Tuesday, February 27, 2007

ON ACTING: Determining Worthiness

In judging an acted scene, it often "ain't the scene, but who's acting it"; as in fashion: "it ain't the dress, but who's wearing it."

Saturday, February 24, 2007

ON ACTING: The Value of Improvisation

The benefits of improvisation as an acting teaching tool are manifold; and most benefits accrue because there are few limiting constrictions when applying improvisation-as-an-acting-exercise.
Freedom is the name of the improvisation game.

The essential structure of an improvisation exercise is simple: a central scenario is set up (for example: "...two actors are trying to decide to go to a movie. The male actor wants an action-adventure movie; the female actor wants an historical drama.") The actors are instructed to convince the other actor to their point of view. In some improvisational exercises, aspects of character are sometimes included: for example: "occupationally, he is a hairdresser, she is a school teacher." Or: "Emotionally, he is angry and aggressive; she is rational and passive aggressive"...etc.

However, I have found that the less complex and less detailed the constraints of the improvisational structure (other than the basic conflict), the more the participants will be forced to use themselves (their essential emotional nature) in improvising toward their respective goals; and that narrow focus will be of central value in the freeing of actors to personally create: since their tactics utilized in the improvised conflict are reduced to self (primarily one's emotional self).

There are of course other benefits that accrue from improvisation beyond the stimulation of the participant's emotions, however.

In improvisational exercises a strong sense of acting reality is developed in the actor; the improvisational experience creates an awareness of 'unanticipated' life...a moment-by-moment unscripted progress toward goal; so when the actor is later given lines (in a formally written scene), s/he will have already ingrained in his/her muscle memory (by the experience of her improvisational work) a strongly developed sense of spontaneous drama, and therefore will be less artificial and 'planned' in the acting work when s/he is confronted by the "given" constraints of dialogue.

Improvisational experience also gives the actor the pleasure of conflictual freedom (perhaps that's why they call a play a play: because it is playful). Improvisation seduces the actor to enjoy acting, reacting and thinking on one's feet (and by 'thinking' I do not mean cognitive awareness of one's thought processes, but an exercising and strengthening of the basic sub-cognitive--spontaneous--mental muscle). Furthermore, improvisation helps the actor develop a fundamental confidence in self, and a realization that 'one-can-survive' conflict even when thrown into the cauldron of an unknown and totally-unprepared-for event

Finally, improvisation often helps free the actor from his/her physical constraints; because the actor in improvisation does not know what is coming next, and therefore is forced to be intent on the other person; and that forced experiencing of 'other'-consciousness renders the actor less susceptible to self-consciousness, which I have found to be the primary factor in creating physical/movement 'up-tightness'.

Friday, February 23, 2007

ON ACTING: Good Habits (In Life) versus Bad Habits (In Acting)

Our human system is built for survival. It seeks behavioral safety...care (as in carefullness). The Ancients suggested a motto for a wise, tempered life: "Moderation in all things."

However, good acting habits demand a life of emotional extremes. No one (no character) gets into drama, tragedy or comedy, by playing it safe, by being rationally sane. Egregious excesses--in needs , desires and goals--are the qualities that lead to theatrical danger and excitement.

So, in order to train himself to become an exciting actor, the actor must and will often find the very character habits and traits that serve her well in life, such as 'looking before leaping', 'counting to ten before responding', backing away at moments on conflictual tension...most all reasonableness in the face of emotional chaos...are counterproductive to their exciting acting efforts. (Therefore the actor should not feel guilty if and when he finds the generation of extreme acting emotion a difficult task. He is doing nothing 'wrong'. He is just continuing to obey the logical tempering dictates of long term survival developed in everyday life.)

However--and so--to combat those perfectly logical everyday constraints, to learn to become feeling-excessive on stage and onscreen, to allow emotional dangerous behavior to occur in her in performance, the actor should train herself to develop a dual set of operating modalities: one for life (carefulness...because everyday life's dramas do present consequences that are truly severe and long lasting), and one for stage and set, where it is perfectly safe to embrace impulsive behavior and danger, because the consequences of any emotional act do not last longer than "Cut" or the drop of the curtain.

However, in embracing this dual operating modality, the actor should understand she is not embracing a unique-to-profession schizophrenia, an attitude toward human behavior that is perverse. ALL people EVERYWHERE live dual lives. In everyday life all are required to embrace Jekyll-Hyde existence, especially when it comes to balancing emotion and reason. Actor and "civilians" (non actors) are different only in that they do it in reverse order: Non-actors embrace reason and constraint at work, and emotional openness (if they want a caring environment) at home. On the other hand, actors are required to be wildly and emotionally open at work, and then, when they go home, if they seek a balanced life, be emotionally moderate and tempered as they enter the front door.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


"In a civilized society, need trumps want, human desperation trump desire."

"If you care not for others. you do not care for yourself."

Sunday, February 18, 2007

ON ACTING: "Heightened Reality"

In a class scene, the student was doing some serious (over-energetic) bad acting--however well-intentioned. I stopped him; I asked him what he was doing. He said: "An old teacher of mine told me that acting was 'heightened reality', so I was trying to achieve that. "Ah ha," I said (perhaps with a tinge of sarcasm)...The class groaned in anticipation. Teacher-to-teacher ego was about to clash. Students love that kind of thing.

'No,' I thought: 'Next time.'

"Your teacher was right," I said. "But...you failed to notice which word was the noun in the teacher's phrase and which word was the adjective. 'Heightened' is only the adjective. It is the secondary, or modifying word. The most important word is the noun, 'reality'! The word 'reality' was at the core of the suggestion: to achieve a 'heightened reality'.

"First--and throughout all your acting endeavors, remember--all good acting must always create 'reality'; it must be acting that is based in honest, real emotions; and only secondarily it should strive to create a heightened reality--and then only if the actor can possibly achieve it without destroying emotional reality.

"Unfortunately, in your present scene work, you were trying to indicate the presence of a 'heightened reality' by simple over-energetic, loud, face-paced unreality. You were not real-ly looking or listening or talking to the other actor, or really feeling--the bases of real acting--you were only 'feeling' like obeying what (you thought) your old teacher was saying and thereby impress the audience.

"Remember: Actor's energy that is removed from the impetus of character's feeling is not feeling--it is actor energy; something that falsely (improperly) originates outside the scene and is definitionally false to the real life inside the scene.

"Let's do the scene again--only this time really look at the other actor, really listen, and let their subsequent sound and sight stimuli allow you to really feel, and then let whatever real feeling/energy emotionally created thereby--as a corollary and an aspect of the reality of the scene--create any 'heightened reality' you might feel. The performance result may not be as 'heightened' as you would desire...but you will not have lost the more critical noun (reality) in the false stretch to create the adjective 'heightened'.

"But don't worry. As you continue studying, practicing and performing--as you get more accustomed to really feeling in a scene, you will find yourself slowly becoming passionately (and real-ly) 'heightened' at all times in all scenes. Then you--and your old teacher and I--will be happy."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

ON ACTING: Correcting The Voice

Very, very few actors have 'vocal problems'...that is, basic, irremediable physical problems; what they have are 'emotional' problems, which manifest themselves in their present--and temporary--vocal dilemmas. Which is why voice training alone is important--but not exclusively--to becoming a good actor. Voice training deals with the problems of an ineffective speaking instrument on a symptomatic level...that is, by analyzing and correcting the actor's production of voice: air expulsion from the lungs, through the esophagus, and then through the voice box and ancillary musculature of the throat, tongue, teeth and lips.

However, there is another--and invaluable--type of voice training: the 'internal' training of the actor's emotions. It can be thought of dealing with the underlying vocal disease, not merely the symptom, training the actor to reduce the unnecessary vocal tension created by the actor's uncomfortableness with his/her emotions, which is, at core, is at the origin of the unwanted, or ineffective, voice production.

Let us take the case of an actor who speaks "i' the nose," as Hamlet phrases it (critically) to the Players in "Hamlet": an actor who has 'squeaky', nasal voices (by the way, the pitch has nothing to do with 'squeakiness' or nasal-ness; there are pleasant sounding tenors as well as basses, contraltos as well as sopranos), who seem to speak through their noses and not their throats, who seem to have no fullness or 'timbre' in their voices. They almost seem to be 'whining' instead of explaining; their voice production seems to have its origins in their chest and not their lungs (contracted by the diaphragm); it seems to come out of their noses and not their mouths. As a regional phenomenon, it seems sometimes prevalent in American actors from the South and Southwest (especially Texas); though the problem of nasal 'whine' cuts across all geographical boundaries, as well as gender and age and socio-economic groups.

Actors who speak thus do not have a deficient sound-making system; they speak that way because they have a constriction/restriction in their chest. It is often a result of living an emotionally restricted upbringing; in families, towns and regions where the free flow (and experiencing) of emotion is often being seen as something negative, to be avoided: ideally not to be felt, or, if felt, held in, constricted. As a result, their system refuses to let out their feelings or words in full, rich tones (sounds). In order to speak they they squeeze their chests, like the mouth of a balloon being pinched tightly; they thereby let the air out only slowly, in a controlled manner. Their voice production starts in the chest and comes up to and through the nose, rather than originating in the diaphragm, flowing through a relaxed (not tense) chest (lung) cavity, and out the mouth.

Thus, training in emotional life/acting (experiencing the full range of life's emotions in a safe environment) will free the actor from undue, unnecessary and unwarranted tension onstage or onscreen due to fear of feeling: words will start in the gut and comes out the mouth; rather than starting in the chest and coming out of the nose.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

A PERSONAL NOTE: "The Disposable Male"; A Friend's Wonderful Book

I want to recommend Michael Gilbert's book, "The Disposable Male". It is available at Amazon.com. For any of you (male or female) who wonder why men (and to some extent, women) are the way the are (I've been wondering about myself all my life!), who seek in logic, science, psychology and sociology the origins of male behavior (and--if a male--perhaps need a few explanations to reduce the all too prevalent male sense of guilt), or a woman who perhaps makes a friend of a male and would like an insight in advance (if for no other reason than "Know Thy Enemy"), I heartily recommend Michael's book. However: a warning on the label: it has a point of view. The title, "The Disposable Male" is at best ironic. It is a gentle indictement of the knee-jerk accusation of men-as-the origin-of-all-gender-problems. It is also an intellectual call to arms: His argument: men may be disposable in the long run (especially with the advent of reproductive--test tube--science); but that demise is at best--or worst--a long way off. And in the meantime, understanding the unique origins of male (and female) humanity may contribute peace and calm and a higher degree of harmony between the now too-often adversarial sexes.

The book is extremely erudite, well-reasoned, and well-researched. Six stars out of five.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

ON ACTING: Myles has Done a Lot of Reading...THANKS!

Myles has sent the following comments RE three of my blogs. Thank you, Myles, for reading and for commenting.

...on my post RE "Seeking Comments"

"...coming from the mountain top..."; I can relate to that comment. It's like a message from above. To experience Cliff in class is like jumping off of Waimea falls in Hawaii. You climb and climb, once you get to the top of the cliff you realize that you can't climb back down. The only way is to let go and jump and enjoy the ride.

...on my blog RE "Emotional Classes and Exercising

As I try to unlock my emotional memories I've found that there is a lot that has been forgotten. As I write them down on paper I feel myself living through "it" again. For now I'll have to carry these letters with me until I'm in shape to hold the keys that will open those damn locks!

...on my blog RE "Why Actor's Get Bored With Certain Roles"

I love reading your blog Cliff. It's like being able to talk to you everyday! I learn something each time I read. You open up my mind and give me the strength I need to just let go. Thank you always. Myles

Thank YOU!

ON ACTING: Views on Preparation

"Preparation" is the actor's process of sensitizing oneself emotionally (before a scene) so that the subsequent scene (and its specific stimuli) will impact an actor most acutely--and therefore more excitingly--during the scene.

"Preparation" is similar to a safe cracker sanding their fingertips before unlocking a safe...so that the safe cracker can minutely feel the most minute clicks of lock-turning more acutely and effectively during action of their occupation.

"Preparation" is the actor's heightening one's potential for subsequent performance feeling: by softening or even eradicating the (actor's) dead outer layer of skin in advance of the scene, to shed the desensitized outer layer of protection (created by a life time of fear, doubts) that can minimize deep, powerful feelings in a scene; to enable the actor to walk into a scene 'raw'--subject to 'the thousand shocks' of pain and pleasure that audiences pay good money to see the actor-as-character experience.

Monday, February 05, 2007


A few years ago I remember hearing a teacher telling her students to "play the secret spine" of the scene. I remember thinking: 'How can you play the 'secret spine of a scene?! I mean...if it's a secret (spine, or otherwise), how could the actor 'play' it? It's a SECRET!'

But I return to that teacher with an apology. Of sorts.

All scenes, at their deepest levels, harbor a secret. It may not be the goal, or objective quest, in a scene, however....but behind the spine, that objective quest, THERE IS AN INTERESTING SECRET: character fears of being known, of being forced to reveal fundamental insecurities, doubts, desires, denials and deceits.

The secret of a scene is the character's need to hide the emotional impetus behind the objective of a scene: in a love scene it may be the character need to hide an innate fear of loneliness and betrayal; in a scene about friendship it may be both characters trying not to revealing sexual desire. The secret behind the drive for power may be the 'secret' of impotence (Donald Trump, beware!) The secret behind the need for money may be the panic of poverty, the incessant need of feeling poor, in spite of being rich.

The very thing that makes someone (an actor) interesting--as they quest for a goal in a scene vis-a-vis another person--is the secret they harbor in their souls: the wellsprings of their fears, desires and hidden needs. The fascination as characters is what they are trying to deny to others, and probably even to themselves! It is the mystery of their character...those inner truths that the story threatens to reveal as the plot/character/conflict unfolds...and which leads us, the audience, watching and waiting, until these emotional character essences--secrets--are revealed in the climax.

Friday, February 02, 2007

ON ACTING: When Playing Patient, Cool, Long-suffering, Reasonable Characters

Characters (and the actors who play them) that are 'cool', or 'patient' or 'reasonable' or 'long-suffering' should always be--if they wish to be interesting and exciting--barely cool, barely patient, barely reasonable or barely long-suffering.. The 'heat' in their performance should always be bubbling under their cool, their 'impatience' active under the patience, the irrationality threatening to erupt under the 'reasonableness' and the pain screaming to emerge at any moment from under the 'long-suffering-ness'. The lid on the pressure cooker of a cool, patient, long-suffering or reasonable performance may seem flat with containment, but the concoction is always steaming within.

Heightened emotion should be hotly present in the coolest of characters, barely contained within the most graceful of elegant demeanor; a cool, reasonable, patient or long-suffering performance is like a beautiful duck gliding along the water's surface: its legs are churning furiously beneath.

Another perspective: an actor carrying a performance is like a person carrying a glass of water across a room: that 'glass' of an exciting performance should never be half filled with emotion. It should be brim-filled, always threatening to spill over at the slightest bump or prod by the scene's activities.

Still another perspective: courage has been defined as "grace under pressure". A courageous performance is one that is always under pressure; a cool performance is barely holding in heat; a patient one barely containing impatience, a reasonable character barely fighting off irrationality and long-suffering person barely stifling a cry of pain.

A great performance is a coiled snake; seeming at rest, but capable of striking with deadly precision and quickness at a moment's notice. That is what "an edge-y (exciting) performance" is: an actor-as-character living at the edge of emotional containment, barely in balance, always susceptible to being pushed 'over the edge' by the smallest breeze or gentle shove; of dialogue, touch or look by another character. Death--be it tragic or comedic--is just a nano-second or nano-inch away.