Thursday, January 24, 2013

Why Talent Doesn't Matter

Isn't it amazing just how important "talent" is to us?  We hold this idea up like some trophy - as though it's got anything to do with success.  Moreover, our society is steeped in this concept that the size of our talent is out of our control.  No wonder actors are always so bent out of shape.

What's the definition of "talent"?  What does that mean?  Really.  How do we judge that?  How do we put it on a scale and measure it?  How do we know if we have it or don't?  How do we know if it's greater or less than the average bear's?  And most importantly, why the Hell does it even matter to us?

In Strasberg at the Actor's Studio (which is a GREAT book!), Lee Strasberg defines talent as Sensitivity.  I tend to agree with that definition.  Stella Adler suggested that the actor's talent lies in their choices.  And choices are driven by the actor's responses, which are governed by that actor's behavior and understanding, which is guided by the actor's general sensitivity to their surroundings on and off of the stage.  So, let's agree that Talent = Sensitivity.

Let's say you're a really "Sensitive Actor".  Does that mean your sensitivity works for you, rather than against you, onstage?  Nope.  But let's say that you have taken the time and energy to build a craft that allows you to focus and use your sensitivity to your benefit.  Does that mean you audition well?  Nope.  But let's say you've struggled and learned how to present yourself as a business-person in an audition.  Does that mean you get work as an actor?  Maybe.  If you're just right for the role, then yes.  If not, then you will be some day.  You just have to be patient and keep trying.

Are you noticing the common thread?  In the scope of the equation, the size of your talent doesn't much matter.  What matters is the time and energy you devote to what you do.  What matters is your diligence.  So, in reality, the more passionate you are about acting (or really anything), the more likely it is that you will be able to become successful at it - whatever that success means to you.  That could be monetary satisfaction or artistic satisfaction...or both if you're really lucky.

The two things you really can't help are your level of Passion and your level of Luck.  If you're not passionate, then don't waste your time.  Really.  It's not worth it.  If you're not lucky and that destroys your passion, then you're no longer passionate.  Either way, the only determining factor in you having a place in this business is YOU.  The only thing that matters is how you feel about yourself.  If you think there's a place for you in this business, you'll work hard.  If not, you won't.  And if you're just lazy, then you've got to make a decision to sh^* or get off the pot!

And really...when it comes down to it, when we're casting a play, we're much less interested in the talent that an actor expresses at an audition than any other factor.  Talent is like Beauty.  You can bet that most people are less interested in being in a relationship with a drop dead gorgeous psychopath than a good-natured cutie.  Notice that I didn't suggest anyone goes barking up the ugly tree, so I'm not saying that Talent is 100% unimportant, but it just doesn't MATTER like we seem to think it does.  What most people look for in an actor is hard-work, self-expression, timeliness, and competence.  Those things in one person are extremely rare.  And all of them are within your control.

We all know countless actors that wear their talent like a badges.  Some show up to auditions, without having fully memorized and prepared their pieces.  Some don't bother to read the plays their pieces come from.  Some don't read the sides.  Some audition for places like The Actors Studio with scenes they've been working on for a week or two.  Some throw all their money away on workshops with agents when they haven't taken the time to develop relationships with casting directors.  Many of us are waiting for magic to happen.  And when a miracle doesn't present itself, we beat ourselves down.  That's like chastising yourself for picking the losing numbers on a lottery ticket.

And the truth of the matter is that nobody is better than these thoughts - no matter how far along they are in their careers or their stardom.  There is always more.  And there is always someone to tell us why what we're doing is wrong.  The only reason that it might seem like some of our heroes are invincible is because they don't let themselves wallow in their worries.  They have a public face to put on, so they have to deal with their demons quickly and quietly.  Or they just self-destruct.  One of the two.  I just self-destructed yesterday.  And I'm putting myself back together, because I've got a play to direct and a theater company to run, and I don't have time to fall apart.  Too many people are counting on me.  So, I have no other option than to treat myself well.

I know that some of the big demons I deal with have to do with the fact that my identity is so tied up in my relationship to the theater.  I'm an actor, a director and a playwright.  So, when I feel like I'm not any good, my whole world goes out the window.  And I have to remind myself that my opinion of myself is the only one that matters.  And as long as I remain committed to growing and learning, rather than knowing, I will persevere.

We have a year-round company at The Seeing Place.  We maintain an artistic home, where we read plays every week and hold workshops.  I've found that having that kind of a family is of primary importance to dealing with this business.  We have a place to grow together and to keep one another on point.  And whether that comes as a company or a class or The Actors Studio, it's a necessity in a business like ours - especially in America.  Otherwise, all we have is talent.

What demons do you battle?  And how do you cope with them?  We'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas.  Please share.  Our community depends on all of us.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

"Get Out Of My Shower!" - How To Be Private In Public

Did anyone else scream that, whiles playing on a swing-set with friends?  I know I did.  What's that got to do with acting?  Everything.  When people are looking at you, you take notice.  When you're onstage, people are looking at you.  And with Public Speaking as the #1 Fear for most Americans, how can actors get their attention off of the audience and into the story?

Supposing the piece is Realistic in nature (which has become the standard onstage), we have to behave as though there is an imaginary "4th Wall" at the end of the stage, right?  How?  In our recent post on "Diminishing Stage Customs", we made a correlation between this concept and Public Privacy.  In layman's terms, these two ideas have something to do with one another.  In reality, they don't.

This may seem obvious, but it seems important to point out:  The "4th Wall" does not exist.  It is something that occurs in imagination.  Therefore, if the actor is not actively imagining the 4th Wall, it disappears.

People like to talk about the Proscenium Arch (the area of the theater that surrounds the opening of the stage) as being the World's Largest Keyhole - as though the audience is witnessing the kind of event that only happens behind closed doors, in secret, when nobody is looking.  The only problem with that concept is the fact that at home, you literally can't see the guy looking through the peephole.  That being said, what is to keep an actor's attention on the stage when she knows she's being watched?

David Gideon, a wonderful teacher of Lee Strasberg's work (and my mentor), recalls a time in class, where a student told Strasberg that she had "Stage Fright".  As the story goes, Strasberg responded, "Who ever told you you had "Stage Fright".  What you have is Sensitivity To Your Surroundings.  Give me an actor, who doesn't have that kind of sensitivity, and I can't work with that actor!"  Why?  Because they're dead.  We need actors to be the lifeblood of society.  We go to the theater for a chance to see the things we all experience, expressed.  Otherwise, we can people-watch at the mall. 

As David constantly points out, "Actors, by nature, are passionate people.  Take any animal and put it in a room by itself for long enough, and it will get comfortable.  Remove one wall to reveal 1,000 people staring, and that animal is guaranteed to run in the opposite direction."

It's completely unnatural for us to open up and express.  We're taught to be social, instead.  And unfortunately, those habits tend to carry over to the stage.  And so frequently, we can see the actor's split attention between the audience and the story when we go to see the theater.  It seems that many actors understand the basic idea that they need to keep their attention on the other actors - or at the very least, their attention should remain behind the footlights.  But fortunately, most actors are not psychotic.  Most actors are aware that they are being watched.  And that knowledge overwhelms many of us and shuts us down.  Try showering without posturing when someone is watching.  It's not an easy time.  In terms of Expression, actors are just as naked on stage. 

So, what do we do?  As explained by Lee Strasberg, "The 4th Wall does not give us privacy.  Only our concentration on the 4th Wall can do that."  Concentration is the key.  It doesn't much matter what we're concentrating on, so long as the actor's attention is preoccupied with something other than performing.

Some people suggest that they BECOME THEIR CHARACTERS.  That's a load of malarchy.  Or maybe they need to be committed.  One of the two.  But for the practical actors in the world, we need to get our attention where it will serve us.  So, depending on your approach to acting, that might be on some creative element (creating a place, creating a substitution for a particular relationship onstage, etc), or it might be as simple as concentrating on your fellow actors - or even on your physical tasks on the stage.  You might even focus on the exploring the actual 4th Wall you've imagined.  But whatever you do, the likelihood is that the audience is sure to be a less powerful force as you put your attention somewhere else.

Notice the last statement.  You can't NOT pay attention to the audience.  We cannot actually DO a negative.  We have to intentionally put our attention somewhere else.  For instance, if you've tried to quit smoking, it's much harder to not smoke than it is to have a piece of gum instead.

I am constantly surprised to see actors that are shying away from the audience in an effort to concentrate on their work.  But no amount of avoiding the audience will help.  It takes a lot of time to learn how to tax your concentration in the kind of way that will serve acting.  And the more talented the actor, the more difficult the task.  It's taken me a long time to learn how to be private in public, and I still struggle with it on a daily basis - as do we all in this theater company.  We create fly-on-the-wall theater.  It's something that has become a cornerstone of what we strive for at The Seeing Place - most notably in our most recent productions of Love Song and our Off-Broadway debut of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea.

A trick in Public Speaking is to keep your attention on what you are trying to say, rather than how it is being received.  And that's exactly what we need to do as actors.  We need to keep our attention grounded to the stories we tell, rather than the entertainment level of today's performance.  An "unresponsive crowd" can only get a lesser show if you don't share your story. 

How have you battled these demons in your acting career?  Or do you have a story regarding privacy (or the lack thereof) in a piece of theater that you've seen?  Please share your thoughts with us as well.  We write these blogs to stir up conversation.  

Monday, January 7, 2013

Why "Stage Customs" Are Vanishing

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As it is the beginning of the year, this seems the perfect time to reflect on the State of Our Art.  Michael Feingold started the ball rolling last week in his Village Voice article, "A Case for the Return of Some Vanishing Stage Customs".  In the article, he posits that the theatre has lost such important customs as "cheating out" (literally facing the audience, so you can be seen and understood) and "counter-crossing" (when a second actor moves oppositionally to balance the stage picture when the first actor crosses the stage).  He also talks about how there seems to be less communication between the actors and audience, due to the effects of technology and the growing importance of casting stars, rather than telling stories.  It's a great article.  You should read it (after you read this one, of course).

In response to Mr. Feingold's article, we would like to discuss (in terms of acting) why some of these things are happening.  He hits the nail very much on the head when it comes to the diminishing effect that the theatre seems to have on audiences.  I find that I feel very similarly after seeing much of what NYC theatre has to offer.  That said, tricks like "Cheating-Out" and "Counter-Crossing" have always fallen short of the mark in terms of connection.  I recall a moment, working with my first acting teacher, Francis Gercke, where he very keenly observed:  "Just because you are looking someone in the eyes, it does not mean you are connecting."

We at The Seeing Place make a habit of seeing a lot of the theater in NYC - from Broadway to Off-Off Broadway.  What seems to be frequently missing is the art of storytelling.  Most actors, when asked, literally don't know what story they are telling.  Usually, that job is pawned off on the Director.  But no amount of powerful lines, pretty staging, or raw emotion can create a story on its own.  The Actor has to be aware of what he or she is trying to communicate, behaviorally.  The Director can lead all the best horses to the water, but they still have to drink for themselves.

As far as the art of staging goes, it certainly is an art.  But the main issue with acting right now seems to be a lack of craft.  We have been taught to believe that we go to study in a BFA program - and maybe even continue on to get an MFA - and POOF!  We're ready for the marketplace!  Right?  Perhaps.  It's a good start, anyway.  But very few programs stress the importance of professional training, beyond college.  As Sandy Meisner famously said, "It takes 20 years to become an actor."

I notice a lack of training, mostly, when actors are unable to be understood while emotions are riding high - either onstage or even in film.  Our voices naturally strain when big things are happening.  But the actor needs to be understood and expressive at the same time.  This is not something that is needed in reality - as my current teacher, David Gideon, constantly points out.  In fact, it is absolutely unnatural for people to relax and open up in times of great experience - be it tragic or joyful.  And yet it is the actor's job to open up and share at those very moments.  That is a skill that takes a great amount of time and effort to master - if anyone ever fully does.  I am constantly working in this direction.  It's really hard.

As far as the aesthetics of American theatre are concerned, there is a trend toward hyper-realism - as Mr. Feingold points out.  And that's fine.  As Shakespeare pointed out:  
"The purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."  
 However, that doesn't mean that we have to discard necessary customs in storytelling in order to behave with reality.  More and more, it seems like actors have lost the sense of Play onstage in the name of Reality.  In fact, it seems that our understanding of acting, altogether, has reverted back to what it was before Stanislavski began to teach.  So frequently, actors seem to hide behind the "fourth wall", rather than developing an understanding of how to be publicly private.

For me and for The Seeing Place, the beauty of the theatre has always been that both actors and audience can collect in a room and live through a situation.  In order to do that, we all need to suspend our disbelief together.  But the actors do need to live onstage.  Otherwise, we would be better served to hold a sociology conference.  There is the opportunity in the theatre for social issues to be examined hands-on.  That said, we can't ever forget that we are storytellers.  What actors do is very special.  It is not the same experience to read a play at home.

In conclusion, we agree with Mr. Feingold's increasingly relevant frustration with The State of Theatre in America.  And the ensemble of The Seeing Place is in our fourth year of fighting back against the marginalization of the theatre.  We specifically set out to put life back on the stage and spend significant rehearsal time pinpointing the stories we share on a nightly basis with our audiences.  Our first slogan, was "Because if you wanted a Sitcom, you'd just turn on the Tube."  That's not to devalue television, but to put it in it's place.  Television is a writer's medium.  Film is a medium for editors and directors.  The theatre is an actor's medium.  It traffics in behavior.  It is where we go to see ourselves.  That's why we chose to call our company The Seeing Place.

What do you have to say about all of this?  Please leave a comment, so we can share in one another's knowledge.  Building a community is of the utmost importance to us.