Friday, May 30, 2008

ON ACTING: 'Build'

A 'build' refers to the increasing flow of human emotion/energy that a character must/will expend into his/her successive attempts to achieve his/her goal.

Winners want to win; easily and early. So each character in a scene initially engages with a limited amount of energy in the beginning initial foray, or tactical effort of the scene. But when they don't win easily, quickly, cheaply against their adversary (the conflicual reality which creates a long scene), the actors-as-characters are forced to re-assess (this is sub-conscious, or at least sub-cognitive) before re-committing to the engagement with a greater effort.

And each time they re-assess (called a transition), and then subsequently re-commit (called a beat), they do so at increasing expenditures of effort/emotion/energy. They 'up the ante', as it were, playing each subsequent roll of the dice or playing of a card with increasing (and one could argue 'deeper' force); thereby ever increasing the character's emotional stakes, his/her expended intensity in the conflictual effort.

However, it is important to realize that a growth of intensity always occurs in the 'build' of an emotionally honest scene, but not necessarily the intensity's volume, pitch, pace; which may or may not increase, or diminish, or remain the same. It is the intensity that always increases in a 'build'. That's where the climax of the scene comes from: as in life, the increasing intensity--whether manifested loud or soft, high or low, fast or slow--finally gets relieved by the climactic resolution of the scene.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

ON ACTING: Making Mistakes

Acting a character is stepping into the shoes of people who make mistakes. It is enacting characters who go up wrong doors when chasing the criminal, who fall in love with people who betray them and leave them.

To act carefully on stage or onscreen is counterproductive. Audiences love heroes who get wounded and killed; and fools who impulsively run into situations without thinking first. Fools and actors rush in where angels fear to tread. Characters you are playing may TRY to be reasonable, TRY to anticipate dilemmas, TRY to be sane, TRY to avoid tragedy or comedy...but they 99 out of 100 times they fail. Only a the end of two hours does one of them win.

So actors IN THEIR WORK must be prepared to take emotional risks, love, hate, be sad and confused--to make mistakes--more than the average reasonable person in average reasonable everyday life.

Impulsive behavior, not overly successful rationality, is the name of the acting game. All acting emotional training (whether for a scene or a career) is simply preparing the actor to achieve that blessedly confused, imbalanced state of emotional disarray.

It should not be difficult for actors to achieve. After all, they chose to be actors in the first place (right Mom and Dad?).

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

ON ACTING: Tri-Part Structure

Scenes, like life, which all acting must imitate, have a beginning, a middle and and end. They are born, they grow and they die. Ideas are introduced, they are expanded upon and they conclude--always resulting in new knowledge. Topics are established, debated and resolved; an initiating event happens, a complication occurs and a (new) resolution (and new emotional state) is achieved.

There is in every good scene a sense of inevitable growth and change, the dynamic progression from beginning to middle to end; A>B>C is an essential structural component in all scenes; it makes them ordered, dramatically compressed and audience-identifiably rhythmic...and hence exciting to the audience.

Good writing inevitably has structure. So when analyzing a scene (and preparing to perform it) the actor is charged to find the beginning, middle and end of it; the introduction, the engagement and the resolution...and the change to which that leads.

Good acting requires no less.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The purpose of acting is to grant the audience the ecstasy of recognition.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

ON ACTING: 'Owning' Dialogue

The casting director had gathered several actors into the room. She was looking for a 'host' to introduce a reality show. The dialogue was written on cue card in front of the camera. She told the actors that when they read the dialogue into the camera, they should "own the dialogue". What did she mean by that?

She meant that she wanted the auditioning actors to say the lines as the actor's own. The lines were no longer the writer's. They were the actors. The words were now meaningful to the actor himself; they told the actor's story, as it were. The words were a reflection of the actor's own personality. The actor was now the character, the words were now the actor's. To 'own' dialogue is to utter the dialogue as the actor's own personal expression..

We buy a dress or suit. Someone else may have made it. But once it is purchased, it is ours; it is worn by us; to express us. When we are hired as an actor, and given dialogue, we say, "Thank you, writer, for giving me these words to express myself. It's exactly what I would have said. You and I feel and think exactly the same. You may have written it. But you have been paid off; I own it.

Actors: Do your best at all times. A career is cumulative.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

ON ACTING: Eradicating Wasted Motion

"How do I tame myself; learn to rid myself of unspecified, unnecessary motion?"

Economy follows purpose. Notice that most of us don't wander about, meandering to and fro, when crossing a street. We sense the cost if we tarry (we will get hit by a car, bump into other people which will delay us, etc.!) so we move directly across the street; only moving sideways or pausing, incurring necessary non-direct movements. It is analygous to a football player with football in hand heading toward the goal line, moving to and fro only to the degree that such movements serve his purpose of scoring.

Good acting follows the same paradigm: we aim to get to the other side of the scene (winning the conflict with the other character) as expeditiously as possible and at minimum cost to energy and motion.

The human body is built for economy. Your term, "unnecessary, unspecified motion" is just that: Wasted motion encourages cost. It is a profligate expenditure.

Then why do we do it? Why do we move unproductively about, "untamed" as you say, through a scene, wasting movement and energy that could otherwise be excitingly harnessed into bold verbal and physical statements?

Because we are afraid: afraid of 'us versus traffic', afraid, as it were, of ourselves and our ability to judge the 'flow of human vehicles' in the scene. We are afraid of 'crashes', the emotion the scene causes in us, the very personal commitment good, honest acting requires of our emotions. So instead of moving forward, we move about, we fidget, we meander...anything but confront the issue head on. "Unnecessary, unspecified motion" is a form of procrastination (which is a product of fear); it arises when we refuse to confront the conflictual task before us, and its challenge for us to move firmly, directly, tactically through the other characters in the scene toward our goals.

How do we get rid of the fear? We learn to face our emotions through personal understanding, and by using our emotions over and over on stage, moving our bodies and voices ever forward instead of sideways, never back, we learn to enjoy the challenge of conflict, we accept and learn to enjoy the emotions conflictual behavior produces, and we learn how to channel that emotion into purposeful, tamed, necessary...and economical...motion. Emotion felt onstage or set only hurts for a little while. Believe me, it'll never kill you.

Friday, May 16, 2008

ON ACTING: Confronting a Bad Script

He asked: "How do you deal with bad writing?"

How do you overcome a mediocre wardrobe when that's the only clothes available to you and you're havng to go to a party ? An exciting person can wear anything. It's really not about the clothes, is it? It's about the person wearing the clothes.

The task in preparing to perform in a script with bad writing is: how do I not let bad writing--substandard plot; poor dialogue; etc--inhibit me, negatively affect my acting? Bad writing is of course a hidrance--that's why playing Shakespeare is so wonderful: you can just give over to his plot and conflict and let the dialogue carry you to express the rich fullness of the emotional reality of the character.

But bad writing should not panic you. It should be accepted as a challenge. A great actor can play an exciting love scene just counting from one to ten; and back again. Believe me, I've done the exercise in class, and if the actor is seductive enough, the other person on the receiving end is not entranced by the words (or in this case, the numbers) but by the emotional quality of the seduction. Great lovers do not always chant poetry!

When confronted with with bad writing, analyze the character and plot, find the deepest and richest humanity the scriptwriter would have expressed if they had the talent. Ask yoursef: what was it the bad writer was trying to reach for in his/her bad script--after all, he/she s writing about human beings, and human beings have unlimited possibilities--embrace those possibilites as your performance reality, and let logic and emotional truth of the human conflict and human character carry you through the performance...and the bad plotting and dialogue.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

ON ACTING: The Same Roles

Why do actors get bored playing the same role over and over again?

Acting--which is life in a special context--is ultimately and best a journey to self-discovery. Plato said: "Self-discovery is greatest conquest." Each role we play asks us the question--demands: "What side of me do you require today?" And when and if the answer is: "I want the same side of you as I required yesterday, and probably the day(s) before that", we, as actors, grow bored. We want to map new rivers, explore the undiscovered self, experience our less experienced possibilities. Who wants to chart the same river; take the top off the same emotional box; reveal the same present each day of the year?

Living a life of repetition is why artists often flee bureaucracy, why we rebel against the arena of rules and certainty; why we often avoid at all costs the certainty of nine-to-five-five-days-a week jobs. Artists would rather starve than miss exploring the impenetrable depths and unknown breadth of art and self.

So when art (a role) asks us to do the same thing over and over again, to be repetetive scientists as it repeat a known and unyielding physical fact or formula of ourselves, we balk, flee into boredom (numbing our reality).

OR: if and when that rebellion fails, we tell our agent to ask for a hell of a lot more money for the next year of the series!!!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

ON ACTING: Emotion Precedes Logic

From author Megan McArdle in her article 'Body Counting', in "The Atlantic" magazine, the April, 2008 issue:

"Indeed, some research indicates that the emotion precedes, and governs the higher cognition-that logic is, literally, an afterthought [italics mine]."

Megan, a good actor could have told you that as well: feeling initiates dialogue (logic). Dialogue arises from how the character feels; which arises from how a character sensory registers events as s/he proceeds toward a goal, which arises from his/her imbalanced reservoir of past-created emotional needs.

Which is simply to say that human life proceeds initially from emotional needs (seeking goals), and operationally by the mechanism of the simple nerve cell configuration: stimulus, synapse, response. The process is as follows: We want some goal (to rectify the past as recorded in our emotional imbalances); we (1) touch, taste, smell, hear and see the world around us, the tangible reality which contains possible goal-fulfillment, (2) these received stimuli activate the synaptic gap of feeling (creating registered meaning), and (3) we act, we motor respond (inwardly by thinking, outwardly by speaking and moving and handling artifacts) according to those feelings. As one can see: in this process of formulating all positive human activity (and evolutionarily speaking as well), the seat of logic, the brain, is secondary (or actually tertiary) to the more primary activity of feeling.

Friday, May 09, 2008

New Idea

Repeated on Cliff Osmond Unedited:

(New York apartment. Nicely furnished living room. KNOCKING at the door. Insistent. After a pause, KRISTEN, twenty-six years of age, wrapped in a Terry cloth robe, exhibiting a personality somewhere between cuddly and gorgeous, spaced and brilliant, enters the living room, heads for the front door, as......KIRK, twenty-seven years of age, prematurely grey, comes bursting in.)

KIRK: Where have you been?
KRISTEN: In the bathroom...
(He starts to enter the bathroom.)
KRISTEN: ...washing my dirty bra and six old panties.
(He pauses.)
KIRK: Robert said you threatened suicide...
KRISTEN: I threatened to kill him. As usual he got the message wrong.
KIRK: You punched him.
KRISTEN: I threw a wad of paper at him. My hand forgot to open. (Beat) All right. I fell asleep, mouth on penis. I woke up nauseous. Vomited. He exhibited no compassion. So I hit him.
(He relaxes, notices the top of her head.)
KIRK: You need a dye job.
KRISTEN: Color job.
(He sits on the couch. She sits beside him.)
KIRK: You’ve broken up with five different men in eight months.
KRISTEN: Seven men in four months.
KIRK: You physically fight with all of them.
KRISTEN: Is that sick or what?
KIRK: Very.
KRISTEN: Hungry?
KIRK: Very.
(His cell phone RINGS. He answers it. She heads to the kitchen.)
KIRK: Another half hour. Order me a bowl of gazpacho. It's already cold. You’re right. I am very insensitive. I don’t care about your tears…unless you cry them into my Gazpacho and throw off the salt content.
(She returns with some crackers and cheese.)
KIRK: Debbie told me she wants out.
KRISTEN: Then why is she crying.
KIRK: I took the ring back.
(They start nibbling on the crackers.)
KRISTEN: How’s teaching?
KRK: Finito in June.
KRISTEN: I thought they offered you tenure.
KIRK: I refused.
KIRK: Because I hate teaching.
KRISTEN: How can you hate teaching? You’re loved by your students. Respected. Admired. You meander tree-lined streets, walk past ivy covered walls, spend your days with growing young minds. ..
KIRK: I teach sixth grade in the Bronx.
(She moves closer to him.)
KRISTEN: Dad called. Will you cry for me when I depart?
KIRK: If you grow up like your Mom...yes.
KRISTEN: He wants to come live with me.
KIRK: He’s a sweet man.
KRISTEN: My sex life will be over.
KIRK: Less vomiting.
(She lays her head on his shoulder.)
KRISTEN: I like Debbie.
KIRK: Hour glass figure. Independently wealthy. Cleans windows. Cooks vegan. Likes sex. What’s not to like?
KRISTEN: Boorrring!
KIRK: Why did you fall asleep under Robert last night?
KRISTEN: On him.
KIRK: That’s not the point...
KRISTEN: Very small penis. Almost inverted.I forgot he was there. (Beat) I have a very large mouth. You know that. (Beat) The vodka numbed me. (Beat) I’d never fell asleep on you.
KIRK: Twice.
KRISTEN: Both times deserved. You fell asleep first. (Beat) Remember pulling the top of my bathing suit down in the grammar school pool?
KRISTEN: You don’t remember one of the most pivotal events of my life?
KIRK: There was very little to remember, if I remember.
(She starts to open her Terry cloth robe.)
KRISTEN: There’s lots more now.
(He tries to stop her.)
(He stands up; she reaches for him.)
KIRK: NO...We’ve been doing this for ten years...ever since we both came to New York. I have great sympathy. Your mother walked out on your father two years ago. I’m sorry. Your father is sad and inconsolable. I’m sorry. The size of Robert’s penis makes you nauseous. I’m sorry. But no more. We live together. We break up. We find new people. We break up with them. We get back together again. (Beat) In a city of ten million people, there’s got to be somebody else to fall in love with. Besides, my soup is getting cold. Warm.
(He exits, SLAMMING the front door. She shouts after him.)
KRISTEN: You’ll miss me! You’ll see!
(He doesn’t return. Kristen goes into the bathroom. After a long pause, Kirk comes crashing through the door again. He runs across the room, enters the bathroom; and exits with Kristen in tow; a bottle of open pills in his hand.)
KIRK: Spit them out Kristen! God damn it! Spit them out!!!
(He starts walking her back and forth across the floor.)
KIRK: How many have you already taken? How many? I knew it! You never let your roots go that grey! (He flips open his cell phone.) Operator...I need to report a suicide attempt...One forty-six East Nineteenth. Apartment 106 ...what?! What do you mean 'in Pakistani'?! Get me your supervisor! (beat) Hello. (Beat) Suicide attempt. One forty six East Nineteenth. Apartment one-oh-six! She’s my...She’s my...JUST SEND THE FUCKING AMBULANCE!!! (He hangs up.)

(He continues walking her. He lapses into unconsciousness. He SLAPS her. She awakens long enough to SLAP him in retaliation, then slips back into unconsciousness.)

ON ACTING: The Tactics of Winners; or, "Why Variety is the Spice of Life"

Variety in performance arises from the natural actions of naturally committed winners: a committed winner never stays with a losing tactic long. If a scene (by definition a conflict) continues past a line of dialogue or two, it is because both contestants have not found the fulfillment of victory...and they have decided to continue to expend energy to win.

If the characters are courageous and smart contestants, they will not stay with a losing tactic (emotional attack) long. They will try an initial tactic; if it and when fails (as it continually does in a long scene: a long scene is a priori an unresolved scene), they will naturally move on to the next tactic/emotion.

The scene will be: 'Here's my anger, now let me win'; that fails, 'Here's my sadness, now let me win'; that fails, 'Here's my sexiness, now let me win', that fails, etc.

Therefore, if an actor seeks variety (of emotions; of emotional revelation)in a performance ('variety is the spice of life'...and makes a performance interesting), the two mantras that should guide a good actor are: (1) always seek to win; and (2) have the openness, intelligence, courage and ability to change tactics/emotional- attack throughout.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

ON ACTING: Indulging Pain: Another Form of Bad Acting

When I see an actor "acting up a storm", acting in an emotionally self-indulgent manner--for example, delivering a long speech, or even a line of dialogue, in a 'painful', unremittingly, constant, agonizing emotional manner (while emitting vocally a long, one-note cry of pain and anguish--what Shakespeare refers to, critically, I might add, as "tearing a passion to tatters"), I am always reminded of one of my all-night 'advisory' or 'comforting' session in coffee houses with a tortured, troubled friend. I would sit with the sufferer with great sympatico, offering comfort, understanding and balm, often until 3 AM, thereby forgoing a good night or two sleep, until, at a certain point, a night or two later, I would grow weary of his bewailing fate. I would finally say: "Look, if it were that bad, you'd do something about it. You'd leave your husband (or quit the job, get a face lift, etc)." My pity had snapped . I became a cold-hearted advocate of the logic of survival: create positive action to deal with ongoing pain.

The human system is structured to take remedial action when pain is very bad; even more when the pain lingers and becomes unremitting. (Even a state of shock, which is the body moving into sensory obliviousness, is an attempt at solution. The in-shock body, in its survival mode, is actively sending off electrical signals and chemical impulses to program the body's receptors and neurons to block the registering of pain: i.e., tune out the normal stimulus/synapse/response system. Catatonia is a positive problem-solving action to deal with pain!)

So when no solving action is undertaken in performance by the actor-as-character under the obviously felt (or at least expressed) pain, when there is no tactical change in his flow of agonized vocal emotion, one could reasonably assume the the system (the actor's system, which is expressing pain without any attempt at solution) has decided pain is tolerable; or worse, enjoyable; or worse the actor is manifesting the erroneous idea that proper acting is a noun-state, a statically emotional state rather than a dynamic verb, an active condition of doing (at least trying to do) something positive, productive, about one's aggrieving emotional life.

To return to a mantra cited earlier in these blog postings: An actor, when in pain, should try to end the pain: "Don't suffer, solve; don't whine, win; don't complain, convince." Otherwise the audience will grow as impatient as I did with my moaning late-night friends.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

ON ACTING: Energy/Emotion Expenditure

The student asked me: "How much energy should I put out in performance?"

I responded: "As much emotional energy as you (as the character) really feels and is necessary to accomplish your (the character's) task of obtaining your objective through the other person.

"Granted, in order to be exciting, all actors must live at a level of intense inner emotional energy. In fact, the best actors are by nature--and nurture (training and role preparation)--intensely involved in the moment of performance. Their inner actor-as-character strings are stretched taut, prepared to be stricken by the events of the scene intensely, to make the deepest emotional music.

"But how loud the resultant sound, how much energy/sound the instrument puts out at any given moment (in acting or in music), is dependent upon how hard the instrument is hit--and how sensitive its essential vibratory nature.

"Human energy (and, for that matter, emotion) is not a throw-away item. Humans are not by nature energy profligate or spendthrift. They are economical; they spend a scarce resource--energy--carefully, and only in the amount that survival requires. Just like people who spend money too profligately are soon 'broke'/poor/without-resources, so too humans who have spent their emotional/energy unwisely will soon be broke.

"Human nature has learned by necessity to expend just sufficient energy to accomplish a task. Thus, we humans do not--unless we are wasteful, profligate (or bad actors)--push a feather as if it were an elephant; or to shout in a scene when the listener seems very attentive and agreeable. Only bad actors expend unnecessary energy (emotion). A good actor, in order to obey the laws of nature (which is required always--in order to be real), feels/senses/measures unconsciously, moment-by-moment, through his/her sensory apparatus how much resistance the other character in a scene is expending toward him, and adjusts his return efforts accordingly. A good actor releases just enough energy as it necessary to accomplish the task. A good actor thereby creates intense operational tactics with proportionality and elegance and economy.

"SO: How much energy should an actor put out in performance? ANSWER: Let your human emotional/energy system decide, as it listens and looks at the other character in the scene, and it sub-consciously (and emotionally/energistically) responds.

A taut wire (an exciting, open instrument) is the proper metaphor for a good actor; and, you, the good actor, plays the scene, let your response (the musical force you play) be dictated by the received stimuli of the scene; as you overcome the resistance of your opposition and your instrument apportions your energy expenditure accordingly."

Saturday, May 03, 2008

ON ACTING: Emotion and Language

The object of language is not--as many actor erroneously believe and portray in their performance--the simple release of emotion. Emotional release is a secondary bi-product of dialogue; emotion transfigured into the purposeful action of language is primary. Language is the encasement of emotion into the projectile of logic; it is a spoken bullet fueled by the gun powder of emotion by which we humans attempt penetrate the brains of other human beings to get them to see things our way. The purpose of language is to change others behavior if it is antithetical (measured by prior emotion) to our needs; or to encourage them to continue their behavior (measured by prior emotion) if it is beneficial to us.

Language is emotion's tactic; it the explosion of a gun triggered by purpose and fueled by the gun powder of emotion. In good acting, as in effective gun firing, the loud bang of emotion is not the primary purpose of the firing, but the corollary and revealed result. Emotion is both the source and the revealed bi-product of the targeted action of spoken language.