The problem with most performances is that our senses are treated to too much information, not too little.
The theatre doesn’t have a zoom feature. The theatre doesn’t have a sound editor. The attention of an audience will, in fact, zoom, and will, in fact, edit, but it is the actor who makes that possible.
This may be as simple as the old-school imperative of not walking and talking at the same time. Fortunately, things that are “old-school” at least happen to be backed by some schooling.
Isolation of Sound
I attended opening night of one of my Molière adaptations. I was, of course, familiar with the text. The scene designer had created an innovative set, with very specific, artsy pieces giving the impression of the environment without making the attempt to realistically depict the environment.
It was performed on an old proscenium stage, and the scenery gave way to an unshielded wing-space area to the sides and to fly-space above. The auditorium, complete with balcony, could hold over a thousand people, although there were only, perhaps, 200 in attendance that night.
The problem with most performances is that our senses are treated to too much information, not too little.
In this instance, with only fragments of scenery in back of the actors (and no walls surrounding them), the actors’ voices were unfocused. A good actor, and a good director, should virtually “see” the sound waves that voices create. One look at the space, and five seconds of listening should tell the artists that their voices are rising up into the huge cavern above their heads. Voices are trailing off into the wings, and the sound is roaming around upstage, eventually to be absorbed by the curtain. The lack of scenery is depriving us of the usual “bandshell” which would otherwise focus the voice and thrust it forward.
The voice bounces back down out of the loft, back out from the wings, and forward off of the back wall of the stage. This “bounced” voice may be a tenth, or even a half of a second behind the live voice that is now emerging from the actor’s mouth. The actor is forming a consonant, while the echo is carrying a vowel. Two or more separate sounds are assaulting the ears of the audience at the same time. If the actor is talking rapidly, or slurring his words, two entirely different words may be finding the ears of the audience at the same moment!
In reality, it may be a dozen separate sounds: There is the original voice coming directly from the actor’s mouth to the audience’s ears. There is the reflected voice that bounces down from the fly-space, and across from the wing-space, which may then radiate out toward the audience, or may bounce against the floor, or the opposite wing before emerging “South”. There are tiny sound waves also bouncing off of every set piece on stage. The auditorium, itself, has a ceiling, walls, a balcony and many of the old auditoria were not fitted with acoustical tiles. (Often, the best place for an audience to sit is below the balcony, which cuts off the echo from above.)
Compound this problem with actors who turn their backs on the audience, or allow themselves to be upstaged, delivering the line away from the audience. Beyond the fact that the audience cannot see the actors’ faces (we “hear” as much by seeing the words being shaped as we do by actually hearing), the odds that the words will be understood by the audience decline to a tiny fraction!
The performers and the director, disturbed by the fact that the audience just doesn’t seem to appreciate the jokes (which they’re not hearing), start to do more physical stuff. They leer and prance. They stoop over to exaggerate the cleavage jokes. They pause and nudge and grin and wince and mug. And the audience bursts with grateful laughter at a joke they can understand!
The implied message to the audience is this: we know that this stuff isn’t really funny, but we know how to make it funny!
As much as I enjoy cleavage jokes, even I begin to question: but just why should that be funny here? Isn’t there a different joke being told in the text at this particular moment?
The implied message becomes “I can be funny in spite of the play,” and once we begin to do anything in spite of the play, then we’re really not working with the play.
We can save ourselves at least 50% of the effort and strain that we might expend in talking louder (and straining our voices) by facing our mouths downstage to begin with. Yes, it may be unnatural. Yes, we do not always face “South” in real life. But a) this is not real life, and b) the audience will be grateful.
Observe the shape of the open mouth. It is a stage, with the lower row of teeth as footlights, and the upper row of teeth as a teaser. The lips themselves form the proscenium and the mouth creates its own effective bandshell, perfectly designed for the projection of sound. If we take that natural “stage” and align it with the shape of the stage upon which we stand, then we reinforce the personal with the architectural. The two “bandshells” will work in coordination with each other. We get the maximum result for our hard work.
The simple act of turning profile or upstage, in and of itself, will diminish the audibility of our voices 75 to 90%. We all know of the difference in the quality of sound between a train whistle approaching and receding. Very quickly it will drop in pitch and volume. (The “Doppler Effect.”) That is the effective impact of turning toward the wings as we are speaking. Unless we compensate with a significant rise in volume, the audience’s ears cannot adjust quickly enough. We will have made ourselves impossible to hear.
Stand forward of the proscenium line when possible. Yes, the scene designer gave us lots of fun toys to play on. It’s a fun jungle gym and we want to use it. Use it when not speaking. Or else we need to be ready to shout over our shoulders.
It’s not a question of being louder. The audience would gratefully receive all of the information we want to impart, if they could only get that information divorced of all of the “noise” that the creaky old auditorium throws in our way.
Actors don’t believe that they are not being heard. After all, they are shouting! How can the audience not be hearing every word? Place an audio recorder in the last row of seats. And then play it back. You will be shocked.
Actors, while they are on stage, cannot simultaneously be in the audience not hearing themselves. And again, they’ve been repeating these lines for six weeks. They know what their lines are. They’ve heard them a million times. If their mouths are moving, they must be being heard!
Forward of the proscenium line, the voice goes directly to the ears of the audience with only a tiny fraction of the interference that it encounters from upstage, amid the cavern of the space.
How we got here
Six weeks ago we all started speaking what was, for all rights and purposes, a foreign language. (“Shakespearean?” “Shakesperanto?”) We, the recently-cast sat around a table and read the play out loud. We looked at the script while reading these foreign words, and laughed as if it were not a foreign language at all, but the most natural speech in the world. But there those foreign words were, living comfortably on the lips, at the first reading and at every subsequent rehearsal. We spoke the lines, and our fellow “foreign language students” laughed aloud, night in and night out. We worked out timing, played with blocking, with stage business, schtick, bits, lazzi, butt-grabbing, crotch-kicking, sausage-swinging, apple-cart tumbling, pratfalls, dives, ducks, clinches, kisses, prances and poses.
And by the time six weeks of this have passed, we have forgotten that this language was ever unfamiliar to anyone. And an audience filled with people-who-have-never-heard-these-words walks in through that door.
In point of fact, we were probably being heard reasonably well all the way up to a week prior to opening, when we were rehearsing the show in a classroom or a studio somewhere. When the time came to load the set in to the performing space, just across the street, or in another end of the building, we were so accustomed to being heard that we forgot to keep listening!
In the rehearsal room, the voice only has to fill up perhaps 8,000 cubic feet of space. Now a venue with 80,000 cubic feet yawns before us, and in the meantime, we have forgotten that those people out there don’t already know the words! At no point during our entire process did we ever express these words in front of people who did not have access to the script from the first read-through, on forward.
During the second intermission of that particular show (the one with the artsy set), I observed a high percentage of the audience slipping quietly out the door. They had given the actors Act One and Act Two to swing at that ball. They weren’t going to give them that third pitch.
Isolation of Movement
“Too much information” applies to movement, too. If I am moving during my very important line, then the audience simply won’t register it. If I was watching a movie, I wouldn’t expect to hear witty, nuanced, urbane dialogue during a car chase.
Here is the classic formula, and I include it just in case you haven’t stumbled across it elsewhere:
Let’s say I am in the middle of a confrontation. My acting partner is across the stage. My line is, “What are you going to do about it, punk?”
· If I walk up to him, and then say “What are you going to do about it, punk?” then the audience will hold its breath waiting to hear what I am going to say.
· If I say “What are you going to do about it, punk?” and then cross the stage to square off against him, the audience will hold its collective breath, waiting to see what I am going to do.
· If my fellow actor walks as I talk, no one will know where to look.
· If three other actors in the background hold an animated conversation in pantomime at the same time, then any five audience members may focus on five different actors on stage.
And gradually, we find that a story is not being told, not because there is not enough information to tell the story, but because too much information is deflating and disabling our ability to shape the story.
Art is about selection. And selection implies saying “no” to some choices while saying “yes” to others. The responsibility is incumbent upon the actors and the director to select what they want the audience to receive. If five different audience members feel like they have five different choices about what they are going to follow, then the story isn’t being told at all. Or it is being told in such a manner that any collective retelling of the play’s story will resemble the tale of the blind men and the elephant.
Add to this any random event that may penetrate the environment – a low whistle that is audible any time the wind blows outside, an animal or a child on stage, a train that passes outside every fifteen minutes, an actor who has been given free rein to ad lib every now and then – and the audience will spend as much energy attending to (or bracing against) the random event as they do following the story.
If you want an audience to zoom in on a speech, or a moment, or an action… do nothing.
If I stand before the audience, motionless, speaking my words, and nothing else is going on onstage, then they will quickly zoom in. My mouth and eyes will be isolated against everything else that is happening. Suddenly, the tiniest movements that I make will have meaning, and I can convey a wealth of information with almost nothing at all. The eyes and ears of the public do the zooming, and the less I do, the tighter they focus. It doesn’t matter if I’m swallowed up by that 80,000 cubic foot space. Their eyes will find the single cubic foot of space that matters.
At the end of the scene, as the lights go to a quick blackout, they will see the after-image of the actor burned into their retina. That is how intently they have been focusing.