Monday, April 30, 2007

ON ACTING: Life Lessons

In Hollywood (or any other ambitious venue), remember: 'Nobody is against you; they're just out for themselves'. Or as Michael Jackson said: 'Sharks need blood.'

ON ACTING: Keeping Your Eye on Today's Donut and Not Yesterday's/Tomorrow's Hole

As Don Nelson, coach of the Golden State Warriors, said in today's LA Times: "Yesterday's history. Tomorrow's a mystery. What are you doing today?"

A lesson for actors: Forget yesterday [failures], and tomorrow [dreams]...go to

Sunday, April 29, 2007

ON ACTING: Creating 'Moments'

Create too many moments in a scene and you creates no moments.

'Moments' in a scene or performance are most impacting when (1) they are absolutely necessary, (2) they are emotionally meaningful, (3) they are quintessentially revealing about the character, and through him/her, a truth about life, and (4) and perhaps most importantly, when they are rare. Scarcity creates value. Don't abuse the use of 'moments' by overuse. And remember: 'moments' are just that...momentary.

Excessive moments are trivialized by repetition; they lose their uniqueness and becoming boring. Did you ever have a conversation with someone who pauses and ponders before every line of discourse, as if each statement were a God-like pronouncement? Boring.

A good actor creates a lively performance as a good composer creates a lively musical score: with a judicious use and mixture of half notes, quarter notes, sixteenth notes and eighth notes. I recommend an actor uses only 2 half notes in a scene--those reserved for the scene's most meaningful moments; after that 4 quarter notes for the next most meaningful moments--and the rest of the scene being played in eighth notes and sixteenth notes.

The acting term 'throwing away a line' means precisely that: perform some (most) moments as if they were emotionally relatively unimportant, not fraught with overwhelming significance...tossed on the heap of the relatively casual; so that the few remaining lines (or 'moments') will carry the greater and more meaningful weight.

Rhythmic contrast heightens meaning.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

The Five Elements in a Thriller

Robert McKee, screenwriter guru, as quoted in the New Yorker Magazine, October 20th, 2003:

'...five elements without which a thriller was probably not a thriller: cheap surprise; a false ending; the protagonist shown to be a victim; a speech made in praise of the villan; and a hero-at-the-mercy-of -the-villan scene."

Actors be advised of the demands on an actor in performing a 'thriller'.

Friday, April 27, 2007

ON ACTING: Form and Substance; a Properly Fitted Glove

Over-acting is often the gap between a limited honest feeling and its overdone acted expression. It is like putting on physically expressive glove too big for the emotional hand.

In life, and therefore in good acting, form should follow function; the size of feeling alone should dictate the quantity of form (voice, body, etc.) acted, and only in a size proportion to the quantity of emotion felt. However, when the outer physical expression of an acted moment is of greater size than the real emotion felt, the actor should chastise himself/herself: she/he has fallen prey to simple bad/false acting at worst, or an insecure underlining of an honest felt emotion, at least.

For example (of the latter underlining out of insecurity), in my writing, when I write an inadequate sentence, one I sense has little intrinsic weight (feeling?), I have an unfortunate tendency to underline it, or italicize it, or PUT IT IN CAPS, or add exclamation points at the end of the sentence!!! Thus, erroneously does an actor whose bodily/vocal form is of greater magnitude than what would arise in everyday life from a particular quantity of feeling: he/she is committing the same sin of expressive falseness. It could be called, if you will, "gilding the lily", or "goose-ing the performance".

The corrective to such an unfortunate tendency: the actor should reduce the acted expressive form to a size (generally lesser) warranted in real life by that amount of honestly felt emotion (i.e., let the sentence stand by itself, without the underlining, or italicizing, or CAPITALIZATION, or superfluous !!!!s), OR, if the actor truly desires a larger form of expressive feeling, the actor must more fully and deeply feel the honest emotional truth of a moment to truly warrant the physical size the actor desires (in the case of my writing: I must write a more meaningful (felt?) sentence and thereby avoid the seduction of unwarranted and false hyperbolic form.

ON ACTING: "Alba Emoting Technique"

While on vacation in Western North Carolina, I did a little pleasurable work to supplement a great amount of familial pleasure: I attended an "emotional expression" acting class at UNC Asheville, conducted by Professor Laura Facciponti. The class explored an emotional activation technique I had never heard of before: the Alba Emoting technique, a method originated by a PhD clinical physiologist, Dr. Susana Bloch in Chile in the 1990s. The essence of the technique is to enable an actor to tap into his/her emotions while at the same time circumventing the highly personal-memory nature of traditional Stanislavski emotional-activation methodologies (normally used in the US). As the Alba Emoting website states it: "The Alba Emoting method allows anyone to learn to consciously induce, express, and modulate basic emotions using the body and breath." In the Alba technique, in place of utilizing recalled or re-experienced personal memories a la Stanislavski as the tap root of an actor's emotional preparation, the Alba Emoting technique offers instead pure and various physical expressiveness exercises (bodily, facially and vocally) to activate directly (without the intercession of actor's personal memory 'consciousness) an actors basic emotions (the Alba theory offers six core emotions: joy, fear, anger, sadness, erotic love and friendly love, by the way).

I watch the students utilize the technique. Afterwards we indulged each other in a 'question and answer session RE Alba Emoting and acting in general; and I found their work and the students (and the exercises/techniques) stimulating.

I vouch for Alba Emoting a valid, practical, outside-to-inside, external to internal, non-psychological, non-personal/historical set of exercises/techniques to enable actors to stimulate their emotionally natures prior to entering a scene; as such, it is yet another distinctive road to Rome (parallelling and supplementing more traditional emotional, inner-to-outer, Stanislavski-inherited techniques) toward the actor's required 'destination': preparing a vibrant, exciting, emotionally-open personal instrument prior to the actors entrance on stage or on screen.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

I am on vacation. I will resume writing this blog on April 24th. See you then.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Auditioning/Reading With a Dead Casting Director

My student M. was frustrated; he asked me last night in class: how can you give a good audition when the casting director who (in the reading) 'gives you nothing' ?"

(1) The quick answer: the casting director (or the the assistant) is probably reading as lousy with all the other auditioning actors as well. Thank God the playing field is level

(2) The fuller, long term answer: The auditioning actor must, in such a situation, enter the audition that EVEN MORE sensitive (emotionally prepared) to what is going on in the reading so that the whatever the casting director gives (generally not very much; certainly not as much as the actor desires) will have the desired major impact on him/her. For example: the auditioning actor wants to respond excitingly to a flattened casting director reading of "I love you"; so when the casting director says (like ordering a piece of cold pizza) 'i love you', what does the actor do? My answer (or adjustment): there have been times in my life when I have been moved to tears just by reading the words "I love you" on a piece of paper. I didn't need to see a face or hear a voice! So: The same applies in an audition with a necrophiliac-like casting director: listen to the words of the script themselves, and if the actor is very open to feeling, he/she will respond (honestly!!) to the MERE WORDS themselves (and the little the casting director is giving) with a sufficient plethora of feeling.

(3) As a corollary benefit: by honestly feeling more, and honestly expressing it to the deficient casting director ("I love you, too", the actor says with great honest feeling) the actor will find the casting director will awaken and give you more. 'As ye give so shall ye get!' Casting directors are deadly but they not dead!

(4) Another way of expressing the dilemma (and the solution): if I am prepared to have a good time tonight on a date (and I am free of restrictive expectations) I will have a good time with an uneducated girl (this is fun; I've never met anyone so unexposed to knowledge!); or a nasty girl (this is fun; she challenges me to find good in anyone); or a stutterer (this is fun; I've never gone out with a speech-challenged girl before), etc. If the actor is PREPARED to feel in a desired emotional arena (in this case: to enjoy a date), whatever the stimuli, the desired feeling can honestly and in reality be felt...if the actor is open to it!!!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A Student's Report

just a note to give you a big thanks for all your help. got a pretty good sized role in a low budget feature. one of the things that has helped me the most is how much you stress using lines as "tools". i learned my lines backwards and forwards and the director wanted me to do a few different things (including learning new lines!) and i was ready for whatever he threw at me. he was very pleased with the days work and they even want to do a spin-off of my character for a short. as far as i was concerned... i was pleased with... most of my work (heh heh) there were plenty of technical difficulties... lighting, sound (we were shooting over a flight path... HA!) and i still had a good time through all the chaos due to the fact that i was prepared. i have you to thank for that. in fact, i actually visualized you sitting there in your chair and then i would think "what would jesus/cliff do?"................ (this acolyte's gotta bust your balls at least once, eh?)
we're still shooting and i'm really jazzed about doing the other scenes now that my big monologues are finished. it's amazing how much 2 rounds in your course has helped me and i want to get back in soon. once i'm wrapped i want to do a private with you at least once a month.
hope you're well and please tell the gang i said hello!...thank you for your love of acting and for sharing the results with us.most sincerely,

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

ON ACTING: On Avoiding (Emotional) Avoidance Mechanisms

Actors will often go to any lengths to avoid emotion. Here are some of the most common avoidance mechanisms I see in class (you may recognize some from your everyday life as well): (1) fast talking...talking to no one in particular; just a verbal stream of words to avoid real contact with another human being (I call it the Roadrunner syndrome...Beep, Beep and down the road we go!). (2) Soft, quiet talking: this keeps us from trying to forcefully convince someone of our point of view; and this lack of commitment lessens emotional involvement and reaction. (3) Monotone: same syndrome as '2': by not emphasising any words in a sentence it precludes commitment as well. And the monotone speakers refusal to emphasize adjectives is a sentence is particularly egregious; since adjectives and adverbs are the verbalizing of 'feeling'. (4) Walking away from any confrontation; or physically backpedalling: no confrontation, no possibility of emotion. (5) Tense chest; swallowing any emotion before it threatens to escape. (6) Watching oneself act; monitoring any possibility of emotional impulsiveness so it can be squelched in advance. (7) Not understanding a scene; or judging the character as unworthy of involvement: ignorance is bliss; and superiority is worse.(8) Smiling throughout a scene: This is the attitude: "This scene is no problem; I've got it knocked!" So I don't have to be really involved. (9) Not listening: if you don't really listen you can't feel: no stimulus, no synapse/emotion. (10) Not really looking at the other character; same as '9'; no sensation, no feeling...and on and on.

These are my initial 'top ten'; but the list is nowhere near exhausted. To the reader: Why don't you share some of your avoidance mechanisms with me. Look at yourself, on stage and in life. Be honest...(1) know your avoidance mechanisms, and (2) admit your avoidance mechanisms. Your knowledge will give you a gift in return: you will become a better actor. All knowledge, including the knowledge of acting, proceeds from self-knowledge. Denial is death.

Monday, April 09, 2007

"Acting is a terminal case of hope."

ON ACTING: Language

A good actor speaks from the front of their mouth. Their language escapes through their teeth. Words are meant to penetrate the other character's skull. Language is not merely a release of feeling, but a physical attempt to encase that feeling into a purposeful instrumentality: to convince, to defeat, to maneuver the human landscape to our purposes. Language demands the other character's understanding and ultimately acquiescence. It organizes feelings into sharp, focused words; logic, ideas, concepts to hurl at other people. It is a missile, not a balm. It perhaps serves as a release of emotion in the short term, but in the long term it seeks to penetrate and dissolve the listener's resistance and create permanent, favorable change.

Sunday, April 08, 2007


Saturday, April 07, 2007

ON ACTING: Getting Rid of the Vocal 'Squeaks'

There is a story about Lauren Bacall, the sultry-voiced Hollywood actress of the mid-twentieth century (also the wife of Humphrey Bogart). The story: when she came to Hollywood as a teen-ager, she was cursed with a high-pitched squeaky voice. Becoming very soon aware (her agent starting bugging her?) that that could be a career-busting problem, she started to go up to the Hollywood Hills, under the famed Hollywood sign, and practice reading scripts aloud in her (at first, artificial) deepest voice. Before too much time passed (and with much dedication) she trained herself to (naturally) have that deep-throat-voice that charmed and fascinated millions of her fans. Practice makes perfect.

To those actors who might have a high-pitched voice (not a natural tenor or coloratura but rather a 'squeak' due to inordinate tension in the throat and chest), I offer an exercise--not quite as glamorous as standing under the Hollywood sign (the cops would probably roust you now and put you on medication, anyway)--but often as effective: stand up against a wall, back against it, keep your buttocks and shoulder pressed tight against the wall throughout, and speak as loudly as you can...WITHOUT EVER REMOVING YOUR SHOULDERS FROM CONTACT WITH THE WALL (thereby thwarting any possibility of speaking from the 'scrunched' chest and nose rather than from the desirable diaphragm and mouth where all full tones originate and exit). A FINAL HINT: Imagine a mouth at your belly button and practice speaking from it!

Practice five or ten minutes a day. If your throat gets are probably doing it wrong! The chest and throat are still tense (constricted). Speak from the belly button...remember! And speak louder and louder as you get more practiced.

Friday, April 06, 2007

ON ACTING: Brief Suggestions to the Actor

If the scene isn't important to the actors/characters, why should it be important to the audience.
* * * * *
The best way to be interesting is to be interested.
* * * * *
To actors who like to watch themselves in performance: you must decide whether you want to be an actor or an audience member. You can't be both.

ON ACTING: ...and 'Reading'

I received a nice note from a student containing an acting tip he picked up in class and he subsequently used in an audition. I thought I'd pass it on to others:

"Cliff, Were you picking up any vibes this morning? I just used some of your 'stuff'' in an audition, and I wanted to thank you. You might remember the scene I did in your workshop where I was supposed to be reading a newspaper which sitting at breakfast with my disagreeable wife. You stopped me after 30 seconds, as I leafed through the paper. You asked, "Bill are you READING that paper?" I said, "No, but I will." I had a "newspaper scene" in today's audition, and thanks to you, I read the damn thing! I reacted to what I "saw" on the page. Felt good about the audition, and used the insight you had given me. Much appreciated. Hope you are well. Bill"

Thursday, April 05, 2007

ON ACTING: Another View on 'Character'

How is 'character' revealed in a scene?

Think of 'character' as 'layers of personality' (SEE earlier March 14th blog on Character), vast reservoirs of underground bubbling sediments of emotional experience formed and laid down strip by strip by our long history: prenatal (inherited genes), adolescent and adult. As we move day by day through life, we carry all of these underground rivers with us. In acting terms, these 'sub-texts' vibrate heatedly yet normally contained beneath our 'outer earth', our cooler exterior, until a scene's conflicts--be they through engagements with events, other itself--becomes like an expolsive drilling bit, burrowing inexorably into our character, layer by layer, first through our outer shell, then ever deeper and deeper, exposing our inner emotions, allowing them to erupt to the surface, and thereby revealing who and what we are...and the experiences implicit in the formation of those inner layers.

Monday, April 02, 2007

ON ACTING: "Amor fati"; or The love of fate

In psychiatry there is a therapeutic concept called "Amor fati"; literally, "love of fate". The theory behind it is: We bring on the traumas that are necessary for our growth. Therefore, one could argue: the reason we choose to act in the a particular "drama/trauma" is in order to experience (re-experience) the particular emotion--and/or set of emotions--inherent in that scene or character. We immerse ourselves in the "drama/trauma" of the scene to educate ourselves about our own emotions.

Therefore, it could be reasonably said actors are paid to go through their own personal therapeutic "psychodrama" (don't tell the producers)! In effect, we choose or accept scenes and/or roles that can be instrumental in our personal emotional growth: that's what seduces us about a particular character or scene, and makes the role interesting to perform. By acting/living the scene, and the attendant emotions, we draw on the knowledge implicit in ourselves; and we learn, we grow, we gain conscious self-knowledge by that re-iterated personal/dramatic experience.

At core, actors act to discover themselves; they are in love not only simply with themselves (as their critics aver) but most especially with their fate.