KEEPING EVERYTHING ‘IN’
If you know Cabaret, you know that when Cliff first sees Sally dance, he sends her a note via one of the Cabaret boys. The script is not explicit about what the note says. During the run of my production I’ve written many things on the note. Everything from:
Come here often?
I liked your dance.
Do you ever read these?
(The latter being less than useful. Read on…)
Tonight I experimented with asking myself what Cliff might really write on the note. Why did it take me a month to ask that question? Up to this point in the play Cliff is pegged as an American immediately on a couple of occasions. He resents this. So, a question he might ask Sally as a conversation starter is:
What Nationality do you think I am?
Consequently, after Sally reads the note and comes over to talk to Cliff, the lines are as follows:
Cliff: Hello Sall: Oh, you’re English. Cliff: I wish I were
I know that asking Sally in the note where she thought I was from certainly affected the way the scene was played. It did for me anyway, and I’ll go ahead and speak for the actor playing Sally and say it did the same for her. Never has that exchange been so full of life or so truthful.
What’s the lesson?
Keep everything in the world of the play.
This gets harder and harder as a run goes on. It becomes easy and even theraputic for an actor to let loose and have fun on moments or bits of ad lib that don’t affect the audience directly. It’s easy to whisper to your cast mate, (as the actor, not the character) “Wow, the tempoes are fast today” or “This is our best audience yet”. That is all well and good for the actor, but how does it serve the character? Furthermore, how does it serve the audience? Keep everything in the world of the play. Whisper as the character. Make that note your character writes to another character say something that will benefit the truth of the moment. Don’t write some silly bullshit which might make your fellow actor laugh, but will only serve to pull them out of the world of the play. Staying in is hard enough. We need to help each other out.
Imagine the stage is blank and empty. There exists a sort of long box stretched from stage right to stage left — a rectangle whose ends lie somewhere off in either wing. It’s an incredibly thin box, but it’s enough for a person to stand in. The lines separating the box from the rest of the stage, up and down, are thin, almost invisible. But, they are definite and immovable. Up stage of the box is a world of realistic nuance and life-like emotion. Down of the box is the world of conventionally accepted theatrical reality; there is where we live most of the time, indicating the emotional lives of our characters and demonstrating to the audience that which appears generally real, but lacks specific truth.
In between these two extremes, confined up stage of conventionally accepted theatrical reality and down stage of real life, is theatrical truth. It is couched precariously between these two worlds. It is a slippery sort of reality which can be accessed only through truthful exploration of the character and the text. We live between these two fine lines only when we learn to fend off the temptations which lie on the other sides. We live between these two fine lines by using only what is absolutely needed and needing only what is absolutely necessary.
Existing between these fine lines is the goal of every actor, whether the lines lie on a stage or a film set. But, the are o so easily stepped over. The temptations of ultra-reality and theatrical pandering are so great the we somehow give into them unknowingly. Standing in the box, our minds need slip away for only a moment. When we reemerge we find that the truth is either far behind us, or buried so far below that it can’t be seen. So, fending off the temptations requires a special and unflinching focus.
That is why I write this blog. That is why I repeatedly foster these images and endlessly beg questions. I hope that if I chase long enough off stage, the chase will become a way of life on stage. If I imagine hard enough , maybe I will find it impossible to overstep the fine lines which separate all of us from our best.
First, an update for anyone who followed my short saga: I am back posting on my own computer. However, it’s been wiped clean of any trace of me by the friendly people at Geek Squad. My advice is to be careful when you ask them to do a “diagnostic.” They might decide to wipe your hard drive instead. :(
Anyway, here’s the acting stuff:
Actually, let’s use this little Best Buy saga. Let’s say you were doing a play and a in that play a character talks to you about Best Buy, or you go into a Best Buy or you generally mention electronics sales and support. Having a strong opinion about Best Buy is going to be critical for your character. Your character doesn’t even have to mention the store, but if they come in contact with it in any way, they have to have an opinion about it. That point of view can be simple, or it can be complex, perhaps fueled by numerous experiences like mine. Once you’ve lined up strong opinions or points of view for each and every event, thing and person you come ‘in contact with’ during the course of the play, you are relieved of the burden of acting.
The strong point of view or opinion occupies the character’s internal life and propels them through the action of the play with purpose, meaning and nuance.
When working on great plays, strong opinions permeate the writing in ways that any actor who reads and listens will find hard to miss. When the text is not so rich, a little digging and more imagination is necessary to uncover a character’s rich, opinionated life. Whatever!
Never give yourself an excuse for not having a strong point of view. Never allow a moment to go by for which the character doesn’t have an opinion. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
MY COMPUTER EXPLODED
That is a figure of speech, but it’s at the Best Buy now and I don’t know what they are doing with it. Anyway, I haven’t been able to post lately and I don’t want to use too much time on this borrowed computer posting now. I’ve got a lot to say about lots of lessons over the past few days. But, for now, I’ll keep it to a few simple ideas.
- As I have not been posting “Daily” for quite a while, I want to express that the term “DailyActor” is just as much, if not more, about being an actor every day than writing about acting every day. We are actors, not when we have work or when we are auditioning or when it is convenient, but every day.
- BE HUMBLE. There’s not too much explanation needed for this one. Just be humble. Humility is an invaluable tool for discovery and improvement. I don’t care if you’re an actor, a director, the CEO of a large company, the leader of a protest movement against that CEO or a CPA. Just be humble, as often as possible.
I hope Best Buy has good news. But, they already gave me Mad Men season 3 at a really, really good price and you don’t get good news from Best Buy twice in a row very often.
THEY WANT YOU BECAUSE YOU’RE A TV STAR
I owe this tumble to a very dear friend, mentor and director. I garnered this while he was reflecting on some New York experiences from years ago. While the observation may be a bit cynical, the message is positive.
In audition after audition you will realize that they are not looking for how well you can act. They are not looking for who you are or what you can offer, but rather what you have done. If you’ve been on that long-running Soap or just finished that successful film, they will cast you. You can give the best audition in the world, but if your resume doesn’t include a Broadway credit or recognizable film, No One Gives a Damn.
What is left then for your precious ninety-second audition? What is the point of getting up in the morning and giving it your all? Well, it’s an every-day reminder that you are in fact an actor. It’s an opportunity to do your work, take a risk and practice your craft. And remember… they don’t care how well you can act anyway. So, there’s no pressure. You have nothing to lose by giving the best damn audition of you life every time you walk into a room. How fantastic is that?
They want you because you are TV star. If you’re not, then you have nothing to lose. He who has nothing to lost can risk everything.
THE QUALITY OF OUR WORK
To be clear, I saw a great piece of theatre tonight — a brilliantly written, directed and acted play. So, the following is not a reflection of the work I just saw. However, it got me thinking…
Ultimately, the quality of our work is in our hands and our hands alone.
I’ve written before about the dangers and rewards of an actor who is ‘director proof.’ A pitfall for performers is to blame others for own own shortcomings. We do this because it’s easier, we are sensitive, and because the circumstances under which we create our art are never ideal. So, a ‘director proof’ actor is one who takes responsibility for his or her own performance and serves the audience under any circumstances. This, of course, implies that directors are somehow a problem for actors. Well, that’s no more true than saying actors are a problem for directors; it’s no more true than saying writers are a problem for directors and producers, or saying that actors are a problem for everyone.
The long and short of it is this: we are all each others’ problems and we are all each others’ solutions. Whenever the director, writer or producer does not provide a situation which properly serves the audience, we must create one anyway. In the end, we are in front of the audience. We are the anchor of the relay and if we don’t bring it home, the whole team loses.
An actor must, at once, lean on the shoulders of his or her fellow artists and stand alone with the responsibility of serving the audience. That just might be the definition of a hero. And a hero, no matter what the circumstance or who the villain, has no excuse for losing the fight.
THE ACTOR AND THE AUDIENCE
An actor’s primary goal — and the primary goal of the director, the writer and the technician — is to serve the audience.
However, oddly enough, that goal is never accomplished by the actor giving a shit what the audience thinks. We can’t care what the audience thinks for a few reasons:
- We have no control over it.
- Every audience member brings into the theatre their prejudices, opinions, histories, agendas and other personal stuff which will always play into their perception of the story and characters.
- Caring what the audience thinks can only distract us from more important tasks — the tasks which ultimately serve them better.
There is a big long story I could tell about a recent performance and how I came in contact with wildly different perceptions from different audience members. The story leads quite simply to the aforementioned point. You can’t control what the audience thinks, so don’t dare worry about it.
Our job is to accomplish tasks honestly, moment to moment, in the world of the play. That’s it. Our job is never anything more than that. It is the task that changes. It is the world of the play that changes. It is the definition of ‘honesty’ that changes, depending on the style of the play. Those changes of task, world, truth and style are what makes acting so infinitely challenging and imaginative. Concerning yourself with anything else distracts from an already consuming set of tasks.
Serve the audience by not caring what they think. They will think well of you for it.
First preview of Glass Menagerie last night. Here’s a story:
In the play my character, Jim, signs an old High School program for Laura. Jim uses a pen of his own which he keeps in his jacket pocket. After signing the program Jim has a short bit of dialogue about disappointment versus discouragement. Last night, because it struck me in the moment, I really gave a lot of that dialogue to the pen. Signing my name had such a profound impact on laura it made Jim think, ‘If this little pen can do that, than there is so much more that is possible with my life. “I may be disappointed, but I am not discouraged.” That pen really inspired Jim.
Well, toward the end of the show Jim puts his jacket back on, preparing to leave. Last night, as has happened once before, the pen flew out of my pocket and rolled up stage. Amanda went to retrieve it for me, but it rolled underneath a platform before she could grab it. It was gone forever.
There is nothing remarkable in that, in and of itself. Jim doesn’t need the pen for the rest of the show and it was easy enough to accept that the pen was gone and move on with the play. Or was it…
Quite to my surprise, Jim was very distressed about the loss of this particular pen. Once it rolled under the platform and Jim realized he would have to leave the apartment without it, he became very uneasy. He was sad, angry… scared even. Because of the importance Jim had placed in the pen earlier that evening, losing it now had great meaning to him. And, best of all, the actor didn’t have to do a damn thing.
That is the beauty of endowment. One you endow an object, person, word or idea; once you fill it with meaning or significance, all you have to do is encounter it in the world. The meaning will meet you there. An endowed object or idea never has to be ‘acted’ with. Endowment is something we do very naturally in life. We are wired to attach ourselves to things and ideas. As long as the endowment is meaningful, the body and soul of the actor is so used to such attachments that when they are encountered in the world of the play the response is natural. It’s immediate, visceral and truthful. If every word Jim speaks and every person and object Jim encounters were as fully endowed as that pen, I know that his navigation of the play each night would be filled with surprising and meaningful moments; moments which would arise fully from the inner life of the character, rather than from the conscious thought of the actor. Complete and significant endowment is one of the most important tools the actor has with which to free the character into the world of the play.
I don’t often get sentimental about my chosen career. One might say I take for granted my life as an actor, and I’m okay with that. It’s my art and my job. And, for that I am lucky.
But, let me for once say more…
To say this is a chosen career is inaccurate. I truly don’t believe that I chose this life but that, somehow, we chose each other. I am a person of inconsistent faith, but I think that something so special and so indescribably unique does not find practitioners by chance. The unity of theatre artist and theatre career is precarious and fraught with uncertainty. The unity of actor and acting is more sacred than I often admit.
Tonight I watched a beautiful, moving and completely original theatre moment take shape for the first time. Actually, I watched many and was a part of many as well. I couldn’t help but think, during tech for A Glass Menagerie, that I am blessed to be an actor. I am blessed that this life and I somehow found each other.
So, among all my writings about craft, discipline, discovery, growth, education, artistry, honesty and the unselfish, humble search for truth I want to remind everyone that what we do is special. It is my job and I don’t think myself any more important than anyone else who does any other job. However, this one is mine and I do it because there is no other job I want. And, perhaps there is no other job which wants me. I guess some people call that a calling.
This is our calling. We owe it to ourselves, as the chosen ones, to make the most of it. I guess that’s what started me writing this blog in the first place.
A mentor of mine reminded me of a problem many actors struggle with. She calls it “acting in quotations.” Essentially this is another way of looking at an actor’s tendency to show or highlight a particular choice or a line. We do this at the expense of living in the moment and allowing the character use of a line or action as a means of doing something.
Don’t act in quotations. It’s another way of saying, don’t show what you are doing. Rather, do it.
After my mentor’s timely reminder to fight against this tendency, I have been thusly experimenting in both shows — Cabaret and The Glass Menagerie: What happens if I forget that I have any responsibility to the audience and allow my character to do what he does as simply as possible? Obviously, I do have certain responsibilities, both to the audience and to my fellow actors. However, especially late in rehearsal or once the show is open, I’m almost never going to let those responsibilities fall by the wayside. I’ve built them into the inner life and no matter how much “actor consciousness” is removed, I am present enough to make sure the story is being told. You know, in case of emergency.
See, the tendency among actors is rarely too much subtlety or too much truth. Rarely do we forgo storytelling for a truthful experience. In my practice, an actor instead tends to struggle with finding the truth of a moment, fighting off emoting or indication, and resisting a temptation to show rather than do. So, I’ve decided to fight the battle at hand.
Oddly, and I bring this up as means of clarification, the character of Jim in Glass has a natural tendency to put things in “quotations.” We are playing him as a bit of a salesman, not to stick a label on him. He’s a guy who often talks in catch-phrases and tag-lines as a means of selling ideas. However, those quotations are tools for Jim in the world of the play. They are not tools for the actor outside the world. Jim has to sell to the characters and those sales have to come out of a need informed by the play and dictated truthfully by the moment. So, a showy character still doesn’t have to ‘show’ anything to the audience.
Thus far my experiments in removing quotations have been very successful for me. At the very least, I feel released into the world and my characters are taking over the moment-to-moment duties of the play more often. Score!
THE 100 MARK
Today I have 103 followers. I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you who read and comment and keep me blogging. I assure this blog helps me more than it helps anyone else. Whether you are an avid tumbler follower, non-tumbler follower or an casual stumble upon-er, thank You.
I love you all.
Yes. Even you.
Thanks. Now throw a party
READING IT A DIFFERENT WAY
There is an
imaginative environment that the play asks us to enter when we read it or go see it. And this exactly expresses the actor’s job, and the imaginative environment is different in every play.
That sounds a lot like “the world of the play”, or maybe another way to think of “suspension of disbelief” for either actor or audience. This might also be a very useful definition of “style.”
We must keep reading, listening, experimenting and discussing because there must be a million ways to examine any one concept. However, it may be only one of those million ways which really makes sense to you. Just because something is familiar to you doesn’t mean you can’t understand it better. That is why we must be life-long learners.
THE WARRIOR’S WAY
If you need a dose of inspiration today, I propose this:
The traveling Samurai remains one of the most compelling characters in all of literature and cinema. Coupled now with the Cowboy of the American west, the Samurai warrior is disciplined and solitary. He forgoes all the earthly comforts, especially those we westerners have come to take for granted; they become daily sacrifices to honor and self preservation.
Firstly, and least importantly, this is a beautiful movie. The photos hardly do it justice. Think of your favorite eastern-exploitation movie — Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill — coupled with your favorite western, coupled with Baz Lurhrmann’s Australia. It is every bit as imaginative and surprising as you could hope from a genre-bending action film.
If I could, I would begin each day watching movies like this. It is not only the imagination of the filmmakers which inspires me. More importantly, it is the Samurai warrior himself. I dream of being a Samurai warrior, but I’m just not that good with a sword. Plus, the life of solitude and daily threat of death gets less appealing when reality sets in. However, I think I can approach my life as an actor in much the same way.
“You came to me to be strong. I made you the strongest.”
Really, what we do on stage or in front of the camera is not so different, and surely no less honorable. Where the Samurais and Cowboys have disappeared from their respective cultural landscapes, the actor is poised to appear. The Actor’s Way is a path filled with sacrifice and danger. While for us, it is “life as we know it”, for many people, the thought of such a life is simply unimaginable. Whether from California or Japan, we owe it to a long tradition of art and artists to approach this discipline with no less determination and focus than one would approach the life of gunslinger and swordsmen. The stakes are just as high. And, when people come to the theatre, be it cinematic or live, they expect no less than the unimaginable. Or, if they don’t expect it, they surely deserve it.
I am not, at the moment, entirely sure what living like a Samurai means for the actor. But, I realize that long ago I set myself on a journey filled with mystery and danger. A journey that few are willing to take.
Let my body and mind be one. Let words and gesture be my sword. Let imagination be my gun. My enemies are many, and are often invisible. An opponent may take the form of a cliche; a tempting impulse to play for a laugh or indicate an emotion. I often fight the battle alone. But more often, I am in league with other warriors — warriors from other lands with other weapons, but together we fight for the same purpose.
Maybe it is because I dream of a life more note worthy than my own. Or perhaps my delusions of grandeur are as big as they seem. Really, I believe that if we can’t stand up for what we do, as tall as the Samurai, then we have no business standing at all. The context of the metaphor really doesn’t matter, as long as it fills us with purpose and moves us boldly forward.