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For Creative Writing Teachers: Sifting for Character

BruceMillerIn this post, makes suggestions of how to use Bruce Miller’s Actor’s Alchemy book in different kinds of classrooms, including creative writing, science, social studies, and psychology. StageNotes’ advice for Creative Writing teachers was “Have your students read Chapter 5 “Sifting for a Character” before they begin working on a play.” Here is an abbreviated version of one of Miller’s classroom exercise Roll Call. Pick up a copy of the book for the full instructions.

Character is most effectively and reliably displayed through a careful selection and execution of actions, not by magically inhabiting a character through some internal or emotional process. I use a particular exercise with my own beginning actors at the beginning of the semester to demonstrate the points I am making here. The game, called Character Roll Call, goes something like this.

I start by asking my students to answer, “Here,” when I call their name. I tell them to answer as themselves as though attendance were actually being taken. I ask the class to observe each other very carefully during the process and to make determinations about each class member based on what they see and hear. They may even take notes if they want to in order to better help them remember what they observed.

As a result of the group discussion, my class will usually conclude that any demonstration of character under the circumstances of the first round of the exercise was sketchy at best. They had too little time and too little opportunity to inhabit and communicate character.

In the second round of the exercise, I ask my students to think of a dominant personality characteristic they possess. It could be anything from shyness to egotism to a great sense of humor to sadness or cynicism. Once they have pinpointed this characteristic, I ask them to come up with a single physical action demonstrating this quality that they could believably execute when their name is called during the next round of attendance taking. The key here is twofold. First, they will have to come up with an action that actually suggests the quality, which, depending on the characteristic, could be difficult indeed. If they can’t come up with an action to represent the characteristic, I tell them to change the quality they are trying to communicate. The idea in acting is to always make choices that can be carried out successfully.

In this round of the game, my actors have a much larger body of work to discuss. Because everyone in the class had to make choices, chances are even if not every choice was absolutely clear, far more of them were interesting, because thought went into their selection. Further, more students willingly guessed at the personality characteristics suggested through the actions presented, because this time through they were more than random and spontaneous reactions of the moment. In other words, because of the specific choices of action, character emerged. And the point of all this is that the exercise is not unlike any scripted acting situation in which an actor has the obligation to be believable, serve the overall script, and do the things his or her character would do under the circumstances while forwarding their own storytelling responsibilities. Each of the actors in the exercise in round two were responsible for the following:

• executing actions that seemed real rather than acted

• executing actions that came naturally out of the situation

• saying “Here” in a way that was consistent with the actions being played and reflecting the ongoing progression in the scene

They also needed to accomplish the following:

• making and executing choices that led to a natural flow from one student to the next

• listening and reacting even when it wasn’t their turn to perform in the spotlight, and listening in a way consistent with who they are in real life, since they were playing the character of themselves

• making their time in the spotlight reflective of their personality trait without any extra mustard

• making their moments in real time and without commenting on their work

A central point of the ensemble element of this game is that an actor must maintain the action of his or her character even when not in principal focus.

In life, no one stops being who they are when they are not speaking, yet so often, beginning actors think they are acting only when they have lines. Childish, no? Each time you respond as a character, execute an action, carry out some business, or move toward or away from someone or something, you add to the audience’s perception of your character. In fact, the sum total of all the actions you execute create for the audience the illusion of character.

The audience will put together the kindness you show in one scene, the anger demonstrated in another, and the intelligence or whimsicality of other moments and mix all the pieces into a complex whole, just the way people do in life. If you come alive only for your spoken moments, you can never expect to be fully believed or to produce a fully realized character.

In the third round of Roll Call, I ask my students to take a moment and come up with a strong personality trait that they can translate into a physical action or series of actions. My actors are now free from the strictures of trying to portray themselves truthfully. They are now free to step outside of themselves and be more creative.

By the end of this sequence of exercises, my students are pretty well convinced that character can be created through a series of actions without the need to somehow completely transform themselves into the character being played. They also understand that successful acting usually results from careful analysis and planning rather than from simply relying on intuition and spontaneous brilliance. Of course, the acting process reserves a special place for those who can live in the moment and react, but most actors cannot afford to rely on that ability alone.

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About the Book

Acting can – and should – be more than guesswork and instinct. Actor’s Alchemy: Finding the Gold in The Script by Bruce Miller examines the relationship between the script and what an actor ultimately does on the stage or on screen. Here is a straightforward guide filled with useful information to help actors learn to use their scripts in a specific and analytical way to solve the problems of the scene and bring their elusive characters to life. In learning how to decipher the script, actors will be equipped to make the choices that lead to delivering a gold performance.

The 2011-2012 Broadway Season

Robert Viagas PlblYrbook_AuPhoto_314865Robert Viagas is the editor of The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: June 2011 to May 2012. Below, asks Mr. Viagas, “How would you describe the 2011-2012 Broadway season?”

Given the economy people expected a contraction of both the number of productions and the amount spent on tickets. Suprisingly, it was exactly the opposite. Broadway had another season in which it sold more than a billion dollars with of tickets, and that’s billion with a “b.” Yes tickets are expensive—but there seems to be plenty of people willing to spend the money.

As I wrote in the preface to the 2011-2012 Yearbook, it was a richly diverse season of tuneful new musicals, delirious comedies, hard-hitting dramas and exuberant dances, plus revivals of some of the greatest works in the American theatrical canon: “Death of a Salesman,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Porgy and Bess,” in versions that earned their share of controversy, criticism…and several key awards.

Composer Stephen Sondheim, who turned 82 this season, rattled Broadway in summer 2011 by blasting Diane Paulus’s new shortened and punched-up version of “Porgy and Bess,” not just for assuming the vanity title “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” (elbowing out librettist and co-lyricist DuBose Heyward, Sondheim noted), but for bringing in Pulitzer laureate Suzan-Lori Parks to rewrite the libretto and even to change the show’s ending. Sondheim—a Pulitzer-winner himself—excoriated these maulings of the classic. But the result was pleasing enough to win “TGPaB” a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, incidentally beating a noteworthy revival of Sondheim’s own “Follies.”

The 2011-2012 season will be remembered for a pyrotechnic display of bravura performances, not least Audra McDonald’s Tony-winning turn as Bess. Audiences were thrilled by Danny Burstein’s heartbreaking performance as Buddy in “Follies,” Christian Borle as a Groucho-Marxian proto-Captain Hook in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Nina Arianda as a fake (or maybe not) dominatrix in “Venus in Fur,” Ricky Martin as an audience-pleasing Che in “Evita,” Raul Esparza as a charismatic con-man in “Leap of Faith,” and Jeremy Jordan in TWO brightly etched lead performances in “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Newsies,” et al.

Even with all these, the showstopper performance of the season was James Corden’s brethless clowning turn in “One Man, Two Guvnors.” How good was Corden? In the Tony contest for Best Leading Actor in a Play Corden beat heavyweights Philip Seymour Hoffman, Frank Langella, John Lithgow and James Earl Jones, who were themselves giving stage-shaking performances.

It was a season packed with romance (“Once”), politics (“Newsies”), adventure (“Peter and the Starcatcher”) race relations (“Clybourne Park” and “Stick Fly”), families in crisis (“Other Desert Cities,” “Stick Fly”) and religion. Lots of religion. Two shows depicted the crucifixion of Jesus, “Godspell” and “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “Leap of Faith” enacted a tent revival. Holdover show “Sister Act” rocked a convent full of nuns singing gospel. Another holdover, “The Book of Mormon” continued to have fun (and earn a million bucks a week) with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

“Once” won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, not just because the bittersweet Irish love story touched so many hearts, but because the show had a unique look and sound. In 1960 Richard Rodgers wrote “No Strings,” a musical that used virtually no strings in the pit. “Once” did the opposite: with a supporting cast of street musicians, it used only strings (plus an accordion).

And yet, 2011-2012 will be remembered as the season without a blockbuster—unless you count Hugh Jackman’s solo show that was so solidly sold out that they passed on the chance to be nominated for a Tony Award because they didn’t want to give out free tickets to all the potential voters. They sold them instead, kept the money…and watched as Jackman was given a special Tony Award anyway. But that show was only a limited run, as was the other SRO show, “Death of a Salesman.” “Once,” “Peter and the Starcatcher” and “Newsies” were some of the biggest hits of the season, but none was solidly sold out until after the Tony Awards. There was no new “Book of Mormon,” “Jersey Boys” or “The Producers” this year.

Which is not to say that Broadway didn’t sell a lot of tickets. Though the number of tickets sold was down slightly, the overall gross for the season was a new record–$1.14 billion.

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The Playbill Broadway Yearbook: May 2011 to June 2012

Many of the people who work on Broadway keep scrapbooks of their experiences: photos, signed posters, ticket stubs, and, of course the Playbills. These are treasured keepsakes, something to be savored over a lifetime, and then passed on to friends and descendants. Playbill Books, a division of the iconic 128-year-old company that designs the programs for every show on Broadway, has expanded this idea into an annual project that has become a Broadway institution: The Playbill Broadway Yearbook. Taking the form of a high school or college yearbook, the eighth edition is packed with photos (more than 4,000 of them, many in color) and memorabilia from the entire 2011-2012 Broadway season.

Q&A with Andrew Gerle

Andrew GerleAndrew Gerle is the author of The Enraged Accompanist’s Guide to the Perfect Audition. Below is a Q&A that was done with

What first sparked your interest in Broadway and Theatre?

I’ve been in love with theater since I was a small child, doing plays and musicals in school growing up, then joining a children’s theater company in Tallahassee. I love music (grew up as a classical pianist) and I love stories, so it’s a perfect combination.

What was your favorite subject in High School and why?

I was a typical music/math geek, so I really liked math classes. It was like doing puzzles. Organic chemistry was also fun, similar puzzle-type activity.

When did you decide to write The Enraged Accompanist’s Guide to the Perfect Audition and why?

I had been toying with the idea for several years before I sat down to write it a few summers ago. I had played so many auditions and had begun to see patterns in the actors that were auditioning, simple pointers that clearly they just weren’t being taught. I love actors, and it frustrated me to see good ones giving bad auditions when I knew they could be doing better and feeling better about the process.

Other than auditioning, what lessons can be taken away from the book for subjects like Public Speaking, Music, Psychology, Social Studies, etc.?

I’ve had a lot of people read the book and see parallels in other disciplines. What I stress is not only the nuts-and-bolts specifics of audition technique for musical theater, but even more importantly, the mindset that leads to a successful audition, and a successful career. When you put too much pressure on a single audition (or speech, or performance, or athletic event), it can really get in your way. The most successful auditions are ones where the actor is simply showing themselves off to their best ability, doing what they do best, not trying to be something they’re not, not trying to please people they’ve never met. Confidence is seductive and leads to a better performance, no matter what the field.

Keep reading this interview on

The Enraged Accompanist’s Guide to the Perfect Audition

“I am your accompanist. You do not know me. I am the guy who sits behind the upright in the unflattering fluorescent light of the dance studio, a bottle of water on the floor, a half-eaten Power Bar on the bench, and your audition in my hands.”

Award-winning New York theatre composer and pianist Andrew Gerle pulls no punches in this irreverent, fly-on-the-wall guide to everything you’ve never been taught about auditioning for musical theatre. From the unique perspective of the pianist’s bench, he demystifies the audition process, from how to put together your book and speak to an accompanist to the healthiest and savviest ways to approach the audition marketplace and your career. By better understanding the dynamics of professional auditions, you will learn to present yourself in the strongest, most castable way while remaining true to your own special voice – the one that, in the end, will get you the job.

Show Choir Suggestions from Mike Weaver

MikeWeaver3-4c_2_3Guest Blogger: Mike Weaver is the co-author (along with Colleen Hart) of Sweat, Tears, and Jazz Hands. Below is a post Mike did for the blog

With all of the music in the world – not surprisingly, not every song translates well to choral singing (and dancing!). The best test for whether a particular song has the potential to work for show choir (or not), is to ask a simple question: Does the song allow the performers to communicate directly to the audience in FIRST PERSON? Ideally, a song should allow the performers to “play a character” with a need to communicate something to the audience. Something along the line of:
• I AM…!
• I WANT…!
• WE ARE…!

Story songs (told from a THIRD PERSON’s POV) require a more non-presentational (and non-confrontational) choreographic interpretation. You can recognize these songs easily, because they are songs about “other people”. Often times, from a staging standpoint, story songs split the audiences attention between WHO IS SINGING and WHO THEY ARE SINGING ABOUT. If the staging tries to stay true to the lyric, then someone may be required to “act out the story” while the chorus sings about what the actors are doing. The challenge is to help the audience know where to look. And it is awkward for the performers to sing about themselves in THIRD PERSON. Show choir versions of story songs require special attention in balancing visual, vocal and theatrical elements. You can recognize a story song by their subject matter – typically:

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Sweat, Tears, and Jazz Hands

Featuring more than 100 competitive show choirs from around the United States in photos, quotations, and stories, this edutainment-style book details the pop culture and theater influences that, over time, built this unique entertainment genre into the mecca of music lovers that it is today.

Read real-life accounts of show choir performers, directors, and choreographers. Catch a glimpse into a once practically unknown society of “swing choirs.” Discover what P. T. Barnum, Bob Fosse, speakeasies, cigarette companies, the modern-day blender, and Lady Gaga all have to do with this glitter-drenched community of singers and dancers.

Take a step beyond the hit show Glee and learn about the real drama, the hard work, the sweat, and the tears. Find out what it takes to build an award-winning competition set; the branding, the budgets, the strategy and the performance. Meet the characters. Learn the lingo. Fall in love with show choirs.

Using Popular Music in Your Audition

Guest Blogger: Sheri Sanders is the author of Rock the Audition. This is an excerpt of her post on StageNotes. Please visit their site for her full article.

Rock Musicals are dominating Broadway. And Musical Theatre performers and their teachers are expected to know how to pick, cut, arrange, properly research, vocally style, and act authentic popular music for the purpose of auditioning for rock musicals. And “rock musicals” are not just rock. They are Motown, 70s folk/rock, disco, 80s pop/rock, contemporary pop and rock and alternative rock. In 2011, Hal Leonard invited me to write a book so that I could reach educators and their students all over the world to de-mystify the rock audition with easy tips, references, tangible tools, and a DVD demonstrating the different styles currently represented on Broadway. I include interviews with the top directors, music directors, casting directors and composers of the hottest rock musicals on Broadway. When I sat in on all the rock auditions in the three months I wrote this book, the consensus was the same in every room, no matter what the style.

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Rock the Audition defines what is required of the actor-singer to succeed in the audition room and gives the aspiring performer the tools necessary to interpret rock material with abandon, creativity, and inspiration. This book shows those interested in auditioning for a rock musical how to holistically embody the essence of the show for which they are auditioning.


How to Approach Accents

Guest Blogger: Robert Blumenfeld, author of Accents: A Manual for Actors (Limelight Editions). Please visit to read his entire blog post.

Since I was a boy, I have been fascinated by how people speak. When I was a kid, I loved listening to my grandparents from Europe and imitating the British accents on my parents’ old recordings of Gilbert and Sullivan. As an actor and a book recording artist I have often used accents in my work. So it was only natural that I expand my horizons, and become a dialect coach while continuing to work as an actor.

My first book, published by Limelight in 1998 and in a revised and expanded edition in 2002, is Accents: A Manual for Actors, which comes with two CDs bound in with the book. It was the result of my class notes for the Stella Adler Conservatory, where I taught a course in accents. I had earned a BA and an MA in French, and had studied its phonetics in depth, as well as learning Italian and German, all three of which I speak fluently. As for accents in English, I had made a study of them myself. And once I started writing my book, I began listening extensively to recordings, films, and people in various environments, including the subway in New York, and noting down their remarks phonetically.

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Accents: This practical reference manual, with its precise, authentic instructions on how to speak in more than 100 dialects, has established itself as the most useful and comprehensive guide to accents available, now increased by a third in this revised printing. As before, the accents range from regional U.S. and British dialects to European accents that include, among others, the Germanic, Slavic and Romance Languages. Completing his around-the-world journey, the author then covers the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Includes two CDs.

Limelight Editions will publish Blumenfeld’s Teach Yourself Accents: The British Isles in April 2013.

Q & A with Larry Silverberg

larrysilverbergLarry Silverberg is the author of True Acting TipsBelow is an interview he gave with  StageNotes.

How can teachers use True Acting Tips: A Path to Aliveness, Freedom, Passion, and Vitality in their classroom?

True Acting Tips is an invigorating exploration of the deeper values of all artistic creation, which is rooted in our shared humanity. Often, under the pressures and challenges of navigating their way through the complexities of social life and figuring out where they fit into the scheme of things, students lose touch with their creative spirit and the intrinsic power they possess to be fully expressive human beings. True Acting Tips offers 203 dynamic reflections on the basic values of authentic living which can re-ignite the students’ desire to be more who they actually are and to make greater connections with the world around them.

What types of inspiration does the book give to the teachers?

I have a summer program where I train drama teachers and professors in how to teach the Sanford Meisner technique, so I have worked with hundreds of teachers. One thing I know is that if a teacher can help the students re-claim their availability to the people in their lives, they start to awaken to the fact that this is the route towards greater satisfaction in life. I call this “listening with the ear of one’s heart” and this suggests that the path is about becoming very sensitive to what is actually going on with other people. This also happens to be a requirement in the craft of True Acting. Of course, this requires that the students begin to take their attention off of themselves which, especially in the high school students, is quite a struggle as their whole life is about, “How do I look, what do other people think of me, do they like me?” Yet, the struggle is certainly worth it and True Acting Tips offers a doorway to this path with many examples and exercises for the teacher to do with their students in the classroom.

Did the quotes in True Acting Tips inspire the tips or did you search for quotes to match the tips?

I happen to work in an organic way. As I was writing the book, I would channel things that had an impact on my life into new tips. The book developed from daily tips that I was uploading to my website and to my Facebook page.

Keep reading this interview at StageNotes.


True Acting Tips leads stage and screen actors on a journey of passion, intimacy, and personal investment. This isn’t to say that there will not be heavy demands and a high cost, but ultimately, this book is designed to offer the clarity and encouragement to become an actor who makes a difference in the lives of the audience members.


History and Musicals by Laura Frankos

Guest Blogger: Laura Frankos is the author of The Broadway Musicals Quiz Book. This post was originally published on

I’m an historian by training and I’ve been addicted to musicals since childhood.  Not surprisingly, I have a special love for musicals and show tunes referencing historical themes.  A few of my favorites: the opening of Japan to Western trade in “Four Black Dragons,” Pacific Overtures; business monopolies and Social Darwinism in “What a Remarkable Age This Is,” Titanic; disputes in western land use in “The Farmer and the Cowman,” Oklahoma!; national marketing in “Rock Island,” The Music Man; and, of course, the entire score of 1776.

Eventually, I managed to combine my two obsessions in The Broadway Musical Quiz Book.  While the subject matter is geared towards die-hard fans, it’s also an anecdotal history of Broadway, so readers can learn to tell Jerome Kern from Jerome Robbins.  Teachers of the dramatic arts could use the book with their classes on musical theatre history, both in surveying the development of the musical and in studying key figures.

But what about social studies teachers?  There’s a specific quiz on U.S. history, one devoted entirely to 1776, and questions on English and French history as well.  Some examples:

1.  True or false: Les Misérables is set during the French Revolution.

2.  How many characters in Ragtime were based on real people?
A. 9
B. 10
C. 11
D. 12
E. 15

3.  Which song lyric refers to the U.S. diplomatic policy of improving relations with Latin America?
A. “America”
B. “Conga!”
C.  “What’s New, Buenos Aires?”
D.  “The Men Who Run the Country”
E.  “How Can You Tell An American?”

For the answers to this quiz, visit!

The Broadway Musical Quiz Book includes nearly 80 quizzes on every aspect of the Broadway musical, including sections devoted to the careers of major Broadway stars, songwriters, directors, and producers, ranging from Ethel Merman to Stephen Sondheim. It also features thematic quizzes – such as musicals set in France, adaptations from literature, food and drink, British shows, references to sports, biographical shows, and jukebox musicals – and quizzes covering each decade from 1900 to the present. With over 700 shows mentioned, and over 1200 questions, The Broadway Musical Quiz Book is detailed and thorough: the answer section doesn’t merely list the answers, it provides further information on the quizzes’ subjects (and often on wrong answers, too!). The Broadway Musical Quiz Book is more than just a compendium of trivia; it’s a anecdotal history of musical theatre, with something for everyone who loves The Great White Way!