How to Improve your Acting Ability

I hope this series will give helpful tips and pointers for existing and aspiring actors amongst the Players. They are really not all original thoughts and are drawn largely from an excellent small paperback 'About Acting' by Peter Barkworth. It was published over 30 yeas ago but the advice and principles apply now as then. I've found them useful - even if you haven't spotted it in my recent performances!!

Who are you?

Once you have been chosen to play a role, you need to gather all the information that is available through the script and what the other characters say about you and how they interact with you. Supplement that with your imagination so that you have someone who is believable. Once the stage persona becomes a 'real' person, then the actions and feelings of the character will develop a life of their own. It isn't sufficient to know your lines – though most Directors will tell you that it does help!

So, get the facts, get them right, understand the character's part. Where there are gaps, use your imagination to complete the picture. Nobody should walk onto a stage as if in a vacuum – you've had a past, you'll have a future and your present is set between them.

When you read a part, listen to the sound of the words. If you can't imagine that in your head then read it out loud. Is the person speaking casually, with a precise clipped speech, with an accent, slowly and deliberately as if thinking before they express the words? Read the part aloud until you know that is the character speaking. We often rush our words as if we are afraid that the end of the speech will elude us – but we know the lines and can let them emerge at the proper pace. Not only that, but your audience has paid to hear ALL the words, not just those they can grasp as you hurtle through your lines.

Maybe your character has a particular gait; movement will act as the trigger for the role. Barkworth talks about an actor who knew she could play a character because    “ I know what her feet will be like.”  Everything else followed on from that insight.

Why did you say that?

Often we hear lines full of meaning that are discarded. Lines that will point up a change in direction or are highly relevant to the plot get overlooked because we learn them but don't understand them. Often these are simple lines where the emphasis is easy to place. “I didn't know it was you” is straightforward but how many different ways can you say it and each one will have a different meaning in the context of the play. I don't mean you to add emphases where none is needed. The intelligent way to handle the role is to understand where they ARE necessary.

When you have got the idea, why not annotate your script as a permanent record for yourself? Barkworth developed a whole series of symbols to show how he wanted to deliver a line. You may feel that an uncluttered script works better for you and that's fine. But think about how to mark up lines that may need to run together or be separated by a beat (pause or hesitation). Underline usually means 'emphasise this' but an overline could mean 'throw the line away'. How might you record inflections, a louder or softer approach? Nothing stops you adding notes or changing them as the scene develops – you have at least recorded your thought process and applied yourself to the character.

Well, now that we have covered the first basic issues, what's next?


 Often we are faced with the challenge of being somebody quite different and behaving in ways that are not natural for us. How often have you seen a fellow actor get all embarrassed by the stage kiss? It isn't you, but your character and so why should YOU be red-faced and stuttering? If you are, then you have missed a funda- mental part of characterisation - being someone else & acting out their life on stage.

 Ask yourself what are the differences between you and your character – age, accent, background, speech patterns, mannerisms and so on. Think about these, exaggerate them for a while until they begin to pervade your role and then ease back a  little. They will remain there taking care of themselves while you concentrate on being yourself and learning those pesky lines. Sometimes, the lines will come easier and be more natural when it is the character rather than you that is learning them.

 Do you ever look at people in the street or at work and think ........ that is like my character and how they would behave. How do they stand, walk, hold themselves, move their hands and arms – something many actors have great difficulty with. We become self conscious on stage and feel a need to wave our arms around – something we almost never do in life. One of the most compelling stage performances I ever saw was Edward Woodward in 'Cemetery Club'. His sparseness of movement was incredible but his characterisation still hit the back row with full force.

 But, if you don't speak clearly in life then you certainly won't do so on stage – even if the role DEMANDS it. If you don't speak naturally in life then you will struggle to do so with the words of your character.

 Your memory is a vital requirement as an actor – no, not for those pesky lines (once again the Directors amongst us will be shaking their heads) but for experiences, events, emotions. How did you feel when certain things were happening to you in your life? Emotions ranging from despair to delight have been experienced by most of us – but can you recall how you reacted, how you felt, how you behaved towards others? That is real life. If some of that can influence your performance then your character will appear more real to the audience who will relate more closely to it.

 TV can be a boon to the actor studying mannerisms with its clever close-ups and cropped shots but actually there is a lesson there for us. Sit at the back of the Hall and watch your fellow actors on stage and notice how the slightest facial expression can be noticed from afar – so don't overdo it. Or as an actress acquaintance of mine puts it – don't act to the back row. But TV offers you a world of good character acting so be selective and note how different actors work.  I'll bet that the best are the ones with the economy of movement, the subtle aside and the mannerism that brings their character to life and allows it to remain long in the memory. The soldier will stand, move and act differently to the doctor or the mother. Their gestures will be different too – but are you good enough to spot that and take it into your performance?

 Next time we will look at the simple issue of learning lines !

So, what can we do to improve the way that we learn our dialogue? - note that I am using a word that denotes a conversation rather than a single person talking because, unless we are into Ibsen or Pinter, that is what we will be doing most of the time.

We don't have the luxury available to most in the professional theatre – learning lines before the rehearsals start. Even that has its disadvantages because lines can get fixed before the Director has a chance to influence the delivery.

It is a discourtesy to your fellow actors and the Director to still be searching for lines as the performance date gets closer. If you are uncertain then that uncertainty spreads. Cue lines are missed and the rehearsal staggers on with more contributions from Prompt than there should be. As a Director I want to be able to direct the finer points of the play, highlight emphases and shades and I can't do that if actors don't know, or even worse, don't understand what the playwright is trying to tell them in the first place.

You can't react to your fellow actor, can't engage with them if you are walking round with a script in front of you and can't check whether the blocking is working for you (oh, how these words will come back to haunt me if ever I am on stage again !!) Intelligent reading is so important. Why was this said? Will an emphasis here or there help to develop the plot? How should this be said? Simply being able to repeat the highlighted words in your script will allow the play to flow but it will be a two dimensional thing, lacking colour and depth.

The play tell s a story – so what is your part in this unfolding talk? Listen to your fellow actors because their lines are part of that story. What they say gives clued about your reaction and perhaps your next speech. It isn't enough to listen out for the cue line – what about the 10 lines that preceded it?? You can learn lines better, I submit, by working on them and by understanding them and you will make the Director's job a lot easier too.

 If words and phrases are difficult, don't give up and paraphrase them – the author has sweated blood to get them down on the page in the first place. Consider how breathing, phrasing and speed of delivery (i.e. slowing it down) will help you master the tricky bits, Are you going to let yourself be beaten by a few words for goodness sake? Try mnemonics to learn lists or convoluted sentences – are the various adjectives in alphabetical order? Do the words you need to remember form a pattern – or another word that you can bring to mind to help you navigate through the speech?

Say the lines out loud – until they form a subconscious pattern that your ear knows. Even visual learners will benefit from doing that. Have you noticed how often you know your partner's lines during rehearsals even though your own words are sticky?

That is because you have listened to their lines subconsciously and the brain recognises what comes next. Saying the words out loud helps with understanding character development and your own delivery. It may cause the occasional upset when 'Match of the Day' is on but – hey, that's showbiz.

It is easier for a Director to alter something that already exists than it is to try and create the feel of a line for the actor. Positive contributions can be worked on – throwing an idea into a void is always much more difficult.

Rehearsals should be hard work but also fun. That can't truly happen unless the case it on top of its words – then sparks can really start to fly.

Knowing the words is, of course, important. Knowing their sense is important too. So is establishing character. How about writing down all you would want the audience to know about your character – in a few words so no room for waffle? I’ve tried it for the programme for the February play and it made me think....and that is several weeks into rehearsal when I thought I knew my stage persona.

When you are talking on stage you need to think about two things – what you say and the recipient of your words. If you are struggling with a memory or trying to find the right words to describe an event or feeling then the words take precedence. If, however, the speech is fully focussed on the recipient then that should be where you concentrate. Work out where your attention should be at any given time in the play and you will find that your manner and delivery may well alter. Remember – you are talking for the benefit of other people – if they weren’t there you probably wouldn’t be saying anything!!

The counter to speaking is listening. It is not reacting!! There will be occasions when the words demand a response but often we are guilty as actors of reacting to everything. Much of our day to day listening is done with little expression – just save it for those key words or phrases. On the stage every gesture is magnified so, again, less is more. Barkworth says that talking is giving but listening is receiving – and we do both differently. 

The audience can be quite a nuisance can’t they? They make a noise, they upset you by their presence and friends and family just compound the problem. But to make the play work we actually have to forget they are there. When you have been directed to keep your face towards the audience and to ensure that your delivery can be heard at the back of the Hall it is all too easy to forget that you have to talk to, and listen to, the other cast members. If you can keep that focus you will be surprised that you were less aware of the audience – and you won’t be tempted to overact either!!

Concentration is a vital skill – it helps with learning and it helps close out those external sources of noise and distraction. Reading out loud can help if you feel insecure – you will get better at phrasing, you will hear when something sounds right and you will grasp unknown words. (Enter another hobby horse stage left) ... if you talk carelessly your speech pattern will be distorted because your brain will struggle to connect the written word with the sounds they should make. Our business is words after all. Yes, once you have grasped the role and the character those issues will become more resolved but you are making life harder than it needs to be.

Next time we will have a look at how to encourage each other and some tips for moving and other stuff when you are up there on the stage.

Anybody who wants to see how not to do it and how far removed from reality a self-appointed “expert” can get is invited to watch me in “Out of Focus” in February. Please note that all communications addressed to me following that production, delivered by whatever means, will NOT be acknowledged!!

Even before you start to learn your lines you have to work with the director to plot the moves. Your director will have spent days with a wet towel round their head and lots of kitchen utensils or little “Lego” men on a model of the set trying to ensure that actors are not obstructed and moves can flow freely. That is the theory. In practice moves will be refined and refined again in the early days of rehearsal. If a move feels really awkward it probably doesn’t look too good either – you have to hope that the director spots the incongruity or raise it with them – often your instinct will tell you when something works well – and when it doesn’t.

Using props can help you remember moves and can act as visual anchors – you may want to make a move towards a particular item or piece of furniture, stop and turn round to address the next remark back across the stage – the move (and therefore the prop) has been used for emphasis and as an anchor for the move. You can also remark on a prop or piece of furniture by noting it and then talking about it as your eyes alight on the next item which keeps the momentum going and is a more natural approach to inspecting new surroundings.


Thoughts and Afterthoughts.....

“Go on thinking about what you were thinking about until the next thought occurs to you” – this allows lines and actions to flow more smoothly without the unspoken thought bubble appearing over the actor’s head – “well, that’s my line done with.....” The character’s emotions don’t just stop because there are no words left to say. Anger can require a move to continue long after the words are uttered and the same can be true of less powerful emotions – try it one day and see how it feels.

A new thought can be a springboard for a move – especially if they are able to coincide. Read through your part and find where there are thoughts that just occur to you and see if a move can come naturally from that process. Thoughts are like pulses of energy and it is that energy that powers the move. Your director may not have spotted it but with careful analysis of the script you may see that opportunity.

And when you do move – have a glance in that direction first and see if the move comes more naturally. If you know that you will have to collect a prop in a couple of lines maybe you can “notice” it so that you have established a direction for your move when it arrives. Or look down before you sit down and don’t be afraid to run your hand along the back of the chair before you sit – I’ll bet you do that in real life – and that’s what we are attempting to convey to our audiences.

Here is part 6 of Peter Watson's series of acting hints and tips.

 Good Move!! - so many moves are cliches – we jump up in agitation or slump down in despair. Why not try and find a practical reason for the move – get up to look at something that's caught your attention – or sit down with a book. Despair isn't just about slumping in a chair. It can be a lean against a wall or a gaze into the distance from a window. Directors and actors need to think about suiting the action to the word – thoughts can inspire actions and appropriate actions can inspire thought.

Barkworth quotes Olivier (who wasn't that shabby an actor) who suggested that the contrast between walking slowly and talking quickly – and vice versa – could be so much more effective than the usual fast walk/fast speech pattern seen on stage.

Use looks and gestures to take the audience out of the set and into the rest of your world. “He's upstairs” can be accompanied by a small gesture or look to where “upstairs” would be – remember small, not a dramatic sweep of the arm that includes most of the Canadian Prairies. “He's in London” or “she's in the garden” can be handled the same way. And if you have a “garden” outside the window, why not take the chance to look at it? The action should fit the context but it can “fix” the location of other actors currently off the set or have the effect of extending the set well beyond the purely visual area on which the play takes place.

And just a thought.....with proper voice projection, there is no reason why an actor can't spend some time with his back to the audience. It can add drama when they turn and face again and it might be a much more realistic way of delivering a particular speech.

ATTITUDE – every character needs it!! Learning the lines is good (and pretty important in the great scheme of things) but the extra dimension comes from attitude and character. How do the other people in the play affect you? You have feelings about most people you meet in your life so why should your stage persona be any different? Do you like them, love them, loathe them? Do they make you feel comfortable or uncomfortable? And in all these cases, to what extent are you prepared to reveal that to the audience? To make things more complicated, maybe those attitudes change through the play and you need to show that, by word, touch, movement .......

How well do you ACTUALLY understand the play?? I'll bet we've all seen additional meanings and subtleties during the run. So never stop telling yourself the story of the play and, if you don't understand a line or action, ask a friend, They may have an insight because, ironically, they are not as close to the action as you are, Have you ever stopped to analyze the difference between the start of a scene and the end of it? What journey have the cast been on? I've said before that we should imagine where your character has been before coming on stage – and we can extend that to say – what would have happened if the scene hadn't ended where it did?  That makes the final line seem less like an arrival than a part of the journey.

And finally for this month – no, don't interrupt, I haven't finished. But we rarely do on stage – we are too polite and wait for the last word of the previous speaker to stop echoing around the Hall. You never do that in real life. Most of us talk over our family and friends and while that can't be right where the audience need to hear the dialogue, there are times when a form of “interrupted” speech can work well and seem more natural,  as well as speeding up the moment when we can all get to the Bar. Which is where I'm heading now!