Monday, November 29, 2010

ON ACTING: The Timing of Comedy Dialogue

On stage, the actor says the line. The audience erupts in laughter. The actor has a quandary: when does he or she say the next line? Does she ignore the laughter and say the next line in the rhythm of the character inter-exchange? Or wait until the audience ceases all laughter (the actor maintaining character reality by being engaged in other activity) before speaking again?

Most all actors are instructed (properly) to "ride the wave of laughter": that is, wait until the explosion laughter of the audience peaks...then wait even further until the laughter begins to diminish (I would argue at an accelerating pace), and then...and only at that moment...before the laughter has fully played out...say the next line.

Comedy (the joke, the funny line...the funny action or reaction) is a release of tension. And if the actor waits too long for ALL the laughter to be released, the tension in the piece, the energy of the performance not to mention the whole piece, will dissipate, disappear, like a wave crashing to a foamy but basically un-energized frothy puddle.

Comedy (for that matter, good drama too) requires sustained tension. That tension can be relieved, modulated, played with during a performance by the good actor ...but it should never disappear. When it disappears, the audience 's involvement disappears.

Let the audience have their laughter/release, but never let them off the tension hook. May their sides hurt from laughing too much, getting no relief, than cease laughing entirely (all tension released) and be bored.

The great comedy writer/director Billy Wilder when responding to a similar question concerning whether he was not leaving enough time in his editing of The Apartment (it may have been Some Like It Hot) for the audience to laugh before he moved on to the next line (the questioner said "they may not hear the next line because they were still laughing..."). "Great," Wilder interjected. "I hope they laugh after the first joke and never hear any of the remaining film dialogue for the next two hours. It would be a great success."

Saturday, November 27, 2010

ON ACTING: A Tip on Line Memorization

A practical pointer for learning lines: practice learning your lines from the middle of a scene (or for that matter, from the middle of the whole play) at least as many times as you start learning them from the beginning.

As an actor, if you are anything like I am, you generally recite memorized lines intil you make a mistake, and then go back to the beginning and start over.

Do you see what that does? It automatically makes you repeat the early part of the scene many more times than you repeat the latter sections...making the early part of the scene more ingrained more deeply in your brain's muscle memory that the latter lines in the scene (or, as I say, in the whole play).

This compounds the memory dilemma because the latter part of a scene (or, once again, of a whole play) generally requires greater emotional involvement on the part of the actor...which more often than not makes memory more faulty; lines are more likely to be "dropped" in more emotionally engaging parts of an actor's performance; at the end of a scene of whole play than the beginning.

So let us expand our practical pointer to read: for every time you repeat your lines from the beginning of a scene or play, repeat your lines staring in the middle TWICE as much from the middle (to the end); once for pure equity in repetition, and, the additional time to prepare for the latter half of the scene's (or play's) demands on line memorization.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

ON ACTING: On a Personal Note

The following email was sent by an auditor in one of my classes. I post it on this web site because (1) It pleases me personally. (2) It pleases me and I want to share it. (3) It pleases me and I want to share it because the writer has the right attitude toward perfecting their acting: to become excellent in anything it takes hard word, the willingness to confront one's mistakes, and the confidence to be pleasant and forthright when dealing with that reality.

I hope and pray for nothing but success for this actor.

"Dear Cliff,
I just wanted to thank you for letting my crash your class last Wednesday. I really enjoyed the time you took not only to focus on me as a visitor but the way you handle actors in general. I love that you neither baby nor destroy the actor. I really appreciate your honesty with my work, and that you stopped me every time I strayed. I found myself trying to "act" like the character instead of being the character. It's been a while since I've had a wake up call like that, so thank you for the mini ass kicking.

"I also wanted to apologize for not telling you this as soon as the class let out. I work a lot of morning shifts at ______, and I was very tired by the end of class. However, this had nothing to do with how interesting I found your class. I later couldn't stop talking about everything you taught. My mind was reeling with words from the article you gave us, and left me contemplating how I approach being apart of a story.

"Thank you so much for the time you give to actors, especially us poor ones who would love to take your class had it not been for financial struggles. I really respect your passion for the arts, it seems so rare to find people who are actually passionate in Hollywood. I hope that I'll be able to come back and work with you again, because I can always use a good actor ass kicking!


She added, as an addendum: "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another."

Thank you, K; thank you from an old teacher's heart and mind.

In order to touch many hearts, the actor must first touch his own.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

ON ACTING: The Opinionated Actor

Every line of dialogue we speak (dare I say dialogue in life as well as in acting) is an opinion. Nobody know the truth. Talk (dialogue) is a hypothesis (not irrefutable fact) that we want others to believe (as truth). We seek concurrence in our opinions in order to facilitate the achievement of our goals through those others. If others believe what we believe, they will be more willing to give us what we want.

But...because all opinions by definition fall short of absolute truth, that should be no reason for the speaker to feel uncertain; or worse, feel that they should apologize for those opinions (words of dialogue).

NOBODY knows the, since nobody knows the truth, since you don't know the truth any better than I, my opinion is as good as yours; unless and until you convince me of the opposite,

So in terms of acting, a well acted, interesting scene is a fair, open and honest battle of opinions (dialogue). No more, no less. And good actors regale in giving as good as they get.

Bad actors, on the other hand, often seem angry, frustrated, moan-y or whiny when forced to give an opinion in order to secure the victory, or concurrence. Perhaps they act in those ways because they don't believe in their inherent right to be right, to their own opinion. They therefore don't find any joy in the tactical struggle of their logic vis-a-vis the other character.

Almost unfailingly the attitude of the uncomfortable-actor-in-conflict, as manifested in body and voice, betrays their dislike of the logical give-and-take. Those manifestation(s) of their discomfort makes the audience uncomfortable...which causes the audience (and similarly casting directors who often witness such performances) to find such actors exhibiting those traits off-putting and unappealing.

To such unappealing actors, those who find conflict and the battle of opinions lacking in pleasure and delight, I offer this suggestion. Learn to play the game ping pong; and learn to play the game human/dialogue ping-pong from it. Because that is what the dialogue in a scene is: a game of verbal ping-pong. The actors are the paddles in the scene, and their respective thought, as it is expressed in the dialogue, is the ping-pong ball, to be hit back and forth in a wide array of shots, some twisting, some hard, some with lots of spin, some tantalizing soft, perhaps even with backward spin, some not hit as a winning shot, but as a set-up for the following winning shot.

Actors: learn to enjoy the game of life; to have fun batting it back and forth. Remember, it is a game; a game of wits and wants and "believe me and agree with me or I'll keep battling with you forever." There is nothing about the game to get necessarily angry, or frustrated, or moan-y or whiny about. Conflictual tactics is life. We all are destined to play it. The only choice to be made is whether to play it gleefully or with chagrin. "It is not whether we win or lose, but how well we play the game; as in life, it is not the ecstasy of the victory or the agony of defeat, but the joy of the struggle." Such is life; such is good acting.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

MOVIE REVIEW: "City Island"

I saw a lovely, buoyantly happy film last night on DVD. It was written and directed by Raymond D. Felitta) and stars Andy Garcia (who also produced): "City Island." I must admit I--along with most moviegoers--missed it when it opened (the box office take was horrible) back in Spring when it was released in theaters.

It is one of those all-too-often sad tales of a 'small' Hollywood film that gets overlooked. It is a charming, well acted, and well envisioned. Its story made a promise in the opening minutes, and it fulfilled that promise. Such a rarity in most of today's films! It stars Andy Garcia, Julainna Margulies, Steven Strait, Alan Arkin and Emily Mortimer. They are all very good, and create very audience appealing character-performances.

Andy Garcia is more than good...he is excellent. I have never been a huge fan of Mr. Garcia's distinguished career--respectful but reserved in my enthusiasm for his work. But in this work he is superb. I am a fan now.

The film is and should be particularly joyous for actors and acting students to watch. Mr. Garcia's character is a prison guard by day; a closet acting student by night (he lies to his wife about his secret passion...he says he is going to poker games.) When he is given an acting exercise in class to tell the truth, he is encouraged by a fellow acting student (Ms. Mortimer) to spring on his family his deeper personal truth: the young man he brought home earlier in the film to live with his family as a rehabilitating ex-prisoner, is really his son from a long ago teenage romance. Not even the ex-con/small-time-thief son knows that truth.

Set on a small suburban island in the midst of New York City, the film setting becomes both real and surreally fantastic at the same time. The story events and scenes are filled with whimsy, humor, pathos and familial truth. Each character's personaly stories constantly intersect--and you participate in a dysfunctional family's deconstruction you love to love.

It is not a sophisticated film. And it doesn't pretend to be...thank God. Rent the DVD and watch it. It was recommended to me as a "Sunday afternoon film." I watched it on a Saturday night, late and dark, but it made the sun shine.

Friday, November 05, 2010

ON ACTING: Achieving Greatness

Greatness cannot simply be wished for; it must be worked on. Effort is the method by which one gets the key to the actor's executive washroom.

Luck is a factor in human life, as it lightning; however, both strike with about the same frequency. Just as one must prepare to avoid the grounding possibilities of a lightning strike; one must equally work to create the conditions to attract luck to strike...and hold.

Perhaps one should one simply pray to the Gods for greatness? But that, too entails work: Which Gods? Which prayers? Do the most giving Gods simply want language and song, or do they require tithing and good deeds? Is attendance at church required? Must I embrace other religions as well? Or focus on one? Moreover, if I find greatness along that path, is achievement by Gods or Luck permanent? Or will good luck just hand around a while and then turn to bad? Are the Gods fickle? Will they love me forever?

Perhaps I should turn to hard work after all. It seems the most sensible path to my dreams. I hear sweat cleanses the body of toxins; hard work develops muscles, and effort leaves one with a pleasing sense of personal control. Even after failure, one can say: "I did all I could." "What more could anyone ask?" "We were the architects of our own design, rough-hew them how we will." Efforts banishes regrets. "We don't regret the things we haven't done; we regret the things we didn't try to do."

I have decided: I will work hard. I will follow the dictum that success is the child of blood, sweat and tears; achievement will more readily follow effort than Gods, luck or lightening.

Moreover, I've heard that to respect oneself first by one's commitment to work is to prepare the ground for other's working respect. And other's working respect is a great factor is achieving greatness. It is the bedrock on which other's self-respect is built; a synonym for perceived greatness.

I'm off to work: the gym, the computer, books, classes. I feel better already.

Monday, November 01, 2010

ON ACTING: From an Old Student: "Learning Lines, Being Prepared and Other Things"

An email just came in that came in that made me smile and be happy:

"Hi Cliff,

I wanted to let you know that I just purchased your book! Congrats on its
release. I look forward to seeing your wise words in print that I heard for so
many years. I often quote you to young actors. I tell them your stories on sets,
your thoughts about comedy and tragedy, and your mantra about being prepared for

I'm now in a theatre company in SF as well as doing the
commercial/voiceover/industrial side of the business. Tomorrow I will be doing a
Visa corporate video, and I'm in the process of knowing my lines better than the
director. I learned that from you.

Thank you for giving me such a great foundation to begin my acting life. Take
care Cliff and I wish you continued success!