Friday, August 28, 2009

ON ACTING: Avoiding the 'Repetition Blues'

Even if I agree that actors should listen and look specifically at the other actor to create emotional reality on stage, how can I be expected to listen and look with fresh ears and fresh eyes when I have heard all that dialogue before, much less watched that same actor(s) from performance to performance?

My advice: don’t just listen to the other actors’ words-qua-words. Listen to the ever changing pitch, tone, rhythm and volume of their voices as they say the words. Written words-as-words may have precise constancy from performance to performance, but the voice of the other actor (not to mention the look on his face) will inevitably shift in subtle and ever changing ways from performance to performance, rendering personal nuances even in the supposedly fixed logic of what is being said.

Words-as-words, the utterance of abstract symbols, have rarely been definitive in my life. I personally take the facts of others speaking words to me with a subjective grain of salt. I have found find at least half the time spoken words (mine and others) have tended to obfuscate rather than clarify; I and others use words as masks, deniers of the truth, more than revealers.

The truth lay not in the words, but in the phsical conext surrounding the words.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

ON ACTING: "Specificity"

One could reasonably argue that the two most important words in an actor’s vocabulary are: “active”, and “specific”. Good acting is: purposeful human beings moving actively toward their goals through a specific external reality.

Human neural circuits are not general; human evolution designed them with great specificity. Specific chemical and specific electrical flows move through the human body (causing specific synapses/specific emotions) in specific response to specific stimuli, subsequently causing all specific human actions. Specificity is one of the most central aspects of all human reality (whether we are cognitively aware of that specificity is another matter).

One day I was driving a car 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 has become my textbook cum lab). Why, I thought, at that moment, did I think of my father? Why not an hour ago, or a day ago? Why at all; and most specifically, why now?

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 its driver stopped next to me. I looked there again; and there it was…the specific answer as to why I felt like 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 driver’s specific facial image had triggered the specific (albeit unconscious) emotions and thoughts of my father; my father feelings were sensorially engendered specifically by the matter how unaware I may have been of the actual process.

Real emotion, therefore, the most important product of a successful performance, will not occur in a real and spontaneous real-life manner unless the actor is truly in contact with specific stimuli of specific sounds and specific sights (not to mention specific tastes, touches and smells) of her performance reality as s/he moves toward her objective.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Acting is simple; excellence is complicated.

ON ACTING: A Metaphor of Performance Excellence

An excellently performed scene is one in which the actor-as-character feels as if he/she were walking a narrow tightrope, trying to fight through the wind and other buffeting resistances, to get safely to the other side where something of great importance resides...and in her/his gut feeling fat every moment the reality of 3000 feet of open air beneath him/her and the deady hard ground.

All behavior is tactical.

Monday, August 17, 2009

ON ACTING: A Basic Model of Human (Actor) Behavior

Human beings (and therefore characters in drama and actors in general) can be operationally defined as purposeful entities that have the capacity pursuant to their purposes to sense (hear, see, touch, taste and smell) the world, the ability to convert those sensory experiences into inner synaptic pieces of meaning (emotions), and then transform inner emotions into outer logical motor responses (actions) aimed at achieving their purposes. It is really the operation of thebasic nerve-cell configuration: 'stimulus, synapse and response' organized around purpose.

An 'actor-as-character’ becomes (1) a purposeful entity that (2) sees, hears, touches, tastes and smells the world through which it moves, (3) converts those sensory readings into feelings (4) and allows those feelings to energize him/herself outward into purposeful actions (dialogue, movement, 'prop'-activity...all to achieve purpose.

In acting, we traditionally call the variables in this formula: committing to objective, looking and listening (sensing the world), feeling (allowing the conversion of those stimuli into inner energies or emotions), and actions, which are the energies transferred outward toward the achievement of the objective.

Dramatic conflict then becomes two or more characters involving themselves in an extended series of these fundamental nerve cell interactions, a continuing and mutually interactive flow of received stimuli, synapses, and outer responses, respectively aimed toward each character fulfilling the his/her mutually exclusive, respective goals.

Friday, August 14, 2009

ON ACTING: The Pre-Existence of Emotions

A few years ago I had a student who expressed a concern about a role he had been assigned to play, that of a father. The young actor, only twenty-one years of age, stated, loudly and clearly, that he had no children. “…and I haven’t the slightest idea what it feels like to be a father.” His tone of voice suggested that I was somewhat daffy to even suggest he play that role. “Would you like to be a father one day?” I asked. “Yes,” he said. “Will you be a good father? “Yes.” “So you assume on that distant day, when you become a father, God will suddenly put the appropriate father-feelings in you?”

He said nothing. I pressed the issue: “On the day that day you become a father, that event will not suddenly create father feelings in you; it will merely activate the father-feelings already potential within you; those feelings have been within you for a long time”. He stole a glance at two pretty girls sitting next to him. “Feelings, all feelings, even the potential feelings of fatherhood, lay dormant within us, waiting to be activated by a powerful reality…in this case: the tangible birth of a child.”

“Emotions preexist. They are like the instinct to speak, hard-wired into all human beings as universal potentialities at birth. Subsequent life experiences merely shape and pattern these hardwiring potentialities into unique patterns within us--called our evolving personalities--as our lives move on in time responding to the discernible and discrete events in a person’s life.

“Your job as an actor, therefore, in playing the role of a father, is: first, before performance, activate (in actor’s terms, ‘prepare’…and there are multiple techniques designed to do so) your inherent, preexistent universal feelings appropriate to the character (in this case, ‘father feelings’…which, if I can judge by your reaction are somewhat locked away), so that during performance, you will be able to allow those preconditioned feelings to be tangibly and specifically activated by the events of the scene."

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

ON ACTING: The Centrality of Actors in the Theatrical Experience; Part II

Writer’s are hired to create a story (a context) for actors to live out a specific logical and factual experience; dialogue is written to give actors something to say; producers are hired to secure the financing necessary to produce the recorded life of the actor; directors are hired to organize the physical, logical and filming context within which the actor lives; film stock is manufactured and exposed to record the lives of the actors; lighting is done to enable the actor to be better seen; the sound department is hired so the actor can be heard, etc. etc. etc.

The process of theatre and film originates with, focuses on and revolves around the actor’s central participation in the stage or film event. Story may be the vehicle; but acting is the sine qua non raison d’etre, the driver, the engine of theater and film.

The actor is the axle; everything else is the spokes.

(Animation might seem to undermine this thesis, but the anthropomorphic antics of animated characters can still be considered central ‘actors’ in the film. Even animators can’t escape the need to deal with, use and understand humanity--actor reality--as a basis or their creative experience of animating.)

Monday, August 10, 2009

ON ACTING: The Centrality of Actors in the Theatrical Experience; Part I

Audiences come to film and theater to watch actors act.

My writer friends would argue that story is the central and necessary ingredient in a theatrical experience. Although a writer myself (and “some of my best friends are”), I would still argue: if story was sufficient, audiences would go the theater, buy the script and take it home to read it. If an audience wants to be moved by words and plot alone, they could buy a novel. What makes theatre special and effective is the living presence of the actors. It is not the story per se, but the living reality of the actors’ performance within that story, on stage or captured on film that is the catalytic element in awakening audience passion.

The story and dialogue are only the means of conveying that living acting experience; it is not the living experience itself. We watch a film over and over again even though we know the story by heart, even though we can predict each and every plot turn, even though we can sometimes recite most of the main dialogue along with the actors because the audience is mesmerized by the living, present (albeit a recorded present tense) experience of the actors' performances. The performances remain catalytic element--spontaneous, alive, real and perpetually indefinable--to the audience's enjoyment.

I repeat: Audiences come to a theater primarily to watch actors act.

Friday, August 07, 2009

A Personal Note of Thanks

In the July 30-Aug. 5 national edition of "Back Stage" magazine, this 'Cliff Osmond on Acting' blog made the national list of "10 Blogs Actor's Should Know About", by Paul Haber.


"This seasoned actor and teacher offers his insights in a beautifully articled blog with useful acting tips."

I've already emailed Paul my thanks for my inclusion in his national Top Ten. I would like to now thank those of you readers who have encouraged me by your attentive following of this blog over the years.

The Irish philosopher Berkeley's conundrum applies: "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

Thank you for listening.

ON ACTING: What Audiences Want

Audiences attend a play or film to experience a heightened level of emotional feeling uncommon in their everyday lives.

Ask most audience members why they themselves go to the theater, they will tell you: to ‘escape’, or to be entertained. As a follow up, ask them what they are escaping from; they will generally answer “the boredom of my everyday life.” They also give a similar response when asked what they mean by the word entertainment; a response something close to the dictionary definition of entertainment: they seek “distraction; amusement” from their everyday lives.

(The French word “entrainment” means to “carry along, bring with you”.) Audiences seek escape in entertainment, to be distracted, to be brought along by the performance of an actor to a place removed from their boring, everyday lives. They seek by that journey to be led to a deep re-discovery of themselves.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

ON ACTING: The Character is YOU

Once you agree to play the game of acting, you, the actor-as-character, will engage in conflict. You, the actor, will really take the emotional hits; you, the person, will really sustain the effort. You, your person, will now be the living character. You are no longer the actor. You are now the character.

Does that mean I will be playing me in every scene? The character in every scene will always be me?

Yes. Why else would I be hiring you?

Beginning actors often say, “What I like about acting is pretending to be somebody else.” My reaction is always the same: How can anybody be somebody else? Being somebody else defies physical law. You may be a different aspect of yourself, a newly re-configured aspect of your personality, but the same molecules are always still involved. Read Newton’s Law’s on the conservation of matter and energy. Actors are always themselves, albeit continually transformed. Actors are emotional Gumby(s), capable of twisting themselves into any (emotional) shape the script requires, but they remain essentially themselves.

“What side of me do you want tonight; the hateful side, the gentle side, the confused side...?” That is the proper question the actor asks himself when getting a new script.

To play a character is simply to emphasize one or several aspects of your total personality over the other(s).

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

ON ACTING: 'True' Emotion

In dance critic Laura Bleiberg's review in the LA Times of "Romeo and Juliet" at the LA Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, she says, in regard to Paloma Herrera as Juliet: "...she wore her emotions like a shawl -- rather than using them as impetus for her actions."

This is a brilliant admonition against bad acting: that is, an actor's emotions should never be worn (played, demonstrated, etc.) as things unto themselves, but must always be felt, performed and hence subsequently be revealed as "impetus" (prelude, causation) to action. Drama, and its attendant emotion, is best defined as character (feeling under duress) revealed in action.

Good acting: In striving for character goals the true enotional dynamic is: we sense, we feel, we act...that is, we do...and in that doing the emotion is honestly and in accordance with life revealed.