Saturday, March 28, 2009

ON ACTING: 'Jumping' into a Scene

It has been said: "A good acting scene occurs on the toes, not the heels".

"One should lean into the scene, not pull back from it."

"Leaning into a problem is the posture of winners (and good actors)."

I was reminded of all these bon mots of good acting yet again the other day watching a student of mine, a fine horsewoman, training a jumping horse. As she and the horse reached the hurdle, the horse started to leap, and my student leaned her body into the jump, as if attacking the problem, not avoiding it, or shying from it. She led the horse over the jump.

I reminded myself to tell her that the next time I saw her in class: "L., as in horse jumping, lean into the scene and attack the hurdle of convincing the other character that you deserve the victory. What works in one area of human life often works in another."

Friday, March 20, 2009

ON ACTING: Emotional Flow

At some point in an actor's training, the emotionally developing actor will probably overflow in emotional release. Too-much-control will disintegrate into too-little-control. The pipes will rattle. The actor may (and often will) cry through six scenes in a row; even comedies! OR: The actor will be angry at everybody in every scene! OR: They will feel sexy even in scenes between siblings!

Intense emotion release will flood from their performances as a many headed gorgon, a monster of feeling. That’s okay. It’s like drilling for oil; when the drillers first hit the mother lode, black gold will explode out of the ground and spill everywhere.

Don’t worry. There’s good news in all that: you’ve found the sources of your emotional oil!!

And a new process begins: once the deepest pressure in the emotional pipes is known--and the overflowing actor discovers they can survive at the increased level of emotional energy--then they can (and will) begin the process of capping the flow of emotional riches, devising proper fittings, joints, valves and rings necessary to control and manage that flow with grace, pumping out its riches in precise, elegant, economically proportional performance amounts.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

ON ACTING: Even More about 'Control'

Actors are often hesitant in releasing emotion in performance--they are afraid of losing their ‘personal control’: they are afraid of hitting someone if they really get angry; or really falling in love and leaving their spouse; or becoming irretrievably sad and never stop crying.

In all the years I have been teaching I have had no murders, no suicides, no burst tears ducts, and no pregnancies due to highly charged angry, sad or sexual activity on stage.

Control, rather than the loss of control is the central truth of most life.

Actors can and must must learn to free themselves from unnecessary emotional over-control; but they must do so a little at a time, scene by scene; like a child crawling away from Mama’s skirts. All growth is a process, not a single step.

They should allow themselves to take on progressively more emotionally challenging scenes and characters. Each class, rehearsal and performance should teach them to move further and further away from the kitchen before scurrying back to check out if Mama is still there...which she invariably will be.

In this safe but steadily 'self-nudging' programmatic and developmental manner-- learning to slowly trust self and not Mama--a reluctant actor can best learn freedom within ‘emotional control’; and the actor can grow more and more solidly, logically and enduringl confident with each emotionally freeing step.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

ON ACTING: Developing Expressive Powers

A complex acting style does not automatically result from an actor experiencing complex feelings.

Sometimes complex feelings are held hostage by a deficient underdeveloped delivery system: in such cases, an actor may bring to the performance an advance nuclear bomb of emotions but not the missile system to deliver it.

To rectify this shortcoming, actors should take voice lessons, dance lessons, movement lessons to develop and maintain a multi-faceted complex physical vocabulary capable of expressing—‘delivering’--complex emotions.

It takes a very flexible body and mind to create good acting.

Shakespeare’s complex dialogue, with dependent clauses wrapping around independent clauses sometimes modified by adverbial phrases, issuing forth often in iambic pentameter while addressing the profundities and complexities of life, requires a vocal, breathing and grammar and mental pliability that takes years to develop.

How sad if an actor can feel the complex feelings possible in a Shakespearean character--and in performance is eager to feel and reveal that complexity--but has not developed the breathing capabilities, intellectual capabilities, or elocution abilities to serve his desires? How sad if a person has a million emotional ideas but a 'hundred-word' performance vocabulary!

Monday, March 09, 2009

ON ACTING: "Playing Against"

As a young actor, I was six foot five, with acne scarred face and weighed over three hundred pounds. According to physical type, I was cast mostly as ‘heavies’, the nasty characters.

One day, I was on a set with some of the other 'heavies', having just finished a scene rehearsal in a cowboy TV show. We heavies were to threaten some store owner in a Western town in the scene.

Between takes I was sitting relaxed, waiting for our turn to film the ‘close ups’ in the scene. The Assistant Director called us to work. As we approached the set, one of the most experienced actors leaned over to me and said, in a fatherly manner: “Kid. When you say that line to the store owner, ‘I’m going to kill you’…?” I nodded. “Smile; it’ll work better.”

So when it came to me to film the scene, the director said “Action!” I said my line to the store owner, “I’m going to kill you,” and instead of glowering as I had done in rehearsal, I smiled. The director immediately said, “Cut.” He walked over to me. “What the hell were you smiling about? You looked positively goofy.” The fatherly heavy leaned over and whispered in my ear: “I forgot to tell you; smile on the outside. But on the inside you still got to hate.”

The technique the heavy was trying to instruct me is was an acting technique (performance condition) called “playing against”: when the textual action--the dialogue or outer physical action--operates in dynamic opposition, contradiction, to the sub-textual emotion being felt. (In music they call it counterpoint.)

This oppositional (outer/inner) acting condition creates a desirable performance conflict between outer style and inner substance, a complexity of behavior that audience’s find intriguing: witness Hannibal Lector, the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs, who smiles warmly, rather than glowering with hate, as he discusses eating the flesh off his adversary.

This style of ‘playing against’ complicates the actor’s performance life, creating implicit ‘irony’, ‘contradiction’, ‘complexity’…all valuable elements in creating exciting on stage or in film life.

Friday, March 06, 2009

ON ACTING: Actor as Educator?

The student asked: "Does the actor have a responsibility to educate the audience?"

Not directly, I answered.

We actors educate NOT by drawing lessons; but rather by performance. Our tools are emotion, not analysis. We educate by indulging (throwing ourselves) in the failed and impulsive mistakes of the character. We are the unthinking tortoise and the hare, both unaware of the race, the lesson of our tale drawn not by us but by the audience at the conclusion of our character's extremely slow and steady (tortoise) or extremely fast and erratic (hare) behavior as we both seek a finish line.

Actors are not balanced jurists, drawing lessons (concluding laws) from the failures and successes of the characters. Moral-making is the audience's task. Rather, actors provide the evidence of life truths in the haphazard way of life: actors are the two adversaries, stumbling and arguing subjective points of view.


The audience is educated by the actor playing the murderous Othello (namely, to love "not wisely but too well") NOT by his understanding insightful speech at the end of the play, by his failure to observe the lesson himself during the play.

The impulsive, unbalanced life of an stage is the lot (and glory) of actor. We actors do not say learn from me, but rather they say: "watch me live the life of a character totally, extremely, committed to my character's goals and emotional needs; and whether I win or lose, survive or fail, is irrelevant; what is important to me as the character is my emotional pursuit of victory.

My obligation (job as an actor) is to present to you (within the story) the un-prejudged life and human emotional existence from which you will draw your conclusions.

As I progress on my character's path to his destiny, to my ultimate victory or defeat in the story, I will allow learn, to find your lesson for yourselves, to draw your own Aesop's moral from the fable, by finding your 'education' through your emotional involvement and identification with my dramatic or comedic acting experience, and the emotions they engender in me throughout.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

ON ACTING: Surprise!

When an excellent, practiced and complex film actor sees their performance on the screen for the first time, they are often surprised as the rest of the audience by some of their (sub-conscious) acting choices.

For example, watching themselves in a re-play of love story, the actor might respond: "My God, look at that. My deep involvement in a love relationship has elements of sadness in it; and sexual need. Oh my God, look at my confusion! I’ll be damned.”

They review their performance as an outsider: “So that’s what I'm like when I am under that kind of dramatic pressure".

That reaction indicates that the everyday subjective personal view of the actor has been replaced by a more insightful after-the-fact objective side of him/herself; and properly banished are the dreams, hopes, desires and often denials of the would-be actor, to be replaced by the brutally honest (and perhaps cheering) evaluation of the actor as objectively viewing audience.

Hooray when that happens: it means that the actor had been earlier performing on set not as actor/director (watching themselves during performance), but had been living during the actual performance at a surprising level of depth, profundity and complexity that even the actor herself had no idea what she was emotionally capable of achieving.

A happy surprise!

Sunday, March 01, 2009

ON ACTING: The Unexpected

Audiences often say of exciting actors: “I love watching them. You never know what they are going to do next.” That’s often because exciting actors in performance don’t know quite what they are going to do next!

The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard said: “Logic can take you to the brink; but only a leap of faith can take you beyond.”

The good actor’s plunge into actual performance should take them deeply into their personal inner reality, beyond their own superficial understanding of themselves.

A good actor recognizes, accepts and appreciates that many of his best ‘choices’ in performance will happen in passing, during the performance; his/her actions arise out of their creative unconscious, rather than from the defined presupposed choices made in prior rehearsal or performances.