Is that a Coffee Pot on the counter or are you just happy to see me?

I came home.  I was tired, a little spent from the day.  Not from the day per se.  Just from the driving, the constant driving that is the definition of living in Southern California.  There’s no romance to it these days.  Drought.  Heat — excessive heat.  Okay, nothing like what’s going on in other parts of the country.  But this is So Cal.  We have no ability to roll with the changes.  We are trained to meet life with a Wal-Mart mentality — a comfortably climate-controlled environment and every item on its proper shelf.  (Except between midnight and 6am.  Have you ever been?  It’s a disaster.  What the hell was Sam thinking?!  I’ve spent the best years of my life on two days in particular at a Wal-Mart nearby between those specific hours.  Never again.)

Anyway, I got home.  My wife was in the kitchen.  The cats and the dog were there too.  Hugs and kisses all around.  And my wife just staring at me.  Not creepy or anything.  Just something that I would notice — because I live with her, I know her habits, her behaviors.  But I let it slide.  I was tired.  I was hot.  I was sweaty.  I was thoroughly unappealing.  But something was weird.  She just kept staring.  Waiting, it seemed.  For what?  I had no clue.  I had some groceries, some cat litter, some other various sundries to deposit in their proper places.  So I did what needed to be done or attempted to do so when it caught my eye.  There on the counter.  I had been in the house for more than 10 minutes and had been standing right next to it.  The Gift!

A brand new coffee maker.  (I am am, I eagerly confess, a caffeine enthusiast.)  A kind of fancy one by our standards.  It was a brilliant crimson red!  (Our previous one, which had broken down two days before, was a standard innocuous white.)  But this new one was whatever the opposite of innocuous is..  It was the color of a femme fatale’s finger nails.

But still it took me 10 minutes to notice.

So often I am seemingly hyper-aware.  I know everything that is going on, know where everything is, what’s out of place, what’s new or strange, etc.  But that’s crap.  I always forget that we rarely notice right away what is new and different.  Because we are consumed with some other very important activity at the time that we enter a room.  We have our own ambition, our own goal, our own mission.  We come into the room to get something done and often to the exclusion of anything new that might be noticed.  That new thing has to strike us, has to arrest our attention.  The surprise.  All too often I know exactly where I am going on stage rather than knowing where I wish to go and dealing with the new circumstance that is the surprise.

Who? Me?

I think that one of the hardest things to do is to speak your mind.  Which is kind of ironic — seemingly false but true — when you live in the United States of America.  After all, one of the founding principles is freedom of speech.  But to speak one’s mind is dangerous.  In addition to the fact that you might upset or offend or be viewed as odd or stupid, you also immediately become vulnerable.  Because you have dared to reveal yourself.  To reveal something that you believe.  Some secret desire or hope that you you held dear for quite some time that may now be judged, criticized, ridiculed….FYI, I tend to view things from a glass half empty kind of way.

This kind of daring is the quality that makes a performance dangerous, scary, thrilling, and watchable.  Because something is immediately at risk.  Something personal is at stake.  If it isn’t personal, it isn’t worth it.  It isn’t fun to perform.  It isn’t fun to watch.

Do You Doubt It?

It’s important undoubtedly to determine what your character is going for, trying for, attempting to do in each scene.  The all-essential objective.  The mission.  The want the need that thing I must have cannot leave the room without and am fighting for.

But it’s just as useful and necessary and important to consider the doubts and uncertainties that plague a character and persist throughout the story.  Doubts provide the possibility for failure in a scene, provide obstacles throughout the action of the play, and make the character’s journey much more interesting, much more inspiring.

Everyone suffers at some time from the point of view, “Who am I to get what I desire?”  We question that we deserve to succeed, that we have the ability — the skill and talent.  If we consider that doubt is a big part of a character’s journey, it can excite our imaginations and our personal responses to the circumstances of the story and propel us into action.  It can provide the actor with his or her own idiosyncratic hook into the story.

The Real World?

Actors can become obsessed with the desire to appear “natural” or “real”.  They can become enveloped in this quest.  Trapped.  Things they do, responses they have are all determined by what someone else – the audience – will believe.  Or, even worse, what the audience will accept.

“Natural” or “real” (although quite different terms artistically) have, for the most part, come to describe behavior that looks like something that might be witnessed in the real world.  At the coffee shop.  In a bar.  In the park.  At the beach.  In any standard, normal everyday environment. 

But plays don’t take place in any standard, normal every day environment.  Plays take place in the world of the play.  Sounds like double-speak.  Or just plain BS.  But a play is a heightened event.  Most stories are.  Whether on the stage, on the screen, or on the page.  We read, listen to, and watch stories because something out of the ordinary, non-standard, and abnormal is very likely to take place.  It could be as magical as falling down a rabbit hole.  Or it could be as sublime as falling in love.  It is the atypical event that hooks us:  the listener, the reader, the spectator.

And it is usually the atypical responses of the actor that intrigue and hook us as well.  These responses, based upon the world of the play, can free the actor from the obsession to appear natural or real.  The better question or concern for the actor is, given the world of the play, Do I Believe What I Am Doing?  If the actor believes, the audience will believe as well. 

WTF?! You Don’t Know Nothin’!

I find myself going through a script and writing that oh-so-mundane phrase as I read each and every line of text:  WTF?  or OMG!

I am not proud of this fact.  Rather embarrassed as a matter of fact.  I feel as if I am trying desperately to fit into a world in which I don’t belong.  I am nowhere near the age of a teenager, nor have I recently moved beyond that demographic.  But I incessantly borrow the text message phrasing of the younger generation whenever I try to analyze a script.

Most actors make the mistake of reading a script solely for facts.  Rarely do they consider the more important consideration:  What is your Strong Point of View

BIG MISTAKE.  (Please do yourself the favor of reading the work of Sandford Meisner, Stella Adler, Lee Strasberg, Uta Hagen, Robert Lewis, and a whole of host of excellent theatre artists.)

The character believes many things fervently.  But the character knows NOTHING.  The character is operating on a strong sense of faith in what cannot be proved.

A script is a continual exchange of points of view.  Yes, there are facts, there are undeniable circumstances; but facts are boring, and circumstances are influences which force or propel characters to behave in ways in which they might never have imagined themeselves capable.  The character of any play is always behaving with incomplete information.  This is what makes the character’s decisions so exciting, so riveting.

There is nothing more boring than the actor solely revealing the facts of the case.

A script is an argument, a debate, something unsettled and yet to be determined.  Some kind of fate or outcome always hangs in the balance — what is at stake?  [By the way, I hate that phrase, What is at stake (steak)?  It always causes me to imagine a large pile of sirloin, one finely cut piece of animal flesh piled on top of the other, eventually rotting in the sun, altogether unappealing.  I prefer the question:  What are you willing to do to get what you want?  And, conversely, what are you NOT willing to do to get what you want?  (Please read Uta Hagen’s A Challenge for the Actor.)]

Point of view has to do with opinion.  People without opinions, STRONG opinions, are inherently boring in performance.  If it doesn’t matter to you, why should it matter to the audience?

Every line is a surprise.  At the very least, a potential surprise.  A shift in the action.  A deviation from what is expected.  Each line is a chance for the unexpected.

There is nothing casual, nothing commonplace, nothing normal on stage or in performance that is spoken or enacted.  Stories are chronicles of the unexpected, of events FUBAR, of the ever present SNAFU, a continual series of inescapable moments leading to the question:  WHAT THE F#$%?! 

What Were You Thinking?

It’s been sometime since I’ve taken a moment to sit down at the keyboard to type out my all-too-random and self-indulgent musings.  My computer told me that I haven’t updated or even visited the site since February 23rd.  Almost two and a half months.  Thanks to anyone who might read this for your patience as well as your time.

During the past several months, I have been in three productions and am directing another.  As much as I believe in the necessity of learning in a classroom, there is truly nothing as comparable as learning live on stage in front of an audience.  Learning by mistake.  Screwing up in public — a paying public.  Confronting the terrifying and unpredictable moment when large chunks of text completely vacate your mind.  Having no clue as to how to move beyond this blank moment — other than to stare dumbly, pleadingly, yet intensely into your scene partner’s eyes while he or she stares dumbly back as if to say, “Sorry, you’re on your own.”  That is, of course, assuming you do have a scene partner and aren’t performing a one-man or one-woman show.  Then it’s just a matter of shifting the dumb, pleading, intense stare out toward the audience.  (I’ve found that if you hold that dumb, pleading, intense stare long enough the audience will begin to believe that they are somehow at fault!)

There are many reasons for “going up” on lines, or, as in my case, huge passages of text.  There are some very legitimate reasons.  For instance, the woman in the back who randomly stood up toward the end of Act 1 and started waving her arms.  Perhaps it was an effort to determine where the air-conditioning vent was, or maybe she was just being friendly.  I’m not sure.  Or the individuals, and they are always, always in attendance, who decide or forget to turn off the ringers on their cellphones.  Nothing like the theme to American Beauty or Led Zeplin’s Kashmir occurring during the second act of a period play.

More often than not, however, it is my own fault.  I forget the text because I have failed to determine its value.  What it means to me and what it means to my scene my partner and the other characters in the play.  I like to remind myself — have to remind myself – constantly that there are no facts in a play.  There are only opinions.  Strong opinions.  Opinions so strong that they influence with an almost dictatorial precision my behavior on stage.  I think it was Elia Kazan who reportedly said something like plays and films are just like life with all the boring parts cut out.  I need to constantly remember that about the text the playwright provides my character.  There is no small talk.  Everything has purpose and is precise.

For each line that is spoken to me on stage, I have to determine two things:  What I Think about it and What I do Do about it.  I have a Reaction to it, and then I have a Response to it.  Sanford Meisner referred to this Reaction-Response as a Strong Point of View.  Sometimes my response mirrors my reaction; other times it does not.  Sometimes my response is opposite my reaction.  As actors, we fall into the trap of providing ourselves weak points of view to no points of view at all.  Weak Reactions followed by Weak Responses.  When we do this, everything becomes casual, unimportant, insignificant, and purposeless.  Casual, unimportant, insignificant, and purposeless things are easily forgotten.  (No wonder I am forced all too frequently to employ an intense and pleading blank stare!)

Humperdink Again?! (Is that even how his name is spelled?)

Feelings.  Actors are continually oppressed by the notion that they need to feel something.  But most actors already feel something all the time every day of the week.  24/7.  It’s never a matter of feeling.  It’s a matter of doing.  What is the character in any scene trying to do to the other character or for himself or herself?  We may wish to feel a certain thing in life and on stage, but this feeling, this emotional response, is triggered by what we are trying to do and the outcome of our actions.  Feelings are a reaction.  To the circumstances that surround us.  The people, the environment influences.  Feelings are a response.  They are not stimulae.  We see something.  We feel something.  Seeing is an action.  We hear something.  We feel something.  Hearing is an action.  We touch something.  We feel something.  Feeling is an action.  And so on and so forth.

It’s quite annoying to watch an actor conjure an emotional response on stage.  It’s distracting.  The audience is taken out of the story, and the collective attention is directed toward the skillful trick of the actor.  And it does impress many.  But it doesn’t tell the story.  It shows off the actors ability to move himself or herself.

To borrow a statement from a much smarter artist than I could ever hope to be:  The play’s the thing.  The story is what’s important.  What’s the story?  When the actor understands the story and his or her role in that story, they cannot help but be moved.  Moved in the service of the story.  Not moved in an attempt to get the audience on his or her side.  Not moved in attempt to get the sympathy of the viewing crowd.  Not moved in an attempt to edify his or her faith in some depth of sensitivity.

Leave yourself alone.  Start from who you are.  Start from where you are.  Tell the story.  And you just might move mountains. 

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.