Theater Acting – What You Need to Act on Stage

Everything is bigger in the theater, so although theater acting requires the same acting skills you need to be truthful on screen, you also need additional training specific to acting in theatre so you can…

– be heard

– create a stage presence

– work well with a stage director

– and interact with the audience.

Let’s look at all four of these skills one by one.

1) Most Important Theater Acting Skill – TO BE HEARD

If you’ve only performed in the small black box theater of your theater school, this may seem easier, but most professional theaters are much larger. You could be on stage in a theater with over a thousand seats or more challenging yet, in an outdoor theater, where your voice will really have to carry, even if you’re mic’d.

The need to project on stage creates two different challenges: first, you need the vocal, breathing and speech training to be clearly heard. Second, you need to still be able to act truthfully while projecting your voice, even when performing intimate or “hushed” scenes.

A good vocal production class will teach you how to stay out of your throat by controlling your breath. You will practice belly breathing supporting your voice by using your diaphragm. Once you have better breath control, the next step is to learn to release your voice by relaxing your throat and jaw and “projecting” your voice to the end of the theater. Exercises may include a body warm-up, relaxation, deep belly breathing, releasing long vowel sounds and doing tongue-twisters like “Red leather Yellow leather” or “unique New York” repeated non-stop as fast as possible.

Depending on what theater school you go to, you may learn different vocal production techniques. One I particularly like is the Linklater Technique, as it is really based on freeing the actor’s voice. Whatever vocal method you use, your voice needs to be free to express your emotions as an actor rather than hold them in as most people have been taught to do. This will help you stay truthful on stage, even when the venue requires for your voice to be much louder than it would in normal circumstances.

2) Second Most Important Theater Acting Skill – TO HAVE STAGE PRESENCE

Yes, some people are naturally more charismatic than others, but that doesn’t mean that stage presence can’t be learned. Some aspects of “taking the stage” are purely technical, like finding the light (the best standing position where the stage lighting brings your face to life). Others have more to do with posture and movement. A theater play is usually rehearsed and blocked (see below), so you know where to go and what physical actions to perform, but when you’re on stage, the amount of energy you use to perform an action is very important. Again, everything is bigger. Gestures have to be large enough to be seen by the entire audience. The way you walk onstage informs the audience about your character, so your entire body needs to be involved in the moment much more than if you were doing a close-up on film.

Movement classes help actors find that stage presence by working on their physical expressiveness. One method that is taught in a lot of theater schools is the Alexander Technique. It helps tremendously with posture and getting rid of bad habits and unnecessary tensions in the body that inhibit the free expression of stage actors. Drama lessons centered on physical characterizations also help, as they teach performers to explore and inhabit their characters with their bodies through all kinds of exercises. On example is the animal exercise, where you explore the physicality of your character by imitating the movements of an animal that connects you to the role. Other classes that help with actors’ physicality on stage include dance (ballet, jazz, tap, etc.), stage combat, tai chi and Suzuki, among others.

3) Theater Acting – Working With a Stage Director

In stage acting, although the actor has some freedom during rehearsals, his movements eventually are blocked by the director long before the performance. If the director tells you to move from down stage right to up stage left, you don’t only need to know what that means, you also need to find a way to make that direction feel natural to you. How do you do that? Always find a reason for any blocking direction you receive on stage. You don’t have to share it with the director or the other actors, but your character has to have a good reason to cross, to move, to gesture, to enter or to leave.

In terms of the lingo, it’s easy:

  • Downstage is closer to the audience, while upstage is away from the audience.
  • For theater directions, right and left is the actor’s right and left as he faces the audience.
  • Blocking means to set where each actor will stand and move to during a scene. It’s the blueprint of physical actions and movements during the scene.

4) Interacting with the Audience

Acting in the theatre means acting in front of an audience, which means stage actors must at the same time find enough privacy on stage to be able to focus on their roles, while letting the audience in enough to time his/her performance to the reaction in the room.

One way theater actors avoid being distracted by the audience is by creating what we call a fourth wall. This is the missing wall between the performer and the audience. Different acting techniques offer different solutions. Stanislavski used concentration exercises where an actor focused on a very small area of the stage and then expanded that focus to the entire stage. Method actors used specific exercises like the private moment to feel privacy on stage. If stage fright is the reason you can’t forget the audience, meditation and relaxation can help, as well as these tips.

Having a live audience is part of the thrill of theater acting, though, so you don’t want to forget about your public completely. Actually, there’s tremendous energy in the room that can positively feed an actor’s performance, not to mention you need to be in tune with the audience enough to pause for laughter and other emotional responses. That’s not really something you can learn in theater class, but definitely something you get better at the more time you spend on stage.

Which takes me to my next point… The most important training you can get for theater acting is being in front of an audience as much as possible. If you go to acting school, pick one with a theater and plenty of performance opportunities. The larger and more professional the venue, the better. Audition for school plays, community theater and Off-off-Broadway. Attend theatre open calls, including Equity calls (non-Equity actors can be seen after Equity) where you’ll often be on a real stage for the audition.

Hope you get lots of theater jobs!

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