When we speak of style, we are generally referring to the genre of the presentation, eg, drama, comedy, suspense, tragedy, etc. For the style of acting normally follows the genre of the play: drama being portrayed in a dramatic style, comedy in a comedic style, etc. Style is also called the acting key, dramatic key, or sometimes the mood or tone.
The choice of style is an important one, as it is the culmination of many other dramatic choices. Without a consistent acting style, the portrayal may confuse the audience and create uncertainty about how they respond. It is thus a critical part the actor's craft, knowing how to perform in a number of acting styles.
Let's begin by defining style. Style is the selection and arrangement of acting elements and qualities to portray the dramatic truth, the purpose of the play . For the acting ensemble, it is the full realization of the characters' convictions. In other words, saying what we want to say just the way we want to say it.
Therefore, style is truth. It is the means used to express the crux, the essence, and the purpose of the play. It is the selection and arrangement of acting elements. At this point, let us discuss briefly the various elements that make up acting styles.
REALITY . Each style has a degree and kind of life-likeness that we preconceive by reading or viewing the play. The degree of reality can range from the realistic, naturalistic, to surrealistic (dreamlike) or fantasy, to the absurd.
As a general principle, reality is more lifelike in the dramatic styles such as drama, suspense, and tragedy, where as in the comedic styles such as straight comedy and farce, it is distorted and exaggerated. Likewise, the balance and proportion of story elements (setting, plot, dialogue, and characterizations) are more logical and believable in the dramatic styles and lack the same when moving towards the comedic styles.
Reality, the level of suspended believability, will range from the credible in dramatic styles to distorted, unbalanced, and disproportioned in the comedic styles. For the actor, the level of reality, as with all elements of style, must be an ensemble effort. As such, all the characters must exist in the same dramatic world.
THE DOMINANT DRAMATIC FLOW . The audience perceives each presentation through two communicative entities. One is the information of the play. What we see and hear. The dialogue, action, plot, and setting make up the literal, physical elements. The elements we observe, comprehend, and resolve with little cerebral effort or involvement.
A dominant dramatic flow that is informational involves limited intellectual processing and is mostly concerned with the obvious surface characteristics of the play. Because the information is mainly words, action, and stage business, it is pointalistic and primarily one-dimensional in flow. What we see is what we get; and we get one point at a time. Thus, the tempo can and should be quick for little time is required for comprehension.
The other type of dramatic flow is the emotional . This is the implied or inferred element of the presentation, and places importance on meanings, motivations, and expectations resulting from the action. Here the audience is involved with the emotions, rooting interests, and the wants / oppositions – hero / villain polarizations. Imagery, strong caring forces, multi-layered story and character complexities require considerable audience effort and emotional involvement.
A dominate dramatic flow which is emotional is, for the audience, a more reflective, questioning, decision-making process. While the informational flow displays information, the emotional flow demands a response, a judgment. It requires resolving complex data into a one-dimensional answer such as for / against, caring / hating, friend or foe. This process requires time and as such, the pace is slower. This way, the audience has an opportunity to focus on the underlying emotional forces as well as time to digest and resolve a much more complex presentation.
This relationship, between the dramatic flow and tempo, is important for it controls both the viewer's area of focus and their level of involvement. Another reason is the nature of the two dramatic flows. Information, as we said earlier, is a literal comprehension and occurs almost instantaneously. As such, its dramatic value dissipates quickly and has restricted power in holding the interest of the audience. Thus, an informational presentation requires a faster pace with new and more exciting information replacing the old.
The emotional flow, on the other hand, requires time to comprehend, swell, and peak. It is best delineated through comparative observations. That means weighing changes in emotions as well as their dynamics and duration.
Emotions and related factors such as interpretation, imagery, questioning, speculation, anticipation, and resolving, all involve a high degree of audience participation. This comparative analysis and the emotional involvement of the audience require time to nurture the unseen story elements to their full potential. Time to comprehend, process, and respond.
Another factor is that strong dramatic emotions, either in the performance or from the spectator, are cumbersome things. To have impact, they require a certain degree of preset credibility, motivation, and energy to move the audience. Once the emotions are up, they are difficult to change, redirect, or shut off. Thus, time is required for the audience to process and accept change, unless, of course, such a change has been foreshadowed earlier in the story.
Should they be of a less intense nature, less time will be required to move the audience in another direction, and the effort and energy to change the emotional direction will be less.
It should be understood that in every play, you would use both the emotional and informational aspects. More importantly, you must apply them so they fit the purpose of the play. Portions of the play may require an informational flow, others an emotional flow. Even speeches will contain both types of flows. Whichever you use, you will find that one dramatic flow dominates the overall presentation. This flow can be enhanced though the proper use of pace or tempo and timing.
TEMPO OR PACE . Tempo or pace is the rate at which interesting story materials are delivered to the audience. Do not look on dialogue as the only factor affecting pace. Action, movement, gestures, and technical aspects (cuts, lights, and sounds) can likewise have a telling affect on the pace of a scene. Music is another dimension affecting pace.
TIMING . Timing is the ability to sense what is going on in the mind of the audience. It is the ability to use the dimension of time to encourage and enhance the desired response. Let me give you a few examples. In the setup of a joke, the pace at which one expends information is a dimension of timing. In addition, by separating the punch line or resolution from the setup, it can create the desired emphasis, suspense, and / or anticipation. Following the punch line, it is holding for peak laughter and knowing when to continue with the scene. In drama, it is how long one sustains a dramatic point so it is understood and felt to the maximum. In terror, it is that period of time the audience has to speculate the outcome and to be affected by the potential of terror (pain).
Like the other acting elements, timing has certain characteristics and latitudes that reflect style. For instance, in a one-dimensional simplistic informational presentation such as comedy, timing is an obvious part of the performance. It is precise and deliberate. The audience response is vocal (laughter) and usually in unison. The actor has numerous clues about what the audience is thinking and feeling.
Where the presentation is more complex and emotional as in drama, we have many variables and, as such, the audience response is not as predictable. There are fewer vocal clues about what, when, and how the audience is reacting. However, because the emotional elements have greater staying power, timing need not be as precise. In drama, timing is subtle, flexible, and loose. In terror and suspense, it is more calculated.
EMOTIONS, INTENTIONS, AND BEHAVIOR are the most basic selections in acting. The natures of these choices likewise relate to the genre of the play and to its style of acting. As with the other style considerations we've discussed, the inter-relationships between acting elements provides helpful dramatic guidelines.
Emotions are very large consuming forces. They have an active power to cause drastic change and action. These emotions emerge from the character's commitment, the obstacles, the situation, and the world in which the story is set. In the world of comedy, the emotions are light, decisive, and played on the surface so as not to encumber the quick-moving informational content. Emotions in drama, more so than anything else, move the story forward. Thus, the emotions have a wider span, deeply played, and range from full passion to concealment. As you can see, how one expresses and presents these emotional forces determines, in part, the style of acting.
The intention (sometimes called the objective, thought, or motive) is what the character wants. This conscious intent should be rich, simple expression formulated in active terms that, along with the emotion, produces the perceptible behavior.
This behavior , when open, precise, and readable, requires little effort to comprehend. Such behavior is found, more so, in the comedic styles where the intellect predominates.
On the other hand, it can be subtle, subdued, or even ambiguous, to the point where the audience must search for meaning. This behavior we find in the dramatic styles where strong emotional forces prevail.
The depth and intensity of the emotions, intentions, and the resulting behavior are likewise a stylistic factor. In comedy, the dramatic behavior must be highly flexible and mobile to provide the potential for derailment (surprise). To do this, the behavior is open to abnormal exaggerations and is thus played closer to the surface. Where strong caring polarizations are desirable as in drama, emotions must be the force that moves the audience. They are, therefore, deeply seated with credibility and weighted with powerful convictions.
Worthiness is another dimension of intentions. In drama, the tendency is toward strong worthy goals such as excellence, justice, dignity, virtue, and honor. These goals are highly motivated and meaningful. These intentions are not always readable at first glance and at times unfold slowly, all of which pulls the audience into a deeper state of concentration and involvement.
In comedy, intentions tend to be more apparent and obvious, as they are more simplistic and external. While meaningful, intentions in comedy do not always support scrutiny by the audience. They are meant to facilitate swift story movement toward humorous surprises. To compensate for lesser worth, intention are played with considerable enthusiasm and pursued vigorously.
Behavioral attitudes also differ according to style. In comedy, behavior, emotions, and intentions have a more affirmative, positive attitude whereas in drama, these elements cover a wider range from darkest tragedy to bright joyous discoveries.
Another factor is the source of intentions. In comedy, intentions surface more from the text of the play (what is written). However, in drama, subtext (what is implied) is more evident as the source.
As I stated earlier, style is the selection and arrangement of acting elements and qualities to portray the dramatic truth, the purpose of the play. The purpose of any one particular play can have a range of interpretations. Each of us brings to this interpretation our own personality, environment, education, and even our heritage. We all are different and it is unlikely we will view a specific play with identical viewpoints.
PREMISE or THEME . Yet there is a common ground. There is a purpose in each play, a reason for its existence. Almost all plays communicate something, something of worth. Most of the time, this importance and excitement have a profound and predictable affect on us. There are plays with strong social and humanitarian implications while others relate to the pursuit of the ridiculous.
In drama, the premise is highly worthy and has strong rapport with the audience. Powerful opposing forces (polarities) make for empathic characters. The writing is serious and intelligent having compelling arguments. The high moral implications give substance and purpose to the story. Human dilemmas are reflected through vital decisions and their consequences.
The premise in comedy is moderately worthy in an ultra serious pursuit of sometimes ridiculous and irrational goals. Comedy is affirmative in spirit where protagonists triumph and it provides an external observation on human nature. At best, it is a distortion of a truth that provides higher insight, and a better understanding of ones self.
Whatever the play's theme or premise, we, as creative artists, seek certain responses from the audience. We may want them to laugh, cry, be scared, or to care deeply about the characters and the causes they champion.
AUDIENCE RESPONSE . Identifying this response is a major concern for the creative team, for only then can the director, writer, actors, and the production crew collectively arrange and select the elements and qualities to encourage this vision. This process is a group effort and its determination does not always come easy. It often requires considerable probing of the material through readings and rehearsals along with a spirit of collaboration and open communications.
There is one last critical aspect we should cover namely that of being consistent and faithful to the selected style. If you are doing a mystery with comedic scenes, then they must be done in the style of mystery. This does not mean a tragedy must be all sadness or a comedy all laughs. The style of acting, however derived, must be consistent to the genre of the play. That means serving the purpose of the play and maintaining focus on the overall desired audience response.
If the play is a farce, then the serious moments in farce must be shaded toward the style of farce. It must be earnest and solemn, but with a potential for levity. Conversely, if you are doing tragedy and your character has a funny line, it must be respectful to that tragedy.
Explore all styles, not just the ones I have mentioned here. There are other styles and genres with which you should be familiar. Observe in viewing plays, movies, and TV, the stylistic choices made by other actors. Did they work? If they did, write them down. Think about them and make them a natural part of your craft through conscientious study. The craft of good acting is making and implementing choices. Knowing what to do, knowing how to do it, and knowing how to do it well.
The limits to which you extend the elements of style will depend on your abilities as an actor. As you progress and perfect your craft, you will find the stylistic principles and guidelines outlined here will give you better control of the story, your character, and the audience.