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the visceral difference

In the much-read first chapter from Richard Boleslavsky’s Acting: The First Six Lessons, Boleslavsky says that audiences watching an actor exercising her capacity for concentration correctly should “know and feel immediately” that what that audience is witnessing is more important than whatever concerns that audience members brought into the event with them.  The importance of what the actor is undergoing must somehow be made evident by the actor’s engagement in her craft.  No small order.

The teachers I encountered at the Yale School of Drama asserted that what makes this effect possible, this immediate recognition on the part of the audience, independent of plot or story elements, is the visceral activation of the actor.  If you look up the word “visceral” in the dictionary, you will likely see something like this “pertaining to primitive or elemental emotion”, and indeed, that is what the word means in contemporary usage.  But the etymology tells the tale: the word originates with the Latin word viscera, which refers to the digestive tract, the intestines, or, more colloquially, the gut.

Visceral activation means that in some way, the actor’s gut is involved in what he or she is doing.  In our approach, this is achieved through working with the notion of objective in a particular way:  objective has to be understood as visceral need. I have discussed this distinction at length on this blog, for example, here.  But I’d like to say a bit about what the visceral difference looks like and sounds like, that is, what are the signs that such activation has been achieved?

Actors do two things more than anything else: they talk and they listen.  When a viscerally activated actor talks, they seem to be speaking from the gut, from the heart, from the core.  Perhaps the most evident example of what this is like in the current moment is the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Whatever you think of Donald Trump, he has a reputation for saying what is on his mind and in his heart in a tell-it-like-it-is way.   There is an immediacy to the way he speaks, and this is part of what accounts for his appeal.  When a viscerally activated actor speaks, he is making use of his abdominal core muscles, most importantly, the transverse abdominis, also known as the “skinny jeans” muscles, the muscles you need to tighten in order to squeeze into skinny jeans.  These muscles are deep in the layers of musculature, and they help to stabilize the spine and also interact with the diaphragm.  When these muscles are activated as part of the process of verbalizing, the actor appears to be speaking with the intention of impacting the partner: there is a palpable determination to be heard and understood.  An audience understands this immediately.  And it has nothing to do with projecting or being loud:  these muscles can be used when speaking quietly, but the effect is the same:  the actor who is activated in this way wants her words to land on her partner, and make something happen.

So much for the talking.  The listening of a viscerally- activated actor is a bit more difficult to describe.  In the process that I teach, we attempt to articulate a visceral need that the actor can embrace and pursue as a character in a given situation.  This need is understood as living in the gut.  This means that the actor needs to ground her attention in her gut, right behind the navel.  It’s like the actor has an eye or an ear there, right behind the navel, and all of the listening needs to happen from there.  This is “listening with the need”.  Everything that the partner does is immediately evaluated as either meeting the actor’s visceral need, or refusing to meet it, and this evaluation affects the actor’s next utterance, in the next moment.  This is challenging to do, because when an actor does this, she gives up the ability to monitor herself and how she is being perceived by her audience.  She can’t watch herself with her awareness placed in her belly, behind her navel.  This requires courage, but it is so satisfying for audiences because an actor engaging in this seems utterly sincere and honest.

If you consider all of this in relationship to mirror neurons we can begin to see why a viscerally engaged actor is so rewarding for audiences to watch: when the actor is viscerally activated, then through the mirror neurons of the audience, they feel themselves touched or moved in a very deep place.

Achieving visceral activation, even one time, is quite challenging.  Becoming an actor who habitually and instinctively works from the gut is more challenging by orders of magnitude, but is a very worthy goal, as such an actor can bring interest and life to virtually any script.  An awesome power, to be sure.  Like any awesome power, it comes with great responsibility.

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By | February 18th, 2017|Categories: abdominal core, acting, acting technique, need, underlying objective, visceral|0 Comments

the fun part

Have you seen Casy Affleck’s incredible work in Manchester-by-the Sea?  If not, GO!

And how does he do such great work?  It might have a little to do with this:

“The fun part for me is endlessly talking about why does he do this, or why does he do that, or why doesn’t he? I really get into that.” – Casey Affleck on Rehearsing

People who tell you that understanding motivation and objectives isn’t worth it are, quite  simply, full of it.

 

 

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By | December 21st, 2016|Categories: acting, acting technique, necessity, need, objective, underlying objective|Tags: |0 Comments

advice from Phillip Seymour Hoffman

“Study, find all the good teachers and study with them, get involved in acting to act, not to be famous or for the money. Do plays. It’s not worth it if you are just in it for the money. You have to love it.”–Phillip Seymour Hoffman

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By | December 20th, 2016|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

a day at the museum

I went to the Getty Center yesterday to see the London Calling exhibit, an exhibition of works by painters in London in the post-WWII period.

While I was there, I tried to make use of my understanding of the Alexander Technique as I moved through the exhibition.  The Alexander Technique is not an acting technique in itself, although it is very relevant to acting, and actors in the MFA acting program at the Yale School of Drama are required to study it for the entire three years of the curriculum there.  My “elevator pitch” on the Alexander Technique is that it helps us to become aware of, and address, habits of  what I call “micro-scrunching”, subtle contractions of muscles that we make unconsciously that interfere with our ability to move through our lives with ease, poise, and presence.  For actors, this “micro-scrunching” interference causes a host of problems.  One of these problems is it obstructs the actor’s process of exposing his or her vulnerability.  The great psychologist Wilhelm Reich talked about the way in which our muscles often function as “armor” against the psychic blows we inevitably encounter in life.  This armoring undermines the actor’s ability to make palpable his or her own vulnerability, his or her own need for meaningful connections with the world.  The Alexander Technique is wonderful in terms of counteracting that physical armoring process.

Another benefit of the Alexander Technique is that it can have a subtle but undeniable effect on our perception of our environment.  By eliminating unnecessary muscular effort involved in perception (such as the process of fixing our gaze on something), we are free to have a closer encounter with our world.  At the museum, I found that when I invoked the Alexander Technique reminders, my experience of the paintings I was regarding changed significantly.  For one thing, I became more conscious of the physical surface of the painting; the textures presented themselves more strongly.  At the same time, to the extent that the paintings in question depicted a scene in three-dimensional space, I found that I had a greater experience of depth-of-field in the images.  This, in turn, asked me to look at what I was seeing not merely as painted figures, but as figures in three-dimensional space, which in turn asked me to regard them as people.   On the whole, I found that when I remembered to invoke the Alexander Technique, my physical and emotional experience of the painting was enriched, and I had a more vivid, sensuous experience, and as a less guarded, intellectual one.

A richer sensory experience can not help but enrich and strengthen an actor’s work.  The experience at the museum re-affirmed my conviction about the value of the Alexander Technique all over again.

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By | October 2nd, 2016|Categories: acting, acting technique, Alexander technique, physical training, vulnerability|Tags: |0 Comments

the camera and the gut

The idea of acting being “physical” is a popular one.  Actors live in fear of being “in their heads”, and hope that their acting is physical and not intellectual.

Well and good.  But riddle me this: if acting is or should be physical, in what physical part of the body does it happen?  In the face?  In the chest, in close proximity to the heart?

If you like the idea of acting being not only physical but “visceral”, then you want acting to take place in the actor’s gut, in the pit of his stomach.  That’s what visceral means: gut-level.

But so much of acting and film and television happens in close-up.  So what of the gut, in that case?  The face, the neck, perhaps the chest: that’s where the action is.  Acting has to happen there, or not at all, if it is to show up on camera, right?

No.  Not right.

What is happening viscerally, at the gut level, shows up in the face and in the eyes. And if nothing is happening viscerally, that shows up too.

Sometimes actors fall into thinking they have to “act” only with what is visible in the camera frame, and while they know better than to mug and indicate, they still end up with overactive faces, because they feel like the face has to do all the work.

When the acting is good, we see through your face.  We see into you. Acting is an exercise in laying yourself bare.  This means that generally speaking, the face should not be too active.  This allows whatever is happening viscerally, at the gut level, to be visible.  But if the face is too active, then what is happening viscerally is masked.  Again, this is a rule of thumb, not a recommendation to keep a blank facial expression at all times.  There are times when an active face is appropriate and called for.

The gut is where it’s at.

“You must realize that the center of the universe is in the pit of your stomach.”–Zen Master Harada-roshi

 

 

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By | September 19th, 2016|Categories: abdominal core, acting, acting technique, on-camera, visceral, visceral|Tags: |0 Comments

drawing the bow

luczniczka-904030_640I was meeting a prospective student for coffee the other day, like I do, and I was describing how the scene study portion of the class works.  I was explaining that the first time a pair puts a scene up, I ask each actor a lot of questions, to prompt them to speak from the character’s point of view about the charater’s situation in the scene.  I do this to hear the actor talk about how she has framed the scene for herself, so that I can help them see how framing the scene in another way could be a stronger way of approaching it.  It’s an absolutely vital part of the process.  In the course of this dialogue, things like judgments about the character that the actor may be harboring come to light, judgments which interfere with the actor’s ability to fully enter the character’s situation and fight her fight for keeps.

The prospective student was nodding his head, and then he said something.

“Drawing the bow.”

I looked at him blankly.  I hadn’t even understood the words that he had uttered, let alone what they could mean.

“What?”

“It’s like drawing the bow.”

I stared at him blankly.  What on earth could he be saying?

Then he made a gesture like he was pulling back the string of a bow, preparing to fire an arrow.  In a flash, I knew what he meant.  And I knew that he knew what I meant.

Getting a clear understanding of the circumstances that brought a character to a certain situation (the scene), and what the character wants to see happen in the scene, are integral to being able to play the scene effectively.   In the questioning process I described in class, it often is revealed that the actor has only a superficial grasp of these things.

But even beyond the circumstances themselves, there is the question of whether the actor has found a way to view those circumstances in a way that is urgent or “hot”, as we say in the class.  This urgency is vital for going all in on fighting the character’s fight, and getting his visceral need met.  If you see the situation as a ho-hum, everyday situation, you’re not going to be bringing much passion, or much core vulnerability, to his fight.

In the Essentials Workshop, I teach a framework called the Five Questions that is invaluable in focusing this process of extracting information about a character from the script and framing it so that the fight seems like one that urgently needs to be fought.

This whole process is about getting calibrated appropriately, so that your acting energies are aiming at the right things, and you’re not wasting your mojo and spinning your wheels.  And since it’s about aiming at the right things, “drawing the bow” is a perfect metaphor for this process.  It’s the action of pulling the bow back that makes the momentum and the flight of the arrow possible.  So while this process of working through the circumstances and arriving at clear, compelling framing takes a lot of challenging thinking, and can feel laborious at times, it’s work that is well worth the effort, so that you’re not giving away your shot.

This prospective student ended up signing up.  It’s wonderful to have such insightful students.

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Andrew Wood, MFA
Yale School of Drama
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