Acting 101 for Singing Performers: Day 1, Topic 1
CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING!!! Great performances start with WWWWW before even deciding the H. But WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?
Most humans think in terms of narratives or stories. Data is meaningless until we know its context. For example: if I don’t give you a context for some data, whether it be words or numbers or others, then you will automatically start to create one or ignore the information altogether. If I say, “2, 4, 6, 8,” your brain all of a sudden starts trying to fill in the blank by 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 numbers into a story; they have meaning beyond themselves. Next, if I tell you that 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 not to tell stories and also impossible for us not to hear stories.
There are plenty 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, commercial jingles, and pretty much whatever else you can think of. They are all just different forms of communication (aka storytelling).
What is WWWWW before the H?
Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. One of the biggest reasons vocal performers struggle to know what to do with their bodies is because they’re jumping straight to the H (how). This How could also be described as the acting. The problem is that in reality, 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 a 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 will determine what you should be doing with your body. If acting is reacting, trying to act without context leaves you nothing to react to besides the anxiety of standing on stage with people watching you and expecting you to do something when you don’t know what to do. You can change this pattern today! Start with realizing 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 most of how we communicate. Make sure that what your eyes, face, and body as a whole are communicating is the same as what the words and music are saying unless you are purposefully juxtaposing contradictory statements. I suggest that for now, you start with trying to make them all match. 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 clue 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 that you are on-stage, you are a character. Choose a character that makes sense with the text and music you will perform. Know who the character you will be inhabiting is talking to. Tip: 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 are? Most often, 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. Just like in real life!
4. The audience will see and think about what you see and think about. The more vivid and specific you visualize the world your character inhabits, the more the audience will. When creating 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. Before you start memorizing, learning notes and rhythms, or working on vocal technique, the story being told should be so thought out that the imaginary moment feels like a real moment. (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 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. It is also the hardest to play for many folks. Usually, this is a sign that someone hasn’t thought through the context and is just winging it. Even if you are playing yourself, realize that you are almost certainly not playing yourself. The circumstances of being onstage and singing a song to your exact audience whilst being yourself and making specific decisions in specific moments are still doing character work. “Myself” is a character just like any other.
4. “I’m talking to myself” is another difficult choice. However, it is often the legitimate answer. Often, yes, the character is technically talking to themselves. The problem though is this results in problems on-stage. If you are a character talking to yourself, imagine whatever version of “yourself” you are talking to. Then, imagine that this version of “yourself” is in front of you, and that’s who you’re talking to. This way you are still talking to “yourself,” and it makes things a lot easier for the 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 heads, with little external signs of what is playing out. 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 performer. One way we have to modify human behavior for the stage that isn’t true to real-life behavior is taking those internal thoughts from inside our head to imagining that 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. The performer 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 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? Maybe not. While there is a point where you need to settle on decisions, don’t jump straight to writing your context in stone. Think of every decision you make as a placeholder until you have something better to put there. 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 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 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 somewhere visible (at the top, in the margins, or on the back) what you decide about the who, what, where, when, and why of the song. Personally, I am a visual learner, so instead of words I often find pictures or write things 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. Remember that this 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 2: A more effective way to learn music
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?