I think one of the most common issues among actors is the inability to create a real feeling in a performance. So, instead of seeing a character who has just watched their mother die react to the situation, we more frequently see an actor who is “acting” like she had just done so.
The most single, valuable lesson that I learned from the great Stella Adler was to simply stop acting. Of course, she was prone to scream it at an actor who had just walked onto the stage and taken off his hat and who hadn’t uttered a single word. But she was always right. The actor just hadn’t done the work to get there and so was trying to “act” his way through the scene.
Ugh. Just gives real actors a bad name.
There are lots of different “techniques” to create emotional triggers for an actor and you have to find what works best for you. And let me tell you this clearly…it doesn’t matter what you do to get there. There are no rules. As an actor you should use whatever gets you where you need to be in a given performance, that is being in a state of emotional truth.
There are, however, a few guidelines that I’d recommend.
Firstly, although emotional memory around something that happened to you can be a productive starting point, it’s better to get to that place of emotional reality in the character through imagination and character work. It would be difficult to play a queen or a prince such as Hamlet without creating as complete a world as possible for the character by a process dedicated to imagining. Actively envisioning and thinking through what has occurred in their lives up to that point that has created their unique psychology, their behavior and feelings and reactions to their circumstance and to other characters around them.
I also find that emotional memory can sometimes become a crutch to actors who aren’t willing to do the real work of developing character.
But once you begin the process you bump into the reason you didn’t want to in the first place and it’s then that you have to be willing to be open to whatever comes. And if you’re really working, really tapping into that creative flow without any restrictions or judgments, trust me…some shit will come up. And that’s a scary thing. But what you have to know as an actor and an artist is that if it’s not scary, you’re just acting.
Don’t act. Stop the acting. Understand why the character is being the way they are and then just be. And be fearless…
Posted by Bill
As a director, there are three primary things that I want to accomplish at the table read: Communicate broad-brush character ideas to each actor and to the cast as a whole, convey my perspectives on overarching themes of the play and to establish a framework for collaboration.
I want to express to the actors my perspectives of the play’s characters in very general terms. If you give an actor a starting place in terms of broad character aspects they will then apply their talents more effectively and this can accelerate their internal process around creating a character. The caveat is of course is to never attempt to force your idea onto an actor. Ultimately, they have to drive…you’re just the navigator. (I know some directors who would recoil at that but, sorry…it’s the fact of the matter and all the more reason to do your very best at casting!)
The result is that it makes the process of creating character conscious and active early in the process. And, by the way, sometimes it’s just as productive to work with an actor to understand what character aspects aren’t there as opposed to those that are. For instance, a character that doesn’t have empathy is not necessarily calloused. But understanding that emotional deficit can just as strongly help an actor inform their role.
The second thing I want to go for at the table is to articulate thematic elements of the play or production. Sitting around the table discussing these issues is frequently much more conducive than talking about them with the actors on the stage. At a recent read through, for instance, I realized that there are natural “pairings” of characters in the play I was directing…roles that resonate with a “sameness” in terms of character traits or the role of their respective characters within the play. Talking about this with the cast can provide a starting point for actors in terms of how their characters relate to others. And, again, providing a place from which to start is always easier than not knowing where you are.
Also, from a larger story arc we realized that at the beginning of the play the characters are “in for themselves” but at the end are “in it together”. This creates a framework that the actors can ground themselves in and refer to in terms of their relationship with the other characters as the play progresses across the acts to conclusion. This isn’t always written in concrete and it’s likely that you will discover lots of new information through the rehearsal process but it puts everyone on the same page at the onset and keeps the train on the tracks as you build up steam.
Lastly, I want to begin the process of creating camaraderie within the cast. And so I like to have the actors actually sitting physically close to each other. They are going to be working closely throughout the rehearsal process and this, I’ve found, is a great way to begin that journey…elbow to elbow.
After all, we’re all in to together…might as well get cozy from the get-go!
Posted by Bill
Hard to dispute that behavior reveals character. I frequently hear from actors that what they look for in developing a character is what the script says the character does, which of course is a perfectly acceptable first stroke of beginning to paint the picture of who this person really is. But far too many actors stop there. The thing that takes the character off the page and gives it dimension in performance is all the behavior that an actor creates and manipulates throughout the scene, play or film.
I recently saw a production of Equus (Love it or hate it, it’s one of the important modern plays of our time. If you’re not familiar with the play, find it, read it. It’s written by Peter Shaffer who’s other plays aren’t too shabby either.). Throughout the play there are a series of scenes that take place between the main character, a male psychiatrist, and a more minor one, a female judge. Their relationship begins as quite friendly and over the course of the play becomes more and more strained. The two actors who were in the production that I saw were both wonderful but it was the actress playing the judge, although in a smaller part than her scene partner, commanded your attention.
I didn’t know exactly why at the time. But later as I thought about the show I realized what it was. Her performance was filled with behavior. And behavior that was not on the page, it was acting choices. Lots of small choices. From small things like how she checked her blouse as she entered to the way she kissed her host good-bye with a flirty double-peck on the cheeks and a subtle lift of her leg. Later as the events of the play become more intense, each of her scenes played out markedly different. Although the action was frequently similar, the behavior was distinctly different. For instance, when, at the end of first act, she leaves and didn’t kiss him good-bye. Now that may sound simple but it was the timing of her changing behavior that showed us how her emotional state was changing. And this choice in her character drove the dramatic action as the actor she was playing against reached for the kiss and when she didn’t respond registered the loss.
The other thing that behavior gives us as actors or directors is a device to reveal character arc. Even in small roles, how a character is changed within a story is shown to us in the difference of how they behave now versus how they did before.
And what’s really cool is there is so much space to fill in a character with behaviors. It’s why two actors can play the same part so differently. So, any part, no matter who has played it before can become your own.
You choose. You create.
Posted by Bill
I, like most people I know, am incredibly busy. Dealing with projects, small and large, the day job, wives, husbands, kids, family, friends and all manner of distraction can easily consume all of your time. And taking time to go see a show can get pushed way down on the priority list.
The other day I got an email from a friend (an actor who I just directed off-Broadway) who absolutely gushed about seeing a new play that, to quote him, was the best thing he’s seen in years and urged, no insisted, that I go see it. It was a particular word that he used to describe the effect that the play had on him that caught my attention…he said that when he walked out the theater he felt inspired. That the play, and the performances in particular, inspired him and made him feel excited to be an actor and a part of that artistic community.
Now it just so happens that I am very familiar with this particular play. It’s a new play on Broadway that has gotten scads of coverage in both the press and the trades. I know the work of the playwright, I know the work of the director and I very familiar with the actors, all of whom are terrific. I had even read the play. But, all of that said, and here comes the big confession, I hadn’t yet actually seen it.
It got me thinking and made me realize that even though I’m deeply involved in my own projects, I need to make the time to go out and experience the work of others. Too many people I know, myself on the top of the list, don’t get out enough to see other shows. I know it can be expensive proposition but generally it’s more about making and taking the time. But one must.
Exposing yourself to theater of all ilk is nothing but productive for those of us who create theater. Don’t take expectations into a show, just go and experience what that production has to offer. But don’t let the show completely wash over you. Be aware of production aspects, especially ones that are in the area of your interest. I remember when I once saw a show where, as the actors moved across the stage, it seemed that they got colder. And the audience felt it. Afterwards, I spoke to the lighting designer and he explained how he had created sections of the stage with gels on just those lights so as to take out the reds. It was a simple effect that created an almost physical affect for the audience and supported the acting in a strong but almost indiscernible way. You can learn about techniques in a book but when you see them in a show, you understand them.
I once had an acquaintance ask me if acting in a theater diminished the enjoyment of seeing other actors on stage as an audience member. The short answer is no…understanding the craft of acting can make one appreciate a great performance even more. But it does change things for you. It changes things because you see the production from a more “dimensioned” perspective. And that, in my opinion, is a pretty cool thing. And because of it, I feel like I get more than most of the audience from any show I see.
If you live in an urban city like New York or Los Angeles (where, by the way, I hear from my “angeleno” friends and connections, theater is BOOMING) or Chicago or Dallas or San Francisco then there really is no excuse. If you’re stuck in a small town and share the desire to produce, act, direct, design or manage theater, then it’s almost even more of a reason. It will be catalyzing. Just going and seeing theater done is what drove each and everyone of us who are doing it now, professionally or otherwise, to do our first show. And it really doesn’t matter if it’s Broadway or a community production at the local Elk’s Lodge. Seeing it done “normalizes” the process, reconnects us to the passion of live theater and helps to reignite the creative fire that can result in prodding you to actually get involved in a production. Seeing a show gives back to our artistic community and, more selfishly, can re-energize ourselves as individual artists. And it can be a pretty damn pleasant way to spend an evening.
Theater is rich and thriving in every city of size so get your ass out and catch a show. Take the next ten minutes that you would’ve spent surfing the web and find a show, any show, and book a ticket. Do it now and find some inspiration…
p.s. My actor friend went out on an audition for a Neil Simon play and promptly booked a leading role. And I just bought a ticket to both shows!
Posted by Bill