We are living in a time of amazing technological changes. We purchase a new computer, cell phone, or other device, only to find it’s obsolete in sometimes less than a year!
I sometimes jokingly say to my students that “…I remember when the first toaster came out…”, and to my shock they sometimes don’t realize that I’m joking –or they’re just tired of my lame attempts at humor!
But this technological revolution we find ourselves in also affects the work we do as Actors.
If you do some research you will find that in the old days, when “talkies” first arrived (ok, this may be obvious but just in case: “talkies” are what films with sound were called just after the silent film period), many actors who were lacking in the voice and speech department soon found themselves also lacking in employment. According to that great new gift of the internet, Wikipedia, “While the introduction of sound led to a boom in the motion picture industry, it had an adverse effect on the employability of a host of Hollywood actors of the time. Suddenly those without stage experience were regarded as suspect by the studios…” Can you imagine? The actor or actress known to audiences across the country as the All-American hero or the All-American girl during the silent film period suddenly appearing AND speaking in a talking picture –with some strange foreign, exotic accent. Something had to be done. So, the studios enlisted the aid of dialect coaches.
They wanted to homogenize the speech of all actors. Soon most of the actors during that early period of talking pictures were speaking with what’s known as a mid-atlantic accent, also sometimes referred to as American Theatre Standard. It’s somewhere between an American accent and a British (RP) accent. That’s why when you watch movies from that period all the actors sound somewhat affected, kind of a phony British accent.
There are also many comedic anecdotes about how the microphones of the day, due to their limited range, had to be hidden in the oddest places. Recently I was watching an old movie from the very late 20’s or early 30’s and I noticed the actors chatting at the dining room table seemed to be leaning in to each other at a very odd angle as they spoke. It turns out the microphone was hidden in a vase of flowers in the center of the table. The actors had to lean in since the microphones were just not that refined yet.
Today, changes in technology are also affecting the behavior of actors when working in front of the camera. The basic tenet of acting that I subscribe to is, as Sanford Meisner said, acting is the ability to “live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” That core principle remains the same. But the actor must, I repeat must, know the medium he or she is working in. You do not work the same way in a 1200 seat theatre as you do when you’re just a few feet away from the lens of a camera. When working on a stage the audience member seated in the very back row (and next time you’re in a Broadway theatre take a look at how far that back row is from the stage!) must be able to see, hear, and clearly understand the story. Most large theaters have microphones assisting the projection of dialogue, so we can hear the story, but in the theatre the story is really told through actions. These actions are physicalized.
Working on film is different. The camera is like an x-ray machine. It knows what you’re thinking. It sees the truth, and also sees the lie. It is an intimate medium. You must “be” in a contrived reality. Existing in this contrived reality means you have a point of view about everything: the person you are speaking to, the environment you’re in, the world you live in, the events that occur, etc. In other words, you must have a point of view (a/k/a “a relationship”) with all the imaginary circumstances the script offers to you.
The actors in the third phase of my 3-phase acting program often work on-camera, with playback, to see the adjustments that must be made when working in that medium. In my next article I will get into much more detail about how an actor’s technique, specifically the Meisner Approach, is applied in this rapidly changing world of film and TV acting.