Five Common and Avoidable Theatrical Mistakes
Most of the writing in this forum has to do with social and marketing psychology, but I want to make sure and devote time to acting and directing technique as well. I consider them relevant to “People-triggers” in two ways:
- Broader knowledge of how people push each other’s buttons can make for better script analysis and more subtle acting, and
- Any storyteller needs to know what will make their audience respond in the desired way.
This weekend, I went to see a regional Shakespeare company do a new adaptation of The Three Musketeers. I’m not going to name them, because I need to knock them a little.
I will say that my wife and I are contributing members to this theatre company, and that they do good work, by and large. This was the first of their shows I’ve seen that I would call downright bad.
This company made a lot of mistakes with a story that is generally considered a crowd-pleaser. They fell into almost all of the common acting traps. But sometimes it’s good to see this happen to paid professionals. First, it makes you feel better about your own skill (always a plus for insecure actors), and second, you can see clear illustrations of what to avoid.
Based on the production I saw, here are five very common acting and directing mistakes that people should avoid:
1) Major Production and Style Choices Have Nothing To Do With Audience Engagement
When directors put on a production, they are correct to want it to feature differentiators. After all, everyone has seen R&J and Midsummer at least 50 times.
So they try and find a “lens” through which to see it differently. Some will say, my production will feature the entire uncut play, the purest interpretation, the best fights, the most intricate blocking, the most historically accurate, the most interesting modernization, the version where all the characters are now gay, etc.
The problem is that most of these choices are made arbitrarily, and focus on stuff no one cares about. Inevitably, it ends up detracting from more important elements. The show I saw had very nice blocking and pretty good fights, but lasted over three hours without a discernible story climax.
All the production choices for performance need to be about moving the audience. Fundamentally, no one gives a damn if your iambic pentameter is perfect. They want an engaging story about authentic, relatable characters who go through a suspenseful journey to get the thing that they most need.
If you want to stage The Merchant of Venice in 1930’s Europe, you can do that. But it’s not enough to have just an academic reason for doing so. You must do so because it will engage and compel the audience in a certain desirable way.
2) Actors Are Trying Too Hard to “Act”
Kurt Naebig from the Acting Studio Chicago tells his acting students that whatever the story is, “It’s a story about you!” Yes, you are not absolutely identical to the character, but there’s a reason you were cast in the role.
Ever seen a movie like Ocean’s Eleven or Whole Nine Yards? Even though all the actors are pretty much playing themselves, everyone looks like they’re having a great time and we can’t take our eyes off them!
You know what we (the audience) don’t want to see? We don’t want to see you trying to show us how passionate your character is by declaring all your lines with loud “feeling.” We want to see you. You are capable of being funny, arrogant, mischievous, authentic, vulnerable and caring, just in your everyday life.
Actors, pull back the “feeling” a little. You look like you’re trying so damn hard. Have good volume and energy, but leave some room for having a good time with your fellow actors. Even “dramatic” scenes are fun to play, if played right. Which brings me too:
3) Humorless, Mischief-less Acting
Shurtleff wrote Twelve Guideposts, but the thirteenth would have been “mischief.” That’s how we engage each other in everyday life.
Sometimes classical or antiquated language gets in the way of this. If you have a line like, “Fare thee well…I die each day until we are reunited!”, the language itself pulls the actor even further towards an on-the-nose reading. After all, it seems, on the face of it, very difficult to do much else with that line.
It’s a curveball way outside the strike zone, so most actors will chose not to do anything with it, and wait for a line they feel they can do something with.
Actors, you have to find the humor and the mischief, even in lines that sound straight-up cheese-ball. There is some kind of natural humor or irony in any situation in life.
There are some actors that say, “Well, there is no subtext in Shakespeare, because his characters always say exactly what they’re thinking.”
That’s bullshit. Shakespearean characters do let the audience in on their inner thoughts, but the dialog is still dripping with subtext, including and especially humor and mischief. And the only way the audience can relate to you is if they pick up on those familiar qualities.
The next time you intend to shout a line that seems like it should be shouted, please bear this in mind: the best Iago I ever saw delivered “I hate the Moor” with a smile on his lips. It was riveting.
4) Tedious, Meandering Story with Arbitrary or Forced Drama
- “But…that’s what the playwright wrote!”
- “Well, you’re the director. Cut the damn thing.”
I’m all for keeping good plays intact, and staying true to the playwright’s original intent (as best can be discerned). The worst results happen when directors get an “attack of the clevers,” and try to tinker with the play to make it “better.”
David Mamet likewise tells us that actors should just know their blocking and say the lines correctly (spoken like a true playwright: “Stop fucking up my work!”), because you don’t see a concert violinist trying to inject “feeling” into his part of an orchestral performance, do you?
Directors and producers: take responsibility for your audience’s enjoyment. If the play needs a lot of your tinkering, choose a different play! If it goes on for hours, cut it down. Make sure the audience goes away satisfied with the story!
Playwrights: stop being in love with your own voice, and stop throwing in arbitrary violence and unsubstantiated drama. Keep your stories clean, and build suspense to a discernible climax.
5) Can’t Relate To The Protagonist
When I wrote about Cialdini’s “weapon of influence” chapter on “Liking,” I spend a little time talking about how we identify with heroes, politicians, and those figures we want to represent us. We must see that we share some traits with the hero (not all have to be positive), and we must see that they are “high-status,” or socially desirable/valuable in some way.
D’Artagnan (to take the play I saw as an example) is a little shit. That’s who he is. He’s naive in most ways. Starts out as an almost comically bad swordfighter, yet wants to duel everyone he sees. Basically a punk, with dubious game (at least at first).
Now, we love punks. They have freedom. They can be independent. They have an attitude we wish we also had. And they can be very high-status by choosing not to be needy of other people. There is a lot of potential for punks to be beloved. James Dean, anyone?
But its hard to play a hero as a constant buffoon, and still have the audience care about him, which was the case with this production. The audience needs to project their own face into the story somewhere! That’s why comedy teams have a straight-man. That’s why Our Town has a Stage Manager.
But what about classic comedy heroes like Bob Hope and The Marx Brothers? Weren’t they played constantly as buffoons?
No. It only seemed so, but those characters also got the funny zingers, which elevated them, and put them above the situation.
Remember to give you audience a way in. Someone they can relate to and project their face onto so that they can easily empathize with the story.
Now it’s your turn. What did I miss?