The Toolbox of Technique

Confession: In Theatre school I  was required to complete two years worth of “Technique” classes.  Now, several years removed from my conservatory classes, my strongest memory seems to be one in which the teacher ordered two students to run straight at each other across a room. The students were told not to stop, not to move out of the way of their opposite, just go!

Predictably, they collided head first in the center of the room, resulting in a trip to the nurse for them, a funny memory for me, and very little understanding of what Technique even meant.

Not that we didn’t learn techniques for acting in those classes.  I’m sure we did.  But we had very little concept of how to apply them to the work we were doing. Technique always seemed like one thing, scene study like another, voice production like a third, all important but difficult to apply to each other.

Now as an aspiring artist I find myself wishing I did remember more of those technique classes.  Fortunately I now often get to see some of those exercises applied during Cay’s scene study class, and what I have now that helps me put them into practice (and what I think was missing in conservatory) is context. The technique discussion comes out of actors in the middle of a scene having trouble grounding, connecting, or physicalizing, and are immediately put into practice in the rehearsal to get through those blocks. Is it as fun as watching two people play human bumper cars for conservatory class prices? Actually, sometimes it is, and even better it seems to help me in those moments where I too feel a little lost under the lights.

So without further ado, here is a small collection of some of the moments Cay has taken time in class to guide actors deeper into their roles using technique:

On connecting to someone offstage: Laura has been working on one of the great pieces of American Theatre, the Heiress. After a bumpy first run on her feet Cay stopped her half way through.

Cay: “Laura, you keep talking about your father but I don’t see him.”

Laura: “Well he’s in the other room.”

Cay: “Yes, and he’s in the other room. How does that make you feel?”

Laura: “I don’t know. Scared? Intimidated.”

Cay: “Is there anyone who has ever made you feel scared or intimidated? (Laura indicates yes.) Well then, put them in this room with you right now. In the audience maybe. Or put something of their’s, something they always have with them, put that on the set with you.”

On the next run Laura’s energy had changed in such a way that we could literally feel the tension. We could see the Father’s effect on her, and that created a whole history in a moment that hadn’t been there just minutes before.

On “scoring” lines: Sometimes Frequently actors find ourselves having scored our lines. What this means to the layman is we have gotten so used to saying them in one way, or with a certain inflection, and we find it difficult to allow the line to change in the moment. Every actor (at least that I know) has had the experience, and Dax was having trouble in a scene with Annie a few weeks ago.

Cay: “Don’t get yourself into vocal repetition.”

Dax: “How do you do that? Am I not supposed to be working alone, or should we be repeating?”

I’m going to break  for just a second to say that I have heard this question before. I studied for a long time with a teacher in Los Angeles who would often talk about scoring your script, and so I knew his answer. I wondered how different Cay’s would be…

Cay: “Well, you start by making sure you are really talking to someone. Then it almost becomes a vocal exercise. What you do is you {whispering} say your lines quietly, almost with no breath, until you can hardly hear yourself. But you have to make sure you are really talking to someone.”

…literally, almost word for word, the same advice my teacher in LA would give. And if two teachers two thousand miles apart are giving the same technique for not scoring lines, then someone must have known what they were talking about.

(Insert from Cay:  Wanted to expand on this just a bit; this is use of the Transparent or Crystal Whisper, a vocal production technique that I learned — as I think did Tim’s LA teacher- from Chuck Jones.  My use in class was a very condensed version of this exercise, and can’t substitute for real and concentrated study of vocal production.)

And last but not least (for this small list), the Fuck Off: Perhaps one of my favorite moments in Class to date and it came from several months ago. Though I’m not sure it even counts as a technique, I loved it so much I wanted to include it. Annie was having trouble feeling comfortable on stage during one of her first scenes with Cay. Afterwards Cay asked her what was wrong.

Annie: “I don’t know, I just feel strange up here. I feel nervous doing it in front of the class.”

Cay: “Well Annie, here’s what I want you to do. Stand center stage and breathe for me. Just feel the space.”

Annie: “Okay.”

Cay: “Now, I want you to remind you that this rehearsal is for YOU; look everyone in the eye, one at a time, and tell them to fuck off. Tell them to fuck right off!”

To this day, much to the confusion of new class members and pleasure of old, Annie will sometimes still walk center stage before a scene, plant her feet, look one of us in the audience in the eyes and tell us to “fuck off!”