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.
Everything we rehearse shows up in performance. What we do in the hall ends up on stage. Old habits die hard. Put it any way you like: everything that can happen in performance must first be allowed for in rehearsal.
We must be rehearsing possibility in order to discover a character’s possible depth and range within the world of the play.
How do we rehearse possibility? How do we ensure that we don’t bring to rehearsal the habits we wouldn’t want in performance? Here’s a crude checklist. See what happens if you make the following a rule book for rehearsal, always.
- Come to rehearsal as prepared, mentally and physically, as you would come to a performance.
- Live each moment in rehearsal as fully as you would live in performance.
- Don’t show your choices to the director. Allow the character to communicate in the world of the play, just as you would in performance.
- Leave your homework at home. Live only in the world of the play as much as possible.
- Don’t recreate. Don’t try to do something the same way you did it yesterday, or even the same way you did it a moment ago. Allow the character to pursue a given action freshly each time.
- Don’t bring distractions to rehearsal. Use the time, even when you are not on stage, to focus on the script, relate with your scene partners, listen to the director direct, take in what was just rehearsed or other wise prepare for what is to come.
- Dress the part. You are not in costume, but don’t wear clothes which are inappropriate or uncomfortable for the character. Be comfortable, but wear clothes which will encourage your character to live and move in the ways they will live and move in performance.
- Remember there is no wright way to do something. Experiment and take risks.
- Take risks you would not be willing to take in performance. The difference between rehearsal and performance is that in rehearsal it’s okay to make choices inappropriate for the play in the name of discovery. Risk will yield reward.
- Don’t record in your mind how you did something as a means to recreate it later. Rather, record what your character did as a means of allowing your character to pursue that action over and over again.
- When you don’t know a word, allow the character to search for it in the world of the play.
- If the word still doesn’t come after a character searches for it, call line. HOWEVER!! When you call line, don’t allow the character to leave the world of the play. The word line is at the character’s disposal as a means of moving forward with the action of the play. The word line is not at the disposal of the actor as a means of excusing him/herself from the world of the play.
- No other word but line is necessary or allowed when you forget what words come next. i.e. "Shit. Sorry, what is that damn word? Okay sorry." Nope. Just, “Line.”
- Don’t apologize. Instead: accept, thank, consider, ask or say nothing.
- Listen more than you talk.
- Communicate in as few words as possible.
- Ask of yourself as often as possible, “What is my character doing?” and “How can my character do this more honestly?”
- Have fun.
I believe these rules to be inexcusably broken and too often forgotten, by me and pretty much everyone I’ve ever worked with. I also believe that following them will allow us all to rehearse with the kind of abandon and possibility that will yield freer, deeper and more truthful performances.
TREE OF LIFE
If you saw Tree of Life and you enjoyed it I want you to please respond to me and tell me why. If you have an answer to any of these questions, please, please respond as clearly and as honestly as possible. I’m not being smart or sarcastic.
What did you like about Tree of Life?
If It’s a good movie, tell me why?
What did you get from the end of the movie you didn’t get from the beginning?
Another talkback. Topic:
How is acting in a Musical different from acting in a straight play, if it is different at all?
This conclusion was reached unanimously by a panel of five actors whom, while working at the same theatre, come from very different theatrical backgrounds. The reasons are numerous and I won’t misquote my fellow actors. For me it all boils down to style.
Style: The ways in which the world of the play differs from the ‘real world.’ The physical, vocal, emotional, visual, linguistic, spiritual and practical realities of a particular play and they way these realities dictate an artists approach to performing that play.
Every play has its own style. Two productions of the same play are going to have two different styles. Musicals are a type of play and their styles necessitate certain skills from the performers and certain conceits from the audience. Straight plays are the same. No two are alike. In my mind, the discussion of the difference between musicals and straight plays ends there. One could just as easily have to sing and dance in a straight play, and one might do a musical without singing a note or ever moving in a fashion labeled “dance.” Actors have to be ready to live in the particular style of every play they do. Period.
(If you are feeling like this was kind of trick question to begin with, I have to agree. Though, it is never asked as a trick question. What we come to then is a trick answer. Tricky it may be; it’s true all the same.)
PEELING AN ORANGE
I did a talkback last night after a performance of Cabaret. And, of course, my fellow actors and I were hit with the question, “What advice would you have for young actor about where to begin his career?"
It’s a big question and a common question. Last night six of us passed along six great nuggets of wisdom about adjusted expectations of success, self fulfillment, determination, internships, vision and patience. There are as many answers as there are career paths.
Here’s one way to think of it:
Starting a career is like peeling an orange.
There are many ways to do it. Some people think they have a magic secret or trick, which indeed works sometimes, but will not work on all oranges. Sometimes you dig in and make a lot of progress right from the start. Other times you chip away at it slowly, broken piece by piece. There is no right place to start and you never know when or where a breakthrough might come. It can be tempting to give up on a tough orange. It can be tempting to see a bit of the juicy flesh and dig in before all the skin is off: you must resist that temptation. The reward will be greater if you persevere and expose the entire orange before indulging. The trick is, no matter what, to just keep peeling. Oh, and don’t be afraid to ask for help from some experienced orange grower or Florida resident.
WHY WE DON’T SHOW
I appreciate very much a director I am working with now. I appreciate that he often doesn’t want to know what our character is thinking in a given moment. I like that he often won’t tell us what he thinks the character should be thinking. He will say instead, “I think there needs to be more going on here." Or, he might say, "I like what was going on there, but try it another way. I wanna see what else is possible.”
During notes today after a run of act two, the our director commented on two moments which were really working for him. He didn’t necessarily know what was going on with the actor or character in those moments, he simply commented on how they were full and interesting. In those moments, he was pulled into the play.
Guys, we don’t have to show a damn thing. We don’t have to let the audience know what we are thinking. We don’t have to show the audience what our “motivation” is or what choice we are making. And breaking the habit of showing, which I think all actors have, begins with knowing that we don’t have to show the director a damn thing either. We just have to be doing something specific and full. Even when a director asks for a specific choice — “Hey, make sure Frank is really angry at Carol in this moment" — we shouldn’t show the choice, we should simply commit to is fully and specifically. (Decide what is making Frank angry at Carol and what he’s gonna to do to her because of it. Don’t show that Frank is angry.)
It’s tricky that the work we do is often referred to as a “show.” It should never be that.
A performance is not a show of the work you’ve done to breath life into a character. It is rather a result of that work: the character living and breathing.
Lie on the floor in a relaxed position. Or, you can sit on an exercise ball or yoga mat; go to whatever position you usually would to find your breath or warm up your voice. Take whatever steps you usually take to connect with your breath. Now that you are connected, begin to introduce "thought association" into your breath. I do it in this way:
Pick an image or word out of your brain — it can come from the room around your or just out of thin air. It doesn’t matter what the image is or where it comes from. Then, give the image voice by turning it into a word and speak it on a exhalation. "Shoe" On the inhalation, connect the image to another image, whatever pops into your head. This is image association. The image of a shoe will lead you to another image, which you will then give voice in the form of a word on the next exhalation. “Ball” It doesn’t matter what the next image is — it can be anything and you don’t have to justify your association. Continue to perform this exercise for a few minutes.
- Inhalation: see an image in your minds eye
- Exhalation: give voice to the image in the form of a word
- Inhalation: see another image associated with the word you spoke
- Exhalation: give voice to that image in the form of a word
Make sure that you are not censoring your words. They should escape your mouth on the breath at the very moment the breath leaves your mouth, no sooner and no later. Don’t hold your breath in for any reason and don’t allow your breath to speed up. Keep the cycle steady and allow the images to come and go as if your breath is the tide. When you get lost, either in your breath or in your images, simple clear your brain and begin again.
Once you’ve done that for a few or several minuets, you can move on to further variation. In this variation, allow the images to tumble from your brain many at a time, all on one breath. Breathe in an image and breathe out another image giving it voice with a word. Then, on the same breath, continue to give voice to the next string of associated images. Speak as many images as you like on a single breath. Once the images or the breath run out, inhale and start the cycle over.
- Don’t sensor the images, but also keep yourself honest. Go from image to image honestly, seeing each fully in your minds eye and allowing each to independently inspire the next. Rather than seeing face; eye; nose; ear; mouth; chin, which are all associated with the face, jump from image to image independently. i.e. Face; hat; balloon; ice; mountain; rope.
- You don’t have to justify the associations to anyone, so there is no pressure to get anything right.
- You might only have one image on a single breath, or you might release twenty. As long as the images are organic and flowing on the breath, there are no rules.
- You may find that many images tumble around in your brain very quickly. Give breath to whatever image is available when you are ready to exhale. Don’t hold onto an image and save it for the breath. Also, don’t pass up an image in search of another one if the breath is ready. There is no muscle involved, mentally or physically. It should be like an image free fall and whichever one hits the breath is the one that becomes a word.
I began doing this a few days ago as a way of encouraging thoughts to flow freely into words. Putting thoughts into action requires a unbroken flow of breath and words. The words must be on or with the breath, as opposed to behind or ahead. For me, this exercise ties the cycle together and helps me stay true to my breath when speaking on stage.
ADMITTING WHEN I’M WRONG
So a little bird just corrected me about something I posted earlier. Apparently, and it’s confirmed by Wikipedia, though I never doubted the bird, Cicely Berry is a woman. I called her a man in a previous post and I want to formally apologize to Ms. Berry, and to all of you. She always writes in the masculine and I just assumed. Let that be a lesson to me. Never assume anyone is a man, especially if their name is Cicely and especially if they are a 20th century voice pioneer. Because, let’s see…
Cicely Berry, Edith Skinner, Catherine Fitzmaurice, Kristin Linklater, Patsy Rodenburg.
I guess men don’t teach voice. Apparently American’s don’t either. Well, Edith Skinner was Canadian and she lived in Milwaukee. That’s a kind of American.
AFTER FIRST PREVIEW
To put it simply:
I feel like that was a great show. Guess something must have worked.
Curtain is up on my first preview of Cabaret in about 2 and 1/2 hours. A weakness of mine is that that my art often lacks order. In the interest of finding that order, here is how I will prepare for this particular performance:
- I will go over the entire script again, for the purpose of mining the beginnings and ends of each scene and soaking in specific words of the text.
- I will warm up vocally and physically. For this role, in which I don’t do lot of singing but have a lot of dialogue, I will focus on relaxation and aligning the sound with the breath. I want the thoughts to be able to flow our freely, on the breath.
- I will stretch. I don’t do a lot physically in this show, but a limber and awakened instrument, from head to toe, will allows physical impulses to flow freely.
- I will shower cause I’m gross and my head itches from wearing a wig all afternoon. (Or maybe it’s from wearing a wig for the last 3 days…)
- I’ve eaten already, and I’ll eat a bit more between now and the show, but focus mainly on hydration. Water, water, water.
- I will tell myself before I go on stage: “This is the first and last time my character will discover this world. Tell the truth and discover it new.” If nothing else, the audience will be captivated by watching a character live through something for the first time. And really, I’ve spent the last few weeks taking care of all the rest.
Okay, break a leg to me.
Cicely Berry from The Actor and His Text
'Thought in action.' Mr. Berry deals a lot with this idea in his writing. What he means, I think, is this: The words the actor speaks are the thoughts of the character, put in action; given movement and energy and direction. The words are the action of the thought. They are the verb thoughts use to leave the brain and when mixed with emotion, they become the conduit into the very soul of a character.
Discovering the ‘thought in action’, (discovering the words needed to express a thought within an full emotional life) results in the speaking of the text. Our concern as actors then is to put thought into action, not to present the result of that action. Our job is not to speak the text, but to give action to the thoughts.