Theatrical Technique

Good acting is good acting, whatever the medium. In a scene-study class, you cogitate on the moment before, what happens after, and, above all, your objective. Rarely do we discuss these techniques for commercials. Why not? When you consider that a commercial is generally a 30-second production that must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and, most important, make an impact on the viewer, shouldn't the same acting rules apply? This translates to thinking 1) What was I doing just before the TV audience sees me brushing my teeth? 2) What do I plan to do right after I've brushed my teeth? and 3) What is it I'm hoping for as I choose Crest toothpaste to brush my teeth?

Actor James Loren Newman ("Evan Almighty," "Flags of Our Fathers," "Legally Blonde 2," and commercials for Smucker's jam, Carnival Cruise Lines, and Jaguar) is also one of the best acting coaches I've ever worked with. Newman advises, "Before you can act any scene well, you must be able to visualize what is going on around that scene. Just like in life, nothing happens in a vacuum. Where were you just before you entered this scene/place/dialogue/monologue? What do you need? Does that change during the course of the scene? Are you on your way to catch a train, walk your dog, buy a car, wash your clothes, take an aspirin? These principles apply as much to commercial acting as to film, television, or theater—perhaps even more so. You only have a few seconds to tell the whole story. If you can clearly picture your surroundings, then your brain does most of the work for you. And just like in the theater, when you peel away the layers and feel that blush of genius, remember that all producers expect nothing less."

So what are we to ponder as we enter? Smells, temperature, other people, environment, in a hurry, stuffed up, hungry—there are so many details to consider before you ever set foot inside the commercial audition studio, much less before the session director says "Action."

Now let's move into what happens after you leave the scene. In two of James' commercials he contemplated, "I'm driving the Jaguar in the snow. After the commercial ends, I make it to my destination safely thanks to my ultimate driving machine. Or I receive a gift of Smucker's jam. The logical 'after' moment is going inside to make toast."

Why is considering the moment after important? It can help you with an exit or a button. A TV commercial ends when you see the beautiful product shot and you hear the disembodied announcer voice say, "Must be 18 to participate. Member FDIC." But you don't have any of that in your commercial audition. So it often serves your audition to add a button to punctuate the ending. If you're playing a doctor talking to a patient, you might finish the scene with a flat "Be well." Or if you've just given an employee an extra workload, you might button the audition with "Weekends? Ha!" as you exit. Buttons can give closure and maybe wrest a smile from the director in the process.

What about the objective? In drama that's what you want to accomplish during the scene. In a commercial it's to feed your kids Jif. If you don't yet enjoy the product, your goal is to find out if it's really peanuttier. Your objective might change in midscene. You go into the Toyotathon wanting the Camry, but you happily leave buying the Prius. In this case, the moment before is parking your old, no-good car, and the moment after is you in the Prius passing by gas station after gas station.

So bring a little theater training to your commercial work. The results may surprise you.