Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Art of Acting: Recent Thoughts

My thoughts on acting continue to evolve. Here is where I stand now.

I am more convinced than ever that the great theorist of acting has yet to come. Stanislavsky, though of much value, is not the last word on acting. He was the first word, and a good start, too. The theory of acting is like the science of physics after Galileo but before Newton. We know some, but it hasn't all been put together yet.

Until the great theorist appears, actors must stumble on, learning their craft by trial and error from the most important teacher: the audience. You learn to act by acting, just as writers learn by writing.

At the moment I am preparing several roles for a Shakespeare festival -- Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing and Buckingham in Richard III. I am using the approach of Harold Guskin, as set down in his book, How to Stop Acting.

It's good. Damn good. It's the best "method" I've ever used. As I work, I find surprising line readings and points of view, all unplanned, all coming to me from my subconscious mind. I speak the lines more naturally than ever; it is me in those circumstances and conditions.

Guskin opposes scene analysis. He thinks such intellectual work just gets in the way of what he calls "instinct" -- what I call the subconscious. The whole point of his approach is to get rid of all preconceptions so that you get in touch with what your subconscious mind feeds you.

Why is this good? Because that's the way you talk in real life. The words come to you from the subconscious, and that's the natural way we talk. If you can get to the point as an actor that the words in the script are coming to you the way words normally do, then you sound natural.

His approach takes a lot of time -- probably more time than most actors are used to spending on their lines, especially actors who are not getting paid for what they do.

I am not convinced that all scene analysis is bad. In real life, you have a purpose when you speak. How do you find the character's purpose in speaking? Well, by thinking a little about his intention, or objective. That's scene analysis.

Then again: when I studied verse speaking with David Melville of Independent Shakespeare Company, I asked him if he worried about objectives. He said no. He is strictly of the Noel Coward school of acting: learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture. And he is a good actor. Go figure.

Guskin is good because he mirrors so much of the theory about writing fiction. The writer must tap his subconscious. Same with the actor. I think Guskin's approach integrates well with Ayn Rand's The Art of Fiction.

Here are some principles of my own that I hold as important.

1. Don't rush results. I believe this is the number one mistake made by beginners. They have a shallow idea of how the line is supposed to sound -- which they got from watching actors on stage and in film and TV -- and they imitate those results. Then they stop thinking about the line and carry their vapid results into performance. Method acting, and all good schools of acting, are all about getting to results in a good way rather than imitating the results of famous actors.

Of course, you will have problems with many directors who want immediate results. I worked with one director who, on the first day of blocking, while we were stumbling around with scripts in hand, wanted projection, energy and quick cues. He wanted the performance. This is called "bad directing." What do you do with such a director? Give him what he wants, then go home and do the real work. When you shine before the audience, he'll take all the credit for his brilliant direction. You'll know the truth.

Closely related to this:

2. Imitate what people do, not what other actors do.

3. There are two general stages of acting: finding the reality and communicating it to the audience. Strasberg erred too far on finding the reality, and forgot the audience. Mamet and perhaps Guskin err too far on ignoring the work of finding the reality. Rushing results is often worrying about the communication to the audience too soon.

4. An actor must act, just as a writer must write. Moreover, it's best to act in plays, in which the purpose is to perform before an audience. I've never liked exercises. They always say an artist must practice, practice, practice, but I believe the best practice is being in plays. The audience is the greatest school of acting. Having the ultimate purpose of performance makes all your practice purposeful, important, efficient and meaningful.

5. Listen to the other actors. This is emphasized by the Sanford Meisner school of acting. I don't know if all his exercises of two actors repeating things back and forth are worth a damn, but I do know that listening to other actors is great. Most people listen in real life (except bores who love the sound of their own voice). Listening creates reaction. Listening also puts you in touch with the subconscious. Listening is natural; it's what we do in life. Don't stand on stage just waiting for your time to speak.

6.  Research is BS. Anyone who reads medieval history while preparing for a role in Richard III is wasting his time. What does Shakespeare's Renaissance imagination have to do with the reality of the War of the Roses? It's all in the script. You must understand what you are doing and who you and the other characters are, but most of that information is in the lines. Ask the director or dramaturg if you're confused.

7. Ask yourself why you act. Do you love it?

Look at poets. Can there be a less rewarding artistic endeavor in our age than poetry? There is no money in poetry. Few care about it. But some people write poetry from some unquenchable inner urge. It's who they are; they are poets. Why are you an actor? It's good to think about these things. Stella Adler certainly did.

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