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what acting can do and more...

what acting can do

I went to see a play not too long ago. The premise of the play was that two architects, who had been partners decades earlier, but who had fallen out, find themselves sharing a hospital room near the ends of the their lives. I knew this going in to the play, and that the play would be a reckoning between the two old partners and friends.


In the first scene of the play, when they discover that they are sharing a room, they both lose their tempers, and the nurse offers to see if there might be another room. Now, I could see the set, and I knew the premise of the play was that they were in the same room and were going to have things out in that room, but the quality of the acting was such that I found myself wondering whether there might not be another room for the two of them, in spite of the fact that I knew the script was going to keep them in the same room, and that the set provided for no other room!

As an acting teacher and coach, when I go to see plays or movies, my “critic” is very alert. I am watching the actors carefully to assess their skill and the depth of their work. It’s hard to shut that off, even when I want to For me to find myself wondering whether it was possible for the play to take a course other than the one I knew it was going to take is very unusual. The acting was powerful enough that I was drawn into the immediate reality of the situation. I was no longer judging or evaluating, I was trying to solve the characters problems for them!

In short, I was watching a play the way I watched a play as a kid: with fully open heart and mind (whether I wanted to or not).

That’s what (really great) acting can do.

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faq: what else should I know?

I just recently added the following to the FAQ page of my web site. Thought you’d want to know.


What else should I know?

This is a class that takes you and your potential seriously. VERY seriously. It’s not a class full of preliminary exercises about getting in touch with yourself or feeling less inhibited. It’s a class that teaches a framework for becoming a true student of a script, for patiently discovering and extracting the details that will place you in touch with the pulsing heart of the role. And it teaches you a process and a set of tools and distinctions to support you in translating what you learn as a student of the script into action in a scene.

The class presents a COMPREHENSIVE approach. It’s not one class in a sequence of four, all of which you need to be able to act. The whole appraoch is laid out in ten weeks. But this means that the course is dense: a lot of material is presented every week, and it’s important that you take responsibility for making sure that the informaation offered to you becomes knowledge and understanding. So this will mean STUDYING. It will mean WORKING. It will mean accepting structure. It will mean APPLYING YOURSELF. It will mean PATIENCE with not understanding everything immediately. It will mean accepting and ultimately embracing COMPLEXITY (telling stories is principally a way of contending with the complexity of life). It will mean forging resolve and staying true to a purpose. It will mean continuing to work when you no longer feel like it. It will mean getting to class when you’d rather take a night off. It will mean coming through for your scene partner. It will mean being held accountable. It will require GRIT.

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the great challenge of making imagined relationships feel like real ones

I came across a column on The New York Times website, called The Myth of Quality Time.


Columnist Frank Bruni shares a realization that he had about why he changed his mind about thinking that brief visits with family members or other loved ones were best:

With a more expansive stretch, there’s a better chance that I’ll be around at the precise, random moment when one of my nephews drops his guard and solicits my advice about something private. Or when one of my nieces will need someone other than her parents to tell her that she’s smart and beautiful. Or when one of my siblings will flash back on an incident from our childhood that makes us laugh uncontrollably, and suddenly the cozy, happy chain of our love is cinched that much tighter.

There’s simply no real substitute for physical presence.

Bruni is saying that the defining moments of relationships of any duration occur as they occur. Not on anyone’s schedule. Not by appointment. Not by any kind of design.

What does this tell us, as actors? It tells us that the relationship-defining moments, the moments that make Blanche and Stella into Blanche and Stella, or make Macbeth and Lady Macbeth into Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, happen in the midst of long stretches of time the individuals in question have spent together. And it’s also true that these special, definitive moments arise, unexpectedly and mysteriously, from the daily, mundane interactions, the exchanging of pleasantries, the doing of favors, the reporting on how the day went, etc. The special moments of connection emerge from the everyday comings and goings, and the familiarity that grows in the process.

It’s this familiarity, borne out of repeated, everyday interactions that occur over months, years, even decades, that actors attempt to create when they enter into an imaginary relationship in a fictional situation.

Doing this successfully is no small feat, and one that is, sadly, often taken for granted.

How to go about this process of making fictional relationships seem like real ones? There are some tools that I present in the class, which I’ll describe briefly below, but the most important thing is to recognize that making a fictional relationship seem like a real one is not something to take for granted. There’s no one way to do it, but it must be done. Too often people think it’s as simple as saying “Ok, we’re sisters” or “You’re the boss, I’m the employee” and then you can get on with the all-important business of deciding how to deliver the lines or whatever. Keeping in mind the fact that a relationship is something that develops across an expanse of time, often a vast one, and is given definition both through the major milestones, good and bad, and through the process of unremarkable, everyday interaction, is paramount. If you keep these facts in view, you won’t forget about what you’re up against.

One important means of lending depth and substance to an imaginary relationship is to bring imagination and specificity to the defining moments of a relationship, the major milestones that I mentioned. How did the relationship come into being? What were its origins? What were the high points? The crisis points? How were the crises overcome, so that the relationship survived? Making these little short films of the imagination is a great way to begin to give the relationship a specific gravity. It’s backstory, yes, but not a more or less arbitrary stream of factoids strung together into a “”backstory” or character bio; it’s backstory that focuses specifically on the defining moments of the relationship, its origins, peaks and valleys. We can call this process particularization of the relationship.

Another valuable tool is transference. The term comes from Uta Hagen’s book, A Challenge for the Actor. Transference means finding relationships from the actor’s own experience that approximate the relationships of the character to people, places and things. Playing Stella Kowalski? You want to find a transference to help you make the relationship with your Blanche feel more real. If you had an older sister who you were once close to, or even one you still are close to, you’re all set. If not, then you have to try to find another relationship from your own life whose essence approximates the relationship that the character you’re playing has with the character in question. Then you want to find ways to reinforce that transference. While you don’t want to be trying to think of the person from your own life while you’re rehearsing (you want to be present, in the moment), creating little rituals to regularly remind yourself outside of rehearsal of the connection can go a long way towards prompting the unconscious mind to direct the energy associated with the real relationship into the fictional one.

Also, taking care to always engage in relationship while rehearsing, that is, to treat every moment when you are actually rehearsing a scene as a moment of relationship in involving give and take and the pursuit of visceral need, then each of these moments acts as a deposit in the piggy bank of real relationship, and gradually, over time, the fictional relationship will start to take root and find a reality of its own. But every time you treat a moment of rehearsal as an exercise in remembering the lines or the blocking, this deposit in the piggy bank of relationship does NOT occur, in fact, when rehearsal is approached that way, a deposit is made in the piggy bank of mechanical repetition, and that’s NOT where your want your money.

These strategies are most effectively used together, in and out of rehearsal, to get over the bar of making fictional relationships seem like real ones. It takes work, but it’s one of the greatest pleasures that the craft of acting affords.

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“the grit to keep standing”

This NPR story about the singer Jewel, and her new book, and all that she had to overcome to become who she is, is ruthlessly inspiring.

Physically abusive father. Boss who withheld paycheck when she refuses to have sex with him. Consequent eviction. Living in her car. Kidney problems that made keeping a job very hard. Homelessness. Agoraphobia. Shoplifting.

And then…major label bidding war.

It’s worth listening to. I know, you’re busy. But…seriously. Listen to it.

And I loved this:

“You realize that so much of success, whether it’s personal happiness or career, is really just about not giving up,” she says. “It’s about who has the grit to keep standing. And that’s what my life’s been about. It’s brought me to my knees again and again.

Why does that sound familiar?

Chekhov, The Seagull

Nina:“…I understand, finally, that in our business — acting, writing, it makes no difference — the main thing isn’t being famous, it’s not the sound of applause, it’s not what I dreamed it was. All it is is the strength to keep going, no matter what happens.”

It’s something we all need to hear.

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“and I was like…is this real?”

Jimmy Fallon had one of the heroes of the European train episode on last night:


It’s a great story, and there’s a lesson there for actors as well.

Notice what Anthony Sadler says happens as he was waking up: his friends were ducking down and looking back, and then he says he looked back and saw the gunman coming in the cabin, “cocking an AK.” An AK-47 submachine gun, a Kalashnikov, that is.

And his response, even though his friends were ducking and looking back: “And I was like…is this real? Is somebody playing a joke?”

The whole thing seemed unreal. And this sense of unreality was potent enough that as he and his friends started to move down the aisle to tackle the gunman, he returned to the question, to settle it: “Both of them get up, and I just followed them, so I was like, Ok, I guess this is real.”

Reversal is a fundamental element of drama. It’s what’s popularly known as “twists and turns” and it basically means something unexpected is happening. A drama in which everything that happens is expected is not much a drama. “Predictable” is not a word used to praise scripts. We expect a good drama to have some surprises. And that’s what reversals are. Something that happens that changes everything.

Often, when actors are working on a scene, I see them face reversals, that is, unexpected radical developments in the situations of their characters, and take them into stride way too easily. I may see a moment of “reaction” and then it’s on to dealing with the new state of affairs. But that’s not actually the way we take in seismic changes in our reality, out here in the real world. There’s a reason that the first of Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross’s Five Stages of Grieving is Denial. The first thing we want to do when we are treated to a radical departure from what is expected is to pretend it’s not happening. “Is this real? Is somebody playing a joke?” “You gotta be shitting me!” But the the key to acting moments like this, though, is not mere “reactions of disbelief”, because reactions are not active. What is active is to seek confirmation. We can do it verbally, with utterances like those I just spelled out, or non-verbally, with our gaze, and, yes, with our faces. But these verbal and non-verbal expressions have to be directed at someone, they are a part of the effort to gain confirmation from the partner, they are active and dynamic, not static and merely expressive.

When this step is skipped, it gives the lie to the whole situation, because if the change is too easily accepted, then we, the audience, know that it wasn’t much of a change, or that the actors were anticipating it, or that the actors had no real expectations about how the situation would play out in the first place. None of these scenarios are good for the telling of the story or for the experience of the audience.

It’s often the case that people start to speak or otherwise take action before they have fully accepted the new state of affairs. Notice how in the above example, he says he started to follow his friends after they moved, then he decided that what was happening was real. Actors are often too ready to move past the phase of getting confirmation that the new state of affairs really is what has just been reported, and usually to their detriment. When confronting a reversal, see how long you can go after the reversal is announced and not accept, or not completely accept, its reality. That means, see how long the script will allow you to continue to seek confirmation of the new reality. The script may force your hand at some point, and it may not be possible to continue doubting the new state of affairs, but find that limit point. See how long you can maintain the effort to seek confirmation. This will make sure that you don’t move through it too quickly and thus deny the reality of the unreality.

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