Acting Technique, and its many benefits, takes center stage in the Drama Department at Middleburg Academy (MA). Isabella Lash is in her first year at MA and brings with her a passion for theatre and acting. As a theatre educator, Lash strives not only to put on quality student productions, but to deeply involve her students in that process for their own growth, both academic and personal. She believes that Theatre Education goes far beyond the stage and benefits students both in their personal and professional lives. Acting technique, she emphasizes, aids students in their communication abilities, self-awareness, empathy, and listening skills. Furthermore, Theatre helps students develop the confidence that is vital to speaking clearly, coherently, and thoughtfully, and builds their confidence speaking in front of large audiences. Moreover, theatre can educate students about how people communicate both verbally and non-verbally, and about patterns of human emotion.
“The best way for students to learn these invaluable skills,” Lash explains, “is to experience not just the end, but the multifaceted process of Theatre. This goes beyond learning just the specific lines and movements for a specific character in a specific show. It’s about understanding—through trial and error, and through coaching—what makes a compelling acting performance. Experiencing each stage in this craft benefits students in ways that last far beyond the final bow.”
MA’s most recent production included an assortment of One-Act plays and Shakespearean monologues. Students began rehearsing weekly in mid-January and put on a weekend of performances in early March. The students received their scripts a month before rehearsals began. Lash asked students to read through their scripts, become highly familiar with the storyline and characters, to learn definitions of any unfamiliar words or terminology, and to research any references they may not be acquainted with.
In her drama classes, Lash leads interactive sessions with students on Acting Objectives, Tactics, Beats, Voice and Movement technique, and Improvisation skills. Students regularly receive coaching on monologues and scene work, and learn to analyze acting technique from watching excerpts of film and theatre performances.
In January 2020, students in the March production began the rehearsal process with Blocking—the technical part of where on stage an actor enters, exits, moves, stands, sits, etc. In the first round of Blocking, Lash encouraged the actors to experiment as they delivered their lines to discover movements and transitions that felt natural to them. “If an actor feels uncomfortable with their movement onstage,” Lash explains, “if can affect their entire performance. It’s important to avoid Blocking that looks or feels forced, contrived, or unnatural. A crucial part of telling a story that pulls an audience in is to convince the audience that they’re watching something real. This applies to all aspects of physicalizing a story, and begins with the Blocking.” Lash deliberately gave her students the opportunity to explore their own movement to help them understand the importance of Blocking that is purposeful, natural, and convincing.
Once the actors had made their own Blocking choices, round two involved Lash giving input and direction. Her purpose was to engage the students in a two-way conversation about how good Blocking choices are discovered and made. By the end of this process, the actors had not only learned their specific Blocking for each scene, but a great deal about the art of movement onstage.
The next phase of rehearsals emphasized memorization. Becoming off-book (lines memorized) is a critical step to take early on in the rehearsal process. “It’s very difficult,” Lash explains, “for the show to move forward with things like pacing, chemistry, emotional connection, listening, and reacting when actors are still holding scripts in their hands.” Lash requires her students to memorize their blocking, objectives, and tactics along with their lines.
Three students performed monologues from a Shakespeare play in MA’s recent production. As would be expected, memorizing Shakespeare poses both unique challenges and benefits. Unlike in modern scripts, the process requires an extra step prior to memorization: translation. Students have the hefty task of researching unfamiliar words, terminology, and references. This step is critical in achieving a performance that compels the audience and communicates the meaning of the text. “If a student doesn’t understand what they’re saying, then the audience won’t understand it either. In order to know how to deliver the lines, there has to be a full understanding of their meaning, the social context, and connotations.” This research is a highly valuable experience for students, teaching them about the history of language, the art of playwriting, and even the origins of theatre. “Plus,” Lash notes playfully, “it increases their vocabulary and makes them feel smart being able to use fancy words like ‘inauspicious,’ ‘malignancy,’ and ‘nimble-footed.’ Why say, ‘time slips on by’ when you can say, ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day.’ (Macbeth V.V)”
Another critical aspect of a captivating performance is Pacing. In order to maintain the attention of the audience and to propel the story forward, the actors must “pick up their cues” by avoiding unnatural pauses between lines. Both One-Acts, Trifles by Susan Glaspell and Take Five by Westley Pederson, include scenes where short lines (sometimes even a single word) are delivered by multiple actors one after another. Lash begins this process by explaining the importance of Pacing to her students. The students then engaged in Pacing exercises, learning to development a good sense of conversational rhythm and timing. When a production begins to take life onstage, students generally require frequent reminders from the director to shorten the pauses between each other’s lines. This can take a great deal of repetition and time for them to achieve, but once mastered, generates a fluid, engaging conversation.
“On the whole, Theatre Education is about benefitting students. Studying human nature can teach you a lot about yourself. Studying how people communicate can transform your own communication skills and your self-confidence. I’m proud of how my students at MA have worked both to put on a successful theatre performance, and also to experience and understand each step of this magical process.”