Horror Films: Characterisation

Happy Halloween! Today’s blog post is about character dynamics and status of characters in horror films. I’ve made a video that covers this topic and this is the accompanying blog post! In this post, we’re going to unpack some of those archetypal roles and talk about how they’re not as obviously distinguished from one another when you analyse it. What I mean by this is, you typically get stereotypical victims and villains in horror; maybe there’s a monster and someone scared of the monster; a ghost wanting revenge and an unfortunate resident in a haunted house; a poltergeist and a possessed victim, and so on. However, as you’re about to find out, sometimes the archetypal victim character has villainous characteristics and vice versa: often the archetypal villain is a victim of something else. There’s a reason for why they are doing what they are doing, basically.

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Acting in Horror: Playing Fear

I recently posted an acting tutorial about playing fear in Horror (well, it’s nearly Halloween, isn’t it…). You can find all my tutorials on my YouTube channel. Here’s the blog post that supplements that video.

Fear in and of itself is generic and if an actor were to just act ‘scared’ or portray ‘fear’ then it’d be two dimensional and obviously acting. There’s a paradox in acting that we want the audience to forget we’re acting. We can’t look like we’re acting. The more we force looking natural, the more we look like we’re acting. Therefore, you can’t just play ‘scared’ as a general emotion. Fear and the nature of being scared will evolve and change in relation to the context your character is in.

There are different types of fear and you can’t act one generic fear and apply this to all scenarios. I mentioned in a previous blog post that there are different types of fear: for instance, we have lingering terror, nervousness, shock, dread, panic, being wary, even suspicious and whatever else you can think of. However, in addition to there being different types of fear, each type of fear can be interpreted differently. For instance, who knows what ‘dread’ is like definitively? As well as this, each actor has their own personality and will approach these different types of fear in their own way. What’s more is these different types of fear will be more appropriate than others in certain contexts (or literal situations). Therefore, rather than forcing one type of generic fear onto a scene, react to the scene itself. Know your character’s agenda: what are they looking for, what do they want, what is their objective? Again, we’re talking about Stanislavski’s units and objectives here.  But once you know your character, you can know how to act scared in a certain scene. For instance, it’s no use screaming at a ghost if your character isn’t scared of ghosts. Likewise, it’s no used acting suspicious in front of a ghost when your character is petrified of ghosts and most likely to be frozen in terror.

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Acting Scared in Films

As it’s approaching Halloween, I thought I’d get into the spooky mood and talk about Horror films and acting in Horror. I have a bit of an affinity with Horror, mainly because the majority of acting work I get is in Horror films. I’ll start by talking about acting scared in films (this isn’t limited to Horror of course). I’ve made a video tutorial on this topic that you can find on my YouTube channel.

This tutorial should be useful for actors who might be working in Horror films, or any scenario where one has to play a character who is being scared for whatever reason (threatened, robbed, shouted at, or just generally scared of another character or object or someone who has a phobia.)

You could argue that there are two main overarching types of fear: lingering terror and quick fight-or-flight type fear. Within these overarching types you get sub-types like nervousness, defensiveness, terror, cowering in fear, screaming in shock, and so on.

Now, I’ve done some research, and one way in which you can generate the appearance of fear is through your imagination. That’s right, actually scare yourself. This is where many viewers switch off my YouTube tutorial. I understand why: it sounds self-evident and not worth sitting through a video for, but there’s something in it, I promise! I found a useful quote from Backstage magazine which sums this point up nicely:

Uta Hagen, in A Challenge for the Actor, makes it sound easy. She has a rodent phobia, so she simply imagines a mouse or a rat and promptly feels “ice-cold shivers, shudders of revulsion, and a compulsion to scream, leap in the air, or run away….” Hagen says imagining your most personally horrifying spectacle—whether it be “snakes, spiders, roaches, maggots, worms”—works for everyone. A doctor told her that such phobias are natural, a compressed symbol for the everyday and lifelong fears that we repress or don’t understand. George Orwell knew all about it; remember the dreaded Room 101 in 1984?

Backstage Magazine
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How to Act “Realistically”

My latest YouTube video is another video about acting ‘realistically’. In this video, I say I’ve compiled four simple tips that will help us to act as realistically as possible on screen. Having said this, there are way more tips than this. Also, when I talk about acting ‘realistically’, I’m talking about acting like a natural human being in real life would act. As I’ve written about in a previous blog post (and mentioned in a previous video), acting realistically is a bit of a contradiction because acting is not at all realistic. You can, however, act in a realist way, or a naturalist way, but I digress. Basically: we all know what we mean by acting realistically.

Layers

The first tip I’ve learned about from various acting lessons and from experience is about contrasting layers. These must be present in your performance if you’re to act convincingly. I’ve learned from workshops that casting directors LIKE contrasting layers in an actor (something to think about!). People are complex and multi-dimensional, they think lots of different things at once, usually. So, to act realistically we must consider how people in real life are a melange of contrasting (or even contradictory) layers, or thoughts, or emotions, that can be seen in the eyes. We can represent such complexity in our acting via layers.

Layering is the idea that what you think or feel and what you say or do can be contrasting (or even contradictory) things. This is also useful if you can’t access a particular thought: maybe your character is breaking the law and you just can’t access this thought strongly enough because you can’t relate to your character’s actions. Well, as an actor, you might choose to incorporate unspoken guilt in this instance (this is just an example). This unspoken guilt will add a contradictory layer to the unlawful character that will make them more three-dimensional and maybe even more relatable to an audience. If you want to act realistically, you will inevitably have a bit of ‘you’ in your portrayal of any character you play anyway. For instance, maybe you’re playing a detective who is investigating a murder and thinks they know who did it, and when you’re interviewing your suspect, you might speak and act calmly and indifferently (because this is the job of a detective), but, at the same time, you might be feeling hate or disgust towards your suspect. These inner thoughts will reveal themselves in your eyes alone. And these inner thoughts will contrast with your outer exterior (or the front you’re putting on).  You may say something simply that could mean anything like, ‘and your name is?’ But if you say this line thinking hate and disgust then you’re adding subtext to this line. It becomes less about asking someone’s name and more about letting the audience know your character doesn’t like this ‘someone’. Likewise, if your character feels sorry for the murder suspect and doesn’t think they did it, then they might ask the question with pity. This contrasts with the outer detective exterior that also tells the audience more about the way your character feels about the situation.

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Realistic Camera Acting

I’ve just released a tutorial on my YouTube channel about realistic camera acting. Basically, I’ve compiled 4 simple tips that will help us to act as realistically as possible on screen. In other words, how to act like a natural human being in real life would act. I elaborate on the term ‘realistic’ because, of course, acting realistically is a bit of a contradiction: acting is not at all realistic. You can, however, act in a realist way, or a naturalist way, but I digress. We all know what we mean by acting realistically: it tends to be the question people ask when they want to know how to act: it’s basically about being believable.

My first tip is to don’t show it, think it: you’re not supposed to look like you’re acting. A lot of aspiring actors, when they first get in front of the camera, get all worried about showing that their character is thinking and feeling certain things. We don’t act like this in real life, so why do we act like this in front of the camera? You’ve got to trust that the camera will pick up those thoughts and feelings that your character is having. Basically, don’t worry about “showing” it to the camera. Just have that thought behind the eyes: think those things the character is thinking (as much as is possible of course). Acting is the only profession where the goal is to encourage the viewer to forget you’re an actor. For instance, we don’t look at a painting and go, !wow, that painting is so good, I forgot Picasso was a painter for a moment there.” But for acting, that’s the goal: to make your performance feel real so that the audience can get lost in the story, can suspend their disbelief, can find cathartic release, can ultimately forget they’re watching actors playing make-believe (Brecht would have something to say about this, but we’ll talk about this another time).

My second tip is it’s not how you say it, it’s why you say it. A lot of aspiring actors, when they’re starting out, get hooked up on ‘how’ they should say their lines. This makes people look like they’re acting. Think about it: in real life, you don’t go around thinking about HOW you should say things (unless you’re preparing a speech or confession or breakup or something, but again, that’s acting – I digress). For most of the time, you usually think about WHY you say things. Therefore, if we want to act realistically, it’s important to understand why our character is saying what they’re saying. Then the ‘how’ they should say it will come naturally out of that (if you don’t force it and just let it happen). What is the character’s motive? WHY are they saying this particular line in this way? We’re getting into Stanislavski now and his units and objectives (again, I digress).

Think about it: is a character being poetically verbose to express the extent of emotional pain they’re going through? Are they joking and resorting to B.S. to change the subject and hide their sadness? Making jokes like this and thinking sad thoughts can reveal some contrasting layers to a character that also helps make them appear realistic.

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Brecht: MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN

Being a composer and an actor, I love both music and acting and often the two are interlinked. Here’s a blog-post discussion about Bertolt Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN, and also some of Brecht’s techniques. I actually discussed Brecht and some of his techniques in my PhD on avant garde music. This is how strongly Acting and Music are interlinked. It’s all art! (Don’t quote me on that).

Brecht in Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre

I went to see Brecht’s MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN in the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester. It’s a beautiful building: as soon as you walk in, you’re greeted by high impressive ceilings and pillars and archways (and that’s just the lobby area!) The main stage is circular, and the audience are seated around it in tiers. The stage’s floor rotates. This allows every audience member to see various parts of the show without the actors having their backs towards the audience throughout a whole play. It’s always interesting seeing how the performers and directors and stage design team and so on navigate it. As a side note, I went to see Beckett’s HAPPY DAYS in this theatre. If you’ve seen it, you’ll be aware that the main actor must be buried in a mound of earth throughout the whole play. When this was performed in the Royal Exchange theatre, they had the mound of earth rotating slowly and continuously throughout the whole performance.

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Samuel Beckett: Waiting for Godot

I went to see  Waiting for Godot in Sheffield’s Crucible last night. It was energetically mesmeric and I was gripped. Below is my review of the event:

Samuel Beckett’s minimalistic and thought-provoking play Waiting for Godot was brought to life once more on Saturday 13th February, 2016 in Sheffield’s Crucible in Yorkshire. According to the artistic director Daniel Evans, ‘this is the third Beckett production to be performed at the Crucible since 2011’.

Receiving its British première in 1955 in the Arts Theatre, London, Beckett’s play creates a bleak and limbo-like world in which the dwellers are neither inhabitants nor simply passing through. Waiting for Godot questions the absurdity of everyday life as its protagonists become caught up in a repetitive series of acts with no apparent point and which result in discussions about killing time and committing suicide (one is reminded of Albert Camus’s philosophical writing The Myth of Sisyphus). Adam Piette, professor of Modern Literature at the University of Sheffield, explains that ‘contemporary readings of the play concentrated on the existential bleakness, the philosophical nihilism: and zeroed in on the question of God.’

The set of Waiting for Godot in Sheffield's Crucible Lyceum Studio in Yorkshire

The set of Waiting for Godot in Sheffield’s Crucible Lyceum Studio in Yorkshire

All who witness this production will no doubt sing the praises of director Charlotte Gwinner and her production team. The play was well-choreographed and all actors complemented each other in this Sheffield Theatres production. The whole show signalled the efforts of the production team. As an audience-member, it was hard not to empathize with Beckett’s four main characters: Pozzo, Vladimir, Lucky, and Estragon were executed with aplomb by Richard Cordery, Lorcan Cranitch, Bob Goody, and Jeff Rawle. Rawle successfully opened the play and drew the audience in with his portrayal of Estragon, described by Piette as ‘a creature of mime and body who plays with his feet’. Rawle’s acting was soon complemented by Cranitch’s engaging and quasi-realist portrayal of Vladimir, described by Piette as ‘idealistic, rational, a head man (watch him play with his hat).’Once immersed within the story of this comical double-act, the audience experiences a second: the characters of Pozzo and Lucky, described by Piette as ‘master / slave, tyrant / subject, sadist / masochist.’ Cordery was mesmerizing as Pozzo, and Goody demonstrated immense stamina in depicting the silent suffering of tormented Lucky.

The opening atmospheric soundscape of this particular production was ambient and, together with the scenic design, presented a captivatingly picturesque yet bleak sense of “nowhere-ness”. The scenery and lighting added to Beckett’s experimentation with the perception of time by being able to present night and day and different seasons with seeming minimalistic effortlessness. Costume design and makeup were both detailed and understated, both adhering to the minimalistic overview and bringing the plot to life. Designer Simon Daw successfully designed this scenery of Waiting for Godot, originally written to be performed in a Proscenium arch, to fit the specifics of Sheffield’s Crucible. He explains that he draws visual inspiration from surrealist imagery such as Yves Tanguy’s painting who ‘creates these amazing, very empty, almost apocalyptic landscapes with some very defined and detailed objects within them.’ When asked by assistant director Charlie Kennedy how one creates a ‘sense of infinity within an enclosed auditorium’, Daw explains that ‘the depth that you can use is fantastic but at the same time you have that intimacy that you don’t get in other spaces, and this brilliant sculptural relationship of having the audience on three sides.’ This brilliantly sums up the sensation one experiences when seeing this production of Beckett’s play in Sheffield’s Crucible: the set is both vast and portrays a lost place, yet the audience is very close to the characters and at once immersed within the plot.

 Overall, this performance of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot was captivating, thought-provoking, and effective. It is hard to imagine this play written for any other production team. It will inspire in anyone the desire to engage with more of Beckett’s work.

Highly recommended *****

All aforementioned quotes can be found in the programme note, available on the door for £3.50.

Waiting for Godot is being performed in Sheffield’s Crucible until 27th February. Tickets can be booked here.

August Strindberg (1849-1912): Preface to *Miss Julie*

Some of my current research has led me to acknowledge a comparison between what is realistic/unrealistic and realist/non-realist drama. According to Egil Törnqvist and Birgitta Steene (translators and editors of Strindberg on Drama and Theatre) Strindberg’s preface to Miss Julie is ‘often hailed as the manifesto of modern drama’. I personally find it interesting because it highlights a turning point in theatre practice that has led to the developments of realist and naturalist drama.

In his preface to Miss Julie, Strindberg talks about his “modernization” of plot, character, dialogue, monologue, improvisation, action, technical aspects, scenery, lights, and make-up. Before I summarise the salient points, I must emphasise that the preface to Miss Julie was written before the modern realist dramas we know today were established (Miss Julie was written in 1888!).

Strindberg starts by explaining his motives for modernizing drama: according to him (at the time when this was written), theatre has become too unbelievable, only suitable for those susceptible to such illusions. He writes ‘[l]ike art in general, the theatre has long seemed to me […] a bible in pictures for those who cannot read what is written or printed.’ According to Strindberg, ‘the middle classes, which form the bulk of the audience, without too much mental effort can understand what it is about.’ (p. 62) Strindberg argues for a more naturalist theatre, something he explains is a modernisation of theatre’s initial form. He writes that he is not trying ‘to accomplish anything new, for that is impossible, but merely to modernize the form according to what [he] believe[s] are the demands a contemporary audience would make.’ (p. 63)

Strindberg claims that too much in the theatre of his time utilises scenery and lighting stage layouts that prevent the play from being believable. He longs for the when theatre will mature enough for his imagined ideal, intended, works. Amongst his other suggestions, he writes, ‘if we had a small stage and a small auditorium, then perhaps a new drama might arise […]. While waiting for such a theatre, we shall have to go on writing for our desk drawers, preparing for the repertoire to come.’ (p. 72)

In terms of plot, Strindberg explains that there’s a ‘multiplicity’ of motives surrounding any one outcome; events are multifaceted and not two-dimensional, and it is this notion that fueled his writing of Miss Julie’s character in Miss Julie. Claiming this is an almost revolutionary discovery (for his time), he writes that ‘[e]very event in life – and this is a fairly new discovery! – is the result of a whole series of more or less deep-seated motives […]. I have motivated Miss Julie’s tragic fate with an abundance of circumstances…’ (p. 64)

It’s weird that a preface has had such an impact but there we go: don’t underestimate a preface.