Friday, November 30, 2007

ON ACTING: "Back Story"; or "Prior History"

The Actor's term "Back Story", or "Prior History", is the actors way of dealing with amalgam of impacting emotional experiences that has happened to a character prior to the events of the plot. This theoretically could include time spent in the womb, since one's pre-natal care can effect one's subsequent behavior! (However, art being selective, the actor cannot include everything; only the most relevant.)

These selected emotionally relevant experiences include both those mentioned in the script: facts of the story, plot and dialogue (in this way the writer highlights some of those relevant facts for us); OR, when those scripted historical facts are sketchy, actors often create his/her imagined experiences to facilitate his/her personal connection to the character; that is, to round out and deepen the character's emotional proclivities: such as "The character was raised in a single parent home", "The character went to an Ivy League home; dated rarely in college; The character tends to put career ahead of relationships", etc...none of which may be true or highlighted in the script...but which through imagining enable the actor to create and stimulate within him/her the emotional life of the character.

The suggested search for--and the utilization of--"Back Story" or "Prior History" is predicated on the fact that humans--which characters are--emotionally respond to present events based on their past experiences. For example, having spent time in jail effects our present attitude to the law; having been raped at fifteen affects our present dating experiences; having love or hate for one's parents for twenty years trickles down to how we deal with our own children today.

To know the specifics of one' personal history is to know one's personal reactive tendencies. The same is true for characters. A good actor cannot enter a scene without a past: without a past, there can be no true (in actor's terms, real performance) present; without a true and real present, there can be no true potential a character...or as an actor.

Monday, November 26, 2007

ON ACTING: "Edge-iness"

After the class scene, the actress asked me what I thought of her work in the scene. I told her her work was solid; it was real, 'crafty' (in the sense that it exhibited experienced acting craft...a knowledge-and application--of plot and character elements; it also exhibited reality and spontaneity). But "it lacked the power of art." As an explanatory criticism, I offered a common jargon/cliche term: "Her performance lacked "edge-iness".

What did I mean by that? "Edge-iness" in a performance is a sense the audience gets (because it is true) that the actor-as-character is living on the edge of her emotional experience. S/he is barely in control...every movement and action of the plot is an attempt to gain, and maintain, control. During an 'edgy' performance, the actor-as-character's emotional existence is threatening to spin out of control. At any moment of the plot, if the actor-as-character fails at achieving objective control, they will fall off the edge. (A good actor lives almost every moment of stage near the edge of a cliff; an excellent actor lives at the edge. A great actor lives with ten toes dangling...with the wind at their back.)

The purpose of all emotional preparation, for a role and/or throughout a career of training, is to develop the ability to move quickly and on demand from the everyday safety of one's life (living life far enough away from the edge of one's emotional precariousness to have a reasonable, sane and emotionally healthy existence), to a position of emotional fragility, susceptibility and danger ("edgy-ness") when working, appropriate to character and potential audience excitement.

Actors are paid for the amount of emotional danger they are willing the experience during a performance. So the the safety of their seats in a darkened theater...can be brought--through a process called "identification"--to the edge of their emotional existence by the actor's willingness, as the character, to live the plot of the story at the edge of emotional experience.

I told the actress our chore (hers as actress; mine as teacher) was to encourage and train her how to achieve performance 'edge-iness'.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Diversity and Niche Marketing...and My Old Screenwriter Friends

I originally wrote this posting for my Cliff Osmond Unedited blog. For some inexplicable reason, I also want to post it on this Acting blog. Why? I really don't know...except I want to...and I can; both are my blogs, aren't they?!!

"My older writer friends can't figure out why they can't sell...and other writers (mostly younger) whom they consider inferior--or boring--CAN sell. A possible reason: the writers in the past (my old friends) are looking for and writing about universal themes...ideas and feelings and forms that will resonate with a mass audience.

Today, there is no mass market; no audience seeking general depth and consensus and agreement. Today's audience has accepted..and are seeking...only their specific small group certainty.

Consider it the Balkanization of culture. Successful writers...and more importantly the producers and executives who fund them...are filming stories to please only primarily niche markets. Same in television. No more ABC, CBS and NBC able to dominate the market...they are losing viewers daily. On the other hand, look at the options in today's TV Guide: the History Channel, the Cooking Channel, Turner Movie Classics, ESPN...niche channels appealing to isolated and diverse markets.

Deconstruction has dominated the culture...there is no longer one truth...there are many's all according to your point of view. There is no more general public. Polarization in politics is nothing compared to multi-polarization in culture...and audiences.'

Successful niche marketing today preaches to the choir...not a general US choir, but to the choir(s) of a multiplicity of social and political churches.

Preaching to the choir appeals to prejudice. It does not to seek general affirmation of consensus. There is no new universal knowledge to be sought; just 'my opinion/truth' vying with 'your opinion/truth'; to separate congregations--separate audiences--generally all nodding in silent self-contented assent.

Little wonder that films today seem repetitious...or absolutely my old writer friends; filled with story/character cliches (a cliche is a truth so known and accepted that it seems superficial and mind-numbingly obvious). I remember I remember the great writer/director Billy Wilder telling me, late in his career, about a meeting he had had with a young movie producer who was kindly listening to Billy's new script ideas. Suddenly Billy arose and said: "Never mind, Thank you for your time." the producer stopped him: "Please, Mr. Wilder. Continue." "No, Billy said, "I don't think you want to hear what I have to say. And, more to the point, I don't want to say what you want to hear."

Perhaps my old friends can't write (or appreciate) OR SUCCEED in today's niche choir affirming film script market because they shoot too high. They...and their scripts...are coming of age too late; their creative minds/ideas were fashioned in a time when there was a belief in the search for THE TRUTH, some universal theme that resonated beyond the limitations of gender, politics, race, the earlier age of Einstein, when everyone sought a Unified Field Theory.

Today, the search for one truth is passe. It is old fashioned. Today the predominant cultural cry is for post-modern subjectivity and diversity: a world where all opinions are valid...and niche marketable. Today's audience doesn't wantnewer, more profound universal knowledge; it just wants a safe and slow balloon ride confirming their successful and necessary point of view downward toward earth; and my silly friends want dangerously and excitingly to shoot-the-moon into heaven-knows-where in a rocket fueled by one truth.

No wonder they fail."


Right after I wrote the above article, I was surfing through my e-mail and came across this report on Levine Breaking News.

NEW BUCHANAN BOOK DECLARES 'END OF AMERICA': "America is coming apart, decomposing, and...the likelihood of her survival as one improbable -- and impossible if America continues on her current course," declares Pat Buchanan. "For we are on a path to national suicide." The best-selling author and former presidential candidate is on the eve of launching his new epic book, according to The Drudge Report: DAY OF RECKONING: HOW HUBRIS, IDEOLOGY AND GREED ARE TEARING AMERICA APART. This time, Buchanan goes all the way: "America is in an existential crisis from which the nation may not survive." The U.S. Army is breaking and is too small to meet America's global commitments. The dollar has sunk to historic lows and is being abandoned by foreign governments. U.S. manufacturing is being hollowed out. The greatest invasion in history, from the Third World, is swamping the ethno-cultural core of the country, leading to Balkanization and the loss of the Southwest to Mexico. The culture is collapsing and the nation is being deconstructed along the lines of race and class. A fiscal crisis looms as the unfunded mandates of Social Security and Medicare remain unaddressed. All these crises are hitting America at once -- a perfect storm of crises."

Pat Buchanan and I are poles apart politically...or so I thought...but...(and I swear I wrote mine before I read this) makes me wonder...

ON ACTING: From Two Old Actors

Quote from an old colleague, R.G. Armstrong, speaking about his career:

"I had to learn it the hard way. I studied with Lee Strasberg. Acting is not acting. It's being. If you have the kind of personality makeup where you can transform into being the character in that situation, it brings about authenticity. You get a feel of the situation, the line in a scene and where your hearts goes to in a scene and you always keep that in mind."

Quote from another old colleague, Bill Lucking:

"Don't even think of acting as a profession unless not doing it would cause you to sicken and waste away. After you have made this preposterous decision, there are a few rules to guide you either up or down in your career."

Bill always was/is a bit of a cynic!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving!!!!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

ON ACTING: Developing an Emotional Toolbox

All people have have deep emotions; but actors learn how to access and maintain these deep human emotions during performance. To do this, they often develop the an emotional 'toolbox', as it were.

One of the greatest tools to accessing one's personal emotional life is remembering one's own history of emotional responses--that is, getting into intimate contact with the personal images and remembered events that emotional engage us.

For example: when I personally want to sensitize my propensity for sadness, I think of what always makes me sad: I think of my mother's all its saddening details. When I want to become highly suscepible to happiness, I think of what makes me happy: I think on my daughter, when she was three years old, chasing leaves and squirrels through the Ocean Ave. park in Santa Monica, CA. And when I want to be highly charged with feelings of anger, I think of ______ (name left blank; he is still alive; I will not name names to protect the guilty!).

An actor's array of images and memories--his/her own remembered emotional past and present--is the actor's tool box. And like a plumber, or carpenter, doctor or dentist...or any other craftsperson who seeks to achieve success...each actor should begin creating and saving the tools (those images and events and people that work for him/her) that best 'solve' the emotional demands a character or a performances.

Absent a toolbox; it is often difficult to find-a-solution, sometimes impossibe to fix-a-problem.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Speaking 'Generally' About Actors

If I can posit emotion-ease, substance-style, feeling-power-elegance as opposites yet all-too-necessary correlative partners in a great performance, I have found in my teaching that generally (beware 'generalizations'; while often most true, they apply in a general population..only generally) emotion, substance, feeling-power are easier to experience and free-up among Western Civilization nationalities as opposed to Eastern Civilization nationalities (including American Indian); among Southern Hemisphere people (South America and Africa for the most part) as opposed to Northern Hampshire people, Mediterranean as opposed to Nordic, Catholic as opposed to Protestant, urban as opposed to rural, etc. And among the groups of people that have relatively less trouble experiencing acting emotion, substance and feeling-power, they have the greatest problem with ease, style and elegance. And visa-versa.

So in my teaching (once again...generally...with all the attendant warnings-on-the-labels) I will emphasize emotion/substance/feeling-training for the more reluctant groups of experiencers of emotion, substance and feeling-power (Eastern, Northern, Nordic, Protestant and rural); and style, ease and substance training for the groups that find relative ease with--and are often-in-truth-too-eager for--feeling (Western, Southern, Mediterranean, Catholic and urban).

The teaching theory being: if a kangaroo comes to you for body building training to create a balanced physique (akin to a well-rounded actor), you emphasize push-ups and bench presses; if an ostrich comes to you, you emphasize squats and other leg work.)

We can't all have everything; but we can focus on and work like hell on what we don't automatically and easily have. And there are, in my experience, certain tendencies in groups that help identify and define individual proclivities, and speed up their learning process...generally speaking!!

Monday, November 19, 2007

ON ACTING: In the Control of Others

To actors--especially those among you who would consider yourselves to be 'control freaks'--to be a good actor is to accept the incontrovertible fact: ...the other person(s) in the scene controls your specific performance; i.e., the activation of your emotions.

You heard me: your emotional performance is at the mercy of the performances of others.

Life (which good acting manifests) can be prepared for generally, but emotional life's actual and specific arousal in a scene cannot be pre-determined in advance. You can prepare/practice for the game of life, but the reality of the game of life (or acting) will ultimately be determined by outside events.

Even when your emotional preparation is full and specific--you have decided that you want certain emotional performance 'choices' to occur; to facilitate this you have prepared yourself for a defined emotional predilection of sadness, or happiness or anger based on (and caused by) your assumed events of the preceding hour, day, week, month or year--ultimately and unavoidably it will be the other person (and/or events) that occur in the here and now which will tum your wished-for desired proclivities into specific actualities

To repeat: you may prepare for a particular emotional susceptibility in a scene, you may even decide at what point in the scene you'd like to get mad, or happy or confused, etc...,but exactly when, and how, and to what extent you will specifically and ultimately feel the quantity and quality of the particular emotion desired will be determined by--if you seek reality in the scene (and you better if you want to be a good actor)--the specific stimuli given to you be the other person or events of the scene; they will be the final determinant. OR: to paraphrase the old saw: "Life is what will happen in spite of our best plans!!"

Thursday, November 15, 2007

ON ACTING: Purchasing an Acting Teacher

Acting teachers sometimes call their acting classes 'workouts'.

The term provides a useful analogy for acting training...and teacher purchasing.

An acting teacher offers for pay workout equipment (their programs and philosophies), and a corollary suggested regimen of use.

A good teacher says in effect: "Workout on my equipment, with my suggested training regimen, and I will assure you that expending the same amount of effort as you would have expended in another gym, and with an equal amount of expended time, you will more quickly grow a bigger, stronger body."

Shopping for a good teacher is like shopping for a good gym.

Before putting down any money visit the gym, check them out the equipment (programs and teaching abilities), ask to use their equipment once or twice (in acting-teacher purchase terms, it's called a class 'audit'). Ask others who have been to the gym how they liked it; seek out references. While auditing in class, decide whther you want to watch those students actors in a theater or film...just as you do when you go to the theater or movie house because you like to see your favorite actor over and over again (You know good acting; you just don't know good acting teaching...yet).

Only when you are confident that that particular teacher (gym, equipment and regimen) can provide you--YOU, the individual with unique needs and learning proclivities (I often say: 'A good acting teacher doesn't teach acting; they teach a person acting)--the requisite information, techniques and encouragement to make efficient your learning of acting, only then should you sign up.

And I would strongly suggest you should have an 'out' clause to the teaching contract. Remember: acting teachers do not provide warranties; therefore they shouldn't demand long-term contracts. I personally have always taught on a month-by-month basis...a perpetually renewable term-contract if you will. Which, in my mind, is the fairest and most enriching contract between actor and student...for both sides! Who wants to be in a class when no one wants to be there--except everybody is tied into a long term contract?!

Acting teaching is a business. You, the students, are the customers. So be as smart in purchasing the services of an acting teacher as you would when hiring a plumber, an electrician or an auto mechanic...or a physical trainer in a gym. With the final warning on the label: You, the student, must put in the time and effort; the blood, sweat and tears to maximally use the equipment; you can't just 'buy the spandex outfit, show up once in a while, stand around and chat and HOPE for a good body!

Acting is easy; excellence results from hard work...aided by a good workout/gym/teacher.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

ON ACTING: 'Warming-up'; Part II

As an example how insidious the body is in 'taking a break' from constant and renewed emotional intensity--in modulating the body from a full constant emotional performance--I will reach back into my own past to offer an example.

As a young actor, I discovered through much trial and error effort that whenever I wished to 'prepare' myself for a highly sensitized condition of sadness, for example, to become susceptible to be made sad by the events of a subsequent scene, I could recall the specifics of my mother's death before performance...and most especially the specific event of walking into the funeral parlor on a cold, winter day and seeing her face thought the door window for the first time as she lay in the coffin in the inner viewing room.

That image invariable made me sad.

So, as an actor, immediately before the scene, to prepare for the scene (which called for great sadness) I would remember the stillness of her profile...and I would invariably become in heightened state of sadness when entering the scene. (I did not enter the scene wanting to be sad, of course--that would be illogical to human nature, and therby erroneous to the logic of character and good acting in general--nobody enters a situation in life wanting to be sad..only actors; human being are made susceptible to sadness by prior events...and then try logically and mightily to contain it). I used my mother's image as 'preparation' for sadness, I became more capable of being made sad by the actions and people in the subsequent scene. Success.

However...and herein lees the repeated and following performances or film 'takes', however, when I wanted to be susceptible to sadness again, I found the use of the same image of my mothers face would not work! I would think/imaging seeing my mother's face through the funeral parlor door's window befor the sene...and nothing would happen!! What!? Why? Why was I suddenly now inured--desensitized--to sadness over my mother's death as revisited in that image? Had I finally run out of love for my mother?

It took me many years to discover the answer...why I could successfully get sad the first time I used her image, and then, in spite of the exactly same duplicated act of memory, my emotional response would suddenly die, disappear, melt into nothing: The truth was my body had said to me (after the first use of the image): "You (the actor preparing) are not going to fool me (Cliff, and his emotional system) again! I'm going to protect you from sadness of that image if it happens again". Therefore, that same image used a second time invariably failed in eliciting a condition of susceptibility because my body--which is built for survival...which includes protecting me from the enervating condition of sadness...led me to discover a antidote to my 'preparation': no more sad reactions to repeated sadness from that image! Forewarned is forearmed! I promise you, Cliff!!

But, I was an actor who wanted to defeat in subseqent 'preparation' that antidote to sadness. So...I decided I had to fool it again prior to a subsequent performance/take! So the next time I used the image, I had to see her through the window...AND ALSO WALK THROUGH THE DOOR AND TOWARD THE COFFIN...AND SEE HER BLUE EYES...AND...AND...there it is...I can feel it again; the same worked. The more specific detailed and progressive the image I used made me surprised, overcame the antidote, made me susceptible once again to a renewable condition of sadness!!

RULE: Each time the actor prepares for any emotional condition, the actor must proceed further into his/her detailed imagining/recalling of the image on each subsequent use of the image, so as to overcomes the body's brilliant survival technique of adaptation and desensitization. In other words, the actor must fool his/her own emotional system each time s/he prepares...and before each performance--by further penetration into the specificity of the image--to produce the desired and renewed emotional susceptibility.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

ON ACTING: 'Warming-up'; Part I

The actor gave a wonderful performance in class, filled with emotional depth and texture. A few minutes later, I asked her to do it again. She did. It wasn't quite as wonderful. I asked her why she felt there was such a difference. She said she didn't know; but she admitted she felt 'flatter' the second time. I asked her if she did the same emotional preparation before the second take as she did the first. She said no; she assumed the preparation she did for the first take was sufficient. I said perhaps that was the answer: perhaps in the few minutes between takes, her body/emotions had shut down--albeit ever so slightly--but enough to create an unfavorable difference between the power of take one and take two.

Professional and competitive body builders 'pump a little iron' backstage between onstage demonstrations; baseball pitchers to throw a few warm-up pitches before each and every inning, even before the late innings of a game. Musical orchestra members must pluck or blow through their instruments--checking the sound, adjusting when the perfect pitch is off--before every new number, and lawyers often check their notes before examining the next witness. All fine professionals stay finely tuned prior to any effort. They warm up prior to all renewed efforts--whether in acting, body building or pitching a baseball, or any other endeavor--before each and every performance.

An intense emotional experience--like exciting acting--is an unnatural event. The body--where emotions reside; in fact, are part of--prefers a modulated existence, average, calm. If a human being lived at 'performance level' intensity day in and day out, that unnatural profligacy level of feeling would lead to burn-out at best, physical illness and disintegration at worst. So the body--including the emotions--has earned to relax, to soften its emotional muscles, to 'shut-down' between events; to conserves energy for the next absolutely necessary burst of mandatory use.

To counter that innate, natural and everyday healthy modulation of human emotion, the good actor, who wishes to perform at exciting, sustained and repeating levels of emotional involvement during actual performance, must prepare his/her instrument constantly and repetitively before and between each performance...otherwise natural atrophy will take place before...or else a slack performance will very often result.

Friday, November 09, 2007

'Character' is how we feel and how we deal under duress.

ON ACTING: Frusration

His acting was always filled with frustration. I said: "Frustration is the sign of someone who accepts defeat". "No," he said. "I just can't accept how long winning takes." So: I had to amend my definition: "Frustration is the sign of someone who doesn't believe they can win; or someone can't win quickly enough; in the latter regard it is the bastard child of impatience."

A patient, confident winner-to-be is never frustrated; and is always thereby interesting and appealing.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

ON ACTING: Repeating the Past

The past is dead; a good acor learns to live in the present.

The actor reviewed his tape of his class scene: "It was dull," he said. And then, to explain: "I was in my head." "What were you doing there?" I asked. He said: "Trying to duplicated last night's work." (Which, I agreed, was wonderful.) I admonished him: "What was wonderful about last night's work is that you were not trying to duplicate the prior night's work."

Acting is creation, not replication.

Or: 'Strive to repeat the past; you lose the present.'

Sunday, November 04, 2007

ON ACTING: Another Acting Mantra

The actor should repeat to themselves three times before entering a scene:

Don't whine; win.
Don't complain; convince.
Don't suffer; solve.

Then enter.

Friday, November 02, 2007

ON ACTING: A Quote from Nelson Mandela

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are adequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, talented and fabulous?' Actually who are you not to be? Your playing small and self-accusatory doesn't serve the world."

ON ACTING: A 'Grounded' Performance

The student frowned just before starting her scene: "I don't feel grounded," she said. She delayed her performance. I asked her what 'grounded' meant. She said "I don't feel "centered", and pointed in the general area of her abdomen. "Centered?" I asked. "You need to be clearer than that. Confusion and a lack of clarity in analysis leads to a confused and unfocused performance." She just stared at me in a sullen incomprehension. She was, of course right: a good performance cannot flow from an ungrounded actor, but I wanted her to understand more fully what she was saying. Acting jargon has a delightful ring to it; but it often escapes meaningful precision.

I recommended the dictionary to her.

To be 'well-grounded' is to be firmly affixed to the earth; solid, not easily toppled.

Moreover, in terms of electrical current: when an entity is not "grounded" and is struck by lightening, the entity will be sadly unable to pass the electrical current through him/her, and will be burned up and consumed in flames.

To follow this line of reasoning, when an actor is not feeling grounded, s/he intuits that if s/he does not understand the essential nature of the character, or, is not attuned to the emotional solidity of the character, the actor in performance will feel adrift in uncertainty and unsureness, as if floating above the character's emotional reality. In electrical terms, if the actor is not feeling 'grounded' in performance, the actor intuits rightly that when electrical/emotional charge of the scene hits, that emotion will not be able to pass through him/her into the other characters and actions of the scene, as it should, but rather, will burn the actor into self-immolating performance dust, as the actor is consumed in his/her own ungrounded and unshared emotion.

The corrective to all this: hard work at character analysis befoe performance, hard work at self-analysis throughout a career, and performance confidence: (1) understanding the emotional nature (and demands) of the character to be performed, (2) understanding one's own emotional nature consistent with that of the character, and (3) allowing in performance an unconscious state of synchronization of the actor's nature and the character's nature.

The young student in question came back to class the next night, having done her homework (on the character and herself) and delivered a delightfully 'grounded' and 'centered' performance. She and the character had become movingly one.