Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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Learn By Doing and Learn By Watching

A few nights ago, CC and I attended the 17th Annual Actors’ Scene Showcase, produced by the Women’s Theatre Alliance. I’ve attended it several other years and I commend it to your attention if you’re ever in Chicago at the right time.

The evening consists of 10 scenes from plays. Generally, they are from 10 different plays, although this year, two of the pieces were different scenes from the same play. They must be 2-person scenes, 5 to 8 minutes in length, consisting of either 2 women or a man and a woman (this is, after all, a production of the Women’s Theatre Alliance). The showcase is a one-night-only event, and auditions are held some weeks earlier. Any couple that wants to try out can prepare a scene and make an appointment. A panel of auditors decides who the 10 best couples are and those couples advance to the showcase.

While the showcase is open to the public ($12 a pop this year), the primary attraction of it for actors is the opportunity to be seen by casting directors and other assorted reps from theaters around town. There were many such types in evidence in the audience Wednesday night, as they were mostly seated in a reserved section in the middle of the house and each was given a folder full of head shots and resumés of the actors on display.

I’ve considered getting together with an actor friend and preparing a scene for the showcase, but I haven’t done so as yet. It is, however, very much an active object of consideration for the future. I have so say that I’m glad I’ve seen several of these before undertaking it myself, because I’ve picked up a lot of pointers by doing so – quite a few “dos” and “don’ts.”

First, a couple of “don’ts” regarding the setting of the scene. DON’T do a scene that consists of two people talking while driving in a car. This is an audition of yourself as an actor, and a whole lot of acting consists of movement. DO pick a scene that lets you move around. I’ve seen at least two different couples who chose scenes set in cars, and they were not interesting to look at.

Unless you’ve got something really cool up your sleeve, DON’T pick a scene that consists of two people sitting at a table in a bar or restaurant. This one is similar to the car example above in that it is not interesting to watch two people sitting at a table, though this isn’t a hard and fast rule – depending on the scene and how it is staged, you may be able to incorporate a great deal of movement and visual interest. The other problem with this type of scene is that SO MANY people pick scenes set in bars for these showcases that it’s become something of a cliché. I suppose they’re easy to rehearse because you can just sit at a table and run your lines, but here’s the thing – You’re not here to do something easy! You’re here to do something difficult while making it LOOK easy!

DO get a third party to direct your scene. The showcase rules recommend this but don’t require it. While I’ve seen a few scenes that were self-directed and worked well, they are in a serious minority. Much more often, the self-directed scenes suffer from focus, movement, and character problems that could be readily addressed if a third party were there to see them from an audience-eye view. Better to get a director – and not merely someone to watch the two of you rehearse and pat you on the head, but someone who will actively craft the scene with you.

Next, as an actor, play the reality of the scene. I think that actors in these showcases often feel the pressure of trying to establish the context of a scene when they know that we haven’t seen the whole play. To compensate, they may try to craft their character so as to implicitly fill in the exposition we the audience have missed. I know this temptation all too well – I’ve made this mistake myself in scene study class. Just play the specific reality of the scene you’re doing, and nothing more. Remember, we in the audience aren’t here to see a full-length play; we’re here to see you displaying your ability to perform this one scene.

Play your scene for the theater you’re in tonight. You’re not at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, projecting out over the orchestra pit to 3,000 patrons and a full balcony; you’re at the Theatre Building on Belmont Avenue, looking up at about 200 people on risers. Show us that you have an awareness of your surroundings and can calibrate your performance accordingly.

Connect with your fellow actor. Too often, a scene at one of these showcases shows all the signs of being either under-rehearsed or improperly rehearsed (see earlier note about having a director). Some actors seem to think that their primary task is getting their lines and blocking down. Having achieved that, they forget that they’re also here to act. The first casualty of this lack of preparation is connection with one’s fellow actor. The fact that this showcase consists of 2-person scenes is awfully, awfully important. It represents a challenge – and an opportunity – to show that you’re not merely someone who can stand on stage alone and deliver a pretty speech. It’s your chance to show us that you can connect as a character with another character and build a scene together. That’s a mighty rare opportunity in the audition world, so treasure it and exploit it!

Now, back to Wednesday night’s showcase. The range of best to worst performance was pretty wide. We saw some people who lost us from the moment they opened their mouths. We also saw some people who we’d pay good money to see in a finished production. Intriguingly, some of the scenes had a curiously mismatched quality to them, where one actor was operating on a level far beyond their counterpart. In a few cases, CC and I couldn’t help commiserating afterward about how badly we’d felt for one actor bursting at the seams to do a terrific scene but having nothing to play against – a.k.a. the one-hand clapping scenario.

I don’t think it would be right or fair of me to review any of the performers by name, either for good or ill. Even though this was a public performance that I paid to attend, it was, after all, an audition. If I see a finished production, I’ll review it and I’ll name names, but I would feel disrespectful to do so with this showcase in this public journal. Suffice it to say that I saw some terrific performances and some very un-terrific performances. I also learned a lot and had a very good time, and I hope the folks who were onstage that night can say the same!

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