Are you working on intensely emotional or difficult material right now? Then you know that the warm up and cool down periods are crucial parts of that work. I’m not talking about the physical warm up-though that should also be a part of your artistic day, I mean the moments you take to focus, to get in the “zone”, the “flow”, the “artistic state”.
Similarly, I find it helpful to cool down from particularly hot pieces by taking a moment to come back to my own reality through gratitude and mindfulness; we really have to shed the anxiety, fear, and/or trauma we have hosted in our bodies for the sake of storytelling if we want healthy relationships offstage.
Personally, I take about 10-15 minutes (or more) on either side of my working period, put on my over-ear headphones and listen to one of the pieces below to get into and out of my “flow”. Here are three of my go-tos (and a BONUS):
1.) Inside the Actors Studio Suite, by Angelo Badalamenti
Everyone who enjoys watching James Lipton’s “Inside the Actors Studio” knows the first few seconds of this suite, but the full ten minutes of music is an easy, peaceful, and relaxing pallet cleanser. You may even feel extra actor-y for listening.
2.) Out of Africa Suite, by John Barry
This is the first piece of music I ever obsessed over. I have strong aural memories of hearing this during family road trips and observing my father studying or writing with this soundtrack playing on my pink portable cassette player next to him on the floor. When I grew old enough to appreciate good acting I became doubly obsessed with Meryl Streep’s performance, so when I listen to the Out of Africa Suite today I am immediately inspired to do important work and remember the safe feelings of my creative temperament.
3.) Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.2, C Minor
This is the Advanced Category. If you have “all the feelings” you will not find a more empathetic composer than Sergey Rachmaninov. The profound suspense in this piece, played masterfully here by Lang Lang is an immersive warm-up and cathartic cool-down. My mother would sometimes play this piece on our home piano on Sunday mornings. I would lay in bed listening, terrified and hypnotised. It was brilliant.
Bonus: I rather frequently use guided meditation to calm my mind before or after my theater work, hyper-emotional or not. I have subscribed to the Meditation Oasis Podcast for many years, and I cannot recommend this podcast enough.
I recently returned from a quick weekend trip to Costa Rica! My dear friend and I decided at the beginning to make an effort to let go of the stress and grief in our lives, and to really truly relax. Easier said than done. Of course, we tend to remain students of Art wherever we go, and after all, if our end is “to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature…” no better place than Costa Rica! Here are some acting reminders for myself from this weekend. I hope they help you too!
1. Be where you are.
It’s the first lesson of improv: “Yes, and…” It’s the first lesson in scene study: “know your given circumstances…” It’s a major mantra in the happiness movement: “Be where you are.”
On the left is the brilliant jade-colored pupa, who has hurried up to wait in her chrysalis and is currently undergoing transformation. Growth and differentiation…all these interesting choices occur within the chrysalis. It’s an obviously internal and private process. Pupation may last weeks, months or even years…she can even fall into dormancy until the right season.
The gorgeous malachite butterfly in the center, having emerged from her chrysalis, is sitting on the empty shell in order to expand and harden her wings. Every few seconds she will pump her wings, and any moment she is going to take off.
Notice the empty exuviae, or remains of the chrysalis-exoskeleton. It’s a reminder of what she had to go through, to grow through, and I hope we look to these souvenirs with gratitude. Of course, it’s not really an interesting choice to play a chrysalis. It’s an empty exercise to play “the end”, so it’s helpful/stronger to imagine your or your character’s development at an earlier stage.
Accepting your given circumstance always expands, not limits your options. You become interesting when you completely “buy in” to the immediate circumstance of this exact instance of your character’s life. You become exciting to be on stage with. Offstage you’re a joy to be around, and you are a valuable colleague. If while analyzing your career tract you are aware, mindful, and present to your current reality, you will be less susceptible to jealousy and depression. Mindfulness adds a sense of wonderment and even wanderlust to your journey.
Life gives you plenty of time to do whatever you want to do if you stay in the present moment. -Deepak Chopra
Incidentally, don’t feel like you need to lay out and defend every “choice” you have made as an actor or a person. Oversharing is an easy trap to fall into for actors and musicians, so if this is a habit for you, consider this: when you really own your choices and tether them to a profoundly deep part of yourself you become a miraculous story and so much more than a flat stereotype.
2. Peace is dynamic. Passion is loud.
“Rainforest Waterfall” is a setting on my white noise machine, which I turn on to relax, meditate, or otherwise “zone out”. In still-shot photography it looks so peaceful here, even serene, but in reality it is exhilarating, almost overwhelming to stand close to a waterfall. The roar is so loud that you have to rely on hand gestures to communicate to your companions. The violence of the falling water vibrates in your blood, and fills you with a rush of adrenaline.
My happiest, most peaceful internal moments have usually been when I am incredibly busy, scrambling from one thing I love to another. My heart is noisy and I feel like I am bursting with life, vibrating with passion. It’s easy to play a happy, serene, or peaceful character as if she were a wooden bowl in a still life, but then what you get is “static”…you get “white noise”. It’s good to remember: give your even your quietest characters loud passions.
3. Focus is patient.
Among the truly amazing animals at La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Wildlife Refuge is the jaguar, and I watched these two adolescent female jaguars being fed. Instead of dumping the meat in front of them, the keeper would place the food in difficult-to-reach spots in the enclosure, high, low, and make them wait a minute or so for the next bite. We got to watch the predator in training and it was fascinating. Between bites, or when her sister was enjoying her capture this jaguar would crouch and wait. Her eyes would never “go dead” and she maintained a relaxed aliveness even when the scene was not about her.
You see where I’m going with this. You have to keep your relationship with your onstage others (and your offstage desires) taut, alive. Conflict is where the drama lives, and the second you stop caring you stop being honest; your character’s integrity becomes dim and your audience stops caring as well. Focus is fierce, but it is also patient and expectant.
4. Mystery is exciting.
In the southern part of the Poas Volcano is Laguna Botos, a beautiful crater lake surrounded by impressive tropical cloud forest. It last erupted 7,500 years ago and is now considered dormant. For the most part it behaves like a sparkling blue lake but sometimes the water gets heated for several degrees by volcanic heat and turns grey.
In the north is an active crater with Laguna Caliente, one of the most acidic natural lakes in the world. The bottom of the lake contains a layer of liquid sulphur. The size of the lake is variable – sometimes 165 feet deep, but sometimes it disappears entirely. The temperature of the brine is 70°C but can rise up to over 200°F.
The diversity of colors of the lake is fascinating. It might be emerald green but some three hours later grey-whitish. Sometimes rafts of brilliant, yellow sulphur are seen floating in the lake. As if this is not spectacular enough, Laguna Caliente often experiences impressive geysers. This is caused by the magma reaching the water – extreme heat instantly transforms the water and acid into explosive steam and the lake blows up in a giant fountain.
When I was a kid, I loved the Red Skelton and Esther Williams movie, Bathing Beauty (1944). There is a scene where Red Skelton has to be part of a ballet class where there are all these girls in Swan Lake costumes, and he is also wearing a Swan Lake costume. The ballet teacher is telling him how to be a dignified woman, how to walk as a ballerina. She says to him, “You have to say to yourself, ‘I have a secret. I am beautiful. I am beloved.’” It’s hilarious and touching and made a huge impression on me. Candidly, I think of this scene before almost every audition or social situation where I am feeling very nervous or insecure…I actually write on sticky notes and put on my mirror or say to myself:“I have a secret, I am beautiful, I am beloved.” This is simple, silly, and powerful. So try it sometime.
Secrets that are alive under your skin give you color, it’s not just in your costumes and mannerisms. If your own mysteries or made-up secrets tint your reactions and motivations, you will bring a fresh unpredictability to your characters that is quite engaging and works as well for comic characters as dramatic leads. And if you have ever witnessed a secondary character or ensemble member completely steal the show, this is exactly what that actor has done. So build up an arsenal of secret inner thoughts, specific and private circumstances, so that the discoveries you make onstage are bursts of unexpected color and power.
I hope you enjoyed some of my lessons from Costa Rica! Have you ever found acting lessons in your travels? Share!
I was raised to be insecure by default. I was taught that all men are evil, that I am only as precious as a man thinks I am, that I will be loved as long as I am dutiful and beautiful, and that I have nothing important to say or do outside “the home” or “the church”. Years of work on myself later, I still carry around with me a part that is quiet and reserved, ever-doubting, ever-searching for validation.
My insecurity blanket is the thing -the only thing- that can keep me from success in my relationships and my career. This insidious insecurity can and will destroy all the good things in my life. You could say that fear is my enemy. (Well yes, that is a Frozen reference.)
But confidence is a choice I can make.
A popular diet book advises taking daily cold baths as a way to rev up your metabolism. The instructions say that when you sit down in the chilly bath water sit down quickly, like a child playing musical chairs. I’ve tried this whole cold baths thing, and whether it works on your metabolism, it certainly works on your resolve. The first several moments in the tub feel like true torture, then suddenly your body kicks into this completely exhilarating feeling. You’re supposed to sit or lay in the cold water for about eight minutes, and in spite of the energy rush I am experiencing, I am often tempted to abandon my mission and scramble out of the water. But when I finish all eight minutes and bounce out of the bath I have a real sense of happiness and accomplishment, eager to take on my infant, toddler, and seemingly endless career to-do list.
I may not be confident by nature now, but I can certainly plunge head-long into confident thoughts and actions. Confident thoughts and actions can be very uncomfortable to me, like the miserable shock of bathing in cold water, and all I want to do is escape to the comfort of being just an object, a pawn. Being confident simply feels to me like stubbornly refusing to give in to my fears. The more you train yourself to choose confidence over fear, the more successful and credible you will be in your relationships, both on and off the stage.
It’s very easy to look for confidence outside ourselves: in a relationship status, in a teacher’s praise, or in social media approval. When we chase validation, we’re simply looking for confidence in all the wrong places. The outside search is based on false presumptions about the people around us, and those presumptions will ultimately build up a wall between us and our partners, teachers and audiences. Confidence is about deeply connecting to your true self, your story, your mission.
Here’s what I like to do when my insecurity blanket starts smothering me:
1.) Close my eyes and center my mind on breathing into my lower dantien, that energy center below the navel (about three finger widths below and two finger widths behind the navel), which is also called “the golden stove”. Discover a sense of grounding and balance.
2.) Envision myself working through my situation completely strong and confident in whatever I do.
3.) Feel what it would feel like to be super strong and purposeful every day.
4.) Generate the confident feeling by remembering a time when I felt that way. If I can’t remember feeling confident to that degree, then I think of a character in an opera or the movies (or a certain R&B artist) that embodies that quality. Then I imagine playing that role, feeling how confidence feels at the same time.
5.) Envision myself hunting down my insecure thoughts and fears like they are disgusting parasites, bravely wrapping them up in soap bubbles, and watching them float away.
Confidence is a choice I can make. I can make that choice as many times a day as it takes to live my dream, to serve my purpose, to tell my story.
I developed my own personal Method-acting-hybrid style from two people: Michael Gelb (random, I know, but I’ll explain later) and Anthony Hopkins.
In my experience as an acting student and audience member, nothing has moved me more than performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company and National Theater roster members. When I was an undergrad theater major, I spent more hours in the library watching RSC and John Barton‘s “Playing Shakespeare” video series than I did in my actual acting classes. This is also when I fell head-over-heels in love with Judi Dench. Watch her video in the Geek Out! section at the end of this post.
Today I still feel that there is no better way to learn how to study a singing/acting role than by preparing a Shakespearean role.
It’s the method of preparing Shakespeare that is unlike any other American acting experience and applies so beautifully to operatic preparation; I have been directly inspired by Anthony Hopkins in this regard. Sir Anthony is renowned for his preparation for roles. He has indicated in his interview, “Lecter and Me: A Behind-the-Scenes looks at Red Dragon“, that once he has committed to a project, he will go over his lines 250 times until the lines sound natural to him, so that he can do it without thinking. Listen for glimpses into his role preparation here:
This leads to an almost casual style of delivery that belies the amount of groundwork done beforehand.
Watch and learn from Hopkins’ in Shakespeare’s “Othello”, Act III, scene 3, lines 337 to end…….Othello enters “Ha!, False to me! to me!” and Iago plants stories of Cassio and the handkerchief.
This leads to an almost casual style of delivery that belies the amount of groundwork done beforehand.
While it can allow for the spontaneity of a fresh performance, this kind of preparation also allows the singer to keep repetitive rehearsals to a minimum, and in the course of a practice day, allows a young singer to spend more vocal energy on vocalises. Director Richard Attenborough praised Hopkins for “this extraordinary ability to make you believe when you hear him that it is the very first time he has ever said that line. It’s an incredible gift.”
It’s from Sir Anthony that I am inspired to give to the audience something of a clean canvas on which to paint their own reactions to a REAL situation. Hopkins uses the image of a submarine to describe the stealthy machine at work under the surface of the lines and the actor’s face. Hopkins has said acting “like a submarine”has helped him to deliver credible performances in his thriller movies. He said, “It’s very difficult for an actor to avoid, you want to show a bit. But I think the less one shows the better.”
Here’s how that translates to me:
First, you study your pants off. (This is where Michael Gelb helped me.)
Next, imagine this, Method Skeptics: instead of immersing yourself in the character and stopping there, create a REAL person (character) and immerse that character in the music and vocalism. Let your character be the submarine and let the music be the water all around you.
GEEK OUT! To more John Barton and RSC in this superior lesson on Naturalistic vs Heightened Speech. Opera singers, you are foolish to ignore this lesson…
Know Who Your Character is When No One is Listening
To my Beloved Tenor who is working on expression, this is for you.
During an aria or even an entire opera, we won’t see every aspect of a character. In life, no one sees every aspect of you; have you ever thought about how much time we spend sitting in silence? I think over-achieving opera singers forget about these quiet moments when all they can hear is the music. Know who your character is when no one is listening- when not even your character is listening to herself/himself. Understand that REAL people are constantly using filters, and in acting for REAL, you have to get to know even the filters that your character would use.
Even in your stillness when sitting on the A train and staring off into space, there is no doubt that you are a REAL person.
A REAL character has so much more UNSAID than SAID.
UNSPOKEN STORY + FILTER + SPOKEN STORY = REALITY
It is your own reality that informs how you introduce yourself -or not- or how you tell a story, how you react to bad news…indeed, it is your own reality that informs how you sit in a silent moment. Yes, as our acting teachers have all told us, “this is the most important day of your life!” during any given scene, but as an opera singer we actually have to show very little because of all the layers available to us that contribute to the unspoken story.
The little that we do show is informed by this REAL character that has come to life in our table preparation. Further, the little that you show allows the voice to radiate out of your character in a very specific way, and you will perform the role unlike anything else your audience has ever seen.
Don’t settle for acting “as if”. Have a purpose for every detail in the music.
Prefer an internal “gesture” to vocal “gesture”.
Prefer a vocal “gesture” to physical gesture.
Use cadenza and other stylistic devices to illustrate intention.
Play a game of hide-and-seek between context and subtext.
TIP!!! After you have done all your table work (who, what, when, where, why), discipline yourself to sit in the long silent moment that proceeds your character’s speech, as if you were sitting on the subway train. I do this for 30 minutes at a time several times over the course of preparing a role or art song. Sit alone and still as the character, then jump right into the piece from that stillness. Alternate between jumping into a spoken monologue and into the sung version.
None of the major Method teachers of the 20th century was completely correct or incorrect, and not all acting styles will work on an operatic or musical theater stage. I sincerely believe that every actor – singing or not – must make sense of his material through an honesty about the world around us.
I developed my own personal acting method primarily from two people: Michael Gelb and Anthony Hopkins. More on this next! 😉
Method acting is a phrase that loosely refers to a family of techniques used by actors to create in themselves the thoughts and emotions of their characters, to develop lifelike performances. It’s contrasted with more classical forms of acting as well as traditional opera performance, in which actors and singing actors simulate the thoughts and emotions of their characters through external means, such as vocal intonation or facial expression.
Though not all Method actors use the same approach, the “method” in Method acting usually refers to the practice, pioneered by Constantin Stanislavski and advocated by Lee Strasberg, by which actors draw upon their own emotions and memories in their portrayals, aided by a set of exercises and practices including sense memory and affective memory.
Method actors are often characterized as immersing themselves in their characters to the extent that they continue to portray them even offstage or off-camera during a project. However, this is a popular misconception. While some actors have employed this approach, it is generally not taught as part of the Method.
More Than Script and Character
Opera and Musical Theater singers, we have at least two more major layers added to our portrayal beyond character and “lines”.
We have music and we have vocalism.
This doesn’t mean we can’t develop lifelike performances, it means we have to build REAL musicality and REAL vocalism, which will eventually become your clean canvas for creating a character…no one said it was easy.
As for the music, obey and honor the composer. Be a musician of integrity and be faithful to the score and to tradition. Unless you have proven yourself a worthy challenger, always yield to the conductor.
As for the voice, build the instrument relentlessly as athletes study, build, and nourish their bodies. Trust that all your technique is there when it’s performance time. When the curtain goes up, it’s too late to think about technique. If your technique isn’t ready to trust, your performance will seem especially contrived and uncomfortable for the audience.
Next up…Know Who Your Character is When No One is Listening
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
In attempting to make singing actors out of classical singers, I’ve observed frustrated teachers and students trying to marry the sound of the voice with the sense of the scene.
Almost every “Acting for Opera” workshop I’ve attended includes reciting the text followed by reciting a character’s “facts” and concluding with a Frankenstein performance mashing all those things together.
It goes like this:
Teacher has Student recite the text of the aria.
If Teacher wants to really torture Student, she will have Student recite the translated text word-for-word in English.
Teacher, with a lengthy oration on how to flesh out a character, asks Student to rattle off the “who, what, when, where, why” of the character’s circumstance during the character’s aria.
Singer gives the facts.
Student proceeds to perform the aria again, this time singing the happy bits with a smile and the intention “to inspire joy” and the sad bits with a faraway look and the intent “to recall a happier time.”
Teacher looks at the rest of the class with pride and leads the ovation.
Ta-Da!! In a brief 25-minutes the aria has magically transformed from the standard park-and-bark to a performance complete with gestures, facial expressions, and dynamics.
And I’m sitting in my seat unmoved, thinking “I still don’t believe you! I don’t believe that this is what it feels like to be on top of the world, in a fight with your lover, betrayed by your best friend, dying of consumption…” Here’s the truth. You don’t have to shove those details in my face, Singer. You only need to give me permission to have two things: the clean canvas of your own honesty and an infinite palate of pure colors provided by an honest performance of the music and the text with which to paint my own human experience in this very REAL moment.
“I still don’t believe you! I don’t believe that this is what it feels like to be on top of the world, in a fight with your lover, betrayed by your best friend, dying of consumption…”
Just as the acting teacher struggles to pull something deeper out of an opera singer’s performance, there is a struggle among opera coaches as to which acting style is the most appropriate to facilitate the athletic demands of the singer’s instrument. A popular argument at this time is that opera singers can never take advantage of a true Method acting technique, as total immersion into a character will most definitely interfere with the ability to produce the correct operatic sound. Sadly, many of those who uphold this conviction don’t really know what they mean by “Method”.