Saturday, December 11, 2010

More on Process, et al.

I often tell my students this truism: a play is only as good as its weakest actor. I believe that, too. I had a college acting teacher, the late Howard Orms, whom I was constantly challenging. Howard had been in academia a long, long time. He'd studied at Yale around the same time Paul Newman was there (a story Howard related many times) and came from what can politely be called an 'old school' approach to acting. I was pretty hard on Howard as a student because I was young and stupid and didn't know what I know now, which is, process has virtually nothing to do with talent. These days, a hundred years later it seems sometimes, I have no respect whatsoever for academic acting classes. But even though I didn't always agree with Howard (he was a devotee of Uta Hagen's book 'Respect for Acting') he did, now and again, say something that stuck with me. One of those things was this: 90 percent of the actors in this country are unemployed. And 90 percent of THAT 90 percent, deserve to be.

The main reason I have problems with academic acting teachers, however, is their complete disregard for how the business actually works. Now, I realize this is a sweeping generalization and it doesn't always apply. I'm sure there are some dandy college acting teachers out there somewhere.

I love Stella Adler's statement about Marlon Brando, in my opinion the finest American actor of the 20th century. She said, "I taught him nothing. He already knew how to act. Better than anyone I'd ever seen, in fact. I simply nudged him in the right direction." And therein lies my general feeling about acting teachers. Brando is always held up as the poster boy for the American 'Method.' And yet, aside from his early work with Adler, he really didn't subscribe to that process. The famed Actor's Studio to this day holds him up as an example of their teachings. The truth is, Brando only attended a few classes there. And he abhored Strasberg. Thought he was windbag. Now, others - Newman, Dean, Winters, Page, Pacino - did, in fact, worship at the feet of Lee Strasberg. But not Brando.

Brando at some point very early on realized what most actors take a lifetime to discover: theatre is Machiavellian. That is to say, the ends always justify the means.

By this, I don't mean to say that bad behavior is encouraged, but rather that process is, ultimately, not so terribly important. The very best of our ilk, actors, that is, realize that great acting is about great moments. And in any given script, one is given only a few great moments. Even Hamlet and Willy Loman are only given a few really startling moments. The rest is just plot and exposition. One of the primary jobs of the actor is to realize and capitalize on those moments.

But not at the expense of the play. In Lawrence Olivier's famous post-war Hamlet, the Hamlet that many actors measured themselves against for decades, there was a moment towards the end of the play in which Olivier would vault himself some 20 feet off a ledge into the arms of a half dozen soldiers during a daring sword fight. He would then throw himself into a forward roll and come up slashing his rapier. Early in his career, Olivier was an extremely physical and athletic actor. The critics raved about the leap. The audience got to the point where they would actually applaud it. Apparently, it was breathtaking. A few weeks into the run of the play Olivier cut it. He later said he couldn't continue to do it because audiences were coming to see Hamlet not because it's one of the greatest stories ever told, but because they wanted to see him make that death-defying leap. A tremendously brave decision. In that very same play, Shakespeare writes slyly, "The play's the thing." In other words, the play itself, not the actors, not the direction, not the special effects, not the music, not the process, is what the evening should be about. David Mamet writes about this very same thing in his two books on acting called 'Truth and Lies' and 'THEATER.' Although Mamet is a bit cantankerous about it, I could not possibly agree more.

But back to this 'weakest actor' statement. There's a new movie out right now called True Grit, a remake of the original John Wayne film in which The Duke won a surprising Academy Award. If you've seen that original film you'll know what I'm talking about. It's a good picture. Wayne is at his very best. And only one thing keeps it from being a great picture, a classic film: Glen Campbell. He's terrible. Just embarrassing. The weakest actor in that film keeps it from being great. And plays are no different.

Off to rehearsal in a couple of hours. I've made a lot of sacrifices to do this role, turned down other projects, adjusted my life around it, essentially. And I don't regret it one moment. To quote my acting teacher of note, Michael Moriarty, again, "If you turn down Hamlet for a buck fifty to do Rosencrantz for a hundred bucks, you're a fool." The play is going through a bit of off-stage drama right now, but I'm in it to the end. I'm sticking with the girl who brought me, as a buddy of mine used to say.

See you tomorrow.