Using Props Effectively
Let Props Say Something About Your Character
Ask A Healer Creativity Articles
Acting Tips for Keeping it Real
by N J Howell
Suggested Resources for Acting:
Actor's Power Pak
The Acting Guide
What kind of actor are you?
Why you may need an acting coach
This is part of my series on acting and how to create believable characters for film, television and stage. You can read the rest of the acting tips here
Use the prop or the prop uses you!
Acting is challenging. You have to remember lines, blocking and direction. You have to connect in a meaningful way with the other actor or actors in the scene and you have to deliver your lines in a way that feels convincing and real for your audience. Then, there's the added challenge of props. Basically, a prop is anything an actor uses in a scene. Books, pens, phones, cooking utensils, cigarettes and lighters, etc. are props. I also include clothing accessories which specifically help define the character in some meaningful way (wardrobe might disagree). Example below.
Here's the thing about using props.... I've never seen a great actor who takes a drink of anything in a common or vague way, writes with a pen or pencil just like the next person, reads a book without personal inner commentary that is specific and unique, etc. In off-camera reality, every person approaches such tasks in a way that reveals a tiny bit about thier character. The most compelling performances are those where the actor has found a way to individualize how they behave and this definitely includes any items used or handled during a scene. Who we are changes how we use things around us. As an actor, using props without connecting the use of those items to the character in a meaningful way just doesn't work.
Acting exercise on using props:
Start exploring the wonderful world of props with this simple acting improv. Imagine that your character is expecting an important phone call. The phone rings. Try answering a phone as suggested below. Objective: Notice how your body moves, when embued with these inner cues and environment.
a) Like a Snake
b) Like a drunk
c) As if your life depended on it
d) As if you truly dreaded it
e) As if it's someone else's phone and you're not sure whether you should answer it or not
f) Like a playful kitten
Never just use a prop; find a way to use it effectively, in a way that further defines your character for the audience. For example, is your character a nervous sort or nervous in the scene? Show it truthfully and organically by the particular way they handle props. Is your character cocky, angry, lonely, in love, hungry, afraid, etc? Whatever your character is feeling internally should have an external effect on the body. The audience should sense it in the way the character moves as well as all that the character touches.
I Did Not Practice What I Preach:
I once blew a perfectly good audition by choosing a prop I then forgot to use. I was auditioning for Mario Peebles, in a funny little waitress role (I tend to get a lot of those).
I decided to wear the wrist brace I use when my carpal tunnel flares up. I've waitressed before and know how heavy those trays get by the end of the shift. Anyway, Mario jokingly asked me who I hit before I came in. Good sign - something to remember. But then, I totally forgot to use the prop and let it use me. If my wrist were really hurting, it would have changed my entire reading. As it was, the prop was less than useless, it was damaging to the reading. So, if you choose any kind of costuming enhancer for a call back, be sure it matters and that you actually integrate it in a way that changes the way you read the role.
Actually, I blew that audition for another reason too. Mario Peebles improvs with the actor. It's so rare to have someone do that (at least, in my experience auditioning in the south) that I totally had no authentic comeback at all. I know he was looking for someone quick on their feet and my resume states STRONG IMPROV. I realized I'd better brush up on my improv skills (and always expect to use them) in case another fun director comes south to film soon! So, lesson learned is to expect the unexpected and be ready to fulfill every skill you have listed on your resume, at any time during any audition.
By not being at the top of my game, I lost a job, did not connect with the director and did not back my casting director's confidence in me. That audition was with one of my favorite casting directors, Jo Doster. I want her to feel confident calling me in so I am aware that I may have weakened that confidence in a single audition. I could have backed her decision to call me in by being better prepared.
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