PLAYS & MUSICALS: Performance / Direction
Note that these categories cover both plays and musicals.
Note that this section now covers 2 awards in each of plays and musicals:
- Lead Performance in a Play or Musical
- Supporting Performance in a Play or Musical
Though no longer split by gender, it is likely there will be a balance of male / female nominees, finalists and winners.
The acting categories in any awards ceremony are likely to be the most contentious. Every year at the Oscars, people are lauding one performance whilst invalidating the other and vice versa. A lot of it comes down to taste and personal resonance with individual performances.
As an assessor it is your responsibility to try to be as objective as possible in your analysis of a performance. Naturally you can only draw on what you know but there are ways and means of working out whether this is a truly exceptional performance. And that is the key phrase. We are only looking for exceptional: not good, not great, but exceptional.
The Writing / Directing / Acting Conundrum
A common mistake made when assessing a show is confusing good writing or good directing with good acting. It’s an easy mistake to make as all three things can appear like the same thing; indeed good writing can sometimes mask bad acting, and good directing forgive bad writing. The trick is to dismantle what you’re watching and really examine whether the writer, director or acting or any combination of the three is responsible for the productions effect.
So, what is ‘good acting’? Quite simply, you shouldn’t believe they are acting – as some well known film actor once said ‘Acting is not acting’. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the actor is playing themselves or if they have transformed so completely that you believe them to be the person they are playing. Let’s break this down a bit more.
- ….avoids playing the state
One of the easiest ways to identify bad acting is if the performer consistently plays the emotional or physical state. By this we mean that the actor has made an assumption about what that state is (sorrow, anger, love) and is saying all their lines in that unit of action with a general wash of emotion. They may well seem angry, tears may fall, but they are simply emoting. Good acting is demonstrated by fighting or inverting the emotional state and chasing the objective.
- ….suits the action to the word
Shakespeare’s knew what he was talking about when he made Hamlet say “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from the purpose of playing”. A good actor will have mined the text within an inch of its life and will be playing a rich array of actions to overcome their obstacles in order to achieve his/her objective. You’ve probably all seen productions where the actor says something and their opposite number replies:
“Why are you pissed off at me?”
A bad actor will have taken this for granted and will then be pissed off AFTER or ON the line. A good actor will have discovered why their character is pissed off and played actions that allow that to transmit to the audience.
- ….is committed to what is at stake
Is the actor committing to what’s at stake in the scene?
The play is for the audience, not for the actor. Sometimes it’s useful to ask ‘Am I feeling it or are they’. Whether or not they do is unimportant. It is you who should be moved, angered or whatever by the play, not the actor. They must remain true to their character’s journey.
Things to look out for:
- Mining the Text
- Vocal Prowess
- Versatility and dexterity of emotion.
- Owning the direction vs Visible direction
- Imagery/world/imbuing objects with value
- Accents (they’re not the most impressive thing on stage)
- Technical vs truthful
- Physicality – how grounded they are
- Energy shifts
- Playing intention not comedy
- Character journey
Finally a note about the actors place within the piece as a whole. The actor’s presentation is one element of the performance as a whole. For the interpretation (by the audience and the assessor) to have coherency there needs to be a link between the actor and all the other staging elements external to the actor. They need to have seen past their own performance, respecting their character’s place within the play and giving a delivery that achieves the objectives and the central themes of the performance as a whole.
IN A MUSICAL
First, read the information above. That is where to begin. Musicals are plays with songs and dances, so treat the MT actor in the same way. Once you have read that, come back and read on…
The phrase triple threat becomes important here. Now the character doesn’t necessarily have to be all singing all dancing – in fact the show may omit dancing entirely, or have simple, mid range songs for the character. The actor must be exceptional in all skills their role requires. The actor doesn’t have to show high quality in all three disciplines, but any movement or vocal skill must be appropriate for their character. The act of breaking into song or dance in a musical is an extension of feeling, that the words are simply not enough. Therefore it should simply be an extension of the character themselves. The most important element with the MT performer is connection to text and character and the choices made through dancing and singing to reflect that.
The MT actor must be technically brilliant, so much so that their technique is entirely hidden. There is nothing worse than sitting in an auditorium praying the soprano hits the note ‘this time’; the audience must feel confident in the actor’s ability to consistently to do what they are doing.
On top of being a triple threat, for the PERFORMANCE IN A MUSICAL categories we are also looking for that extra ‘something’; the thing you can’t quite put your finger on that means you can’t take your eye off the actor on stage. Call it what you will, the x-factor, star quality – the actor must have it (whatever ‘it’ is).
A note on ‘other’ skills: It has become quite common for musicals on the fringe to double up by casting actor musos instead of musicians. Although playing an instrument well requires skills and technique, and while this is an excellent skill to have, it cannot be instead of a well trained voice or dancer.
It can be difficult to define ‘SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE’ – there are grey areas. It is often it is assumed to mean any actor who is not the lead. However, many plays often have more than one ‘lead’ or major character (e.g. a virtual two-hander like Godot or Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead; Othello has the title role, Iago and Desdemona who would be ‘up for’ PERFORMANCE; ‘ensemble’ plays like Chekhov’s, Ayckbourn’s, etc, present special difficulties here!). If the role is both lengthy and of prime importance to the play’s plot/themes, the actor may be nominated for PERFORMANCE rather than SUPPORTING PERFORMANCE.
It may be helpful to suggest that a ‘supporting’ character is that this actor supports the main story in their performance. They are an important cog in the machine, but a cog nonetheless.
SUPPORTING IN A MUSICAL
First, read all the information above. The only element to add on when it comes to a ‘supporting’ character is that this actor supports the main story in their performance. They are an important cog in the machine, but a cog none the less.
What to look for
- the cast play multiple parts;
- there is usually no lead character / the cast members have equal status; although sometimes there may be a unifying or co-ordinating narrator;
- there are significant elements of unison, or highly co-ordinated performance.
In addition, cast members may contribute in other ways, such as making music, pictures or text, constructing the set or engaging in distinctive physical movement;
No show with less than three cast members should be nominated for Performance Ensemble.
Note that this category covers both plays and musicals.
Direction can sometimes be difficult to grasp. There’s still a lingering myth that a director places actors in the space and gives them line-readings. While there are directors who work like that, it can be said that if they see their jobs in those terms, you will get a very disjointed production. It would be like a picture without a frame, to use a well-trodden phrase. A well-directed show will have a clearly established frame within which the play can develop. A director will have a vision of the whole. If they don’t, you will see inconsistencies between and within the elements of the show.
If, say, costume and set seem to tell a different story, you would start to doubt that there’s a coherent vision. A tell-tale sign that this is the case is when it looks as if the actors are all in different plays. Sometimes the individual performances are tonally and stylistically so different that you know that the director wasn’t able to establish a clear frame within which the actors could move. If the performances are so at odds with each other, you can assume that the actors were left to their own devices. Sometimes you will see actors working really hard at giving a performance and imbuing life into their character, but they’re doing so on their own.
This, however, is a definition of bad directing. The absence of the above does not automatically make for outstanding directing. It just means competent directing. Certain things should be a given. For instance, being able to hear and see the actors (the placing of actors in the space mentioned above) is, on its own, not a reason for praise: it should be a given. Identifying what makes directing not merely competent or even good, but excellent, is more difficult to grasp, but certain things can be singled out. On a general level, it’s important to see whether the consistent overall vision you will have identified is appropriate for the text, whether it’s illuminating, possibly even original. This doesn’t mean that flashy directing is automatically exciting directing.
There are some directors who use effects very liberally. A show might have a lot of “fireworks”, but once you step back and ask yourself what they were in service of, you realise it was hollow. That’s bad direction. On the other hand, the show might, yes, have a thrilling look and feel about it, but it helps illuminate the text or certain aspects of the text – so do look at not only how creative a director is, but how they use that creativity and what for. You might also get a seemingly very minimalistically staged show. That could be lack of creativity or laziness (in which case, the minimalism will seem to lack focus and consistency anyway), but there might also be very real reasons behind it. If the director is directing by “subtracting” rather than “adding”, maybe it’s because they’re very clearly “directing” the focus on a particular element.
With revivals of famous plays, these things are possibly easier to tease out, because the director will – hopefully – have made clear choices as to what they want to foreground. If a show manages to make you look at a play you’ve seen many times in a completely new way, and one that is coherent within itself and consistent with the text (with Shakespeare, you might for instance, if you know the text well, look at what was cut/reordered etc. and ask yourself why. If the only reason you can find is that they needed to get it down to less than two hours, then you know it wasn’t well thought out), then really you might have witnessed something quite exciting.
If, say, you’re seeing a play that is now universally considered to be an old chestnut and you can’t imagine why anyone would want to revive it, but suddenly it feels fresh and exciting, that is a feat of imaginative directing.
One last word about style: it’s the hardest one to define. However, just as many would find John Gielgud doing Shakespeare in the 30s – if you’ve listened to the recordings, you’ll know – wildly inappropriate for today’s stage, if you see a show and you feel that this show wouldn’t look any different if this were 1955, you know that you’re not watching a director who has a clear signature (which doesn’t mean that they direct every show the same way at all).
You might hear that they’re being true to the original intention of the playwright (as if they knew – plus, the director’s job is to pull out certain things that the playwright maybe only subconsciously or instinctively have made part of their text) or faithful to the text. If you hear those phrases, you may wish to adopt a certain dose of scepticism. While no-one would suggest that doing violence to a text to fit a vision is a sign of good directing, not digging for things and being content to have been faithful to the (RECEIVED) reading of the text could be argued to be a dereliction of duty.
There is a good quote by Olivier and Tony-award-winning playwright Simon Stephens about what a good director can do:
“[In its original production] the play was perceived as being felt and tender, naturalistic and detailed and rather slow. This was at the base of my assumptions about what to expect. What I saw [in another production] was entirely different. [The director’s] production was ferocious and fast, sexy and angry. He’d re-centred two peripheral characters to the heart of the play. […] I loved it. I had never realised that there was a life, latent within my plays that I’d not prescribed. […] [He] read my play with clarity and intelligence and entirely re-imagined the thing.”