Allow me to rage, give voice to thoughts hushed and guarded, unexpressed, trapped, traversing the crania of teachers of serious acting, for fear of grave offense against what THEY say, for fear of pissing off a longtime student who has wandered or wants to wander from serious acting training, and by serious acting I mean training geared towards creating a serious actor, which is to say not someone without a sense of humor, no, no, not that, definitely not that, god have mercy, forbid it, but rather one whose sense of humor is not necessarily the issue per se, that is to say, the thoughts of those of us trying to train a skilled actor who simply can have a real shot at a career in film, television and theatre, an actor who is skilled in both comedy and drama, and can honestly investigate a writer’s premise in any style and any form and do so richly and believably and consistently for as many performances as you’d like, in as many or as few takes as is your preference, on as little notice as you’d wish. Got it? So here goes: Fuck improv training.
[I posted this entry in 2010, but the topic keeps smacking me in the face, so I thought it was worth revisiting with an edit, update and repost.]
It doesn’t quite work, because “Cynema” and “Cinema” are homonyms. Visually – okay. To the ear, it needs to be “Cynical Cinema.”
cynical, adj., 1. concerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted or appropriate standards, 2. distrustful of human sincerity or integrity
cynema, n., filmmaking motivated by cynical inclinations as to what will move the creators’ careers forward, at the expense of coherence, humanity or passion; cynema is often characterized by slavish devotion to a style, it rarely demonstrates any devotion to a focused story, it is marked by poor craftsmanship, improvisation in lieu of writing, a desperate desire to be funny (often by imitating others’ humor), emphasis on the ‘mockumentary’ form, hitting visual punchlines, etc.
We’ve all had enough of it, right? How many invitations have we received to look at vimeo, youtube, whatever, to see the latest work by an acquaintance, and you want to throw heavy objects at your fragile computer? If I never see another stupid fucking unfunny mockumentary again in this lifetime or any lifetime to follow, it will be too soon. Stop it! If you aren’t going to be funnier than Spinal Tap or Waiting for Guffman (or that delicious Extras skit between Gervais and McKellen about acting), don’t do it! And trust me, you probably aren’t funnier than those films. Those are professionally funny people, and in this business if you haven’t been paid to be funny, there’s an awfully good chance that if you tried, you simply aren’t funny enough to be paid for it.
I’ve emphasized in plenty of entries here how important I think it is that actors follow up on all professional interactions. Auditions, callbacks, meetings, on-set work… Fact is, once an actor knows how to act, the business they’re really in is the name-collecting and followup business. In A Universal Career Jumpstart, I put down three lists I think every actor should draw up and add to on an ongoing basis. Setting to the side any and all internal work the actor might do to keep themselves moderately sane, and all the forward-gazing goals, mantras, and conceptualizing, if an actor can do these two things – act well and follow up – those two skills alone, pursued with discipline over time, will beget more acting work.
So. What to say to these people? Not for me to dictate, as clearly it’s too context-dependent. BUT, I can say this: Communicate on a peer-to-peer basis. By this I mean that too much of the correspondence I have occasionally been able to review comes from a lowly, I’m-just-aspring, you-are-a-god-and-I’m-out-of-work, look-how-clever-I’m-being-to-get-your-attention place. That stuff reeks of insecurity and low esteem. Don’t do it.
An actor is a prism. The writing is the light.
Each writer, being utterly unique, will create a different variation of light.
Each actor, being utterly unique, will refract light in his or her own distinct way, before even thinking of making a choice about the matter.
A director’s job is to look at the light, figure out which prism does the best job refracting that particular light, and manipulate a bunch of prisms during rehearsal or shooting so in combination they create a light show… like that. No… Like THAT.
So one thing you can do is ensure you, the prism, are clear, not cracked, not sharp to hold, that you’re easy to move this way and that, and that the light shines through you in a nice vivid way. Meaning: say the damned lines correctly and in order, and of course imbue them with reality and emotions appropriate to the situation of the story and the tone of the script, and style of the writer. Once you do that, the nature of your instrument – including age, voice, look, body, ethnicity, etc – will either contribute to your being right for the part or not. So the part of that equation you really control is the “imbue them with the reality and emotions appropriate to the story point and tone of the script and style of the writer.”
Here’s a question I think actors should ask themselves more often:
What is required of me by this story?
Asking this question can lead to a much faster understanding of “what to play” than will hours of mental gymnastics regarding “what is my internal truth regarding the character/situation”? I’m not trying to knock that traditional question, but I find there to be a major pitfall with singular “what is my personal truth?” analysis:
Sometimes your own truth about a given situation is simply not appropriate to the story before you. Take your standard relationship fight: You might have a personal truth about this that leads you to play contempt and anger and vitriol – after all, it’s what happened to you in a similar situation in your life. Last month you had a breakup and it was nasty. Or it’s what you observed in your parents’ marriage. Problem: The scene is from Barefoot in the Park, if you play it with contempt and bile, the scene dies a horrible death – there’s no fun in it, there’s no comedy. But on the other hand, if the scene before you is Revolutionary Road, then all that contempt is exactly what it needed. If you’re funny with Revolutionary Road then we’re in as much trouble as we are when you are contemptuous with Barefoot in the Park. And yet both stories deal with a marriage in trouble.
This goes to the item on Milton’s famed checklist: Who’s the Author? When he and I rewrote his book Acting Class in 2008, we spent a week contemplating whether to put Who’s the Author? first on the checklist, because the writer’s sensibility is so important to understanding the Event (“What’s going on?”), which had always been #1. In the end, we decide to leave Event as #1, but the fact remains: the Event is informed hugely by who is writing about it.
Lights up on…. An agent showcase. Over the next hour or so, fifteen scenes will be performed, about 3 minutes each. Almost all will be glib comedies with glib acting, no one giving a shit about anything other than whether this so-called ‘work’ will please… them. THEY. The all-powerful THEY, who will assess your talent, your look, and then hopefully represent you and get you auditions.
Recently a scene was performed in class. It was a two-and-a-half-minute rather glib comedically-tilted fight between a young couple at a party – an awkward compliment he had previously paid her anatomy was received poorly, she was still stewing on it, and that was the premise. Banter was exchanged, actress walks off in a huff, actor follows, exasperated, and…… scene.
Turns out one of the actors had written the scene, because they were performing in an agent showcase a couple nights later, and they couldn’t find something that would suffice for the three-minute limit. In addition, the omniscient, all-mighty THEY say it’s good to do comedy in these workshops. It’s what THEY want to see.
How does this situation make me vomit? Let me count the ways:
A student of mine sent this to me – comedian Patton Oswalt’s keynote at last year’s Just For Laughs Comedy Festival. It is awesome. Watch it. Live it.
My wife recently had coffee with a very successful entrepreneur, and he told her he wakes up every morning “wanting to hear ‘no’ at least ten times by the time I go to sleep.” This took her by surprise, so she followed up, and he expanded: “For me to hear a ‘no’ from someone, it means I had to have an idea or proposal or something, get it in front of someone else for them to evaluate it, and then they thought about it, even if for a second. That represents a lot of good work done. And it’s just ‘no’ for now. Maybe it’s ‘yes’ later on. Eventually, from someone, I’m gonna hear ‘yes,’ but it’s the same work done either way. The main thing is to do the work, that’s what lets me sleep.”
Soon thereafter I met with yet again another of the fifteen bazillion actors I know who display immense talent and who do pretty much nothing about running the business of getting that talent out there. So I drew a far messier version of this diagram:
Over on the left-hand side is “Not Much Going On.” I think many actors may enjoy sitting there in “Not Much Going On,” because, while they know they’re completely slacking, there is this very hopeful future out there that will no doubt make itself apparent. At some point. When they choose to start working. But not now. No. Too soon. After all, they have to “get their shit together” first. And then, dude: look out!
My rapidly advancing age has perhaps made me downright persnickety, but for some reason my ear has become more sensitive to the increasing lack of discipline with, you know, uh, saying the words of the script, uh, and, like, only the words of the script. Right? Huh? Character name?
This is a bad habit, and particularly so with theatre scripts, which tend towards greater density of words and potential power of expression, all of which get fucked up by what my purist classical music-listening ears pick up as an increasing cacophony of contemporary verbal pollution. One hopes the writer has done a good job arranging just the right words in just the right order to bring a circumstance to life in an interesting, enlightening way. (Read Stoppard on the art of writing in Act II, Scene 1 of The Real Thing – brilliance I shall not try to emulate here.) If he or she has failed, let them fail without your additions to the equation. Then the teacher can make a clean call on it, by advising you work on better writing or somehow helping it along in some way that will benefit your training via the scene in question.
(There are related topics here – the translation used for foreign language scripts, different adaptations, different edits, combining film scenes to create a better stage scene for class purposes, the free-fire zone of rehearsals that allow exploration through improvisation, paraphrasing, etc. I’m not talking about all that. This post is really targeting the moment of performance, and the concept of largely reflexive, often unconscious verbal pollution.)
So, cutting to the chase, stop with the following:
From the Department of Context, a sketch of the lifecycle of a project. In boldface, the items over which actors have control:
1. Writer fills a page. And then another…
2. Project reaches casting phase.
3. Writer / Producer / Director / Casting solicits talent.
b. Agency submissions
c. Those with good personal/professional relationships.
4. Auditions – factors in casting:
a. says lines correctly / fluidly
b. imbues the lines with the reality required by the character and story.
c. nails the tone of the script, and style of the writer.
d. apparent age
g. quality of voice
h. body type
i. overall ‘look’
k. overall ‘quality’ appropriate for the role
l. general vibe of your personality – easy to work with
m. factors d-l in complement to other actors who may be cast