Friday, April 27, 2012

What's the "Best" Acting Technique?

It seems like we are constantly in conversation with people, talking about this technique or that technique.  There are many, who seem to thrive on getting a little bit from here and a little bit from there.  In most cases, these actors end up with a whole lot of nothing.

I'll come right out and say it:  I don't believe in different acting techniques.  And I believe that any of the great acting teachers would have been hard-pressed to describe their work as such.  So far as I'm concerned, I could care less how someone trains, so long as that actor has developed a functional understanding of his or her individual actor's instrument. 

There seems to be a need within this community to think of a craft as a series of tools or tricks.  But there are no shortcuts to self-enlightenment.  Stanislavski invented nothing new. He went about understanding what we all do at the moments when everything comes to life for us, so that we can repeat the successful efforts.  When it comes down to it, a well-trained actor should be able to excite his own imagination and express himself freely.  That's a big task. 

When we look at a craft of acting as a knowledge of ourselves, it's hard to see how we can benefit from jumping from one line of study to another.  Usually, people arrive at an intellectual understanding and move onto the next thing.  Much of the time, they do that right at the point where things become personal, so they spend their whole time in training avoiding themselves.

Sandy Meisner used to say, "It takes 20 years to become an actor."  Lee Strasberg talked about people beginning to get a sense of themselves after about ten years of study.  It takes a large, concentrated effort to learn ourselves.  It's not something on which we can place a curriculum or a time limit.  And yet, that is exactly what the academic expansion of the study of acting has supported over the last several years.

It's not a popular opinion, but a conservatory or university education in acting is a good starting point for the training of an actor.  It's possible to get a lot out of these programs.  But mostly, they serve as a good introduction.  Even with a solid basis of voice and movement that many of these programs provide, we still have to learn how to apply those in the critical kinds of moments we will be called upon to enact.  An actor has to be both expressive and understood. 

When I first sat down to decide what I was going to study, I read all of the major books on acting and landed on Lee Strasberg, because he spoke to me.  He was one of the single-most practical people ever to exist in the theatre.  But the work of Sandy Meisner, Stella Adler, Uta Hagen, Stanislavski, Bobby Lewis, and a whole slew of other people is every bit as valuable.  They all agree more than they disagree.  And mostly, the differences some of them have spoken about are based more in ego than anything else.

David Gideon (my teacher) constantly refers to a quote from his teacher (Lee Strasberg) during a drive down from Los Angeles to San Diego.  At one point, Lee asked, "How many people do you think I've taught over the years?" (which of course is a who's who of American Theatre)..."Never two the same."  David has written a book that uses that line as its title.  I hope it gets published soon, so that we can put some of these myths around "the Method" to bed.  In the meantime, I hope this blog can provide a forum for understanding.

What do you think?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Quick! Nobody's Looking!

Tell me if this sounds familiar.  You're watching a play, right?  Yes, you are.  :O)  And some actor comes onstage and in a busy moment sets a prop that he forgot to set before the show started.  And your eyes move straight over to the one real thing happening on the stage as this actor tries to get this by you and the rest of the audience on the sly.

It's not that I don't understand it.  I tend to be the kind of actor to walk offstage and get my prop if I missed it.  But I even had to fake it one night of my last show.  I couldn't find the appropriate engagement ring - which I'd forgotten to set, and I ran offstage, couldn't find it, ran onstage, grabbed my wedding ring for a later scene, and passed it off as the engagement ring.  If I had it to do over, I'd probably try to deal with the situation as though I had actually misplaced the engagement ring.  Now, in such a case, does one propose?  Maybe not.  Either way, that's what this person would have done if I'd had more faith in our complex humanity than the way I wanted the scene to go.

The way I wanted the scene to go.  The way my director wanted the scene to go.  The way the playwright wanted the scene to go.  The way I think people will accept the scene.  Whatever the source of the pressure to insist on a result, the problem remains the same.  For some reason, we'd rather pretend things are going the way we think they're supposed to go than to find out how they actually play out on a nightly basis.  It's not that I think we should discard the playwright and the director (or the audience, for that matter), but rather that if I am doing my prepared work and giving into it, I should trust that it will be in agreement with the playwright's and the director's visions - which is what the audience has paid their money to see: a story that evolves from the concert between the writer, director, designers, and ensemble.

I always seem to be working with an actor that thinks he can skate by, paying lip service to his own creative energy.  For one reason or another, we seem to exist in a community of people who want to do just enough to satisfy the scene, their directors, the writer, and the audience.  It's the rare person, who has their own creative agenda to serve.  My teacher, David Gideon, has also been pointing this out lately, and it's really been hitting me hard.  We need to do our work to satisfy our own imaginations and filter the scene through that, rather than to service our ideas of what should or shouldn't happen in the scene.

Lee Strasberg made the constant comment to people:  "You don't even know what you would do under these circumstances, much less what your character might do."  And that's true.  Often times, our realities in life far surpass our staged and cliched ideas of situations, because we're too scared to put ourselves fully into a situation and live through it in order to find out how we respond. 

I understand that fear.  It's hard for me, too.  It's Hell to be in dire straights.  And yet, that is what we're called upon to do as actors.  Our job is to live through the things that people deal with on a daily basis, and to open up so that the audience can see themselves.  It's in this act that we celebrate life.  It's not a popular opinion, but I don't believe in entertainment for entertainment's sake.  Even the word, "entertainment", used to involve the concept of catharsis.  Nowadays, it's lost that meaning.  But there's got to be something more to what an actor does.  Something that carries an importance.

An old director of mine used to say before every show, "Tonight will probably be someone's first and only night ever at the theatre.  It will also be someone's last.  Let's teach them what this thing can be." 

And as I bitch and moan in my head about putting myself into a terrible situation every night I perform, because my entire training as a human being teaches me to do something less confrontational with my life, I think about that director and push myself a little more.  Because we have a worthy thing to share. 

My teacher is constantly saying that to really be emotionally naked on a stage is scarier than skydiving.  And I believe it is and should be.  Theatre should be an extreme sport. 

So, maybe the next time we all try to get away with something onstage, we'll take the chance and discover our own humanity with the audience.  Audiences are smarter than we seem to think they are.  And I truly believe that if an actor takes that chance, the playwright, the director, and the audience will be much more greatly served by our truthful humanity under rehearsed circumstances than they would be if we reduce our lives to what is safe and easy. 

What are your thoughts on the subject?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Selling The Drama

I want to start with a metaphor that I hope will express my anger at present:

Imagine you're a painter.  You kill yourself creating a host of masterpieces.  Then you are lucky enough to have them put up at a gallery.  The gallery hosts an evening with wine and cheese and all sorts of fun stuff to garner some attention around your work.  Then you tell a few select friends and family members to be there to support you and call it a day.  You post your excitement around it once or twice on Facebook.  Maybe you tweet about the opportunity a couple of times.  Then you show up to your opening to find a sparse reception.  Maybe you even complain that the gallery didn't do enough to get people there. 

Does this situation make any sense at all?  What kind of artist just wants a few select people to see his work?  And yet, this is the way almost every actor I know publicizes their work.

It seems to me that we have a basic problem going on here.  Actors seem to think that their job title expresses the totality of what should be their contribution to a project.  Not all actors.  Just amateurs.  Look at the professional market.  Believe you me, Al Pacino does not have the opportunity to be all artist all the time.  He has to give interviews, lectures, show up to meetings, keep up his public face, excite people about his upcoming work, etc.  In a recent interview, he said that Adam Sandler is a great actor.  I cannot, for the life of me, imagine he believes that.  But it helps him sell the movie.  That's his real job most of the time.  Why should any of us be any different?

I'm tired of the way we treat our community.  In New York, we seem to discredit work at the Off-Off Broadway level.  We buy into the idea that Broadway and Off-Broadway equals great work.  It really couldn't be farther from the truth.  And it's killing us.  We have to figure out some way of revitalizing this arts community.  That means that we, at the very least, have to give our own work a chance.

It's amazing how hard it is to get a group of actors in an NYC Showcase to have faith in their own work and the work of their immediate colleagues.  We seem to need to wait until the reviews are out and we are verified.  But between Equity rules and the cost of putting up a show, by the time the reviews are out, it's too late to start telling our friends & colleagues.  Schedules are too crazy, and many people miss out on wonderful work, because of limited seating at the Off-Off Broadway level.  It's never hard to fill closing night. 

Beyond that, most actors I run into talk so much crap about their own shows that they kill any possibility of having an audience, before the show is even running.  Personally, if a friend of mine warns me against their show, I make a blanket rule not to go--even if they change their tune a week later.  Productions don't go through magical transformations in a week.  If you're not proud of your work, I have better things to do. 

It seems that the only time I get invited by friends to see shows is when they are playing a big role.  It's amazing how much doing a large ensemble play actually works against having an audience.  Most actors become convinced that their roles are either unimportant, because of the size of the group, or they incorrectly believe that the next person is telling lots of people, so they don't have to work as hard.  That's the main problem with thinking along the lines of shared responsibility.  As a company, we actually do better with four-person shows than we do with fourteen-person shows. 

So, what can we do?  First of all, rather than accepting roles to fill out a resume, we can become involved in projects we're excited to share with the community at large...and then do just that.  Because even a problematic show will be ten-fold better with an audience.  So, we all build a supportive and energetic community by supporting ourselves and those around us.

What do you think?