Adventures in the Craft of Acting: Playing the Room

John Currivan's new series on his Adventures in the Craft of Acting. In this instalment, he talks about what you should consider when playing the room...

[Advice for] Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin… expect chatter and noise from outside and brush your teeth because people can see absolutely everything and smell your breath from the stage.
John Currivan

Acting, in its crudest form is: (1) Doing things (2) In a place (3) In front of people, a camera or a microphone. In the most idealistic sense, acting is: Taking an audience on a journey.

Two things that actors can never fully prepare for are new venues and new audiences. Anyone who’s ever toured a show or played in unconventional venues will know how performances often need to be either adjusted or specifically crafted to suit the space.

Whether we’re shooting a movie, recording a voiceover, playing a commercial musical for an auditorium of 3,000, a lunch time show for 3 (with 47 empty seats), or a community centre with 600+ rowdy hormonal teens at a summer camp, there are certain things we can do to help bring audiences on that journey.

Know your project and what it is trying to achieve

Some projects are like clockwork or the game ‘Mousetrap’. Something moves and hits the thing, which swings and hits the other thing, which flips the final whatchacallit and the cage comes down (applause, bow, encore). Usually, the bigger the show the more clockwork it must be. You have stage management, sound, lights, costume, hair and wig departments all focused towards the show running smoothly and we need to work with them and around them. Actors condense a lot of story and intention into an exchange lasting exactly five seconds, with little or no freedom to hold a pause or increase the pace of dialogue because massive sets and lights are about to start rolling and swinging in, the band have set music to play and if one piece of the elaborate machine spins too far the wrong way it could halt the whole show or physically endanger the actor(s) themselves.

This is not necessarily the same for shows in intimate or unconventional venues, where it’s two actors, three chairs, one light and half a stage manager. They’re less ‘Mousetrap’ more ‘water flowing downriver’. In these shows, actors are almost 100% responsible for each bump, dip and dive of the journey and we should always be conscious of how each line, movement and scene contributes. Obstacles may appear unexpectedly, audience reactions vary wildly, and we may have to make the choice to plough on, slow down or change the flow if, let’s say, a child invades the stage, or a school principal walks through a scene, or construction workers start jackhammering outside the window.

Our eyes might be locked onto an onstage partner, while our bodies are reflecting to the upper levels and our voices are shaking the back rows. These energy signals can be bright and wide like a lighthouse lamp or narrow as a laser beam.
John Currivan

Know your medium and know your equipment

A camera’s frame and a theatre’s proscenium are like windows to a performance. It is our job to play within that window. Finding the right sizes of gestures and volume of voices can be a tricky balancing act between being naturalistic and believable, while also being stylistic and clear. A melodramatic farce in an intimate venue poses different challenges to a quiet intimate scene in a massive auditorium. Our voices and movements must be adjusted to suit the space we’re playing without compromising the integrity of what we’re doing. In mic’d shows, the sound department shares the actors’ responsibility of being heard, but using mics also require technique, and learning to use any piece of equipment is a process too. In one run of a show, I was given notes to be louder, quieter, clearer, less enunciating and not to shout too close to other people because I was being picked up on two mics. I got there eventually.

Adjust yourself to the physical space

Every venue presents actors with different challenges. Sight lines change, acoustics differ, sets spread wider or squeeze tighter depending on the stage’s width, depth and height, lighting positions are tweaked, blocking, fight or dance choreography is adjusted to keep actors safe and the show running smoothly.

From an acting point of view, we must also be aware of the audience, height, depth and width for visibility and vocal projection. For sight lines the general rule of ‘if you can see them then they can see you’ is key, also here’s some straight forward advice I was given and the venues where it was given.

  • The Palace Theatre, London: 1,400 seats, four levels.
    • Advice: Act upwards.
  • The Liverpool Empire: 2,500+ seats, two levels.
    • Advice: Act wide.
  • The Cliffs Pavilion in Southend, back row seems miles from the stage
    • Advice: Act far away.
  • Various community centres full of teens mean that some are on chairs, some are on the floor, some are going to the toilet, most would rather be elsewhere.
    • Advice: Act loudly, act sharply and more importantly act so clearly and so efficiently that everyone will hear and see you no matter where they are or what they’re doing.
  • Bewley’s Café Theatre, Dublin (in 2012) had a capacity of 50, raised stage, cabaret style seating.
    • Advice: More natural voice volume, potential eye contact with audience in monologues, expect chatter and noise from outside and brush your teeth because people can see absolutely everything and smell your breath from the stage.

Opening, turning or tilting the angles of our heads and bodies to suit audience visibility is often unpopular and feels unnatural, particularly in intimate or quiet scenes. However, adjusting movement and voice to suit the venue while still maintaining the detail, integrity and intensity of a scene is the challenge of being a live performer.

Stay strong, stay flexible and stay alert

Staying strong, flexible and alert is good advice for pretty much every aspect of life, but any article on the craft of acting needs at least one arty-farty technique bit, so here goes…

As living beings, we are reflectors, converters and generators of energy. We are constantly sending signals whether we like it or not. Actors need to know what signals to send, how to send them and where they are going. Our physical bodies both absorb and reflect the light waves that hit them. Our voices are physical energies that vibrate air molecules in a room.

We don’t all believe that the eyes are ‘windows to the soul’, but we know that sometimes the smallest glance can communicate volumes. Actors must learn to control the intensity, direction and quality of these energies and keep them flowing and shifting to tell stories and communicate.

Our eyes might be locked onto an onstage partner, while our bodies are reflecting to the upper levels and our voices are shaking the back rows. These energy signals can be bright and wide like a lighthouse lamp or narrow as a laser beam. We need the strength to do both, the flexibility to switch around and between them and the alertness to know when the scene or venue requires us to adjust.

Singers shake rooms with just their voices. Dancers imprint images on our minds through physical movement. We can strive for that kind of power too. We can stand onstage in front of hundreds, opening ourselves letting the crowd know that we are in this thing together. We can perform in small rooms, looking audience members directly in the eyes, and know whether they’re with us on the journey or not.

We’ve also been audiences ourselves and perhaps been made to imagine sets and props that weren’t there, feel emotions about people that never existed and even in the back rows of packed houses, we might have thought ‘Hey… they’re talking to me!’

John is an Irish actor living in London. He started his career in Clondalkin Youth Theatre and trained in the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College, Dublin. He has worked and toured with productions internationally, and starred in The Commitments, in the Palace theatre and on The UK and Ireland Tour. He has written scripts for radio, stage and also for comic books.

For John's other great advice on being between acting jobs, take a look here.