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Backstage Experts

Why the Ability to Play Matters to Your Performance

Why the Ability to Play Matters to Your Performance
Photo Source: Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

As an actor and an artist, you need to give yourself plenty of room to play. You need to allow yourself room to create and discover, often under time constraints and the pressure to deliver your very best on the fly.

Far too many talents make a habit of ramping up into their performances, anticipating a longer runway (and more time) than we are typically provided. Especially in auditions, we’re only given a take or two and if you use both to “ramp up,” that’s all the people who matter are going to see. 

As voice talent, if we’re given the luxury to audition in front of those most likely to hire us, the pressure to deliver can introvert us rather than the other way around. By giving yourself a broader playing field right off the bat you’ll more than likely deliver a far more impactful, desirable performance instead of revving up into the delivery and, ultimately, offering a merely passable take. All of this is why at SOUND ADVICE, I refer to a specific technique I call “stretching the canvas,” which is basically just giving yourself permission and room to go big from the start. 

We create a certain muscle memory the first time we do anything, so giving ourselves the freedom to create and “go too far” from the very start allows room to fully animate even the driest and unimaginative text. We’d rather see you go too far and calibrate you back a bit if necessary than have to come at you with a whip to offer anything of real value.

READ: Watching TV Will Make Your Auditions Better

Unfortunately, far too many people approach their performances trepidatiously rather than leaning in. But provided you’re willing to really take a great leap of faith, you’ll hit a bulls-eye right from the start rather than inch-worming your way up to a performance. If you are a character actor and you drop the over-the-top, “going too far” delivery for your second take and simply deliver the read, all the color, expression, and residual energy will spill over into every take that follows. You’ve now set a precedence of play and have a much broader playing field to create in as a comfort zone!

The goal is to continually surprise ourselves with each and every take. Every true professional embraces this precept, which is in part what makes us valuable artists: The ability to honestly explore and continually create right from the start.

In fact, Ben Kingsley was once asked whether he would have handled any part of his role as Ghandi differently, to which he replied, “I don’t think so. I think I might have been more economic. I think I would have done less. That comes with practice. It was my first real feature film. And having been blessed with a decent career since then, I’ve been able to hopefully minimize what I do between action and cut. So that what I do is precise and precisely services the scene. And I try to add fewer and fewer ‘fancy bits.’ So that take two, I do less than take one. Take three I do less than take two. Hopefully, so that by take nine I’m almost Zen-still, hoping that something will still come through.”

Of course, it’s not hard to peg what sort of actor Sir Ben is. He’s a “character-lead,” but, without hesitation, he is a character actor of the highest order.

You have to allow yourself to discover what too far is before minimizing your efforts in your performance. You can’t edit yourself prior to creating anything. You have to allow yourself the freedom of finding how far is too far. Stretching the canvas may not be immediately intuitive, but it achieves an immediate result. You need to expose yourself to it repeatedly in order to allow yourself room to create and become more agile in your performance.

So get in there and slap some paint around, Jackson Pollack. Don’t be afraid to make a mess. Embrace what can be learned from all that play but be willing to go too far from the very first take. It’s a remarkably good habit to get into. You’re paid to play! 

Kate McClanaghan is a casting director, producer, founder of Big House Casting & Audio and Actors’ Sound Advice, and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out McClanaghan’s full bio

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The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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