Peter Quince stood in front of the crowd and began to introduce the play:
“The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe.”
I’ve been in several productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’ve played both Pyramus and Thisbe, the title characters in the play within the play. I’ve also played Oberon, Theseus, and Demetrius. So I’ve watched the rude mechanicals put on this performance from the house, as well.
It can be riotously funny, and when done right, is crammed full of tried and true bits of stage business, handed down through generations of actors. I pretty much know all the lines by heart.
On this particular night, though, I have to strain to hear those lines, filling in the inaudible parts from memory. Peter Quince, you see, is standing outside the New York Public Library, at one end of Bryant Park, and I am standing at the other.
Lights and cables and a crew of a different sort surround me. Tonight, I am not king of the woodland sprites, nor a wandering knight. Just a lowly extra, working background on some tv show I’ve never seen and probably never will.
It’s easy to feel as if I’m not really an actor while working as a moveable prop on a tv set, and sure, it’s not Shakespeare, but even standing in the shot behind the series regulars, who earn more in a week than I do in a year, requires a few basic skills that most of us take for granted. Until we are pretending to have a conversation with an extra who has never had any training, nor experience, onstage.
This charming older lady I’m paired with, for example. She has had a career in another field, and has not been in America for very long. She’s never considered acting before, but is wondering if perhaps it’s something she might like to do. There are many reasons people take work as extras.
As we pantomime speaking, I notice she is mouthing nonsensical words. Her mouth is moving as if she’s speaking, but she’s not forming any actual words. Nor is she allowing appropriate pauses in between sentences. There is no ping pong match going on. You speak. I speak. You reply.
That’s the rhythm of most conversations. It’s not the only rhythm, of course. One person could be speaking at great length, while the other person is listening intently. That often works well on screen. Especially if the person doing the listening is facing the camera.
Whatever ping pong match you fall into, what matters is that you are communicating actual thoughts. The subject is irrelevant. You may feel more comfortable sticking to something you might actually be saying in the scene, but really, any topic will work. As long as it flows like a real conversation, and the words you are forming with your mouth are real words.
This is something I learned in theatre, early on. One of my directors was partially deaf, and he told us that there will be people in the audience who are hard of hearing, and they may be able to read lips. If they happen to look over at you during a moment when you’ve been directed to improvise some general crowd reactions, and you are mouthing gibberish, they will know.
Back on set, the lady is nodding her head, almost constantly. A common mistake. Look in the corners of the frame the next time you watch a scene in which the main characters are seated in a restaurant. Chances are, you will see people nodding their heads. Not that people never nod their heads while having a conversation in real life, but it just looks silly on screen if everyone is nodding their heads. It’s the obvious choice we are told to avoid in beginning acting classes.
On another set, on another day, I was paired with a tall guy. We were standing at a bar. My back was to the camera (by far, the easier position.) Every time the cameras rolled, and we pretended to be talking, he would clink glasses with me. Then he would point at things. Both common mistakes.
“Cheers! Oh, look at that thing over there!”
Just like with nodding, it’s not as if people never clink glasses, nor point at things. Onscreen, however, it is comical to have a bar full of people toasting and pointing. Plus, there is the sound of glass clinking against glass, which the mics will certainly pick up.
Then there is the art of walking.
“Do you mind if we walk a little slower next time?”
This was a request from that charming older lady from another country. We had done several takes in which the director had us walking arm in arm past a water fountain. It had not occurred to me that this lady was struggling to keep up.
She confessed that her shoes were uncomfortable, and as we had been on our feet for almost twelve hours, she was in pain! In between takes, she was looking for a place to sit down, but since I made no move toward the chairs a dozen or so yards away, she followed my lead and kept standing.
Good lord! I felt like a sexist jerk, completely inattentive to the lady whose arm was around mine. I apologized, and immediately escorted her over to the chairs. Then chose a different reason for our stroll by the fountain.
That’s the key to walking. Something few people think about, until they are on camera, and are told to “Just walk.” It’s a surprisingly difficult thing to do, for people who have had no theatrical training. What they end up doing looks nothing even close to natural. Often, the word “Cut!” will be followed by a PA pulling a background actor aside and coaching them on how to walk believably.
The trick is to have a reason for walking. Are you late for work? Shopping at the mall? Lost? Each of those things will have an effect on how you walk. The pace, the length of your stride, even where you are looking. Suppose the reason we chose is that we were simply out for a pleasant walk?
When the shot continued, I made sure we were strolling casually, with frequent stops every few steps. Perhaps our conversation was so enthralling that we paused for several beats before continuing. Perhaps she wanted to throw a coin in the fountain. We were trying to walk as little as possible, for the sake of her sore feet, but anyone who happened to notice us would think we looked perfectly natural.
A female Puck was now onstage. Way over across the park. I could see her, but couldn’t quite catch her monologue. No need, I knew every word. Puck is the one role I’ve auditioned for more than any other, yet have never played.
They were setting up the next shot, which would take some time, so I lingered at the very edge of the set. Projecting myself across that wide lawn.
“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.”
No actor who has done Midsummer can hear that speech, or even pretend to hear that speech from too far away, and not long to be one of those shadows on that stage.
“Background, go to your first positions.”
Ah, well. In the meantime, I’m a shadow of another sort.