Sunday, September 30, 2007

ON ACTING: Assertion

The student at the seminar was new; to me and to acting in general. I gave her a scene to perform. I have certain scenes that are great 'testers', scenes that ask certain qualities of personality/emotion from an actor that, once I view them, enable me to evaluate the actor's intrinsic 'stuff', whether they are inherently comfortable under duress (since every scene is conflictual by design), and reveals to me what emotions they are eager to experience, hesitant to experience, shy in experiencing, etc.

Immediately I could see she was unwilling to assert: her voice was weak and quiet, and her bodily manner immediately betrayed her unwillingness to 'state her claim' in the dialogue and back it up forcefully. Her body seem to shrink; her eyes looked away from her partner.

I next asked her to be bolder in the scene, to be angry at her partner. She became shrill and loud, unappealingly so. She shouted, she demanded...coldly and without sensitivity to the other person. She had moved 360 degrees: from delicacy and vulnerability in the first rendition of the scene to steel plated insensitivity and harshness when assertion was demanded.

There are people who are uncomfortable with assertion: they either allow themselves to be run over by other's demands, relinquishing all claim to their desires; or, once pressed, angrily and coldly over-assert; with a steel plate covering their emotional receptivity. They proceed toward goals unappealingly, like a 'bull in a china shot', destroying all in their path.

Both methods betray an unease with assertion, a clumsiness with assertive goal-seeking, a refusal (or extreme lack of practice) to press one's claims easily and effectively on someone else.

Actors who move from one polar extreme to the other in conflictual situations, unable to act without the refined and seemingly paradoxical duality of 'sensitivity-accompanied-with-strength' need practice in assertion, and probably with all strong emotions in general--and, I would argue, primarily with anger--which must comfortably underlay assertion. "Speak softly but carry a big stick" is the old adage: Anger is the big stick; speaking softly (but effectively) reveals the actor's comfortableness in brandishing the big stick without the clumsiness and lack of appeal of heavy-handed cold-bloodiness.

Friday, September 28, 2007

ON ACTING: Walking in the Character'sShoes

The student said acting a 'character' was like 'walking in someone else'e shoes'. I said that was a good description of acting, but I wanted to amend the statement.

To play a character is to walk in your own shoes...and a good actor has a closet full of shoes: high heels for a classy night on the town, slippers for lounging around the house, water proof boots for a rainy day, running shoes for jogging; loafers for casual 'retro' wear, etc.

Certain shoes (characters, personality characteristics) are worn everyday; when we take them out of our personal closets (ourselves) and put them on, we are very comfortable in them. Others are rarely used; they just have been sitting unused in the closet; and when we wear them for the first time, they pinch our toes. Other shoes are old favorites that have fallen into dis-use; they have dried and hardened and need to be broken into use again. Some shoes we have forgotten we had; in fact we deny ownership of them until someone (the director or writer or teacher) points them out to us and asks us to 'put them on'.

An excellent actor is comfortable wearing all fashions of 'character' shoes (personalities); and this changing-of-shoes to suit the occasion/character carries over as well into altered language and movement. (Don't we all walk and feel differently depending on what we are wearing?) A good actor is one who can instantly change his/her shoes--and how they make them feel--depending on the circumstances the scene thrusts them into, and the aspects of personality that the 'character' requires from the actor in such a situation.

Remember: When an actor acts a character, they are wearing their own shoes (aspects of personality), and selecting the ones from their own closet that are appropriate for the occasion.

Monday, September 24, 2007

ON ACTING: Creativity and Consistency

The challenge for actors is not only to achieve a quality performance once, but also to repeat it night after night. Consistency as well as creativity is a mark of true acting ability.

I have more than a few students who will make wonderful 'choices' in one 'take' (or filmed performance), only to lose them again in the next. When I asked them what happened, the say they didn't want to do the same thing over again; they prefer the constant search for 'newness' and in their work; consistency thwarts there creative search.

When confronted with such actors, I challenge them to move beyond that 'creativity-versus-consistency' posture: I ask them in performance to seek creativity AND consistency: "Why gain a new choice in Take 2, only to lose a prior achieved, wonderful choices from Take 1?" The chore in excellent and improving acting is to retain the wonderful choices from Take 1 while still finding newness and freshness in OTHER choices in the rest of the scene.

Seeking to upset an established apple-cart to find newer and fresher apples while losing older valuable discoveries--while this approach is perhaps a valid and necessary a rehearsal technique--is generally cost-ineffective performance technique: the cost is greater than the revenue, We lose two dollars (and often more) to find a new single dollar bill...(and, in particular for actors, directors soon become bored and frustrated with such 'freshness-above-all-things' acting devotees).

Good actors seeking both freshness and consistency will find the maintenance of OLD choices will retain spontaneity from 'take-to-take' if the actor continues to 'live' the scene in a real, good-acting fashion. The truth is: NO pre-discovered CHOICE in a repeated scene can by definition be done exactly the same in. Life is ever-changing; so will an ever-repeated moment in a good honestly lived scene.

Sometimes he search for constant 'newness' is a hallmark of an actor's fear rather than creative courage. The ever-shifting performance actor is really saying: "What if I haven't got to talent to repeat prior successful choices within narrow, living parameters?"

I call it the "Don Juan" syndrome (of acting): choose to love a new girl or boy every night to avoid the challenge and responsibility of a deep relationship with one person; as in acting: choosing a new way of doing the scene every 'take' to avoid the challenge and responsibility of deepening the scene with older, already established values.

Performance growth is an accretion process; it is the cumulative honing-in of better and better overall performance elements from 'take-to-take'.

Creativity and consistency are not oppositional opponents. As in life, where freedom and constraints, personal choice and social responsibility go hand in hand and are necessary correlatives in the functioning of individuals and society, so in acting creativity and consistency are the necessary and mutual correlatives in achieving acting excellence.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

ON ACTING: An Ocean of Emotions

Last night I attended a seminar sponsored by the Natioal Alliance on Mental Illness. Many parents, spouses and children of the mentally ill were there, and they shared some of the feelings experiened in dealing with mentally ill loved ones. A seminar facilitator listed the emotions on a blackboard; I offer it to actors (and teachers, directors or writers) who think that the list of human emotions is short or simple; and who, in preparing for a performance, or scene, think only one or two emotions can possibly be involved in any deeply felt real experience where love and conflict are ever present.

The Attendees list:
Wanting out
A sense of ridiculousness

The items in the list were gathered in only ten minutes.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

ON ACTING: 'Moment to Moment'

The important instruction for actors to live a scene 'moment by moment' is a reminder to actors that real life--and therefore good acting--occurs spontaneously, without absolute predictability aforethought. A well-acted scene is step-by-step occurence, from individual stimulus to synapse to motor response, from hearing/seeing to emoton to action/reaction as it will.

There is no certainty that the quality and quanitity of any acted human moment will follow an absolutely preordained path. I may have memorized my line...but exactly how, and when and with what feeling I will honestly deliver that line, that reality is finally predcated by the 'momemt to moment' occurance of spontaneous interplay between one actor and the other.

There are as many cells in the human body as there are stars in the universe. No actor is going to control them all with his/her predetermined 'choices'. Not if s/he is acting in reality.

Monday, September 10, 2007

ON ACTING: The Value of Character 'Confusion'

Immediately after she had cold read and analyzed the scene in class, I asked the student whether her character was confused. She said: "No. My character is certain of her opinions." The moment she said it she cringed; she knew she was wrong.

If any character in a scene is absolutely certain in everything s/he says, s/he exists beyond change (and therefore is non-human?). If there is no doubt, there will be no possibility of negative consequences; the character will be unable to exhibit any dramatic possibilities of discovery, human enlightenment, character development and self-discovery--all striking elements of exciting drama.

If any character in a scene is absolutely certain, beyond confusion, the resolution of the scene is thereby automatically predetermined. The other character has no chance of winning...the drama is a fixed game; skewed to a predetermined result, aimed toward inevitably boring certainty.

The good student should always be reminded: every character in every successful acting performance starts confused, whether s/he will admit to it or not. She of course takes a mind stance; she fights for her position. But as no human being is beyond doubt (SEE the recent revelations of doubt in the great and saintly Mother Theresa), every human decision--and its resultant action to say, to do, to think--takes place in the arena of confusion.

Yin-yang co-exist. The character has a mind set fixed on a position, yet, being human, is susceptible to change. For each action there is an equal and opposite reaction(occurring simultaneously): Newton's Second Law. If the actor disobeys this law of physics; which of course is the basis of life and therefore the law of exciting real acting, s/he will be punished: by the yawns and shrugs in the audience.

Smart actors embrace confusion. It leads to profundity, contradiction and audience-compelling character complication.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

ON ACTING: "Anticipation"

"Anticipation" characterizes a performance wherein the actor is re-acting to another character's lines--or any other action--before the lines are said or any other action is consummated: the actor smiles at a joke before the punch line is delivered, becomes angry from a painful riposte from the other actor before the angering statement is fully said, or acts knowingly to information that has not yet been revealed onstage.

To ac with 'anticipation' is to be an unskilled actor.

"Anticipation" is generally a symptom of the unskilled actor not really listening to the other actors on stage or seeing what is going on--not properly 'in-the-moment' as it is expressed in acting terms, or jargon. Instead of listening to and looking at the other actors in the scene, the actor is rather 'in-his-head', inwardly focused, self-conscious instead of other-focused.

This generally occurs because s/he is generally thinking of his/her own performance, what s/he intends to do (or what s/he has already done); reacting not to the reality before him/her on stage, but according to some preconceived metal image of how the scene should and/or will occur. A test: put the 'anticipating' unskilled actor in the same scene on a different set with other actors, nothing would change. Their performance is constant--unchangeable--like death itself.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

ON ACTING: The Audience as Lie-Detector

Audiences are sophisticated lie-detectors. The can through the process of kinesthesia (through muscle-memory) detect the actor-as-character's lie beneath the offered truth. That's why actors don't have to 'play' the lie...just feel the truth...then lie.

Audience's have been living lies all their lives. They have been periodic deniers of inner meanings. They therefore have the highly developed experiential ability interpret the hate hidden hate behind the enemy-character's tight smile, the extra studied casualness in a hyper-sexed first date, who is pretending not to notice the full-bosom girl at the next table, the character who is trying to convince the other character he understands the conversation when he hasn't the slightest clue what is going on.

"It takes one to know one" is the guiding rule/reality underpinning the concept of trusting the 'audience-as-lie-detector' in enacting a character lie.

Monday, September 03, 2007

ON ACTING: Fate is a Surprise

Characters are generally thrown--unknowingly, unwillingly and unconsciously--into their fateful whirlpool of comedy and drama. They are forced, generally kicking and screaming, by the perverse nature of the Writer, into the maelstrom of the story.

Hman beings don't want to be part of comedy or tragedy; only actors. Characters--like everyday people--don't want it. In fact they do everything they can to avoid it. Who likes to be laughed at, humiliated, made to cry or be angry? Only actor; not people. People are what actors portray in acting; not actors.

I drive to work. I expect a happy, easy commute (all right: maybe LA is different). But...even an LA driver doesn't expect...and aim accident. I, along with other commuters with whom I share the road, are unaware of any particular meaningfulness to this day, any expectation of trouble, tragic...or comic. So when the accident happens to six of us, and we are all caught up in the disastrous--or disasterously funny--consequences, we are totally surprised.

Actors should do the same: remain as oblivious as possible to the facts and fate of their (their character's) future. It has been said that scenes happen to the character; they don't happen because the actor wants them to happen. A rule worth heeding.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

ON ACTING: Reverse the Field

More than a few actors I know need to turn their life patterns around: they need to learn to live more boring-ly offstage, and more exciting-ly on.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW: "Death at a Funeral"

Now that's a comedy. See it.

MOVIE REVIEW: "Superbad"

"Superbad" is just that. Superbad. The film tries hard to be the "Animal House" of the 00s. At least that's what I assume it is self-consciously trying to do; witness the constant Dartmouth College references in their film ("Animal House" was supposedly patterned on the DKE fraternity parties at Dartmouth.)

Superbad is not only juvenile-ly gross in content; that I can handle: I liked (all right, I appreciated) "Knocked Up" and "The 40 Year Old Virgin". In fact I laughed out loud at a lot of the antics in those two films. But Superbad is not just juvenile in content, it is juvenile in form. It starts off in a long, undramatic, bitch-session in the convenience store (really just a stand-up gross comedy act a deux) between its two leads; and it goes dramatically nowhere from there. The dramatic premise of the whole film seems to be: will they or will they not get a high school 'blow-job' before going off to different colleges. For me is not a sustainable two-hour dramatic arc. (Oh, I know...the script does develop--between fart/shit/vomit/period/sperm jokes--a sappy 'love-story-betwen-two-young-men; sort of a yuppie "Brokeback Mountain"...even with the smarmy obligatory sleeping bag scene...but forget's still a boy/girl blow job film.)

Someone mentioned that the writer/star Seth Rogan first wrote the script in high school (which is of course prime wanting-more-than-getting blow job age); and since Seth and his producer, Judd Apatow, have gotten so hot, it's been tweaked, and worked on, and polished (if that is an appropriate term in this case) into its present form.

But...when you're hot, you're hot. To a Hollywood money-men/producers, Seth Rogan and Judd Apatow can do no wrong. They are on a financal roll. And they didn't fail in this film: the grosses are proving it. Gross content----->gross $$$; that's the formula.

I remember a few years ago when Eddie Murphy was scalding-ly/financially hot in Hollywood: Billy Wilder suggested that a producer to hire Eddie for the film the producer was planning to do: the Producer said: "But Billy, Eddie Murphy's all wrong...color-wise, age-wise, gender-wise." Billy, shrugged, unaffected by those concerns: "Eddie Murphy will make you money doing the phone book.")

"Superbad" is the phone book. And the listings are all gross; money-wise or otherwise.