Ten years ago I taught an actress who was then probably around 25, maybe younger. She worked her ass off in class, but at the time I thought her casting was such that she needed to stick it out, get older, and then she’d really be in demand. As it happened, she stuck it out, and has been booking more and more in her thirties. She recently booked her first recurring television job by offer alone, news of which reached me through the grapevine. This textversation followed (edited for clarity):
Me: That doesn’t suck.
Actress: Right? Crazy. Wardrobe already called. Script drafts in my email and I’m still like… Did that really happen?
Me: Told you all those years ago: You just needed miles on the odometer.
Actress: Praise be to perspective. Thank god for living with a writer/director. Seeing his side, I’m a million times more chill now. And when my actor friends call me about stuff, I’m like, “None of what you’re talking about matters. None of it.” I thank you highly for trying so hard to get me to understand. But there were so many things before the things before the things before the things to understand, before I could understand the things you were trying to get me to understand.
Somewhere out there, somewhere magical, where everything is just so, there lies the sweet spot regarding the issue of actor behavior in a scene. My definition of this sweet spot: “Physical action enough to lend logic to the premise of the story, its location, the specifics of the characters and the scene, without veering unnecessarily towards excessive wandering, tinkering, dusting, wandering, clothes-changing, makeup-applying, wandering, trash-disposing, stuffed-animal cuddling, drink-making mania.”
Behavior should serve to give a patina of observable logic to something that should already be true (but is in fact often false). So unfortunately I’m too often witness to scenes where the communication is unclear, or wrongly evaluated, or inappropriate to the style of the piece, but boy oh boy oh boy….. Look at that set! Look at the stuff! Look at the actors move over there. And then over there. And then back again. And then sit, but then to rise again. Look at the actor walking backwards!
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.
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:
Had an interesting chat with an actor in class the other week, who was questioning whether my taste and his taste were compatible for further training. At issue was the topic of “naturalism,” for which my from-the-hip definition would be, “that style of acting where the unadorned presence of the actor, delivering the lines of the script in a ‘real’ way, is all that is required to tell the story.”
I perhaps too often decry naturalism, not because it isn’t useful or in demand, but because it’s boring. I find the acting in most network television to be boring, and the style these days is marked by excessive naturalism. That being said, I’ve written plenty about how actors need to know what project they’re reading for, and if the show is marked by a naturalistic style, they’d better serve it up and give themselves a real shot for a paycheck.
Prior to our conversation, I’d seen this actor do a scene from Guirgis’ “Motherfucker with the Hat” and Mamet’s recent play, “Race.” I don’t believe either of those writers deals in naturalism as a style, and in both, I felt this actor’s naturalistic tendency was inhibiting the full expression of the writing. So I redirected both scenes as part of the critique, complete with line-readings, because I’m that guy – the jerk who’ll give line-readings from here to Timbuktu if that’s what it takes. The actor was not pleased – hence our conversation.
One of the biggest acting class cliches are actors who say they are “working on their sexuality.” The fact that 90% of those working this “note” are females, so assigned from a male teacher, well, that’s just part of the cliche.
Disclaimer: I’m from Boston, we have Puritanical roots, and I’ve often joked in class that we New Englanders don’t talk about sex even when we’re engaged in it. I can barely say the word “sexuality” without wanting to barf. So I fully admit that the following is based in a big fat eye roll about sexuality in stage and film, or at least conversation about it. It just kind of bores me as a topic. If I’m involved, well…. All is good.
So, disclaimer disclaimed, let me say that I think actors (and possibly teachers) of all genders and orientation are too worked up in general about sexuality, and this leads to all sorts of fairly useless introversion and introspection and analysis about why one’s sexuality might be “blocked,” and then crazy exercises about how to “unblock” your sexuality – it all just kind of creeps me out, frankly. As a teacher I don’t consider this my business, and it seems very indulgent and possibly damaging.
1) Lack of energy. Comedy is often a dramatization of two or more colliding points of view. The verb collide is key there. It’s not two points of view that meet for a relaxed latte at Starbucks. It’s not two points of view sensitively recognizing each other’s essential humanity. It’s a collision. Sparks fly through application of force. Now that collision isn’t necessarily violent, it doesn’t mean that the energy I’m talking about means loud voices and sweat pouring down the brow and broken furniture all over the place. It just means there is a sharpness to it, an edge, there is electricity coursing through it – I often might tell actors that the scene must be “plugged in.” When it falls flat you feel as if the thing was simply never turned on. All the questions of “Evaluation” from Milton’s checklist are particularly relevant to comedy. That’s why the ol’ saying goes Dying is easy, comedy is hard. But if you look at those who do it well, you’ll almost always see actors who understand the energy underneath that fuels the collision in points of view.
I’m not a fan of gunplay on stage. And this goes beyond the safety considerations, because for the purposes of this discussion let’s assume everyone has their heads on straight and knows how to handle the safety issues with weapons on stage.
My problem is that the stage can’t compete with film and television on this kind of reality. The sound department alone on TV and film can make that gun sound like a cannon, and the use of editing and blood effects and squibs and the like can bring the dramatic reality of gunplay to life on the screen in a vivid way. But even then, I’d bet actual cops would tell you gunshots and their effects are not at all like they are portrayed on television – so you also have the dramatic factor in there as well. There’s real gunshots and then there are the gunshots we accept as real for entertainment. Just as in real life fistfights are usually awkward, haphazard affairs and a single punch will ruin someone’s hand at the same time it breaks someone else’s jaw, but that’s never how you see it on television…..
So you have three realities:
1. The actualreality of gunshots, how they sound, what firing a gun does to both shooter and victim. Gunshots can often sound like a benign fire cracker and a single bullet anywhere can kill you by severing an artery, and at the very least it’s a huge deal to be friggin’ shot.
Ask an actor for the most frequent adjustment they hear when going in for your average film or television audition (but particularly the latter), and there’s a good chance you’ll hear that the casting person told them, “Do less.” Some thoughts on this:
1. Coffee-shop naturalism rules the day. I’m not advocating for it, and it’s probably not the kind of acting which stirred our youthful dreams of art and performance. But for the most part that’s what’s happening on television, particularly in the drama category. Procedurals dominate – and acting isn’t what moves procedurals, it’s, well… the procedure. At around 45 minutes into every episode of House (so sorry to see this one retire….), the B-storyline would feed Dr. House an idea that leads him to solve the A-story medical mystery. That doesn’t mean Hugh Laurie didn’t kick the shit out of it – but you generally are looking at a lead performance that can be fun to watch, but these days is often still pretty restrained in the acting. Surround the lead with a gang of other generally less vivid characters, and add in a plot structure that’s rigid as a rock. All the CSI and Criminal Minds and Law and Order franchises operate the same way – and it’s not the acting that is particularly special about any of it. (Serials offer more opportunity for interesting acting choices – my personal favorite is currently Southland, where I feel they give the actors far more latitude than you find in procedurals.) So this fits in with my entry on “Name That Tone” – you have to know the tone of the show, the style of the acting, and place your acting and the choices accordingly with the project. I would say most actors who have ended up seeing the episode of the show they were up for probably looked at the performance as cast and muttered, “That’s it? That’s what they wanted?”