Sunday, May 16, 2010

Odd as it sounds, the actor caught 'acting' is not a good thing...

The picture above is of Michael Moriarty, the single finest actor I have ever had the great pleasure with which to work.  He is an extraordinary artist, breathtaking at times.  His grasp of the craft of acting has, at times, over the years simply left me shaking my head in awe.  He has Tony awards for Find Your Way Home and Richard III.  He has four Emmy Awards  (Holocaust, The Glass Menagerie, The James Dean Story and a guest shot on The Equalizer) and five consecutive nominations for Law and Order in the 1990s.  A host of critic awards through the years, far too numerous to list.  Frank Rich, the former New York Times critic, called him upon seeing him in Richard III, "the most electrifying actor to grace the New York stage since Brando."  He is one of those actors that OTHER actors mention when asked who they like to watch.  Pacino, in a recent book called Conversations with Pacino, called him his
"favorite actor."  These days Michael is retired and living a quiet life in Vancouver.  He is also a world-class jazz pianist and still books the occasional gig around that area.  He is a long-time political essayist and writes compellingly for many conservative publications nationwide. He even comes out of retirement now and again to do a role if he finds it interesting.

I studied with Michael, which I've written at length about in this blog, from 1987 to 1990.  Twice a week and intensely.  The were the formative years of my training as an actor.

When I began teaching myself, I unabashedly stole Michael's unique and exceptionally difficult approach to the work.  I call it "The Naked Face," which is a term Michael often used in class.  HE didn't call it that, I did.  He didn't call it anything, actually.  I have also written quite a bit about that technique in earlier blogs.

Without going into the detail I have earlier (you can go back and look at those blogs if you want, Gentle Reader), it is essentially the concept of letting the playwright and audience do the bulk of the heavy lifting when it comes to acting.  In the final analysis one has only to say the words with clarity and honesty and conviction and let the audience "plug in" what they want.  The face is void of histrionics.  The body is taut but relaxed.  The breath is even and controlled, starting at the top of a phrase and expelling through the length of the sentence (the breath control is essential when working Shakespeare).  It sounds easy, and in fact when using this approach over a short duration, it IS seemingly easy.  But to employ it over the arc of an evening, an entire play, an entire thru-line, it is exceptionally difficult but ultimately compelling and engaging.

I have been a "Naked Face" actor for over twenty years.  I believe in the power of this approach without reservation.  I am using it unreservedly in Praying Small.

I write all of this to make a point.

We had our first stumble thru yesterday for the play.  It was incredibly helpful to me.  Gave me a sense of where I'm supposed to be at any given moment and what came before and after a moment.  Up to this point, we'd been rehearsing the play piece meal.  A scene here, a scene there, a monologue maybe, then a quick transition.  Very disjointed.  But necessary.  It really was the only way to do it.

After the run-thru yesterday, which had some elements of the occasional train wreck, but overall went surprisingly smooth, I received a note along the lines of, "I can see you acting now and then but sometimes your face goes blank and I know you've checked out."  The note concerned me because it was exactly backwards.  The times I was seen acting are the moments I want to discard.  The times my face "went blank" are the moments I want to keep.  I don't want ANY "acting" in this piece.  The playwright (in this case, me) has supplied all the drama and emotional depth the piece needs.  I certainly don't need to add my two cents as an actor.  In other words, I don't need to act what's already been acted.  All I need to do is say the words.

I'm already amazed by what some actors consider good acting and others do not.  I'm usually just appalled when I see an actor "acting."  In my mind it simply means they've had some bad training.  And at the very least don't understand what is compelling to an audience and what is not.  Most of the time, dare I say ALL of time, these are actors that have been tutored through the writings of Sanford Meisner or Uta Hagen.  These are the actors in the constant and inexplicable search for the "lowest common denominator."  Here's a clumsy but penetrating example:  If the line on the page reads, "My mother just died!" there is no reason for the actor to flail and wail and pound his breast and gnash his teeth.  The playwright has already done that, figuratively speaking.  The actor need only find a way to say the line with a semblance of depth and feeling, to lend a graceful amount of gravitas to the phrase, to let the AUDIENCE feel what they want to feel.  The great misfortune of the advent of "the method" in this country, as outlined by a number of teachers from the 1930s, teachers that travelled to Russia and studied, VERY briefly, with Stanislavski himself, is the constant search for the "lowest common denominator."  In other words, a way to express EXACTLY what the words on the page are already expressing.  It is utter foolishness.  But that's not the biggest sin.  No, the worst part of all this is that it's boring.  And being boring is the one unforgivable sin onstage.

I thought about that note I received a lot last night.  How can I make my director understand that when I do absolutely nothing it is a conscience choice rather than inattentiveness?  I made a joke last night to a friend of can an actor work with somebody that thinks Bonnie Franklin is doing the right thing when she acts?  How can I explain that being caught "acting" is a bad thing?  It's sort of like being a musician and being asked to do it like Milli Vanilli because that's what is good.  Oh?  How about I do it like Mozart?  Think that might work?

As you can see I'm in the midst of a tad bit of exasperation at the moment.

I'm sure everything will work itself out.  A meeting of the minds will inevitably occur.  A revelation will present itself and everyone will move on, secure in their own concept of what is "good."  And really, I suppose it doesn't surprise me.  Theatre, like all art, is objective.  One person's trash is another's treasure.  You like Jackson Pollack, I like Monet.  It's all about perception.  It's just that I'm confounded sometimes when other actors and directors don't have the same vision of what's exciting as I do.  As Sam Dean says in my play, "They'll never quite see what you see."

In the end, I just carry my portion of the casket.  There are other guys responsible for holding up their end.  But I confess, there are times I feel like a Christian Missionary trying to spread the gospel in the forgotten, unexplored jungles of the Belgian Congo.  I don't even know where to start.

See you tomorrow.

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