Tuesday, May 24, 2011

ON ACTING: "Playing' Emotions

Actors often seek to 'play' an emotion: They say "I'll play anger here; or sadness here, or laughter there;" all emotions assumed to be generated by the actor at particular points in the scene. Nothing wrong with those "choices" of character emotions. They may be as good as any other 'emotional' choices in the scene. My quibbling with 'playing' emotional choices has less to do with the emotions chosen than with the fundamental dynamics of how emotions--any emotions--arise logically, real-ly, properly in the scene.

Human beings--the template on which all emotional choices of character are based--do not initiate emotional experiences on their own. A humans emotional experience is derivative, it is a secondary happening. Of primary category is the actor/character's prior state of emotional potentiality; pre-existing pools--neural circuits, really--of potential emotions. The process is: A character enters a scene, like all human beings, with the potential for feeling, the possibility of feeling...and then the events of the scene, the stimuli from those events bombard the character, and that bombardment activate specific emotions--neural circuits--from the actors all-too-human potentiality to feel.

The actor-as-character feels anger at that moment because the events of the scene touched her anger circuits at that moment above all others. Or she felt sad there, because the events of the scene activated her neural circuits of sadness at that moment above all others. Or her she laughed there because the events of the scene touched her "funny bone," her neural circuits of laughter at that moment.

So when an actor decides to 'play' any emotion at a particular point in a scene, what the good actor is really saying is: at this point in the scene, I will allow the events of the scene to activate my potential for anger; or at this pint of the scene I will allow the events of the scene to stimulate my human capability for sadness. Or at this point of the scene I will allow what the other say or do to me make me laugh; they will have struck my funny bone.

Emotional preparation pre-dispose us; events dispose us. No one gets up in the morning and wants to get angry. Life--or in the actor's case, preparation exercises--heighten our potential for certain feelings in tha actor-as-character; and then other events, other people, actuate their actual, specific manifestation in us. So when an actor says "I will play that emotion here," what he is really saying is: "At this particular point in the scene I will be prepared to allow myself to feel my chosen feeling (anger, or sadness, or laughter) based on what others specifically say and do to me." THEY make me feel those emotions at any particular point in the scene, and cause them to dominate over all others feelings I have in me at that chosen point of time."

That's why good actors look and listen to others in the scene. They know that other's words and deeds are what causes emotions to arise in us. We are "played" by others. We do not play ourselves.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

ON ACTING: Some Comic Advice

Actors often practice in minute and precise detail their planned response to another characters actions. For example, they say “I will pause here for three seconds after she says 'I love you,' or “As soon as they stop talking I will respond immediately to what he says…” Or they will decide in advance how they are going feel about what another character says or does to them: "When she says that I will feel angry," or, "When she touches me I will feel sexually aroused." When an actor attempts these specific controls on their subsequent reactive behavior, they are predicting not only when and exactly how another character is going to act toward them, but also they are predicting in advance how their own complex emotional system is going to respond toward any stimulus from the other character. This attempt at predicting the exaxt specifics of an actor-as-character’s performance future is a monumental task; one that I would offer is impossible even for the greatest actor. Better the heeds Mel Brooks’ advice about acting: “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to [definitively] eat it.”

Monday, May 16, 2011

ON ACTING: Preparation and Performance

Allow me to make a clear and most important distinction between the two stages of an actor’s endeavors: preparation and performance.

To differentiate them most simply, chronology is most useful: Preparation is all that the actor does prior to performance (pre-performance); while all that the actor (as character) does onstage or--after the actor has been transformed (by preparation) from the actor into the character--can be seen as the actor's performance.

Rehearsal and preparation comprises the actor’s pre-performance activity, all that occurs in anticipation of performance: learning lines, finding the right costume, analyzing character, rehearsal, etc. (A warning-on-the-label: An actor cannot rehearse a future performance; all s/he can do is to rehearse for a performance. Preparation pre-pares us for something that has yet to happen in reality. I often use the sports analogy: you can’t practice a game itself; you can only practice for a game. The game has yet to happen. )
Granted, in rehearsal, tendencies of the opponent—what I would call expectant reality--can be prepared for: character anticipated leanings, inclinations, predispositions can be anticipated, but in reality the future (of the other performances as well as yours) can never be fully known.

The final upcoming onstage or onscreen performance is fundamentally unknowable. It will (and must) flow freely in the performance itself: albeit within the narrowest confines of its actor and director pre-designed (pre-anticipated) banks.

A performance is fundamentally improvisatory. Therefore, the need for true reality requires, nay demands an actor’s anticipated flexibility when anticipating or preparing for any subsequent performance. Humans/actors must accept they—life--are not machines; their precise actions in the future cannot be anticipated and replicated in performance from even after the most assiduously prepared design. The banks of any future performance river can be precisely molded; but the actual running of the river, the flow of human emotions, is deep, complex and ultimately unknowable, and will ultimately flow as they will. An actor’s attempt to do otherwise will fail. The rule: Prepare minutely and thoroughly; then perform freely. They are two distinct stages, two different realities...but...preparation may lead to performance, but preparation never equates with performance.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

ON ACTING: Right Choices

Actors agonize about making the right emotional choice in a scene. Is there a right choice? What is the right choice at any particular moment of a character's life? Am I making the right choice for the moment?

There are some major criteria (or at least considerations) that I offer for making a right choice at any moment in a performance:

(1) Is the moment you choose logical to life? (Remember, in acting, your are creating something that the audience must, at some level of their awareness, finds identifiable to themselves. Otherwise they wont be moved by your performance. If the moment you create is beyond the realm of human possibility (the logic of life), the audience will be repelled rather than drawn in.

SO...if the choice the actor makes is logical to life, can it be "righter"?!

(2) Is the moment chosen not only consistent to life, but also consistent to the to character's life? This is, is the emotional and behavioral choices of the actor consistent with the kinds of feelings and actions such a person as drwn in the script would be likely to feel. For example, if you are playimg a nun, would your choice of feeling and outer behavior be consistent with the widest range of logical possibilities of "nun-like" behavior, at least as that nun is drawn in the actions and dialogue of the script? If it is not, if the choice is outside the boundaries of feeling and behavioral possibilities of the scripted "nun-like" behavior, the audience will reject the performance as "illogical" to context and character, and hence, unidentifiable.

(3) Is the actor's choice of feeling and behavior, while always logical to life and character as scripted, the actor must next ask: are the choices--even within those logical parameters--also intense, varied and complex; i.e., are the choices exciting? And be exciting, I mean revealing of the deepest, most engaging and perhaps even unexpected, aspects of possible "nun-like" behavior...while still logical to life and character within the script?

(4) Is the actor up to the task: can the actor execute that choice in performance with emotional honesty and behavioral ease (i.e., not let the "acting" show)?

(5) Is the actor willing, in performance, to allow the choices to be altered by the unavoidable spontaneity that a powerful and audience-identifiable performance creates. "You can prepare for a game (make choices), but the reality of the game will ultimately determine your final performance."

So...a right choice is (1) logical to life, (2) logical to the character's scripted life, (3) logical to the desire/demand for performance excitingness, (4) within the actor's capability to execute with honesty and truth, and ultimately (5) allowed to be spontaneaously generated in performance.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

To explore oneself through the writings of others is the joy of acting.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

ON ACTING: And Sex and Sports

I have often been accused in my teaching career of using too many sexual images in my meditations on acting. Why? A dirty young man? A dirty old man? Perhaps both. But I still find sexual analogies oh-so-apt when trying to explain acting. To begin with, both efforts involve similar concepts and language: acting and sex involves interrelating, conflict (people banging into one another, pun intended), deep emotional involvement, passion, build, and climax. Also, both acting and sex shared the same divine origins (at least in Western Civilization)...they were favored by the same Greek God: Dionysus (who also was connected strongly with wine).

Good acting has always been to me like good sex. The less you fake it, the more satisfying it will be; and the more the passion arises in conjunction with the other person, the more both of you will be served by performance success and gratification.

There are differences between acting and sex of course: for one thing the dialogue in sex seem to be less important than in acting. (The Dionysian rites--part of early Greek religion--were at their core dance efforts. The introduction of dialogue--scripts--oarticipants talking while moving and feeling, came later. NOTE: when the dialogue if acting or sex is introduced and does transcend banalities, however, both efforts are served. A good script --sculpted language--is always welcome, in bed or on stage.)

I must confess I use sexual images less now in teaching...they say it is unseemly at my age. My wife recently criticized me for writing sexual banter in a scene I was creating...it had to do with two people in the seventies recalling a distant time of love: "I don't think it's realistic for people of their age to talk so openly about sex like that. It doesn't seem real," she said. I just sighed, and moved on.

(Full disclosure: I now use sports analogies less as well; but that diminishing of usage may have to do with gender appropriateness rather than age-appropriateness. Women relate less to sports: they often sit boringly unresponsive when I talk about sports in terms of emotion, spontaneity, conflict and...yes, I must admit, banging around within a proscribed field of endeavor.)

They say each effort, whether in analogy or in teaching, has its own time and effectiveness. So goodbye to sexual analogies; goodbye to sports analogies. And hello to...old age, death and eternity analogies?!...forget it.

Acting will always be, with or without sexual and sports analogies for me a celebration of life, not a meditation on it. Acting is a joyous effort to create life, and celebrate characters involvement in it. As a teacher I may be forced by aging appropriateness to use sexual (and sports) analogies less...but I encourage other teachers to use them more. They are true. They are effective. They are pertinent. Acting is Living. Sex creates Life. Sports celebrates Life. All efforts are gloriously different sides of the same Living coin.