Acting Exercises

Playbill from Madeleine’s apprentice year

“Theater is the most comprehensive of the arts. It blends spoken thoughts, poetry, music, actions, color, design, and human emotions into a single absorbing unit.” From “Rehearsal” by Miriam A. Franklin, first published in 1938.

The following are a series of acting and voice exercises that explore similar practices to the ones mentioned in JOL. They are adapted from a variety of sources, including “Improvisation for the Theater,” by Viola Spolin. Many of these exercises are akin to the game of “Charades.”

Non-Verbal Exercises

“Eating Food” — Divide the group into teams of 2 or more players. Each team decides what it is they are “eating.” Through wordless and prop-less improvisation, each team reveals via smelling, touching, and tasting what they are “eating.” The other group(s) must guess what it is. Can be practiced at home.

“Noticing Change” — Divide the group into teams of 2 players each. The players stand/sit opposite each other and observe the other, their hair, dress, every detail they can absorb. After a few minutes, instruct the players to turn their backs on their assigned partner. Then each alters 3 things on his/her person – buttoning, unbuttoning, changing a part in the hair, removing glasses, etc. After a few minutes, the pairs turn around to face each other again, and each participant has to describe what has been altered. Switch partners, over and over again, until everyone has “played” with everyone else. Caveat: Do not reveal in advance that this will be done multiple times.

“Making an Object Seem Real” — One at a time, a single participant, through silent improvisation, pretends to have an object in their possession. Using their whole body, the player handles and demonstrates the use of the object (even what happens if it gets away from him/her) until someone else in the group identifies it correctly.

“Following the Follower” — Two players stand/sit opposite each other and take turns mirroring each other’s movement. Then, repeat the exercise in teams of 2, where each team of 2 must mirror another team of 2 performing some activity. The leader may say “Change!” at any point in the activity so the individual/team may switch roles, follow rather than lead; lead rather than follow.

Verbal Exercises

“Point of Concentration” — Two participants decide on a secret topic to be discussed in front of the whole group without ever naming it. The pair begins discussing the topic and may deliberately mislead the others. BUT they are not permitted to make any false statements. No one may ask questions or guess the topic out loud, but when anyone feels they know what the topic is, they may join the conversation. Once part of it, the original pair may challenge the new participant, who at any time may be asked to whisper what their “guess” is to one of the original 2 players. If correct they may remain in the discussion; if not, the player must sit down. The game goes on until all the players (having guessed correctly) are involved. If a player is wrong about the topic 3 times, they are automatically out of the game.

“Building a Narrative” — For teams of 4 or more participants. The first player begins a story. As it progresses, the group leader points to another player and they must immediately continue the story from the place where the last person left off. Continue until the story has been completed or the leader says “stop.” This game may also be conducted in rhyme – with each player adding a line – or in rhyming song (the leader may choose a topic or if there is more than one group of 4, another group can suggest the topic for them.

“Alive or Dead” — This is based on the classic party game of Who Am I? One person (“it”) leaves the room. The rest of the group decides who that person is going to be. The group may choose someone living or dead, presumably either known or relevant to the group in some way, such as an historical figure. The excluded person rejoins the group and they begin to ask questions that will (hopefully) lead the person to figure out “who they are.” Once the “it” person has discovered who they are, they must then interact with the group as that person.

“Gibberish” — Each member of the group begins by conducting a conversation with the person next to them, speaking an unknown language, entirely constructed in gibberish. The participants should try to use as many sounds and rhythms as possible, yet convey their intent, mood and ideas without using “real” words. Keep the conversation going until everyone has “talked’ to everyone else.

Speech/Vocal Exercises

To do these exercises, the participants will need a mirror and a small cork (such as a wine cork split in two). These exercises are designed to make the actor more aware of the physical nature of speech, as well as serving to make the face muscles more flexible and improve enunciation and resonance.

Warming Up: Sit or stand tall, with your spine in a comfortably straight alignment. Place your hand on your diaphragm. Close your eyes. Breath deeply (but quietly) through your nose. Feel how the breath goes in and out. Feel how the breath affects the whole body. Shake your shoulders loose. What are you feeling? How does that affect your breathing? Start to feel the inside of your mouth (without touching it), your lips, the inside of your cheeks, your teeth, your tongue. Feel how clenched or relaxed your jaw feels. Allow your breathing to relax your whole body.

Vowels and Consonants: Facing the mirror, exaggerate the way you move your lips, mouth and jaw, as you say a single vowel at a time. Observe the physical motion of creating long and short vowel sounds. Example: To create a long O, as in cold, you need to round the lips and bring up the jaw. Try this with all the vowels. Then do it with the diphthongs, all the time observing your physical changes in the mirror. Change the speed that you are saying them, hold them a long or short time, say them loud or soft. Once you have mastered the long and short vowels, you may add consonants before them, to see how that changes your physical speech. Example: ma, me, mi, mo, etc.

Cork in The Mouth: Bite down on a half cork, holding it firmly between your upper and lower teeth. Read a passage from a book or some other printed material out loud without removing the cork. Read it in a soft voice and then loud, alternating between the two. Take the cork out, and read the passage again, loud and soft. You will notice how much crisper and clearer your pronunciation is. This exercise may also be used in rehearsal.

Tongue Twisters: Choose a tongue twister. Initially say one at normal speed, repeating it while making an effort to use as much of your lips, jaw and mouth. The goal is to be able to keep saying it without slurring or mispronouncing any of the words. Gradually speed up. For greater improvement, do this exercise with a cork in your mouth and in the round with each player starting as another player finishes. This exercise also improves concentration.