Friday, January 25, 2008

ON ACTING: Comedy: More Style than Substance

Comedy is a matter of style over substance.

Comedy shows generally plan a much more rigorous rehearsal schedule than do drama shows. Drama shows may only have only one or two quick scene rehearsals before shooting, whereas comedy shows often will schedule days of run-through before shooting.


Comedy is a very unforgiving medium. There is little tolerance for missing the quality mark: you are either funny or you're not. Laughter (or the absence of it) is a harsh and precise judge. Humor is an unforgiving taskmaster.

Therefore actors must spend extra time in comedic rehearsal.

Comic characters are not complicated. They are simply emotionally constructed. They almost always have very obvious and revealing emotional-obsessive characteristics (hence: 'types'). Their appeal is in their intensity, not their complexity. (Unfortunately I often find students using the week's rehearsal time between classes working on the wrong thing: they spend too much time complicating the characters profile--a very unproductive effort-and too-little time on precision/perfection of style: precise line learning, precise blocking, precise utilization of props.)

The demands of precise style--just exactly when to deliver the 'punch line' (at the moment of highest intensity), the need for pace and intensity in general, the absence of long pauses where the audience can realize the characters are 'about nothing' very profound, etc.--requires require precision. Dialogue must be precisely said as written, physical 'gags' must be clearly and cleanly done (you can't 'sort of' pull the chair out timing-wise when executing a funny pratfall on late and the victim's butt is already in the seat...too early the victim sees it coming) and movement must be bold, precise and uncluttered.

In comedy you live and die on two things: simple and obvious emotional intensity of character, and precision and pace of execution. The former requires emotional guts, the latter, practice and perfection.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

From a Campaign Colleague

Kent Smith, a new friend, a member of the Euclid Ohio School Board, former candidate to the Ohio Assembly, and a colleague from our recent Iowa Caucus wars working for ther John Edwards campaign, wrote the following on his blog of January 2nd from Iowa to his readers back home in Ohio. I repeat it modestly and proudly:

"Kent Smith: Day Six
Posted by Kent Smith January 02, 2008 11:41AM
Categories: Kent Smith in Iowa

"Cliff Osmond is a 70-year-old character actor from Los Angeles. His first scene was a role on The Rifleman when he was 25.

"After a multiple-decade career that put him on countless television shows and movies (see for yourself at, he decided to open an acting school which later turned into several acting schools. Cliff has a smooth baritone voice, a fast wit, a charming demeanor and stand 6 foot 6 inches tall.

"Young Cliff Osmond was studying English at Dartmouth when he joined a campus theatre production in an effort to overcome his shyness. Sixteen plays later and with his Ivy League degree in hand, he hitch-hiked across the country to Los Angeles with $16 in his pocket.

"At the age of 40, in the midst of his acting career, Cliff was diagnosed with leukemia and told he only had six months to live. He beat the disease and the rest - as they say - is history.

"Cliff and I both arrived in Cedar Rapids on Christmas Day. Since our arrival, we have had dinner every night; New Years Eve included. Unlike myself, he had never been involved in a political campaign until one week ago. He became impressed with John Edwards' passionate stand against poverty and the fact that he has never taken a dime from Washington D.C. P.A.C.'s or lobbyists.

"Cliff called the Los Angels Edwards office to offer his help. But he longed to do more and soon contacted the Iowa operation and found himself on a plane headed for Cedar Rapids. Cliff had never gone door-to-door in the snow - he has now. Cliff had never made political phone calls - he has now. Cliff had never staffed a Presidential Campaign event - he has now, He had never heard John Edwards speak in public - he has now.

"When Cliff and I were assisting the Edwards event staff in Independence, Iowa (See the Blog from Day Three) two of the electronic media members covering the event quietly snuck over to me and asked if Cliff was an actor. I was happy to blow Cliff's cover and as a Hollywood Legend and Campaign Superhero. Cliff told them a few Tinseltown war stories and shared some Hollywood memories.

"After the event, the two guys came over to get their photo taken with actor Cliff Osmond; playing his most recent role - John Edwards Campaign Volunteer.

"This is why Cliff Osmond has consistently beaten me out for volunteer of the day. I only came close once, when I managed to sweet talk the building owner out of an additional restroom key."

ON ACTING: Virginity is Renewable

Actors are constantly--and properly--told to live a performance 'moment-by-moment'; that is, they are told: "You mustn't anticipate what is going to to occur next in the scene; rather allow each moment to occur spontaneously, freshly, as if for the first time."

Isn't that easier said than done; in fact, isn't it impossible? How does one renew innocence on an ongoing basis? How does one become a virgin over and over again? Once lost, aren't these states gone forever?

Like 'moment-to-moment' acting (albeit the scene occurring over and over again), character innocence and virginity are mere states of mind. Their repeated attainment can be achieved, learned--and reinforced--by practice and craft. An actor-as-character can legitimately wear white at every wedding.

To attain these states constant freshness and renewal, I would suggest to the actor that before every performance, before every repetition of a scene the actor says quietly to themselves: "This will be a very short scene; one action, one line at most. I will attain my objective in the scene easily, quickly, at a minimum of cost. True, it may have been rough before, but not this time. This time it will be a snap."

(Think of how often we recover from failed relationships and enter the next one believing it is going to be snap! Talk about attaining renewed innocence!)

With that unanticipated state of mind at the entrance to the scene, the actor will more likely be surprised by the ongoing events of the scene, making the events--and their length, severity and difficulty totally unexpected, and the life of the scene much more likely to take on a 'moment-to-moment' character.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

ON ACTING: Venturing into the Unknown

Acting, as a specialized form of life, must mirror the following dichotomy inherent in life: the actor-as-character's drive to resolving the scene's conflict in her favor simultaneously leaves her open to the stinging possibility of defeat. No possibility of gain without the possibility of pain.

This all too human duality inherently exists therefore in all honest acting: The actor-as-character tries to win in every scene; but, being human must enter the scene with an all-too-real possibility of defeat.

Each step in the scene, therefore, each and every action in the scene, becomes an inner and outer balancing act, fraught with dramatic tension. The character walks across a tight rope of possibility; moving toward the other side of the precipice--fear battling courage, hope battling disastrous consequences--each step toward the goal fighting the risk of imbalance, the downward pull of gravity...and death.

Life--and therefore good acting--contains neither inevitable winners or losers...that's why we play the game, watch the scene: who will win and who will lose.

All actors in every scene must enter, and participate, in any scene with these dual possibilities always in play: "I could win; I could lose." To do less, to act at any moment totally self-assured of victory or defeat, is contrary to the facts of human existence; and, in acting, therefore, contrary to the facts of good, honest acting...and will create unreal human character/characteristics, and therefore uninteresting dramatic (by that I mean already pre-resolved; boring) situations.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

FILM REVIEW: "Lars and the Real Girl"

Are you kidding? A fantasy about a man's love affair with a plastic blow-up girl?! And everyone in the town understands and helps maintain the fantasy? How nice?

What town is that? I want to live there.

"Lars" is a sad film (it is not funny, except to warped senses of humor) about a disturbed psychiatric patient case study brought to the screen. It is a long, laborious 'one note' joke pretending to be a modern metaphor of gender non-connectedness and dating pressure.

I have great sympathy for mental illness; but this film's proffered call to indulge it's fantasies (outside the pshychiatric setting)--as the best (and by implication, only) corrective to human loneliness--is naive; and ultimately destructive.

What next? Love of a dog (and sleeping with one) as a metaphor for modern society's inability to gender connect? Why not?! Why stop with plastic substitutes?! Dogs are warm, furry, sleep in your bed and lick your face. Why stop there?

There is--must be--a line. Art (as opposed to tragic albeit perverse obsession) are two different things. Plastic dolls should be left in porno shops (in truth, should be condemned). Animals should be left as pets. And a society--most especially its artists--should focus on tales of human interconnectedness. The shock value of perverseness ("Lars" is brought to us by a writer honed on "Six Feet Under") is no substitute for drama. The best and most telling truths about human nature (granted, they are more difficult to mount...pun intended) are about humans. They require true insight. "Lars" is facile false film making at best. And boring.

Monday, January 14, 2008

FILM REVIEW: "Starting Out in the Evening"

I saw a sweet but slow film last night, "Starting Out in the Evening"--a little too sweet and definitely too long. It stars Frank Langella (not my favorite performance of his; an unfortunate actor's choice: he acted an inactive character 'attitude' choice throughout.) There were also three very nice other actors in the film: Lauren Ambrose, Lili Taylor and Adrian Lester (who was especially good).

The film story, however, is not unique: young girl, wanting to write her master's thesis on an out-of-print intellectual novelist, soon 'hits' on old man/writer--who is very reluctant to open up, both professionally and personally. Meanwhile the old man's 40 year old daughter is having her own relationship tension with a man who will not commit (his lack of commitment exemplified by his refusal to have a baby with her).

Pop-psychology resonates in this film; but little else...a paucity as far as philosophical ideas or human-insight-uniqueness go. There is a lot (a lot a lot) of talk about relationships, personal caring, career selfishness, etc...unfortunately these themes are treated in a manner that make them seem like worn territory--which they are; 'on the nose', as they say.

However, if the above stories and relationships intrigue you, I recommend you see last year's "Venus" (for brilliantly exectuted March-December romance), and this year's "Juno" and "Knocked-Up" (for more interesting and comedic manifestations of male commitment fears, having sex, getting old and having babies).

Saturday, January 12, 2008

FILM REVIEW: "There Will Be Blood"

The film, starring Daniel Day Lewis is a travesty. It is pretentious, sophomoric, overly long and self-indulgent, with a music track that would be silly...if not so grating and 'much-ado-about' nothing. The filming-technique makes everything important (especially the writer/director) so that nothing is important...which is unfortunately the case. The critics who are touting this film (and the Academy, if it gives it any awards) are beyond respect. I give the film no letter-rating (A, or B+, or E, etc). It is beyond the alphabet...and all dramatic logic.

NOTE to filmmaker: hating big oil, religion and fathers is not enough to justify tedium.

Apology and Return

I had taken a vacation from my teaching chores and acting in general for a few weeks...during which time I went to Iowa as a volunteer for the John Edwards campaign. Senator Edwards came in second. I had a marvelous time; meeting many wonderful people, including John and Elizabeth Edwards. They are the real thing. I am now back to acting.