Designed for Life

It has been a week already into the show. Three shows, with two more weeks left, and I my having the time of my life. I have loosened up as a person, and a performer, and it has affected me in such an incredible way.

Last year, Closer put me into some very confrontational situations such as domestic violence, physically intimate relationships, and somewhat exposed in-front of a live audience. Design has me playing a man with different sexual preferences than myself, yet with a similar outlook to relationships that has been slowly fermenting in my real-life mind, and the experience has been incredible.

Couple to that that the feedback I have been getting, both for myself and the play in general, has been some of the best I have heard, and the experience is simply unique and mind blowing.

When your agent tells you that “you made it look like the role was written for you”, well, that has to mean something right?

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Taking on a new me?

Back in high school, I had begun to envision myself as a stand-up-comedian. I was watching the likes of Billy Connelly, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, and so many more, and just thought it looked like a lot of fun. Thing is, I was still very much in an awkward phase and the very thought of being evaluated on my humour scared the hair off my skin.

15-naveedEven after I started doing theatre, and gained some confidence in playing characters, the love/fear fantasy of stand-up continued to thwart itself, like the proverbial snake eating its own tail. I still have a few teeth marks around here somewhere. It is different to theatre where you play a character, vs being yourself trying to be funny. Who would get my humour? Am I really that funny? You know, the type of fear that secretes glue from your feet pinning you in place, then reduces the skin around your eyes and mouth leaving you looking like a startled owl saying “who?”

trivia-night-photoQuite by accident, I found a smooth pathway to finding my glue-less footing and feeling a little more like “I can do this.” For nearly two years now, I have been hosting Trivia nights for local pubs, and ended up doing a regular gig at a conveniently local tavern. I started off cautiously, but aware that I was basically a source of entertainment for the players. It was a little rough at first as I inadvertently put a few noses out of joint. Noses that were used to the smell of the previous trout, and weren’t too sure what to make of this new fish. I wasn’t too sure what to make of them either…

It took a little while to work into a groove so to speak, and develop a style that I was comfortable with. Curiously, it was a style that previously I wouldn’t have even considered; sassy, confident, and a little offensive. Having been well known for being well spoken, I found that the more cutting and slang I was, the more people seemed to enjoy it. So I obliged bit by bit over time.

On thing that did throw me off for a while was the hecklers. I really did not have a lot of experience with that. In theatre, you rarely if ever have a heckler, yet I always admired actors who could work with the Audience.

jon-english1John English immediately comes to mind. I went to see a Pirates of Penzance show with him in it, and unfortunately I was late. Having front and centre seats made for an interesting entrance. John stopped the production and from to front of stage, and watched me as I made my way from the back of the auditorium, across the front row, to my seat. Once I was seated, he asked me if they could continue, to which I replied with a quick. “Yes please. Thanks for waiting.” That got a laugh. John did one of his famous ‘double-takes’, gave me a hard look, evoking even more amusement, and I just smiled back up at him. After a second, I waved my hand saying “Carry on.”

He then made sure to cast a few one liners at me for the rest of the night, to which I enthusiastically riposted, much to the glee of those around me. I then had a great chat with the man after the show, and he told me about the numerous other experiences he has had with late comers. I remember him saying with was refreshing to have someone push back instead of getting all embarrassed.

It’s a memory that remains so very strong. I have had a few opportunities to emulate his example, but Trivia nights have been a real experience and experiment. So I started watching comedians again, but not laugh at their jokes, but to see how they handled hecklers. Jimmy Carr became a core role model, who actually makes heckles part of the show.

I admit, that I have pinched and re-written a couple of his to suit my needs, to great effect. It has changed my approach to Trivia nights, to performances, and even to engaging with people on a day-to-day basis. The spread of effect this has had is rather marvellous, and people have even been pointing that I should consider stand-up…

I think 2017 may be the year I brave the solo limelight and unleash the spirited young comedian inside this aging ham.

Silly Selfie – Lessons in acting

 Acting is so much easier when you are prepared to leave your pride in the change room. So is life. 

Me and My Accents

I have had a long love of character voices and accents. As a young boy, I discovered comedy radio shows such as The Goon Show where the actors would put on exaggerated voices to great comic effect. I tried to replicate these characters and in a way, they become the closest thing I had to invisible friends.

As I found my love for theatre and acting, the transition to picking up accents was relatively easy, and for the sake of Community Theatre, I wasn’t expected to be spot on. The fact that I could do most of the mainstream accents (English, American, Australian… particularly English) was rather useful in getting parts.

I would be able to listen to accents, and in most cases I would pick it up quickly. I think this was because of my years of Goon Show impersonations. There were always a few which challenged me. For example, when trying Irish, I would often drift into Scottish, and some of the regional English accent would all become generic Cockney.

Naturally, I had an accent which was somewhere between Common English and Australian, which explains why so many of my school friends thought I WAS English…

How is it done?

It was only a few years back that I realised that even though I could do a number of accents, I couldn’t really tell you the mechanics behind them. I was asked to help a very Australian lady develop an American Accent for a stage play. Everyone else was doing good American, so having one “okka” Aussie was rather striking.

I struggled at first trying to get this actress to use a similar accent to the rest of the cast. Her natural accent was just too strong, and my skill in explaining was to simple. I did manage to get her to put on a reasonable New Yorker accent, and we went with that.

But I was motivated to learn about how accents were done, by people who could instruct. As I wasn’t in a place to be able to afford classes, I instead researched books and videos online. I found a lot of common themes , but found much of it was minimally helpful, and felt as vague or rough as my own attempts at teaching had been. Most of it was tailored for the American actor doing international accents.

Some of the most useful texts came with audio CD’s that broke down the process to repeating various phrases, talking about diphthongs, consonants, vowels, when to drop certain letters, and so forth. I didn’t feel any of this helped.

Then I found Bruce G Shapiro’s Speaking American – The Australian’s Guide to and American Dialect.

This book does more than provide vague exercises and phrases to recite, it has a significant focus on mouth shape, muscular control… Now this may have something that other texts also covered, but I found this clarified a few things that others didn’t. It helped me become more aware of how my mouth, tongue, throat and nose all worked together.

With this increased awareness I was able to experiment a lot more than I had and work out the problems I had with other accents in the past. All this lead to me acknowledging a couple of key principles in doing accents.

Two Basic Elements

While there is no doubt a lot that separate one accent from another, and there are subtle variations even within one type of accent, most accents can be quickly reached by the manipulation of two aspects of your voice.

The Point of Resonance

When I say the Point of Resonance (PoR), I am referring to the position in your head that vibrates most when you speak. Most people I talk with are initially unaware of their own PoR, so I get them to put on a nasally voice, which we all can do. Regardless of what your voice is naturally, except maybe naturally nasally voiced people, once you do this, you should be able to feel the difference. In some people, this will tickle their sinuses, and maybe even make them sneeze.

The blue circle represents the American’s point of resonance and the red is the Britain’s point of resonance.

In order to achieve a nasally voice, you are changing the part of you that the sound of your voice resonates, or your Point of Resonance. This helps even with the general accents such as Received Pronunciation (standard English), General American, and General Australian.

These three accents actually make for an interesting progression with American often being higher and slightly more nasally than English, which in turn is higher than Australian which is moving to the back of the throat. The broader the Australian accent, the further back and down the PoR goes.

American has a lot in common (regards PoR) with Irish and Indian, which are both similarly edging towards nasally, whereas Australian, Scottish and Russian are lower and back in the mouth.

Of course, just a shift in the PoR does not make a complete accent.

Lips and Jaw

The way in which the mouth moves becomes the second key element in a basic accent. It’s a blend of the Lips and Jaw (LaJ). You can either move these features a lot when sounding your words, or you can move them very little. The direction you move will also have an impact on the sound of your words.

Mouth

This was a discovery for me which explained why Aussies often thought I was English rather than Australian, and yet when in England, they all knew I was Australian. While I had the shallow PoR similar to most Aussies, when speaking, I didn’t use my lips as much as others. A side effect of this was that my enunciation sounded more exact, yet the throatiness was enough for natural English speakers to pick me out as Australian.

Using again the three core accents, American accents typically use more vertical movements, larger jaw movements for the vowels with narrow lips. Australians will use less jaw and wider lip movements. Then English uses minimal lip or jaw movements, which echo’s the “stiff-upper-lip” image.

So when we look at American vs Irish, we see that Irish typically is somewhere between minimal movement to wide movements, which contrasts with the American vertical movement. This is similar when comparing Australian with Scottish, or Russian. Scottish is closer to the English minimal movements, and Russian may use even less movement than English.

That’s not all

Once I had worked through these two basic principles, I was able to work with all the other aspects of accents, such as emphasis, use of tongue for rolling sounds, soft and strong consonants. It was much easier to address the finer of details of accents with a solid base, and it is much easier to pick-up some of the more interesting accents.

More important, by subtly playing with the two key aspects of PoR and LaJ, I have been able to play with accents to create the shades of grey you find everyday. Such as an Irish accent with a subtle Australian influence, an English Scotsman, American Indian, and more.

I have tried applying these simple basic principles on others, seeing how they take it. So far, it has been a successful solution.

Accents are not simple, but with a strong base, they can be easier.

Acting has Taught Me – Another’s Shoes

#Acting #actinghastaughtme #lifelessons #anothersshoes

A post shared by Jeff Watkins (@_labrug_aus_) on

You’ve heard the saying, don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. Truth be told, we don’t get a lot of opportunity to do that, do we? And even if we did, I don’t think we can every truly appreciate what another person is going through, because we can never realy know the full story for them.

As an actor however, I have had to create characters from the most vaguest of concepts into a living, breathing entity. It has taken many years, many plays, and even more characters, to really get a feel for walking in someone else’s shoes, literally. The process is not simple, and the more divergent the character from yourself, the harder the challenge.

The call of Nature

Following on from my most recent blog of a few days ago, I am reminded of a project I did back in my university days. My final year thesis was an investigation into the feasibility of teaching a subject on Creative Reasoning within scientific studies, and one of the points I discussed which was the value of right and wrong.

It is interesting how both my theatrical interests influenced some of my research, and how some of my research has influenced my theatre. This came into rather interesting clarity when, recently, I was discussing the complexities of character development with some nice young people, after one of my Quiz Night gigs.

The concepts of right and wrong are uniquely human. Echoing my previous blog, they are not natural. In fact, the concepts of right and wrong can actually be inhibitive to creative reasoning, which tends to work better when encouraged to break the rules. Creativity general works better with a measure of worth, rather than fixed points of success and failure.

One of the biggest struggles I have had to face as an actor is how to convincingly portray a character who is so completely opposite me in belief, and moral direction. Pantomime villains is one things, but real villains… that is hard. I don’t like paying simple lip service to a character, and hoping that will get me by. I need to make the character believable, and that means relate-able. I have to be able to understand the motivations if I am to convincingly portray them.

I believe it is the exceptionally rare individual who is able to see themselves as evil, and relish in that knowledge. Most would rather admit that they have done some pretty bad stuff, but that they are able to justify their actions somehow. How valid that justification may be to others is questionable, but to the character, it is enough.

You see, what is “right” and “good” is subjective. It is an opinion. When enough people believe in the same concepts of Right and Good, then it becomes a standard, or moral. Yet that does not make it ultimate Right or Good, because in reality, neither exist. Deeds that one may see as utterly evil, another may see as a necessary step towards an ultimate “good” according to their perceptions.

In nature, we see many examples of processes or actions that, under a moral code, would be deemed evil, nasty, or bad, but if you change the moral code, they can look very different. Humans, with the higher order brain matter, and the need for language and labelling, are the ones who create the codes, and therefore define what is evil.

But where do these perceptions come from?

This links back to early blog posts where I talk about choices and perceptions. The choices one makes in life construct the path that influences their future. Our choices are the decisions and reactions we make when faced with the effects of the world around us, and those we interact with. Sometimes, these choices can be subtle. Then again, they can be monumental.

In a world where there is no right or wrong, just one’s perception of it, anyone could be anyone. Had I not made certain choices in my life, I would be a different person. Maybe subtly different. Perhaps completely different.

As an actor, this is huge. I really could be anyone, if I could only understand the choices I would need to have made, and the justification I told myself to live with them. What would the moral code be like?

However, following this line of thought alone doesn’t create a character with depth. It would suggest that all characters were “satisfied” with their lot in life, and we all know that this is simply not true. We can all point to people, and maybe even ourselves, who are not “satisfied” with their lot. So there is something else at work here.

Our unique power for self-deception. It is our ability to lie, to others and to ourselves, that make for the tortured and emotional characters the populate our lives. Perhaps our past choices were based on lies, or half-truths. Perhaps it is our justifications that simply don’t have the ring of truth to them, no matter how hard we try and convince ourselves. Maybe we frequently gave away our one true strength, and let others choose for us, let them tells us their truth, and now live a life that contradicts that burning yearning inside.

The one thing that differentiates us from most other animals on this planet, is our ability to ignore instinct, and see choices. It is what gives us our ability to see things things that don’t exist, imagine fantasy worlds, or inventions. We are able to create explanations for the world around us by observing the world and perceiving meaning.

It is also one of our biggest weaknesses, because unchecked, it can run away from us and have us imagine things that can frighten, annoy, hurt, and enrage. Deception and creativity are very closely bonded, because they are both two sides of the same talent.

And this is the source of right and wrong. It is opposites, or extremes, but it us who have labelled these extremes as either right or wrong.

Maths is the only real subject within which Right and Wrong can have absolute meaning, and even that is human invention.

The Hard Road Part 1 – Acceptance

WrongWell, here we go again. It wasn’t long ago that I was inspired to write about my youth and struggles with depression. Now I find I am again surrounded by reasons to continue. In the first part of my journey, I really didn’t know what was going on, and certainly didn’t accept that I was suffering depression. I knew something was wrong, but the attitude of the time was to pretend you didn’t. The implication was that everyone else was OK, so admitting there was something wrong with you would only expose you as a fraud.

Taking up from where I had left off, realising that my mind was acting out dangerous thoughts subconsciously was a serious wake-up call. (See Darker Path Part 9.) Up until then, it was something that I could stuff down, ignore. To find myself acting out meant that I could no longer ignore it, but what could I do about it?

I admit, I was rather green, and somewhat simple-minded with regards many things. Maybe ignorant is a better term. I did realise one thing however. Trying to find fault with myself was simply leading me in circles. I had to change my perspective. I started by trying to find reasons for the actions of other people from their point of view.

Now I knew that I may not ever know the truth as to why someone had done the things that they had done, but I was convinced in myself that very few people ever did something simply out of spite. If I could come up with convincing reasons that would satisfy me, then I would have to be content with that. It was an interesting exploration for me, and had its advantages in my slowly developing me acting skills. Stepping into another’s metaphoric shoes, and trying to uncover the reasons one may have, was cathartic in the extreme, and an awakening one.

It was an interesting period of self-reflection, reviewing my actions, and the actions of others, as if I were someone else.

Something about being Unique

I used to have a serious problem with the word, or the association with being unique. I was frequently called unique, or some derivative of. Back then, it sounded akin to odd, or inexplicable. To me, it was a bad thing to be considered outside the norm, to be “special”, and I use the double quotations very specifically.

Even during my high-school years, I often had opinions that ran rather contrary to my peers, which earned my considerable scorn and ridicule. I recall a meeting at a Youth Group that I attended where a guest presenter impressed upon us the need to be happy ALL THE TIME. That was the goal. To avoid sadness, anger, and so forth. To me this sounded like all the years of being fake which even then I questioned.

I stood and asked what was wrong with being angry? While anger and aggressive were often expressed as had things, were their not good, and “happy” was to express anger? Can not someone be happily angry? Happily sad? I think one other person rose to my support as I was yelled at by others for being so stupid. While my wording may not have been clear, the intention I still believe in. To shut yourself of from all aspects of yourself, is just as, if not more, harmful than letting them run in the driver’s seat without supervision.

I wanted to say that you need to acknowledge all of what makes you a person, the dark and the light. We are not perfect, and to strive to be so is a road to depression. I just didn’t have the experience and vocabulary to express it. I was unique in my opinions, beliefs and self, which made me an outsider to those who could not understand.

Then new perspective came, in the form of a good friend formed during my years at uni. After several years of knowing each other, she had formed a relationship with another fellow student who was a part of our combined circle of friends. Near the end of her degree, she confessed a deep affection for me, which surprised me admittedly, but had been unable to express said affection. I felt the dread of life repeating itself as they continued, and I waiting for the word… but it never came.

OOYLInstead, she told me that she had felt I was Untouchable. The first time someone had used such a term; Untouchable. She continued to say that she hadn’t felt good enough for me, that I was above her league, which was an alien concept to me. Me, be better than anyone else? Surely not. I couldn’t believe it, didn’t want to believe it, yet it felt a lot better to believe that I was untouchable than unique.

A simple conversation changed my perspective about a long time dislike. Mind you, it took me a few more years to get over my dislike of the word unique, mainly due to the memories and connotations it drew, but it was a start. I began to think about all those times someone called me unique, special, or different. I began to think that maybe they didn’t have the experience and vocab to express what they really wanted to say. Maybe they meant it as a compliment, but found it hard to compliment something which made them uncomfortable.

Even the dreaded “You’re nice, but…” which I got a lot, began to look a little different.

In the end, I had to accept that I was a little different. I had different thoughts and ways of dealing with things. I spoke differently to most of my friends, and found enjoyment in language and complex words. My mind worked more visually than logically. I was different, but it wasn’t a bad thing.

We’re all a little different.

Find the entire Hard Road series here.

REVIEW – Venus in Fur with Black Swan

On the 15th of January, I was given the privilege of attending the preview night for Black Swan’s Venus in Fur, written by David Ives and directed by Lawrie Cullen-Tait, at the Perth State Theatre. I didn’t know much about the play before hand, and decided not to find out and let the show surprise me. Without giving too much away, I was greeted by an interesting stage space. The large performance area was mostly dispensed with to have a very focused stage area depicting a studio loft.

We are very quickly introduced to Thomas Novacheck, played by Adam Booth, a playwright slash director, clearly frustrated by a lack of talent in young ladies auditioning for his next production, an adaptation of the 1870’s novel A Venus in Fur. His mobile phone rant to his fiancé is both amusing and rather poignant. Having sat on both sides of the casting couch, I could all too easily related to much of his complaints, however comical they sounded.

FelicityAs he is about to leave the studio, he is confronted by a brash, crass and somewhat offensive young lady. Ironically, she shares the same name as the female protagonist of Thomas’ play, Vanda, played by Felicity McKay. She appears to embody everything Thomas had only seconds before been complaining about, but with a rougher presentation. She convinces him to let her read, and has even brought her own costumes to help out.

As soon as Vanda gets into character, it is clear that she is not what she seems, and so the battle of the sexes begins. Vanda challenges Thomas opinions of the story he is creating, his own insecurities, and belief in himself, while Thomas struggles to defend his artistic interpretation on what is essentially 1870s porn in Vanda’s opinion.

Both actors gave impressive performances, however I was captivated by Felicity and the tiny little nuances she brought to the character. I found myself watching her expressions as Thomas spoke. You could almost hear what she was thinking throughout. It felt incredibly natural. When you consider that she technically played several characters through the course of the play, being able to maintain that level of connection is simply stunning.

The simple and tight staging was put to good use, and I have the feeling that this production would have been an ideal candidate for Theatre in the Round. As it was, there were a few blocking issues with positioning of the cast, but considering this was an intimate power play piece, I doubt I could have done any better.

Sound and lighting aren’t my specific area, yet I felt that both were rather good. The lighting helped to reduce the visible stage area to the loft set piece, and was regularly used to help set moods, even being “controlled” by the cast. Sound was used to good effect adding little moody elements, although I personally question the little audio clips when the “actors” were miming movements as they read through Thomas’ script. They added some humour, and yet were very subtle. It was a delicate balance which mostly worked for me, but I have that little voice in my head saying were they necessary? I minor quibble really, and certainly not one that detracted from the show itself.

Everyone will have their own opinion of course, but one thing is certain, when the audience continue clapping until the cast return for an encore bow, then you know the show has been a hit. Personally, the standout element in what was a powerful production, was most definitely Mz McKay. In my opinion, she has nailed the very aspects in what I define as the perfect actor. If you only need one reason to see a show, make it this young lady.

Well done to all involved. The show runs until the 8th of Feb, and tickets can be purchased from Black Swan’s web site. http://www.bsstc.com.au/season-2015/venus-in-fur/

Nailing the Audition does not mean You get the Job

I recently auditioned for a rather lucrative acting job. My agent put me forward for a key role, which was a rather nice stroke to the ego, let me tell you. So off I trot to strut my stuff and try my luck. I crossed paths with a number of actors with whom I have either worked with, or had some interaction with.

There is always a large number of people who are sent/attend these auditions, so even before you walk in the door, you should know that there is a big numbers game working against you, and one which you can’t really do much about. Getting concerned about others in the room who you begin to think may look more the part than you, or getting involved in the mental game of what-do-they-have, will serve well in detracting from your audition.

This is simply the nature of the audition process. It will always be you against a host of others, particularly for paid jobs. Well, mostly always, so you need to throw away any thoughts of competition, rivalry, and judgement. You are there to show the people who make the decision what you can offer the role.

And there rests another complication.

baby-nailed-itI get called in and meet the one behind the camera who will be taking the video, and directing my audition. It is highly unlikely that this person will be the final decision maker. More often they are a contractor working for a secondary client, and while they may have their personal favourites, ultimately it will not be their call who gets the job. The same goes for film and TV work. The person running the auditions is not likely to be the decision maker, but a consultant who can make recommendations.

So you do the audition, and the audition director does not feel the need to direct you, and delivers a number of rather ego boosting like compliments, and you walk out with a feeling of having nailed it. It’s a great feeling, and I don’t deny myself the relish in pulling a great performance.

However, nailing an audition DOES NOT MEAN you get the job. They, the director and clients, will then review your perfect audition and look for things that you can’t even begin to predict; a certain look, delivery, sound of the voice, appearance on film… the range is uncertain, and as the list of candidates gets smaller and smaller, the things considered get more and more specific.

Having sat on the other end of an audition process for both film and theatre, I know very well how picky a director can be, and in fact, has to be.

Here is my point. You nailed the audition. Well done. Celebrate your little victory. Go have a drink or two knowing that the best you gave was indeed your very best. However, do not fool yourself into thinking that you have guaranteed yourself the job. You have maximised your chances, sure, but getting the job will be decision you have no further control over.

Don’t audition for the job. Audition for yourself. Have fun. You never know where it might lead… maybe a call back for another job.