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A bird in your hand

It is only technique that enables an actor to heighten and project his performance

A bird in your hand

My nightmares in my more active acting career were always centred round being on stage and having a blackout. I am standing in the wings waiting for my cue and suddenly I can’t remember what my cue is. I am desperately anxious to look at the script but no one has a script, not even the prompter. There were other versions: I have played Act I and Act II and while waiting in my dressing room to go on in Act III I realise that I have no idea what the third Act is about or what my lines are. There isn’t a soul around who can help me. Cold sweat. I hear the stage manager’s voice on the Tannoy “Beginners please” and the terror explodes, and I wake up.

It wasn’t long before I learned that I wasn’t alone in having this experience and that my nightmare was a part of the actor’s syndrome. The fact that I have shared my nightmare with some of the most illustrious actors of the 20th century is no mean consolation.

* * * * *

I am fortunate to have been a drama student in London at a time when two of my teachers — Dame Ellis Fermor and Clifford Tarner — were idealistic individuals who made sure that apart from learning the rudiments of voice production, speech and movement, our intellectual horizons were broadened as well. They laid great emphasis on originality and the actors’ imaginative powers, but not at the expense of his technical prowess.

Technique is a word that has fallen on disrepute in recent years. It is said that actors who bank on technique lack spontaneity. The fact is that it is only technique that enables an actor to heighten and project his performance. It is normal for an actor to learn the technique by the time he finished his training, but he must also learn to hide it to wear it under his belt so to speak. Having learnt that, he is now ready to tackle the part he is meant to play.

If you act in films you are allowed the freedom to stop and start again. You only have to act in short bursts. You can keep going back over the same few lines until you get them right. Once the curtain goes up in the theatre nobody can say ‘cut’. Technique is simply a necessary skill, a knowledge of your craft. An actor without it is like a car with its engine out of order or a sitar with a broken string. The actor’s only instrument is himself, his body and his voice, and both must be tuned before inspiration can successfully take over.

We had movement classes to exercise every part of the body to correct individual faults such as knock knees, cramped arm movements etc. There were voice and speech delivery classes, for actors’ voice must be supple, capable of great range and always, always audible. Knowing how to breathe properly is essential to the actor, otherwise he would not be able to go to the end of a sentence by Bernard Shaw or Shakespeare or Agha Hashr, without gasping for breath in the middle.

It was a part of our curriculum to investigate the historical background of each author, to study the manner of dress and movement of each different period and to appreciate the different style of each written text. We were expected to attend art galleries to study paintings to go to parks and big railway stations, to observe people. We were also made to attend lectures on the political movements and how they affected the dramatists of their time. But for these classes and the discussions about the different styles of texts we read, it would not have occurred to me that it is impossible to play Chekhov’s characters properly without the understanding of the social upheavals in Russia at the time of their creation.

Apart from these more traditional classes there were the Stanislavsky-influenced animal improvisations. We were asked to choose an animal, go to the zoo and study it, and then work to perfect the physical aspects of the animal, slinking around on all fours as a monkey or a tiger, slithering about the floor as a snake, or hopping around as a chicken. After a month we had to perform it on stage for other students. If we were successful they would be able to identify the animal by its eating habits and the way it moved, whether it was timid or frightened or an aggressive hunting animal.

This is not as silly as it sounds, for an actor needs to apply the same intense study of movement, habits and peculiarities of the creation of human character. That doesn’t mean to say that a man who can be an extremely good chicken will necessarily be a good actor (in fact a potentially good actor can be a very bad chicken) but it will have taught him that though he may have believed potentially that he was a chicken, he was not able to express it physically to his audience. His body was not yet trained or capable of carrying out the tasks imposed upon it by his imaginative powers.

We also had classes in mime and masks. We were encouraged to dip into a great pile of clothes, funny noses, half masks, wigs and hats, and became whatever we wished. Wearing a mask, or half-mask, tended to bring out a more primitive movement or energy; you became bigger than life-size with more ferocious appetites and fears. It taught us something important about playing comedy and farce: that the actual emotion must be completely genuine and the character’s predicament taken very seriously, not played as though the actor thinks that what he is doing is funny.

Much to my dismay, the actors in our part of the world play a farcical comedy in a farcical manner. They exaggerate their characteristic movements into mannerisms which they think will get them bigger laughs. They do not realise that in doing so they are destroying empathy that is to say, the ability of the audience to laugh with them — and that a judicious audience begins to laugh at them. They forget that the size and frequency of a laugh is infinitely variable and is never the sole factor by which one can judge a performance.

The best acting comes from a point of balance between technique and inspiration. The great French director and drama teacher, Michel Saint-Denis, described this balance to be like a bird in the hands of an actor. “If you clench it,” he said, “you will kill it. If you loosen your hand too much, it will fly away.”

Zia Mohyeddin

The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)

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