Friday, October 31, 2008

ON ACTING: Words/Dialogue

A good actor uses words in a performance as an athlete uses instrumentality of whatever game he is playing: a tennis player brings his racket and tennis balls to a game, a football player brings footballs and a helmet, a baseball player brings a baseball and bat. Words are the actor/warrior's weapon de combat.

Ultimately, like any warriors' armament, words' final specific use will be determined by the reality of the stimuli/synapse/action flow of the game itself.

While the actor enters the scene with perhaps some some general idea of the subsequent flow of the game, like the football coach may have a list of plays written on a clipboard in anticipation of the game, the primary factor the actor must concern herself with is studying and knowing (after memorizing) the words of the text: what is the idea being expressed here? What is the logic inherent in the words? What is the thought I am trying to convey to the other character; what idea am I trying to convince my opponent in the scene is proper and right for him/her to believe...always remembering to leave the exact use of the words (tone, rhythm, pace, etc.--impelled by spontaneous feeling) for the game itself.

Monday, October 27, 2008

ON ACTING: The Everyday-Balanced Person Model of Character Development and Storytelling

One very common model of storytelling in drama begins with the everyday-balanced-person. When the story opens, the central character is a human universe at rest, equilibrium set: happily married; or good job; overall content with life. The central character's emotional teeter-totter is poised at the fulcrum.

But soon (most film writing theorists suggest by page 10 in the script) that balance is disrupted by an untoward event, an initiating crisis: the murder of a love one, a false arrest by the authorities, or the visit by a space alien.

The emotionally balanced teeter-totter is now thrown off. Seriously tilted, the disturbing emotions caused by the crisis begin to dominate the hero's emotional life. The rest of the story is the character’s attempt to re-assert balance on life's fulcrum by accomplishing a corrective objective: find the murderer, establish one’s innocence, and see the alien successfully off to her home planet and ease the emotional disquiet…and set the character's personal world and feelings in order again: through plot resolve and emotional homeostasis.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

ON ACTING: The Bad Actor and Emotional Self-Stimulation

There is the story of a married couple who had been married twenty five very long years. They were in bed having their obligatory once a month sexual rendezvous. It is a warm evening. They’re tired, but they are dutifully committed to the joint venture.

Ten minutes pass; twenty. They’re working very hard. Nothing; soon both are covered with perspiration. Ten more minutes; fifteen, a half hour; the windows are frosted with their efforts. Both are exhausted. They both stop, look at each other. “Can’t you think of anyone else either?”

They remind me of actors who interrupt the natural flow of a scene, the normal rhythmic pattern of reality--stimulus, synapse, response--to auto-stimulate or self-induce heightened emotion through the self-application of an actor’s emotional activation techniques. I also see an image of a football player who, while running toward the line of scrimmage with the ball, suddenly stops, falls to the ground, indulges in a few push-ups, strengthening his ability to bounce off upcoming would-be tacklers before continuing.

The football crowd would shake their heads in amazement; so, too, an audience watching an acting performance which stops for emotional stimulation.

Applying tricks, techniques or exercises mid-scene (or mid-sex or mid-football game) as a last resort--is perhaps acceptable as a salvage effort on behalf of a desperately emotionless marriage, but resuscitating an exhausted running back or stimulating emotion in an acting performance that is here-to-fore emotionless is bad acting. Better if participants find newly renewed energy and emotional involvement from the sights and sounds of the people in the game they are playing.

Auto-stimulation may feel like the real thing, but, nothing ‘real’ ever has been created that way. It is a form of auto-eroticism; while perhaps pleasurable for the actor to indulge, is extremely unappealing to watch. Auto-stimulation is an amateur form of acting: well intentioned at times, often energetically pursued, and, like most things inherently self-absorbed, inimical to an exciting life; therefore ultimately self-defeating on stage or on screen.

Friday, October 24, 2008

ON ACTING: The Specificity of Feeling

I was driving a car one from my home to the studio and I was paused at a red light. I thought of my long dead father. As often happens in my daily life, the acting teacher came alive in me. (I am always looking for acting/life insights. Life is my textbook cum lab. It’s cheap and always at hand.) Why, I thought, at that moment, did I think of my father? Why not an hour before, or a day before? In fact, why at all; and even most specifically, why now?
My father’s birth date was six month’s previously, my son or daughter had not recently called me, it was not Father’s Day, yet on that day, at that moment, I had this sudden, very vivid image of my father--followed quickly by a profusion of father-son feelings. Why?
I started to shrug the event off, thinking it was just some general feeling (‘nothing specific’ I thought to myself); when suddenly I remembered: the moment before I had stolen a quick glance to my left, at the car and driver stopped next to me. I looked there again; and there it was…the specific answer as to why I was thinking about my father. The driver in the other car looked exactly like my father, including skin pigment, hair style and hair color. His ethnicity was my father’s…and mine. Obviously the specific facial image of the driver had triggered the specific, albeit unconscious, emotion and subsequent thought of my father. My father feelings were engendered specifically by my sense of the matter how unaware I may have been of the actual inner process.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

ON ACTING: Presentational; or Emotionless Acting

There is a school of thought that holds that the truest form of acting is non-representational; unreal, in our emotional terms—‘presentational’ as it were--acting without the actor’s emotional involvement. This body of opinion holds that best aesthetic acting form is created devoid of the performer’s emotional investment. They feel that emotion clouds actor’s (and writer’s) itellectual truth. (The contemporary writer/director David Mamet often instructs the actor to just ‘say his words’, fast, unimpeded by pauses and emotional involvement.)
Some contemporary advocates and devotees of Asian acting styles underscore their ‘presentational’ aspects as well. They see formal Asian styles of acting as a welcome antithetical relief to the European tradition of ‘realistic’ or emotionally involved acting, where form and substance have been traditionally symbiotically co-created.

However: Is Asian acting necessarily devoid of emotional base? Perhaps with its formal abstraction and construction it just seems non-emotionally based to Westerners. A Haiku poem may have only seventeen syllables; but does its rigidity of form necessarily preclude great passion in its genesis and transference? For that matter, is abstract dance—Eastern or Western—fundamentally emotionless? And if it not emotionally based, might we argue that it has less overall audience appeal than emotionally based dance?

The German playwright Bertolt Brecht, in the early twentieth century, after a few emotional representational plays written in his youth, and then deeply affected by the Asian theater forms, called for a ‘theater of alienation,’ where the actor’s performance—and audience--was alienated from its own emotions. (His theories went hand in hand with his political conversion to and his didactic desire to promulgate an East German brand of Marxism.) He saw the actor’s task to preach rather than to emotionally participate in any character-reality. He became convinced that the actor served the audience best by physically performing the actions of the piece in an instructive fashion, without emotional content. (Ironically, some critics say that he succeeded best in spite of himself: many of his most audience pleasing successes have been a result of audience’s emotionally connecting with his central characters, such as in the plays Mother Courage, The Good Woman of Setzuan and The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The audience learns his didactic message though feeling—emotional identification with the characters--and not simply his preaching!)

Some modern academic theorists also take great exception with what they see as the over-emphasis in modern acting on emotional reality, especially as it flows from Stanislavski to Strasberg to film. They call for a rewarding investigation into alternative styles and acting forms, with a greater emphasis on Asian and other art forms, in shape, design, body and theatricality sans emotion.
I dutifully respect their efforts; but I encourage their adherents, especially young actors who in their career, out of principle, desire, or formal training, want to emphasize the practice and performance of ‘presentational’ acting to study and practice ‘representational’ emotionally involved acting as well.

After all, the best ‘presentational’ actors must have an intimate experience with truth if they are to give it formal emotional-less shape later on. Then later, those actors who were only experimenting with 'represetational' emotion-based acting can always go back to his earlier, unemotionally involved acting: and measure the difference.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

ON ACTING: Why 'whining' repels an audience

‘Whining’ is an unappealing passive-aggressive tactic organized to induce guilt. We tolerate that tactic in children. Children are impotent. They can’t change parents.
But in adults, such whining repels rather than attracts.
It’s not co-incidental that whining produces an unappealing tone of voice. The sound of whining reflects its falseness: the whiners discomfort doesn’t really hurt as much as the ‘whiner’ is making it sound. The over-expression of lesser felt pain is primary to the guilt-induction process.
When the actor truly, honestly feels deep pain, she logically attempts solve the problem...and the voice drops in tone. It ceases to manifest the whiny sound. It becomes fuller, richer…and attractive.
The air escapes from the diaphragm, and not from a tensed chest. Words escape through the mouth rather than the nose. Shakespeare’s admonition to actors: “…don’t “spake i’ [speak in] the nose thus,” is happily avoided.

Friday, October 10, 2008

ON ACTING: Feeling; then Plot

Most people, when confronted with a new task…and the inevitable insecurity a new task stimulates…move to their personal strength to deal with it. So when an actor is given a new script, he logically goes where he is most psychologically comfortable: feeling over fact, character over plot. Most actors choose a career in acting because they are initially pre-disposed toward feeling. They enter the field anticipating that emotion is the primary requirement in the actor’s art, and they respond accordingly.
Modernity reinforces this tendency. The Twentieth Century has sometimes been called the “Age of Psychology”. Sigmund Freud sat next to Einstein, Hitler, Churchill, Gandhi, Stalin and Marx and the other giants in the pantheon of Twentieth Century Gods (in polytheism, not all Gods are good Gods…some are mischievous; some outright mean). That century’s orientation toward the psychological past, ferreting out present truth from past experience, discovering what made us who and what we are, focusing on the repositories of our prior life, the events and people which have formed, molded and guided our present behavior, is central in modern thought.
And American actors are nothing if they are not ‘of today’. They are as caught up as their contemporaries with Western society’s preoccupation with the personal past: human life as an emotional storehouse’s of prior experience, a result of ‘what Mommy and Daddy did to me’. Humans are self-viewed as helplessly if not hopelessly waiting to be molded by the press and pressure of past and present events to a pre-programmed future. It is a deterministic expression of will-less-ness...and inevitably leads the actor to face feeling first, then plot.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

ON ACTING: Playing Oneself

There are some actors, especially film actors, who are criticized for 'only being themselves' in every role: “Oh, Tom Cruise, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Robert Redford…all they play are themselves. They are not as good as Alec Guinness, Humphrey Bogart, Johnny Depp or Meryl Streep, or many stage actors who play widely different sides of themselves, or characters."

One should not denigrate the careers of Cruise, Grant, Gable and Redford for having a lesser horizontal range of role-playing. With their perhaps limited personality performance horizontal range, each of them exhibits great vertical depth of human characteristics. Should the Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Sandy Koufax be criticized because he played only baseball, and was relatively inept in football or basketball? Does it undermine his greatness because he was a lousy batter, that he only pitched, and only pitched left-handed? I saw him pitch. He thrilled me more than any other pitcher I ever saw…with only two pitches: a curve ball and a fast ball. Talk to me about baseball, and I think of Sandy Koufax.

While it is true a Alec Guinness, Johnny Depp, Meryl Streep, or Humphrey Bogart and others are brilliant with their wide range of behavioral possibilities, they only come along come along once in a generation or two. In the meantime, Cary Grant, Robert Redford and Tom Cruise—and the rest of us who enjoy their performances—will have to be content with their horizontally limited, but brilliantly deep and satisfyingly--and successful--acting capabilities.

Friday, October 03, 2008

ON ACTING: Singular and Fundamental Objectives

If the actor defines multiple objectives in the scene, I suggest the actor and his analysis is lost in the branches, obscured by the scene’s complex structure and leaves. My advice: use whatever analytical branch the actor is on as a starting off point, then follow the patterned curve of one of these larger branches down, analyzing ever further, deeper, until you discover what the fundamental goal/trunk in the scene is.
Good analytical actors are ‘why’ children. Why? Why? Why does s/he do that? Why does s/he do that? Is there something more fundamental in what the character wants?
They keep asking ‘why’ until they detect the simple and basic underlying objective thrust running from the beginning to the end of the scene. They discover the one reason, which is so all inclusive, so fundamental, that it organizes supports, unites and makes logical all the other branches, actions, sub-objectives, activities, feelings and thoughts in the scene.
If a characters’ actions in a scene are not attached to and arise from the simple basic fundamental objective trunk, all the limbs, branches and leaves of performance, the dialogue, movement, facial reactions, prop handling and thoughts will remain unconnected, unsupported and scattered on the ground, destined for quick death (by audience boredom).

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

ON ACTING: The Source of True Actor Energy

Legitimate performance energy arises in actor's scene conflict involvement alone; it is there that actor energy becomes lifelike: real, specific and engaging. On the other hand, performance energy which is derived only from an actor’s ‘desire to affect and please’ the audience is false; and therefore off-putting.

Mothers and fathers may be happy their kids are trying hard, but that kind of auto-induced and generalized acting performance energy, no matter how virtuoso its practitioner-- arising as it does not out of the truth of inner story and conflict; not because of the truth of character emotional urgency; but rather out of actor’s desire to show and tell--is lesser acting.

It is less than lesser acting, it is false acting. In truth, it is less than false-acting: it is non-acting.