When I grow up I want to be Elaine Stritch! I want to be that old woman sitting at the back of the theatre with the balls to yell out every time the actors fail to project from the stage. Every time they swallow their words and force me to fill in the blanks of the story, I want to take that little bit of amplified plastic tubing hanging from their ear and shove it where the sound technician will never feel comfortable looking for it.
It’s time we took the elephant in the room and stuck him centre stage – that microphone on your face does not replace projection. Its purpose is to enhance sound.
In many community theatre companies, amplification has led to poor staging, decisions to go bigger in totally inappropriate ways and left a generation of performers without the skills to be heard when their microphone doesn’t work.
We’ve entered a time in community theatre when basic stage craft has been lost to so many. All those basic truths that represented our respectful relationship with the audience have been, on the whole, replaced with useless techniques relabelled ‘contemporary performance’; a fancy term that really means ‘we’re doing the audience a favour by allowing them into our space’. At least that’s how I sometimes feel when I sit in an audience.
The introduction of amplification in community theatre should have meant the ability to maintain our emotional range on larger stages, over orchestras and to bigger audiences and, to experienced actors, it has done exactly that. But to many community theatres, it has led to poor staging, decisions to go bigger in totally inappropriate ways and left a generation of performers without the skills to be heard when their microphone doesn’t work.
Now, let’s understand something – projection is about so much more than volume. You can project a soft sound. But you’re not projecting sound alone. You’re projecting personality, energy and character. You’re filling a space with a whisper. You can walk onto a stage full of people, not say a word and yet draw the attention of the entire audience.
Projection is the opposite of the very insular actor that was birthed out of the ‘amplification’ era. I’m not suggesting we go back to the pre microphone days – not at all. I am suggesting that we need to acknowledge that acting is a skill to be learned and when I finally become that old lady in the audience, those actors who don’t project are running the risk of me punctuating their performances with a well aimed boiled lolly every time they fail to project (just kidding – maybe).
There’s a great story about Marilyn Munroe that demonstrates the energy, personality and charisma that you should be able to generate, sometimes without even speaking. The story goes that a journalist asked her what it was like being the persona of Marilyn Monroe rather than Norma Jean Baker. Marilyn answered by demonstrating. She stood in the street as Norma Jean, herself, and not one person took any notice of her. The instant she ‘turned on‘ Marilyn, everyone stopped. She hadn’t said anything, hadn’t changed her clothes. She had simply projected Marilyn.
Actors without projected energy tend to be insular in their performance. This separates them from the very people they are trying to connect with – their audience. The result can be a that the audience disconnect from the story. They don’t care about your character and, because they are having trouble hearing you as well, they begin to get pretty peeved, looking at their watch, waiting for interval and a large glass of red.
So where do you begin to take your performance from insular and ineffective to charismatic and full of what it takes to lead your audience on the journey of storytelling?
You could go to theatre school but, as we’re talking community theatre, that’s not an option for most. You could also learn to sing from a good teacher trained in sound classical technique. Regardless of whether you do musical theatre or not, good singing teachers will build strong projection based on a solid physical foundation. Finally, there is this thing called the internet.
Youtube is your friend. Simply search “how to project your voice on stage” and you’ll have many, many videos to choose from. Of course, some are going to be complete rubbish but many are by good teachers. Take what you learn and experiment at every rehearsal. Give yourself time to grow and improve.
Study basic acting technique. There are many schools of thought, options and resources online. I have been studying and recommending the techniques of Uta Hagen for years. You can buy her books, Respect for Acting and A Challenge for the Actor and DVD on Amazon. Accept that you will never stop learning and continue to study your craft. I just bought a Masterclass course with Kevin Spacey online. This interwebby thing has so many possibilities.
Finally, shhhh, listen! I want you to really, really get this.
What you are currently doing on stage is not as good as you can be. Stop reading your own reviews and seek out new and wonderful teaching. Search for new ideas, experiment with them at rehearsal, ask questions of those you admire, watch everyone you work with and keep all the good bits. You have the potential to be such a great performer if you pull your head in and seek wisdom. And finally …
You’re telling stories. Respect your audience. Don’t forget them. ‘Can they see my facial expressions if my face is angled too far up stage? Is that important to the story? Am I dropping the ends of lines? Is my poor diction making it difficult for my audience to understand me? Am I projecting character, energy and personality or am I fading away in the middle of an empty stage?’ The questions we should be asking ourselves as performers are endless.
Of course, you could ignore all this and just perform for yourself in your own living room. But now you have that vision in your head of that old woman, sitting on your couch throwing boiled lollies at you every time you drop the end of your lines.
Imagine that. 🙂
Sherryl-Lee Secomb is the founder of An Idiot On Stage.
The Idiot exists to encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary. Learn more about the Idiot at http://www.anidiotonstage.com.au, follow the Idiot on Facebook, Instagram and enjoy hundreds of theatre resources on the Idiot’s Pinterest boards.