Acting for the camera: students set the stage in silence

Yin Fei and Alara Yilmaz

“It’s rewarding to tell a story without talking because we are very dependent on vocabulary and words in order to communicate,” theater teacher Haila VanHentenryck said. “It’s liberating to discover that most of what you say isn’t actually said through your words, but through your body language, your tone, and your facial expressions.”

VanHentenryck’s Acting For The Camera class recently finished its second unit on silent films. Each student created and acted in films that revolved around topics ranging from being trapped in elevators to winning the Nobel Prize.

After their first unit on improvisation, which emphasized being present in the moment, VanHentenryck thought it was only natural that they moved into the silent film genre, she said. Rather than storytelling with dialogue, the students could connect their physical movements to their characters, she said.

Prior to the production of their films, students were not told that they were going to be tackling the in-depth project in order to maintain a free and relaxed spirit, VanHentenryck said. “I told them I wanted them to write a one minute silent scenario, and I didn’t even mention that they were going to direct it.”

Alexander Shin (12), who directed a dramatic film based around a single chair, was surprised by the impromptu assignment, he said.

“At the end of class one day, Ms. V just handed out sheets of paper and then said, ‘Okay, come up with a silent film idea,’ and so I wrote down my chair concept,” Shin said.  “There was a chair in the middle of the blackbox and Ms. V was using it as a demonstration, so I just modified it, made the chair into a character, and we managed to stitch it together.”

Emily Sun (10) said she and her classmates even bounced ideas off of each other while shooting. “Our scripts weren’t really set in stone. We just had a general outline, so we were still doing a little bit of improv as it went on,” she said. “It’s fun to find a common idea and then work with other people to bring that idea to fruition.” 

Jacob Schorsch (12) said it was interesting to decide what he wanted his characters to do at any given moment. “To play all the roles of the production team director, cameraman, and have everything in our complete control was very exciting,” he said.

Similarly, Shin enjoyed the creative choices involved in directing the shots and seeing his vision for the film all come to life at the end. “I found it exciting to be able to experiment with the black and white and the music, though it was still hard, since I’d never done anything like that,” Shin said.

VanHentenryck said she believed it would be more educational to have students direct each other to get an appreciation for filming and editing. “A good screen actor needs to have an awareness of angles and shots and camera movement, and on set lingo and directing,” she said. 

Both VanHentenryck and Schorsch said that despite a relatively low number of hiccups throughout the process, the actors still encountered obstacles along the way. “It was definitely tough with masks, just because it was more difficult to convey emotions and since it screws up the whole idea of emoting with all of your face,” Schorsch said. 

Sun, who performed in the One Acts last year, said she joined the class to better her performance on camera. Even though it was hard for her to use only her body language to exhibit her character’s story, she said the silent films felt like a proper starting point.

“It’s different from acting in a play because you have to actually watch yourself act, and there’s a bit of insecurity that comes with that, but I think this class has helped to overcome that in a way,” Sun said. “After a while you just get used to seeing your face in the camera, so it’s not as awkward anymore.”

Schorsch, who plans to pursue acting in the future, found that techniques such as “breaking down beat,” which is when actors approach their emotions and reactions beat by beat, were especially critical in allowing the audience to visibly see the acting through the camera, he said. 

Although he is new to acting, Shin said he appreciated the space that the class has provided him. “It’s nice having a small group, being able to try new things, and do activities without feeling as though you’re going to be judged,” he said. “We are able to have a pretty close community which makes it a lot easier to freely express yourself.”

Sun also enjoys the intimacy of the course, since it fosters a more laid back atmosphere where students can joke around, have fun, and casually check in with each other while acting, she said. “In academic classes you don’t really talk about your feelings, or your thoughts outside of the subject.”

VanHentenryck was delighted to see the whimsical and humorous natures of the groups’ final products and hopes to continue to help be more comfortable with performances in the future, she said.

“There’s kind of like a spectrum of acting,” she said. “No two actors will prepare for a role in the same way, so my aim is to sort of help them try it and see what is going to be working for them.”