Dazzle An Audience In Two Lines Or Less?
May 2, 2009 11:06 AM   Subscribe

How Can I Make Walk-On Characters More Vital?

I'm in the middle of a run of the show Jeffery by Paul Rudnick and am cast in a variety of walk-on, one or two-line bit parts. I'm having trouble with line readings that are so short, and in making my time on stage fill up more space.

Any working actors on Mefi who can give some tips on more fully-realized smaller parts?

Also - bonus points for helping with the logistics of rapid-fire costume changes - I have three in the first 20 minutes of show time, plus prop placement and my entrances could be smoother.
posted by Lipstick Thespian to Media & Arts (7 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If your parts are small your task is mostly just to be clear and deliver information, so don't worry too much about trying to fill your stage time- audiences can tell when an actor is puffing up their role artificially with extra business or pauses, and it makes the actor look like they're trying to hog the spotlight or upstage the action. That said, you of course still want to differentiate the characters, and there are lots of ways to do it.

The audience has little time to get to know these characters, so you want to make the differences between them as clear as possible from a distance. But it doesn't need to be broad strokes- it can be done with some subtlety and specificity, through gait and posture.

For posture, you can imagine each character has a "centre". Picture the centre and give it some qualities, then place the centre in a different part of your body for each character. Then "lead" the characters' looks and gestures from that centre. To make a couple of very cliched examples, a bully character might have a hard, jutting centre in his upper chest. A wallflower might have a glowing, melting centre in her right cheekbone.

For gait, you can use simple Laban techniques. Here's a very simplified version:

Is the character's movement through space: Direct or Indirect?
Is the weight of their movement: Heavy or Light?
Is the speed of their movement: Sudden (Fast) or Sustained (slow)?

When you choose one of each of these, you get a three-part descriptor of how the character moves, and then Laban has a word to summarize the movement type:

Direct + Heavy + Fast = Puncher
Direct + Heavy + Slow = Presser
Direct + Light + Fast = Glider
Indirect + Heavy + Slow = Wringer
Indirect + Light + Fast = Flicker

If you make each character have a different centre and a different movement type, they'll look immediately different from a distance. Experiment with where to seat your vocal resonance (in your chest, mouth, nose, throat, etc) and you can differentiate their voices, too. Thinking about the Laban words can help you adjust vocal cadence for each character, as well.

For quick-changes:
Replace buttons with velcro and sew the buttons back on top of the shirt placket so the shirt looks buttoned.
Lay out clothes backwards, so they are piled or lined up in the order you need them (ie, make a pile with the coat on the bottom and the bra on the top).
Be consistent with props & wardrobe backstage. In a professional production there would usually be a table with all the props on it, and lines drawn so each prop has its own little zone. Set all your props there after the show as part of your cleanup, then look again before the show to ensure they haven't wandered off. You can arrange them in a convenient order for yourself.
Make a running sheet for yourself and keep it backstage. The order of the scenes, what you need to wear, props to fetch, your first line of dialogue if you need it, any notes to yourself ("not too fast", etc). In a show where I'm all over the place, I'll make one of these and tape 3-4 photocopies up backstage to keep myself on track. You can even notate your longer gaps with stuff to do (1/2 hour off, tidy up props then set up for scene 8).
Good luck!
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:27 AM on May 2, 2009 [6 favorites]

I did backstage during a production of Steel Magnolias, and the way I tell it is, I had to get Annelle pregnant in 20 seconds every night.

It was a very choreographed routine, with me waiting in the wings right as she came off at the end of the previous scene, she unzipped and dropped her dress down as her hands went up and I pulled the next dress and pregnancy pad on over her head. She turned, I zipped, she was handed her props and was back on stage in under 20, during which the stage was stripped and reset...

What I'm saying here is, get stagehands you can work with, and practice practice practice.

Also, layer costumes if you can... stripping off a layer or put the new costume on over the old. It can be difficult to plan, but is a huge time saver.

(Also, make it your business to double check that all your props are where they need to be before the show each night. Do it on the sly if toes might be stepped on, but if you have rapid scene changes, you want things to be where they need to be.)
posted by hippybear at 11:33 AM on May 2, 2009

In theatre school, my teacher used the example of the butler for walk on roles.
The butler doesn't just walk on stage, pour the coffee, and walk off stage. He goes to the kitchen, gets the coffee, adds the cream, walks to the living room on the way to the den, pours the coffee, goes to the den, where he...start collating business papers, I dunno.

Anyway, the point of that convoluted tale is that small parts will be fuller if you live offstage, and pass through the stage ON YOUR WAY to something else offstage that you have to do. Not that you should act distracted--simply that without more life in the play, you have to create your life outside of the play to seem real. Might be an interesting exercise for you, at least.

Which is not to say that when you're offstage you have to actually ACT all this stuff--given your quick changes (which you should rehearse with a dresser several times, and time them) you won't have time. Just a way to think about it.
posted by stray at 12:35 PM on May 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Outrageous backstories.

If you have time, you might enjoy a quick read / review of Uta Hagen's "Respect for Acting"; some of her principles might be helpful here. And you have a great opportunity to practice them!
posted by amtho at 12:54 PM on May 2, 2009

This is a place where I think the answer might come from outside. Go somewhere and spend time people-watching. Take notes. Look for people who have "bit parts" in whatever setting you're in, and observe who stands out and why. Start noting the small interactions you have with everyday people you encounter -- any one of them could wind up being your inspiration.
posted by hermitosis at 4:08 PM on May 2, 2009

I'm personally a little troubled by this question. Let me preface my answer by saying I tend toward a minimalist approach to acting, and count David Mamet's "True and False" and "A Practical Handbook For The Actor" among my favourite texts. That is to say, if you find that approach reductive and unrewarding we're not on the same page and you can more easily choose to ignore what follows.

I'm in the middle of a run of the show Jeffery by Paul Rudnick and am cast in a variety of walk-on, one or two-line bit parts. I'm having trouble with line readings that are so short, and in making my time on stage fill up more space.

What you've written here makes me wonder first of all what you're doing monkeying around with your characterizations in the middle of a show's run? The time for that was during rehearsal with the director present. You could argue that lots of great actors do a performance completely different from one night to the next. That's a valid point, but they do it differently within the given circumstances of the play and their objectives as the character. The character's intention hasn't changed, only the actor's inflection. Reacting organically to what's going on around you on stage is important. But changing your intentions or your characterizations in the middle of the run could really throw off your castmates.

The other question I think you should be asking is are you there to serve the play or yourself? Your characters are walk-ons, fine. They contain very little meat, fine. But they are important to the play in the way they move it forward. It's not about how you can make yourself stand out. The play isn't there for you to audition for the casting director you invited to the show. The play is there to tell a story and entertain a paying audience.

Boredom in the middle of a run is something every actor runs into. You have to play past it. Concentrate on your objectives which should by now be pretty well ingrained. Focus on the other characters and everything going on around you in the scene. Do whatever you have to do to stop thinking about how you're coming across. Real human beings in real situations aren't that self-reflexive. They aren't thinking about whether they're making a big impression as they wait tables; they're trying to do their job.

Now, having said that, the suggestions above about building up interesting back-stories or considering where you came from before you were onstage and where you're going after are all great and you should try whatever works for you. Break a leg.
posted by wabbittwax at 5:52 PM on May 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Yeah, good catching on that "middle of a run" bit, wabbittwax. Generally the stuff I said above should be tinkered around with in the rehearsal process. As should quick changes. Not a judgment, just for future reference.
posted by stray at 7:39 PM on May 2, 2009

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