Song And Dance For Actors
Strasberg described the result of this exercise as an “X-ray into the problem of the actor’s “will” actually carrying through what it is the actor is trying to perform.
The exercise has two parts: the “song” and the “dance”.
The actor first relaxes in a chair before performing the exercise. Then he is asked to choose a simple song, one that requires no effort remembering the tune and words, such as “Happy Birthday”, which he will use in the exercise.
While maintaining the relaxed state, the actor stands facing the “audience”, and is asked to sing the song one syllable and note at a time, filling his lungs fully before releasing each note. So the first syllable, “Hap”, would require the actor ‘s full volume of breath, the next syllable, “py”, is repeated in the same manner, and so on throughout the entire song. While performing the song, the actor should maintain eye contact with the individuals who are observing the exercise, and be aware at each individual moment what feelings he experiences as the exercise progresses.
[Sounds easy, so far, right? But what often happens, is that the actor is unable to carry out the exercise as directed. The “will” to do the exercise is there, but the carrying through of the will is inhibited by problems of expression within the actor. For instance, the actor may be unconsciously expressing the song with the hands, or facial muscles. Or the actor may rock back-and-forth, although having been asked to remain relaxed and motionless on the spot.
We see tension manifesting itself in the actor, although the actor is not aware of the tension.
The instructor stops the exercise to point out to the actor that he is moving his hands, or moving his eyebrows up and down, or rocking back and forth, and then asks the actor to resume.
It is no surprise to the instructor, but a valuable learning experience for others watching, that the actor performing the exercise usually returns to the same patterns of “habitual behavior” he had before the exercise was stopped. So the instructor again stops the actor. This process may continue throughout, while often the actor cannot seem to “will” himself to be motionless while performing the exercise.
Occasionally, actors doing this exercise begin to feel a variety of emotions bubbling up. They may suddenly begin laughing, or start to cry, or become angry. When this happens, I instruct the actor to relax, and continue singing through the emotions.
It is noted that many actors have difficulty maintaining eye contact with those watching. The exercise is stopped to remind the actor to keep eye contact. But often, after a moment or two after resuming, we see the actor avoiding the eyes of those watching.
One thing we learn from the “Song” part of the exercise is that the actor often is not aware of what he is doing at the time it is happening. This awareness needs to be developed in the actor as a “sixth sense “, so that the actor knows what he is doing while he is doing it, without sacrificing his sense of belief in the “scenic truth” he is experiencing on the stage.
For this part of the exercise, the actor is asked to sing the same song in short, staccato, rhythmic bursts, with each syllable of the song attended by a “dance ” movement. On the syllable “Hap”, one position of the dance is performed, on the syllable “py” another position, and so on throughout the song.
Often, at this stage, the actor will be observed standing at the starting position, thinking about how to proceed, trying to “figure out” a suitable “dance” for the song. At this point, I tell the actor, “JUST GO!”. Still, the actor hesitates. I say, “GO, NOW! DON’T THINK ABOUT IT, JUST GO!”
So the actor begins, and we usually see a predictable dance pattern that is carefully thought-out in advance by the actor as he progresses from moment-to-moment.
In several cases, I have had to ask someone from the workshop to take the stage and demonstrate for the actor what is expected in this part of the Song and Dance exercise. This does not always help, which serves as a lesson regarding the value of this exercise.
The difficulty with this part of the exercise is what we describe as “getting out of your head” and “into pure, unpredictable expression”. Although actors know what is required in a scene, they must repeat it each night at performance, while giving the impression that it is actually happening for the first time. The “dance” part of the exercise is helpful in illustrating to the actor how difficult it is to express pure impulses on the stage. The “mind” wishes to safely guide the actor through every phase of his involvement on the stage. When that happens, impulse dies.
I remember the first time I was asked to do the Song and Dance exercise at the Strasberg Institute in Los Angeles, in a “method” class taught by Dominic DeFazio, one of the best teachers of this work I have ever seen. Although I had no problem with the exercise, and was able to carry out what my “will” was demanding of me, a little voice in the back of my head was saying, “Oh, oh…there’s no place to hide here. “