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.
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
I 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.
“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.
This is total clickbait:
What’s amazing is how many of these people WON OSCARS.
I think this says something about the importance of craft. Focusing on craft, on always getting better, means you’re less likely to be a flash in the pan or the flavor of the month. It also keeps it interesting FOR YOU. I think people probably lose momentum in their careers because they lose interest. It can become a job like any other, and without the interest in how to do it better, it can grow stale.
Maybe some of these people were seriously interested in craft but lost their way anyway. Or maybe they decided they wanted to do something else. There’s no way to know.
But it is sobering.
In this podcast episode of the BAFTA’s Screenwriters’ Lecture Series, screenwriter Beau Willimon of the series House of Cards talks about the distinction between plot goals and the character’s fundamental need, which is a central distinction in class at Andrew Wood. His discussion starts at about 58:30, in response of to a questions posed by the audience.
From the transcript:
The one thing I always go to, and I mentioned it before is, what does the character need more than anything in the world? Because I believe characters’ behaviour, that’s it. You can talk to death what they’re thinking about, what their psychology is, what their motivations are, but ultimately all the character is is what they do, because that’s all we see. And if you know what they need, and they don’t have to know what they need necessarily, but if you know what they need then all their behaviour will be dictated by that. And then their needs will conflict with other people’s needs, and that’s where you get the conflict of drama. And the honesty of that conflict is completely determined by the brutal honesty you have about these characters’ needs. And these needs tend to be things, they’re not plot driven. It’s not like this person needs to get a new job, that’s plot. A need is, this person needs respect, this person needs love, this person needs validation, this person needs warmth. And all of the sort of tertiary needs that derive from that usually go back to that same core need, and I guess that’s as much as I can say about it.
H/T Jared Canfield
If I was an actor, I would be wary of classes where the hook is about getting your tape in front of casting directors—that’s not why you take a class. You take a class to get better at your craft. The way to get in is to be good. A casting director will call you in over and over and over again if you do a great job.