Friday, August 27, 2010

ON ACTING: Whose Theme Are We Playing?

In writing a play or screenplay, the writer is trying to create a vision of the world that makes a statement; usually the writer's statement. Sometimes, in film, however, especially when writer's are paid up front for their writing efforts, that intent is that of the producers. The old adage applies: "The man pays the piper calls the tune."

Sometimes the theme is that of the director, especially one who is more famous than the producer. Other times it is the the star's theme, especially one who is "bank-able" (that is, a bank is willing to put up the money for the film because the star attached has the draw to put so many ticket-buying bottoms in the seats of theaters). In that case, the writer writes the script according to theme and point of view of of the star; $$$$ always calls the tune, remember.

The work-a-day actor (unless in the exceptional case of the demanding star) has nothing to do with manifesting directly the vision of the overall piece. Hired-in actors are mercenaries. The individual hired actor's job is to carry out the vision of the character; even if it is contradictory to the overall theme. In fact, often, in our playing of that very contradiction, the overall theme is often best served. For example: as the heavy in the piece, I am not hired to carry directly the banner of goodness, honor and decency; which are, let's say, the overall themes of the piece. My job is to carry the banner of evil, dishonor and indecency...with an exciting totality and vengeance, I might add. It is only when I am killed or otherwise defeated (which I, as the character, in no way want), the goodhearted theme of the piece is best moved forward in spite of me and my character's beliefs.

What I am getting to here is to warn actors not to openly and absolutely advocate in the performance-as-character the overall intent of the piece. Play the intent of the character, which, as I reiterate, may, or may not, align itself with the intent of the piece.

Sometimes our character's beliefs and themes will be in alignment with the piece's theme; sometimes they will not be. It is not our humble actor's lot to decide. Our lot is to be true to character... that is, of course, until the day we write our own screenplay or play; or produce one; or become a star! Then, all aligns itself according to our stars!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

ON ACTING: Instincts

Actors are often instructed: "Follow your instincts." "Don't let your head get in the way of your instincts." "She's an instinctive actor." "In your instinctive behavior lies the truth."

All of these statements in support of an actor's instinct are valid...with one slight alteration: "Follow your honed instincts." "She's a honed instinctive actor."Don't let your head get in the way of your honed instinctive acting."

Athletes are often admonished and praised in a similar manner. But no one would suggest that a professional athlete walk out of a field and act instinctively without ever having played the game a long time and without the coach having had the team run through their game plan. Instincts serve a professional athlete at game time because their instincts have been honed through a thousand repetitions before the game and in a career of amateur and professional ball-playing.

A great surgeon follows their instincts in every individual operation--every operation is different because a different individual is involved--but you sure as hell want that doctor's instincts to be unhoned though prior classroom work, internship and residency...and quite a few similar operations in the near past,

Instinctual behavior is acting or any other long as it has been honed through years of training and practice.

I remember working many years ago as a new actor on an episode of Dr. Kildare opposite the great actor Lee Marvin. Lee was one of the greats actors of his time; eventually to win an Academy Award. Purportedly earlier in his career Lee had his onscreen time cut down in "The Wild One" because he was overshadowing Marlon Brando, whom the producers wanted to feature in the film.

Between every take, I notice Lee jotting something down in his script. I was more than curious. It was during the first year of my Hollywood career and I was hungry for information and growth as an actor.

Lee had been very open to me duribg the first few days of shooting (we had the same agent). So one day, I asked him what he was writing in his script. He handed me the script and said generously, "Here. Look for yourself," and went off to the bathroom. I sat in my chair and looked. Much to my surprise there was little Lee had written down; except, at the heading of every scene, in bold handwriting, Lee had notated his character's objective. I was aghast. That simple? My script was full of my notations on how to approach and play every line of my scenes; yet Lee's was "I've got to get out of the hospital," or "I want her to love me," "I've got to comvince him to get well."

That was it.

No great emotional designations, or line reading hints? How could that be? When I had watched Lee work in his scenes, his performances were filled with interesting and varied moments of great emotion and character turns.

It took me years to figure it out why Lee could be instinctively brilliant.

Lee didn't need a plethora or self instruction and hints to performance written down in his script. All he had to do was aim toward a goal in a scene, listen to the other actor's dialogue...and instinctively he would respond in a most interesting and varied manner. How? Simple; yet not so simple. His acting "instincts" had been honed by years of study and practice.

In every scene Lee may have performed by the instinctive seat of his pants, but those instinctive pants had been designed, cut and sewn by decades of practice and work.

Perform with your instincts, but work endlessly honing those instincts.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Teachers teach in order to learn.

ON ACTING: Teachers

The root word of education is the Latin word ‘educare,’ meaning to draw forth. Teachers are guides in the discovery and organizing of yourself. Teachers pass onto you nothing new; they enable you to discover the old that already resides in you. All truths, knowledge and wisdom are evolving symbolic magnets of human ideas and experiences to attract to your consciousness possibilities already within you.

For that matter. there is nothing new; there is only the old too be discovered and re-fashioned in each person over and over again. The universe outside and inside you is already there, waiting to swim to the surface of each individual's consciousness as a tool. Teachers don't teach anyone anything; they help each individual move out of their protective, self-imposed, fearful darkness of innocence and step into the light of their own wisdom.

Know yourself, and you will know everything.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

ON ACTING: Bad Acting Habits

All bad acting stems from a similar source: the bad actors' lack of confidence or refusal to stand in their own light. By that I mean, such actors refuse to fully be themselves (the aspects of themselves called for by the script) and perform with freedom and fullness. Such actor timidity in the face of performance demands results in filling the performance void by false acting; which has many guises, masks and forms: for example not really listening to the other actors in the scene, or a refusal to be really, emotionally and personally affected by the events encountered in the scene (including the other character's dialogue), or a constant consciousness of one's own performance rather than a focus on the events of the scene, most especially the other characters/actors in the scene. Other bad acting habits include the actors' auto-stimulating of emotions rather than, as in real life and in good performing, having emotions activated by the external events of the scene; or emotionally and reactively anticipating the events in a scene before the events actually occur; and/or highlighting one's actions in a scene for the audience consumption rather than in conformance to the inner logic in the playing of the scene.

As I say, all bad acting habits result from a lack of confidence, often heightened by a lack of understanding of, or appreciation of, the power of personal emotional truth and performance reality; sometimes exacerbated by bad instruction (teaching) or direction. A good actor therefore needs practice, experience, and proper instruction; and all that eventually melds into a free flowing and powerful performance ease. An auditioner can tell a good actor when they walk into the room, The good actor exhibits confidence in their self and craft and it manifests itself in what they call "presence"; presence simply meaning the actor's willingness to confidently state (without words): "Hi. I'm present. What do you need?"

Sunday, August 15, 2010

ON ACTING: Auditioning and the Script

The auditioning actor should never worry about their dialogue delivery when she/he has a script in hand.

Dialogue is just another “thing” in the actor's hands, to gently offer, share or if angry, throw at someone during a negotiation (i.e., between characters in the scene). The character's next line on a page is a simple utensil, a pliable instrument available on a tray before us and available to pick up and use at any time when we engage someone who has just said something to us.

Dialogue is the actor/warrior's gift from the writer; on the printed page it is just just below our eye level; all it takes is a fleeting casual look to easily discover it, and then gently (or mightily or sadly or however we feel) aim it at the opposing character.

The writers send us into battle. But before they do, they arm us with a page or two or three of verbal tools; language. mere weapons that are nothing more than pillows stacked on a chair before us, or sandwiches on a plate, or pebbles on a beach, ever-ready for us to pick up to toss at someone at our pleasure and leisure. The actor shouldn't panic or freeze when a scene’s conflict requires a verbal retort selected from the page of the auditioning script. Rather the actor should maintain emotional--if not always visual--contact with the opposing adversary, glance quickly and casually away from them and down at the page in their hands, pick the idea off the page and hurl it at the other character.

It is as simple as that. After all, who among us worry--or even thinks long--about the simple act of picking up a coke, sandwich or hammer and tossing it as someone? If w feel like tossing...we toss. We leave it up to our feelings to decide and dictate our actions, those generally totally unconscious and perfectly natural (albeit dramatic) activities.

So that is exactly how we should behave when someone says something to us in an auditioning scene: we pick up a responsive piece of dialogue off our page to heave something back at them. “There. Take that. So what do you have to say about that? That statement (word, idea) should finally prove to you I’m right and you are wrong…and I deserve to get out of this relationship what I want.”

End of moment.

After a series of such moments (some of them even most tender and confusing throw-backs): End of scene.

End of actor worry about delivering a piece of dialogue in an audition while holding a script in their hand. Words, pillows, sandwiches…what, me worry?...I can pick them up and toss them at someone as I do in everyday life…with ease, elegance and often gentleness and love. ‘No sweat’.

Next audition.

Friday, August 13, 2010

ON ACTING: Character 'Arc'

Character 'arc', or character development--its twin acting phrase--is an important demand in good acting. It is the idea that there should be a progression to the character revelation in the story: whereof what we know about the character in the beginning of the play, or scene, is not what we know about her at the end of the play or scene. Her character develops. In a sense, as the scene progresses, her character denial--to self and others--is being transformed into experienced and revealed character truth.

An arc is the beginning, middle and end progression of character or inner emotional change.

A well acted scene is like an inner detective story: as ‘the case’, the plot, moves toward resolution, the audience (and often inadvertently, the character) discovers the emotional content of the character’s inner ‘story’. Personal emotional truth is increasingly revealed. The character’s inner emotional ‘plot’ unfolds in a manner that mirrors the unfolding of the character’s outer factual plot.

Thus, in every good scene, unfolding inner and outer truth arcs has, by the end of the scene, melded into one revealing culminating climax.

"Teachers are simply actors who prefer a captive audience!"

Lois Cheraz

Monday, August 09, 2010

ON ACTING: Sprezzatura

The Italians have a word: sprezzatura. It means the art that conceals art. It is the essence of elegant acting.

It is removing the scaffolding after completing the building. It is what defines a pro: great actors make it seem so easy that everyone thinks they can do it. It is Fred Astaire dancing. It is Mohamed Ali boxing: "floating like a butterfly, stinging like a bee."

A famous American actor James Cagney once said it well: Acting is "learn your lines, don't bump into the furniture, and never get caught acting." It is sprezzatura, the art that conceals art.