Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Art of Acting

Few people listen to a concert pianist and think, “I could do that.” Few people look at a great painting and think, “I could do that.” (I mean pre-modern painting. Most people probably could paint like Jackson Pollack. An elephant splattering paint with his trunk could do that.)

I would bet, however, that most people reading this have watched actors and thought, “I could do that.” What do actors do, anyway? They talk, they walk, they love, they get angry, they crack jokes. They do what all humans do.

It’s harder than it looks, but not as hard as playing Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto.

This year I acted five Shakespearean parts. (I’m a little Shakespeared out right now.) Next year, in addition to more Shakespeare, a company I work with is doing Agatha Christie’s “Witness for the Prosecution” and “Cyrano de Bergerac.” I look forward to those productions.

In college I majored in theatre arts. My acting teacher was an old Stanislavskian who had been acting since the 1930’s. He was rough on me. He would not let me get away with anything that was shallow and imposed on the character. He insisted on actors building a character using the Stanislavsky “method.”

How miserable he made my life! I tried and I tried to understand, but I could not get it. I just could not get it. To me, acting was acting. It was doing the things that you see actors do. But my teacher wanted me to go deeper and strip all of that away and just pursue the objective. I don’t know how many times in four years I heard him ask, “What is your objective?”

One day about 15 years later I was sitting in my armchair reading a play when something clicked in my mind. It was like in the cartoons when a light bulb appears above a character’s head. I looked up from my book and thought, “I get it now.”

What did I get? To explain, let me tell you about a classmate of mine in college. He was in roughly the same situation I was: lots of talent, but he approached acting from the outside in and there was a certain shallowness to his acting.

My friend tells me that one day in acting class he began a monologue, doing all his normal shtick. The teacher stopped him and said, “Just say the lines. Don’t do all that other stuff.” My friend began again and again the teacher stopped him and told him to just stand there and say the lines. My friend started again and was stopped again.

My friend was losing his temper now. He wanted to do the monologue right, not just stand and say the lines. “Fine,” he said with some anger. “You want me to just say the lines, I’ll just say the lines.” He stood absolutely still, not acting at all and just said the lines.

And it was good. He found a reality he had been unable to find when he was trying to “act.”

When an actor strips away the phony stuff, then he is free to pursue his objective in rehearsals and build on the reality he finds.

Stanislavsky fits rather nicely with the Aristotelian philosophic tradition, of which Ayn Rand is a part. Life is goal-oriented. Human action is purposeful.

Aristotle writes about final causation, which means that a goal causes the action one takes to attain it. For instance, if your goal is to get to other side of the street, then the action you take (walking) is caused by your pursuit of that goal.

The idea of a character having an objective or goal is, I believe, the most important part of Stanislavsky’s teaching. Pursuing a character’s goal causes the things an actor does in pursuit of that goal.

Stanislavsky writes about a day in acting class when he told his students to find the brooch that was hidden in the curtains. The actors began looking through the curtains for the brooch. He then told them that there really was no brooch. The point was that the actions they had been taking were the actions they should take if they were to act like they were seeking a brooch. You don’t indicate to the audience, “I am looking for a brooch,” you just look for the brooch.

Let’s say you’re a man playing a husband and wife scene. From your script analysis you decide your objective in this scene is to deceive your wife (which never happens, ladies). As you rehearse the scene, you find yourself avoiding eye contact with her because you don’t want her to see you are lying. You mumble the end of one line because you don’t want her to understand too clearly what you are saying. You laugh nervously at one moment and speak loudly when you try to change the subject at another moment.

Now, when you were preparing the scene, you probably did not think, “Okay, I’ll have shifty eyes, mumble here, laugh here…” You might have thought of some of those actions, but you probably discovered them as you pursued your objective. You and the director might consciously think of other things you can do and you might fine tune the raw material you discover as you rehearse. It all must be integrated around your objective.

Once you have this reality, then you can further develop your character by putting yourself in circumstances or conditions using what Stanislavsky called “the magic if.” If I were drunk, how would I walk? If I were effeminate, how would I move my hands?

The mistake my friend and I made in college is that we were copying the things we saw actors do instead of doing the things that people do. We were playing the results we imagined for the character without finding the underlying action that causes the results. If you pursue your objective, then those results happen naturally and they look real. That’s acting.

It sounds simple, doesn’t it?


Anonymous said...

Nice post!


Structured Settlement Forum

EdMcGon said...

You mean...I can't...act? *faints*

(This message has been approved by the William Shatner School of Acting)

Seriously though, good post.

This is why I always thought it would be easier to play a villain than a good guy. Selfish motivations are easy to relate to. ;)

Myrhaf said...

Villains are easier to play because they're usually better written. Heroes are more often cardboard figures with shallow motivations.

EdMcGon said...

Since we are on the subject of villains, I have to drag up one of my old posts from last May(which I thoroughly enjoyed writing): The Top 10 Movie Villains of All Time.

I am curious what you think of my choices, and if you would pick anyone different.

Myrhaf said...

Those are good choices, but I haven't seen all the movies. Others villains I would add are Odd Job in "Goldfinger," Laurence Olivier in "Marathon Man," Darth Vader and Bette Davis in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Anonymous said...

Likewise, zillions of people think that because they can write words, they can write fiction. Uh-huh, sure.

Your ideas about an actor knowing his objective are very interesting to me. This adds a deeper perspective to the idea of going into character. It's about becoming the character, as in being motivated to do or say what that character wants. It's like taking on that character's values.

As I write fiction, I am learning just how important it is to develop the characters until I can become them. It seems like I can't speak in their voices until I have learned everything I can about them, even outside of the story. It's a rush when the characters come alive while I'm writing. I bet the experience is very similar for an actor.

EdMcGon said...

I did think about Darth Vader, but when you consider him within the entire context of all six Star Wars films, he is really more of a fallen hero.

I like your other choices, but especially Bette Davis. I forgot about her. ;)

Mugsy Peabody said...

Saying painting like Pollack is something anyone can do shows that you know nothing about it. Try it. You'll soon find you can't.

Myrhaf said...

No, thanks, Mugsy. Were I to attempt such an irrational, nihilist activity as splattering paint on a canvas, I would feel soiled and dishonest. On non-objective art I am happy to exist in ignorance.