Puppethands

Have you seen presenters and performers with these?   It’s not their fault.  They tried hard, and studied what coaches most often say about gesture.

They learned they absolutely MUST use hand and arm gestures. They learned they should stay inside the shoulder-to-waist box. They made sure they didn’t point. They made notes in their text about where to gesture. They learned their palms should be face up. They avoided mime, too much repetition, pumping, pocketing, crossing, hip-holding, behind-the-backing, and a ton of other no-no’s.  They learned plenty.

And yet they still look like a clock-work Lincoln in the Hall of Presidents.

They have Puppethands.

puppethands

Like the marionettes from Thunderbirds Are Go, like C3PO, like Barbie. Puppethands attract attention because they fail to move in natural coordination with head/neck movement, their articulation is stiff, and their dynamics don’t really make perfect sense with the timing and emotion of the voice.

Anyone can get them.  Not just puppets.

So do these unlucky performers need to learn even more precise rules?  Should they practice more to make it look realistic?

Nerp.  “Looking realistic” just aint enough.  The human brain currently assesses movement with a higher level of sophistication than we can describe it.  So no matter how many rules you follow, movement tells the truth.

Check out these clips of video games and androids. These are so freakin’ cool. And the stillshots look amazing, right?   It’s the movement that tells us that what we’re looking at is a fake. Lifelike, yes. But we can do better than “lifelike”.

Beyond the movement issue, we recognize fakey gestures because outside-in coaching just doesn’t work as well as inside out.

That means stop trying to “seem” more this, or “look” more that, or “come across as” something.  It’s pointless.

But I seem nervous!

–    Because you are.

But I don’t want to seem nervous!

–    Why not?

… and here’s the fork in the road.  Either the answer is “because it will make me look stupid,” or the answer is “because this message needs to get to this audience.”

Which road do you want to travel down?

The coaching that goes down the Not Looking Stupid road focuses on externals about the speaker. And since they don’t really work, the road eventually dead ends.

The road called Audience Gets Message is more a verb than a noun. It’s movement, and it requires us to focus more on the message and the audience than on ourselves. The Audience Gets Message road leads forward to the goal and well beyond it in all directions.  It allows for innovation, rule-breaking, weirdness, and non-standard but effective new kinds of communication.

But if I look stupid, they won’t hear my message!

–  Are you sure about that?

Usually, when we are outside-in oriented, we don’t actually pay attention to the audience, not really.  So, ask who IS this audience, and what do they think is stupid?   Tell me about their specific context, their needs, challenges, strengths, and expectations.

But how do you fix puppethands?

Start by not treating yourself like a marionette with a superego hanging out above your body.  Instead, get right down inside your body.  And now take a look at this audience, right now.

AAAAAAGH.

I know, it’s MUCH more frightening.

More on that in posts to come.

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Master of Auditions

[This is one of several posts about the Theatre Puget Sound unified general auditions, which presented ~400 actors to ~40 auditors, agents, and directors over 4 solid-packed days.]

Last week was the first time I’d sat through the TPS Unified General Auditions.

On Day1, I sat up close.   I couldn’t see the 40 or so other auditors behind me, but I could hear them.  When an actor would finish, sometimes there was a chorus of appreciative “Thank You!” or maybe just a few thank you’s, or sometimes, very little response at all.

Except one voice, which said the same warm, professional “Thank You” after every performer, without fail.

To the brilliant guy who just moved from Chicago, the voice said “Thank You.”

To the novice in the tiny dress and too-tall shoes, the voice said “Thank You.”

To the guy who was two beats ahead of the pianist, the voice said “Thank You.”

To the many people doing terrible Southern accents, and the people who lost their lines, or tried to walk out the wrong door, or became hypnotized staring into the spotlight, the voice waited patiently, and then said “Thank you.”

I didn’t know whose voice it was, but I deeply appreciated its capacity.  The Universal Thank You symbolizes my core feeling for all artists:  underneath all the variations in style, skill, look or experience, there is still an inherent honor in auditioning.

Even the worst audition is an offering to some obscure sort of god, so we show some respect.

 

On Day2, I changed seats, hoping for a better view of the performers’ eye focus.  Soon I realized my new seat had landed me next to the mystery “Thank You” voice.  She seemed a friendly, open and very normal person.

But over the next few days, I decided she’s not normal, she’s a Zen master.

She’s the long-time casting director for one of the most important theaters in the region, having held her position through 6 different Artistic Directors.  I felt stupid for not knowing who she was.  She knew who I was, though, from work I’d done — get this — 17+ years ago:  “I recognized that jawline,” she said.  Good lord, that’s a brain for remembering people.

I asked about which of the 6 Artistic Directors she enjoyed most.  I knew full well that some of them had rough reputations.   She was gracious about all of them.

Wait, to be in theater and not be tempted to gossip?

A fellow behind us complained about this or that auditioner, in the casually feline way some theater folks do; she neither agreed nor rewarded the commentary with attention.

The fellow in front of us slyly mocked what he saw as low-stakes delivery from the actors; she smiled at him, but added nothing.

One session block was particularly difficult, with very few skilled performers and very little interesting material.  My eyes were drooping, but hers never did.  I asked her if this was normal, this quality-lull.  She said “In every set of generals, there are days where you just see more people who haven’t yet developed their technique.”

…Haven’t yet developed their technique.

Holy shit, how light a touch is that?  How many times have I used a hammer like “that guy can’t act his way out of a paper bag”  or “she stank up the place” or just rolled my eyes and quipped “Oh, honey, no”.    Maybe not recently, because I’ve mellowed over the years, and never in FRONT of the performers,  but third person/different room?

Sure, I’ve said that stuff, I’ve done that.

She doesn’t do that.  She’s a pro.

She’s not trying to prove something, or win something, or demonstrate social dominance.  Instead, she’s doing her job, as effectively and pleasantly as possible, integrating what I think are crucial elements of professionalism and mastery for so many fields:

A head for remembering people
A discipline of attentiveness
Discretion about colleagues
The flexibility to work for different people successfully
And most importantly to me:
                              A habit of respect for the people taking the risks.

So, to the Zen master casting director I got to sit next to:

Thank You.