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Practical Hints

Training for the Stage

Uniform with this Volume

Practical Stage Directing for


A Handbook for Amateur.Managers
and Actors


Emerson Taylor

E. P. Dutton & Company

Practical Hints on Training
for the Stage

v Agnes Platt

Author of "Practical Hints on Playwritlng," etc.

New York

E. P. Button & Company
681 Fifth Avenue


Ail Rights Reserved

Printed in the United States of America


THIS little book is merely an attempt to set
down certain points of view which I have
found helpful myself when coaching my stage
pupils, whether novices or actors of some ex-
perience, who come for help in the interpre-
tation of special roles.

I have always found that the greater the
actor, the more eager he is to have his work
pulled to pieces. A critic may be at fault,
but he does not take the trouble to criticize in
detail unless he feels that the actor is going
to be worth while, and that he has sufficient
power within him to attain success in the
end. It is for the actor himself to weigh the
criticisms he receives, and to try to compare
the effect his work has made on others with
the aim he had in mind.

If this book serves the purpose of awaken-
ing in the minds of my readers a desire for

vi Foreword

criticism and an instinct of self-judgment, I
shall feel I have accomplished all that I set
out to achieve.















IX How TO "FEED" AND How TO BUILD UP . . 102





Practical Hints

Training for the Stage






THERE will always be a great deal of dis-
cussion as to whether acting is really an art.
To my mind no one who has seen the work
of a great actor can hesitate for a moment to
answer this question in the affirmative. Act-
ing is undoubtedly an art, and one which
needs so many qualities to achieve a full re-
sult that the wonder is, not that there are
so few great actors, but rather that there
should be so many. Like every other art,
it is possible to attain a certain degree of ex-
cellence without having genius, if one has ob-
servation, application and taste. I think it
is because of this that people are apt to say

2 Training for the Stage

that acting is not an art, and also because
acting is, in most cases, more interpretative
than creative. But then, in the true sense
of the world, all art is interpretative. The
painter paints from life, the author writes
the lessons he has learnt from life. Even
the greatest work of the musician is his at-
tempt to speak in music the message life has
sent him.

What is creation, and how does it differ
from interpretation ? Both author and actor
interpret from the book of Nature according
to their lights. We may fancy that we have
original ideas, and that our work expresses
them, and it is certainly true that some of us
have infinitely more independence of outlook
than others; but it does not follow that be-
cause we are interpreting we are necessarily
laying aside our originality. On the con-
trary one needs great originality to interpret
with illumination ; for if one lacks originality
oneself, one will never be able to appreciate
the originality of others. An actor of com-
monplace mind can only give a commonplace
interpretation; but an actor of original mind
will cast the light of his own genius over the

The Work of an Actor 3

work of his author, and by understanding to
the full the meaning of that author, and the
possibilities of his part, will make of the char-
acter he plays an outstanding bit of life, true
in itself, and true also in its relation to the
whole play. When reading an author's work
with a view to acting, one has got to see, not
only what the author has actually written,
but all that he wanted to convey and all that
he might have conveyed, had his genius been
of the first water. It is here that an actor
whose genius is of the first water supplies a
fuller and more satisfying interpretation, and
thereby raises his calling to the level of a
high art.

There is a constant feud between actors
and authors, due sometimes to a kind of
jealousy. An actor who approaches his work
with a grudge in his heart that the author
may get the credit of his brains is a man
who is not fitted for his profession. Per-
haps in no art is there so much risk of being
blamed for other people's faults as in the art
of acting. The critics themselves do not
always know how to apportion praise and
blame, and will slate an author for a fault

4 Training for the Stage

which is due to the producer or to the in-
equality of the cast For this reason many
dramatic criticisms, even though true of the
ensemble, are unjust in detail. Unless you
have read the original text of a play it is
almost impossible, on viewing the production
of that play, to say where the work of the
author ends and the work of the producer
and the individual actors begins. The fact
is that author and actor are cooperating
or should be cooperating loyally to pro-
duce a common effect. United they stand,
divided they fall.

Even in so small a matter as that of for-
getting one's lines upon the stage the injustice
of stage conditions makes itself felt. It is
not the actor who "dries up" who seems in
fault, but his companion on the stage who,
because he has not received his cue, is un-
able to continue the dialogue.

The whole art of acting is the art of give
and take. You have to view your part in
relation to the whole, and it is a duty to re-
frain from making any special effect which is
going to distract the attention of the audi-
ence from other actors and concentrate it

The Work of an Actor 5

upon yourself. No actor may look at his
part from a selfish point of view. He must
always be willing to give up his own tit-bit
if the well-being of the whole performance
demand it.

Moreover, from first to last, his own per-
sonal feelings must be rigorously set aside.
Whatever his private troubles or joys, he
must oust them from his mind completely
while doing his work. For the time being
he has to become an entirely different man.
He must learn to wait, he must learn to adapt
himself, he must learn to take sharp criti-
cism straight from the shoulder in front of
his fellow actors. He must learn to look on
his face and other attributes merely as as-
sets to his work, and must get rid, once and
for all, of all personal vanity. He must learn
that his own triumph will never be really
great unless it is shared by the other mem-
bers of the cast and above all by the author.

For many centuries the stage has been
looked upon as a sink of iniquity. Viewed
rightly, acting is essentially a profession
which brings out the best that is in us. An
actor depends for his success on a keenly de-

6 Training for the Stage

veloped observation and sympathetic under-
standing of human character. He will never
succeed with audiences unless he has the fac-
ulty of making himself liked, which means
that he must rid himself of all such annoy-
ing traits as conceit, self-consciousness, ob-
stinacy, aggressiveness, irritability and
"swank"; for all these qualities leave their
mark on a man and show in his face and
manner. One will never please an audience
unless one has a great desire to please, and
this desire is not found in company with smug

Suggestion plays a great part on the stage,
and unless an actor is himself sincere he will
never suggest sincerity in his work. Only
earnestness is convincing. Unless he is un-
selfish he will spoil the effect of many a scene
because he will grudge to his fellow actors in
that scene their predominance at certain vital
moments. Unless he is devoted to his work
he will never stand the nervous strain it en-
tails. Unless he carries the thought of his
work very close to his heart he will go
through life with his eyes shut and lose the

The Work of an Actor 7

advantage of all the lessons which life alone
can teach.

Since, more than any other art, acting is
the representation of life by the living human
being, it is obvious that a study of life and
character is essential. To the actor, above
all men, every human trait should speak,
every vibration from his fellow beings tell
its own story. One must keep oneself al-
ways sensitive to the moods, needs and fail-
ings of others, and develop that sympathy
which is the surest understanding.

Above all, the actor must learn to sustain
the magnetic point of view. The rapport be-
tween actor and audience is very subtle and
far too little understood. There are two
ways of looking at everything, and to put
a wrong view before the audience is to take
upon oneself a great responsibility. An ac-
tor's mental philosophy is an important in-
gredient of his work. His whole art will be
tinged by his personal outlook.

So much by way of motto to this little
book. Now let us come down to practical
matters. What exactly is the life of an ac-

8 Training for the Stage

tor? What does it demand from him, and
how is he going to make good?

Say that an actor is engaged for a part.
What happens? He is called to rehearsal,
where the producer gives him his instruc-
tions as to the positions he is to occupy on the
stage when speaking his lines. As the re-
hearsals progress, he is coached, more or less,
in the business of his part and the necessary
inflections. The first night comes. He does
his best. The piece may, or may not, be a
success. If it is, after a little more rehears-
ing for the various "cuts" which the first
night's performance has probably shown to
be necessary, his work, for some months to
come, will consist in playing his part with
probably little or no further rehearsing.
Many people think that this makes the ac-
tor's life an easy one. But you have got to
remember that the actor's hours take him on
duty when the rest of the world is enjoying
itself; that he is always subject to uncertainty,
since every audience differs, and "points" that
go well with one will fall flat with another;
and that, therefore, an actor never really en-
joys the nerve rest afforded by the routine

The Work of an Actor 9

which forms an essential part of so many

The whole work of an actor entails a pe-
culiar strain upon the nervous system. At
rehearsals he is continually being called up
and put through the discipline of a school-
boy. On the first night he is subject to an
ordeal which some people could not bring
themselves to face at all. And on each sub-
sequent performance, though the ordeal is
considerably less, still it is there, and makes
itself felt whenever any little trifle goes
wrong upon the stage. Remember, also, that
his hours are not those which make for
health. He cannot get his meals at normal
times, and he has to work at night in a way
that is exciting to the brain and detrimental
to healthy sleep.

I have merely spoken so far of the stress
of the work itself, but the greatest strain of
all consists in procuring that work. Actor's
engagements are all of a more or less pre-
carious nature. The run of a piece may last
for months, or it may come to an end after
a few nights, and the whole anxiety of finding
fresh work may begin all over again. It is

10 Training for the Stage

this uncertainty which tells so heavily on the
nerves, far more than the actual nature of the
work. The ups and downs of an actor's
career demand a steady courage, a hopeful
spirit and a level brain. The one bright spot
is that, however dark things may seem, there
is always the hope that fortune will suddenly
appear, laden with smiles and favors. The
temperament that can look facts in the face
and say, "Well, any change, even for the
worse, is still a change, and as such, prefer-
able to monotony," is the temperament which
is suited to the stage. The spirit at the back
of such a temperament is the spirit strong
enough to hypnotize an audience. Such a
man has, in himself, the essence of magnet-
ism, the quality which is always going to win.

Some actors will tell you that the stage is
overcrowded. I think this means that, in
common with most other occupations, it is
besieged by a crowd of the wrong people. I
am personally beset by girls who say to me :

"I am no good in an office, I am no good
at housework, I am no good at anything;
therefore, the only thing to do is to go on the
stage. Please find me a part in London. I

The Work of an Actor 11

would not mind if it were a small part, just
to begin, you know."

These people rouse my ire. I consider it
an insult to approach the stage from that
point of view. But if you have a real sense
of the stage, nothing on earth will keep you
from it. Men and women alike will throw
up comfortable berths and face any hardships
just for the sake of the joy acting brings to
them. Who shall say that they have not
their reward? Is success or failure just a
matter of pounds, shillings and pence? If
the struggle is hard, it is none the less inter-
esting, and a life of effort is infinitely better
than stagnation.

On the other hand, the life of an actor has
many compensations, such as cheery comrade-
ship, the feeling that it does not matter even
if you are poor because we have all been
through it, and, whatever we may be, we are
not snobs. It is our tradition that genius, to
be worth while, must always go through the
mill. Then even the fact that our engage-
ments are sometimes short may have its com-
pensating advantage. The one great draw-
back of the profession nowadays is that you

12 Training for the Stage

often have to face the deadly repetition of
a long run ; yet, again, if an actor suffers from
this in one way, he gains in another. It gives
him the chance to put by money, so that he
no longer dreads a period of "resting"; and
if he is really fond of his work he can get
plenty of opportunities to relieve the tedium
of playing one character night after night by
offering to take part in charity matinees or
any of those trial performances which, rightly
handled, should add to his stage-craft.
Moreover, the cinema supplies an actor with
continual chances of fresh work.

Except in those rare cases where every-
thing goes persistently against an actor (cases
which one meets in every profession) an ac-
tor's life has many advantages, and its fas-
cination is undeniable. The great thing is
to go into it prepared to take what comes and
not to be daunted by obstacles. If a thing is
worth doing it is worth fighting for. If you
can take that point of view you are fitted for
the stage, because you have, at the back of
you, the strength of character which will give
you power over an audience. In short, you
have the greatest of all gifts Personality.



A STORY is told of Rachel, the great
French actress, which is very striking. One
day her younger sister rushed into her room,
white with horror, and cried out :

"Father's dead!"

Rachel screamed and fainted. When at
last consciousness returned to her, her first
words were :

"I must remember that scream."

And in the next big tragic part she played
she brought down the house when she
screamed and fainted.

I have told that tale to many who have
been shocked at what seemed to them the
callousness of the great actress. They were
wrong. Our art is a thing beyond us and
above us, which calls and we obey. Every-
thing that happens to us we put, consciously
or unconsciously, into our work; and that

14 Training for the Stage

work stands or falls according to our power
of assimilating the real meaning even of the
most humdrum incidents of daily life. "He
that hath eyes to see, let him see," is a golden
maxim for the actor. Too often we go about
with our eyes shut, observing nothing. A
tree waves its branches in the wind, and we
take it as an every-day occurrence, while the
whole poetry of motion eludes us in those
softly moving leaves. A dog darts towards
us with loving cheeriness, and we brush him
aside and think: "What a nuisance! He
has muddied my clothes." If we watched,
instead, the exquisite movements of that dog,
the curving of his body, the delicate placing
of his paws, if we noted the glow of his eyes,
the stretching and relaxing of his lips, the
tones of his various barks and, above all, the
way he takes his breath when barking, we
should learn a great deal about the art of
acting. Dogs are born actors, and the tech-
nique of their art comes to them instinctively.
Many of us recognize this, but very few real-
ize that a dog is always thinking about some-
thing in his own doggy way, and that to watch
him when he is unconsciously expressing his

The Incidents of Daily Life 15

thoughts is likely to be instructive. One can
see those thoughts pass through his brain.

I remember at the Zoo watching a couple
of young chimpanzees who were fondling one
another. I noticed that while they chattered
playfully and happily together, the corners
of the lips were kept well forward, and the
sounds they produced were softest music.
They were using what singers know as the
"forward tone." Then a quarrel arose be-
tween them. Taut went their snarling mus-
cles, their lips were drawn back sharply, and
their voices became shrill, harsh and unpleas-
ant to a degree. There was a wealth of in-
struction to a singer or actor in this little
scene, for the whole secret of musical and
dramatic voice-use was there apparent. The
lower animals are great instructors, both
morally and artistically, if we would only
watch them with humble hearts and try to
understand. No actor need go farther than
a dog's eyes for the kernel of facial ex-

The significance of sound is neglected here
in England. As a rule we may study music,
but it never enters our heads to reflect upon

16 Training for the Stage

the different sounds which belong to the
every-day incidents of our customary life.
Yet such apparent trifles as the singing of
the kettle, the whisk of a broom over the
floor, the rattle of dust-pan and brush, the
clatter of the tongs, the soft, fine sounds as
the table-cloth is swished from the table, all
these apparent trifles act upon the nerves,
and if we meditate upon them, we gradually
find that we have got the key to a new king-
dom and that a thousand things are becoming
charged with meaning which before we
simply failed to notice. Sound speaks to the
imagination with a power the force of which
is perhaps not fully realized until our other
senses are dormant. During the daytime our
eyes seem the immediate windows of our
mind and keep us busy; but at night, when we
are lying awake in the dark, sound holds her
empire, and the slightest rustle for which we
cannot immediately account will send a thrill
of terror through our souls. When you are
sitting alone, tired and a little unhappy, won-
dering how to face the trifling troubles with
which this world is beset, have not you some-
times heard a little sound which touches a

The Incidents of Daily Life 17

cho d, opens a little door in your brain, and
out pops a treasured memory, the thought
of some friend with whom that little sound
is associated; a bicycle bell, recalling a boy's
joy at the gift of his first bicycle; or the click
of your watch as you wind it up, reminding
you of an old man who once stood, with his
back to the fire, twisting the winder of his
watch as he talked to you, and called you his
"dear child." It is just one little thing which
brings before our eyes the whole picture.

Though we think we can all see, yet even
our faculty of seeing is capable, so to speak,
of infinite cultivation. It is one thing to
see ; another thing to notice ; and yet a third
thing to understand. Ask any of your friends
to describe some one you both know. How
much will that description really convey?
Shut your eyes and see with the "eye of the
brain" the eye of memory; and the first
thing of which you will be aware will be some
characteristic attitude of the man you want
to describe, some little habit or mannerism
which has remained in your memory as a sign-
manual of that man. That is where the gift
of observation comes in; it is not so much a

18 Training for the Stage

question of observing everything as of select-
ing from what you observe the things that
matter. In other words, observation in itself
is nothing. One must discriminate and judge.
Accurately noted and tested observation is
the whole secret of correct interpretation.

It has often been said that art is a matter
of selection; this is perfectly true, and it is
with a view to making our selection vividly
individual that we must cultivate the habit
of seeing everything. So many people say
to me :

"I don't want to hear what other people
think, in case I only echo what they say."

This seems to me a short-sighted policy.
No wise person will express an opinion on a
subject that he does not understand, and you
cannot gain a true understanding of any sub-
ject unless you have looked at it from many
points of view. To hear the opinions of
others cannot hamper, but may probably do
good, and no one of real individuality need
fear undue influence. The danger for him
is that he may narrow down into self-opinion-
ated obstinacy. No one can afford to ignore
other people, least of all the actor, whose

The Incidents of Daily Life 19

work it is to bring the character of others
into sympathetic being.

My advice to every actor would be that he
should try to get at the inner reasons of the
opinions and characteristics of all about him ;
never content himself with an obvious inter-
pretation and, above all, never condemn.
You can only learn if you put yourself in the
place of the person you are studying, and
feel, for the moment, all that secret longing
to be understood and not to be blamed, not
to have to blame yourself, which is buried in
the heart of every human being, but which is
only voiced at those sacred moments when
fate has broken down all barriers, and
brought us face to face with our bare soul.
We all make excuses for ourselves, for if we
did not we could not bear the scathing light
of self-condemnation. Let the actor studying
humanity start by seeing these excuses and
accepting them. Let him feel when dissect-
ing others as if he were himself being dis-
sected, and he will find at the bottom of
every heart the spark that is trying to fly
upwards; the touch of human nature which
is the soul of art, because it is the call of our

20 Training for the Stage

common brotherhood. When he has taught
himself to look at others from this point of
view, he will quickly learn to summarize the
salient traits of any character he wishes to
present in such a way that his performance
will have so much impressionistic truth that
it will carry with it conviction. Even when
the balance of the play demands that he shall
bring out the ugliest qualities of the char-
acter he is playing, yet he can present them
in such a way that their very force will make
us feel the truth of the old saying that "evil
is merely the converse of good" and we shall
know that it is environment which is to blame,
and that humanity itself is not discredited
by this representation of a human being.

The small, the trifling, the weak; there are
two ways of looking at all these things, the
way that debases and the way that makes
clear the inner meaning. To be shown an
ignoble view of life this life which we hu-
man beings share is depressing to us all,
and to some natures it is even dangerous
There is nothing so immoral as to take a low
view of humanity, and when the stage lends
itself to such an outlook the result is morbid.

The Incidents of Daily Life 21

Even when it is an actor's task to play a
character of a poor type, he can represent
the foibles of that character in such a way

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Online LibraryAgnes PlattPractical hints on training for the stage → online text (page 1 of 8)