Advanced Comedy Teens meet Method Acting

Advanced Comedy Teens meet Method Acting? Most stand-up comics in the world do not know acting technique.  They do know their world. They learn to observe their world and tells about, what’s wrong with it, how perhaps we can fix it, or why it’s hopeless and beyond fixing. They share stories. They tell jokes. Over time, if they really work hard they get better and eventually get paid. For everyone that you meet on TV, there are 100s, perhaps 1000s that you don’t. They never quite take the time to figure it out. Perhaps they lack the necessary empathy for their world to ever figure it out.

As a teacher of comedy performance I need to help my teens find the best possible performance of their work. Most comedy schools focus mostly on Improv technique and/or writing. I like to dig a little deeper.

Big Choices

Advanced Comedy Teens meet Method Acting

I do not teach full acting technique in my classes. This takes years to develop and sometimes a little is more confusing at first. However the students benefit by my calling upon my training as I direct them to better performances.

This past weekend I tried using animals to dig deeper in their stand-up comedy performances with powerful results.

Too me the core of all Method acting – or any modern technique post Stanislavsky –  is making choices to find deeper meaning in our performances. Never mind arguments of approaching character from with in or without – to me that depends on the character and the project.

Sunday I had a bunch of Advanced Teen comedy students. They had some interesting things to say. But most lacked something. a couple were just being lazy, completely disconnected to the material and audience – phoning it in you might say. Others were discussing some dramatic tones but smiled through the false portrayal of pain – totally unmoving. Yet others portrayed silly characters with zero grounding, therefore with zero meaning to audience.

All the while, these performances may impress some other kids or stage parents always in awe of their kids’ work. But I know they are capable of far better.

So instead of moving onto improv section of the class (I combine the two), I said,”Let’s do that again.”

This time I gave each student an animal to play. The students were instructed to say their routines but now pretending that they are a wolf, tiger, snake or other character form the zoo.

The results were amazing.

Now in almost every case the students, not understanding the hows and whys of acting technique mocked my direction in their choices.

One particular student that is very good but has begun to show signs of being a teenager – lazy and assuming they know what they need to know, far underachieving their potential as a result. This student was instructed to be a menacing king cobra. I did not spend a lot of time on what that meant. I wanted the students to discover for themselves. At first there was no change.

“UNACCEPTABLE!” was my subtext as I said, “Lets start again.”

The entire class chimed in on what a snake does and sounds like. How does a King Cobra moved when menaced. Why do the stand tall with those big cheeks and necks appearing demonic? Why do they stare you down? How does one prortray all that?

After a few more shaky starts, he took on an affected, overly stylized voice with a few hisses inserted between semi – scripted lines.

He felt ridiculous. The laughs from the class were immense. Half of those were in response to the ridiculousness of the performance.

But as comics do we really care how we get the laughs. We often make fun of ourselves and make ridiculous faces and statements to a laugh. So why not be a snake.

More importantly was how his performance changed. This KING COBRA choice required focus and thought. To maintain that affected performance and maintain the story telling was not easy. The result was a far more engaging and powerful performance.

I have said 100s of times before in his presence BREATHE. With every breathe the subtext of I’M A SNAKE flowed through his veins, muscles and deep thoughts.

This performance now entered the realm of TOO MUCH. Something directors love. We struggle to reach a underwhelming artist. But now I have material to mold. Pull back the actual hisses and 10% of the snake interpretation and you have a very interesting story telling body to use.

Another student was struggling with playing a dark soul. She joked about dressing and looking edgier but not achieving the desired goal in her real life. She is such a great soul she struggled when i said pretend to be truly sad and/or angry as you say your dressing sad and angry. I passed through a number of animal totems.

I recalled a story of how director, Elia Kazan, dragged the Blanche out of Jessica Tandy in the Broadway production of Street Car. An acclaimed classically trained actress, Tandy was not achieving the level of emotional realism Kazan and the play required. So they tied her down, and the entire cast proceeded to demoralize her with insults. Kazan, while considered cruel for the act, ushered Tandy to a Tony Award.

Jokingly I said I will never tie down a student, especially a teen. If nothing else I lack a great lawyer or big enough insurance policy for that civil proceeding.

So we went through a number of possible scenarios. It does not matter what you do to find the right performance. We had the most success with this. Imagine you are in a dark alley and a guy has a gun to your head threatening to pull trigger.

This amazing sweet young lady, who has not know true anger or sorrow has some homework to do. She is to go study some emo kids. Go see how edgy kids truly act, moved, react tot he world. They are every where. Many times we ridicule them and others. But artists need to study them, to use empathy and discover what makes them tick.

Similarly we can go to the zoo and study animals. When a director says, try playing the part as a gazelle, you can do this for real. We study how the animals move. Why they move? We study why/how they remain still at times. What are they thinking?

My best success came with a very bright student that thinks faster than anyone can speak. The result is an anxious build up of ideas which manifests as a stutter. His animal totem for this round? The three toed sloth.

So at first, this was more of a slow motion exercise. Effective but ridiculously slow. No problem that was my goal. Every movement and word pours out more like molasses than a the usual tsunami or water fall.

Then something interesting starts to happen. He loses a little of the sloth as he focuses on the material. He starts to speed up. At first too much, but as I say “breath the sloth back in” the performance settles him into an amazing rhythm.

His usual totem is almost that of a humming bird. Many genius types have this issue. They are so smart ideas get locked up in the brains and struggle to flow in a cohesive manner. Over time this becomes a source of anxiety and presents itself as a disorder, perhaps as autism, Asperger or similar.

This student always has amazing material but rarely is understood. He freezes as a racing mind over excites the speaking process and gets locked up by anxiety and a stutter.

But now, playing the three toed sloth as his subtext, EVERY WORD is understandable. More jokes heard leads to more laughs which is far more satisfying.

Often playing a character simply requires taking on the animal of that character. Perhaps changing our own animal totem can help us over come challenges of our bad habits.

These advance teen students are still young to have a far more powerful creative than I at 45. I actually have very little to say about their material. Compared to our preteen students that constantly have routines based on falsehoods, these students have lived and experienced enough to know what’s what.

They struggle with becoming adult artists. I constantly say, no matter how good you look, the CUTE FACTOR of being a child artist disappears. you need to start to dig deeper to understand the performance of your world. As you do more and more performance we need to work harder to connect with our audience.

We no longer are as nervous about performing which fills our work with energy. We need to find that energy from new sources. We cannot wait for our teachers and directors to inspire us.

As we enter the professional world, they are there for us in preparation less and less.

As we grow we struggle to find relevance tot he world. This does not come easy.

What comes easy is sitting in front of a video game or TV show and stop creating. It takes effort to drive ourselves forward.

The initial results were amazing. As a teacher and a director all I can do is try to inspire and inform. It is up to the performer to put that knowledge into action. I hope the students from Sunday’s class at the Broadway Comedy Club are a bit more inspired to dig deeper in their writing and performance.



Good reading – Check out

The Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods Vol 1 & 2
Books by Richard Brestoff




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