When Milton and I reworked the Acting Class book in 2008, we flirted with the idea of moving “Who’s The Author?” to the top of his famous Actors’ Checklist for Takeoff. The reason for this contemplation? The proper understanding of the traditional first item on the list, the Event – what’s going on here? – is so strongly affected by the author’s sensibility and unique voice. A marital fight in a Sorkin script is a different animal from a marital fight in one by O’Neill, which is different again from that fight written by Tennessee.
Another aspect of my recurring actor-as-plumber metaphor: you’ve got to know whose story you’re in, and how that awareness may help you figure the choices that will help the author out. Picture asking a plumber to fix the leak on your kitchen sink and you return later to find he’s built a small, beautifully artistic waterfall cascading into your sink. I’m sure you’d be, well…. What the hell? Right? It’s not that the guy wasn’t very talented to be able to build a waterfall in your sink, but it just has nothing to do with what you needed or wanted from him, and it really interferes with doing the dishes.
So for those occasions where you’ve watched a comedic treatment of Schindler’s List, or perhaps a version of Marty wherein the actor angrily assaults that girl when they come home from the date, or a plodding, emotional, pause-ridden scene from Sports Night…. These are usually not an issue of the actors’ inability to create a realistic circumstance, or lack of courage in making a choice, but that of their improper analysis of the tone of the script, leading to choices that did not fit the story.
There’s a fabulous documentary on the topic of making Steinway pianos – Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037. It follows the creation of a single nine-foot concert Steinway at the company’s U.S. factory in Queens, New York. To see the breadth of knowledge, passed down through an old-school apprenticeship system, carried out by largely blue-collar New York workers of every imaginable stripe and ethnicity, applied to the assembling of these sophisticated pianos, the selection of which you then see carried out by a diametrically opposite economic/social stratum of world-class musicians – it’s something else. Highly enjoyable, and not just for pianists. And as always with documentaries, great acting.
Anyway – it made me think of what we do at the BHP in training actors. Steinways are made by hand. There have certainly been some technological developments in the last 100 years that may help out, but it’s startling how little of it you see in the documentary. You see a lot of elbow grease, and a lot of guys with tool kits that are decades old, with instruments bizarrely fashioned to some arcane, specific purpose related to piano assembly, but mostly you see raw expertise and exacting standards. Technology has very little to do with it.
I was once asked to write an essay about “Being Personal,” for a book that was to be a collection of essays on the topic from people in all walks of life. The book never came together, but I think there’s still some value here.
I wrote it in form of an acting class critique, as a dedication and paying homage to Milton, who based much of his book Acting Class on actual transcribed conversations with actors. As his editor for well over a decade, I became really good at mimicking his voice and manner in those critiques. Writing this essay was actually an interesting and sometimes frightening exercise in simply believing my own voice, while honoring Milton’s famed format. Here goes:
They just don’t. There is the job you do, and then there are your feelings about your job – and only the former is of any consequence or import. Now as an actor your job has to do with manipulating your own feelings in service of a story, so this no doubt gets tricky…
Image #1: You’ve got a leaky faucet. You call the plumber. The plumber comes over and he either fixes the faucet or he doesn’t. You generally don’t give a crap how the plumber may feel about his own work, you may or may not be aware of the full range of his “talent” as a plumber, or whether he thinks this plumbing career will really pan out for him. All you want is for him to fix the faucet. He may have been engaged in suicidal thoughts the entire time, but if he mentions them he becomes really annoying. If he shows up when he said he would, stops the leak, and charges a reasonable fee – you’re all set.
Image #2: A pianist is someone who uses hard-earned technique to play varying combinations of 88 different keys in an infinity of patterns and dynamics, so scripted by a composer, and interpreted by the pianist, to bring a specific piece of music to life for the audience.
So with these two images in mind, let’s look at the three pillars of the BHP training: Acting, Attitude & Administration.
Take the word “butterfly.” To use this word it is not necessary to make the voice weigh less than an ounce or equip it with small dusty wings. It is not necessary to invent a sunny day or a field of daffodils. It is not necessary to be in love, or to be in love with butterflies. The word butterfly is not a real butterfly. There is the word and there is the butterfly. If you confuse these two items people have the right to laugh at you. Do not make so much of the word. Are you trying to suggest that you love butterflies more perfectly than anyone else, or really understand their nature? The word butterfly is merely data. It is not an opportunity for you to hover, soar, befriend flowers, symbolize beauty and frailty, or in any way impersonate a butterfly. Do not act out words. Never act out words. Never try to leave the floor when you talk about flying. Never close your eyes and jerk your head to one side when you talk about death. Do not fix your burning eyes on me when you speak about love. If you want to impress me when you speak about love put your hand in your pocket or under your dress and play with yourself. If ambition and the hunger for applause have driven you to speak about love you should learn how to do it without disgracing yourself or the material.Continue reading →
I’m known at the BHP for having a stronger point of view than most on the issue of certain material that I feel reduces the chance of good training getting a bite into the actor. So I thought I’d finally write something about it, and hopefully by so doing, shorten a few of the talks I have with the class after I court dirty looks by dismissing a scene with little critique. First off, here’s what I wrote about this issue for the FAQ section of the BHP website:
How do I choose material for scenes?
The best training occurs on the best material. Boxers don’t spar with partners who are weaklings – they train with partners who challenge them. Musicians don’t train on easy music – they train on the best. Actors should seek out the best writing, writing that is interested in humanity, rather than in cleverness or glib emotion. Many actors think that because much of the writing for their contemporary auditions is subpar, they should train on subpar material, as if there is a specific, learnable way to pull off subpar material that will get you more jobs on TV. Don’t think this way.Continue reading →