Acting 101 for Singing Performers – Day 1 Topic 1
CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING!!!! GREAT PERFORMANCE STARTS WITH WWWWW before deciding the H. …WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?
Most humans think in terms of narratives or stories. Data is meaningless until we know its context. If I don’t give you a context for any kind of data whether it be words or numbers then you will automatically start to create a context for it on your own or ignore the information all together. For example, If I say, “2,4,6,8” your brain all of a sudden starts trying to fill in the blank creating a context or story around those numbers. Maybe it says, “… who do we appreciate.” or “10,12,14.” Both are methods of your mind turning those number into a story; they have meaning beyond themselves. Then, if I tell you those are the ages of my children the new information changes the story those numbers are telling. I could do the same thing with the words “I love you”. They could mean anything and consequently mean nothing until a context is attached to them. Context or stories are everywhere, unavoidable, and wonderful! It is impossible for us to not tell stories and also impossible for us not to hear stories.
There are a lot of fantastic resources to help you as a performer conceptualize and inhabit the temporary world you are creating on stage. Here are the first steps to being a convincing storyteller. The principles discussed in this educational series apply to art songs, arias, full productions, recitals, pop songs, or commercial jingles. They are all just different forms of communication (AKA storytelling).
What is WWWWW before the H
Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How. One of the biggest reason singing performers struggle to know what to do with their bodies is because they try to jump straight to the “H” (how), the acting, how a person does something. The problem is that in real life, if there isn’t a WWWWW then there is no how. We don’t do anything in real life without it being a reaction to WWWWW. It might be subconscious most of the time but our brain is always trying to find the answers to these question words. Is it any wonder that your body doesn’t know what to do when you try to sing this song especially when that song has nothing to do with your real-life context? How could you know how to act in an imaginary context when you don’t know what that context is? Who you are, who you are talking to, what you want, where you are, when this moment is happening, and why it is happening that determines what you should be doing with your body. If acting is reacting then trying to act without a context leaves nothing to react to except the anxiety of standing on stage with people watching you and expecting you to do something but you don’t know what to do. You can change this pattern today! Start with knowing the context of the story you are trying to tell.
5 Key Ideas To Get You Started
1. You are always communicating something. Though the percentage varies between studies, the consensus is that body language accounts for the majority of what we communicate. Make sure that what your eyes, face, and body as a whole are communicating is the same thing as what the words and music are saying unless you are purposefully juxtaposing contradictory statements. I would suggest that for now, you start with trying to make them all match because matching body language, sung/spoken text, and music accounts for most performance literature for singing performers. If your body language and words do not match that is a cue to the audience that you are being disingenuous or that what you are saying is a lie. For more on body language check out the Recommended Books on Body Language section in the store.
2. Know who you are and who you are talking to at all times. Anytime you are on stage you are a character. Choose a character that makes sense with the text and music you will perform. Know who that character you will be inhabiting is talking to. Hint: Even if it is a solo scene where no one else is on stage you are still talking to someone (and I don’t mean the audience). Audiences want to be transported from the real world they inhabit day in and day out to a different world of your creation. The characters you create are the conduit for transporting the audience to a new reality.
3. Know why you start singing and what happens after you stop. Know what your character wants. What happened to your character to make them want to say/sing what they do. Most often that music exists because it reflects what a character is thinking, feeling, or doing. If your character didn’t want something they wouldn’t do anything. It is just like in real life!
4. The audience will see and think about what you see and think about. The more vividly and specifically you visualize the world your character inhabits the more the audience will too. To create a rich context ask as many who, what, where, when, and why questions as you can. These are the questions that when answered that will give you the natural and organic actions you are looking for.
5. Start with the story. Your job first and foremost as a performer is to be a professional storyteller. By “start with…” I mean before you start memorizing, learning notes and rhythms, or working on vocal technique the story being told by the song should be so thought-out that the imaginary moment on stage feels like you are living through a real moment rather than you singing a song about something or someone else. (Note: if you start with the story you will probably see the amount of time you spend having to memorize decrease significantly and the quality and enjoyment you find in practicing increase significantly.)
Common Mistakes When Starting to work on a context for your song
1 Generating a bunch of options without making a decision. Don’t let being worried about making the “right” decision keep you from making a decision. Remember, you can always change your mind but until you try it on you won’t be sure if it fits.
2 Letting “I don’t know” stop you. If you don’t know then make-up a context until you do know more and feel confident in your choices. Not every song has a set context. If it doesn’t come from an opera or musical then you are probably free to make up your context.
3 “I’m myself” is a dangerous character to choose and the hardest to play for many folks. Usually, this is a sign that someone hasn’t thought through the context and are just winging it. Even if you are playing yourself realize that you are almost certainly not playing yourself onstage singing this song to that exact audience but being yourself in a very different and very specific moment that you still have to make decisions about. “Myself” is a character just like any other.
4 “I’m talking to myself” is another difficult choice that is often the legitimate answer. Often, yes, the character is talking to themselves. The problem is this results in problems on stage. If you are a character talking to yourself imagine whatever version of “yourself” you are talking to in front of yourself as if they are in imaginary person standing there instead of talking to them inside your head. It makes things a lot easier for you the performer and for your audience to relate to you.
5 Keeping the storytelling in your head. In real life, a good deal of our thinking and imagining happens inside our head with little external signs of what is playing out there. Most of the time this just doesn’t work on the live stage. It causes vocal problems and makes it hard for the audience to connect with the actor or actress. One way we have to modify human behavior for the stage that isn’t true to real-life behavior is by taking those internal thoughts from being though inside our head to imagine they are being played out in front of us.
6 Making it too complicated or getting overwhelmed by the details. When performers start exploring the limitless nature of the WWWWW questions it can become overwhelming. They might feel like they just can’t keep it all in their head and show it all to the audience. In the end, when you are on stage all you need to actively pay attention to is what your character would pay attention to. Let the other details go until they become relevant things for your character to react to or interact with.
7. Not leaving room for amendment or exploration. You have come up with your context and you are sticking to it! Right? Though there is a point where you need to settle on decisions don’t jump right to writing your context in stone. Think of every decision you make as a place holder until you have something better to put in its place. Don’t ignore that placeholder. Let it be a part of that imaginary world but don’t get so attached to any part of your context that you aren’t willing to explore a better options. The opposite approach is also a problem. Don’t change everything every time you try again. Change a piece at a time like trying to find the right puzzle piece in a puzzle. Art and performance are processes that demand a commitment to revision and amendment.
With whatever song you are working on during your practice time write at the top, in the margins, or on the back what you decide about the who, what, where, when, or why of the song. I am a very visual person so instead of words I often find images or write words that remind me of specific mental images. As long as you have a way of recording what you decide in a way that is as clear and accessible to you as possible then you are building a context you can use. The goal is ultimately to consistently inhabit the same world with the same song each time you practice and to make it more real to yourself each time you do. That world can evolve and change.
Debate! Ask the questions that are begging to be asked! Challenge and explore what is being said here in your comments! Tell me what you have tried, what is helping you, what is holding you back, what you don’t understand, what you don’t agree with, what keeps you from applying these things, what you have discovered as you apply them, and the “ah-ha” moments you have.
Links to other articles in Acting 101 for Singers Day 1:
Topic 3 How to learn a role
Topic 5 Where am I? Who am I?
Topic 7 Lines – It’s about stress!
Topic 10 Where does imagination come from?