Sunday, February 27, 2011


A group of editors in Russia once wanted to test the concept and level of audience participation in the telling and understanding of film narrative. They took a shot of a man seemingly looking at something off set and decided to cut it into two different scenes. The first scene was a jovial party with dancing and laughter and the usual party shenanigans. The shot of the man was inserted into the party scene and this compilation was shown to a random group of viewers. The second scene was a somber funeral and once again the shot of the man was inserted and the final reel shown to a second group of random viewers. Both groups were asked to explain what they saw and here is what the editors found out: That the first group of viewers were mostly convinced that they had seen a man having fun at a party while the second group were absolutely sure they had seen a very sad man attending a funeral. This was despite the fact that the shot of the man was completely unrelated to both of the other scenes and the man had not been reacting to anything at the time the shot was taken.

It is an eye-opening story. Most actors forget just how much of the narrative of film is controlled by the editor and the audience and tend to believe that they(or their acting) control the narrative. The most important thing for an actor to remember according to Neil is that in film, the actor mostly provides raw material for the editor
to tell the story with. It is the editor who creates/forms your performance and not yourself. In Kenya where most TV/Film actors come from the theater, this is a most important thing to remember as it is perhaps the greatest disparity between acting for the stage and for the screen. For example, in theatrical rehearsals, taking a scene again means repeating action to get a certain performance exactly right. In film, taking a scene again means that an actor should try to do the scene differently from what he did the first time so as to give the editor a variety of action with which to form a performance.

Neil on the set of 'SAINTS'
These are just a few of the acting tips that Neil Schell shared with hundreds of aspiring and established actors at an acting and auditioning workshop held at Kenya National Theater on 24th February 2011. Here are other bits and pieces that Neil shared with participants at the workshop(as I understood them):

- When you read a script, do not try to memorize the lines but rather, just let them in. Whatever the script/lines/words make you feel is exactly what you need to use in order to portray the character. That is how to be true to the text. Think of the character as someone you just met; Would you impose a style/way of thinking on a stranger? All you know is yourself and what the script is making you feel and that is "the truth."

- Your intellect does not know how to act!! Avoid thinking through your lines and trying to 'get it perfect'. Characters in films and TV programs are supposed to be normal people and like normal people, they are not perfect. If you have truly understood and accepted your role, you wont need to think in order to portray the character you represent.

- Learn to "do nothing" well. A lot of actors do not know what to do with themselves when they are waiting for their cues. Audiences can tell when this is happening and it looks very unprofessional when it is noticeable. According to Neil, an actor who understands the role will know what the character would do even when they are just standing about 'doing nothing.'

- Learn your languages. An actor is a dealer in language and must be conversant with whatever language that the text is written in because the actor must always understand the text. Be as good as you can be at English, or Swahili or whatever language you use and always make sure you understand the text you're working with, every word of it. Bring a dictionary to the set if you have to but never speak a word, while in character, that you do not understand yourself.

- Do not judge your character. This is an evergreen tip for actors and it's true. It doesn't matter that you think your character is an absolutely rude bastard, do not try to make him nicer!! That will not be the character in the text anymore and that is probably one of the biggest mistakes that an actor can make.

- Be professional: This means punctual, reliable, friendly, helpful, honest, and all those things that make a person a joy to work with. At the end of the day, people will be spending a lot of personal time with you on the set and you must not only not inconvenience others, but you must make them enjoy your company if only for the sake of your future career. "Professionalism always wins over talent in this industry" says Neil with absolute conviction and he referred to some experiences on the set of "Saints" to prove his point.

- An actor must also know what makes a good story or a bad one. This will help the actor concerning which roles they select and audition for and ultimately, how to build a respectable career. There are lousy actors who have built respectable careers mostly by picking their roles and movies well while others have had career problems because of poorly chosen roles and movies(I'm thinking Hale Berry-Catwoman here).

- An actor is a business and businesses issue business cards, have websites, and do marketing. That is how business progresses. Every actor should therefore make sure that they push themselves just as any business would in order to get noticed and hired. Otherwise, the same faces will keep getting all the jobs. "Flow out, get out there", he says. "And this includes sending out resumes and headshots, posting work on you-tube, facebook and other sites on the internet and networking."(I wonder if writing this article counts)

Perhaps the most important thing Neil mentioned at the workshop was that at the end of the day, what everyone is looking for in an actor(or any other position for that matter) is not a hired hand, but a collaborator. Someone who comes to the table with something to give rather than something to receive and considers every role as a contribution to the process rather than an employment opportunity. One of his articles on acting sums it up nicely, "Set up acting as the usual thing you do and whenever things seem impossible, out of control or crushing, do the usual."

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  1. Well written piece.. I feel like one of the participants! I had to print the article as am not fully comfortable with electronic archival.. Thanks a bunch!

    - Nairobi: 8am 22nd & 23rd March at Kenya National Theater
    - Mombasa 8am 26th March (Venue TBA).

    Please email to get your sides/scripts to prep for auditions.

  3. GOSH WHY AM I DISCOVERING THIS BLOG NOW!! awesome stuff kabisa!!

  4. At this point, you are my favorite blogger :-D

  5. I found the blog after taking clases with Neil this August. It's all an actor could ask for.This will help actors and upcoming as well. Thanks for the tips.