Rehema Nanfuka on Acting for Theatre
Acting has several definitions, but I prefer the simple one, which is: To act is to be as truthful as you can be when portraying a character.
In Uganda a theatre actor performs in plays and other types of live productions, like musical theatre, comedy skits which give a humorous spin on stories in headlines, there’s street theatre and also community theatre, which is mostly edutainment and lastly pantomimes which are common during the holiday seasons.
I love and have performed in traditional theatre plays like Macbeth, Niqabi Ninja, Just me you and the silence, The body of a woman as a battlefield in the Bosnian war, and I have directed plays like Betrayal in the city, Upside Down , Slay Queens of Africa, Tropical fish among others. The best thing about this kind of theatre is its structure.
If you are a newbie and want to act in these kinds of theatre plays, the first step is to audition. Usually there’s a casting call where the characters and their ages and other qualities are listed. Auditioning is the best way to show people your capabilities as an actor. Audition notices are usually up at the National theatre (before covid-19) and other theatres in the city. But now they are shared on different social media platforms. Note that auditioning is very nerve wrecking for most people, so if you feel nervous during auditions, that’s normal. It just means that you want to impress and get the role.
If you fit the role, you will get a call back and it will involve either a re-auditioning to see your range as an actor or to confirm that you have got the role. Yay! Then the major work begins.
In traditional theatre, rehearsals take place over a month or more, many factors determine this. During this time, you will meet the whole team, your co-actors, the director, producer, playwright, costumers and the technical teams. You will get the full script and get to rehearse with your co-actors. Most directors love it when you come prepared for the role and what will help you look like a pro is, to do your homework, particularly character development before the rehearsals begin.
Note: Acting in this kind of theatre is not much different from film acting, the only difference is that one has a live audience and in the other, the performance is for the camera. With a live audience, you might need to project or to speak louder for the audience to hear. After all, in theatre we embrace the beauty and poetry of words. In fact the best monologues for actors are found in plays.
Here is how you get ready for a role.
Compile your character’s backstory and character profile. This is a summary of the character’s history, usually made up by the playwrights or created by an actor to give your character depth. It includes the age, family- education background, goals, mannerisms, speech patterns, vices, values, fears, temperament, their wants and deepest need.
Just like profiling yourself, the more work you put into getting to know your character, the more interesting they are for the audience. The playwrights help with providing most of the information above. As an actor, you make sure you don’t forget your character’s history. If you find yourself stuck in a scene, you refer to the back story and you could ask,” How would someone who went through that trauma react in this situation?” and so on and so forth.
More than anything, your characters deepest need drive your actions in the story and how you interact with other characters. This is where the acting verbs come in. There’s hundreds of verbs, like: to belittle, to admire, to seduce, etc. It is all dependent on your relationship with other characters and what kind of character you are portraying and how they will react in any scene.
Which brings me to reaction. You may have heard this: ACTING IS REACTING. When in a scene with another person, you must react to what they are saying depending on how your character perceives them. Sometimes there is a deliberate decision not to show any emotion and this in itself, is a reaction to the other person.
During rehearsals, the director will be blocking your movements on stage. Your entries and exits and positions on stage. (Right-left-downstage and upstage). You must remember these positions, because many factors are put into consideration when deciding on them, things like power positions, and technical reasons like lighting and most importantly, they fulfill the director’s vision to create the desired illusion within the mind of the audience. Great actors remember their blocking. And make everyone happy. That’s what separates the professionals from amateurs. Lol! (The simplest way to remember the positions is to write them down).
Now, that you have your blocking down, and back-story down. Next is, pay attention to your dialogue delivery. The beauty of theatre is the use of dialogue and monologues to transport the audience. And as a theatre actor, you must perfect your vocal skills. Things like projection and articulation are essential for your craft. In fact you should memorize your lines while putting dialogue delivery in consideration along with other aspects like tempo, emphasis and pauses. In theatre, memorizing the lines takes up most of the actor’s preparation time. It is best done in your spare time, so that you don’t burden your fellow actors during rehearsals.
Make note: Running lines is different from using another actor’s time to memorize your lines.
Once you have done all the above and the director is happy, then you have what we call a run- through. Which basically means running the play from the start to the end. With the actors going through their blockings and acting. And it is a magical day when this happens, because then what was on paper is put into action.
And what follows that, in the next days are tens of more run-throughs while you memorize lines and play around with your dynamic ranges as an actor. Over time the director will polish the scenes and the music and the lighting teams will do their magic to enhance your performance on the opening night and other performance days to come.
It is magical when you watch a theatre play and everything is flowing seamlessly. It is a transformative experience. It is even more magical and spiritually rewarding for the actor because you give the audience this energy and they return it to you, hundredfold. Isn’t that amazing? Especially, when acting is all about energy.
My favorite and most memorable performances so far, have been on stage. Theatre acting gives you the time and the space to perfect your craft and that’s why I would recommend it to all actors.
And to the newbies, I wish you luck on your theatre acting journey. You won’t regret taking the first step. I promise. I hope we meet on stage soon, when theatres re-open.
Rehema Nanfuka is a Ugandan film, theatre and television actress, director, and filmmaker .