Actors are Storytellers
Recently I had the great good fortune to see the amazing Garrison Keillor (of “A Prairie Home Companion “ fame) in performance. For two hours, a 75-year old man in a rumpled suit and red track shoes mesmerized an auditorium full of people with nothing more than a microphone. During the evening and for days after I puzzled over why he was so captivating. The production values were minimal – a lighted stage and occasional piano accompaniment. He told stories, some personal, some fictional, occasionally breaking out into bits of song and having the audience sing along. That was it. No fancy light show, no dance numbers, no explosions, no costume or set changes. Then it hit me: he saw the world he had created so clearly that we saw it too. His memories and his fiction were so real to him that they became real to us. It occurred to me that is what is happening when we have transcendent moments as artists – we are committing so fully to the world we’ve created, we can carry the audience with us. This is what it means to be an artist to me: to hold up the human condition with such truth that the viewer will feel they are not alone. For two hours on a hot, late summer night in Houston, Texas, I watched a brilliant artist and knew I was not alone.
$10.50 (or What are the Stakes?)
Any student who has studied with me for any length of time knows that I go crazy when I ask them what they want in the scene and they respond with things like: “I want the other character to understand…”, “I want to explain…”, “I want them to listen…” and the worst: “I don’t think he cares what happens…” I call these ‘vanilla’ choices. Here’s the thing: we go to the movies, to the theater, we binge watch on Netflix because we care about characters that care deeply. In film and on stage, people are trying to find love, battle oppression, survive zombies, stop the asteroid from destroying life on earth. I can’t get on board with a character that doesn’t have something important at stake. I will not pay $10.50 to watch people who don’t care about what is going on around them. I will not watch your show for more than 5 minutes on Hulu if you don’t need something greatly. I will leave the theater at intermission if I suspect for one moment that the characters onstage don’t need each other desperately to reach their dreams. Please don’t step on that stage or in front of that camera until you have something significant to win or lose. Choose a something exciting for you and it will be exciting to us. If you don’t much care, you can be guaranteed that your audience won’t care either.
You probably already know that given circumstances are the facts presented in the script. Where this becomes tricky is when we get sides for a film or TV or stage audition and we don’t have access to the whole script. This is when it becomes even more important to become a detective (well, not literally, unless you are, in fact, playing a detective). You must pay attention to every kernel of information given. What does the character do for a living? What is the socio-economic status of the character? Where are they relationally? Are they single? Divorced? Married? Do they have children? Where are they living? What is their education level? If you are paying close attention to the details that are given, you can infer quite a bit about the character’s world view, whether she’s a farm wife or a district attorney. Once you have your facts, you have a structure around which to build someone who’s fully alive, if only for a page and a half.
Pace vs. Speed
The concept of pace can be very tricky for actors. You’ll often hear a director say something like “Pick up the pace”, “pick up the cues”, or, one of my favorites in the realm of vaguery, “lean it forward”. The general idea is this: the scene or the monologue is plodding along with no real purpose or urgency, and the actors themselves may be prone to making…every…thing…a…moment. (See “The 90-10 Rule of Acting” for more on this.) When this happens, the scene become sleepy and you might lose your audience. So an actor hears, “Pick up the pace!” and suddenly he becomes an auctioneer – delivering his lines, still with no purpose or urgency, at lightning speed. This simply makes the scene shorter. What we’re looking for here is a sense of intensity or purpose, an end destination that we’re trying to reach. If you’re doing a monologue where you’re telling a story, be eager to get to the point. If you are in a romantic scene with escalating emotions, let your passion drive you to some sort of climactic moment: either union or division. Keep the scene moving and your audience will be eager to see what happens next.
How many times do we see an actor in an audition or class or rehearsal who is totally checked out, just waiting for ‘their’ turn to talk? They think nothing’s happening in the scene unless they are speaking and then they suddenly come to life. Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of this, where you feel like the other actor isn’t talking to you at all but using you as a prop so they can ‘speak in a very interesting manner’. It’s maddening, isn’t it? The old saying that there’s a reason we have two ears and one mouth holds true in acting as well. Profound, active listening is crucial to a great performance. How else is the audience supposed to know that what is being said is important if we don’t see how it affects those listening? Often the most profound moments on stage or screen are when we are watching a character receive information that profoundly affects them. Take the next opportunity you can to really listen and let everything the other actor is saying mean something to you. Forget your words. They’ll come when they’re needed. And if you’re doing your job right, we won’t mind if you make a mistake because we’ll be too busy being engaged in what’s happening in the scene. You might find this helpful in the rest of your life as well.
Beware the Gimmick
Years ago, there was a trend where many actors in town would attend auditions wearing a certain color of button-up shirt known as French blue. This was the preferred audition uniform because it was believed this would somehow help them get cast. The funny thing was that most of the casting spaces had blue walls so the actors disappeared on film except for their heads (kind of like green screen). Now many people will argue that it’s a good ‘audition’ color, that blue makes you look younger, and offer a myriad of reasons why it is/was the right choice. Hey, if that color looks great on you and makes you feel like a million bucks, go for it. But all things being equal (and they never are in casting), no one’s going to hire you because of the shirt you are wearing. Enter “the gimmick” – that special trick that actors think will get them cast. I’ve heard many over the years. (One of the more entertaining – “Overact when you audition for an independent film because those filmmakers will think it’s good!” What????) The bottom line is that there are so many factors that go into casting, most of which we have no control over. However, in our eager attempt to land a job, it’s easy to wish there was some sure-fire way to increase the odds in our favor. Guess what, there is! Learn your craft, work every day to master it and show up so prepared you’re practically bullet-proof. That’s all you really have control over. So the next time some-one tells about this week’s audition trick or you come across an article with some awesome title like, “Who Needs Skill??? 10 Sure-Fire Ways to By-Pass Learning How to Act and Instead Just Book the Role!”, just chuckle to yourself and get to class.
The 90/10 Rule of Acting
It’s so tempting when working on a new script, and especially a monologue, to make every line a MOMENT. Unfortunately, when we give each line in a scene equal weight, the audience has no idea what is significant and will tend to zone out. The actor can appear as if he’s simply enjoying the sound of his own voice saying IMPORTANT THINGS in a VERY INTERESTING MANNER. A better idea: keep 10 percent and throw the rest away. In other words, keep the dialogue flowing and conversational until you reach the point in your scene or monologue when you really reach the good stuff: the point that you are trying to make, the secret you are revealing, the realization you are having, the confession you are making. That way, rather than indulging ourselves, we’re including the audience in the unique world view of the character we are playing.
Let’s talk drama! Or rather, avoiding it. It’s so tempting when we get a ‘dramatic’ script to really play up the drama. But there’s no need to gild the lily. Just because a scene is serious, doesn’t mean it needs to be played for high drama. In other words, unless it’s a huge climactic scene (and sometimes not even then – for reference see the new version of “The Beguiled”), we don’t need to add an extra layer of angst to an already heavy scene. Often, in life, the very time what we’re faced with a serious situation, we will use humor and playfulness to lighten things up. If we are already struggling with something dark, chances are we are fighting against it with everything we’ve got. It is our human nature to avoid pain so let’s give our characters the same chance. Often it’s the more interesting, challenging choice and you won’t wear out your audience with ‘tele-novella’ acting. J
The End Moment
Actors often struggle with what to do once the dialogue in a scene has stopped and the camera is still rolling. (or they are still onstage!) This is not a time to freeze your face and stare with dead shark eyes. The camera can read your mind and it will know if it’s blank. Instead, keep the dialogue going in your head. We always have thoughts racing through our minds, even when we sleep, so why should it be any different on camera? Especially if we have just finished a conversation with someone or some dynamic piece of action has happened. Who hasn’t said at one time or another, “This conversation is over” (or some such variant). That is hardly the end of the conversation; the rest is just an internal hamster-wheel of thoughts regarding what has just been said. So let that same imaginary confrontation occur while the camera is running. Editors will love you because you give them room to cut. Casting directors will love you because they can see that you know how to act when you’re not talking. And directors will love you because they aren’t in the business of coaching you – they expect you to show up knowing what to do. Some of our most magical moments in cinema are when characters are simply reacting non-verbally to their world. One of my favorite all-time moments on film is in “The Quiet American”. Michael Caine is watching his mistress dance with another man and he doesn’t move an eyelash and you can see literally read his mind. Tap into the inner life and thoughts of the character, let us see that, and you’ll be golden, my friend.
What Does My Character Want?
Knowing what your character wants is the cornerstone of your performance. Many actors get off track by thinking about the want (or objective, or motivation, etc.) as a concept rather than an action. Example: you might need to borrow a hundred dollars from a friend. However, without taking some sort of action (i.e. begging, threatening, flattering, cajoling, black-mailing etc.), your want just remains an internal wish and gives you nothing TO DO. Remember, this craft is called ‘acting’, not ‘thinking’. So the next time you find yourself getting stumped by why a scene isn’t working, look closely at what your character really wants and make sure you translate that into an active, actable verb. The other thing you want to consider is that the want may not be obvious from the dialogue. How many times in romantic comedies have we seen a man and a woman talking about something completely bland like dog walking, all the while desperately wanting kiss one another? The want is palpable but remains unresolved. In such a case, we might long to kiss someone but something stops us. However, our behavior makes our want obvious to the audience and drives the scene forward. And whatever you do, make sure you want something badly! It’s simply not interesting to watch someone who cares about nothing.
Remember, just like in life, a want without action is just a wish.
One of the most profound questions you can ask as an actor is, “who am I talking to and what is our relationship?” This often baffles actors or they forget to ask it completely. This is crucial! Actors often resort to a label like, “my brother”, “a stranger” or “my boyfriend/girlfriend”. While this gives the other character a designation, it tells us nothing about how you relate to the other person. If it’s your brother, is he older or younger? Are you close or distant? Is he a friend or a mentor? Is the relationship strained by jealously or competition? The same idea applies to a stranger. We often pass someone on the street or interact with them at a coffee shop, airport or some such place and immediately make snap judgements about them. We feel kinship or not. We feel easy or we don’t. How many times have you been delighted or antagonized by your waiter, dry cleaner or the person who sells you popcorn at the movie theater? If the relationship is romantic, how long has it been going on? Is it new and exciting? Are you bored with your marriage? Are you having an affair? Is one person more in love than the other? Is the relationship secret or illicit? Relationship describes the quality of the interaction between two people so explore this! It is a gold mine waiting to be discovered.
Who Am I?
Ah, the most basic question we ask ourselves as humans is also a crucial question to ask as we create a character. Sometimes the information is stated by the script and other times it needs to be created by finding clues in the text. Some things to ask: how old am I? What is my race, my religion, my cultural affiliation? Where do I live? What time do I live in? What is my education? My socio-economic status? What kind of family do I come from? All these factors shape the character just as they shape us in life. If you are a person of Jewish descent living in New York in 2017, your experience is very different than that of a Jewish person living in Berlin in 1939. If you are female, your experience is very different in 2010 than in 1642. If you are a police officer your world view will different than that of a debutante, an artist or a philosophy professor. If you can find a few contextual clues, you can begin to fill in missing pieces. For example, a college professor would have attained a master’s degree or doctorate and would have somehow had to have the financial means to pay for it. A coal miner would likely have come from a culture or family that left him few, if any, other options. How would that upbringing shape his world view? Once you are clear on who you are, you can relax and let the lines take care of themselves.