Sunday, October 31, 2010


May I Share:

"Vernon Reeves Jr.,
October 29, 2010 at 10:12am
Subject: "Acting is Living"

Hi Cliff,
I just completed Chapter 1 of your book "Acting is Living". I don't know if you consider me one of the 20,000 [students that you learned from] or not but I would just like to say reading it , about being an actor, is like learning to play chess on 3 levels instead of one! It's awsome Cliff !! I am so glad you wrote this! I just wanted you to know!


ON ACTING: Quitters versus Losers

There may be ‘losers’ in drama, but never quitters. Quitters, by definition, are characters who have withdrawn their active energy and intent from the scene, have absconded from the fight, who have withdrawn from the fray, who have quit. They should not even be considered characters or actors in the scene in the first place actors since they attempt nothing actively in the scene.

Irrespective of the probability of successful outcome, the 'loser’ in drama, as in life, are characters who keeps saying trying to win (by engaging in positive activities). Often in the face of seeming inevitable defeat, they continue to express in words and deeds: “I’ll find a way to win!” Losers by definition are compulsively positive people who try over and over again to win...thereby setting themselves up for inevitable defeat.

It is that 'never-give-up-quality' that makes ‘loser-characters' so dramatically appealing'--audience favorites (SEE Charlie Chaplin): they keep trying to win in the face of monstrous and constant defeat and rejection! They become paradigms of courage, icons of identifiable humanity. In literature and drama, they often become the constant companions of generals and Kings, the dispensers of wisdom: the most lovable, loyal and brave of all the King's horsemen and companions.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

ON ACTING: The Truth Within

Concealment lies at the heart of acting. We are, we humans, and therefore our characters, initially deniers of truth. We wish to obfuscate our character's truth beneath our lies. We feel, and we must deal. But we fervently want success at minimum emotional cost. The pockets of our emotional lives are always filled with the riches of our personalities; but we are cheapskates when asked to pony-up as price for our goal-seeking rewards.

The most exciting characters are coupon-clippers; seeking a discount for otherwise high-priced items. They initially try mightily to avoid paying "full-price." It is only the construct of the scene and the other characters' equally strong negotiating stances that force our character to pay. And the operative word is 'forced'. The other person cuts a better deal, and we reluctantly obey: the price of our success is increasingly the fullest measure of our agony, ecstasy, pain, and pleasure. Thus the pockets of our emotions are finally, at scene's end, turned inside out, and we are "emptied" upon in the stage...and the audience revels in the fullness of our reluctantly revealed inner truths.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

ON ACTING: Modify Your Behavior!

A young man or woman seeking to be an actor has been preparing a character or narrow range of characteristics all their lives. What we call their everyday character is the common personality behaviour; often referred to as "who they really are", their predictable and expected behavioural patterns under the exigencies of the everyday. It has become their predictable personalities when placed in a particular context of, say, home, work, dance floor or at a sporting event.

The pressures and pleasures of all those everyday venues give seemingly automatic rise to their fundamental characteristics.

However, the venue suddenly changes; the actor is plucked from the everyday and is now placed in the artistically created context called story. However, all too often, their initial tendency from reading a script is to see that life through the prism of their own lives; to chose to behave according to the character traits or personality characteristics that they themselves would exhibit or imagine they would exhibit in such circumstances.

However, sometimes, the director or the scripts calls for uncommon (at least uncommon for the actor) reactions to the events of the script circumstances. The script calls for the actor to be happy at home when in truth, in his everyday life he reacts abysmally to domestic constraints. Or, at his scripted work, she is expected to be confounded and inhibited by her work demands, when in her everyday role, she is precise, aware and extremely capable no matter the task. Similarly, in the scripted world of a dance film: she is expected to move licentiously and bawdily, when most or her life she has danced the staid fox trot and waltz; and at a sporting event he is expected to cheer mightily and wager on every goal, when is his everyday life he finds sports a bore and gambling a sin.

What to do then in such a acting quandary? Turn down the role? Defy the director; play the character according to one's own artistic and interpretive lights?

Or does one try to strecth one's response to such behavioral demands to a form and substance outside of our everyday experience? Becoming, at smooth self-dictate, a now on stage happy husband, a clunk head worker, a vamping dancer and a sports nut?

Is it that easy; that an actor could alter one's lifetime everyday behaviour that precisely, that starkly and that brilliantly, and at a moment's notice...throw off the captive shackles of our own life histories of pride, prejudices and personalities...and become pliable, mold able Gumby's of human shape and substance?

Maybe for you; but for me it sounds like a lifelong course in behaviour modification is called for; a lesson in character chameleon-ism.

Behavior modification...that is the true business of most of us actors. In training and practice, we must learn to modify our chosen and often preferred and comfprtable everyday behaviour (rather willy-nilly, to be perfectly candid, or at least with very quick fluidity) to the demands of the new script, the new character shape, the new emotions, and new demand for composite character excitingness.

Emotional and mental flexibility (and their proper fuel, a life of courage) lies at the heart--and in the talent--of every great actor who seeks a variety of roles. Rigidity of thought, emotion, conception, values and attitudes is the toxin that poisons that quest for variety.

You are as an actor-as-character what you choose to be; what you allow yourself to be. Personal propriety, ethics, morality and political correctness are no longer part of the acting model; only consistency (to script), emotional reality and excitement are relevent.

It must be why they call acting work.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Passion without structure is indulgence; structure without passion is sterility.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

ON ACTING: Creating a Fully Dimensioned Character

When you define your character’s objective, you must simultaneously find the character’s soft underbelly. It is the opposite side of your character's human coin. It is your character's inner sensitivity, the vulnerability, the susceptibility to defeat beneath your harsh shell of objective seeking.

It is the side of you the other characters are eager to probe and reveal. It could be the need for love; the desire for power; a flawed intelligence; the love of a child; sexual excitability: sides of you that can lead to defeat and disaster if not protected.

Because you want always to create a three-dimensional character, one that the audience follows in the drama's plot unfolding because your character can either win or lose, because your character has objectives and inner vulnerabilities simultaneously co-existent, you must, in your character preparation, do double duty: define your character's hard objective while at the same time activating your character's soft inner sensitivity; the well-rounded human being, hard and soft at the same time.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

ON ACTING: To Disturb to Find a Greater Peace

According to the New Yorker magazine, it was a cardinal belief of the great music composer Arnold Schoenberg that "music should exercise a critical function, disturbing rather than comforting the listener."

Could the same be said of acting?

Yes. And no.

An actor's performance should disturb an audience...deeply, intensely and with troubling complexity, but only to comfort them at the end of the drama; churn up the muddy waters of emotional experience so that it may settle more placidly and solidly in the long run. Throughout the performance, the actor-as-character should be so 'disturbed' by the events of the ongoing drama that the audience, in identifying with the actor-as-character throughout the piece, has its own 'peace' disturbed. However, and here Schoenberg and I might disagree, the drama--and the actor-as-character--should return the audience to a greater peace by the drama's resolution. Think of engaging in a military 'disturbance' to attain a greater peace; or to visit a psychiatrist, to revisit old wounds to attain a greater healing.

My hearing of Schoenberg has always been that he would perhaps argue for perpetual warfare, or, in musical terms, dissonance.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

ON ACTING: Default Modes

Every actor--and most everyday people, for that matter--have a "default mode". That means that under pressure, they resort to a comfortable and automatically adjusting behavioral "setting", a way of operating that is both habitual, comfortable and irresistible.

A default mode is generally created, sustained and practiced early in the actor's life because it worked; it got the actor/child the goodies.

The problem with default modes in an actor can be three-fold: (1) while practical and attractive to the actor, they often may be unattractive and therefore unappealing to an audience (whining is one such mode; another is emotional withdrawal); (2) they may be erroneous to character (for example, whining is not consistent with heroic action; emotional withdrawal is not consistent with a long scene) and (3) as a product of the past, they may be illogical to most if not all present circumstances: like paying for home owner insurance when you no longer own a home and/or the mortgage has already been paid in full.

Actor's (perhaps every day people, too) should check out their behavioral default modes. It would be like checking out your addictions. Do you control them or do they control you? Do they drive your likes and dislikes even when you don't want them to? Are they illogical, irrelevant or unappealing to circumstance?

Default modes should not be allowed to make you default in your career (or lives. for that matter). Actors should try mightily to dig into their personal computers, to deprogram their default modes, so they can change their unproductive settings at will and allow for a variety of possibly more appealing modes: like a sense of humor, steadfastness in the face of adversity, listening to and looking at others, and emotional bravery.

Is acting training a form of behavioral modification, then? Sometimes. To improve as an actor often requires us to improve (that is, to become more appealing) as a human being. What a radical concept!! Why don't we all commit to it. Two for the price of one: A better actor becomes a more appealing human being--at least on stage; and vice versa. The cost of such behavioral modification: the courage to change old safe, survival modes, ones that we have probably been operating under since our youth, and find new ones that both work for our survival needs and are appealing.

Friday, October 01, 2010

ON ACTING: Storytelling

While emotion must dances its heartfelt dance within the actor's performance, storytelling must always engage the actor's performance focus. The actor may feel, but the feelings must be purposefully driven. His/her feelings must arise from the interplay of the actor-as-character's emotional self as it pursues storytelling action.

True, there are seemingly inactive stories, where the events are not propelled by the characters; where characters seem only to suffer inactively "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (Hamlet's phrase), never seeming to shoot their own arrows, as it were, into the face of their own fate. They primary action seems only to survive. They are like leaves bobbing in a rapid filled river, the destiny dictated not by desire to swim to shore, but merely to stay afloat. That is their action. (And one might argue, the often post-modern condition.)

However, both swimming to shore and/or trying desperately to remain afloat take the same energy. They are but opposite sides of the same coin.

The one thing the good actor must never do is to allow themselves to drown into the de-energizing waters of their own emotion..,.to allow feelings to be the be-all and end-all of their total performance. They must either swim to shore or fight desperately to stay afloat. Anything else is performance suicide.