USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘actors’
Customs
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Don’t say “Macbeth” backstage

“Macbeth–the Scottish play. You can’t say it backstage during a performance.”

 

Actors are probably the most superstitious professional group on the planet. Among their more common superstitions is the idea that “the Scottish play” – Macbeth – is cursed. Simply speaking the name of the play backstage will bring calamity upon whatever production is being put on, so actors call it “the Scottish play” instead. There are legends about bad luck following the productions of Macbeth, but at this point, the superstition is likely kept up just for traditions’ sake. However, my informant was adamant about the fact that she would not speak the name backstage, even though she doesn’t personally believe in the curse; apparently, enough actors do believe in it that it is better to refrain than risk their wrath.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Protection

Break a leg

“You can never say ‘good luck,’ you have to say ‘break a leg.’”

 

My informant grew up in the theater. This is perhaps the most common superstition among stage performers. Although my informant wasn’t sure exactly where the tradition comes from, it is likely that performers don’t want to jinx their show by talking about luck or anticipating a good show. Instead, “break a leg” does just the opposite – it wishes harm on the performer so that the opposite will happen.

Humor
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire

How many…

Informant Bio/Context

The following series of jokes was told on the set of a USC student music video. My informant was helping out as a grip (crew member who works setting up lights and moving equipment).  She is currently a film student at USC and often works in the sound department, but like most USC film students she has held positions in other departments as well.

Jokes

How many actors does it take to change a lightbulb? One – they change it and the world revolves around them.
How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb? Do we have to change it?
How many producers does it take to change a lightbulb? Does it have to be a lightbulb?
How many electrics does it take to change a lightbulb? It’s not a lightbulb, it’s a “globe.”

Analysis

This series of jokes is best heard all together as my informant told them because it makes clear the comparison between the departments. My informant liked them because she herself has functioned in each of the roles mentioned above on a film set, and has noticed that her perspective on a particular task or issue does change with each job.

The joke plays on stereotypes of each role, but also simply their function as part of the collaborative process of making the film. Actors are viewed as vain and egotistical, however it is also true that all of the work done on a film set “revolves around” them, as its their actions that drive the movie. Writers are portrayed as those whose visions are trampled on by the changes asked of them by directors and producers, but they are also here seen to be defensive of the integrity of their work. The implication about producers here is that they will always look for an easier, and more cost effective solution than what it written, and it always shows them to be people who think outside the box. Electrics (film crew in charge of all electrical equipment on a set, including lighting) are portrayed here to have a specific way of viewing their equipment, and special terms for it, that differs from most others’ perception. The joke says that electrics are an exclusive group on-set, welcoming only to those who understand their methods, equipment, and terminology.

My informant felt that these implications about each department, both positive and negative, were accurate. Because of her experiences in these departments she enjoyed that the jokes clearly separate each department from one another, showing that no one on a film set is going to look at something the same way as anyone else will, because every department is in charge of considering different things. With actors its the performance, writers the story, producers the money, and electrics the gear.

I think the jokes also show that each department views their interpretation of the object as the one that makes the most sense and is most important to the making of the film. The humor in the joke comes from this separation of points of view.

Folk speech
Humor

F*** Sound

Informant Bio/Context

My informant attends the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts’ film production program. She is primarily focused on camera and lighting work and works often as a director of photography (crew member in charge of lighting scenes and composing shots in the camera). On a recent student film set she told the following joke while waiting for the director to finish rehearsing with an actor. The camera was already set and ready to go, and she reflected that it was a good thing that on this project they didn’t need to worry about recording sound.

Transcript of Joke

So this actress comes to Hollywood, right, and she’s having trouble you know, um, getting in. So she decides to sleep with a sound guy. And afterwards everyone’s all like, why’d you sleep with a sound guy? You should sleep with the director. Sleep with the director. And she says, well everyone’s always saying, fuck sound! Fuck sound!

Analysis and Background

After telling the joke the informant told a brief anecdote about a set experience she had where the assistant director (set manager) needed to find the production mixer (crew member who records sound on the set) in order to shoot a shot because in between shots the production mixer had fallen asleep and was not responding to calls. The informant herself took the joke as a humorous comment on the fact that the sound department has a lot of down time on sets. Like the actors, they are really only needed just before and through the recording of takes. Much of the rest of the time spent on a set changing lighting and re-dressing set pieces is time during which the sound department has nothing to do which gives them, according to my informant, the appearance of having an easy job and being lazy workers.

My reading of this joke however is more focused on the gender and position of power of the subjects in the joke. The main character in the joke is an actress who is portrayed as naive and desperate for fame. The joke plays upon a general belief that sex will help one, especially a woman with little experience, to get ahead in the film industry. The joke assumes a “green-ness” to actresses in Hollywood. The laugh comes from the understanding by film crews of  the truth behind the statement that “everyone’s always saying, fuck sound” and that newcomers to Hollywood would not understand why that is and would misinterpret the meaning. The actress who is new to town can hardly be expected to know the perception of sound technicians with film crews.

Also notice the use of the term sound “guy.” Rarely in the film industry does one refer to a crew member using a female pronoun – often the word “person” is substituted for “guy” or “man” if one is attempting to be politically correct, or even to refer to a female crew member. The gender dynamics of this joke indicate that it is young, naive girls who seek fame and fortune in a male-dominated work environment, where sex appeal is their only power. The desperation of the actress to break into the film business also hints at the brief shelf life of actresses, who seem to age quicker (and lose that sex appeal) in the public eye than male actors. This reveals not so much a gender bias among film workers as a tradition of acceptance of the fact that many roles in the film industry have historically been filled by men – particularly skilled crew roles.

The fact that the gender dynamics of the joke held even when being told by a female director of photography reveals that while the dynamics of film crews and the business itself may change, a stereotypical image of the film industry planted in the 1920s still holds in the public consciousness, and is source of ironic amusement even to modern film workers.

Customs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Warming up to the rest of the cast

Informant Bio and Context

My informant is a first year drama student attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Hollywood, California. This student has described his classmates as being dramatic even in their day-to-day lives, placing equal importance on weekend partying and writing character bios of their characters for plays in classes. The informant considers himself to be a writer, rather than an actor and speaks cynically of some aspects of the acting community.

At the Academy the students exclusively study acting techniques for the stage and screen. At each semester’s end the students are cast in “final exam plays.”

Before each play, the students gather on the stage and perform warm up exercises. This student described to me one particular exercise that was used before his play that was not directly related to limbering up the body or warming up the vocal cords.

Transcript

The first thing we would do typically is just free stretch, standing in a circle. Has to be a circle because if its not a circle you can’t, “feel the love.” You do a free stretch and you crack your neck, and your back a little bit. And then you hold out your hands [he stands with his legs spread and hands out at his side, as if to grasp the hands of people standing on either side of him] like this and everybody joins hands, so we’re in a circle, holding hands. First thing you do is you close your eyes, take a deep breath, connect yourself to the earth. Feel grounded. And you’re constantly aware that at the center of the Earth there is a great, glowing ball of fire. And you can feel that energy radiating through the surface of the earth. Whenever you’re feeling low energy, or negative, or making negative choices – character choices, not like “don’t do drugs” those kinds of choices – you just pull on that energy and you can feel it, lava, moving slowly like sap, through the surface of the Earth, into your body and out through your hands. And send that energy out your hands and into the hands of the person next to you. So you can send that energy so they can feel your warmth, and your energy, and your love.

Last thing you do, you close your eyes, and picture a blank white screen right behind your head. And whatever you’re feeling, whatever problems you have, emotional issues going on in your life, you can always go back to that white screen. It’s all that matters; its your emotional center point. Picture a star in the center of that screen, and the star is in complete focus. It is the termination of your energy, it is where your energy is going, the same energy you’re drawing from the Earth, which is that whole ball of fire. Yep. Okay. And then, open your eyes and picture in front of you a person, place, or thing that you love, just without reservation, that fills you love and joy. And look at that thing as you love it and now look at everybody around you in the circle and send them out, with your eyes – not sarcastic, warm, unmedicated, positive eyes – send them that love for that person, place, or thing. Any time you have to stand up and act, if you are in any way troubled, go back to that white screen, and white star and look at people with love and they will feel your love and your energy, and from there you can give them whatever emotions you need. [This last sentence means that the other actor will be receptive to you if you look at them with love, and that they will then be able to convey the emotions that you need from them to play your role.]

Then, give everyone’s hands a reassuring squeeze and radiate out that love, so that the person next to you knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that you love them, that you are there for them as an ensemble, as a cast. Then you let go, take a deep breath… and then we typically do articulation exercises.

Analysis/Background

My informant explained that this exercise is meant to ensure that every actor is connected to the other members of the cast prior to the performance. When asked if he felt that the exercise worked in this way he responded: “Not in the slightest. Total waste of time. Probably works for most actors and not me. I am a writer. I feel more connected to a character when I’m an actual person doing things that normal people do and this isn’t something people do. Well, it does create an emotional connection, its a fake emotional connection, but its there.”

This ritual, whether the actors feel it is silly or not, is a transformative one. The group performing it when they enter the stage are individual actors preparing to play roles. The ritual links each actor purely by virtue of the fact that everyone performs it together. As the last act of the group before they perform together, it allows everyone to cross the liminal threshold from actors to characters, and individuals to ensemble. The meditative quality of the ritual would help to clear the mind of concerns brought to the stage from the actors’ lives outside of it, bringing each person into the mindset of the job, so to speak. The individual is set aside to that that the actors can now act as a collective.

 

Folk speech

Recipe for Success in Hollywood

There’s a saying in Los Angeles that if you’re an actor going in for a casting director, you’ll be successful if you are:

Happy, Pretty, Busy.

The source learned this saying from his girlfriend, who was a child star in several movies in the ’90s. Whenever she went on auditions, she was coached to always be Happy, Pretty, Busy; to be as desirable as possible.

It meaning is fairly straightforward, it is a guideline to making good impressions when meeting people in the film and TV industry.. You need to be happy, so people don’t think you’re a miserable person to work with, and to show you have a positive attitude. Pretty, because you need to be good looking or you wont get cast. Busy, you always need to be coming from something important, or going to something important immediately after a meeting; because people will want you more if they think other people really want you. Also if you make a person in the industry feel like meeting them is the most important thing you have to do that day, they wont take you as seriously.

Game
Humor

And the Nominees are: … an Actor’s Game

The source is an Acting major at USC. He’s in a small class of 17 people that have every class together for all four years, and do several plays together as an ensemble.

And the Nominees are: is a game that the male actors in the class made up, while backstage for a production of the play Moonchildren. It is an improv game that can be played anywhere, and a round of the game generally occurs any time four or more of the original players are in the same room, and have time to kill.

The game is played as follows:

One person in the group starts the game off with “And the nominees are:” they include someone’s name in the group, and then make up a movie title for that person to act off of. So a person might say, “And the nominees are: Jack Smith, for his performance in The Darkest Knight”, then Jack Smith would have to improvise a 15 second Oscar clip from the made up movie. The nominated player can include any other player in his Oscar scene, and they must play along. After a player performs his Oscar clip, all of the other players clap for him, and shout out stupid questions heard at many actor Q & A’s, for example: “What’s your process?”. After that, any player can create a new nomination for another player in the group.

Play continues until all players have performed their Oscar clip. Then, any player can declare a winner. The winner is not decided for any particular reason, as the game is not competitive, but just to end the round. The winning player then finds something to stand on top of to deliver an acceptance speech. It is good form to start the speech with the phrase, “Means the world”. Depending on how funny the speech is, the other players will allow the speech to end naturally, or start making up a song to cut the speech short.

New rounds are started, and the game can keep going into perpetuity. Generally play naturally fizzes out after 10-15 minutes, or the players are yelled at by their stage manager for being too loud, and the game is cut short.

 

This game probably caught on for three reasons. First, it allows the players to keep warm, and keep performing during large breaks in rehearsal or before shows. Second, its an effective method of ensemble bonding, as all of the players support and entertain each other. Lastly, it allows the players to joke about and make fun of the Oscars, because as actors, they most likely all have a deep desire to win an Oscar they’re afraid to talk about with each other.

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