For everything there is a season, and in observing the Broadway musical over the last seventy years, almost every aspect has turned after a season—the strength of the book, the integration of music, the styles of musical storytelling, the technology of set changes, the use of amplification, and so on. With the latter change, a new style of stage acting was ushered in. Without the need to fill a huge theatre with the voice alone, actors have been able to adopt a more subtle style of acting, one that still fits the medium of stage acting but also takes into account the tastes of modern audiences who daily enjoy the subtlety of film and television acting.
We have so many fine actors today—just take a gaze at my 50 Amazing Broadway Performers in 50 Weekdays list for proof. However, on both Broadway and regional stages, there are yet some acting “techniques” that, like shag carpet and lead paint, need to say good-bye once and for all.
1. overly caricatured acting— I once had a former student who majored in theatre in college (why, I’ll never know; she only once participated in high school shows), but she dropped out because she said “the acting was so fakey.”
The stage will always be an acting medium that requires a larger-then-life performance because, as Carol Channing has said, you can’t perform in a 1000+ seat theatre and be normal. However, technology has allowed a change in acting style from the Golden Era which still has some remnants in professional theatre.
A performance can be stage-fitting without being “fakey.” The stage doesn’t allow for actions/mugging in place of genuine emotional expression. I’m specifically referencing grand expressions that communicate the subtext of “I’m acting on a stage!!!!” instead of “I’m devastated” or “How exciting.” This isn’t just a thought aimed at high school directors; this overly caricatured style still finds its way onto professional stages.
Yes, you need a certain amount of caricature for most types of humor (on stage or off), but there’s caricature still in touch with reality and that which is completely disconnected. The completely disconnected must be, well, completely disconnected for good.
2. Adults playing children—Unless it is a play that, like LaChiusa’s The Wild Party, would expose a child to adult behavior that they shouldn’t be exposed to, the expense in employing a child to play a significant child character pays off.
If the character is a small part and requires limited character development (such as Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, played so tenderly by Jayne Patterson), it can be done well. If the character is an intended caricature, such as those wonderful kids in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (which are surprisingly accurate caricatures), then it works. However, if there is complexity or it is a large part, it just doesn’t work. Now matter how talented the actresses playing young Amy were in the recent Broadway/tour of Little Women, a certain humanity was lost in the play. It was as if humans were playing the other sisters while Amy was a cartoon.
When adults take on complex kid roles, the typical result is that overly caricatured acting style which sucks the verisimilitude from the show. A realistic child character ends up with the same treatment as a broad comic character, a caricature of a child. This is not the fault of the actor. It’s simply that most adults cannot effectively portray children in complex or nuanced roles.
3. Squeaky-voiced chorines—Unless the show is a period piece that requires a show-within-a-show effect or the show is a parody of historical shows, the squeaky-voiced chorine is otherwise past its prime. Again, it is the overly caricatured effect that neither creates a realistic character nor brings additional life to the stage. It is an out-moded style of acting that doesn’t work with contemporary audiences.
4. Energy in place of character development—A still common occurrence, this is when actors present their character with energy rather than with emotion, when speed and perkiness triumph over truthful emotional expression. It’s when the audience understands the emotion rather than feeling it inside as a result of the performance. For women, this is often coupled with a raise in the pitch of their voice.
The stage requires energy—without it there is no stage presence—but a great, energetic performance doesn’t have to lack character development. There are so many excellent musical comedy performers who have mastered this concept—Faith Prince, Nathan Lane, Hunter Foster, Sutton Foster, Roger Bart, Susan Egan, and Cady Huffman, to name a few. For the ultimate example, see Kristin Chenoweth in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown or Wicked. She naturally speaks in a higher pitch but still communicates true emotions.
the Broadway Mouth
November 3, 2007