Does this teapot make me look fat?

An Idiot On Stage

I wonder if Mrs Potts (Beauty and the Beast) has body issues? Does she stand in front of a mirror considering her backside or get frustrated trying to fit herself, from handle to spout, into a backstage selfie. It’s ridiculous to consider. She’s a character in a costume. No one expects Mrs Potts to be a size 10. But body image is something that many of us bring with us into the theatre. This is an emotional subject and before we go any further, I want to tell you that I get it.

I get the panic attacks, the fear, all of it! I don’t know how to fix it. I can’t give you the ‘five easy steps to developing a better body image’. I don’t know what they are. For me, developing a healthier body image has meant stumbling through experiences I would rather have avoided and, as I chose to be in the theatre, that meant I would have to work out my body image issues in front of an audience both on and off the stage.

If you have a body, you have an image of it. You’ve stood in front of a mirror and listed all the things that you don’t like about what you see. But if I asked you to show me the list of things you do like, you’d scrabble around in your pockets before admitting you forgot to write one.

We all have a list. I have one. But I didn’t realise how it impacted my life until a few years ago. I’d reached an age where I cared less what others thought (emphasis on less). I still cared just not as much as I did when I was in my 20s. But life changed when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Treatment included losing a breast and eventually spending a long time without hair. Suddenly I realized how much of what I knew of myself was wrapped up in having hair to flick, how without eyebrows and lashes I looked like a bald eagle, and how my spectacular dance style (insert snigger here) was now limited to moves that did not require me to bend over for fear my prosthetic (from now on known as ‘le fillet’) would fall onto the floor. It’s a bit of a scene stealer.

I now had to deal with small children staring and pointing at me at the supermarket, asking their mother why I had left my hair at home or only shopping from the middle shelves of the produce aisles for fear of losing my false boob into the bananas. I laugh long and heartily about it now and, yes, you can all laugh, including the men who are squirming in their manly brogues.

This experience forced me to realise that the valuable part of me was not what I looked like. Of course, if you work in the theatre, you can be forgiven for thinking it’s everything about you. You’re judged on how you look from auditions to performance and, as a professional performer it’s a reality but I believe community theatre has to be different.

Community theatre exists to give people the opportunity to participate. We must try to be inclusive and embrace diversity. Yay, Hamilton! But we’re all still working through this concept and in the meantime, we have to deal with the issue of body image.

There are two sides of this subject – the actor and the costumer, but before we get serious, let me tell you the story of “Sherryl-Lee’s Big Realisation”.

It was a few years after my cancer and I decided to audition for a major concert performance. My vocal audition went well. I congratulated myself on having it all together, smiling wisely at the self-deprecating comments of the other auditionees. Self-righteous git! I was cast as a featured singer and, as rehearsals began, I felt comfortable and confident with myself. Because I wasn’t dancing, I could wear costumes that covered my floppy triceps and no one would ask to see my legs. Life was good. I graciously accepted when asked to provide vocal support to the dancers of a major dance number, after all, I was a mature, experienced performer. *cough*”idiot!”

Is it only me or has anyone else noticed that, the minute you start to think too highly of yourself, your face ends up squarely on the floor of the stage – DOWN STAGE CENTRE! Somehow, I ended up IN the dance. In spite of my vigorous protests, I found myself, a 45 year old woman with floppy triceps, dancing amongst a group of 20 somethings that, no matter how much they jumped around, nothing moved. You can imagine my first reaction – oh, crap. My second reaction – OH, CRAP – came when I got my costume. Remember – ‘le fillet’! I was expecting to hide it nicely in a demure dress AS A SINGER. Instead, they hand me a singlet top. A BLOODY SINGLET TOP! What do you expect me to do with my prosthetic? Glue it to my chest?

Editor’s note: There will be some who will now post about the wonders of the ‘mastectomy bra’. This wonderful invention has a pocket for you to insert your prosthetic into to stop it falling out when you bend over and when they develop one that doesn’t look like my grandmother’s underwear, I will wear it. I do not feel ‘beautiful’ in a bra that covers me from chin to upper thigh! Shall we continue.

I had visions of ‘le fillet’ flying out of my costume and into the orchestra pit. I voiced my concerns to the team. No one heard me. I didn’t want to be ‘that’ person but I was freaking out. It was at this point that I learned another lesson as a director:

I would always listen to my actors. I would hear them, challenging them if they were being precious and then solve the problem. But I would always hear them.

Concert night arrived and I put my 45 year old floppy body on stage with the defiance of a roaring lioness. I had tightened my bra straps so much that I could barely breath but I didn’t care. I only had to last for 3 and half minutes. I could breath when I came off stage but I wasn’t giving that prosthetic any opportunity to take out the dancer to my right during the third turn in the routine.

I danced through sheer terror that night. As I exited the stage after the routine, I realized that I had to make some changes. I wanted to continue working in the theatre but I couldn’t freak out every time I went to a costume call. This was not going to be the filter through which I made decisions, limiting my life and experiences. Cue inspirational music.

I’d like to tell you how I made these changes. If I could list the 5 Steps here I would but to be honest, I don’t remember it happening. All I know is that I made the determination to figure out where my sense of self-worth came from. Once I did that, I realized I didn’t have to try so hard. There wasn’t another human being that could tell me what I was worth. I could laugh at myself and be happy. I don’t always get it right and when I listen too much to the world around me, I notice the old fears trying to creep back in.

So where does the ‘le fillet’ incident impact my theatre life? It leads to some very important lessons.

Lesson One – It’s not all about you.

Actors – stop expecting costuming to deal with your body image issues. It’s not their job. It’s yours! You’ve chosen to be an actor and if you are more concerned with how a costume makes you personally feel or look than whether it projects your character within the show, then you have some basic stagecraft lessons to learn. You are playing a character, not yourself. Costuming has no interest in making you look ‘bad’. Their only interest is supporting the artistic vision of the whole show.

Lesson Two – ‘Shut up and wear the bloody costume’ is not your best approach.

Costumers – In community theatre, you do not usually have the luxury to cast to size. Costume teams should be following an overall artistic vision but you must never be contemptuous of people who have body issues. There is always more than one way to do things. It’s community theatre and the actors are not being paid to ‘shut up and wear the bloody costume’. You’re a creative – problem solve and respect. 

I said in the beginning that I didn’t know how to fix this for you but here’s what I know for myself –

  • It’s a costume for a character, not a personal reflection of me.
  • Everyone deserves respect. Community theatre creatives are volunteers, doing something they love. They don’t work for you.
  • That voice in your head that is telling you that you aren’t good enough is a big stinking liar.
  • As long as you make the choice to listen to that voice, and you’re making a choice, you will not look for avenues of change or growth.
  • Life is short. Please don’t waste time listening to the freaking lies in your head. Your life will remain small and you’ll miss out on all the wonderful, scary, exciting, exhilarating, passionate, terrifying, courageous experiences that are waiting for you.
  • Grow, let go of the familiar, and listen to those around you that tell you that you are enough.
  • You were never meant to be a version of someone else. You were meant to be the one single version of you. When you finally figure out that you suck at being someone else, you will begin to be a spectacular you.

Now that’s better than a ‘fillet’ in the eye.

 

 

Sherryl-Lee Secomb is the creator 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 www.anidiotonstage.com.au, follow the Idiot on Facebook, Instagram and enjoy hundreds of theatre resources on the Idiot’s Pinterest boards.

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Everything you think you know about tech week is a lie!

An Idiot on Stage blog header

Technical Rehearsals.

When you mention tech week to a community theatre person you can almost see the facial ticks begin and they struggle to choose between fight or flight. We’ve all got our own stories about tech weeks that started bad, went bad and definitely ended bad. If you haven’t experienced a bad tech week, close this post, make a coffee and celebrate the fact that you are truly special.

I’ve been part of enough poorly attacked tech weeks over many years to have my own stories but as I look back over those memories, one thought keeps yelling at me. They didn’t have to be that way! Community theatre practitioners have come to believe a whole lot of crappy notions about what tech week is, what it should be and how we do it. We have accepted that tech week will create extreme tension, ruin relationships, last until 2am and achieve questionable results.

During tech week, most of us have said things we regret, allowed ourselves to get angry and frustrated (I’ve even witnessed the famous ‘walk out’ – funny as). We’ve witnessed some performers stamp their little feet and verbally abuse the stage crew/cast/anyone else within range. Finally, we all go home, drop into bed and spend the entire night lying awake berating ourselves for our poor behaviour, rerunning conversations we had, should have had and wish we hadn’t had.

I’ve experienced all of the above and I regret to say, I have participated in some of it but I believe it’s time to begin the revolution. It’s time that tech week came clean and, heaven forbid, it’s time to CHANGE!

It’s about now that some of you will close this post and go and make a coffee.

Then there are those of you who will raise the flag of revolution, make a noise but never actually get beyond the words. You’ll use the tried and tested excuses:

  • We’ve always done it this way.
  • I don’t have any influence here.
  • It’s someone else’s fault and they’re never going to allow change so I’ll give up and eventually move onto another company – where things will be different (they’re not).

And finally there are those of you who make a lot of noise, you have a lot of passion and you might even have the skills but don’t actually do anything. You talk too much about what should be but you don’t actually follow through. It’s you that frustrates me the most. Not because you’re an idiot (ok, maybe you’re a little bit of an idiot) but because I was you. I understand that feeling of frustration where you can see what needs to change, you might even know how to fix it but you haven’t figured out how to use your revolutionary character for good (puts on cape and mask).

A revolutionary character recognises that they:

  • will keep going even when it seems nothing is changing because they believe in what they’re doing.
  • will treat others with respect because they understand that everyone has something to offer.
  • understand they don’t know what they don’t know.
  • have studied and developed the technical skills required for this job and want to share them for the greater good (can’t say that line without visualing the movie, “Hot Fuzz”).
  • are self aware enough that they can recognise when they are being a pain in the arse.
  • can admit their own mistakes or when someone else has a better idea.
  • must learn to shut up and listen (I’m still working on this one).

You will not advance the revolution and achieve any valuable change in your theatre company if you don’t get your head around these things. You have ideas, skills, knowledge and passion, that’s great, but community theatre companies need people with the integrity to stick it out long enough to make changes that will allow us to survive.

Everything you know about tech week is a lie.

A successful tech week does not begin during your first tech rehearsal. It begins way back at the beginning of your project. The director must share and control a SINGLE vision for the show. Many companies work to multiple visions – every department developing their own designs in isolation, leading to a show that is incohesive and problematic. People are empowered by a single vision. It creates artistic boundaries that ironically allow your team to create with more freedom.

Collaboration – working under one vision – allows you all to discover challenges when you have time to deal with them. For instance, if a set designer does not include the rest of the production team in their process, you will face challenges including:

  • the lighting team being unable to light a section of set that is outside the restrictions of the theatres lighting grid.
  • costumes that disappear because they’re almost the same colour as the set.
  • the set is too large to be moved by the limited crew available to the company.
  • expensive rebuilds because of the above.

Planning is going to be your saving grace. For a director, bumping into the theatre becomes about compromise. Looming deadlines will force your team to ask you to make choices that can threaten your original vision. By creating a detailed plan for tech week, you will remain in control of your vision, reduce stress for everyone and come out the other side with a show that isn’t hanging on by it’s teeth. The bigger the show/company, the more important it is to have a plan.

The director and stage manager should meet together before you move into the theatre and decide how you’re going to tackle tech week. Create an overall schedule and detailed run sheets for each rehearsal. Make sure you share them with the technical team for feedback. They’ll have things they will want to test before dress rehearsal, eg. a quick costume change.

Your run sheet: Go through the script, page by page, and create a checklist  of every bit of blocking, lighting change, quick costume change, sound effect, set change, EVERYTHING, in an excel sheet. List everything by script page number. This might seem excessive but these are the very things that are going to create your biggest problems if you don’t check them before dress rehearsals. If you have time, split the checklist into separate, relevant rehearsal times:

  • set movements for crew only
  • lighting and sound cues
  • quick changes of any kind, elements that rehearsals have exposed as potentially challenging.
  • run of show with focus on technical elements only
  • dress rehearsals

It’s during these processes that the cast learn that they are there to help the crew. It’s a great lesson for an actor to realise that they have had 12 weeks to learn their skills while the crew get less than a week.

The whole process, from the first rehearsal to your dress rehearsals, is meant to be progressive, each stage building on the previous one. You can’t expect your cast to move from a blank rehearsal space into the theatre and instantly be at ease with the new elements of performance – costumes, wigs, microphones, the fact that it takes more time to walk from their dressing room to their entrance point, etc. They’re freaked/excited as it is. Build the information progressively and you will build their confidence.

Use your checklist to allow everyone, cast and crew, to experience (for the first time) what it feels like to:

  • Open that door – it sticks, squeaks (fix it); it opens in, not out; there’s a ledge at the base – I musn’t trip and fall on my face.
  • Walk on stage – good grief, this feels amazing. Ooops, what’s my line?
  • Change a costume – Ok, that was quick. I will have do that change side stage. Now the SM has to organize a space and a process for side stage.
  • Adjust to equipment – I haven’t operated this spotlight before. It takes a long time to warm up.
  • Move a set piece – oh crap. That’s your foot. Sorry but you won’t be able to move into your entrance point until we have moved the truck into position.
  • Work cue timings – That screen has to fly out before the actors speak so I have to adjust the calling of that cue.

Get the picture? This list may seem picky but it is what will make or break your tech week because it’s not just ten things you have to check. A show is made up of hundreds of checkpoints. You should aim to check them all and when you don’t have time, you have to make the call as to what are the most important things to have on the list. Remember, you will always be compromising in tech week. Experience will teach you how to compromise without affecting the integrity of the show.

The old ‘cue to cue’ rehearsal is useless UNLESS it’s only purpose is to familiarise everyone with the sets and how they move. Cue to cue’s as the only tech rehearsal, is one of those habits we’ve inherited and forgotten to question.

Your dress rehearsals should be a clean run of the show. Yes, a dress rehearsal can have challenges but they shouldn’t be because an actor got caught out by a quick change.

What excites me most about this whole process is what happens to the team during a well run tech week. People step up. You witness people empowered to deal with challenges. There may be adrenalin flowing up the wazoo but we feel like we’re fighting a giant with our team beside us instead of pushing a rock up hill, single handed. Opening night becomes more than just relief that you made it there alive, it’s a celebration that you built something huge and you’re better for it.

Group reflects leadership. You have to begin the way you intend to finish. From the start, you need to be organized so that everything you do is leading toward that final week of crazy becoming the cream on the cake. Then opening night will be the cherry that stays on top instead of sliding down the side.

Cheers, Sher


Sherryl-Lee Secomb is the creator 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 www.anidiotonstage.com.au, follow the Idiot on Facebook, Instagram and enjoy hundreds of theatre resources on the Idiot’s Pinterest boards.

“Sing out, Louise!” and other things I might yell at you from the audience.

An Idiot on Stage stage technique

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. 🙂

Cheers, Sher

Sherryl-Lee SecombSherryl-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.