How Does It Feel?

I recently received the news that someone very close to me had been diagnosed with cancer.  All things being equal, the prognosis is good, the malady was detected early, and treatment will begin very, very soon.

So how do I feel about all of this?  How did I react?  What was my emotional response?

I still don’t know.  Intellectually I know the significance of the situation.  I realize the risks
involved.  I’ve researched the statistics.  But I’m kinda numb to the whole thing.  Maybe I’m in shock.  Maybe I’m in denial.  But maybe I’m perfectly healthy, normal, and perhaps even typical.

The point is we never know how we will respond in any situation.  We hope that we will behave heroically or with such a wonderful degree of sensitivity that some kind of Council of Elders will designate us a demi-god at the very least.

But that’s not the way it works in life.  We are often dumbfounded, stunned, even lazy in our response.  And that’s okay.  Because it’s organic, it’s truthful, it’s real, it’s what it is at the time.

Lee Strasberg advised that No Reality Is a Big Reality.  Nothing can be more terrifying on stage than not knowing, not feeling, what you’re response is.  It’s a great place to be oddly enough.  It’s not that the actor is deliberately attempting to eliminate the expression of response.  It’s a matter of the actor allowing whatever might happen to happen.

When reading a script, the actor can sometimes assume that what is best in times of crisis is a huge emotional response.  But, oftentimes, we don’t behave that way when faced with challenging circumstances.  We try to solve the problem.  We try to offer assistance.  We try to find out as much as we can about whatever is going on, whatever is confronting us.  We don’t try to feel, we don’t try to emote.  We focus on the person confronted with the problem or challenge, and we try to assist as best we can….Or we try to run, to hide, to deny, to push away the problem or challenge as best we can.  It’s a survival instinct.  It’s reptilian.  It’s ancient.  It’s organic.

Sometimes no reality is a pretty big reality.

The Happy Accident

I was speaking with my brother recently.  He’s an engineer with a pharmaceutical company on the east coast.  But he’s not all bad.  He’s also a musician and a film en- thusiast.  I try not to talk too much about acting or theatre and the like.  I fear I will endlessly and needlessly bore him.  But he’s a nice guy, listens politely, and respectfully endures the machinations of my mind much of the time.  During our discussion about nothing in particular and everything under the sun, he started to talk about the difference between leadership and management.  (He’s thinking about going back to school for an MBA….Poor guy.  Good luck getting a job with that degree!)  Leaders, he offered, see things differently and create new ideas.  Managers maintain the status quo.  He then said that he sometimes gets frustrated with his job because there is such a carefully regulated work environment – understandably so due to the inherent hazards that are part and parcel of the work being done – that creativity is stifled.  Procedures must be so nailed down, fixed and precise in order to eliminate mistakes.  But, he said, when you study Nature — when you study the evolution of plants and animals — it’s the mistake, the random event that leads to variation.  The Happy Accident.

Evolution, nature’s process of improvement and survival, isn’t a steady climb.  It moves in fits and starts.  Sometimes slow and unchanging.  Sometimes incredibly fast and mercurial.  Creativity isn’t a smooth process nor is it a fixed process.  There are fixed elements involved – DNA, specific environmental influences, etc. – but there are also a lot of variations.  Some variations are useless.  Some are invaluable.  Some variations are truly life-changing and can send a particular species sky-rocketing into the future.

So what does any of this have to do with acting?

Process is important.  Rehearsal technique is a key ingredient to any actor’s success.   But it cannot be so fixed that it doesn’t provide the opportunity for variation.  Random Events.  Random Responses.  Happy Accidents.  A static process – memorizing the text so that it can be spoken in a convincingly naturalistic manner with a ready-made
emotional response — isn’t rehearsal.  It’s rote memorization.

Actors need to be leaders, not managers.  Actors need to be able to look at the situations in the script, create new ideas, and offer new perspectives.  Actors need their own unique points of view.  We cannot be managers merely interested in maintaining the theatrical status quo, of getting it done the right way, and guaranteeing only the same old outcome.

Fits and starts.  Random Events.  Random Responses.  Happy Accidents.  These are the by-products of a creative process.

just a little bit

Scene analysis is difficult.  If anyone tells you different, you’re either talking to an idiot, a bad actor, or maybe both.  It can be tedious work.  Sifting through the playwright’s words to figure out what essentially is happening at every moment of the play….That’s right.  At every moment of the play.  Even the scenes you aren’t in!

It can be overwhelming, too.  There’s always this constant pressure to get it right.  To figure out exactly what the playwright meant, what her intention was with the story, why did she write it, and why does this scene follow that scene, and on and on and on.

Analysis causes me high anxiety.  (There’s a joke in there somewhere.  Anyway….)   I start to feel hopeless and completely helpless.  Paralyzed and intimidated by this beast called THE TEXT.  The only way I know how to deal is to begin to break the beast into bits.  Little simple bits.

For instance, I’ll sometimes track when one character enters and then leaves a scene.  That’s a bit.  Or when any character enters a scene, and then when any character leaves the scene.  That’s a bit.  Because there’s a change.  And a change in the story of any kind usually means that something important just happened. Something important to the telling of the story.  No matter how small that change might be.  I chart these little changes, these entrances and exits, and I begin to notice other little bits of change throughout the play.  The story starts to make sense, each little moment reveals itself as building on the one that came before, each little exchange between characters seems inspired no matter how mundane, common, or colloquial.

But it all starts with a little bit.  Somebody enters, somebody leaves.  Something just happened, something just changed.  Something just sparked the imagination.

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.