Post by Michael Yurchak
Developing characters is a much-debated topic and something that comes up again and again with students, coaches, professionals and newbies. My own approach is one I have found useful, and I am happy to share with you all here! To be sure, there are many ways to skin a cat (sorry cat), so if there are any comments or suggestions, I am more than happy to hear them! For now, though, here’s the way I see it:
Assuming you have already handled script analysis and know what kind of project you’re reading for, one of the first things I like to consider when working on a project (either for a gig or an audition) is the character’s point of view (POV). A character’s POV is the way they see the world they live in. It involves status, and shapes the way the character will interact with the other people he or she comes into contact with. It also forms an opinion about the way the character sees things (“Life’s a bowl of cherries!” or “Everything is so unfair!” etc.). This part matters a lot because it will affect the disposition (or mood) of the character. Moods can change, of course, but if the character is a known sour-puss, that may show through even when they’re happy (think Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh).
2. Size and Shape of Character
With POV and status in mind, I start to consider the size and shape of the character. There are different vocal placements one might choose for large characters with high status and a sunny disposition, for example, than one might for a small, high-status character with a chip on his shoulder. A great example of this is the difference between Sully and Randal in the Pixar classic “Monsters Inc.” Both characters are arguably high-status, but their POVs are so vastly different, that even without the superlative vocal stylings of John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, we would hear a clear vocal difference in our heads before giving it a shot ourselves.
Deciding where the voice comes from inside our own bodies and the placement of the voice inside the mouth to derive dialect and tone is sometimes known as “vocal posture” (this is an idea coined by Dudley Knight and Phil Thompson). Kermit the Frog has a guttural placement with a mid- to high-range pitch, for example.
3. Cadence or Rhythm of Speech
This is another important thing to consider. Just as the walk of a physical character will affect the way they are seen by the world, the cadence of a character voice makes a huge difference in how the world takes in the information shared by that character (see Christopher Walken as an example here).
All of the above will have an impact on how the character moves through space. He or she will have developed a way of moving that works for them (just as we all have). The posture, gate, fluidity, speed, and purpose of motion will be affected by their status and POV. They may also bring a specific animal to mind (remember Jordana’s Rasa workshop?). Getting up and moving with the script, feeling the words come out and how they change with a new posture and movement pattern is an important part of finding the character and adds the last piece of bringing that character to life.
So, now we’re really starting to build something. We’ve considered the character’s POV (including status and disposition). We’ve taken size and shape into consideration, which will affect sound. We’ve played with vocal posture and cadence. Finally, we’ve explored physicality to really put the finishing touches on this guy! During all this pre-work, I always make adjustments to be sure the voice feels comfortable coming out and the body moves as I need it to. I need to be able to breathe, and I have to be able to enunciate clearly (even if the character has a speech impediment, the audience needs to understand the words, unless you are specifically told otherwise). Likewise, I need to be able to move and repeat the movement without causing stress or strain when the gig is finished—no good to twist your body up in a knot if you can’t untie it after the show! In other words, it doesn’t do me any good to create a voice I can only use for a sentence or two or a physical structure that is unsustainable. If I can’t recreate those elements, no matter how cool they look or sound for short bursts, they’re no good to me in the long run (or the folks that want to pay me)!
The Three Cs
The last piece of quality control I always run for myself in terms of delivery is what I call the three Cs: Clarity, Commitment, and Consistency.
Have I made CLEAR choices that are coming from an informed place as far as the character and script are concerned (the “givens” that are learned by reading the script or audition sides carefully)? Am I jumping in with both feet and really COMMITTING to those choices (a sheepish read is not gonna get the job–even if you’re reading for a sheep!)? And, is the character CONSISTENT from beginning to end of the piece, and can I maintain that consistency for the duration of the gig when I get it?
If I can honestly answer yes to these questions, and I like what I hear and see… I go for it and hope for the best, letting it all go as I do and trusting that the work I did in the rehearsal room will be enough to allow me to be present on the actual day without having to effort my vocal and physical moves. Do your best, be proud of the work you create–care about it. If you like what you’re doing, keep working at it. This is an art form. There is no mathematical equation or specific blueprint to solve the question of what a character sounds and looks like. In the end, tell the truth and lead with your heart. Who could ask for anything more?
Thoughts? Comments? Let me hear ’em!
Michael Yurchak is an award winning actor, voice over artist and educator. In addition to his work with EMAS, Michael works as a Lead Teaching Artist in many theaters throughout the country. Teaching students–of any level–is his genuine passion. To read more about Michael click here, or check out his IMDB page.
All of Elizabeth Mesnik’s Acting Studio staff would like to wish you Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! We hope for warm and joyful time for You and Your Closest Ones!
Pilot season is coming up quickly! It’s starting January 19th 2017…
Whether this is your first or fifteenth season, it is important that you be at your best, ready when your opportunity arises!
With the majority of all auditions for television and film requiring that the actor be put on camera for the casting director, director or producers to review, today’s working actor must have a solid understanding of on-camera technique that is specific to the audition format.
In this course strong cold-read and on-camera skills are developed as well as an empowered perspective of the casting process and a clear understanding of what it truly means to “own” the room.
- How to break down a script so you can make choices that are specific, strong and actable.
- Understand what the camera “sees” so that you work has the most impact:
- How to use your eyes
- How to use stillness
- How to use the “frame” of the camera
- The tools to work within the audition “close-up” so that all your skills as an actor are revealed.
Whether you have just completed your professional training, or have been a working professional, this class is meant to sharp and ready to give your very best on camera auditions. Only serious actors with prior training or experience and a true desire to improve their craft need apply. Class size is limited to 10. Each actor works every class, individually, on-camera.
The class will be taught by Thom Rivera, who is a television, film, stage and voice actor. As an actor, he has worked at most of the top theatre companies in the country.
On Camera Acting Class:
When: Thursdays at 7pm – January 19th – March 23rd
Instructor: Thom Rivera
Where: 11423 Moorpark Street, North Hollywood, Los Angeles
Tuition: $520 for 10 weeks
The Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio (EMAS) is proud to announce registration for our Winter 2017 Playing Shakespeare Class. Playing Shakespeare can be one of the most challenging yet rewarding endeavors for an actor. Whether acting on stage or on screen, the ability to bring a full, living character to life using Shakespeare’s words is an invaluable skill; one that is evident when watching the many greats of screen and stage who have their roots in Shakespearean drama.
Held on Mondays from February 27th through May 1st, the class will consist of both monologue work and group exercises to use voice, physicality, and authenticity in connection with playing their character.
The class will be taught by Diana Jellinek, who has deep roots in Shakespeare in addition to her other work in Los Angeles.
Well, you’ve got to take pleasure in life’s little surprises and, last night, we had an excellent little surprise: Seeing the Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio pop up in the answer to a Jeopardy question!
A list of all of last night’s Jeopardy Questions: (hint) “Take the ‘A’ Training” for $600, Alex”
Here’s the clip in all of it’s glory:
If YOU’d like to “Take the ‘A’ Training” at the Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio, view more here.
This New Year get into another person’s shoes, try out their voice, feel their pain and their joy by developing THE CHARACTER. Learn to quickly bring life to a script through a set of tools that help you to grow into and fill out your character.
This 11 week course is not only about books and text, it’s about developing a personality. THE CHARACTER class at The Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio in Los Angeles (EMASLA) will provide you with a foundation in creating truthful, dynamic characters and expressing the way that you will be heard. Doesn’t matter if it’s a movie, television or audition, beginner class will help you find a technique to develop character’s psychology including voice and body language. Through exercises, improvisations, monologue and scene work, students acquire a comprehensive set of “acting tools” to draw upon when approaching a role. At the end of the course you will know how to bring a character to life and apply their techniques in scene work.
Up for the adventure? Then register and start your New Year with THE CHARACTER!
Find more information about our philosophy and the beginning technique class here.
Time: Wednesdays at 1:30pm or Thursdays at 7pm
Date: January 11 – March 23 2017
Place: 11423 Moorpark Street, North Hollywood
Price: $510 for 11 weeks – 50% due at registration
The second in our four-part play play reading series at the Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio (EMAS), a cast of EMAS students will stage a reading of Spike Heels, by Theresa Rebeck.
Pygmalion goes awry in this contemporary comedy of manners which explores sexual harassment, misplaced amour, and the possibility of a four sided love triangle. The combatants are a sexy, volatile young woman and three Back Bay types a writer, a lawyer and a fiancee in sensible shoes.
Featuring EMAS students:
Directed by Andrew Rodgers
The Acting Studio stages these events for our acting students, our faculty, and the larger artistic community. Admission is open to the public but any donations are appreciated and help us to continue staging these and other events that benefit the community.
If you would like to attend, Reservations are required due to limited space. Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org
When: Sunday December 4th, 2016
Time: doors open at 6:30 for wine and cheese mixer and reading begins at 7:15
Where: EMAS 11423 Moorpark St. Los Angeles Map and Contact
To read a detailed account of our last play reading and what this particular form has to offer, please click here.
We hope to see you there!
About the Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio: Located in Studio City, Los Angles,The Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio (EMAS), our mission is to empower actors and acting students with a strong foundation in acting technique and a discipline that will last a lifetime. From our core Meisner classes, to acting workshops and seminars, each class aims to help students gain the “acting tools” that support successful acting careers.
4 Actors, 4 Music Stands, 4 Chairs and an audience. No props, no costumes, no lights.
Just the actors with their scripts – and the audience.
On October 29th EMAS presented the first play of the 2016-2017 Play Reading Series with Dinner with Friends by Donald Margulies. EMAS took this opportunity to allow the acting studio’s faculty members Diana Jelinek, Jordana Oberman, Ken Weiler and Michael Yurchak to star in this Pulitzer Prize winning drama – a rare opportunity for our students to see their teachers practicing the craft. “It was wonderful to see our instructors in action! Seeing them putting on such a great performance without any props, blocking, or anything that can help create a “scene” made me appreciate their skills even more (and really solidified my trust in them as instructors) because they were only able to use their instrument and the power of relationship to tell the story.” said EMAS alum Tessa Brennan. She added, “I love that I can continue to stay connected to the community through events like these staged readings. I’m always so grateful that I found the EMAS Meisner program when I did, not only for the foundation it has laid in terms of my craft as an actor, but for the support and connections I have garnered through the studio.”
So what exactly is a Play Reading? It almost sounds academic…but trust me it’s not! A good play reading can be full of magic. Like a great radio play or audio book, it takes you on the journey – unencumbered by complicated production values. It’s the story, the actors and the audience. That is it. With minimal rehearsals the actors work with script in hand and can really commit to their craft as storytellers and revealers of the human experience. . Believe it or not, when actors do their job well…the audience actually stops seeing the actors flip pages, they stop see the bare set, and become transported to the world of the play. As EMAS student Stephanie Hoston shared “This reading taught me just what a good actor can add to a script. The script is nothing but words on paper until the actors make choices to bring it to life. If I had simply read this play, I may have dismissed some of the more controversial characters, however because of the actors I was able to see the human sides of each character. I left the reading feeling enlightened about circumstances in my own life as a child of divorce, and inspired as an actor. As an audience member, this is all I can ask for.”
I decided to develop this program because being exposed to great writers, having knowledge of genres and styles is an important part of being a fully trained actor. It’s inspiring to see the great breadth of material that has been produced by our master playwrights. If an actor is not familiar with the work of our great playwrights, they are taking advantage of the creative inspiration they offer; the juicy roles, the imaginative circumstances. They won’t know entirely what is demanded of the actor. Remember – plays are the actors medium, movies the director’s. Many of the today’s directors ground their vision in their knowledge of theatre, Kenneth Lonergan and David Hare to name a few. Actors might mmiss important references by directors (like the idea of a scene being “Pinter-esque” or a reference to Mamet’s rhythm) and they certainly are not grounding themselves in the rich history of acting that allows them to understand the roots of the craft itself.
So we decided to offer monthly play readings to whet the appetite and help our students develop a deeper understanding and love for the best plays our western cannon offers.
We will be focusing on reading plays of the 20th and 21st centuries, giving our students an opportunity to use the training they are receiving here to approach some of the most coveted acting roles of our times. It’s a great work out for the students who are cast in these readings, as there is really minimal rehearsal. They have to do the work themselves and call upon everything they have learned here. But it is also an amazing time for the entire studio to come together as an artistic community and hear some of the greatest plays of our times.
Upcoming Plays in our Play Reading Series are:
December 4th, 2016 – Spike Heels by Theresa Rebeck
January 29th 2017 – All My Son’s by Arthur Miller
March 26th 2017 – Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks
Admission is free – but requires an RSVP, and donations are gratefully appreciated to help us continue this program. All readings end with a post-performance discussion that always inspires and leaves us wanting more!
Hope you come and join us for one of these events in the next few months.
The founder of EMAS, Elizabeth Mestnik is an acclaimed actress, director, and acting coach . Having spent her formative years in New York City studying under William Esper, her commitment is to bringing the best of the Meisner technique and New York Acting to hollywood and the craft of acting more generally.
Guest Post by Diana Jellinek
I get it.
This is L.A. The pressure is on to get going with your acting career. Living here can make you feel like you’re in a race to “make it” before you get too old, too broke, or too cynical. You’ve got to be at the top of your game at all times: trained, represented, available, confident. And so, to keep all these balls in the air, you go to the gym, you keep your wardrobe spiffy, you network, and you keep training – all while finding myriad ways to pay your exorbitant rent and keep your car running so you can get to the audition to book the job to pay your rent and pay for more classes to get you to the next audition. It’s exhausting. And difficult. And expensive.
So why, with the long list of classes we can and should take as actors, would we take a class on acting Shakespeare?
Two words: mad skills.
Granted, playing Shakespeare may seem like the broccoli of acting; do your Shakespeare so you have a nice balanced diet of contemporary and classical roles in your repertoire. And let’s face it, most of our English teachers did us a disservice by asking us to drudge through reading one of the plays in the canon – a process sure to discourage even the most enthusiastic among us into any further study. And then there’s the prospect for employment – it’s not like Shakespearean actors are in high demand for high paying roles.
Or aren’t they?
When you think about really great actors that you admire in contemporary film and television, chances are they’ve done some Shakespeare. In fact, more and more, casting directors rely on those British thespians with a background in the Bard for coveted roles. Here are a few you may have heard of:
- Ben Whishaw (Q in Skyfall)
- Jeremy Irons (Alfred in 2016’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice)
- Tom Hiddleston (Loki in The Avengers and Thor)
- James McAvory ( Steve McBride in Shameless, X-Men)
- Alan Rickman (Harry Potter)
- Emily Blunt (Girl on a Train)
- Clémence Poesy (Fleur in the Harry Potter films)
- Patrick Stewart (Professor Xavier in X-Men films, formerly Jean-Luc Picard)
- Felicity Jones (Theory of Everything)
- Benedict Cumberbatch (Khan in Star Trek Beyond – sorry, spoiler)
- Judi Dench (former M in the James Bond franchise)
- John Hurt (Harry Potter films, Hellboy II, the last Indiana Jones)
- Maggie Smith, Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh (Harry Potter)
- Anthony Hopkins (Odin in Thor)
- Ian McKellen (Magneto in X-Men)
- Helen Mirren (RED & RED 2)
- Kenneth Branagh (director, Thor)
So what are these “mad skills” I am suggesting you develop by learning to play Shakespeare? Without launching into a tome, here are the three biggest:
DECODING AND DELIVERING HEIGHTENED LANGUAGE
We are becoming increasingly accustomed to language short hand – as if texting has seeped into our verbal communication and renders us unable to articulate a full, complex, and emotionally-rich thought. ICYMI. OMG. WTF? ROTFLMAO! Just getting my students to fully embody the interjection “OH!” can be incredibly challenging.
Fact is, we just don’t have a rich tradition of rhetoric in America. The seeming inability of our current political leaders to deliver inspirational addresses is yet another example of our shift away from practicing and honoring the deliciousness of language.
Acting Shakespeare demands that an actor operate at the highest capacity of intellect, emotion, and vocal and physical expressiveness. His characters are intelligent and complex, his themes cover the breadth of humanity’s extremes, his words are evocative, colorful, descriptive and alive in their mere vibration. It’s our job as actors to reach out with those words and grab the audience and, as the great Shakespearean director and co-founder of the Royal Shakespeare company John Barton reminds us in the brilliant series Playing Shakespeare, we must MAKE them listen.
BRINGING YOUR IMAGINATION TO A FULL AND RICH LIFE
Most actors have heard Sanford Meisner’s definition of acting: to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. And there is no greater playground of imaginary circumstances than Shakespeare’s plots. They are jumbo blockbuster movies, colossal melodramas full of heroes and villains, intrigue, danger, deceit, love, hate, clowning, slapstick, twists, monsters, and magic. Learning to give yourself over to, and splash around in these extreme circumstances and bring them to life is one of the true joys of being an actor.
Patrick Stewart once explained how Shakespeare prepared him for his career: “I think that the experience that we get in making a 400-year-old text work is exactly what you need for giving credibility and believability to fantasy, science fiction, and the like.”1 It’s quite an artistic stretch to get related to a circumstance, like Titania’s in Midsummer Night’s Dream, where she, the queen of the fairies, falls madly in love with a “rude mechanical” (laborer), Bottom, who has the head of a donkey. Or Lavinia’s predicament in Titus Andronicus, where she is violently raped and butchered (tongue cut out and hands cut off) after her lover is murdered. We must “live truthfully” under these circumstances if we are to bring these characters to life for our audience. It’s a tall order indeed.
Let’s remember, too, that Shakespeare’s plays during his time were created upon a bare stage, with minimal props and only functional set pieces. Creating an island, or a majestic throne room of a palace had much more to do with the actors use of their vivid imaginations and language to bring the audience into the setting with them. This skill serves an actor well today when an increasing amount of film work will be acted in front of a green-screen, with digital effects added long after the acting has been captured. An actor’s ability to bring to life what does not exist in reality is vital to a compelling performance.
CONNECTING US TO OUR HUMANITY
As fantastical and outrageous some of Shakespeare’s plots and characters may be, the reason they still resonate 400 years later has to do with their deep understanding and reflection of the human condition. Famed Shakespearean director Trevor Nunn, in an interview with The Telegraph, even argues that the Bard’s themes resonate more than religion: “Shakespeare has more wisdom and insight about our lives, about how to live and how not to live, how to forgive and how to understand our fellow creatures, than any religious tract. One hundred times more than the Bible.”2
Certainly today, any theatergoer experiencing Henry V can feel the reverberation of the consequences and cost of going to war. At the same time, the play Julius Caesar reminds us how the fears of the masses can be exploited and manipulated by unprincipled leaders (presidential politics). Even our teenagers, whose first foray into Shakespeare is most likely Romeo and Juliet, recognize the fatal consequences of feuds and unwarranted hatred between and among human beings (immigrants and refugees).
An actor’s journey, though very personally enlightening, is also demanding in a more universal way. We are the harbingers of humanity’s empathy. We must be willing to explore, discover, and understand the depths of the human condition if we are to invite our audiences to open their eyes with us. If our profession is to be anything more than vanity, we must embrace our role in opening their hearts and minds.
For more information on Shakespeare classes for Hollywood-minded actors, see EMAS’s Playing Shakespeare workshop.
1. “Patrick Stewart Explains How Shakespeare Prepares You For Science Fiction Acting,” Charlie Jane Anders, Gizmodo, 29 Apr 2010
2. “Trevor Nunn: Shakespeare is 100 times more relevant than the Bible,” Hannah Furness, The Telegraph, 17 Mar 2014
Bringing Broadway craft to Hollywood actors
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 8, 2016 /PRNewswire-iReach/ — The Elizabeth Mestnik Acting Studio (EMAS) is adding “Singing Performance” to their fall schedule taught by Tony Award winning producer of American Idiot and Book of Mormon, Chris Bensinger. This is an 8-week class beginning September 26th. The class runs 8 consecutive Monday evenings at 7pm.
In light of the increase in television and film productions in which singing is a required skill, (Empire, Pitch Perfect, Glee, La La Land) this class has been developed to fill a gap in the Los Angeles acting community for professional singing performance instruction. Limited to 10 students, each singer will work every class. Singing training/experience is strongly encouraged, as this is not a class where students learn to sing, but rather where they strengthen the performance aspect of a song. The final class will be a performance night for invited guests.