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From Stage to Screen: Toning It Down While Keeping It Real

Ah, the stage! The glorious live performance. When you’ve had years of experience on the stage, every cell in your body knows what performing feels like. Your body knows to be bigger, louder. It feels full, grand, real and you can hear the audience react. How rewarding. How deliciously rewarding!

Then you do film or TV for the first time and your eyebrows act like caterpillars on crack. You look like a bobblehead or cartoon character. You’re surprised your eyes don’t pop out of your head to the sound of an old fashioned horn. There’s no way around it; you’re simply horrible.

You’re told, “Be small! Be still! Tone it down! Don’t do anything!” So you stop: you stop moving or doing anything. You try to keep those caterpillars – and the rest of your body – contained.

And you certainly see a difference. It’s not nearly as big as it was before. But now instead of Roger Rabbit, you look like Robbie the Robot. You’re empty. Uncaring. Boring. Weird. Like you’re stuck in a cage, frozen.

You’re afraid to move, feel, express or be yourself.

So where is the happy medium between cartoon character and robot? And how do you get there?

For any actor that has ever been told to be small, still, contained, and not do anything, let’s free you from that cage. Here are your keys:

Key #1: You’ve been given horrible direction.

With all due respect to whomever told you to “be small, be still, don’t do anything,” those words are inaccurate and make you self-conscious about what you’re doing. What you should have been told is:

Allow your behavior to be the same as it is in your everyday life. You don’t need to perform anymore. You just need to be real.

Key #2: You don’t think about your behavior in your everyday life.

You just live. You wish your best friend didn’t move or hope your boss doesn’t make you stay late or wonder if the cute guy at the party will notice you. As you experience life, your thoughts and feelings result in organic and unconscious behavior. You just live and react without ever thinking about it. (For more on this, please read “Why Actors Should Stop Planning”.)

Key #3: So that means stage acting is unnatural.

Stage performance, while a rush, is nowhere near our true reality. It requires so much more than our everyday behavior. You consciously put in effort to manufacture unnatural behavior – bigger and louder behavior – to reach the 500th row. (And I’m sure you do it brilliantly.)

Key #4: Guess what? TV and film acting reflects everyday life behavior. (aka: natural behavior)

When we’re truthfully experiencing our daily life, our minds, faces, bodies and voices are exquisitely alive with that life. We don’t try to advertise our thoughts and feelings, they are already seen.

And so it is with acting for the screen. If you’ve used your imagination to create your relationship to your best friend, boss and the cutie pie as full experiences, we will see it on your face, in your eyes and in your behavior.

You won’t have to think about being still or small or real; you just will be. No effort required.

Key #5: Why? Because the camera is inside your head.

The audience isn’t 500 rows away, they’re just a few feet away – right where another human being would be, if not much closer. In fact, the camera is so close, it’s practically reading your thoughts. That’s how much it – and the audience – can see.

And here’s the best part:

Key #6: When it comes to natural behavior, TV and film acting is easier than stage acting.

For the delicious theater experience, we must consciously adjust our behavior to show our love or anger. But for TV and film, if we simply truly feel love or anger, the audience will see it. Just like real life.

So you can drop the rabbit and the robot. Stop trying so hard to keep still inside that cage of non-behavior. That is not real, nor authentic. You are. When you invest in your relationships and circumstances, your voice and body follow. Your behavior follows.

Unconsciously. Organically.

Don’t be small. Don’t be still. Don’t try to do nothing…just care about what the character cares about. Miss your friend. Hate your boss. Try to get the cute guy to look at you. Just live. We’ll see it all and you will be real. You’re free!

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