What’s the Story?

Actors are storytellers.  So is the director and the designers of any production.  This must be fully accepted and understood.  Many, if not most, do not accept or understand this.  They don’t recognize that it is an awesome and thrilling responsibility to tell a story.

First of all, you take charge of the playwright’s creation.  The playwright is at the mercy of individuals who may not know their elbow from another part of their body.  We’ve all been involved in that kind of production.  The director has a concept, imposes it upon the play, and chaos ensues.  Unfortunately, unless the play is an established classic, the playwright gets blamed for over-writing or under-writing or poor writing.  More often than not, it’s the playwright that has been misinterpreted or uninterpreted.  The creative team — actors, director, and designers – has let the playwright down.

There is also the occupational hazard of theatrical convention (this exists in filmed media as well.)  There is so often an accepted histrionic behavior (histrionic, if you don’t know, is defined as overly dramatic in behavior or speech.)  It’s an accepted convention.  (Convention for the unfamiliar is defined as:  an accepted usage, standard, or usage.)  There’s nothing original, impulsive, instinctual, or organic (I’m not a fan of this over-used word) about theatrical convention.

What is conventional theatrical behavior?  It’s hard to define, but it occurs so often in so many ways.  Here’s an attempt at explaining it.  In a script, the character is at a funeral.  The actor notices this circumstance and then determines that funeral = sadness, tears, crying.  The actor fails to consider what the situation is, what might be needed during a difficult time of life (good cheer, comfort, and maybe a laugh or two!).  Instead the actor serves his or her own needs rather than thinking about the OTHER characters, the OTHER people in the situation.

When considering the story of a scene, the actor needs to define the simple situation of the scene, the relationships involved in that scene, and the needs of the OTHERS in the scene.  What’s the story?  What’s does the story need at this moment?  And how can I serve the story here and now?

That’s what the actor needs to discover.  Leave yourself alone, figure out what the OTHER needs from you, and determine how you can serve the story.

Moment to Schmoment?

This is a really popular catch-phrase in acting.  Moment to moment.  Not moment to schmoment.  That’s just a really lame attempt at humor.  Sorry about that….But every one tosses it around so cavalierly.  That phrase:  moment to moment.  As if it were easy to understand and simple to accomplish.

But what does it mean?  More importantly, how do you achieve it?

Some actors like to leave themselves alone and simply see what happens during the course of a rehearsal or a performance.  Seems brave.  Perhaps it is.  But acting, more eloquently stated by Uta Hagen in Respect for Acting then I will do right now, has everything to do with the illusion of the first time.  Actors do the same or very similar things night after night, but they make it look as if it has never happened before.  It’s one of the occupational hazards for the actor.

After all, there is a script.  The playwright has pre-determined everything the actor will say and do.  When the actor will enter.  When the actor will leave.  Generous playwrights encourage the actor to feel a specific some-thing.  More dictatorial playwrights demand a very specific response at a very specific moment in the play.  How can the actor live on stage moment to moment when she knows exactly what is about to happen, when she knows exactly what must happen, when she knows exactly what her response must be before she has ever gotten to that precise moment?  It can be an incredible distraction.

The actor has to lay the foundation for a specific response but also has to arrive at the response as if it were a surprise.  Part if this is accomplished by careful analysis of the script.  (Analysis is such a dry, medicinal word.  I wish I had a better, more inspiring phrase to offer.  Oh well.)  That analysis has to recognize that each line, each action, each exchange on stage is a surprise.  Each line is a WTF opportunity.  The play, the scene must be read in this manner.  Surprise — the unexpected — is what creates the heightened experience on stage.  Every interaction on stage contains the potential for this sense of surprise.  At the very least, every interaction — whether through the dialogue or through the physical life — should be considered, if not crafted, in this manner.

Yes, “crafted”.  Moment to moment, contrary to some opinions, is a crafted endeavor.  The actor cannot simply leave himself or herself alone to the whims of the imagination from one night or matinee to the next.  Not when dealing with a text.  Acting is not a matter of blind improvisation.  And improvisation has its own set of rules.  The rules of the game.  Demands that the improviser must follow.  Improvisation, too, is an illusion.  Everything on stage, before an audience, is an illusion.  Of the first time.  A substantial part of the art of acting lies in the actor’s ability to carefully craft a performance, create opportunity for his partners on stage join in that performance, to impact and effect that carefully crafted performance, and leave room for the “happy accident”.  As if for the first time, night after night, performance after performance.

Baptism by Fire

The opportunity to rehearse and perform a play is arguably the best way to learn to act.  There’s some old saying to that effect.  All the formal schooling in the world can’t re-place the baptism by fire that is the need to succeed in front of a live audience.  The ability to make quick decisions and commit to a course of action is invaluable.  This tends to occur when the prospect of a paying public is fast approaching.

A challenge occurs when this kind of pressure – the pressure to perform – propels the creative effort toward safe decisions.  Decisions that will seem acceptable to the majority.  Choices that will make infinite sense and will invite no debate.  Nothing that could possibly shake the attention of anyone watching.

The pressure to perform is weird thing.  Some actors are very sensitive to it.  Know they are sensitive to it.  Others claim the opposite and brag about their comfort in front of the audience, any audience.  Either kind of actor is susceptible to the practical need and genetically encoded desire to fit in.  Few of us want to be separated from the group, from the herd.  We want to fit in.  To fit in is to survive.  That’s why there are no plaid zebras.  They were the easiest to spot way-back-when, and predators did away with them a long time ago.

It is an unconscious habit to want and to work to blend into our surroundings.  To be-come part of the whole.  It’s safer.  And the body knows this at a cellular level.  It’s in our DNA.  So the thrill that we sense whenever we act in performance or in rehearsal is a response, an innate response, a chemical response, to the unconscious habit to blend in.  To lift ourselves out of the world around us and separate ourselves, distinguish ourselves as different from the rest is unnatural.  Engaging in the art of acting, the practice of acting, it is unnatural.  It’s thrilling.  It’s terrifying.  It’s an adrenaline rush.  It’s fight or flight.

So the rehearsal process is a terrifying journey.  It is also a thrilling one.  It’s typically both.  Because each day at work on a play, hopefully the actor is continually putting herself out there, making quick instinctive dangerous decisions.  Constantly separating herself from the pack.  Stepping far away from the conventions of conformity, of approval, of safety, of fitting in.  Of merely doing what works or what is effective.

What exactly is it that the actor is looking for?  How does the actor get there?  I don’t know.  No one really does.  So just start flinging stuff around the room and see what sticks.  It’s a messy process, and much of it stinks.  But it’s one of the few things
in life that you can truly call your own.

Actor Are Like Cancer Cells?

I think I’ve expressed an opinion about this before, but there’s this thing about a paint-by-numbers approach that is really irritating and widespread.  So many of us succumb to this at some point or another and with a kind of surprising regularity.  Acting, contrary to popular
opinion, has much to do with throwing a bunch of stuff at a wall and seeing what sticks.  Of course there are schools of thought and volumes of terrific information as to how to approach the art of acting.  All can be very useful.  But they are all educated – sometimes highly so – guesses as to what will work for the actor.

Actors are like cancer cells.  Incredibly individualistic and unique.  What works for one of us doesn’t necessarily work for another.  There’s no magic bullet.  So aside from reading, studying, and practicing all that has come before, which is a thoroughly ex-hausting concept, what is the actor to do?  How is the actor to improve, rehearse, and

Leap.  Jump. Try something.  You know it works when you don’t hit the ground.  Luckily
for the actor, the ground is a metaphor. There’s no risk of injury.  Except to the ego.  Which bruises easily and readily with alarming frequency.  At least in my limited ex- perience.  Of myself.  Perhaps you’re different.  The point is merely that trial and error is a big part of creating a role.

Leaping and jumping doesn’t include knowledge of a particular outcome.  There’s never a guarantee.  And if there is a guarantee, you can almost always be assured that there’s a more interesting choice, a far riskier option to be had.  I find myself in a lot of trouble when searching for a guarantee.  I want to know what’s about to happen.  So I focus upon one planned predictable outcome.  By doing so, I eliminate all else that might occur.  All else that might be discovered.  All else that might be revealed.

This does without doubt take time, practice, and experience.  The ability to listen to the script, to recognize the variety of opportunities that exist within it.  These are skills that
are absorbed as much as learned.  I like to compare it to playing any kind of game.
At first you’re just figuring out the rules.  Trying to make sense of it all.  Following the rules because they are the rules.  But you don’t really understand why the rules are the rules—they’re just the rules.  Why waste time asking why you can’t move the shoe backwards in Monopoly or why the bishop in chess gets to move diagonally and the rook can’t?  We just accept the rules and try to play within those designated para- meters.  Over time we learn the rules, we learn the game, we stop thinking about the rules, and we even get creative within the framework of the game, within the framework of the rules, and we begin to play!

The given circumstances of the play are the rules of the play.  At first, I don’t know why the circumstances are significant.  Or at least I don’t know how significant.  That doesn’t happen for a while for me.  I am forced to continually make a fool of myself as I try to listen to the script, figure out the rules of the text, and try to play within the layout as designed by the playwright.  Eventually – sometimes sooner, sometimes later – the game seems no longer a set of arbitrary rules and begins to make sense.  Not merely intellectually.  Physically as well.  As if it is in my bones.  Like a game I love to play.  Like Monopoly or Chess….Okay, those are bad examples, and I don’t really play them all that much.  And, to be quite honest, I am not a big fan of Monopoly.  I still don’t understand why the shoe can’t move backwards.