We had a fascinating Acting through Song class on Sat 25th Oct, led by the fabulous Julie Atherton – with a couple of regular issues arising and addressed when approaching a song.
The first issue arose of how to deal with songs that appear to dwell in their own self pity. This comes up over and over again when I run these classes at drama schools etc.
Often we come across music that is schmaltzy & self indulgent. This does not make it bad music, it just means that we, the actor, have to work harder to keep our audience engaged. Actors often fall into the trap of playing the emotion of the music, letting themselves feel sorry for their character and wallowing in self pity.
There is nothing that will turn an audience off quicker than an actor acting self pity! It is not an attractive state to watch. We want to see struggle, bravery and defiance in the face of adversity. These are the things that make theatre exciting. So I always suggest to play the opposite. Literally, as a first layer of piecing a song together, play the complete other end of the spectrum. If the piece is all about being upset because your boyfriend left you, then laugh your way through the whole song to begin with. You’ll be amazed at how poignant it can be. In real life we often try to put on a brave face and laugh at things in public that really hurt. That is a much more interesting choice to make on stage!
Of course there will be moments when the hurt takes over. But a couple of small moments when you are losing the battle of a brave face will be far more impactful than a whole song of self pity.
The second issue that came up is the extraneous use of hands and arms.
As actors we inevitably feel that we have to be interesting. I often see actors fully engrossed in their work and then suddenly get the feeling that they are not interesting enough and throw in a completely unconnected arm gesture.
These gestures completely alienate the audience if they are not connected to truth.
The thing that interests us is the story beneath the characters words. The subtext. In other words, the life of the character. Sometimes an actor can stand and deliver a song without moving at all and have the whole audience in the palm of his hand, because he is connected 100% to the truth. Other times he can fling his arms wildly and still have the audience riveted, as long as he is connected to his truth.
Basically you can do whatever the hell you like with a song as long as you know what you’re saying and why you’re saying it and of course as long as you are completely connected to the truth and not Trying to be interesting.