Avatar Repertory Theater – Preparing a Role for Poetry

by Ada Radius
April 22, 2016

Avatar Repertory Theater actors are preparing to record a professional podcast of Robert Frost’s “North of Boston”, most of which are drama poems.  We performed a one hour version of it live, with virtual sets and avatars, at the lastVWBPE conference, and, now that we have some New England accents under our virtual belts, wanted to get it recorded. And do the whole book this time.

I’m directing this project and acting in some of it. My job is to assign parts (with feedback from the actors on the team), to do what I can to make sure everyone is prepared by the time we get to the recording sessions and help with editing. Bob Shurley (Thundergas Menges in virtual worlds) is our recording engineer and audio editor, and the other three actors are Em Jannings, Iain McCracken (Sodovan Torok in Second Life), and Susan Wolfe-Hill (JadaBright Pond) who is also our producer.

The producer is the chief cat-herder, as we actors can be, well cat-like and difficult to herd at times. She also reviews our time and invoicing, keeps us within our budget, assists people who need help getting organized, figures out what’s needed and who should find it, and is the glue that holds a project together.

It’ll be up on YouTube, in seventeen sections, one for each poem, whenever we get it done, I’m no longer predicting timelines, lol, it always takes longer than I think it will. Scheduling is the biggest challenge for busy actors. It takes about an hour of recording time for each 15 minutes of clearly recorded speech, and editing takes about ten minutes for each minute of recorded sound. These are the industry standards, at least. Since this is for YouTube, not the best resolution nor sound quality, and we’ll be recording remotely with Bob from our home studios, we may be able to get it done a little faster.

Our actors are all experienced, some more experienced than others, and each of us has things we’re better at and worse at. Though one of us may be designated director for a project, we all work to help each other during rehearsals. We trust each others’ ears. Each of us has a unique voice, personality and delivery.  Every actor on a project is encouraged to suggest meanings and emphasis. This can be by reliving our own stories (method acting*). Or as simple as Em, for example, at one of the rehearsals, stopping me because I hadn’t paused long enough before a punchline.

For a piece like “North of Boston”, which is dramatic poetry, we’re not only reading poetry, we’re acting the parts of the characters in the dialogues and monologues. It’s similar to Shakespearean acting.

This is an expanded version of advice I gave an actor this morning, to prepare for a 10 minute speech that we’ll rehearse later before we start recording. A monster monologue.

  • After you’ve read it out loud a few times, record yourself in Audacity and listen to yourself. Don’t panic. You can do this.
  • While you’re listening, mark all the places your voice should go up in pitch, and down in pitch. (I use little arrows), if you missed some. Underline words that need more emphasis to get the meaning across.
  • Mark up the script further. Mark where you’re going to breath. Singers use a big check mark.
  • Break up the dynamics – don’t be afraid to whisper, shout, scream.  Move away from your mic if you’re speaking or yelling to someone from a distance. Get close in and drop your voice for intimacy.
  • Add other vocal noises – whispers, throat clearing, hoarseness, chuckles, sighs, tsk tsking, inhaled hiss, coughing, whatever you can think of that this character would use while talking. This is called voice foley. If your character would be moving or lifting something, do that very thing while recording, so you’re the right amount of out-of-breath or showing the strain or pleasure.
  • In poetry, if there is no punctuation at the end of a line, there is sometimes a very slight expressive pause, often no more than the lengthening of a word, or you can choose to run it straight through. A comma is a short pause, a hyphen is a longer one with a hanging meaning, maybe something not said. A period is full stop, drop your voice and take a big breath.
  • Frost has rhymes and rhythms. Speak the lines to emphasize those, not so much as to be comedic if it’s not supposed to be funny, just enough so that we hear the music.
  • Each piece, no matter how short, has an arc – think about the end of the piece so your intent is moving toward it. Within each piece, each sentence has an arc. For a long piece like this one, break it up into sections (pencil a line between them) and change the mood for each one, each with its own arc and sub-arcs. If this is confusing, work on it later.
  • Think about memories you have that relate to the feelings of your character, and bring them to the front while you’re saying your lines. Be your character.

*read Lee Strasberg and Constantin Stanislavski if you want to know more about method acting)

Posted in Avatar Repertory Theater.