Monday, 11 January 2010

Stagecraft Matters : a homage to Ken Campbell

Almost a decade ago, I was lucky enough to stumble into the improvisation classes taught by the late Ken Campbell in a north London cellar. Ken was a rare genius, and I'll probably be writing about him again, but in case you're not familiar with his work, Wikipedia has a good introduction:

He was aggressively, mischievously, didactic, and he wasn't always right. For one thing, he hated the internet. One of the many, many things he *was* right about was the gradual disappearance of a set of skills that, before the triumph of television, all actors had to learn in order to make a living; a set of skills called stagecraft.

I'm not going to discuss them all in one blog post, and, by their very nature (they are embodied, not intellectual skills), I can't do any of them justice. Every now and then, however, Ken would announce that he was about to tell us one of the rules of stagecraft, and fixing us with what can only be called a beady eye, growl out some hoary truth or another. To his visible, if slightly mocking, approval, I took notes. Some are archaic, others, I'm sure, are restatements of things other theatre folk have said, but for me, they evoke Ken and the lively, populist, and craftsmanlike tradition from which he came. I can't think of a better way to start this blog than to transcribe them. Here, then, in my words and no particular order, are as many as I caught of:

The Principles of Stagecraft, according to Ken Campbell

Never cross upstage of someone if you can avoid it.

The character who's won a scene exits upstage left.

Comedy is loud.

Don't swallow the last words of speeches or lines.

To increase tension, repeat the last word of your cue. Make your line a response.

Don't play what your character is feeling; play what they're doing.

For angry scenes, exaggerate the mouth and nostrils. Stress the words that hurt.

Never throw away a line.

Find reasons to look away from the other actor(s); show the audience your face.

The straight man stands to the left (and slightly downstage) of the comic.

The mimed action goes before the words that describe it.

Don't talk on the move. Speak, go to where you want to be, Speak again.
Corollary: Speak in to the scene, take out to the house, look in to the scene again, speak again.

Pauses are only for when a character is making a decision. Don't ever use pauses as decoration.

A long speech is long because the first sentence didn't achieve its goal.

I wish I'd taken more notes in those days. If anyone reads this who remembers more, please post to say so.


  1. 'Don't play what your character is feeling; play what they're doing.'

    I like this tip a lot. I used to be part of an amateur dramatics youth group, and always assumed that whatever my part was thinking or feeling would be expressed naturally somehow through my aura, by virtue of just thinking about it. Doesn't quite beat pulling a big old facial expression.

    Do you know why the person who's 'won the scene' should exit upstage left, and the straight man stand left slightly downstage of the comic? What does this communicate to the audience (or is that not the point)?

  2. Stage left, in medieval mystery plays, was the direction of heaven. Stage right, the audience's left, was sinister hell. This persisted in the vernacular theatrical tradition so that villainous characters entered stage right and eventually returned there, defeated.

    I don't know about the straight man, but I'm guessing that, too, is a remnant of a positioning language we can no longer read.

    What you assumed in your youth group, that if you imagined a character's situation strongly and consistently it would be read by an audience without you consciously trying to convey it, is, I think, one of the great truths of acting.

    It's a mystery, in the ancient sense of something true and difficult, graspable only by revelation, not to be understood intellectually. A lot of directors and actors don't talk about it, or they talk around it. Often, when they have to address it directly, they talk about nonverbal communication, body language, even pheromones. Like you though, I think the main medium of communication is the actor's electromagnetic field; their aura.