Green Room Talk

Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine | www.scene4.com

Nathan Thomas

“It’s time for warm-ups.”

Eliud Kipchoge recently ran a marathon in a little less than two hours.  Do you imagine that he got up, smoked a few cigarettes, spoke to a few of his friends, and then walked up to the start line?  Or, do you imagine he did something to prepare his body for what he was about to do?

I regularly teach new actors, most of whom are also athletes (or have been recently).  One of the toughest things for them to want to learn is about preparing themselves for a rehearsal or a performance.  They don’t want to do it.  They’d rather chat with their friends, or they’d rather try to cram just a few more words into their brains.  But they don’t want to warm-up. 

It’s a habit that they can’t imagine, so they don’t do it.

Then we get into the thorny world of what you should do to warm-up.

For me, the goal is to ready the body, center the breath, warm and place the voice and the articulators, and prepare the imagination.  An actor prepared in body, breath, voice, and imagination is ready to do most anything demanded of her on the stage.

A good warm-up achieves those goals. A poor warm-up does stuff, but leaves the actor unprepared.

I have to admit that as an actor, I don’t care much for group warm-ups on two counts.  And the first facet of most group warm-ups I’ve done is something I’ve never quite understood.  I don’t understand getting the actors to jump around and get more stressed and excited.  I have enough stress, and I’m excited enough.  Thanks. I don’t need to do more stress.  Stepping on stage is quite enough of a thrill, I don’t need further jarring of my nerves.  Indeed, given that most of us have a hard enough time remembering to breathe, jumping around to pump ourselves up simply triggers more breathlessness, insofar as I’ve observed.

The second aspect of group warm-ups I dislike is more personal.  I don’t quite feel “dirty” as I get ready for a performance.  But I do not want to be seen.  I’m not quite me anymore, but I’m not quite him yet, either.  I don’t want to be seen by anyone in this moment.  And I don’t quite care to interact with anyone.  I generally like to say “Break a leg” to maybe one or two colleagues and then be in a private, mental space.

As much as I dislike group warm-ups, I’ve led them myself many times.  However, my warm-ups spend a fair amount of time asking the actors to find the breath and exhale deeply.  It’s counter-intuitive to initiate deep breathing by exhaling deeply, but it works.  The more you exhale, the more stress is released, and the body will naturally work to bring as much breath as needed.  In my experience it also helps people diminish their worry about the past and anxiety about the future.  It’s not helpful for the actor to bring this afternoon’s disagreements on stage, nor for her to be worrying about what’s going to happen after the show.

What do I do to warm-up?  I’ve essentially had the same warm-up for nearly thirty years.  I do a tai chi form that I was taught by Mr. Ch’eng at the University of Iowa back in 1985.  I use it to find where my balance is.  It also helps me breathe.

I sing one of two songs to see where my voice is and insure that’s it’s limber.  And I adore, “Titus, the tailor, told ten tall tales to Titania, the tit-mouse” from Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as my go-to tongue-twister.

And I do an imagination exercise taught me by Lee Hicks nearly 35 years ago.  Imagine a surface in front of me (a non-threatening surface a safe distance near me – for those who are claustrophobic).  And imagine with tactile precision what that surface feels like.

I don’t like doing it in front of others.  Mainly I’m trying to figure myself out as I’m working to find my way into that guy – the character I’m playing.

There have been some performing circumstances where I wasn’t able to do this.   Consequently I’ve found those shows tougher.

“I’d never say it that way.”

No, you wouldn’t.

Actors are regularly challenged by lines from the playwright that they wouldn’t say.  So the actor complains about the “foreignness” of the line in question.  Can we change it?

One regularly reads about films where the actors worked and re-wrote this or that part of the script.

I’m always slightly aghast at this.  I had a teacher in junior high school who believed firmly that everyone who tried out for a play should have a part in it.  The way that she would handle this issue was by writing new lines – sometimes whole scenes – for these actors.  I’m sure that none of these scenes were ever agreed to by the playwrights or their representatives.  She just did it.

First, I know playwrights.  And every playwright I’ve known is someone who cares a lot about words and language.  I’ve known playwrights who might not be great with plot, or playwrights who are sloppy world-builders.  But I’ve never known a playwright who didn’t care about language.  And most of them are very careful in their word choices.

Second, no, you wouldn’t say it that way.  You probably wouldn’t come up with “To be, or not to be” or “Attention must be paid.”  Most of us aren’t gifted that way with language.

Finally, love, I’ve heard you talk.  What you come up with on your own wouldn’t hold an audience’s attention for two or three hours of show time.

Learn the playwright’s lines the way they were written.

“Do you think I can make it?”

Yes.  Yes, I do.  Keep after it.

Oh.  Stage management just called “Places.”  Must dash.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia University. He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2019 Nathan Thomas
©2019 Publication Scene4 Magazine



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