We've all heard of the typical acting tactics- Meisner, Hagen, Stanislavski. These are classics for a reason. But I've found that working with high school students requires a little more novelty. While the study of these legends is incredibly important to a well-rounded acting education, a little fun never hurt anyone. So we've compiled our favorite, weirdest and maybe most unexpected acting techniques that have worked wonders for our actors over the years. We hope you have fun with them!
We picked this one up years ago from a clinic for One Act Play. We were competing with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the show rested on the tension and energy between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy. We were doing fine with the vocal tension but physically we were falling kind of flat.
So a brilliant judge, whose name I wish I could remember, suggested this: mime your show.
We had to perform an entire scene without speaking a word.
Seems crazy, right?
We first tried it on a group therapy session scene. The scene rested mostly on Nurse Ratched, McMurphy and Harding, but several other characters were present.
Ratched's presence became more stiff, aloof and condescending with shoulders pushed back, a tight grip on her clipboard and cold eyes on her patients.
McMurphy's apathy and defiance were so very pronounced with relaxed, open legs and smiling attitude.
Harding was restless, fidgeting, delicately crossed legs and constantly pushing his glasses up his nose. He tensed with every defiance of Ratched.
Our other players, the assistant nurse, Chief and other patients, created the perfect background business. They reacted to McMurphy's sharp protests of Ratched and her calm, calculating presence.
This all unfolded without a single sound. And it was magical.
We worked through each and every scene like this several times. The push and pull of characters' energy became palpable.
And the show went well. It was our first year making it all the way to the State competition that year.
This is best when your characters are having a hard time relating to one another. Maybe their relationship isn't clearly defined by the script. Or perhaps its struggle is obvious but the layers are not. Whatever the case, this will help deepen the connection between your actors and their roles.
Make slips of paper with each character written on it. Pull two out of a hat and those characters get onstage. They start with their backs to each other on opposite ends of the stage- as far away from each other as they can be. The actors, speaking as their characters, will have a conversation. After each speaks, they take one step backwards. Back and forth, deeper and deeper, until they back into each other. I usually prompt one of the characters to start with a question.
Why don't you like me?
Why did you cheat on Mom?
What can I do to make you happy?
Why did we grow apart?
Why do you think our friendship started?
It could be absolutely anything. Once you prompt the start, you let them go at it. Sometimes students are brought to tears, others have ended up shouting through their character. It's incredible to watch when both students are dedicated. After each pair backs up completely, we as a cast, discuss the conversation. It helps all the actors relate to one another.
I usually draw names five or six times, then I begin to assign pairs that I feel need deeper characterization. I hand pick actors who need a little help and those whose story isn't being completely told.
This one is a powerful tool for developing relationships. I can promise you won't be disappointed!
We've touted this one before, but because we're talking about novel strategies, its worth a mention.
I've made it a point to integrate more digital technology into my classroom, i.e. the theatre. This is a strategy for characterization I've created to help students develop a backstory.
You can read the full blog post here about How to Use Twitter to Create Deeper Characters, but here's the gist:
- Students tweet for 24 hours as their character
- They must tweet as if their character naturally uses Twitter
- They must use a predetermined number of hashtags over the course of the day
- They must interact with at least two other characters from the show via Twitter
- We must get a glimpse into their lives that is not directly referenced in the script
Students have loved this project in the past and always seem to be excited to integrate their beloved social media into the classroom. You can get the Free Download Twitter Worksheet below!
Here's another gem we picked up from the Cuckoo's Nest production. It's based on the energy created onstage, something that I find is difficult to teach younger actors.
We learned this during scenes including Chief Bromden. He's mostly a fixture of the background, hovering over the action when people think he's a dumb mute. He's a great, brooding figure- always sweeping the floors.
Since this is obviously a specific example, you can translate these to your secondary characters and/or background scenes.
You have to analyze the pace of a scene. Soft, delicate scenes have a gentle, steady rhythm while intense, dramatic scenes usually have a more staccato, hard rhythm. And the background of the stage should reflect that.
Chief Bromden, with his broom, would sweep lazily as general information was passed between Ratched and her team. But when McMurphy stirs up trouble, Bromden's sweeping becomes twitchy, rapid, without a predictable rhythm. While for most, seeing the change of pace is imperceptible, the tension and energy onstage changes, adding another layer to the ensemble's chemistry.
Try to pinpoint the "business" that goes on in the background of the scene. Why are those characters doing it? How does their mindless action reflect what's happening downstage? How is their physicality reacting to those at the forefront of the scene?
There's a rhythm to every scene and the background creates it. Think of secondary characters as the percussion of the show, strengthening and leading the pace without taking focus from the main show.
This is a fun one. We always do this when we need a little mental break. It lightens the mood but still helps us move forward in the show.
The title is pretty self-explanatory- characters switch roles for a scene. You could expand this to the entire show but I feel like little snippets are better.
Characters will switch roles, become the other character and work through a scene. They don't have to have lines memorized, just improv their way through it. This tests their memory as well as their improv skills. While it is a fun little distraction to step into someone else's character, I find that the students learn a lot from this.
Do you have other crazy, unique or all around unconventional techniques that get your acting juices flowing? Let us know in the comments below!
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