Dead Man Walking?

The actor can sometimes, oftentimes, all the time even, become infected with the in-sidious desire for “authenticity” in performance.  The word “organic” gets bandied about a lot in rehearsal rooms and acting classes.  So does the word “truthful.”  But what do these words really mean?  And, please, I don’t want the textbook definition out of Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares or any other publication on acting.  The words authentic, organic, truthful, and many more like them have lost their value somehow.

In an effort to be truthful, actors often go dead.  Believing that we need to leave our-selves open, we turn ourselves off when we need to do the exact opposite.  We need to be turned on.  We need to receive the script in an excited state – the creative state.  We
need to participate with the heightened circumstances of the story.

I find myself throughout the day keeping my opinions to myself, interacting as efficiently and effectively as possible with the outside world so as not to cause a “scene”, only re-vealing what’s truly going on inside my head and heart to a select few.  For the most part, I walk around like a dead man.  My heart’s still beating and I’m still breathing, but I am not responding impulsively. I hold back.  I follow the rules of conventional behavior
and stifle my responses in accordance with society’s rules of proper decorum.  While it serves me in life, keeps me out of trouble, allows me the ability to fit in, such behavior fully frustrates my work in rehearsal and in performance.

The desire to be perceived as natural and organic has become a tired style.  It’s be-come a convention.  It’s merely imitation.  There is nothing artistic, organic, or interest-ing in any of it.  It’s boring.

If you’re truly an actor, you have strong points of view about most things if not all things.  You vibrate at a higher frequency than the average human being.  This doesn’t mean you’re better than any human being.  It just means you’re slightly different.  More
easily excitable.  More expressive.  Maybe more interesting to watch.  Maybe more in-teresting to witness.

The only way to find out is to bring yourself – alive and vibrant, turned on and excited – to the role, the rehearsal, and the performance.

Don’t wanna end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard?

I watch cartoons.  A lot.  Perhaps too much.  I should probably get it checked out, this predisposition to SpongeBob, Robot Chicken, and the like.  I really don’t care what the cartoon is.  My taste is wide and ranging.  As a matter of fact, I don’t think I have any taste.  I just like cartoons.  I like cartoon characters.  I envy them their limitlessness.  The fact that they are unbound by naturalistic conventions.  They have strange voices that defy normal vocal capacities and strange bodies that can endure impossible physical trauma.  They leap without looking.  They are fully committed to their most immediate and pressing goals.

Sometimes, when I watch a cartoon or animated series or whatever the hell the common industry vernacular is at the present moment, I’ll be amazed at the creativity I’m witnessing, the absurdity of it, and the humor of it, and I’ll think to myself, “Why don’t I do that ever on stage?!”  Make a seemingly bizarre choice, dare myself to imagine be-yond conventional expectations, truly confound everyone in the rehearsal room.  Leave
them all – fellow actors, stage manager and director – wide-eyed and mouths agape.  Cartoon stories zig and zag all over the place.  Full of surprises, ironic twists and turns, and a shameless pursuit of all that is absurd.

And at the risk of boring the reader, a little history might be useful.

Albert Camus, in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, made the startling suggestion that humanity had to recognize that any rational explanation of the universe was im-possible or at least beyond mankind’s capacities.  In 1962, thephrase “Theatre of the Absurd” was invented by the critic Martin Esslin. But Absurd elements existed in Greek drama in the plays of Aristophanes.  The point is that the theatre has been arguably
obsessed on some level with the inexplicable – those things that can be experienced and witnessed but defy explanation.  These are the things that make life awesome, inspiring, wondrous, incredible — which is defined in Webster’s as “so extraordinary as to seem impossible or unbelievable.”

And I think that this is what I like about cartoons.  There’s something very liberating about the cartoon world – even invigorating.  And the same is true of theatre.  The ability to get me to believe in what is initially impossible or unbelievable.  The ability to get me beyond my own conventions and my own preconceptions of how the world works.  The ability to get me to believe, to invest whole-heartedly in things not seen and only experienced, to have a sense of faith.

….That’s all folks!

Am I Boring You?! defines boredom as to weary by dullness or tedious repetition.  Dull is defined by the same resource as uninteresting, not lively or spirited, unimaginative and uninteresting, among many others.  Actors (and directors) beware.  It’s another occupational hazard of the profession.  Tediously repeating the same unimaginative choices.

But no one goes on stage intentionally determined to bore the hell out of an audience.  So how can it ever happen?

Let’s table that question, and just accept that sometimes more often than we care to admit we are boring.  That’s the premise.  That’s the fact.  We’ve all been there as audience members audience.  Unengaged in the performance.  Frustrated by the separation from the story playing out before us.  Feeling like we are in some kind of lecture.  It happens.  And we actors are all guilty of causing this horrendous experience. Just accept it.  (Denial is the first sign there’s a problem.)

Actors are subject to the obligatory need to determine what is commonly called the Super-Objective.  The actor identifies by careful examination of the script where exactly the Character is headed.  The Character’s goal.  The writer’s intended destination of the Character’s final scene in any script.  And so, mindful of her obligation to the author’s intent, the actor sets out to achieve that demand.  But it’s unnecessary.  The playwright or screenwriter has already determined where the actor will end up.  The actor can’t change the course of action in the story.  By page 78, the actor, playing the Character, will have lost all her friends and allies and have to face down a most powerful and terrifying enemy all on her own.

Since the actor cannot change the story, what can she do?  She can only respond to the story.  Respond to the circumstances within which the tyrannical writer has placed her.  Respond with her own sensitivity, her own heart, her own soul as if she wasn’t aware of the predicament the writer would create.

That’s the thing.  Actors – because they’ve read the script! – know where the story is headed, but the Character does not.

And the actor has to always observe this essential element of good story-telling.  We seek to be natural, to be real, to be believable.  But our only obligation is to be truthful.  To respond to the circumstances.  Based upon the actor’s unique sensitivity.  And then allow that sensitive response to filter through the lines of the text.

If we are hung up on Naturalism, on appearing Real, Life-like, we often default to a kind of casualness.  (Think Boring.)  Everything is even-keeled.  Expected.  Anticipated.  However, I know that in my daily existence the day never turns out exactly how I planned.  Certain things, beyond my control, do always take place.  For starters, the sun rises, the sun sets, the moon rises and then fades away at the early hint of dawn.  Except occasionally, when it doesn’t.  Sometimes the moon and the sun occupy the same sky.  Completely due to cosmological forces of Nature (a.k.a.:  Natural).  Scientific factors.  Given Circumstances.  But each time it happens, it strikes me as odd and wonderful.  The moon and the sun in the sky at the same time has occurred for all of my life and all eternity; but, each time I witness it, I notice it and marvel at it.  It is never a casual occurrence.  It’s a surprise!

The playwright is the only one who knows where the story is going.  The Character does not.  And since the playwright isn’t on stage and the Character is stuck with the actor, the actor needs to leave himself open to the element of surprise, to break out of the dullness of repetition.  The dullness of knowing where the story is going.  This element of surprise exists in every line of text.  Each statement is an opportunity for stimulation, new thought, new information, a place the Character has never been before in the course of the story and leads to an opportunity for new response, for a new realization, an epiphany, a revelation.

The dull actor’s dull performance is guided by dull choices.  The dull actor knows exactly what is going to happen and where he is going:  Bore-Dumb.

The imaginative actor’s inspiring performance is ignited by a wonderful kind of crafted ignorance.  This actor seemingly knows not what is going to happen or where she is going.  Destination Unknown.

And we, the audience, willingly (and thrillingly) go along for the ride!

When will it end?

I can’t remember a time I’ve gone on stage or into the audition or even just the re- hearsal room without at least a twinge of that all-too-familiar feeling:  stage fright.  That rumble in my tummy and the fog that fills my head.  The chill upon my heart.  It happens every time.  It’s a fear of everything at once and nothing in particular.  All at the same time and in an instant.  Confounding and crippling.

It’s best to face it.  Stare it down.  Recognize it for what it is.  Or simply that it is.  That it’s there; and, for the moment, it’s got me.

Actors are somehow tricked into believing that when they go on stage they need to be calm, cool, and collected.  Or fired up and bullet proof  beyond any reasonable expectation.  Which places the actor in a terrific dilemma:  you’re either too much, or you’re too little.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, remember to always start from where you are.  That thing commonly called stage fright, nervousness, anxiety is actually one of the clearest indications of an actor’s sensitivity.  And that $#!+ can’t be taught.  It can be cultivated and encouraged, but the actor either has that wonderful awareness of and response to the world around her or not.  It’s one or the other.  A zero sum game.  That $#!+ truly cannot be taught.

So let it be there.  Let it do what it will to you.  And then begin to shift your concentration to the task at hand.  This is why craft, skill, technique – call it what you will – is key to the actor’s development.  A methodology — a plan of attack — tells us what to do and where to go when we feel we are frozen with fear.

Lee Strasberg encouraged his actors to develop for every scene a clear line of physical action.  And that is how he encouraged his actors to begin their scene work.  By doing
something.  Not by speaking the lines of the text nor by conjuring some emotional response.  Rather, by engaging the body in specific behavior with a specific, intended goal.  Feel the way you feel, start from where you are, start from who you are, but then begin your physical action and gradually allow your focus to shift to the task you’ve set yourself.

And there’s always a physical life for the actor, always an action, always a task….but more on that later.

Love & Marriage?

Relaxation.  Concentration.  Willpower.

These three are the ménage a trois of acting.  In order to concentrate, I need to relax.  In order to relax, I need to engage my will to do so.  Or, in order to engage my will, I need to relax.  In order to relax, I need to concentrate upon some task.  These three work together — a package deal.  You can’t have one without the other.  Try.  Try to separate them; it’s an illusion.  (Yeah, I went there.)

But what do these words mean?  They’ve become so antiseptic, medicinal, clinical.  In short, uninspiring.  The death knell of the creative act.

Usually, when the standard terms and techniques of acting fail to serve me, I try to reinvent them in some way.  Recharge the batteries, so to speak.  For instance, the actor’s definition of relaxation is the necessary amount of energy to complete or perform a required task.  And that task exists within the context of specific circumstances.  So an expanded definition of relaxation could be the necessary amount of energy to complete or perform a required task within the context of specific circumstances.  But, once again, what the hell does that mean, and how does it serve the actor?

Think about when you do something you like to do.  It can be anything, any activity, any task, as long as it’s something you like to do.  There’s always a sense of ease and a sense of engagement in this kind of activity.  There’s both a desire to complete the task, to reach the goal, as well as a feeling of contentment with the moment-to-moment doing of the activity.  There’s no stress, there’s no tension.  There’s a wonderful sense of relaxation.  (Using the necessary amount of energy to perform a required task!)  There’s also a keen focus upon each step along the way of completing the task fueled by a growing sense of accomplishment – of getting something done and getting it done well.  (Concentration!)  With each successive, successful step along the way, the desire to carry on and complete the task increases effortlessly.  (Willpower!)

Tension – the opposite of relaxation — is the insidious occupational hazard of the actor.  It’s always there.  It blocks impulses and creative expression.  However, if the actor can engage himself in an activity that stimulates his imagination, he will begin to overcome the harmful impact of tension.  The key for the actor is to engage in something that stimulates the imagination.  And there’s the rub!  Because there’s no one thing that can do this for everyone.  There’s no paint-by-numbers solution, no magic bullet, no quick-fix.

Lee Strasberg would encourage his students to ask when working on a scene:  What one thing needs to be created or imagined in order for the scene to come alive for you?  There’s no one answer.  There are many things that might work, but what stimulates someone else might not stimulate you.  That’s okay.  Each of us is an individual and has a uniquely sensitive imagination.

This is your daily homework as an actor:  To discover what things – stories, circum-stances, songs, images, people, places, etc., etc. — excite you, fire up your imagination, and move you!

How the hell did that just happen?

Some time ago, a supremely gifted artist – a designer, director, actor, producer, and an entrepreneur – offered some very sage advice to me:  Do one thing every day to improve your skill as an actor.

Just one thing.  Even if it’s only for ten minutes.  It seems simple enough, but with the rush and responsibilities of each and every day it is so easy to let that one simple thing slip past.  I believe that part of the challenge can be attributed to the ephemeral and ethereal nature of creativity.  Actors and artists in general are intuitive.  We so often solve problems outside the realm of the rational mind.  We instinctively listen and respond with our gut. So it should come as no surprise that for many of us the very mention of such a phrase “scene analysis” is crippling, confounding, and perhaps even constipating.  Analysis requires a systematic approach. The creative act doesn’t work that way at all.  It is fueled by inspiration, by a moment’s recognition, by the ever illusive
A-ha experience.

But it is absolutely necessary for actors to create a deliberate systematic approach to their art.  For one thing, it enables the actor to trouble-shoot.  David Gideon, an actor, a
director, a master teacher, a life-time member of the Actors Studio and protégé of Lee Strasberg, once respectfully challenged his mentor when Mr. Strasberg requested that he begin to teach.  Mr. Gideon compared the art, talent, and skill of acting to an automobile.  He offered that Mr. Strasberg had taught him how to drive his own car, but now he was asking Mr. Gideon to be a mechanic – to trouble-shoot the difficulties that others were having in the operation of their own unique vehicles.  In addition, these
trouble-shooting techniques had to be communicated in such a way that enabled the actor in the future to  daignose accurately any problem and determine, at the very least, a viable remedy.

During a seminar in New York at the Actors Studio Drama School, Al Pacino offered that acting for him is achieving the subconscious through the conscious.  Through the practical application of specific skills, the actor can create a foundation in which his instinct can flourish.

In order to improve in any systematic way, we need to develop practices to enhance our skill set and encourage our imaginations, our instinctual responses, our talents to bubble and boil and burst.

Here’s a suggestion to lay the foundation, and it comes from Uta Hagen’s Respect for
and A Challenge for the Actor.  Think of a task you do every day or several times per week that takes about 2-3 minutes to complete.  Record the steps, the actions, necessary to complete that task – just the physical steps.  Don’t concern yourself with thoughts or feelings.  Concentrate only the physical.  Once you’ve completed a detailed, specific list of steps or actions, repeat the task 5 times the exact same way

That’s 10 to 15 minutes right there.  Congratulations, you just elevated your ability as an actor!

Feelings…Whoa, Whoa, Whoa…Feelings?

If the actor can create the simple reality, he will work consistently.  If the actor can create the emotional reality, he will work sometimes.  If he can do both, he may get the chance to work significantly.

I’ve butchered those statements, but I believe all three can be attributed to Lee Strasberg.  It’s curious that a teacher most commonly identified with affective or emotional memory would recommend that the actor first concern herself with the simple reality of any play, of any scene, of any role.

But what is the simple reality?

The facts and figures.  The Given Circumstances.  Where and when and with whom and all the necessary questions for text analysis listed in such books as Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting….But wait.  There’s more!

The actor must then ask an additional and even more essential question after gathering
all of that circumstantial information:  What does it make you want to do?  This a question Lee Strasberg would put to actors.  Because all the information gleaned from the text must lead to one specific end:  Behavior.  Not just thought.  Not just feeling.  Actual doing.

The actor needs to provide much more than the way he or she feels emotionally in any situation.  Feelings don’t tell stories.  Behavior does.  And behavior combined with feelings – well, that will startle, excite, and inspire.

What About Me?

There are seven basic plots.

I know this.  Because I read it in a book.

(That’s a variation on joke that probably didn’t go over too well – you know, Do you believe everything you read?…Anyway, moving on.)

Each kind of story and every kind of story fits into one of these seven categories or some combination of these categories.  And each kind of story has its own specific qualities as to the hero’s or heroine’s journey, the obstacles and accomplishments encountered and achieved, the lessons learned and the personal truths that can only be revealed by the adventure.

I know.  Who cares?

But we should.

That’s the thing about working on a script, a role, a production.  It really is a collaborative pursuit.  (This is probably true of most things in life. There are very few things that aren’t collaborative. )  And I don’t mean in the touchy-feely sense.  For me, collaboration is a somewhat violent experience.  The clash of opinions, of wills, of insecurities and ignorance. Oftentimes, I find myself arguing or resisting opinion because I don’t understand my role in the production and my purpose in the story.  I’ve failed to ask myself, How do I serve the writer here?  Why is my character necessary to the story?  I fail to recognize that the story isn’t about me. That I am a part serving the whole. Perhaps most actors don’t encounter this flaw in their creative character, but more often than I care to admit I have to remind myself to ask the question:  What do I need to do so that my partner can play her part and do her work to the best of her ability so that the story achieves its full power and impact upon the audience?  (Truth be told, I don’t think in the heat of rehearsal I’ve asked myself such a long-winded and awkwardly phrased question.  It’s more like, Dude, you gotta get better ‘cuz right now you suck.)

The more I fully understand storytelling, the better I serve the story.  And the more I
serve the story’s needs, the more I meet the needs of the cast, the director, the playwright and the audience.

How Do You Memorize All Those Lines?

You’re at the audience forum after the show.  The patron in the second row aisle seat house left raises his hand emphatically as he looks directly at you with a piercingly eager gaze full of admiration.  The moderator of the event says to the patron with the piercingly eager gaze, “Do you have a question?”  And he says (as he stares piercingly, eagerly, admiringly at you), “Yes.  My question is for the actor who just gave that fantastic performance.”  His voice goes up a little at the end of the phrase as if he’s asking permission from you to continue on with his quest for the knowledge that only you possess (as demonstrated by your fantastic performance).  With a quick, brave intake of air, he steadies himself and asks you his question:  “How did you memorize all those lines?”……But, really, when you think about it, it’s a good question.  With all that is going on backstage, on stage, up in the booth, out in the audience — cell phones ringing and vibrating, text messages and tweets sent hither and yon, candies and cough drops with the largest and most intricate packaging ever getting unwrapped and seemingly re-wrapped — it’s amazing that actors can keep their focus and carry on with the play.  But all actors get thrown off balance at some point.  Go up on a line or two.  Or three or four (you know who you are).  It happens.  And it happens most often to me when I become suddenly self-aware.  Suddenly self-conscious.  And just as suddenly I’ve stopped paying attention to my partner on stage.  I’ve stopped listening. Stopped caring actually about what’s going on Over There (to borrow a phrase from Sanford Meisner).  That’s the strange thing about learning lines, getting off-book, building a performance.  The more I study what my scene partners are saying, the better off I am.  I then know what I’m responding to and why I say what I say.  And then I find myself guided by the things they are telling me rather than some meticulously memorized version of my own text that I carefully crafted in my car stuck in traffic or late the night before.  The thing of it is, if I’m not paying attention to what my partners are telling me on stage, if I haven’t a fully developed point of view about the things they say, if that point of view doesn’t stimulate in me a strong response, then I’m not really listening. I’m not really responding. I’m not really acting.

Am I Good Enough To Do The Part?

I was recently working with an actor on an upcoming role, and she voiced the terror that I think afflicts all actors at some point:  Am I good enough to do the part?  Truth be told, we never want to be good enough.  Good enough sucks.  We want to be great.  We want our performances, every single one of them, to blow away the audience and kick the critics in their collective ass.  It’s an impossible goal and a fool’s mission, but it’s an occupational hazard for the actor.  So what does the actor do?  How does the actor get good enough to do the role, any role?  Start from who you are.  I am not certain if such advice was first offered by Harold Clurman or Lee Strasberg or some other luminary of the American theatre, but it always serves the actor to remember that you are not stuck with the character, the character is stuck with you.  The character consists of words on the page.  No matter how powerful those words and the circumstances created by the playwright, the character on the page needs your body, spirit, soul, and imagination to come to life on the stage.  It’s a thrill and a privilege to witness an actor trust this – in class, in rehearsal, or in performance — and prove that she is more than good enough.