden throughout the show. It would make for a very dull play, no matter how much work a cast put into it, if no one could understand what they were saying. A warm-up that works well for pacing lines in a show is called the chair exercise. The actor puts two chairs about 5 feet away from each other, and paces between chairs, stopping at each chair long enough to say their line up to the first point of punctuation. If an actor really focuses on all commas, semi-colons and periods, they will be able to better understand what they are saying themselves, and this exercise will help with that.

Another aspect of speech that would do well for every actor in every show to practice would be holding for laughs. In British comedy, due to the accent and somewhat less movement, the audience may take a longer time to get the jokes. This can be a problem when an actor is holding for laughs, because they may have to wait longer than they are used to. A good tip to remember is that it may take a second for people to laugh. Therefore, after a ‘funny’ line, when you can hear the audience start to chuckle, give it a second more, and pretty soon it will catch on to the whole audience, and the laughter will be like a wave. If you can come in before and after this wave, waiting for laughs and having large pauses on stage will not be so awkward. Remember, while it may feel awkward for an actor, the audience is surely busy laughing, and even if they did speak, the audience would not be able to hear what the actor is saying. Plays are preformed for the audience, not the actor, so it would be in everyone’s best interest to focus on helping the audience to hear what the cast has to say. Another aspect of speech that may help the audience understand what the actors are saying is listening and then speaking on stage. By staying in the moment, the actor is helping create an active listening atmosphere, and this helps the audience to understand more of what’s going on if they can read the other actors’ reactions on stage also. A good warm-up exercise for knowing what you are saying is called ‘kick the box’. To do this, the actor/actors take a box, and say each of their lines in turn, kicking the box to another actor at the end of their line, and thus, enunciating the last syllable of their line. This helps the actor to understand what they are saying because often the most important part of a line is at the end, which many actors tend to drop.

In British comedies especially, interaction with the audience is most important. Actors have to keep them involved so they don’t get bored and walk out of a show. Lots of British wit can be made at other actors’ expense, and often it says this in the script. On lines like this, the actor can turn to the audience, giving it an aside sort of feel. This engages the audience more, and can help them be drawn into the moment and period of that show. This is also a place where the wall between an actor and the audience can come down. Asides, and even fun at another character’s expense can be very intimate moments with the audience. This is a good time for actors to make eye contact with the audience, and let their face and vocal tone indicate what is really being said throughout the scene. Some directors are strict about keeping a wall between the actor and the audience, but most people think, especially with a British comedy, that close interaction with the audience is not only crucial, but also essential.

Working with directors can be a very stressful aspect of a show for actors. Working with a student director or a director with not much experience is something different altogether. Each director has a different style, and most new directors are still trying to find that style. Some things to make this transition into a stressful part of a show easier lie within the actor’s attitude and how that changes. By being a self-motivated actor, he/she can keep the show running smoothly. This gives the actor a lot of time to look into him or herself and find their acting style. Actors can discover if they are more organic actors, doing whatever comes to them at the time, or if they need more specific direction for each line on stage. By having the ability to be flexible and a self-motivated learner and participant, and actor can make the play a much more enjoyable experience for everyone involved, including the director. Another way for an actor to have a good attitude about a show is being able to accept constructive criticism gracefully. Often, student directors have a hard time criticizing their peers, and by letting them know that it is okay, an actor can make a director feel a lot more at ease doing his/her job. Being open to the other cast members in a show can make for a lot more cast bonding also among actors. By having a strong cast, this strong cast can be supported by a strong director. It is very encouraging to see a director have a group of actors who are attentive, jovial, and well adjusted. Making a play a team effort really shows on stage. If actors like each other and can get along and work well together, the audience can see this interaction on stage in the way actors treat each other.

Most actors think being in a show is just them getting on stage and saying their lines and then walking away after the show stops. But it is so much more than that. If a cast can all get directly involved with a show, it not only makes the work easier for the director, but it gives the cast a chance to experience all aspect of a show instead of just the acting. The best part of having a student director is often they do not have a set ‘formula’ for how to do a show, or maybe only a sketched out idea of what they want a show to look like. This provides many opportunities for actors to bring in their own input by helping out with set design and set building, and this gives an actor an opportunity to give a director feedback, which is often just as appreciated by a director as the constructive criticism an actor gets onstage is. These changes by actors working with a student director are not large or drastic. Really it comes down to a basic respect an actor should give any director, and all these outlooks can make for a better overall show, no matter what type of show an actor is in.

Most changes that need to be made when acting in a British comedy are quite drastic. A lot of the times, actors have difficulty changing their acting style for a British script, but after they do so, they can see large changes in the audience’s comprehension of the script. Most vocal and physical warm-ups are essential for any actor, and should be done for every show. Working on warm-ups and lots of practice are always important key elements of a good show. While adapting to a more ‘British’ style of acting is difficult, acting with a student director is not. It simply comes down to a matter of respect, which is what any actor should give any director. During a smaller, more intimate show, having a student director who doesn’t have a set formula for doing a show makes the show that much more exciting. The actor oftentimes has more input about themes of the show, set design, and almost every aspect of the show. Every actor needs to be open to change and adaptation to become a better actor on the stage. In this day and age, with entertainment focusing on larger-than-life movies and 0-second TV, thespians find it more and more difficult to draw people to the theater. By making a British comedy as easily accessible to an American audience as possible, actors can keep the true focus and tradition of theater alive.

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