Saturday, April 28, 2012

ON ACTING: The Preparation Technique of "Prior History"

To encourage and facilitate more emotional openness and complexity in an actor-as-character, actors sometimes are asked in their rehearsal to create a fictional ‘prior history’ of the character. They are asked to imaginatively ‘fill in the gaps’ of a character’s past life left open by the script. For example: “My character got married (this was in the script) because she was pregnant and a week after the marriage her husband talked her into an abortion (this was not in the script) .” Or: “My character was born wealthy (in the script) but secretly hates him her father because he was arrested for stock fraud, and spent six months in jail and she has always felt betrayed (not in the script).” Or: “My character is a college graduate (in the script), got straight A’s but cheated on finals (not in the script).”
Imagined prior history works very well as an emotional exercise because it forces the actor to stir up their own complex and often contradictory emotions and experiences and to thereby make those emotions available to the actor-as-character in performance. (Not surprisingly, the imagined histories almost invariably reflect the actor’s personal and often complex histories! After all: who is doing the 'back- story' fictional imagining but the actor?!) The exercise then becomes a highly effective method for the actor to tap into and grant himself permission to feel what they are already capable of feeling, to emotionally open up and emotionally‘identify’ with the character through the fictional use of such character invented history. At core it is a trick to end-run one's own emotional reluctance: tricking-oneself into activating and using deep, often hidden (denied?) experiences and feelings one already has for subsequent use by the actor-as-character in performance.

Friday, April 27, 2012

ON ACTING: "Edginess"

The actor had given a performance in class the night before, and he felt he had not tapped into the full richness of his own ability. It lacked a certain 'something'--an 'edge,' he called it. He got the same criticism from several casting directors and producers: his work, while good, lacked edge.

He called me about it.

I told him--as I had told him before--that I, too, while I thought him a wonderful actor, agreed that his work lacked edge; he lived in performance aback from the edge, a few feet back from danger, where the actor's emotional life was often very interesting to watch but rarely exciting, engaging; never dangerous. The audience always appreciated his work, but was rarely swept away.

What could he do about it? We talked about increasing his out-of-class work on edginess 'preparation', stirring up his emotional sub-text before any of his performances so that when  he entered every scene he entered with a heightened emotional potentiality; susceptibility for emotional response, but he admitted he was still been resisting the very concept. "What is it about edgy people--and characters--that makes them edgy? Maybe if I understood the concept, it would help me."

I offered the following:

....Edgy people--and characters--know--emotionally--life and death; sexuality and anger, the alpha and omega, beginning and end of life. They are emotionally familiar with it. They live their performance on the edge of this existence; and are always at risk of falling off that character performance edge into the deep and dangerous chasms of their own rage, sexuality, despair, laughter and death. They may often may live their surface life "coolly," but they are always standing on thin ice. They barely are in control of their emotions. They are easily stimulated by life (events and others in the scene) into the fullness of their own rich passion. They are volatile human beings; they exist as volcanoes always ready to erupt. We, the audience, sense it, and wait excitingly in anticipation. The slightest provocation can stimulate edgy actors into any possible condition or state of out-of-controlled-ness. They back away from nothing. They embrace everything. They are impulsive, driven by momentary emotional need, not overly-disciplined by long-term thinking logic. They live in the moment, of the moment, for the moment.

....They are often self-destructive. They gamble constantly with their own lives. They play winner-take-all; they live a high stakes life. They adhere to one philosophy: "Better to have loved (and hated, and humiliated, and cursed and embraced) than never to be loved (or hated, and humiliated, and cursed and embraced) at all.

....Fuck it; if they are "in the game" of life, they are "all in." They vow to experience everything. To them life is neutral if not meaningless; BUT you give it meaning by the passion with which you embrace it. "Why live...except to LIVE!" Why perform but to embrace the rich edgy life of the scene --both interpretively and in execution--with vibrancy and emotional recklessness. That is the edgy actor's motto. Never backwards; always forwards. Even a momentary move or look away is only a clever energized end-run to the goal.

....From Dean to Penn, from Brando to Depp, From DeNiro to Pacino, from Robert Downey, Jr. to Chris Rock, those kinds of actors on edge the moment the curtain rises, or the director yells, "Action"...and the edge never leaves until they drag you offstage with a closed curtain or drag you off your thin ice of filming with the abrasive sound of "Cut."

...Directors, Casting Directors, Agents, Producers and Writers, work on an emotional safety net set far back from the edge of the set...and then place us actors on the emotional edge of their creating, in their plays and scripts and ask us to be openly humiliated, loved, infuriated, enraged, sexually overwhelmed, frightened, sad and often murdered. When we achieve it, they praise us and overpay us. When we don't, they dismiss us with faint praise.

....Thus is the life of an actor...onstage and off...on the edge.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

ON ACTING: The Subjective Experience of Character Analysis

Actors often say, when analyzing any scene or script: “Well…my character is ‘blah, blah, blah….” I generally quickly interrupt them: “What character?” I ask. They look at me blankly. “The character on the page,” they say. It is now my turn to look blankly at them: “What character?” They stare; I continue: “You talk as if there were some character on the page.” I hold up their script page for them to look at. “Is there a picture of a person on the page, something that I am missing?” Their confusion continues, often exhibiting concern for my sanity. I continue: “All I see are black and white straight and squiggly lines on a black sheet of paper. I don’t see a character.”  A bit of frustration slips into their voices. “The character,” they say patiently and often patronizingly, “the dialogue…the words on the page…” “Oh (I feign a moment of lucidity), you mean your personal interpretation of those straight and squiggly black lines which you have learned to recognize and interpret as words, ideas, implicit feelings underscoring those words, on that otherwise blank, white piece of paper…” They ponder.

This has been a long convoluted way to make a very important point: No script (series of black lines on a white page)  will ever be interpreted the same way by the same two actors (or for that matter by the same two audience members). So actors should be warned at the very beginning of script analysis: Stop trying to find the one right (by that I mean definitive) interpretation of a script; it is futile.  The actor’s reading of a script is a priori their subjective evaluation of what we call dialogue and stage directions and its interpretation and performance are necessarily unique to that actor.

What the actor is really saying when interpreting a script is: “…according to my knowledge of oral language, represented by that symbolic structure called letters/words on the page--and based on my experience with life and human behavior in general—that is, how people behave by when offering such a verbal discourse, I believe such patterning of black and white straight and squiggly lines of dialogue on a printed page indicates that ‘my character is’ and ‘my character is doing (feeling and saying) this or that’…”

Of course the hope in all drama and dramatic performance is that the actor’s personal interpretation of the black and white squiggly and straight lines will strike a universal chord in the audience (Aristotle called it: finding the universal in the particular) But ultimately all art is subjective; subject to the artist's interpretation.

Great artists embrace that interpretive freedom...and challenge. Lesser artists run away from it. And ask the director: "How do you want me to do this?" Or: "What is the right way to do this.?" The answer is: "Your choice." The director can guide you with suggestions (i.e., his/her own necessarily subjective interpretations) and give you general encouragement, but what the black squiggly lines ultimately up to you...and your knowledge and insights into human behavior; both yours and ultimately the audience's.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

On a Personal Note: Warming a Teacher's and Writer's Heart

I want to share with the reader a lovely letter I received this week from a student. It warmed my heart. It reminded me of the core joy in teaching: reaching out and touching someone else for their benefit. He gave me permission to print it. I told him I would abbreviate his name to initials to grant him some anonymity.

"Dear Cliff,

You may not remember me but I certainly remember you. I am [T. C.], one of Mari Ferguson's students and I attended your workshop in Houston last June. I also bought your book Acting Is Living. And I will admit that I did not even open the book for months.

It wasn't until I went to audition for an acting school in New York called the New York Conservatory For Dramatic Arts that I wanted to be totally and completely in the moment. So I picked up your book and started reading. After reading bits and pieces of the book I quickly became attached to it. After confidently and successfully auditioning for the school, I received a phone call not even a week later from the school letting me know that I am accepted (only 300 can be accepted at one time) and I received a LARGE scholarship.

That was a couple of months ago. Now I am being enrolled into their program this week.

Also I am currently in High school one act play and am doing the role of Hal Carter. We are advancing to regionals and I have received best actor at both contests so far. I am now being fully in the moment and am now able to believe that I am the character "living." I fully blame my performance level on your book. And now my theatre teacher is telling other theatre teachers about it.

Your book is a testament to me. So I just felt I needed to share my appreciation and hopefully in the future I can work with you again.

I have a dream of becoming something BIG one day and your book will always there for me.

Thank you,

Monday, April 16, 2012

ON ACTING: Properly Increasing Energy in a Scene

The student saw a tape of his performance and said of his efforts: "I was flat; I need more energy." So he proceeded to increase his energy in the next scene. The subsequent performance, while it had more energy, appeared "acted," forced, short, fake and off-putting.

Where had the student gone wrong?

In a desire to increase the energy in a scene, an actor must remember that it is not the actor's energy we are desiring to increase in the scene, but the actor-as-character's energy. We want the character to come more alive; not just the actor-as-actor.

When choosing to be more energetic in the scene, a smart actor returns to the basics of life, which are the basics of acting: in life, energy is increased by a more increased emotional involvement in an event, primarily manifested by an increased desire to attain a goal.

Therefore, when an actor is requested by self or director to increase the energy in a scene (or, as a corollary, increase the pace), the actor should not just push their actor-self to be more energetic is the scene, but rather increase his character's commitment to their goal. He should want what the character wants in the scene more intensely; make the character's goal more important.

Then, with this basic 'real life' energy adjustment, the resultant effort will not only have more energy, but also give rise to all the other elements of living character truth: a heightened awareness and sensitivity to others, a greater emotional impact on the actor-as-character throughout the scene, an economy and focus in that energy as it moves through the actor's body and will create in the actor's performance the total human package, an energetic portrayal not disassociated from overall character reality and truth. The increased energy will result in the total life package in performance, and not be arbitrary, false and off-putting.

The student did the scene again, with the adjustment of increased commitment to the character's objective, and the resultant performance was energetic and exciting...and most importantly, excitingly real.

Friday, April 13, 2012

ON ACTING: The Undiscovered Self

Acting is not a matter of presenting the known. It is a discovery of the unknown.

It is not a process of replicating old human definition, but rather an attempt at new human exploration.

How much do we really know about human nature, ours and/or others?

Ask any 17yr. old, and they will say they know 70% of human nature. Ask a 30 yr. old; they say 50%...a 50 yr. old says 20%. I'm in my seventies; I'm about down to 3%. My life time has been one long surprise after another when it comes to how I respond under pressure: which is the truest definition of my character: how I feel and deal under duress.

When I was young I THOUGHT (more alarmingly, was CERTAIN) I would do such-and-such when pressured, but most of the time--dare I say 97% of the time--I was pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised.

That greatest joy and success in acting comes from this: a safe place to continue emotionally to test oneself under pressure (due to the conflict of a scene and the intimacy of character relationships); and, when subjected to such pressure, discover (and reveal before an audience) the full and subtle complexity of one's own  particular human nature...and therby, through the process of identification, the audience's.

Good actors eagerly embrace the exploratory nature of acting. They look foward to traveling new rivers of their experience, leaving the map-making of their exploratory journey to those (the audience) who follow.

Bad actors on the other hand avoid new places, choosing in performance to go up well-mapped and crowded old rivers (of themselves and others). They are tired, safe tourists, not new and brave explorers. They perform only what is known. They carefully present (and control) prior experience. The best of these bad actors are limited in performance choices to cliches...because, after all, what is a cliche but a truth so well known that people are bored by hearing and seeing it over and over.

If one seeks a career based only capitalizing on the already discovered, I suggest that person go into engineering, or some other applied science. But if they want a career of expanding new personal boundries, a one way ticket on a space ship into the undiscoved self, the interior universe--by the way, populated by as many cells as there are stars in the universe--try your hand at courageous acting; seek in performance new emotional discoveries about yourself (and others). I can almost guarantee will never be the same; and your success will be greater.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

ON ACTING: Banish the Liar

The most egregious sin for an actor is to give an unreal emotional performance; one is which the audience says afterwards "I didn't believe it. I could tell the actor was only pretending to feel."

To act (in the most pejorative sense) without emotional reality is to lie.

Nobody likes a liar.

While we may sometimes appreciate skillful liars--marvel at the cleverness of their deceit--in the long run we avoid them...on stage/screen or off.

Don't bad actors (liars) sometimes get away with it? Find a modicum of success in their careers?

Of course they do; like liars in everyday life find occasional success. But false actors (and liars everywhere) are advised to remember Lincoln's statement: "You can fool some of the people all the time; you can fool all of the people some of the time; but you can't fool all of the people all the time."

Lying as an actor--trying to get away with a series of unreal (emotionally uninvolved and personally unconnected) performances--will catch up to such performers in the long run. They will be applauded and embraced only by fools; which is a hell of an insecure fan base on which to build a career.

Actors should tell the truth as characters. They should embrace the character's beliefs--and feelings. "Judge not, lest ye be judged." If the character is a liar, lie honestly. Whatever the emotional life of the character is written to be, the actor should honestly feel it.

Actors in performance are free to feel anything demanded of the character. Why 'act' when one can truly 'be'; which is nothing more or less than that which we do everyday: spontaneously feel as life acts on us.

Acting is a profession for the courageously honest. On stage the good actor must embrace the following character job-descriptions, and emotionally comply: killers must hate; on screen lovers must love and the fearful must truly be frightened.

The audience pays for truth-wrapped-in-fiction in the theater, to escape the mendacity and shallowness of their everyday lives. Give them less than the whole spontaneous truth and they will reward you with less than their full embrace; now and for the rest of your (I gurantee you) lesser career.

Monday, April 09, 2012

The proper goal of acting is leading the audience to a recognition of themselves.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

ON ACTING: The Basics

In order to be a great actor, I believe the actor must be comfortable living with sex and death.

That does not mean every actor should go out and practice indiscriminate sex, or beat up or kill someone. Just because every town has a whore house and a cemetary doesn't mean the actor must literally live there. But they must practice IMAGINING and FEELING those places and situations, and willing to live out those attendant passions in performance.

All other passions pale before sexuality and rage, the colors of red and black. And logically so. Sex and death are the wellspring of life...and its end.

That does not mean all other of life's colors, feelings, are less powerful or important; that there are not brilliant hues of yellow, blue, green and pink; manifestations of sadness, happiness, love and humor that also inspire greatness. But anger and desire, rage and sexuality, drive existence; and drama.

When an actor remains uncomfortable with sex and death (which generally invites a lack of subtlety in their expressive efforts), it limits the actor's character range--and career possibilities.

If you are an actor who is uncomfortable performing roles that demand sexuality and anger, let me ask a question of you: do you like watching love/sex and/or violence/anger scenes in movies? Probably most of you will say yes. So if you do, that means your are not dead to sex and death, just reticent to feel it in public, feel it in stark blaring light of performance.

Life is existentially circumscribed by sex and death; why not embrace it...own it...and learn--through exercises, techniques and practice--to give yourself permission to feel and perform those emotions passionately (hopefully with great subtlety) in front of people. A worthy effort to strive for in the safety of an acting class.

Friday, April 06, 2012

The Value of Time and Experience

A quote attributed to Meryl Streep: "I think your self emerges more clearly over time."

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

ON ACTING: How to Avoid Doing Nothing

There an old bugaboo called the "3 P's": Perfection, Procrastination and Paralysis...we want our creative effort (acting or any other art) to be perfect so we procrastinate (working on it) until we become paralyzed (do nothing).

One corrective is an attitude shift: accept that nothing is ever perfect. Even the universe is not in its final form.

Consider everything you are working on (including you) to be a preliminary draft, a work-in-progress...even if certain drafts have to be turned in and given hypothetical final a published book or a written movie script or a stage performance. But even then, notice: books are revised, scripts are re-written (even their movies have re-makes) and there is always tomorrow night's performance; or another 'take' if we are doing film. Yesterday's work was just a prelude to today, today's work is just a prelude to tomorrow; and tomorrow's work a prelude to the day after that.

Wake up every day and work a little more on your continuing imperfect work of art; make it better  knowing it will never be "best."

Think of perfection as death, the end of growing. The joy of life--and art--is in the process, not the final result (especially if, once again, we think as the final result is death: "His life is perfect now...he's in the grave.")

I suggest: "I'm happy again...back at work! Will my work ever be perfect? Of course not. But I'm perfectly happy just being back at work."