Tuesday, April 29, 2008

ON ACTING: Diving Into Deep Waters

Actors: To create a performance only from what you know in advance of the start of performance, a performance that is only restricted to your prior knowledge of ourself, from your analysis of the script, or for that matter, from your knowledge of humanity in general, is to create a shallow performance; it is to move too carefully into life's shallow wading pool instead of the depths of the uncharted human emotional ocean.

An actor's intellectual analysis and understanding of character is only the beginning of the actor's task; prior conscious knowledge is only the diving board from whence the greater pool in performance will be experienced. Prepare for your role, disect your character rigorously, intelligently, bring all your knowledge to bear, and then, when they raise the curtain, or you hear them yell 'action'...dive...and be driven by the scene out and down, deeply, to the limits of your existential waters.

They say there are as many cells in the body as there are stars in the universe. When you lauhch into performance, you should allow youself to be launched into the deepest unknown of yourself, both conscious and unconscious, into your living depths--and heights. That act of danger, that courageous act of performance self-discovery, is your ultimate contibution to your art and the audience's humanity. Without losing your conscious control in performance you risk becoming only an artisan, and your performance becoming mere furniture.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Knowledge is prelude to action

The student actor had studied for many years. She knew everything about acting, she had analyzed it backwards and forwards. She was pleased with her studies. She felt there was nothing more to learn. She was now an actor, she said. She was leaving class. I told her she had one more thing to learn before becoming an actor.

She was startled.

I told her the story of the man who had been with a psychiatrist for over ten years, visiting the doctor twice a week. At the end of that time the patient knew himself thoroughly. He knew his obsessions, his desires, his childhood traumas and his fears. He proclaimed himself finished with the psychiatric process. The psychiatrist agreed; then: "You are only half done." "Half done? What is there more to learn? I know everything about myself." "Yes," the psychiatrist agreed. You have nothing more to learn. But you must go out and live. Otherwise all your insights are for naught."

So, too with acing: Acting is a verb, not a noun; It means 'to do''. It is a dynamic living experience, not an inert body of knowledge. To understand without doing is to remain without understanding.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

ON ACTING: "Interdependence"

A properly performing actor accepts that s/he can only achieve their objective--the ultimate character raison d'etre in a scene--THROUGH the other person. The other character--and the other character alone--contains the possibility of your character's success; therefore the other person must be listened to, looked at, evaluated, and responded to; scored upon, hit (with words and deeds), made to capitulate, defeated. And all this interaction must happen as in life...on a moment to moment, sub-aware level.

The other person controls your character's fate. The other person is the primary playing field through which each character must move through in order to secure victory.

Actors often inadequately act by disobeying this fundamental obligation of character interdependence. They are bad actors. Watching them is like watching a tennis match with a brick wall between participants: each contestant on opposite ends of the court manifesting wonderful tennis shots, perhaps, brilliant lobs, cross-court volleys, but those shots, those non-interdependent efforts, hit a wall, each player isolated in his own world, playing the game narcissistically between himself and himself.

It would be like seeing a boxing match between two fighters who never engage, who only shadow box with themselves. We wait for the referee to say: "Make a fight, boys." Or like watching two basketball teams who remain on the opposite ends of a court, never engaging, never driving through their opponents to the opposite basket. The audience would soon look at each other, as if to say: "When's the game going to start?"

It takes two to tango; it takes two to box--and it takes two (or more) to act interdependently. To act without interdependence, to act in isolation, reacting only to oneself, is the actor's equivalent of masturbation; an act which often feels like the real thing, but nothing ever has been created that way.

Friday, April 25, 2008

ON ACTING: Achieving Full Audience Character Identification

The student said:

"As I understand it, my chore as an actor is enable the audience to identify (emotionally connect) with my character--to enable the audience to achieve, as one author phrased it, the 'ecstasy of emotional [self] recognition'.

"My dilemma: How can that identification possibly happen with every character I play? Let's say I play an old man, or a pregnant mother, or even a mentally challenged teenager, how can audience members who are NOT old men, pregnant women or mentally-challenged teenagers identify with my character performance? Where is the audience self-recognition possible in that?"

I responded:

"Aristotle provides the answer. His philosophy, stated simply, is that only by delving so deeply and thoroughly in the particulars of physical life can transcendent, or universal, truth be known.

"So the actor who wishes to create a character performance (be it old man, pregnant mother or mentally challenged teen-ager) that can achieve universal audience recognition or identification must delve deeply in his/her own particular self (as-defined-by-character, of course). Beneath the particulars of the character he/she is performing, at the bottom of his own/her own particulars, beyond age, beyond gender, beyond mental capability lies the universal human truth; and the universally identifiable aspects of the performance.

"To achieve total audience recognition/identification, the actor-as-character must live his/her life onstage or in film in that deepest emotional condition possible. Because it is there, at that deepest level of human feeling and interaction, beneath the particulars, that actors-as-characters and audience members alike become common-experiencing human beings, and are able to share an identifiable common origin and common destiny. At that level all humans face the same existential rigors of life, death, permanence and meaning, and share in common the emotional shocks that these questions/rigors created in our existence.

"So: my character may be pregnant, but the particular rejection my character may face by the abandonment of the baby's father, may, in the story, be the abandonment of a woman by a man, a mother by her mate, but it is also, at some deeper level, the abandonment felt BY US ALL by the loss of any loved one, mother,father, sister, brother; and even--one could argue--the abandonment of our existence to a random and inevitable form of human change--death--that few seek to have thrust on them but all will experience.

"So when the actor-as-character moves emotionally in this manner, from the particular to the universal, beyond the social and psychological particulars of the role to resonate through those particulars the deepest philosophical echoes of our common humanity, at that point, universal recognition and identification is not only possible, it is inevitable."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Art and Hope

From a commentary by Mike Boehm in the LA Times, October 14, 2007 RE sports heroes; comparing Barry Levinson's and Robert Redford's uplifting film "The Natural" with the far more grittier book upon it was based, written by Bernard Malamud:

"What we take from [the book] 'The Natural' is that decent enough people can give in to temptation; that they repeat mistakes instead of learning from them; that the fear of appearing to be vulnerable, flawed and old is a damaging fear of what's unavoidably human; that wonders ever cease; and that this is all very sad."

Little wonder Barry Levinson (the writer/director of the film version) changed the ending, making Redford's character in the film a hero who conquers. Do we really want to know Malamud's deeper, darker, perhaps 'truer' truth? Isn't there a good reason why we 'kill the messenger'?

On some level art must convert truth into hope...else it ceases to be art, and only remains fact. The truth is all human beings are specks of sand on a larger speck of sand floating through an infinite universe. Do you want to face that fact every time you go to the movies, or read a book?

Monday, April 07, 2008

ON ACTING: The Necessity of Logic

A dramatic or comedic character, by the nature of his involvement in drama, may operate irrationally (making emotionally excessive choices that defy good reason), but a character can never make excessive choices that are illogical (defy the physics of human behavior).

Even the character decisions of a psychopathic or sociopath character must be consistent with human logic (albeit his or her own). After all, they are crazy humans; but not crazy non-humans. Human and character consistency is the hallmark of the writing craft...and the acting craft.

Without inherent--and consistent--human logic in the creative process, the possibility of dramatic identification by an audience will be impossible. To elicit and maintain audience believability and involvement from the beginning to the end of a dramatic piece, even the incredible must be made credible by the good writer and/or the good actor.

The good writer and good actor can approach their character analysis by thinking 'off the wall' creatively, but the wall must still be in the human room; they can think creatively 'out of the box', but their thinking--and resultant written and acting actions--must still be according to the inherent logic of the human box.

Sunday, April 06, 2008


From a recent New Yorker article quoting dress designer Rick Owens:

"Picasso did classic figure drawings in the begnning, and then, after that, he abstracted...You can't convincingly get abstract until the know the fundamentals [italics mine]. It is the same thing with pattern making [and I would add, acing]. You can't start distorting things unless you kind of know what you're doing."

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

ON ACTING: Play the solution, not the problem.

One of the most egregious errors made by often well intentioned but inexperienced actors is playing the problem; or actively stimulating an emotional condition from within. For example, a man is held at knife point; the character is logically frightened...so the actor 'plays' the fear, trembles in horror, directly acting (auto-stimulating) the condition, or problem.

True, this problem/condition of immobilizing fear is a proper emotion to feel. But the actor should never PLAY the emotion on their own; nor. worse, as an end in itself: actively seeking on one's own to be afraid. Think of fear happens in life, as imposed to bad acting: (1) fear is is generated from without; fear is uncomfortable; it is unwanted; it is forced on the character from the stimulating outer fact of the pointed knife; (2) that condition of fear, created and unwanted by the character (who logically wants to feel anything but fear) is converted into an action (such as an intense focus on the knife and trying to find a corrective to that condition, or problem). And in the attempt at finding a solution to the condition ('How do I stop the person from stabbing me?, for example') the action-generating condition (fear) will naturally, inadvertently and automatically be revealed. Character will be revealed in action (rather than in an auto-stimulating, self generating, and unnatural--bad acting--manner).