Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Misconceptions of 'method' acting.

I was once again impressed with the eloquence of our President last night as I listened to his State of the Union address. Now, I realize it is entirely due to his speech writers, but nonetheless, he appears to have better writers than W. ever did. Of course, Bush's writers were working under a handicap in that they were apparently instructed not to use big words or complicated ideas.

I'm the first to admit I'm not only idealistic when it comes to politics but naive to boot. I tend to reference The West Wing a lot, I blush to confess. I remember one episode (I've seen them all many times - I consider it to be the finest network television show in the history of broadcasting) in which the staff spent the entire show arguing over a word in the SOTU address and whether it was too 'elitist' for the public. It was finally decided quickly at the end of the episode when the president simply said, "They can look it up if they don't know what it means." I liked that.

Which brings me to my point today. Never pander. It's the basis for my approach to the craft of acting. Naked Face, I call it. Actually, I don't call it that, Michael Moriarty and John Gielgud did. I stole the phrase from them. Anyway...

I discovered early in the rehearsal period for Adding Machine that my personal take on acting didn't fit with this piece. I had to adjust. I had to find something that did work. Naked Face work is predicated on the idea that the audience does most of the work in any given performance, be it onstage or on camera. It discards what I like to call 'parallel storytelling.' That is to say, the actor indicating through his work what the playwright has already said. For example (and I'm purposely being simplistic here), if the line is, "My cat died today" the grief or joy or shock or whatever is inherent in the line itself and there is no need for the actor to emphasize it by ACTING the grief or joy or shock or whatever on top of the line. The audience is being cheated out of the experience because the actor is up there emotionally flailing away at what is self-evident. It's 'lowest common denominator' acting. In other words it is always more interesting to watch an actor try NOT to cry than it is to watch him cry. And yet, this is exactly what 'method' work espouses.

There have been a few times in my career, however, that this (Naked Face)approach simply doesn't hold water. This play is one of those times. Others have been some Shakesperean stuff (not all) and once when I played a severely retarded man in a play called 'Boys Next Door.' In that play, I realized there was no 'editing' process for the actor. No subtext. The lines were exactly what they were...the lines.

The same is true, for the most part, in this piece I'm doing now. It's highly stylized work (although I don't remember that word ever being used in the rehearsal process). It's slightly beyond hightened realism. It didn't take me long to realize that 'indication' was not only acceptable in this play, it was almost demanded. And I also realized that it wasn't a form of 'pandering' to the audience, but rather an integral part of the flow of the play. It is, after all, still a musical theatre piece regardless of its sophistication in terms of composition. To be honest, it's exhausting, much more difficult than Naked Face work. That's a huge misconception about acting, in my opinion: actors think it has to be 'difficult' to be 'good.' It doesn't. One doesn't have to work up a sweat to be doing the best they can do. Although in this piece I most certainly do work up a sweat and that is due, in part, to the fact that I AM working my ass off in it.

This is one reason I don't trust acting teachers who are not themselves actors. Also why I rarely trust directors who don't themselves act. Their direction becomes theoretical. They don't understand the importance of GETTING from A to B. They only know they want to somehow GET to B.

In thirty five years of doing this professionally, I've only met one director that didn't act himself that was worth a tinker's damn. And he's out of the business now and raising a family in Colorado. Pity.

The problem seems to be that most young actors look upon the craft of acting, especially in their formative years in academia, as a 'right' and 'wrong' pursuit. It is not. Never has been. Never will be. It is not math. There are no clear and true answers. There are guidelines, yes. But solutions? Rarely. What works for one actor will not necessarily work for another. The young actor's inability to grasp the ambiguity of the craft is mostly to blame. Like anything else, as one gains experience, one becomes more proficient at something. Yet that's not always true, either. Some actors, sadly, hang onto the dictums and rules of a small bunch of egocentric American acting pioneers from the 30's - Strasberg, Lewis, Adler, even Kazan - who, though well-intentioned, completely misinterpreted the common-sensical approach to the craft as outlined by the oft-misunderstood Constantine Stanislavski. Even today, sixty-some years later, it is widely unknown that these 'pioneers' took Stanislavki's first book and used it as a basis for an entire revolution in acting. The uncomfortable truth is that he wrote THREE books on the subject, all available today but not then. The second two books had yet to be translated into English and thus were not taught. This single event crippled and thwarted countless thousands of otherwise very talented actors, the ramifications still readily apparent even today.

Of that bunch of misguided teachers from that era, perhaps Stella Adler was the only one to adjust to the idea that there are no obvious answers to many applied acting problems. She is the only one on record as saying, "Talent is talent and learning the 'method' doesn't make a bit of difference." Brando, of course, is the prime example of this. He hated being catagorized as a 'method' actor. He wasn't. Yes, he used what he could from that school of thought, but he also discarded as much as he used. In fact, Adler said of him, "I taught Brando nothing. He was a brilliant actor long before I met him. I simply nudged him in the right direction."

The truth is the 'method' is a system of REHEARSAL, not performance. The two are as widely disparate as singing scales are from performing the lead in an opera. And yet some actors stubbornly hang on to the teachings of 'method' well into their sixties or seventies. They resolutely cling, like struggling swimmers holding onto a bouy, to antiquated ideas like 'motivation' and 'intentions' and 'clarity of action.' No real human being in the history of the world acts or behaves with unquestioning motivation or intention. The fascinating thing about human behavior is decidely contradictory to this train of thought, in fact. The interesting thing about human beings is that half the time we have NO IDEA why we do what we do. Ambiguity. Indecision. While it might be comforting for an actor to go through his or her script and paranthetically reduce every single utterance and action to these lowest common denominators, I contend that it is, in the final analysis, simply not very exciting. And I've always thought the only real sin in acting is being boring.

I am well aware that many, many, MANY very fine actors completely disagree with me. So be it. As Johnny Cochran once said, 'If it doesn't fit, you must acquit.'

So...going back to the script and the music to ADDING MACHINE today. Best not to let this stuff get too far out of my head before I tackle it again this weekend.

Rumor has it the L.A. Weekly review of the show is coming out today. And furthermore, rumor has it that it is a good one. I hope so.

I've barely spoken for the past two days because my voice needed rest desperately. It feels much better today. By Thursday night I suspect it will be back to a hundred percent, which is good because it's been months since I've performed this stuff with a healthy voice. I've been doing a lot of compensating onstage because of it.

This Friday is a 'pay what you can' night at the theater. Hopefully this will bring in some patrons who otherwise would not be able to see it. I hope so. Theater, by its very definition, should never, ever be too expensive to enjoy.

See you tomorrow.