The Mouth Is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Jun 10, 2008 by

Yesterday afternoon, Southern Rep held a marathon open audition and invited a group of local theatre companies to attend. It began at four and went into the night. I remember leaving around 8:45 AL (After Liz – she was the last person to audition). By then, most of the other company representatives had long ago left.

I’m not trying to sound noble by saying I stayed the course. I mean, what else do I have to do? But I did want to show some respect to all those people – all. those. people. – who were laying it on the line.

I’ll probably change in time.

We people who make up the theatre community here are always saying New Orleans is bursting at the seams – like a post-Katrina dumpster – with talented performers. We people who make up the theatre community here are also always saying we have to educate our dwindling audiences to appreciate the glories of live theatre as opposed to television and movies and local productions of Cabaret.

After yesterday, I’m afraid I’d have to say, “Define what you mean by ‘talented’.” And, perhaps, I’d have to timidly suggest that we all need to consider that maybe we need to be educated by our dwindling audiences. There is raw talent, for sure, but most of it – maybe 95% of what I saw yesterday – is not buttressed by any technique. I don’t mean to sound like some old theatre fart, always going on about the past and the grand, dead days of “The Actor’s Art”. And I certainly don’t wish to banish myself from a community I love, but maybe, just maybe, we’re losing our audiences because they cannot figure out what our actors are saying or doing in all those three-quarter-empty houses we call home.

I mean, there we were, sitting in a small Equity theatre, a major venue in the city, and I found myself unable to hear what many of the actors were saying. When I could hear them, their words were often unintelligible.

If any of them have seriously studied acting at all – and lots of actors never do – they’ve studied the esoterica, how to feel and things like that. I’d bet you a C-note they’ve never studied physical technique in any meaningful way. Very few of the actors we saw yesterday knew how to stand still without projecting a sense that their arms and hands were heavy elephant trunks they hadn’t learned to manipulate yet. And certainly no one had taught them the mechanics of speech.

In the theatre, words are projected by breath support from the diaphragm. These words are formed by use of the mouth, specifically, the tongue, teeth, and lips. And when you are clearly enunciating the words, projection is no longer a matter of speaking loudly or shouting. A whisper can carry as far as to the back of the house, no matter how large.

All of this takes time. And practice. Time was that was how you got to Carnegie Hall. Practice, practice, practice. But what doesn’t take practice? Doing it in the back seat of your dad’s car at fifteen or sixteen doesn’t make you an expert lover, does it? Wouldn’t you agree you have to do it over and over again? Same with this.

Please don’t think I’m denigrating any of the actors I saw. I plan on adding many of them to my mailing lists for casting calls of my own. I sincerely hope I get to work with them. But I know a chunk of our rehearsal time will be devoted to an education process I don’t particularly relish. But, hey, that’s how it goes.

If they can only incorporate a little of that, they will be all the better for it.

But then again maybe I’m just blowing hot air, and my time has passed, another forgotten old Gus.


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