Sunday, May 31, 2009

Audition by Michael Shurtleff - Humor

The following is the fourth in a series of twelve articles based upon the twelve guideposts listed in Audition: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to Get the Part by Michael Shurtleff. The author was the casting director for many of David Merrick's Broadway productions. He also worked with Bob Fosse and Andrew Lloyd Webber. His book is known as the actor’s bible. If you take a college acting class, it will likely be required reading. While Shurtleff’s book is aimed at actors, his principles are beneficial to both writers and directors as well. This series is geared toward writers.


Shurtleff reminds actors, writers and directors that humor is not jokes; it’s not being funny. Humor is the coin of exchange between humans that helps us endure the tragedies of life by providing balance. It helps us get through the day. Every life situation and every scene, no matter how serious the topic, contains humor. Humor is more important in drama than it is in comedy. Write your serious scene without humor and it’s too dark. You’ll lose your reader/audience. Actors must become conscious of it and put it in their performances. Writers must infuse it within their stories and find it as they explore their characters. Directors must guide actors in applying humor in their performances.

Humor allied to a character’s passions, his kind of dreaming, his own unique personal fight makes the character and the actor’s performance of that character a legend. Shurtleff cites the unique ways in which Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart utilized their senses of humor in their performances in The African Queen. Think of some of your favorite films and stage performances. What made the characters come to life for you? How much of your remembrance of those performances involved the unique portrayal of the characters’/actors’ humor? Wasn’t it the humor conveyed, particularly in the darkest, most tragic scenes, that helped make the characters/actors more memorable? Some of my favorite uses of humor in a role were utilized by Claude Rains as Captain Renault and Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine in Casablanca. I have a hard time imagining anyone else bringing the same vitality to those characters, mainly because of their use of humor, particularly in the scene in which Rick holds Captain Renault at gunpoint.

Be mindful of humor in every scene of your story. It is the tool that makes your characters/actors attractive, seductive and irreplaceable.


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