Wednesday, March 28, 2007

ON ACTING: Life 'is' or as it 'should be'.

Actors represent humankind as it is, not as it should be; thus enabling audiences to better posit what humankind should be by seeing themselves more clearly as they are.

ON ACTING: The Difference between Stubbornness and Assertion

Stubbornness and assertion are both manifestations of strength. But there are critical differences between the two postures. Stubbornness is passive, protective; whereas assertion is active, problem solving. Stubbornness can be represented by a person with heels dug in, refusing to be moved; assertive problem-solving stance can be characterized by person up on their toes, trying to move forward. Stubbornness protects the present, refusing to be taken to an unwanted future. As such, it is defensive in nature. Solving undervalues the present, seeking a more beneficial future. It is offensive in nature.

Human stubbornness, born of a darker, more pessimistic nature, thinks 'insurance'. Human solving, with a greater optimism concerning the future, thinks 'investment'. Stubbornness watches the ground beneath its feet, avoiding tripping over what is sees as inevitable bumps in the road; solving has eyes ahead, focused on the horizon, assured that greater possibility lies there, bumps and all.

Stubbornness minimizes mistakes. Solving maximizes mistakes. And as such, solving--and the characters who embrace its forward leaning, assertive, and offensive stance--is much more the stuff of drama and comedy. Drama is about people who overestimate their possibilities or underestimate their costs. Reasonable people stay in the audience. Onstage, drama's character's passion outruns their reason. Fools--and interesting, good actors--rush in where angels fear to tread.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Allison Responds RE 'Thinking About Acting and Doing'

Allsion left a comment on my post RE my previous blog on 'Between Thinking About Acting and Doing'. I wanted to highlight on this more apparent 'blue' page:

"Hi Cliff! I wonder if you have read a book called The Inner Game of Tennis or the The Inner Game of Golf? I found interesting correlations for the 'sport' of acting.At the moment you take that swing (or when you are acting) any internal judgment and awareness can ruin a natural, confident performance. The Inner Game philosophy speaks of 2 sides of our minds - Self 1 is the critical self that is consciously, earnestly correcting, judging, perfecting, and by doing so 'in-the-moment' hampers the natural abilities of Self 2 who lives intuitively and accomplishes life naturally.Quote from Book – “The very nature of Self 1 is to doubt Self 2. Self 2’s attributes of spontaneity, natural intelligence, and desire to learn are beyond Self 1’s ability to conceptualize. The self-image that Self 1 creates is a cheap imitation of the living, limitless real you, the you whose capabilities and attributes surpass anything that Self 1 can conceive with his thinking mind. "Trying" is essentially compensation for mistrust in ourselves and generally leads to poor performance.” “Learning this way requires trust, not in thinking, or formulas, but in your body's ability to learn directly from Experience without judgmental analysis.”The book seems loaded with valuable ideas for actors. I thought you might like this.By the way, I loved "The Penitent" and watched it twice! Beautifully done film in so many ways. I could pour over your blog for days and days… Thank you! Take care, Allison"

Saturday, March 24, 2007

ON ACTING: Between Thinking about Acting and Doing

Acting is fundamentally an experiential art, not an analytic one; it is about doing, not thinking about it. We should only analyse our acting (or a given scene) before the fact. We think in acting only in order to better climb further out on the performance diving board. The subsequent dive, the present, unthinking mid-air and underwater experience, is the essential nature of acting, however. It does not--it should not--require thinking.

The rule: Think (about acting) before you act; think (about acting) after you act; when acting, don't think (about acting). Just act.

This approach to acting, of course, runs counter to much academic acting theory. The essence of academia and academics RE acting is the self-conscious pursuit of thought; therefore the ever-present application of consciousness to life's activities is understandably central; it is definitional ; it is a priori. Academics therefore all-too-often make acting analytically conscious EVEN IN THE DOING.

This intellectual approach is an understandable (albeit erroneous) mistake: academia is 'of the intellectuals, by the intellectuals and for the intellectuals'. Intellectuals by definition want to intellectualise; that is the core of their craft. And that approach of consciousness-in-all-things is an essential stage of development when offered to young people in school: 'The unexamined life is the un-lived life', etc. Youth is the time to develop a conscious awareness of all of life's activities, to 'hold things constant', in order to segment their life's activities into component parts, to define them, to understand them, so that later when the analyzed activities are applied and attempted again in everyday life. they can be practiced and performed at higher levels of unconscious application.

Education, as one theorist posited, is moving from conscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, to conscious competence, to the final state: unconscious competence.

In this formulation as it applies to acting education, acting pre-education is step one; steps two and three are education; step four is acting terms: the actual unconscious performance after graduation. One more time: think before you act; think after you act; when acting, don't think. Rehearsal and class is the time RE acting for consciousness. Performance is post-education; just do it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

ON ACTING: More Harold Bloom

"Heroic vitalists are not larger than life; they are life's largeness." As in great acting: a real performance is never 'larger than life'; it is life lived large.

ON ACTING: The Audience Prospective

From the great literary critic Samuel Johnson as quoted in Harold Bloom's "Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human": "Imitations [in Shakespeare] produce pain and pleasure, not because they are mistaken for realities, but because they bring reality to mind."

ON ACTING: The Human Behavior Business

Actors are in the human behavior business. They are paid to behave humanly on stage and onscreen so other humans in the audience can live humanly through them. A script is the actor's human job spec; it defines/denotes/suggests (in language) the actor's required behavior on stage; it implies--in the words the actor is required to say (as dialogue)--the essential humanness, both the emotional substance and expressive style, underlying such language.

If acting, therefore, is the process of behaving humanly, it behooves us as actors to study human behavior in its entirety and multiplicity. Actors must accept that humans betray themselves (and thereby instruct us in) their humanness in economics, in social arenas, in religion, politics, literature, etc. Therefore it behooves actors, as students and practitioners of human behavior, to study and learn economics, social sciences, religion, politics, etc., anything and everything in life that touches of the art and science of being human. Read, read, read--great books; see, see, see--great films; observe, observe, observe everyone--and especially yourself (a very cheap and proximate textbook!)--in action; learn, learn, learn how people walk, talk, feel, obfuscate and reveal.

Human behavior is the actors playground. People--for that matter the entire universe that surrounds, we project, and projects us, and is an inescapable aspect of human existence. It is the actors school, focus, passion and profession. The actor who doesn't understand human behavior is a lost actor; as lost as a person with a deeply desired destination but without a map to tell him the lay of the land through which he must move to achieve his end result. He, and his efforts, are destined for failure.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

ON ACTING: Why Emotions Exhaust Us

Emotions are the inner body in physical operation. The physical inner activity occurs just prior to these 'emotions' expression in our outer visible/audible bodies, in our faces, our arms and legs, our voices. Emtions are the nervous system's dopamine flows, electrical and chemical inner connections activated by external and internal stimuli. Emotions are therefore not a thing distinct from a person's physical nature; they are not some mystical spiritual sensibility akin to the 'soul'. They are the body in operation; period.

So when we say that emotions in performance or everyday life exhaust us, we speak physically and literally.

That is why actors often feel they must take vacations after completing a role. That's why actors go to the gym (okay, for vanity's sale aslo); but they go so they can be in peak inner and outer physical shape to handle the physical rigors of an emotional role.

Emotions are muscles. They are the inner patterning and activity of a humans inner muscular nature. And as such, they must be exercised. And they must be used...often...or they will atrophy like any other part of unused human musculature.

Monday, March 19, 2007


Bad (less than adequate) acting is often the manifestation of good everyday emotional survival techniques that can't be countermanded on stage or on set. For example: if everyday life, when shaking some one's hand, we appropriately back away give the other and ourselves space. Why? To reduce the anti-social tension of too-close proximity. This is smart behavior in life. But when the same actor gets onstage, and s/he once again instinctively backs away from an engaged hand, it is, while perhaps good in life, generally bad for acting.

On stage we want tension: so the good actor should more often than not invade some one's space--be "too close for comfort". Because, while comfort is desirable in everyday life; it is counterproductive to exciting drama on stage.

Another example: In everyday life, we often look away when someone stares at us. We avert the eyes of someone who seems to be "looking through us". And by looking away, by negating the stimulus of direct sight, we reduces tension, the emotional danger of an 'eye lock'; when that same person shakes our hand too tightly, letting their hand-touch linger with 'meaning', we either easily withdraw our hand or let it go limp.

On stage or off, sensory withdrawal is safety.

But when an actor finds themselves withdrawing in a scene, turning away from the direct glaze of another actor, backing away when the other actor gets too close, shrinking from their intimate touch...the actor should accept that what they are doing , while obeying the survival techniques of everyday life, they are not obeying the dictates of exciting acting life!

However, they should therefore not feel too guilty or remiss in that 'careful' emotional behavior. Backing away from over stimulation is an everyday-life tactic that is valid. But what the good actor must simply learn an alternative array of (exciting) behavior on stage: most often the direct opposite of their everyday survival techniques. In good acting, when someone stares at us, the good actor retorts to an other's 'eye lock' with the actor's own 'lock'. When someone touches us too intimately, we accept that invasion of physical privacy. We live in the danger zone of intimate physical proximity, receive and accept touch with intimate response and replay physically in kind.

Life on stage life an arena of safety; a 'green zone' of behavior. Personal behavior that would seem inappropriate in everyday life is welcome--nay, desired. The accepted law of personal behavior: live carefully in everyday life, live dangerously onstage (although agreed: finding the on-off switch between the two modes of behavior is often the greatest challenge to an actor's craft).

Thursday, March 15, 2007

ON ACTING: Over-expressiveness

'Scrunching' of forehead, eyebrows popping up and down, furrowing of is generally an actor's attempt to emphasise what is not really being felt; or to underscore what it only being somewhat felt. It's like putting a small gift in a large package; trying to fool the receiver into thinking the gift is a great one.

For example: when I write a bad sentence, especially one that I think does not fully and impactively express what I feel I should be feeling, I underline the sentence; I write it in CAPS; I put exclamation points !!!. I increase the font size.

Invariably, it is all to no avail: it is still a bad sentence.

The solution (in writing or acting) is: when one wishes to create an impactive expressive form but find the feelings and/or ideas are lacking, forget form; let the easy natural expressive structure flow honestly from the feeling's intrinsic weight. Don't try to make an expressive mountain out of a tiny molehill; simply express as much or as little as you are feeling, then move on to the next sentence, letting that sentiment find its natural expressive form as well.

Then, the next time: you want a big package; create a greater gift; you want stronger expressive form, make sure your feelings and ideas are deep and profound enough to warrant that form. Little gifts in large packages fool no one; they only create receiver (audience) disappointment in the inherent lie.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

ON ACTING: Character

The word character is simply how we feel and deal under duress; it is our personal substance and style as we react to life's vicissitudes. Each of us (each character) has a distinct and separate character profile: that is, we each exhibit our own personal pattern of evolving reactions to life's conflicts. Some of us start confused when the world denies us our needs; when confusion fails us (in dealing with our problem), our system turns to another facet or mask of our emotional selves: we become angry; and then, if that fails, we becomed bemused; and then perhaps sad; and then humiliated: one by one these masks of emotion are posited outwardly, temporary faces hoping to maneuver the world to our desires.

These layers of reactive sediment--exposing themselves level by level as conflict drills into our unique individual cores--have previously been laid down by the individual rivers of our experience; and since each person's flood of experiences has crossed in its past different geological ground--experiences perhaps in some case similar but in detail exactly like no other-- each person's geological construct of layering is different. Charles gets angry first, then sad, then bemused. Sarah gets frustrated first, then cries, then laughs, then punches out an opponent. Bill jokes first, then gets angry, then sad, finally he feels lost.

But, no matter how varied we each feel and deal, no matter how differently different characters' layers are patterned, all characters (and audiences) emotional possibilities are fundamentally the same; all human emotions are common. It is only in the developmental revelation of such layering, patterning and prioritizing of their offered masks--are we different.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

ON ACTING: Irresolution

The actress came to me with a problem. She said she liked certainty: black and white; yes and no; up or down. She didn't like the 'vulnerability [her word]' of not knowing. Her performances showed it. Her acting was clean, precise, strong, but lacking in emotion; the key ingredient in any audience caring or identification. She was, by choice, a battling automaton; without feeling...unless you want to call unadulterated anger feeling.

As an exercise, I asked her to prepare a list of the elements in her life she had no certainty of, situations that had no definite answers. I was trying to get her to explore the endless greys between black and white, the maybes lurking between yes and no, the emotional netherworld between up and down. I have found deep emotion lies in just such places.

To learn to act (emotionally) is to learn to live in irresolution. In every scene, both characters live unknowingly and without certainty as they they move through their unresolved conflict; that is, both characters in a scene are seeking answers, a goal, an objective, a solution or resolution (from the other) that would settle the unsettling elements in their respective personal lives. To act is to live in irresolution and uncertainty: one character lives 100% in unfavorable irresolution (the eventual loser in the scene); the other character lives 99% in unfavorable irresolution (the eventual winner) and 1% in favorable resolution. The point being that two characters (and the actors playing them) must live 199% of any scene in irresolution.

If an actor does not like the (emotional) challenge of this constant facing the unresolved, the deep emotional shocks attendant on being indefinitely 'vulnerable', willing to be susceptible to deep, unexpected feelings, three things (all bad in acting) will happen: (1) s/he will fake act---thereby avoiding the whole issue; (2) s/he will really act but avoid fighting toward a solution of his dilemma; s/he will not try to win but rather will simply try NOT to lose, like a closed armadillo ball, precluding emotional commitment; or (3) will really act, really fight to win, but closed off from any emotional battle costs or vulnerabilities in the pursuit of that victory: an Achilles waging war without the 'heel', a self-perpetuating robot without drama there, only the mechanics of cold-blooded and unfeeling engaged warrior-ing.

Feelings, emotions, are the measures our successes and failures in achieving our desires. In a world of certainty we have need of no emotional registering. In that certain world, all is known. In that kind of already resolved world, their would be no risk of emotional 'vulnerability'; in that world feeling would an unnecessary appendix, a vestigial organ subject to removal if inflamed. The only problem with living in such a resolved world is, in removing feeling, we remove life. In removing emotion, we remove the possibility of audience identification.

The end of feeling is beginning of death. On screen, onstage or off.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

ON ACTING: Sour About Your Acting?

When you are feeling sour about your acting, remember: it takes a lemon to make lemonade.


The great American writer Henry James said: “Nothing is my last word on anything.”

Saturday, March 10, 2007

ON ACTING: "Specificity"

Perhaps the two most important words in the lexicon of acting are 'active' and 'specific'.

All life, on or off stage, is an inevitable combination of both.

'Active' is the human body moving toward survival goals; and 'specific' is the central most fact about the world (the reality through which we 'actively' move through toward our goals): above all, it is 'specific'.

It is the five senses that register this specificity, and the registering of specific sensory experience of the world around us creates our emotion--which is the central transferal agent of acting performance to audience experiencing. The rule of human physics is: if there is no specific sensory experience, there can be no specific (and honest) emotional reaction.

Therefore, good actors must sharply look and listen, acutely smell, touch and taste, register all the tangible realities of their physical performance, as a prelude to emotional experiencing...and its subsequent resultant artistic expression.

To the good actor, a face is not simply a face: it is the nose, the chin, the color of the eyes. Even more specifically, it is the minute size and color of the pupils within those eyes, the curvature of the nose, and the roundness or sharpness of the chin. Specifics, specifics, specifics...the more detailed the sensory experience, the more rich and complex will be the emotional experiencing of those facts.

Another central truth of life: sensory experience is never lost on a human being after its initial registering. It continues within a person until 'death do us part'; it forevermore remains deep within humanklind, often referred to in acting as a 'sense memory'; perhaps forgotten by consciousness, but still within a person's neural circuits, and more cogently still, overlaid with the inner emotion that originally accompanied those now (perhaps) forgotten facts.

So...if an actor exercises his sensory-experience apparatus, works toward re-sensitizing themselves to the sense of sound, sight, taste, touch and smell, they can re-vitalize and re-invigorate their total historical emotional inner sensitivities as well. So that when the specific events of present reality--the play or film the actor is acting in--occurs and stimulates them, they will find themselves capable of feeling deep emotion...and that emotion will be more acute, powerful and dramatically effective.

ON ACTING: Minimizing "Acting with 'Frustration'"

She played the scene--and exhibited her emotional response to the given circumstances of the scene--with great "frustration".
She looked at my face. It registered dismay, chagrin and apparent criticism.
"But isn't frustration an emotion?" she said, challenging my dislike of that particular emotional 'choice' in a scene.
"Yes", I said. It is a valid emotional choice (valid in that is it 'real'--logical to life). But it is fundamentally unappealing. Who wants to watch a character exhibiting constant frustration? It is the manifestation of someone who has accepted defeat. Frustration is the emotional sign of someone who has accepted the impossibility of resolving their onerous situation: to wit, "I'm frustrated because I can't do anything about 'x', 'y' or 'z'!"
On the other hand, an interesting person (or character) is someone who believes (rightly or wrongly) they can change their circumstances in life. They are 'true believers'...they have the courage...the their convictions. They believe they can win the acted game, resolve the conflict in their favor.
Invariably, an actor will be more interesting when he/she enters a scene believing he/she (his/her character) can win! And when both characters in a scene exhibit that winner-like confidence in their conflictual ability to win, we have a compelling contest, a battle between confident equals, an interesting scene.
"Frustration' is a loser's lament. Save it for death.
The life of an exciting scene deserves more.

Friday, March 09, 2007

David wrote...

"I saw an ad (I think in Backstage West) for an acting teacher with a quotation from Jack Nicholson, saying something like, "If you want to be still..." go to this teacher.What's that mean? Still."

Cliff responds:

Jack is often cryptic, so one can't be sure what he means.
But I'll take a stab at the notion of being "still"!
My first thought is: "Still waters run deep." The surface is calm, but monsters swim beneath.
The notion of "still" in acting make me think of an often quoted line from "Death in Venice": He and She are about to make love in a gondola; She says to He: "Move move much." Meaning: 'don't rock the boat...focus all your energy into well aimed movement'.
To be 'still' is not to be dull; it is to be excitingly precise; to avoid (forswear) all unnecessary and wasted motion.
A filmic example: There is the great scene in Jack's "Chinatown" where the 'heavy' wants to punish/scare-off Nicholson. Instead of the 'heavy' hitting him with a two-by-four, a pipe, or punching him...the heavy takes a knife and slits Jack's nose inside to out. Small move; powerful impact.
What is more effective: hitting someone with a baseball bat or sticking a needle into their eyeball? Move little; move much. Fit the emotional equivalent of an atomic bomb into the size of a pea. Maximum firepower; minimum delivery system.
'Stillness' is gliding like a duck along the surface of the performance; paddling like emotional hell within.
Feel deeply...but be is always emotionally stronger. Focus the same amount of pressure through a smaller aperture, you increase the power; a truism about acting; because it is a law of physics.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

ON ACTING: "Playing the Problem" response.

David has left a comment on Cliff's post: "ON ACTING: "Playing the Problem"":

Cliff responds: Thanks so much!

Friday, March 02, 2007

ON ACTING: "Playing the Problem"

In a recent 'Comment' to another post:

David said...Could you say something about "playing the problem?" What it is, how to avoid it.

Cliff Osmond said...

The acting phrase, "playing the problem" is a derisive acting term that characterizes an actor who enters a scene indulging himself/herself with the full emotional weight of the scripted dilemma: irrespective of whether that dilemma is large or small: caused by the girl who doesn't want to continue a relationship, the boss who is trying to fire him as an employee, or the puppy who wants to be walked when the hot date is ready for bed. The 'problem-playing' actor in any of these scenes would usually automatically comport himself throughout a scene with a maximum sense of great frustration; moaning, complaining, exhibiting the full range of emotional agony that a human being seems susceptible to when confronting a similar tasks; in effect, accepting his/her defeat from the very beginning of the scene.

The way to avoid "playing the problem" (and, by the way, this acting behavior--as it does in everyday life--results in an unattractive acting persona...unattractive primarily because it is false: if the actor was really hurting that much, he would be trying to solve the problem in the scene!!!)

And therein lies the corrective to "playing the problem": the good actor must enter every scene, and its inevitable conflictual dilemma, focused--from the beginning and throughout--on ending the personal emotional agony in the scene, changing the circumstances causing the unwanted emotional experience, defeating the other character(s) with scripted words, deeds and resultant feelings; all with the intent to get the recalcitrant 'others' in the scene to come around to his/her point of view.

My personal mantra for avoiding "playing the problem" is simple: prior to entering the scene, say (to yourself), "Don't suffer; solve. Don't whine; win. Don't complain; convince.", lose or draw, acting in such a manner will create a much more appealing--and truer--character/performance.