Preparation is more than knowing your lines. It is embodying the life of the character. Your emotional state, mood, and choices you make while you prepare all affect that first moment the director yells, “Action.”
When I was just out of college, I apprenticed at the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre in Jupiter, Fla. Although I sacrificed sleep and suffered the indignity of washing smelly laundry, it was worth it as I got an insider’s view into the craft and process of some of America’s most iconic and loved actors.
I was struck how every night before Martin Sheen took the stage in “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest,” he would play basketball with the guys outside the stage door. I wondered at the time why he wasn’t preparing, only to later realize that he was. Basketball—rough, cursing, shoving, and joking—was what he needed to get in the mindset to be the loud, dirty, sexual, and determined character of McMurphy. In his case, genius literally was one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration!
I tell my students what Sheen knew: An actor cannot begin a scene emotionally empty. It is critical to make good choices leading up to that first moment. Child actors have some unique advantages and challenges in this regard. Although a basketball court may not be readily available before your next audition or when the camera rolls, here are some tips to help with your preparation.
Make up a story one line at a time. Sometimes it is hard to change gears. Homework or a fight with your sister, for example, make it hard to be the cheerful, Disney character you are about to play. One way to leave the day behind is to make up a story with a partner one or several lines at a time with each of you picking up the story where the other left off. This exercise is fun and natural for young actors, sharpens the ability to listen and react, and clears the mind of distractions and anxiety.
Play cards. Really, play cards! If the part you are playing is social and funny, play Go Fish with your mom and possibly another kid waiting to audition. Solitaire, on the other hand, is the way to go if the part is more of a loner or introspective. Young actors often draw on the mood around them, especially when they do not have the life experience to play a part they are asked to play. A social or solitary game of cards will keep you from trying too hard and will help you take advantage of the unfiltered way many young actors are able to naturally tap into the emotional context around them.
Visit the bathroom. It is especially difficult for many young actors to ignore the desire to please or exercise the autonomy to overrule authority figures around them. Sometimes you will need to get away from a parent who wants to drill you on your lines at the very last minute (generally a bad idea) or the child wrangler who just won’t let you be. To use your visit as excellent preparation, leave a note in the stall from the point of view of your character. This is especially fun if you are playing a mischievous role!
Young actors must deal with the same chaos that abounds around adult actors in the moments before they perform and both must create strategies and rituals that they can apply in a variety of circumstances to perform successfully. Kids have the advantages and disadvantages of being kids. Remember to play to your natural strengths in the moments before you begin your role and you are likely to find great success in the moments after.