Cris D’Annunzio on The State of Affairs

Congratulations to Andrew Wood Acting Studio alum Cris D’Annunzio (seen in the recent Uranium Madhouse production The Duchess of Malfi) for landing a recurring role on the new NBC show The State of Affairs. Way to go Cris!















acting class los angeles alum Cris D'Annunzio appearing on The State of Affairs

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we can work it out

Everyone, in every relationship in which they engage, is trying to make it work. Everyone is trying to make every significant relationship they have work. Until the moment when they leave that relationship for good, they are trying to make it work.

This is an incredibly important insight for actors. Actors work on situations involving conflict, almost all of the time. And it’s often easy to look at a scene and think that from the point of view of her character, everything would be fine if the other person would just STOP DOING [THAT THING THAT THEY DO]. So the actor looks at the scene as the struggle to stop the other person from doing something, to mute them, in some sense. To shut the other person down.

The problem with looking at a scene in this way, any scene, even a scene in which you are trying to get someone to STFU or holding a gun to someone’s head, is that the actor is looking only at what the other character does that is wrong or offensive, and ignoring what they offer, what they bring to the table. And what the other character offers or brings to the table is the basis of the vulnerability in the scene. And vulnerability is what makes acting great, first and foremost.

Now, a word about vulnerability: vulnerability is not something “squishy” or “soft”. It is not a way of behaving. It is an awareness that the other person provides something of value, something precious, something worthwhile, that will be LOST if the connection to the other person were to be damaged. So you can be ripping someone a new one, or threatening them with a gun, and still be vulnerable to that person. Are you going to take me seriously as someone capable of using this gun? Are you going to take my threats and insults seriously, and mend your ways? Or are you going to ignore them? These questions reveal the vulnerability in some situations that we would not normally associate with vulnerability.

So again, looking at a scene as being about shutting the other person down in some way ignores the vulnerability in the situation of the character being played. In any scene, we have to look for a way to look at the situation such that we can get something good, in fact something vital, from the other character. So we can still try to get the other person to STOP DOING [THAT THING THAT THEY DO], but it’s in order to get back to the time when the connection between the two characters was sound, was strong, was a source of value and meaning. So the message has to be not “STOP THAT!” but “STOP THAT! DO THIS INSTEAD”, even if the lines all are saying “STOP THAT”.

That’s why at Andrew Wood we place a strong emphasis on defining the underlying objective for a character, which is the character’s way of naming, immediately and compellingly, what she needs from the partner, what it is that the partner can offer her that is good, that is vital, that she MUST HAVE. And then we work on the whole scene as the pursuit of that need. It’s easy to get lost in all of the “stop that!” or the “do this for me!” or the “leave me alone!” or the various ways characters try to transform their circumstances, and in the process lose sight of the importance of the relationship between the characters, which is in the end what the quality of the actor’s work depends on.

So remember: no matter what your character looks like he is doing, he is trying to make the relationship in front of him work. Always remember that. The relationship in front of him is valuable, and your character knows it. And he is working on saving that relationship, making it work. So that’s what you need to be working on as well.

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the uses of fame

It’s banal to say that we live in a celebrity-obsessed society. Even those of us who have no interest in the latest high-jinks of the rich and famous can’t help but absorb a fair amount of it, if only by osmosis (for example, I know that Kim Kardashian got married). And needless to say, a lot of it is frivolous nonsense. Life is too short.

But once in a while you hear of someone doing something with their fame and influence that is both laudable and original. For example:

Allison Janney is involved with an organization called Justice for Vets , which seeks to intervene to stop the downward trajectory that many veterans of America’s wars find themselves on as they turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with all that they have to cope with. The organization provides legal advocacy for veterans when they get into trouble with the law, and helps get them assigned to rehabilitation programs rather than prisons.

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“Film acting is small.” Oh really?

Just a couple of counter-examples. Feel free to suggest more in the comments.

The notion that “film acting is small and theater acting is big” is a cliche. Great acting is bold and truthful, regardless of the medium. An underwhelming, trivial performance will vanish down the memory hole faster than you can say Amy Adams or Anne Hathaway. An overly “large performance” may live on in infamy, but if you regard “film acting is small” as a deep and powerful insight about acting, you may have a long career of cautious, eminently forgettable performances ahead of you. Sadly, many young people aspiring to be actors regard this kind of soundbyte-y, easily-graspable, facile pseudo-insight as exactly the kind of thing that will help them feel more comfortable walking into an audition.

Deep vs. shallow is a much more useful distinction than big vs. small. Have you studied a script carefully, thought long and hard about the situations of the characters and the worlds in which their stories play out? Their dreams for the future, and their fears? Their past setbacks and triumphs, particularly in the realm of forming and sustaining relationships? Have you considered corresponding relationships in your own life? Have you found a way to look at the scene as an opportunity to form or repair a significant connection, rather than a situation in which annoyance or injustice much be squelched? Have you found a way to light yourself on fire? If so, you will likely shine, in front of the camera or on stage, especially with the help of a discerning outside eye. If not, well, at least you won’t be too big. Never mind that in order to make sure you’re not too big, you’ll be watching yourself, monitoring yourself, measuring the “size” of your acting, cutting yourself down to size, where necessary. That might make you, I don’t know, a little self-conscious, but down’t worry about that. Whatever you do, don’t take a risk, don’t dare greatly, don’t expose anything raw. Because you know, if you do, they’re all gonna laugh at you. Just keep it small. Safe and small.

“There are no small parts. Only small actors.”

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this is a test

Are you ready?

Are you ready to learn that being excited about getting up in front of people does not, by itself, make you interesting to watch?

Are you ready to read all assignments for the dates when they are assigned, and read them not just once, but until you feel that you have an understanding of what they say? Are you willing to take responsibility for finding all the texts in question, even when it takes some work to do so?

Are you ready to listen to lectures?

Are you ready to learn a framework for studying a script, a robust framework, a framework that is not a set of blanks to be filled in, like a tax form, but a series of prompts for imaginative exploration?

Are you ready to learn about objectives? Underlying objectives and plot objectives? Physical plot objectives and psychological plot objectives and psychophysical plot objectives, and what the differences are? Not just to hear these distinctions once, but to study them, master them, so that you understand the criteria involved, are FLUENT in the criteria involved, so that you can actually use them in your work, they are not just some words you wrote in your notebook one time?

Are you ready study a script fastidiously, obsessively, extracting information about your character and her world, rearranging that information so that you can view it from a first person perspective, filling in the the gaps left by the script, so that you can genuinely feel that you have some sense of who the person is you purport to be playing?

Are you ready to have the holes in your preparation exposed in front of the class?

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on physical characterization

“When are we going to work on creating characters?”

This refrain arises from time to time in the course of my teaching. I might be tempted to reply “What do you think we’re doing?”, as we strive to come to terms with circumstances, need, plot objective, action, and the path. We look at the decisions that a character makes, and the actions that follow from these decisions, as revealing character. So by studying the circumstances in which a character finds herself, some of which are a consequence of her own decisions, we can learn a lot about her character.

But that isn’t what the student is asking. The student who asks about when we are going to work on character is asking about physical characterization, the taking up of various physical and vocal idiosyncrasies that define character in the popular imagination. Darth Vader’s character impresses itself on us in large part through his voice. The temptation, then, is to assume that the main work of the actor is the finding of the right voice, and the consistent application of it across the role. This ability to change one’s vocal and physical demeanor is a kind of miracle to the lay person, and also to the aspiring actor, and indeed, there can be something miraculous about it. But it is not the deepest essence of the actor’s work, to my mind. And that deepest essence should be the basis for such physical and vocal mutations.

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Bryan Cranston schools Terry Gross about acting

Today, in honor of the Emmys, Terry Gross interviews Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston about acting, life, and Van Dyke mustaches. While I don’t regard Cranston as the ne plus ultra of actors, based on what I’ve seen, which is admittedly not that much, there are some nice moments in this interview. For example, near the beginning of the interview, Terry wants to play the scene that I guess has come to be known, among the Breakingbaderati, as the “one who knocks” scene, and she is talking about how Walter White’s wife doesn’t know all of the things he has done, things that Terry characterizes as horrible. Cranston takes issue, a little bit, with Terry’s assessment. At about the 2 minute mark, in response to Terry’s use of the word ‘horrible’ to describe Walter’s deeds:

“Well…you know, horrible to one man is…necessary, to another.”

Acting is about entering into the necessities facing a character, one of the progenitors of the approach I teach said. The actor has to become the person who needs to do and say what it is that the character is given to do and say.

It’s a good interview. I like the story about Cranston’s parents, and helped him to develop the stamina necessary (!) for life as an actor. Give it a listen.

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touching lives

So inexpressibly sad today about the horrific and grotesque execution of American journalist James Foley. His parents spoke about him today.


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I loved what they had to say about why he went back to the Middle East after being imprisoned in Libya: why do firefighters keep going into burning buildings? Because it’s their job. Journalism was James’ passion, his vocation. He was firmly convinced that it was his place in the world, and was ready to risk his life in order to keep doing it.

Being a creative person is an incredibly difficult undertaking. Just ask Robin Williams, or Heath Ledger. Getting the world to pay attention and furnish us with opportunities is difficult, and then there is also the baked-in-the-cake part of every creative person that constantly calls the value of our work into question. Chekhov said that dissatisfaction with oneself is the source of any true achievement. True as that may be, living with that dissatisfaction on a daily basis is wearing, to say the least.

James Foley’s parents talk about how many lives that he touched. Touching lives is the potential of our lives as creative people. That’s something to remember the next time you’re thinking that you should have gone to law school or become a CPA or whatever. With all due respect to lawyers and accountants, as actors, writers, teachers, and other creatives, we have a special opportunity to touch the lives of people, to inspire them, to restore their sense of the wonder of the world. Of course, to be able to do that, we have to be very good. It takes steely resolve, stamina, and faith to make the sustained investment in one’s work that it takes to reach the point where one can consistently offer work that is very good. No one questions how much time a violinist or an athlete needs to invest, over a period of years or decades, to acquire the level of mastery required to be able to touch lives, but aspiring actors often somehow think that less will be asked of them. As a teacher of acting, it’s often my job to help them understand this, and their understanding this sometimes means they decide not to go any further. But the other side of it is this power to touch lives, to have the ability to remind people what an extraordinary thing it is live a life, to renew the spirits of people, to reconnect them to their sense of possibility. And what a fine thing that is, a fine thing to be able to be a part of.

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“But where does the emotion come from?”

I was giving an overview of my approach to a group of students at a local acting school. Near the end of my talk, a student who had had a bit of a Strasberg background raised her hand and posed the question that gives this post its title.

As a student of the Strasberg approach, she had been taught that she needed to use emotional memory to infuse a scene with vitality and interest. Without the actor’s own experience, the scene would be devoid of feeling and therefore of interest, she apparently thought.

At that moment, since all I was doing was giving an overview of my approach, there was little I could do to respond beyond reiterate some of the points that I had already made: namely, that we all have a hunger for connection and meaningful relationship, and that what we would attempt to do was to bring that need to bear on the imaginary circumstances of the character. But I knew that, especially given her beliefs about what it took for a scene to come to life, this wasn’t going to mean much to her. All I could do was assure her that over the course of the class I was beginning to teach with them, she would come to understand what I was talking about. Trust me, in other words.

With this group of students, I was beginning with a so-called “neutral scene”. This is a familiar enough acting class assignment: students have to play a scene with no help from the text or dialogue, which was comprised of utterances such as “Okay–Please—” and “Come on!”. I have a particular way of working with the neutral scene that requires students to invent a fully developed scenario, with characters that have rich pasts and dreams for the future, and also have activities in the present situation that they can pursue independently of the scene partner. It’s a challenging exercise that takes students a few weeks to complete, from scenario generation to approval of the final presentation.

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the ostrich effect

Nice piece on NPR today about something called the “ostrich effect.” In a study, students were motivated by various incentives and penalties to take a test to determine whether they had genital herpes. In spite of having to pay a penalty (presumably from their compensation for participating in the study) if they refused the test, and in spite of the fact that their blood would be drawn regardless of whether they agreed to have it tested, 15% of the students still did not want to have the test, even though, rationally speaking, they had nothing to lose and everything to gain by finding out the truth. And yet, some of them didn’t want to know. “For those who didn’t want to know, the most common explanation was that they felt the results might cause them unnecessary stress or anxiety.”

What the article doesn’t mention, and I guess is to important to consider, is that some of the students may not have wanted to know because they didn’t want the responsibility of having to act in a way that would protect others. This means that they would rather be spreading the disease to others and not know it, than know about it and take the necessary steps. Not surprising, I suppose, given that the the subjects were college-aged, and likely fairly sexually active, but still, worth considering. Perhaps the “stress and anxiety” is actually a euphemism for precisely this.

Where am I going with this? Well, I talk to students (and have written before on this blog more than once) about what I call the “get it off my desk” phenomenon. It’s not the same thing, exactly, as the ostrich effect, but a cousin certainly. Essentially, in studying a script, actors will encounter bits of information on the characters’ past, or there will be bits of information that imply other things that are not stated expressly. Many of these things are presented obliquely, or indirectly, by the text, because, well, it would be bad writing if it just laid everything out explicitly. However, acting the role demands attention to these indirectly presented points. Now, sometimes these things go unnoticed, and so actors need to work to “be one upon whom nothing is lost”, as one famous American novelist enjoined other writers. But sometimes, these little bits of information ARE noticed, but they are, for some reason, ignored.

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