At the center of everything we do is our breath. Every movement and every word we speak is supported and enhanced by our breath. Without a connected breath, we become devoid of intention and action, and few things are more important than action for an actor.
How is this breath supported?
By the body.
An aligned posture allows our airways to move the breath unimpeded. A strong, rooted base gives our body the support it needs to remain upright and in good posture.
Now, how is this related to Zoom?
Well, for one, usually we're sitting down for a Zoom rehearsal or production. And now, in the midst of a pandemic where the world has gone mostly virtual, we're probably spending a lot of time in that chair, in front of a computer screen. After awhile, I'm sure for most of us, our posture declines while sitting for an extended period. We sink into the chair more, our hips slide out in front of us, our chest folds in on itself, tension is created, and now the breath is impeded.
I don't mean for this to be a lesson in physiology. There are others more qualified to go into the specifics of that. But as an actor, this has been my experience. I sit down for too long, I become disconnected from my breath, my performance isn't as active, and I end up fatigued and frustrated.
I am currently in rehearsals for Shakespeare's Twelfth Night where I am playing Malvolio. Here's something about Malvolio: he's a puritan. He's prim. He's proper. He's upright, probably due to that stick up his butt. Naturally, those issues with posture and breath in the Zoom world make the physical requirements of the role more difficult.
As an actor who approaches all of my work through the body, I've had to go through my toolbox and determine the best way forward. How do I create the physical life of this character when I only have access to a small part of my physicality?
Going forward, in this blog I will be sharing what's worked for me and what hasn't. I will be providing tips and lessons gleaned from my personal experiences. If something in this blog works for you, then great! If not, then no big deal!
If anything in this blog catches your eye and you would like to chat some more, feel free to contact me here!
In the non-COVID world, we don't stand or sit for an entire performance. There's a balance. But in the Zoomsphere, unless you feel like constantly moving the camera, you have to make a choice, and even then, you have to make the decision for each scene, you can't change midway through without there being that awkward camera movement.
So we have to make a choice: to stand or sit. There are pros and cons to both. Standing the entire time in that small frame can create unnecessary tension. Without the freedom to move, the knees can lock up, which causes tension to build throughout the body. On the other hand, if you're not careful, when you sit for the entire performance, the energy can suck down into the floor as you relax into the chair.
Given the issues with both of these, I still find standing to be the most valuable when given the option, but you don't always have that option. Look at my set-up in the picture below:
I couldn't fit the whole set-up in the image, but there isn't much room to stand and fit myself in the camera frame, so I have to sit, and as I've said, it makes the upright nature of Malvolio all the more important. I have to translate all the work I'd do standing into the seat, which leads to the greater point of this blog: How do we do that?
First off, always warm-up. Without an effective actor warm-up you will fall into the traps of tension or unhelpful release of energy. You need structure to do what you have to do. Let's walk through a basic warm-up to get us started:
1) Rotate your shoulders forward and back. Then alternate the rolling. Then roll in opposites. Lift them up to your ears on an inhale and then release them down quickly on an exhale.
The shoulders are a prime source of tension, so we must relax them, especially since the shoulders are one of
the main sources of movement in our Zoom frame.
2) Roll down and touch the ground with your hands. Make sure you relax your neck, release it. Bend your knees and come up to a flat back. From here, arch your back up into cat and then release down into cow. As you go down, look forward. Do this a few times and then release until your touching ground again. Repeat.
3) Hug yourself and step your legs out a bit and drop down, looking to the ground. If you'd like to drop your arms out of that hug and press into the ground. This is to active our lower breath, you want to feel the lower back expand as you breathe until it feels almost as if you're breathing out of your butt. Come back up, being careful of potential dizziness, and then repeat this at least one more time.
4) From here we want to start activating the voice and breath and direct it towards the "audience." I like doing this in front of my camera and microphone. If we were in a theatre, this would be like breathing the space. Same principle here, just for the Zoom format. Take the breath from behind you and swing it forward into the playing space, direct it towards the set-up. Once we feel settled with that, start sending the breath out on a "ssssss." Again, direct it towards the audience in the set-up. Once comfortable, vocalize to a "zzzzz," followed by a "mmmm," which evolves into a "moooo," and finally a "mooah."
5) Make a siren noise with your voice. Start high and go low. Don't push, go nice and easy, working the entirety of your range.
This is just a very basic start and normally I go through more than this, but this should be enough to get you started. If you'd like more with warm-ups and acting technique, you can check out my private lessons here.
Once we've established the warm-up, the next step is to make sure your space is comfortable and easy to work in. In the next post, we'll get a bit more technical and discuss how to set-up the space and begin to work.
Before we get into the technical elements that I promised in the last post, I just wanted to give a few quick updates.
First off, apologies for sporadic posts so far, between finishing up grad school and performing in a Zoom production, time is limited and I write when I can!
Also, I have changed up my set-up a bit so I could stand while performing. I was cautious of doing it for a bit because there is definitely an element of not wanting to turn my entire personal space into a set, but I wanted to practice what I preach and activate my performance properly. It's been a great experience being able to regain that structure that I had lost a bit while sitting down.
With those two things out of the way, let's get into the technical nitty gritty.
From my experience, most fully produced Zoom productions strive for visual and audio consistency from actor to actor, so the producing organization may supply a webcam and microphone to achieve that consistency, if not however, then you need to get access to both tools to be effective. Onboard webcams and microphones on a laptop just don't cut it. They may be fine for chatting with friends and meetings for work, but they aren't clear enough for performance. Without a good webcam your features will be dulled and hazy, losing a lot of the body language and facial expression that we use to communicate. Without a good microphone your voice will be unclear and you may lose range and intonation that otherwise would ring clearly.
You don't have to drop a fortune on equipment, but you need something decent. For this production of Twelfth Night we are using a C922 HD Stream Webcam from Logitech which runs about $100 and a Shure MV5 USB Microphone which also runs about $100. Now, I know this isn't cheap, but it's certainly better than my personal setup of using my Canon Rebel T6 DSLR as a webcam using their Webcam Utility and a Rode NT1A condenser microphone through my Scarlett 2i2 preamp. The camera is a bit older, but my personal set-up is around $1000, but I didn't purchase all that just for Zoom theatre, so it is not at all necessary for what we're working on here.
You don't even need to purchase something as quality as what was provided to me. The producing organization wanted the C922 because it comes with a program that allows a level of control over the image other webcams don't such as with white balance and some other elements we don't really need to worry about for our purposes. For the microphone, you can get a Blue Snowball or Blue Yeti from Amazon and it would do fine, and those are significantly cheaper.
Another piece of equipment that is a necessity is a ring light. There are tons of different options, but I would recommend one with variable colors. I don't mean red and green, but a cool white and a warm amber is more than enough. This will just give you some more flexibility in performance for look and making sure you don't look washed out or unhealthy. You can get a ring light that you can mount the webcam in too for ease of use and clear front light. Some people may want some more directional light, but this is really all you need.
Some other pieces of equipment you may want to have depending on your needs is a green screen for virtual backgrounds, a softbox lighting kit to light the green screen, other more directional lights, or a music stand to hold a script if this is an unmemorized performance or you need notes to remind you of focus points. For my money, though, none of this is necessary, and the more stuff you have around you, the more limiting your space will become, and the more tension will arise in performance.
Now for the set-up of the equipment. Place the ring light in front of you and the webcam so that it's somewhere in the middle of that for best lighting. I would also recommend placing the computer screen behind and centered in the ring light so you can have the video conferencing software there and you can check in with your scene partners as well as ensure you look good without letting the focus drift too far away. Place the microphone under the ring light and ensure it's directed towards you. The closer the better, but it also can't run the risk of coming in frame. Experiment with whatever microphone you have and check to see what works best. A lot of this is based on context.
I would recommend standing 3-4 feet away from the camera so that way we can see more than just head and shoulders. Remember that the focus of this blog is movement, so the more of your body we can fit on frame, the more options you have in performance.
If you have a green screen, have that behind you and lit separately so that the software can recognize it more easily. If room is an issue, you can also light it from behind and that should do the trick. Unless you're using high quality software, which let's face it, you probably aren't, the green screen effect will be very finicky. The more help you can give it, the better off you'll be.
As an example, as Malvolio, there's the infamous yellow cross gartering in one of the costumes. When we first tried that in tech in costume, the software recognized the yellow in the costume as part of the green screen, so needless to say, I looked strange. I had to make sure I was getting a stronger light on me specifically and it worked out, but it did become a bit harsher for me.
In terms of equipment and set-up, we're in a good place! Next up, we're going to talk about building character and characterization on Zoom!
Again, sorry for the delay in blog posts. Getting ready to open up a show takes a lot of time when also being a grad student!
Today we're going to take about characterization on Zoom. The good news: it's not very different than doing it on the stage or in film proper. The primary difference is, as I have mentioned numerous times before, the frame. Usually you're only seeing halfway up the torso, give or take a few inches. On top of that, your kinesphere is tightened because you can't spread your arms out and if you move too close to the camera, you may either get the top of your head out of frame or the proportions may look really odd, such as a hand larger than your head. While the audience may understand that these things can happen, it does still ruin the illusion, and as we know, our trade is reliant on the illusion.
As a side note, a lot of this talk depends on whether this is simply a Zoom reading, or if it is using a streaming broadcast software such as vMix, StreamYard, OBS, or others. In my situation, I'm using vMix, which has pros and cons and is using cropped frames that limit movement even more. Actors quite literally only have a couple inches to play with and any gestures have to stay very close to the body.
So this is what I've found helps.
First things first, figure out your character center. Where is movement originating from? Is it the groin, the chest, the chin, the nose, the forehead, is it symmetrical or asymmetrical, etc. Even if the center can't be seen on screen, it will still read clear to the audience as long as you are specific and consistent in it. Same thing if you're sitting down in the performance, that center will go with you. Being clear in your center makes sitting work more efficient as well since it gives you something to focus on instead of sinking into the chair and allowing energy to dissipate into the ground.
Once you have that, start moving around and experimenting with movements from that center. Even though you can't use your full range of movement in this medium, it is imperative you know what it feels like. You need to experience the big feelings and movements in order to bring them down into the frame. Take something simple, like how does the character point. Do it big with a full extension, and then bring it closer to the body. Look at yourself through the webcam to make sure it fits. Notice what lines are created in the body. This helps you develop a vocabulary for the character. If everyone goes through this, then we start finding that each character moves and holds themselves very differently, which is important no matter what, but especially so here, where everything is more constrained, both in terms of the negative space we can have a relationship to, but also the fact our bodies are shrunk into thumbnails on a computer screen.
When you're feeling comfortable with that, bring it into the scene work. Work through the scenes with full movement as if you were truly doing it on stage. Make discoveries as you normally would and see what you can translate online, whether you're standing or sitting. Do specific gestures start repeating? Are there impulses to move coming from certain lines or cues? Do you want to transition from sitting to standing or vice versa? We need to know as much as possible about our characters and their physicality in order to distill it down to essential truths and movements.
All of this will inform the voice as well, which I'm sure you'll discover as you move through the process. If the center moves from your own personal center, then the breath will change with it, and when the breath changes, the voice goes with it. The main comment I want to make about the voice in this medium is to remember that microphones only pick up what you give it. Don't be fooled by the camera and microphone being so close. You still have to project and send it out. Especially when you're working on sightlines and not speaking directly into the microphone (at least depending on what kind you are using).
This all brings us to the next topic and the next post: communicating with others when you have to use sightlines that don't allow you to truly look at them.