MICHAEL CRAWFORD
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Life on the high C's

Mars:

In the course of teaching our Musical Theatre class last week, we were attempting to produce a good performance from one of our new students and after repeated attempts to communicate to her about one particular line of a song she became quite frustrated. So I sat with her in front of the class and asked her and the class this question: "What makes a great performance?" (...crickets chirping...) Anybody? Hmmm? Well, we all know one when we see one, right? And I felt pretty safe in stating that nearly everyone who has ever decided to try acting has witnessed a 'great' performance that induced them to become a performer. But was it 'great'?

My wife and I talked about it on the way home by recounting the great performances we've witnessed through the years. And we discussed the phrase we heard so many times on 'American Idol'..."raising the bar." As though performers at that level had ANY idea what that was! I never saw it happen. Many years ago I had the pleasure of being in the original cast of Zefirelli's "La Boheme" at the Met and witnessing Teresa Stratas perform the role of Mimi. Not only was it a beautiful production with great singers, but her alabaster-skinned coquettishness and heart breaking singing and acting were easily the best I've ever seen. I've heard that Maria Callas was better. The recordings I've heard would certainly support that general consensus. Even listening to her exquisite phrasing at the end of her career was an education in itself.


But what about Broadway? I came up with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin in "Evita" and Michael Crawford in "Phantom." Deborah added Yul Brynner in "The King and I" and Elaine Paige in "Sunset Boulevard." And what exactly made these performances great? Was there a consistent through-line in these moments? My wife and I believe that there are certain qualities.

As we speak to our students about their songs we tend to mention certain things over and over. The most grievous infraction, and my pet peeve, are those singers who close their eyes and occlude the audience. I'm not talking about blinking, nor encouraging staring. I'm speaking of those singers who believe that in order to 'connect' with a song (or their own soul) that it's desirable to to close your eyes and wail for long stretches. Don't get me wrong! I love rock'n'roll singers screaming at the top of their range about sex, drugs and...well...rock'n'roll. Or hatred, or angst or anger or gangsta life...whatever. (no rappers close their eyes when they're rapping, though) But rock'n'roll ain't theatre no matter what some people would want to believe. Most pop singers are displaying their own vision written and experienced personally. Most theatrical singers are working to display someone else's vision. And because of that, they cannot at any time
include the audience. We try to tell our students that singing onstage is like holding a three way conversation. You, who you're talking to (whether they're present or not) and the audience (but not directly). And if you've ever had a conversation with one of the parties rambling on with their eyes closed then you start to believe that they are one seat short of a row. And that's what I'm talking about here! Whatever you do onstage has to be inclusive. Eyes closed! No! Bad! Wicked! Now...back to the column.

Many of our students (and myself and probably you) have experienced, uh, unusual exercises to produce an unknown result. You KNOW what I'm talking about here. The "be a piece of chewing gum" exercises. The problem is that many teachers comprehend it as little as the student. I did a production in which a famous choreographer redirected a famous show originally done by a famous director. The problem was that the new direction became about choreographed movements having nothing to do with the original intention of the director. Those exercises constitute the same problem. Nearly every one of those exercises are about producing a physical commitment to the movement. The more intense the commitment the greater the result. And that, ladies and gentleman of the jury, is part one of a great performance...COMMITMENT!

Except for some very unusual circumstances, it's no accident that the best performers are older. The combination of theatre experience and life experience are unbelievably important. Why? Because if you haven't lived to experience enough of life and complex emotional states then it's near impossible to reproduce them on stage. And reproducing is NOT re-experiencing! There is a huge gulf between these two processes and the teaching of acting has been split between them since the days of Stanislavski. Interestingly, Stanislavski himself moved from one idea to the other.


To demonstrate physical reality you must begin with three things: 1.) Understanding. That means you must not only know the emotional state of the character you're portraying but also you must know everything about the character himself (or herself) including circumstance and time period. Not to mention the dirty word...subtext. Which is often the opposite of the text. On a light level, that's what sarcasm is...the words saying one thing when the meaning is the opposite. 2.) Observation. Human nature is such that we act in certain ways in certain circumstances apart from some slight cultural variance. When someone calls you a pig, you get angry. Eyebrows scowl, fists clench, breathing becomes more shallow, shoulders tense, voice pitch raises and in many cases volume increases, focus intensifies. You've seen it - so have I. And when someone tells you you're beautiful...think about it. Or says, "What's wrong with you!?"...think about it. Universal. 3.) Repetition. Now bring t
hose observations and understanding to your class or rehearsals. Mix well and repeat 100 times. Why? Because unless you're only doing three shows on the weekend, it's your job in a professional environment to reproduce that performance eight times a week. And that IS your goal, right? That's what I thought. So...ladies and gentleman...I give you part two...COMPREHENSION.

Part three is probably the most difficult to obtain and most difficult to sustain. That is staying connected. The entire concept of theatre is to distill human experience into visual performances at an extremely high stakes level. The Greeks believed that theatre was designed for the community to experience high emotional states and share in the resolution of them. That concept hasn't changed much. How many shows have you seen where you lived and died with the characters? Not many, I presume. That's the difficult part about acting...to connect to the character and the circumstance so that the audience understands the emotional state you're going through. How simple is that for a pop singer? They're already connected to their own psyche and don't need to recreate it eight times a week. Want to see a connected performance? Go rent "The King and I" starring Yul Brynner. That filmed performance is exactly what he gave on stage for thousands of performances! Did you believe he w
as the the King of Siam? Did you ever doubt it?! Or try Robert Preston in "The Music Man." There it is...committed, connected and comprehended.

And finally, the easiest and hardest of all. It takes a lot of guts to get up and perform knowing that everyone in the room is waiting for you to fail. It takes guts to audition for a highly critical director or casting director. For most of you it takes the form of auditioning for people you know very well and who know YOU very well. It's way too much like singing for your mother and her friends. Hello stress! It takes guts to stand up for what you know is right (or wrong) for a performance and real guts to go out on stage after a scathing review and give it your best performance. It takes guts to go out when your spouse leaves you, your child is hurt or sick or parent dies. But you know what? Theatre is life distilled. Everything you experience is another book in your vast library. That's part four...COURAGE.

So here's your homework. Look around you! See that couple arguing on the street corner? Watch every move they make and understand THAT kind of physicality. Did that scene make you cry? Watch it over and over to see every tic and eye movement. Watch great performances and understand why they're great. Go see "Gone With the Wind" and "Casablanca" and "The King and I" and "The Music Man". Go see a current movie, "Whale Rider". Watch any professional sports competition. Learn what commitment, comprehension, connectedness and courage mean. That should take a lifetime. Now it's her turn...

Venus:

When asked about the making of a great performance, I find myself reminiscing about the first great performance I witnessed. It was at the St. James Theatre, I was around eight, and when Yul Brynner entered as the King, I fell in love - with his back, with the way be breathed, with the shimmering light reflecting on his smooth skin. He made hair on men seem unnatural. I was absolutely mesmerized by his presence. Nothing I had experienced in my lifetime until then seemed as important. I do not remember any other performance in that production.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of seeing Elaine Paige in the Broadway production of Sunset Boulevard. This was long after I had studied my craft and had many years to perform and teach what I had learned. (I am focusing on the Broadway
Musical for the sake of this column and because it is this genre which has been seen by the greatest numbers; I will save commenting on other plays for later.) Elaine Paige took my breath away upon her entrance as Norma Desmond very similar to the way Yul Brynner had in the "King and I". I could not take my eyes off of her. I hadn't fallen "in love" with Ms. Paige anymore than I had with Mr. Brynner. I had, however, been connected to the greatest part of myself, which made me feel as if I had fallen in love.

Without running a marathon, I had to
continually catch my breath; with my deepest ability to hear and experience, I listened to their joy and pain; and from the bottom of my heart and soul, I wanted for them to have whatever they needed before they exhaled their last breath. In the process, they inspired me to replace all judgemental thoughts, taught to me in my personal life, with empathy for their character's circumstances. I was experiencing unconditional love every moment they were breathing greatness. At the end of that cycle of inhaling and exhaling, we were both exhausted, and I, forever changed. For me, It was a once in a lifetime experience; for them, it was a job they were contracted to do eight times a week. Now a glimpse of what it takes to achieve this greatness, even when you can't imagine it.

There is not a great actor who has the opportunity to perform a great role, whose life is not forever changed by this creative process. This epiphany may happen once, but the job of the actor is to make the audience believe it happens for the first time,
eight shows a week. Laurence Olivier believed that this only happened a few times in his performance lifetime. For all the other moments, the performer relies on technique.

There are two schools of technique which are the foundation for the American Theatre Experience as we know it today; both were created by Constantin Stanislavski. The first is from his earlier teachings advocating the use of sense memory to create a performance, which encourages actors to draw upon their own personal lives to create their choices. The second is from his later teachings advocating the use of the imagination, which encourages actors to create the past of the character, rather than relive their own lives onstage, eight times a week Stella Adler agreed with Mr. Stanislavski's later teachings and founded
her Conservatory based upon this theory. Lee Strasberg created The Actor's Studio based upon Stanislavski's earlier understanding of sense memory. This began the Cold War between the great masters of the Stanislavski Tradition. Stella felt that relying on sense memory promoted unnecessary exhaustion and was inappropriate for developing the character. Fine actors have come from both schools; some actors have studied both. Preference for one style over another is a personal choice. Stella felt Stanislavski's later work proved to be more truthful for the actor as well as the character, as it prevented the actor from imposing the psychology (and therefore physicality) of the actor's personal life onto the life of the character. Since the body does not know the difference between the real and the imagined, and truthfully responds to whatever the actor believes to be real in the moment, it is never necessary to use one's real past. This continuous COMMITMENT to reponding to the imagined as if it is real takes the kind of skill exhibited by a tight rope walker without a net.

The time an actor spends training for their craft has been compared to the course of study to become a brain surgeon. After all that, the actor will never be guaranteed a position and rarely will experience that kind of financial security. If this were the description of the life an actor could expect, would you still register for this course of study? Performers on the road to great performances have COURAGE. The kind of courage that allows one to pursue a dream with all their heart, against all odds is the kind of courage known by a great performer who will abandon all ego, all sense of safety, all that is familiar to lend their body, voice, heart and soul to another being for an indefinite length of time in order to enrich the lives of unknown audiences.

I mentioned the need for a great performer to have a technique. This is only one part of the actor's CRAFT. The rest includes a course of study which would probably award you several master degrees. They range from history to linguistics including dance and vocal performance, but one of the most important is Script Interpretation. A great performer can have the talent, the voice, the body and the brains, but without a deep COMPREHENSION of what the writer meant by the words chosen, there is nothing to perform. Even when the writing is not great, it is the performer's job to interpret as if it has great meaning. (Be careful: This could also result in comedy unintended.)

Without a great idea (even if it must be created by the performer) , one cannot achieve a great performance. Great ideas are not about one person's personal conflict, they are about one person crying out their dilemna, resonating in the hearts and souls of thousands of others, and encouraging them to break their silence. In doing so, lives are saved. Great ideas are about life and death choices. The stakes are black and white, never gray. In experiencing a great performance, we must watch the character face life and death circumstances. We must observe them respond to these stakes
when they are alone, as well as in the company of those from whom they must CONCEAL their response. It is not how hard one cries, but how hard it is for them to conceal their tears that makes us understand the depth of their pain, and the level of their courage. Great performers know that the audience experiences the smallest part of a performance through the words, and acts accordingly. (Audiences only experience 7% through the words; the other 93% lies in what is not said.) Words have always been the last thing that we use to communicate our needs. Consider what heights we will go in our lives to cover our "Achilles' Heel". Great writers will create two hours of hair-raising drama using this theme only as a subplot. Great performers know the "Achilles' Heel" of their character, and they CONCEAL it with life and death urgency.

And finally, a great character must have CHARISMA. This is something which one can learn to create. It has to do with power and energy, all which come from oxygen. You must oxygenate the room as if you are the source of the oxygen. You must breathe as if your power is constant without ever indicating to others that they have less. You must treat others as if they deserve all that they dream and teach them how to breathe again, not by criticizing, but by breathing deeply. You will begin to radiate light, a light that has been dimmed by disconnecting from your source. You will start to hear your voice again. You'll hear it with your heart and soul, not your ears. It calls on you to connect to your greatness. It will lead you there one step at a time. Exhale out all the other noise - don't wait to exhale! In the end, it's all about CONNECTION...to the breath, to the images, to the ideas, to the craft, to the courage to continue connecting.

Take my breath away and make me want to give you whatever you need before your last exhale.

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From This Author Raymond McLeod

Raymond McLeod has performed internationally and taught vocal technique from Los Angeles to New York City, from Broadway and opera, to film and television, for (read more...)

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