I always find, when rehearsing and putting together a show for an amateur theatre group, there are some traits in amateur actors that tend to creep out and ruin performances. Even if there is a genuine level of talent there behind the borrowed costume, these traits can really make a difference to the overall quality of a show. Here’s some that I recognise regularly, how to recognise you’re doing them and how to stop it.
1. Upstaging other actors
This is a common occurrence in most shows that I go and see. Many a professional actor has been known to kick off if upstaged and rightly so. Unless there is a very good reason, you should never upstage a colleague on stage.This includes walking in front of them while they’re delivering a line, pulling focus to another part of the stage, making interesting faces behind their back and a multitude of other sins associated with distracting the audience from what that actor is saying. This doesn’t only apply to actors either- stage hands and the backstage team can often be just as guilty of this due to the size or sound of the set moving behind a curtain or even directly behind an actor. If you are feeling any of the following symptoms, you could be at risk of the urge to upstage:
- Uncontrollable urge to hog the limelight
- Need to feel constant attention from the audience
- Seeing opportunities to play the clown in a scene to get a laugh
- Imagining that it’s only you on the stage when in fact there’s lots of actors around
- Inherent lack of self awareness
If you’re suffering from any of these symptoms then please seek a backstage role in the next production or help from a director. If they do their job properly, no one should be upstaged.
2. Stepping on Comedy
Coincidentally, one of the most common forms of upstaging is stepping on someone else’s comic moment. This is important enough to have a whole title for itself. If someone is delivering comedy (either physical or a punchline) it is crucial that the audience aren’t distracted during this moment. It is the difference between rapturous laughter and a room full of blank looks. Also, if you’re delivering the comedy, don’t throw away the line! Deliver it clearly and with the right tone and you’re onto a winner. If you’re unsure of how to deliver a comic line, always check with the director. They should know and be able to offer suggestions.
3. Cheap Jokes
A cheap joke is normally something which either doesn’t feel right for your character to do, or when you break character or deliberately emphasise something in a serious situation just to get a laugh. The rule usually is that comedy should be funny because of it’s circumstance rather than the circumstance being funny because of the comedy. This covers the lines that are involved in the comedy and the way it’s delivers. If these seem alien to the circumstance (and the circumstance becomes funny as a result of this) then chances are you’re doing a cheap joke. The audience may well laugh but it’s a pretty low form of comedy and is rife amongst amateur productions, particularly Pantomimes.
4. Inconsistant Emotion
Do you ever watch a soap opera or a play when you think ‘the circumstances of that character just haven’t built up to warrant that reaction’? It’s often in moments of extreme emotion where this occurs and it’s a sign of poor script, acting and direction built up together to form a moment of weakness in the performance. For emotional scenes, usually you’d look for a marriage of a good script, good acting and good direction to make a good moment. They work in tandem and if one is weak, they each fall down. An example of this is an argument between two characters going through a marriage break up. If the argument starts with high emotion then it doesn’t make sense to the audience as they’ve had no context to this. A better piece of direction/acting would be for the couples emotional levels to gradually build resulting in an outburst. This way, the audience understand that they’ve been becoming increasingly frustrated. Equally, if the script does not become shorter, sharper and more scathing as the argument goes on then there’s no opportunity for the actors to gain momentum and emotion. Play off of your colleagues and use the script, if you can do that, you’re onto a winner.
Wondering is one of my favourite traits in amateur actors. I often find it quite funny when I spot a wonderer. There are two types of wondering, physically wondering aimlessly around the stage because of nerves or a lack of self awareness in acting and then wondering attention spans. Classic symptoms of this include hair twiddling, arm scratching and nose picking. If you aren’t sure what to do with yourself and you’ve recognised that your a physical or attention span wonderer look to your director or character for help. Everything you need should be right there within the text and the character that you’re portraying. If you’re not speaking, here’s 3 quick tips on how to stay in character:
- How does your character feel about what is being said (or who is saying it)?
- How should your character react to the other lines?
- How does your character’s relationships to others who are on stage effect their reactions?
The most important thing is maintaining concentration within the show and you’ll be just fine. A Small Point is that sometimes you can get the opposite of ‘wondering’, instead you end up with fixed-face acting where an actor’s face gets stuck on a single emotion or emotional response to a situation. Of course, the situation and context on stage is ever-evolving and so, therefore, should the reactions be.
6. Silent Mime
This is a particularly amusing style of acting which is rife amongst amateur companies. Everyone is silent onstage so as not to pull focus from the main dialogue but instead of just speaking and reacting to each other silently (as if someone has muted their sound) they instead resort to pantomime-style over-acting which results in them looking as though they’re losing their mind and/or control of their body depending on the severity of the silent mime attack. A mime is just that, a silent version of events which would usually have had sound in them. Do note that this only applies to situations where mime is used naturalistically. If you are acting as a french mime artist then obviously more pantomime-style acting is appropriate.
Hopefully these easy steps will help you to identify some small changes you can make when you’re on stage to be more self aware and a better actor.