I’ve acted plenty on stage, but I’m in awe of actors who can deliver believable performances with a battalion of cameras in their faces. So when The Gabber asked if I’d like to check out one of the drama classes now offered at St. Pete’s American Stage, I was drawn to “Through the Lens: Acting for the Camera.” Helmed by local actor/director/screenwriter Cranstan Cumberbatch, the class seemed like a good opportunity to gain insights into the craft.
American Stage classes are geared to accommodate a variety of experience levels, and so it was with “Through the Lens.” Meeting for 10 weekly sessions, the six students ranged from Megan Phillips, a 20-year-old American Stage Emerging Artist Fellow, to Elise Richmond, 67, an actress who got her SAG card in 1987 with a small role in “Wall Street.”
Cumberbatch, a bundle of friendly energy, kicked things off with some key points for us to ponder, among them:
• “On camera your face is the main thing.”
• “Each sentence brings a different moment.”
• “The good ones know how to tell you what they’re thinking before they say a word.”
Then he passed out scripts. Kathryn Pollard, a retired flight attendant and Gulfport Community Players regular, teamed up with Doug Ronk, a “paint sales guy” with multiple improv classes under his belt, to perform a face-off between an agent and a frustrated actress. Megan and her partner, Shaun Memmell, 21, prepared a lover’s quarrel with a poignant ending. Elise partnered with Jake Gustafson, 26, for a confrontation between two friends.
Explaining that “film always works from angles,” Cumberbatch told us that he’d be shooting the scenes in over-the-shoulder, head-and-shoulder, and wide shots, all with a Samsung Galaxy phone. But before any filming, the actors were to read through their scenes in three stages: with no emotion, with “some” emotion, and finally with full emotion.
Elise and Jake were a bit nonplussed by the exercise at first, but it was interesting to watch the script take on a fuller life as the stages progressed — especially after Cumberbatch got them on their feet and had them repeat lines as he filmed them from different angles.
Next up were Kathryn and Doug. Their deadpan reading was surprisingly funny, but when they moved to the on-camera stage the scene truly began to evolve. Doug, repeating one line as Cranstan moved from shot to shot, got a big laugh on his final delivery.
Due to time constraints — Cumberbatch took part in an online panel about Afrofuturism in the middle of the two-hour class — Shaun and Megan didn’t get to show their scene (though I did hear them getting applause during their rehearsal). Next week, Cranstan told us, there’d be more scripts to read and “clips of good actors” to watch — a chance to study the details of what makes a great performance on film.
The chance to better understand the mechanics of film acting might be the most valuable benefit of the class. After that session, I watched an episode of the PBS series “Magpie Murders,” starring the Oscar-nominated British actress Lesley Manville, and realized that a single shot of Manville saying a line might in fact have been the director’s final choice from among multiple readings of the same line, each one filmed from a different angle. Somehow it left me even more in awe of her skill — but also more aware of what her job entailed.
I’d happily return for another “Through the Lens” session to glean more insights like that.
For information on American Stage drama classes, offered for youth as well as adults, go to americanstage.org/education.
David Warner is a St. Petersburg-based writer, editor, and actor.