Thursday, November 17, 2011

"Does Music Help the Actor?" by Elissa Landi

I got a stack of old Etude magazines and, as I was browsing through the contents page, found a very interesting article by actress Elissa Landi. Elissa Landi was a stage and film actress during the 1920s and 30s. Born in Italy, raised in Austria and England, she appeared on British and American stage in the '20s. She wrote her first book when she was twenty. She appeared on Broadway in the early 1930s and in American films since 1931. She played the heroine in Cecil B. DeMille's epic "The Sign of the Cross" in 1932, and two years later played Myrna Loy's cousin in "After the Thin Man". Only two more films followed until her retirement in 1943. She dedicated herself to writing novels and poems. She died of cancer in 1948 at the age of 43.

Does Music Help the Actor?: A Conference with Elissa Landi, Distinguished Actress of Stage and Screen. (Highlights of an article published in the September 1945 issue of Etude Magazine).

"My interest in music began when I did. Music was always a member of our home. Singing and playing were as much a part of the taken-for-granted routine of home as talking and reading. . . . As a girl, I worked at piano study with great enthusiasm and little talent, and played - and still do play - for my own enjoyment. . . . At no time have I regarded music as a possible career - yet music has been of immeasurable help to me in my career.

A Happy Coincidence
"By curious chance, seven out of ten plays in which I have acted in the past years have required me to sit down at a piano to play, sing, or both. Perhaps this is purely coincidence - . . . whatever the cause, though, the result that I felt much more at home in my roles than if I had had to start in learning how to place my hands on the keys. Incidentally, the management benefited also from my early music lessons - since I could manage the required playing myself, there was no need to hire a pianist to dub in the music from backstage!
But the relationship between music and acting roots far deeper than the odd chance of being required to play on stage. Skilled acting is a rhythmic art, and only those who are deeply aware of music and rhythm can hope to capture its fullest flexibility. When a company is newly assembled to begin rehearsals, you can invariably tell which of the group are musical and which are not. You can tell it from the way they work, and I have found that very few skilled actors - none of the great ones - are unmusical.
The relationship between music and acting shows itself in timing, and timing is the very soul of dramatic representation. Timing is the curious syncopation of gesture and speech which builds a telling effect. Suppose your script says simply: 'And that is that. (Banging on the table.)' When are you to speak the words? When are you to do the banging on the table? What - if any - is to be the relationship between the words and the banging? There you have a problem of timing. It is quite possible to speak and to bang in such a way that any connection between them becomes dissipated. Then you have a weak effect. It is also possible to time the bang between words so that it emphasizes them. Then you have a forceful effect. It is achieved by establishing an actual rhythmic pattern for the words and bringing the bang on one of the beats. You really count the rhythm, quite as you do in music study! Suppose we try it. Let us fashion our pattern into three bars of four-part rhythm - one, two, three, four.

The rhythm gives it pace to the words, and the gesture enters, in proper time, as part of the pattern. If the gesture of banging comes in unrhythmically, or in just haphazard fashion, the emphasis is lost. In solving such problems of timing, it is helpful to think of the words as the melodic line - the part that is written across the staff - and of the gestures as the harmonic accompaniment - the chords that are written up and down on the staff."

The Value of Effective Timing
"If you study dramatic techniques, you will find that this completely rhythmical art of timing is the source of most great dramatic effects. Young, inexperienced actors give emphasis through greater volume in tone - they raise their voices when they come to the telling moment in their lines. Seasoned actors achieve emphasis more through pauses and timing. Certainly they may raise their voices - sometimes the script calls for a louder tone - but they never depend on loudness alone. Such loudness is saved for the main beat of the phrase, and it is always fitted into the rhythmic relationship between words and gestures, quite as a crescendo would be bracketed across a complete musical phrase. Since timing affects every combination of word and gesture in a play, it is readily seen how necessary it becomes for the actor to know music. Indeed, I have more than once seen stage rehearsals in which the director actually beat the time for a scene, quite as a conductor does in a symphonic rehearsal. The immensely important matter of timing is, of course, a well-known technique, with which every one in the theatre is familiar. " ...

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