Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Naked Face.

I teach acting here on the West Coast.  I've taught for the past ten years or so in Chicago and before that intermittently in New York.  My studio is called Naked Face Los Angeles and in the midwest it was called Naked Face Chicago.  I'm slowly, ever so slowly, about to finally get my website up again for it.  I had it up and running for years in Chicago but finally I got to the point that I was overwhelmed with students and let it lapse.  I had a three month waiting list.  I didn't need it and was, frankly, too busy to really care about renewing it.  But now I'm sort of starting all over and I'm gathering students again.  In Chicago, my studio was located in Lincoln Park.  I had a small, two room space inside an art gallery.  A small, brass plaque outside that simply said, "Naked Face."

I started with a few students that had done work with me at Actors Workshop, a small professional company on the north side that originally did my plays, Praying Small, Liars and Angels, Promotion to Glory, The Liar and Norman Mailer and The Language of Cherubs.  With that humble beginning, through word of mouth, my clientele grew.

With Actors Workshop, I would teach a large class every Tuesday night.  The class started small and, again, built through word of mouth and eventually was very large.  But I don't like teaching large classes.  I don't feel as though I can give the individual attention to students.

So I stopped doing that and only did one-on-one work.  Which is what I do now.

Naked Face Chicago, through no effort of my own, became quite mysterious and somewhat famous in the actor's underground network in that city.  A few years ago, The Chicago Reader, which is sort of Chicago's version of The Village Voice, did a long article on acting classes in the city.  They called Naked Face, "the most prestigious in the city, but nearly impossible to join."  That was, I suppose, true.

Naked Face Studios is modeled on Michael Moriarty's Acting Studio in New York.  Michael taught acting during the eighties there.  Eventually he started doing Law and Order in 1990 and no longer had the time for it.  I was one of the lucky ones that found his class in the mid to late eighties, however.

One of the things Michael would say to new students, he certainly said it to me, is, "I'm not here to teach you how to act. I will if you want me to, but that's not the goal.  The goal is to teach you how to get a job."  It was a "performance based" acting class.  That's what I call Naked Face, too.

Here's what one had to do in his class:  first, have around twenty audition monologues ready to go at the drop of a hat.  Monologues are the actors business card.  It's just not prudent to have one or two.  Twenty.  That was the goal.  And before you moved on to another, Michael had to approve of the one on which you were working.  At one point I had much more than that.  At any given time I could drop a Shakespeare Comedic, a Shakespeare soliloquy, a Shakespeare dramatic, a Southern Gothic, an 18th Century Farce, a modern dramatic, a specific monologue (Williams, Pinter, Miller, Orton, Shepard, Mamet, Inge, Wilson, etc.), even a gender specific monologue.  All ready to go.

Following that, if one had all of this ready to go, Michael then asked that one WRITE a one-person show and then perform it at Theatre 22, a small theatre in Chelsea that he would rent for the week to have the play seen.  Agents and managers and casting directors would be invited and if all went well, the actor would obtain representation, a mighty first step in building a career as a professional.  I went through this entire process and got my first agent that way.

In the meantime, if you wanted, and I wanted, Michael would teach you how to act.  He would teach The Naked Face.

In essence, the Naked Face approach to the craft is a process by which the actor learns to stop doing so much damned work.  It puts the the burden of emotion squarely on the shoulders of the audience.  The words of the writer do the work for the actor.  It teaches the actor to stop acting ON TOP OF THE WORDS.  It has been and continues to be the single most important lesson on the craft of acting I have ever learned.

If one wants to know what that means, one only has to watch Michael himself work.  See him in Holocaust or Pale Rider or early Law and Order episodes (1990 - 1995 - for which he earned FIVE straight Emmy nominations for Best Actor).  Or watch Anthony Hopkins do anything in his career.  Or John Malkovich.  Or Judi Dench.  Or Brian Dennehy.  Or John Gielgud.  Or Joan Allen.  Or Morgan Freeman.

These are just a few of the actors that practice naked face work.  They do not act on top of the words.  They let the writer do the work.  And the audience.  I remember hearing a student tell me he thought Anthony Hopkins was "brilliant" in a movie called The Edge.  I told him to go back and look at it again.  I said, yes, he was brilliant, but watch what he actually DOES to be brilliant.  He did.  The next day he said, "He doesn't do anything.  He just says the words."  That's it.  That's absolutely it.

Now of course there are always exceptions to any rule.  But generally speaking that's what the entire approach is about.  Saying the words the writer has given you and don't embellish.  As actors we always want to do more, to act, as it were.  To stand emotion ON TOP of the emotion that is already there.  It's not only unnecessary, it's distracting and dishonest.  Watch Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs deliver the line, "I'm having an old friend for dinner."  Try and think of the countless ways another actor, the inferior actor, might deliver that line.  The line is so chilling not because of what Sir Anthony does with it, but because of what he DOESN'T do with it.

Now all of this may seem not only simple but common sensical.  It is not.  It's incredibly difficult.  Now yes, it may be simple to do with one line.  Try spreading the philosophy over an entire performance.  It's incredibly difficult.  Why?  Because every instinct in our body tells us to start acting.  And more often than not, we eventually succumb to that instinct.

Teaching the actor to stop acting.  It's a beast of a job.  Now, none of this has anything to do with PROCESS.  Naked Face is the endgame of acting, not the genesis.  It does not nullify or inhibit, say, Method work.  As Michael often said in classes, he could care less how an actor got to where he was going.  Could care less about the internal process itself.  No one does, really.  The audience doesn't sit there and ask themselves, "I wonder how he made himself cry there?"  It's moot.  It simply doesn't matter and no one is interested.  The better question is, "I wonder how he made ME cry there."  It's not about emotion.  It's about the suppression of emotion.  It is far more interesting to watch an actor try NOT to cry than it is to watch him cry.

Now all of this is simply the tip of the iceberg.  Next there is what Michael often called "moments of lightning."  Startling and sometimes eccentric moments inside the text that keeps the actor unpredictable.  Ambiguity is the actor's friend.  For ambiguity leads to unpredictability which leads to great acting.  The actor must always stay ahead of the audience.  Once the audience can begin to predict what the actor is going to do or say next, the day is lost.  Everyone might as well go home.  What is meant by a moment of lightning?  Watch the actor, Gary Oldman, in a film called The Professional.  It's a startling performance.  Why?  Because Oldman absolutely FILLS it with unpredictable moments of eccentricity.  The audience has no idea what he may or may not do next.  For that matter watch Marlon Brando in nearly everything he's ever done.  He is the high priest of unpredictability.  He built a career on being unpredictable.  And he very well might be the finest actor of the twentieth century.

More on all of this tomorrow.  Or the next day.  It is what I teach.  And good actors, who have been indoctrinated by endless hours of academia and Uta Hagen's Respect For Acting tome,  who have been taught to always find the lowest common denominator, to reach for an emotion that already exists in the text, these actors, when applying the Naked Face to their work, become great  actors.  It is as simple as that.

See you tomorrow.