Thursday, January 28, 2010

On Popcorn and Steak...

"All great truths are simple." Tolstoy

Time to talk about The Naked Face. A quick history...the term itself comes from Sir John Gielgud. My mentor and early acting teacher, Michael Moriarty, stole it from him. I stole it from Michael.

In essence, it is a reference to the singular repose of the actor while performing. There are actors we've seen that do it with complete authority; Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Moriarty, of course, Judi Dench, Joan Allen, Stanley Tucci and John Gielgud all come to mind.

"Acting is not about emotion. It is about the supression of emotion." This is the underlying premise of the technique.

There is an old acting adage, it is more interesting to watch someone try NOT to cry than it is to see them cry. A truism to be sure.

Actors wanna attack the "big moments." It's only natural. Moriarty used to always say about that - treat the steak like popcorn and the popcorn like steak. To the uninitiated that simply means to throw away the instinct to "play" the big moment. Here's the thing...the playwright owns the big moment. It's already there in the words. There is no reason; in fact it is downright detrimental in most cases, to act ON TOP of the words. The words already give the moment import. Now, as always, there are exceptions to the rule. My buddy, John Cook, a fine actor in Chicago, used to say, "There is only one rule in acting - and that is, there are no rules."

The actor need only say the lines with clarity and conviction (brings to mind George Burns' famous quote, "Acting is all about sincerity, if you can fake that, you've got it made.") and let the AUDIENCE place what they WANT to feel upon him. Hopkins and Dench and others do this with complete authority. They are fully aware of what they're doing.

Example: If the line is, "My dog just died." The emotion is inherent IN the sentence. The actor needn't enhance it with a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth.

This is, of course, a massive simplification. And again, there are always exceptions. But this is essentially where we are in the process now with From the East to the West. I am, strangely, the biggest culprit at this point. I tend to act up a storm when it is completely uncalled for. Yup, yup, yup. Thank God this young cast of pros do what I say and not what I do.

The play is blocked. We're acting it now, working the moments, the beats, as it were. Editing the work. Not the actual text, but all of the bells and whistles that we, the actors, are trying to place on top of the text. This is, in my opinion, the reason there is so much bad theatre in the world. And God knows, there is. The actors just do, well, too much. Makes the entire evening of theatre unavoidably tiresome.

The most common note I give in rehearsals is this, "Throw it away." By throwing it away, I simply mean to not give the line so much weight. Let it stand on its own. EAST/WEST is chalk full of "moments." The actor, instinctively, wants to play them all. Not necessary. If everything is important then nothing is important. The audience can't make the distinction about what is urgent if we play it ALL as urgent.

As a director, the late Paul Newman used to constantly say, "Earn your pauses." He was saying exactly this. If an actor decides to take a big, dramatic break in the dialogue, he had better be sure the audience will allow him to do that. More often than not, the pause has not been "earned" and the audience is simply waiting for someone else to talk. They don't have the advantage of a film close up (although most stage actors feel they are on camera even when they're not - this is to be expected - we are children of film and watching great work in the movies is what made most of us want to become actors in the first place...unfortunately, the stage doesn't work like that). So consequently it becomes about "focus." Who has it? Who doesn't have it? Who gets to say the line WITH it. This is where the director, ostensibly, comes in.

Richard Burton once gave advice to a young actor on stage. The young guy was taking this long, long dramatic pause before saying his line. Burton allegedly told him, "You do realize, don't you, Love, that no one has the slightest idea you're about to speak. In fact, worse, they think you've forgotten your line." The young actor was aghast. "What do you suggest?" Burton said simply, "Clear your throat, then you can wait all day if you want."

It's called an internal pause and is really the only way to get around the dreaded dramatic silence on stage coming from the over-zealous actor. It's simple. Make a sound, however slight, the stage audience turns to you, you've got the focus, pause all fucking day...then say the line. It's a trick, a device, but one that can work in the right hands. Chances are you won't read about it in any of Uta Hagen's writing. Or Sanford Meisner. Or Bobby Lewis. Or Stella Adler. These guys, bless their hearts, are more interested in teaching an actor how to "rehearse" than they are in teaching him how to actually save his ass in front of an audience.

Personally, I hate pauses. Used to live for them. I still take them because at heart I'm an actor. As a director I scold myself all the time for them.

So here we are at the turning point of rehearsal. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where we define and crystalize the drama itself. This is where we make conscious decisions to treat steak like popcorn and popcorn like steak.

Can't wait to get to it tonight. And I have a cast of young professionals that are sharp as knives. They "get" the idea of "throwing it away." They understand the concept of "letting the audience do the work." They wait patiently for their chance to do the play by a flash of lightning. They are, every single one of them, a better actor than I was at that age. I fucking love that.

See you tomorrow.