Aan Steele teaches monologues and scene study for SAG-AFTRA’s Conservatory, which is the educational component of this organization. For just $35 a year, you can take one class a week from one of the 15-20 teachers who donate their time teaching a variety of acting classes.
While the end result for all the teachers is to have the members walk away with some extra tools to put in their acting tool box, they all have their own way of passing along that information.
Aan’s background as an actress is impressive. Combining that experience with the knowledge she’s gained over the years helped her guide us. She was featured in “War of the Worlds,” “The Producers,” “Summer of Sam,” and “She Devil” on film. On TV she appeared in “Sex and the City,” and “The Sopranos.” Her theatre credentials are equally as impressive and include “Zelda’s Ghostdance” and “The Trial of Joan at Rouen,” among others. She’s done commercials and trained with Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof.
Aan’s approach is more laid back then some of the others as those of us who attended her class all witnessed. One by one she had each person do their monologue or scene while only making subtle comments here and there. As an actress herself she would pass along occasional tidbits of things she recently heard and those were the types of tips that stayed with you.
Those bits of information often came after she watched someone perform. She’d pause a minute to reflect and then out would pop some words of wisdom.
Don’t do a lot with your hands because that can be distracting, put your toes on the mark and don’t lean against the wall, were some examples of those helpful tips.
Aan observed what was happening in front of her which often meant that the comments could take any direction and wouldn't necessarily have a link to the previous comment.
We learned from Aan that the camera aimed down portrays the actor as an underling. If the camera is aimed up, it gives the actor power. If the actor has any say, having the camera at eye level is the safest choice. Casting directors usually have the camera preset to adjust to the actor’s height. The actor may use arms and ask “What’s my frame?” to find out whether the shot is of the head only or head and shoulders or head and chest.
Sometimes Aan’s pointers would come softly and other times with more power behind them. For instance, when where to look was discussed she was more emphatic noting that the importance of looking into the camera when you speak is critical.
If you get new copy, use the information from the script to get what you want from the imaginary person (or persons) in the camera or from the reader.
She also emphasized that acting is not about being in a rush but that actors should take their time to think about what they are saying when they get something last minute.
The eyes are the mirror to the soul!
The lens sees your soul. You can’t lie. It is going to see you deep down and what you are about. If you trust yourself in front of that camera, it will love you and won’t allow you to make a mistake. If you believe you made a mistake, the audience will also believe that you did.
Aan cited various acting teachers such as Herbert Berghof, who compared acting to tennis because acting is like a sport of give and take between you and your fellow actors. You hit the ball and then it comes back to you.
And again those tips continued.
You need to listen. You become real when you listen. If you work with other people their reactions will help bring your character alive.
To memorize quickly, pick a key word in each sentence and memorize it. This also helps key words to surface for each beat.
Knowing the lines by rote frees the actors to use the words as tools. It has been said that Anthony Hopkins repeats his lines 250 times to be sure he has them.
When you are looking at someone who is reading with you, focusing on the eye closest to you will strengthen you.
If the reader gives you the wrong thing, you need to take the reality of that person. Take it – take what is coming and react to it. All that is real. You are human. You are alive and that camera is going to pick that up.
Learning how to improvise
In a second class Aan took an even more relaxed approach and wasn't quite as verbal but rather had us do a cold reading with a partner. She listened as the actors did cold readings and then had them put down the copy and improv to see if we really knew what the piece was about.
Aan wanted us to live in the part by understanding the circumstances of the character from the script and creating a backstory (history) for the character from our own histories. In order to properly portray the person it is imperative that we invest fully in our understanding of the author’s intention even if that understanding is incorrect. Also, we must incorporate what the other actor gives us.
If the piece we are reading has a comedic angle then there are different ways to bring out the comedy. Sometimes the comedy part is preceded by something that doesn't appear to be very comedic but we have to find the humor within ourselves.
When you are doing comedy it has to be real to you. The realer it is the funnier it is, but bringing comedy to reality can be difficult at times.
The conversation then turned to our everyday lives and how you can tie that into your stories.
Our own lives can be incorporated into our acting. Reading stories about other people’s lives can also help you get inside that person’s psyche. Actors can sometimes put themselves into mindsets and get stuck. By understanding the reality of other people you can better play that part.
Always ask yourself the following questions:
• What do you want from each other?
• What are you trying to achieve?
• Who are you?”
Those were just some of the questions that Aan asked us to answer as she sought out the meaning behind each piece and guided us to do the same.
Try to personalize it. If you are convincing a jury you know how to get to those people. You could have those people in your head for your audition (the banker, the housewife, the grandmother). Have those individual people in your mind.
The idea here is to not look at the jury as a whole but rather go from person to person and for a few seconds speak to just one person before moving on to the next one. It gives the words more depth, more intimacy.
You can pick out parts of people (the rich bitch, the housewife). What do you want from each of them? Take your time to think about what you are saying.
And the proverbial, “Who, what, where, when and why,” is always a part of any person you portray.
This was one of those classes where the students also added their comments about how each of the actors performed.
When Aan asked an actor to redo his piece as if he were angry at the other person the class clearly felt it would make no sense but she encouraged him to try it. In fact the anger did end up bringing more power to the piece. Although the words never allowed the piece to get very angry, adding that emotion created a more powerful result.
Trying new things, working with other people, improvising and becoming real by reaching into your soul is what Aan guided us to discover.
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