Everybody goes through times when there isn’t a lot of broccoli in the crisper, for whatever reason. But that’s no reason to stop doing work to develop yourself as an actor. Here are some terrific things you can do to feed your creative soul or hone your craft while you’re waiting for the financial picture to change.
- Read. Acting is about bringing the word to pulsing, transfixing life. So getting to know said written word better is never a bad idea. Read books about acting, read biographies of actors. read great novels, read pulp novels, read poetry, read the newspaper. There are plenty of options. But in our media-saturated world, spending some time reading is never a bad idea, and if helps you develop your sensitivity to the extraordinary expressive power of language, that’s even better.
- Study the Alexander Technique. Wait, what? I thought you said this was a list of free stuff? The Alexander Technique is pricey high-end body-mind integration training. How do I get it for free? Well, it happens that there is an Alexander Technique Training Institute in Los Angeles, where people train to become teachers of the Alexander Technique. And such institutes often need people to serve as subjects for the teachers-in-training to practice on. So give them a call, and offer them the use of your body for their pedagogical purposes. There’s a good chance you’ll learn invaluable things about said body, for a song.
- Meditate. Practice the fine art of paying attention. There are all kinds of places to learn to meditate in Los Angeles. Here is one of my favorites, but there are many others.
- Study Pilates. What does Pilates have to do with my acting? Well, acting as I teach it involves what Pilates people call core awareness. The actor’s awareness should rest in the abdominal core, in order to achieve true visceral activation and the radiance that comes with it. Pilates is a great way to work on that, because Pilates is about learning to use your abdominal core muscles in everything you do. Literally: everything. There are lots of how-to videos on Youtube, such as this one.
- Journal. “It’s so funny, you go to acting school thinking you’re going to learn how to be other people, but really it taught me how to be myself. Because it’s in understanding yourself deeply that you can lend yourself to another person’s circumstances and another person’s experience.”–Lupita Nyong’o
So get going! Writing a journal is a great way to develop intimacy with yourself, an invaluable asset for an actor.
- Read aloud. Pick up some Shakespeare. Pick up some poetry that speaks to you. Read it aloud. Read it to yourself. Read it to your dog. Read it to your roommate. Read it to anyone who will listen. Savor the sounds of the words and the rhythm of the sentences.
- Improv. Look on Meetup for an Improv group near you, and join in the fun.
- Make a game out of being rejected. Like this guy. There will never be any shortage of people to reject you. If you have the nerve to do this one, your future as an actor looks bright.
- Go to the zoo. Ok, this one isn’t quite free. But if you can scrape together $20, there are worse ways to spend it. Studying and learning to imitate animals is a hallowed form of actor training, and is wonderful for shedding inhibitions and exploring physical possibilities.
I’m sure there are others, and I’ll add them as I think of them. But there should be some things here to get you started.
Came across this gem in a Slate interview with Michael McKean of Better Call Saul:
I don’t think that a comedy performance—You know, it’s essentially the same job, no matter what. You find out what your character wants and then you go for it. That’s really how to do anything. They’re just going to write more jokes for you if it’s a comedy.
And he should know:
Like Odenkirk, McKean is best known for comedy, with a career that stretches from Laverne & Shirley through his roles in This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and Clue. But his dramatic talents are on full view at the moment, both on TV and on stage, where he’s appearing in the Tony-winning production of The Little Foxes at the Manhattan Theatre Club.
The defense rests.
In 2015, I received a commission from the Goethe Institut Los Angeles, which is the cultural wing of the German consulate, to translate a play by the writer Peter Handke that had never before been translated into English. The English title of the play is Subterranean Blues, with a nod to Bob Dylan. I’ll be reading the play aloud with two other actors on June 13th at 7 PM. Full information here.
AWAS alumni have been doing some incredible things lately. Here are some of them:
- Evan Bittencourt shot a major role in a film called Ideal Home, with Paul Rudd and Steve Coogan, debuting this spring. He also did a guest star appearance on the late Bill Paxton’s series Training Day on CBS.
- Cris D’Annunzio has done two guest star appearances on the TNT series Animal Kingdom with Ellen Barkin, and a guest star appearance on Survivor’s Remorse on STARZ.
- Antinomar Murphy did a spot on Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and on Training Day on CBS. She also did a guest star appearance on 13 Reasons Why on STARZ.
- Steve Olson, who has been a commercial booking machine for eons, recently had his theatrical breakthrough with the lead in a dramedy feature film called Fishbowl California. They got a write up here (he’s playing ‘Rodney’). It’s got Kate Flannery from The Office, and Quinton Aaron, who played opposite Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, and several others.
- Katelyn Rydzewki appeared in a leading role in an Amazon Streaming series called Finding Miles, and did guest star appearances on Tru TV’s You Can Do Better.
- Eddie Shin has done recurring roles on Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle and HBO’s Westworld, and guest star appearances on Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders and Training Day on CBS.
- Alain Washnevsky did a guest star appearance on Showtime’s Homeland.
I read a nonsensical post on an industry website telling actors they should be afraid of classes that make them work with scene partners (the HORROR!), because their scene partner will flake on them, and also because partnering people to work on scenes is a scam acting teachers use to double their class sizes and profits. I’m not going to link to this disquisition, for reasons which I hope are obvious. But I was provoked by it into articulating what is valuable about working with a scene partner. Valuable, and often deeply satisfying. So, let’s get to it!
- Learning to act is learning to get your attention off of yourself, and onto another person (a scene partner!). This was Stanislavsky’s fundamental insight, and it is crucially important to this day. People enter acting classes thinking that what they will be doing in their work is showing emotion, and, not surprisingly, that’s how they go about the work. A good teacher, regardless of the technique taught, will challenge this misconception at every turn, and help students understand that they must learn to put their attention on their partner, and keep it there. This is not easy, because it means giving up the ability to manage your own self-presentation. You can’t pay attention to your partner and watch yourself at the same time. It’s an act of surrender, and requires courage and faith. And guess what? Having a partner to focus on helps with this process. That’s why every acting class I was in at the Yale School of Drama taught acting using two-person scenes, not monologues! And this is why I think it’s pedagogically suspect to teach acting using monologues. It’s not that it can’t be done, but it’s a very tricky business, since with monologues you’re trying to get someone to put their attention on someone who isn’t even there! A scene, any scene, is about a relationship. Having a partner is helpful in exploring having a relationship. Capiche?
- Film, television and theater are collaborative art forms. In rehearsing with a scene partner, you are practicing your skill at collaborating. We all need to learn to balance our own needs and impulses with those of others. This is a lifelong learning process that we all have to continually practice and refine. Having a scene partner allows us to work on that.
- With a partner, you have accountability. As creative people, we all face resistance at various points. “The price an artist pays for doing what he wants is that he has to do it”, the writer William Burroughs said. We don’t always feel like doing it. We don’t always want to do it. We procrastinate. We forget. We avoid. And all of this keeps us from moving forward, in our craft and in our career. Having a partner, for whom we have to show up each week, and to whom we have to respond, helps us to keep ourselves honest. A class where everyone works on monologues? I am guessing there will be a whole lot of procrastination going on. Why work by yourself, when you can wait for the teacher to spoon-feed you instructions about how to do the monologue?
- A scene partner can be a sounding board. You don’t want a partner who is bossy or overbearing, but someone who you can bounce ideas off of or ask for feedback when you feel like you want it is a good thing.
- When you work together with someone on a scene in a committed way, chances are good you come out of it having made a friend. We can all use another friend. Maybe you don’t feel you need to go to acting class to find that, but it doesn’t hurt. And you never know when that friend is going to say to their new agent or manager: hey, I have a friend you should meet! I imagine that such friendships in a class centered on monologues are a bit more…rare.
Like any partnership, scene partnership has its challenges, and can go south if both parties allow it to. As a teacher, I make it very clear that I want the partnerships in the class to work, and I want to know as soon as problems arise. I won’t necessarily get involved immediately; I think it’s best when partners can solve problems between them, but I can coach the partner experiencing the difficulty on how it might be productively addressed. If that doesn’t work, then I am more than willing to intervene to help partners get things on track. But mostly, people are able to work things out between them. It’s when one person is falling short, and the other stays silent about it, that the partnership ends up not working. But in most cases, people work together successfully, learn from each other and support each other, and perhaps complete the experience with a solid new friend. So what’s so awful about that?
One of the central insights of Stanislavsky is that by focusing on the goal(s) of the character in a particular situation, an actor can go a long way towards entering the role and embodying the character’s experience. The term of art for such a goal is an objective. In the approach I teach at AWAS, we think in two types of objectives: we can call these two types of objectives needs and plans. Basically, a character has a need, and from that need, forms a plan about how to get that need met. In my approach, the game is to keep the need primary, and not allow it to be eclipsed by the plan, which is usually easier to spot and simpler to pursue. Pursuing the plan always has to be seen as a means of getting the need met.
One good thing about this approach is that it allows a character (and actor) to adapt to circumstances which change as the script proceeds to change her plan, but to still have a single need which she pursues. It’s perhaps hard to explain why having a single need is valuable, but suffice to say it has tremendous organizing power, ultimately simplifying what an actor needs to focus on in her performance. With this setup, we get to have our cake and eat it too: the ability to change plans affords us flexibility, and the single need grants our work continuity and ultimately integrity.
The question arises, though: what about a situation where a character is conflicted or ambivalent? He wants to have his cake and eat it too, but unhappily for him, in his case, there is no way to have both. How should the actor approach this? The danger here is that the actor becomes focused on his conflicting feelings. In the approach I teach, the only thing approaching a feeling that the actor should focus on is his need. He can have feelings, such as sadness or joy or regret or anger, but he always directs his attention to his need and his plan, and the feelings come and go as they come and go. They are never the appropriate object of his attention.
But in a situation where a character is ambivalent, the temptation can become very strong for an actor to focus on her conflicting feelings. This would be a mistake, and would enmire the actor in a morass of self-consciousness (as focussing on her emotional experience always will). What is the way out of this impasse?
The answer is to take the so-called inner conflict and translate it into an outer one. If someone is conflicted, he is conflicted, ultimately, about what to do. Should I open door number one, or do number two? Should I stay here with you and make the best of it, or go home and lick my wounds over how you have rejected and betrayed me? There is usually some way of seeing an emotional conflict in spatial terms, such as what I have described.
But to give this solution legs, as it were, we need another couple of concepts. One is Uta Hagen’s concept of destination. “The reason for movement is destination!” is her refrain in the chapter of A Challenge for the Actor entitled “Animation”. What she means by this, on first encounter, seems to be the familiar admonition that when an actor moves in a scene, the movement needs to be coupled with an intention to go somewhere in particular, it can’t be an arbitrary movement utterly devoid of purpose. An important insight that helps actors overcome the tendency to wander around the space aimlessly, often as a way of alleviating the discomfort of encounter with the partner or of being watched.
But this is only the beginning of the usefulness of Hagen’s concept of destination. We can talk about destinations “heating up”: as the prospect of physically moving towards a destination becomes more appealing, we say that the destination “heats up”. The actor should start to imagine it as exerting a well-nigh magnetic influence on her physical being, drawing her to the destination in question like the tractor beam from Star Wars.
(Skip to about 1:30)
Now, back to the actor attempting to act a character’s ambivalence or inner conflict. One side of this conflict is typically: there is something I want from my partner. The other side of this conflict is: nah, this is never going to work with this person (the partner), time to cut my losses and go somewhere else to get my need met. During the scene, as the prospect of going elsewhere begins to look like a better choice, the destination in question “heats up.” The destination in question is often outside the space in which the scene is taking place; in other words, deciding to go towards that destination often involves exiting. Even as that destination heats up, though, the prospect of getting the need met from the current partner remains, so the actor/character finds himself “caught”: he is being pulled, tractor-beam like, toward the destination that is elsewhere, but at the same time, there is still some hope of getting his need met from his partner. So typically, he continues to press the partner to do what would be necessary to meet his need, but as the external destination seems more and more like the better prospect, the “tractor beam” grows stronger and stronger. In this situation, the actor is using Stanislavsky’s notion of the circle of attention, described in the “Concentration of Attention” chapter of An Actor Prepares. The actor’s primary focus will typically be the partner, but the actor has to keep the destination (usually outside the space of the scene) in his awareness, in his circle of awareness. Keeping the destination in the actor’s circle of awareness will start to produce subtle physical changes in the body of the actor: the body will instictively begin to prepare to move: he will shift his weight, and perhaps eventually, start to orient his feet towards going towards the external destination. These changes should not be consciously and deliberately enacted by the actor; rather, they come about instinctively or unconsciously as the negotiation with the partner unfolds and the prospect of going towards the offstage exit becomes more and more appealing.
Ultimately, the character will decide to stay or go, depending on how the exchange with the partner goes, and, ultimately, what the script dictates. But what has been accomplished here is the reframing of an “inner conflict” as an outer one, thus getting the actor’s attention off of herself and her emotional life, and onto the appropriate objects of her concern in the physical world.
See what I did there?