Tuesday, February 24, 2009

ON ACTING: Contradiction

Walt Whitman, in his poem “Leaves of Grass”, states it thus: “Do I contradict myself? Oh, well, I contradict myself. I contain multitudes.”

All life—all great art--and therefore all great acting--is unavoidably rooted in contradiction. Life is a product of simultaneously created oppositional forces: matter and anti-matter, being and nothingness, yin and yang.

A human being wants go left; the other part of her him simultaneously wants to go right. We say hello; at the same time worrying about eventually saying goodbye. We ask him to stay while wondering when he is going to go.

Half-truths are dangerous (and potent) because they are half-true.

The complexity of contradiction is built into the very construct of living; and acting. And a real performance that attracts and excites audiences will necessarily engage the actor in a state of contradiction.

I had an Asian student once who was very shy. At the age of thirty he had never kissed a woman. (His mother was taking him to Korea soon to arrange a marriage for him.)

But before they left, he took his last acting class with me. I gave him a scene in class where he had to kiss a girl. He frowned, said adamantly that that was impossible for him to do, especially in public. So I asked him to at least hug her. After considering a long moment, he said yes, he would. The scene began.

He stared at her. The moment to hug her arrived. His whole body leaned toward her. One could feel the dynamic tension in his body. It was compelling. The whole audience/class was on the edge of our seats. We were caught up in his drama.

But he couldn't do it. When the scene was over, I asked him what happened. He said: “My body say ‘yes’; my mind say ‘no’.”

He had enacted a perfect state of dramatic (and compelling) contradiction...to the class' utter amusement.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

ON ACTING: More About Control

There are many actors who want to maintain conscious control of every aspect of their performances, including the emotions they wish to feel. To them, I say, "good luck"! Emotions, the very fact of them, as well as how and in what manner they arise is a thing beyond precise, specific and conscious control. Consider the following:

Emotions are not discrete. A single emotion does not end, and another begins. Emotions overlap. They are like musical notes of a piano played with a depressed foot pedal, a blending of subsequent sounds over time.

Or, the rise and fall of emotions are like pistons, all part of a single moving engine: one piston may be dominant at a particular moment--‘I’m angry more than sad and sexy…but I’m also confused and hurt’at the same time--only one coming to the top of , dominating, the engine’s actions, but the others are co-existent and simultaneous operative.

Drive straight ahead on a safe and empty road sometime. Suddenly make a turn to the left. Your whole body does not make a full turn. Part of your body still maintains forward direction. Then make a right turn. Suddenly one part of your body is reacting to the momentum of the right turn, while part of it is still responding to the earlier forward and left momentum. (In fact, your body will be going in all three directions at once!)

So it is with emotions. Therefore, an actor who enacts his feelings one at a time, discretely, one following the other, as if going in one emotional direction at a time, is a false actor.

Life, which acting emulates, is too complex a thing to allow such conscious control. The good, smart actor, knowing these truths of emotional spontaneity and complexity, enters a scene open to feeling, but allows the reality of the stimuli of the ongoing scene to unconsciously affect him/her in that complex, mysterious thing called "emotions".

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

ON ACTING: "Control"

Kathryn wrote:

"I found your blog today and I'm thoroughly enjoying reading through your "On Acting" posts.

"I'm presently in rehearsals for a character who is extremely "in control" - in fact that's her biggest obstacle...so how do I show that but keep it edgy at the same time??"

I wrote:

"An 'in-control' character is a very edge-y character trying like hell to be in-control of that 'edge'! That precipitous, extra effort to remain in control when all events are threatening to spin a character out of control is what lends excitement and danger to a character trying to be in control. A nymphomaniac trying to be a nun, or a spendthrift trying get out of Nieman's without buying anything is what makes an 'in-control' character's actions fascinating...and edge-y." They live on the edge.

Friday, February 13, 2009

ON ACTING: The Symbiosis of Plot and Character

Character (emotional needs) drives the action of plot...which stimulates and reveals character...which drives the further plot actions...which further stimulates and reveals the character...which initiates the next action...and so on. That is the 'moment-to-monent' progress of a scene, plot-wise and character-wise.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

ON ACTING: "Actor Pre-Judgment"

Actors who prejudge a character in performance, who choose to play “an asshole character”, or an “obscene whore character”--who adjudicate right and wrong of their character prior to and in their performance, thereby deciding in advance the character’s relative merits--overlook their primary actor-as-character task: to honestly advocate the complexity and contradiction of their character’s position and let the audience decide for themselves the character’s 'rightness' or 'wrongness, and, subsequently, the properness of their fate.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

ON ACTING: Success

"I couldn't wait for sucess, so I started without it."

Jonathan Winters

ON ACTING: Dull People

There are no dull people, just frightened or careful people. Dull people are simply those who have (generally unconsciously) chosen to dull themselves to survive 'the million shocks that the flesh [life] is heir to'.

Friday, February 06, 2009

ON ACTING: "Repetitive Rhythm"

If the actor finds themselves performing throughout a scene in a constant rhythm, each line of dialogue emanating from them with the same accent and energy, without variation in pitch or tone, each movement steadily cadenced as if the actor is pacing rather than walking freely, this lack of rhythmic variation in a performance is often a (bad) sign.

It indicates the actor is controlling the performance with their head, their actor's brain acting as a control mechanism, a filter through which all natural variation of form and feeling (if there is any) blend into a constantly rhythmic release. Think of pouring a series of liquids through a filter: no matter how varied the diverse flows enter the filter, the resulting stream coming out steady, constant and monochromatic.

If the actor finds themselves in such a performing condition, the actor in their next run-through or film 'take' should 'kill the actor' in them, forget their previously 'planned' performance, and focus their entire attention on dealing with the other character in a goal seeking way. Seek to convince the 'other' character of the rightness of one's position, rather than worrying about the 'self' in acting.

Being other-focused rather than self-focused is the quickest was to achieve a desired state of natural emotional spontaneity and achieve the human variation that invariably results.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

ON ACTING: "Complexity"

Many years ago I had the good fortune to direct the brilliant actor Raul Julia in a film. Before every scene we would sit and analyze the upcoming scene, and mutually agree on was the emotional essence of his character in the scene.

Then as he started away toward the set for filming, Raul would stop, turn and we’d say to one another: “And yet”….

That was our code way of expressing: “for the character the exact opposite may also be simultaneously true.” Characters are like people; they love and hate simultaneously. They are brave and cowardly simutaneously. They are certain and confused simultaneously.

Exciting characters contain paradox, contradiction, irony, and mutual opposition, even absurdity.

When an onstage stimulus occurs in the presence of a dull actor, it echoes with monochromatic dullness, singularly, as if off the walls of a one room cave.

But when that same event echoes in the performance of an exciting actor, one who has hollowed out the cavern walls of their own deepest life, who has--through a career of emotional rehearsal process--become a high-ceiling, multi-roomed grotto of feeling, it resonates profoundly, over and over again, like the eternal inner voices in the caves of E.M. Forrester’s Passage to India.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


I have great doubts.

Except for Viola Davis's acting. She was sensational.

ON ACTING: Impulsivity

Characters in exciting acting don't look before they leap. They may glance about perhaps for a long moment or two, but they always leap. They don't count to ten, they count to four; and act and say...they are impulsive. That is why story characters make fools of themselves (comedy) or suffer (or exalt) in their lives (tragedy and drama): they are impatient, fast-twitched characters seeking a desperate goal.

The old adage reads: "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." Amendment: "Fools and exciting actors rush in where angels and dull people fear to tread."

That does not mean, however, that that good acting is only a fast-paced activity. It can be slow; with deep elongated pauses between lines and actions. But...the energy within those pauses--during any and all reality induced cessations of activity--is highly inner-activating; there is a lot of vibrant, fast-twitching inside the actor/character's body and mind, the spinning of his or her wheels, racing internally, to choose, to decide, to act...impulsively.

Monday, February 02, 2009

ON ACTING: Selecting an Audition Piece

I received a request by email from a young actress. Her question and my reply follow.

"Dear Mr. Osmond,
I am currently preparing for my auditions to get into the BFA acting program at either NYU or USC. I am having an extremely hard time finding monologues. I have looked through all the search engines and all the different sits but am having a very hard time finding a good one. For both auditions I need two contrasting contemporary monologues that are no more than two minutes each. I am an 18 year old girl with brown hair. I did have a monologue from A Streetcar Named Desire and one from My Fair Lady…but NYU said no accents are allowed (as well as no props and no costumes). So now I am back to square one..."

My reply:

"Dear L: Forgive me in replying so late. Not knowing you, it would be hard for me to suggest a particular monologue. But I can offer there two criteria to aid your search: (1) audition pieces are aimed at auditioning YOU...therefore, pick two contrasing pieces that speak to you, your age, your emotions, your experiences. Pick two that touch your heart (which includes your sense of humor); these choices of monologues will be the easiest (and best) to perform. (2) 'No props, no accents, no costumes' means no 'extra' acting...which means 'just give me performance reality': deep feeling that is genuinely experienced (in language and movement) on stage. Forget all the 'acting' extras'...these auditioners want you to speak (act) simply and honestly from your heart (with full movement and loud enough to be seen and heard). Acting success follows that.
Good luck.

Sorry for the 45-day absence.