Expressive Skills and Realism

Thought this post may be useful for teachers of junior Drama. I have combined a topic on the style of realism with the actors use of the four basic expressive skills (voice, movement, facial expressions and gesture) in Drama. This handout is complemented with basic script work.

The following is written for the student. In my case, I give it to my Year 8 Drama students (14 years old). Its language is simple and some generalisations occur due to the young age and limited experience of those reading it. All of the information on the handout is then implemented in the script work and workshopped in class, making a clear and direct connection for the students between the theory and prac.

I’m sure you have favourite scripts of your own to accompany this handout if you wish to. I used one script for rehearsal and workshopping, followed by a second script in pairs where lines were learnt and then performed for formal assessment. Some discussion about direction and blocking will also naturally occur.

The following information can be found in Word (.doc) format at the end of this post.

Expressive Skills and Realism

Style in drama refers to the manner in which a theatre piece is performed. It is the how of drama. For example ‘how shall we perform this play script?’. Style is variously referred to in drama as ‘theatre style’, performance style’ or ‘theatrical style’.

Without giving it a second thought, you may already have been acting mostly in the style of realism without knowing it. It is only now that we are labelling some of your performances with a particular style and focusing on including all the necessary performance ingredients that are associated with that style.

At the heart of all drama is the need for acting to be believable. It is a strange concept, but an audience initially sits down before a theatre performance not believing. They have arrived at the theatre that evening from a busy day at the office and know full well they will soon be watching a group of actors perform a play. We are going to call the fact they begin by not really believing in the drama, as ‘disbelief’. It is then the actors’ job to make the acting so realistic that it forces the audience to hold off their disbelief and start believing in the stage action, as if it were a real life drama happening before their very eyes.

If the audience forgets they are sitting in the theatre while watching a play (or in our case, the drama classroom), then the actors have successfully made the audience ‘suspend their disbelief’, and are therefore performing a totally convincing and believable play. If a drama performance is believable, then it is almost certainly realistic and therefore performed in the style of realism. If an actor does not fully believe in his or her character they are portraying, then the audience will feel cheated. They will instantly see acting that is not convincing. If an actor does not believe in his or her role, then why should the audience?

Here is a list of some of the common ingredients essential to all realistic performances. You should carefully consider each of one of them, including them in your drama performances in class. It may prove worthwhile discussing your performance and receiving constructive critical feedback from other classmates:

  • little or no backs to the audience, unless stylised and briefly used for effect
  • loud vocal projection (louder than normal everyday conversation level)
  • appropriate stance and stage movements for the character being portrayed (remember, a young child may crawl, but an old man will walk slowly)
  • small gestures that add a convincing ‘extra touch’ to the character (also making this character unique from others on the stage in the drama)
  • suitable facial expressions at particular moments in the drama
  • stage movement that occurs naturally, usually based on certain lines
  • realistic props, costumes, lighting and sets

If performing in the style of realism, then your ‘level’ of acting must be at a certain point to begin with. It is slightly exaggerated (heightened) because if you spoke at exactly the same volume as you would in a particular situation in everyday life, then the audience may not hear you. You have to be aware of the presence of the audience and yet ignore them at the same time. However, if you over-act in a drama performance (easily done accidentally) it may border on being melodramatic. This style of acting is ‘over the top’, like that of a daytime TV soapie and is not realistic. On the other hand, if you ‘under-act’ (understate) your role, it may not be enhanced enough to satisfy the basic level needed and it too may not be a realistic character portrayal. An actor, with the guidance of a teacher or director, must find exactly the right balance (level).

A basic tip for when to move on the stage is this: an actor moves on motivation. When the spoken lines and situation in a scene ask for something, then it may be an appropriate time for a character to get off a chair or storm out of the room etc. The actor must ask him/herself ‘when would my character be naturally motivated to move?’. Stage action (movements, facial expressions and gestures) come from within the actor, naturally pushing themselves outward. So, stay true to your character’s lines and it is in the script that you will โ€˜see’ when to move on stage or what to do? Realistic stage movement is basically an attempt to physically illustrate a character’s lines.

Always remember that much of acting is really re-acting. Characters are rarely on the stage on their own, so most of what a character does is a reaction to another character’s spoken lines or actions. It takes two to tango.

Expressive Skills
When acting in the style of realism, focus closely on appropriately using the actor’s four expressive skills:

  • voice
  • movement
  • facial expression
  • gesture (small movements)

Vocals skills can include the use of pitch (high or low), pace (fast or slow), projection (loud of soft), tone and diction / articulation (speaking clearly so the actor may be understood by the audience). Emphasising particular words over others in spoken lines also creates the correct (intended) meaning. Actors refer to emphasis as โ€˜stressing’ certain words, normally underlined by the actor on the script, itself.

Large movements involve various parts of the actor’s body. Movement on the stage can occur when the actor is not speaking at all or during regular conversation. Although we take movement for granted every day, actors must take particular care with their movements, as every move, no matter how small, must be calculated and deliberate as it communicates non-verbal meaning to the audience about the character and plot.

Facial expressions occur as a result of small muscle movements in the face and are crucial for the actor. While we must always be aware that the face is the most expressive part of the body, we must also ensure we act with our entire body, not just our heads. Facial expressions must come naturally or they will look artificial if overdone and ineffective if underdone.

Gestures are small movements by the actor. These may involve the use of the hands, feet, arms or legs. Gestures can include pointing a finger at another character, waving, stroking your fingers through your hair, scratching an ear etc. Effective use of gesture often marks an average actor from a powerful one, as sometimes it is the subtleties in acting that make the difference in character believability.

expressive_skills_realism < Download Word doc

21 Responses

  1. Niamh says:

    Thank you so much for posting this article, it’s helping me to study for my exams and I need all of the help that I can get.

  2. Form and Style says:

    What form and style would you call God of Carnage?

  3. katie says:

    This has really helped me for my drama h\w due tomorrow

  4. saba shah says:

    nice info
    really helped

  5. Scripts? says:

    What scripts did you use with this? I have a year 8 class of predominately boys and would welcome any suggestions of good scripts to work with! Thanks.

    • I tend to mix the scripts around a bit from year to year for this task. Unfortunately, when I do seek out a suitable script, I’m searching for female roles as I teach all-girls. The best type of script for this topic is one with little or no stage directions. I then get the students to add stage directions themselves. Student-written scripts would work well, also. Set the boys up with a topic or theme familiar to them, get them to write a five-minute play script about it, then they add realistic stage directions at a later stage to match the written student-written script, then rehearse with their own directions, refine, and perform. Simple is best. โ€“ Justin

  6. a student says:

    Thankyou so much, this was very helpful and helped me alot on my 2000 word essay on stanislavski ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. Zo says:

    Thank you for a clear and detailed explanation!! ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. owo says:

    thanks for this handout!! super helpful

  9. anonmyous says:

    geuss what?
    realism rox thanx anonymous,
    obviously its you thats not thinking sraight

  10. santana says:

    i think it makes a clear outline of the skills that actors should be closely associated with and pay close attention to them,so i would ‘big ups” good work

  11. ameena says:

    very vey awesome information thank you so much for it i have learned a lot

  12. suzanne says:

    very nice, clear outline. thanks.

  13. Preston says:

    And so if that is the case, then I think our goals should include something which stretches us. We would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Non-Naturalism is real drama. Realism is for people who can’t act.

    • Anonymous says:

      that’s not true, it takes work to make your character completely believable. Both forms of drama are “real”, it depends on a person’s taste. Can you honestly say somebody is a bad actor because they are into realism?

    • Clare says:

      Realism like Non-naturalism is a theatre style, designed to reflect changes and their effects on society. It has its own set of conventions which can be just as entertaining in drama as Non-naturalism. Although your actual preference for the styles is entirely up to you, it is incorrect to say that realism is easier to act.
      Realism requires good actors in order to effectively deals with real problems and concerns of people. Realism would’t be real if the actors were not believable.

      Furthermore, Realism requires the washing away of all exaggeration – all gestures and expressions should be natural. Many average actors will tend to exaggerate, making their performance less realistic.

    • Actress says:

      Realism is Drama, it is a more creative and imaginative way to portray the scene rather than doing Non- Naturalism all the time. I do a lot of Realism and I can act- so please don’t insult people like me.

    • Anon says:


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