Insights about acting that arise in acting class at Andrew Wood Acting Studio in Los Angeles.

on staying fresh

A prospective student for my Los Angeles acting class presented me with a question recently that I thought was worth discussing.  She said that when she first starts to work on a scene or monologue, she is able to be fresh and spontaneous, but the more she rehearses, the more she starts to feel stilted and stuck in certain ways of delivering the lines.  She wanted to know what I suggested with regard to this.

I have a few thoughts.  First of all, it’s important to recognize that we all have an inner critic, a part of ourselves that judges what we do and usually finds it wanting.  There’s nothing to be done about this directly, except to accept it.  By accepting that the critic is there, we have a chance of muting it a bit.  If we stop trying to get rid of it or fretting about its input, it loses some of our power over us.

Beyond this, it’s important to focus on working off of the partner.  Stanislavsky posited that all actors face the challenge of self-consciousness, the inhibiting awareness of being watched and scrutinized and evaluated and judged.  He further suggested that the way out of this self-consciousness was for the actor to put their attention outside of themselves, usually on their scene partner, and to engage in the solving of some problem, or in the achieving of some objective.  If the actor succeeds in doing this, then she is getting input from the partner, and she responds to that input as she speaks her text.  Because she is working off of what comes from the partner, which is going to be a little different on each take, her responses in turn are going to be a little different as well.

In the approach that I teach in my acting class, we try to identify a “hot” need that the actor can embody and pursue from the partner.  If the actor truly needs something from his partner, something “hot” or visceral like love, respect, acceptance, worth, control, freedom, or security, this will naturally incline the actor to direct her attention to her partner and keep it there.  And again, the more the attention is on the partner, the more the actor is being fed impulses by the partner, and the more likely her work will be fresh and spontaneous.

There are some other technique, such as points of concentration, which I teach in my advanced acting class, which can help maintain the freshness of a scene as it is rehearsed, but the main thing is to work off of the partner.  That’s what keeps things alive.

on staying fresh2023-05-28T14:12:59-07:00

Jeremy Strong on preparation

Jeremy Strong of Succession fame had this to say:

“Most of acting is about preparation, so that if you are armed with a visceral understanding of this character, you can get to set and essentially just play and be in the moment. And I’d say or do anything formed by that understanding.” – Jeremy Strong

This resonates with something Al Pacino said:

“A lot of acting is private time.”

A lot of people are attracted to the playing and being in the moment part of acting, but as Strong says, in order to do that playing and being in the moment effectively you need to have an understanding of the character that is visceral, that lives in your gut. In my Los Angeles acting class, a big part of what I teach is how to do that preparation to achieve that visceral understanding. It starts with the Five Questions framework, in which the actor is asked to identify and organize the given circumstances of the character as provided by the writer. The actor can use his or her imagination to extend and enrich those circumstances in a process called “fanning the flames.” The Five Questions culminates in the question of what the character needs, and we try to a identify a “hot”, visceral need that the actor can pursue as the character. Then I teach the actor the processes of particularization and personalization, so that he or she comes to know the world of the character and the character’s experience intimately, with sensory richness, and comes to care about what makes up that world in the manner that is appropriate to the character.

All of this is the instrospective work of the actor. It’s the work that the actor does alone. It’s the daydreaming and the thinking. It’s what orients him or her to be ready to play and be in the moment on set.

Jeremy Strong on preparation2023-05-24T13:27:15-07:00

what is an acting class really

What do you go to acting class to learn?  Camera angles?  Eye lines?  Cold reading?  Audition technique?  How to get an agent?

These are all good things to know about, but to my mind, acting class should be about acting, first and foremost, as this casting director notes. And what is acting about?  Well, there are many definitions of it, but the most straightforward one I know is the following:  acting is entering into a character’s circumstances, coming to care about the people, places, and things that they care about, pursuing what they pursue, and being impacted by what impacts them.  Those four things: circumstances, care, pursuit, and impact.  That’s the heart of acting, whether you’re acting in a film, a sitcom, doing voiceover, or shooting a video game.

First, circumstances:  what are the facts of the character’s situation?  What has happened to them in the past?  What choices have they made?  Where are they?  When are they there?  What do they hope will happen next?  What do they most fear will happen next?  In the first sessions of my ten-week Los Angeles acting class known as the Essentials workshop, I teach a framework for collecting and organizing the circumstances known as the Five Questions. This framework will guide you through a thorough and penetrating examination of the character’s circumstances, which is the essential foundation for your creative work on the role.

Next. care.  The character’s world is full of people, places, and things that are significant to them.  Lovers, friends, siblings, children, bosses, mentors, rivals.  A wedding ring,  a beloved car,a favorite T-shirt, a trove of love letters.  The house where they grew up, the church where they were married, their workplace.  All of these people, places and things have significance for the character, but at the outset of the process, they are devoid of significance for the actor.  So the actor must personalize; them, using the process Uta Hagen calls transference, which is the finding of equivalencies between the elements of significance in the character’s world and elements in the actor’s.  Through this process, the actor comes to care about the elements of the actor’s world.

T​hird, pursuit.  Characters have intentions, goals, and needs.  These needs spur them on to pursue the​ fulfillment of those needs, by taking risks, confronting, insisting, and contriving, among other gambits.  It’s your job as actor to connect with the character’s need in yourself and undertake the pursuit of its fulfillment, relentlessly.  “Play to win!”  is the mantra that students in acting class hear from me time and again.

Fourth, impact.  In the course of your pursuit of fulfillment, you will bump up against the world and get feedback from it, specifically from your scene partner.  It’s your very important job to listen for this feedback (in a sense, listening is the whole ballgame), and to allow yourself to be impacted by the feedback you receive, to be open and vulnerable to it.  An actor who is not impacted by what comes from the partner, who is immune to what comes from the partner, will not be a very interesting actor.

These four elements comprise the essence of acting, no matter the technique, no matter the context, no matter the medium.  And it’s these four things that you should go to acting class to learn and practice.

what is an acting class really2023-05-19T11:55:43-07:00

“living the part”

There has been a lot of discussion in the media of late about “Method acting” and its legitimacy. In a new article in the LA Times, actor Andrew Garfield defends Method acting, and talks about his experiences preparing to play a Portuguese Catholic missionary in Japan for Martin Scorsese’s film Silence.

The “Under the Banner of Heaven” star recalled employing Method acting in Martin Scorsese‘s 2016 religious drama “Silence,” in which Garfield played a 17th century Portuguese Jesuit missionary who ventures to Japan. For the role, Garfield studied Catholicism with renowned Jesuit priest Father James Martin and took special note of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises.

“It’s basically a 31-day retreat that you do where you actively meditate on the life of Jesus Christ and you place yourself, using your imagination, into every single stage and scene and moment of the life of Christ, from his inception to his resurrection,” Garfield said. “It’s a transformational process. I had a relationship with an imagined Christ in my head by the time I had finished this retreat.

That is not the only thing he did to embody the life of a priest.

“I had some pretty wild, trippy experiences,” Garfield added, “from starving myself of sex and food for that period of time.”

What Garfield is describing here is his effort to “live the part”, to live as the character he would portray had lived, or some approximation of that. It seems that this idea of “living the part” has become synonymous with Method acting in our public discourse, as has the practice of staying in character while not performing. These practices may or may not have merit, but they don’t have anything to do with Method acting, at least as it was originally conceived.

Stanislavsky, whose System is the antecedent for the Method, once tried “living the part”. as described in Isaac Butler’s book The Method How the Twentieth Century Learned to Act.

Whenever Stanislavski felt lost, he researched his way forward. Perhaps, he thought, he could understand the Miserly Knight’s solitude by experiencing it himself. So he tried a kind of research that, a century later, would become standard practice in the long line of actors who claimed to follow in his footsteps: He tried to live as his character lived. He traveled to a castle and had the staff lock him in its basement, but all he picked up was “a bad cold and despair … Apparently, to become a tragedian it was not enough to lock myself in a cellar with rats. Something else was necessary. But what?”–

That was the only time that Stanislavsky ever experimented with anything like “living the part”, and he rejected it as a failure.

Nor was it a part of the teaching of Lee Strasberg, who was the American heir to Stanislavsky and is the teacher most associated with the inception of “the Method”. The hallmark of Strasberg’s work was the pride of place that it gave to a technique pioneered by Stanislavsky called emotional memory. With emotional memory, the actor attempts to relive some episode in their past life as a way of supplying the needed emotional content of a scene. Giving this priority to emotional memory became a significant point of contention with Strasberg’s contemporaries such as Stella Adler and Bobby Lewis, who felt that it encouraged self-indulgence in the actor and detracted from the presentation of the writer’s vision.

While I don’t usually teach emotional memory, I can see that it may have its uses. Actors may be called on to start a scene in an extreme emotional state, with no “runway” or stretch of scene that will help them to reach those peaks by going through the character’s experience as suppled by the writer. Emotional memory could be very useful under those circumstances. Also, I think emotional memory may work in another way: not as a rehearsal technique, but as a practice that helps actors get in touch with their emotional life and bring their emotions closer to the surface. The writer Franz Kafka once remarked that a book should be an axe to break up the frozen sea within, and I think emotional memory can function in that way as well: it can help to resurface emotions that have been repressed or buried and make them more available to the actor. I think emotional memory has to be practiced responsibly; it’s not a way to deal with traumatic experiences. That is the proper purvey of the psychologist or psychiatrist.

Regarding living the part, I am not sure. I can see how Garfield’s study of Catholicism and exploration of ascetic existence might have helped him prepare for the role, and he certainly seems to feel that it did. I’m a believer in doing whatever works, and I think every actor’s process is an individual, personal thing. I suppose I am less convinced by the idea of staying in character on a movie set while you’re not acting. It seems to me that it would be well-nigh impossible to sustain the pretense that you are a 17th century priest while hanging around on a movie set between takes. But again, whatever works.

“living the part”2023-05-18T12:10:33-07:00

the gaping hole

  1. be or become wide open.
    “a large duffel bag gaped open by her feet”

We humans are incomplete beings by nature.

In the approach to acting that I teach, we talk about characters as having a “gaping hole” in themselves, in their psyches.  Not just holes, but wide, gaping holes.  And these wide, gaping holes amount to a crisis for the character who has them.

We think of there being two types of contributors to the gaping hole.  The first is called a gash.  It is an episode that occurs at a point in time that robs the character of vital stuff and contributes to the gaping hole.  In A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche DuBois has experienced the loss of the home that has been in her family for generations, Belle Reve.  This is a gash for Blanche.  It’s a devastating loss that contributes to her gaping hole.  The same with the suicide of her husband whom she shamed for being a “degenerate”.  This is a gash that widens her gaping hole.

The other type of contributor to the gaping hole is the tumor. A tumor is a condition that a character lives with over time.  In Streetcar, Stanley Kowalski lives in New Orleans as a second class citizen: he is Polish, and has lived with being seen as a dirty immigrant or the child of immigrants all his life.  This condition of living with this second class citizen status is a tumor; it widens Stanley’s gaping hole.

The gaping hole is important because it points to the underlying objective, which is what the character will pursue to try to fill the gaping hole.  We want the underlying objective to be a “hot” need that defines the character’s motivation across different scenes.  So Blanche could pursue love to try to fill her gaping hole which was created in part by the loss of her family home and the death of her husband.  Stanley could pursue respect to try to fill the gaping hole created by living as a second-class citizen.

Characters form plans to try to harvest as much of their underlying objective as they can.  We call these plans plot objectives.  If Blanche is pursuing love, she can try to get Stella to welcome her into her home and to apologize for leaving Blanche to handle the old age of their elders on her own.  She can try to find a husband.  These are plot objectives she can pursue to try to win her underlying objective, love.  Plot objectives change as the character’s circumstances evolve, while the underlying objective remains a constant “true north” that defines the character’s priorities moment to moment.

But it all starts with the gaping hole.


the gaping hole2021-03-18T02:39:46-07:00

rami malek on playing freddie mercury

NPR did a nice interview with Rami Malek about his work on the role of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. I particularly like this bit:

Malek speculates that the singer’s showmanship sprung from a desire to find his place in the world. Born in Zanzibar as Farrokh Bulsara, Mercury had buck teeth and was called “Bucky” by most of the kids at the boarding school he attended in India. When Mercury returned to Zanzibar after boarding school, the country was in the midst of a revolution and his family had to immigrate to London. “At that point, trying to identify himself, [he] feels like a fish out of water,” Malek says.

But in front of a crowd, it was a different story: “When [Mercury] gets out on the stage, he holds everyone’s attention and says, ‘Hey, I may have been an outcast and a misfit, and I may feel like I don’t belong, but here on this stage, we belong together,'” Malek says. “It is the most beautiful thing to see realized.”

You see what he did there? He identified a couple of gaping wounds from Mercury’s past (having buck teeth and being teased for it, having to immigrate to London as a young adult and feeling like a fish out of water) that produces a need (for belonging) that he as the actor can pursue throughout the film. This is exactly how we break things down in class: we look at the character’s past to identify moments or periods of profound loss (which we call gashes or tumors, respectively), and also moments of triumph or completeness (which we call trophy moments), and then try to articulate what the need is that arises from those past events. In this way, we find a need that can be pursued under all circumstances, which we call the underlying objective. Then the question arises, with regard to a particular scene: how can this underlying objective be productively pursued in the situation of the scene?

No wonder Malek was so good!


rami malek on playing freddie mercury2023-05-19T14:00:51-07:00

even movie stars have to deal with anxiety

Came across this piece recently in the Hollywood Reporter, in which the remarkable Chloe Grace Moretz is profiled.  She’s had a big year: she starred in The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which won the Grand Jury prize at Sundance, and also in the much anticipated remake of Suspiria. She is a truly gifted actor; if you’ve never seen Let Me In, the British remake of Let the Right One In, do yourself a favor.

Anyway, one of the things I liked in the profile was her discussion of coping with anxiety:

Do you still struggle with anxiety?

Meditation has really, really helped me, and just getting on a workout schedule. Working out is something that really helps with my anxiety. But I know that the minute I fall off of that, for sure.

But I think as a woman, it’s very difficult to deal with the hormonal fluxes that we deal with monthly. I deal with so much anxiety hormonally from my cycle. Your cycle doesn’t know when you are going to be on the red carpet for a gala. So partner that with a lack of sleep and jet lag, and it’s like a total spiral.

So for me, I just make an effort to make sure that I give myself 30 minutes a day to walk away. That just means shutting a bathroom door and just standing there for a second and focusing on my breathing, and focusing on my brain, and reconnecting to my heart and understanding who I am. That gets rid of the anxiety for me. But I think that, yeah, as an adult, it’s never not going to be a struggle. There’s so much societal influx around you, and there are so many people who need something from you.

Performing is a kind of test: we want to be found to be a good actor when we’re done.  In that sense, our identity as an actor is at stake every time we do it.  This produced anxiety in many of us, and we each have to go on our own journey in learning to contend with that anxiety.  A former student and working actor I know created a whole regimen that she does before every audition to help her with her anxiety, a regimen that involves yoga, eating bananas (for the tryptophan), and even medication.

What I liked about Moretz’s comments is that they remind us that success doesn’t mean the end of anxiety.  In fact, it can often exacerbate it:  if I screw up now, everything I’ve worked so hard to achieve will be taken away.  So finding out how to face down the demon of anxiety is something that most of us performers will have to contend with our whole lives long.  It’s not something that we graduate from.  I remember hearing a story about Josh Brolin and George Clooney making plans to get together at Clooney’s house to work on the Coen Brothers movie Hail, Caesar! together.  Brolin, so the story goes, drove to Clooney’s house, parked in his car, and then sat in the car for an hour trying to muster the courage to go in.  When he finally did, he confessed his anxiety to Clooney, saying “I’m scared to work with you.  You’re George Clooney.” To which Clooney replied, “I’m scared to work with you. You’re Josh Brolin.”

Moretz’s open discussion of her struggles with anxiety is generous in that it makes room for the rest of us to feel ok about having similar struggles.  If someone with her talent and skill still feels scared, then it’s no wonder that we sometimes do as well.

even movie stars have to deal with anxiety2021-02-19T20:57:53-08:00

free things you can do for your acting

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7.  Improv.  Look on Meetup for an Improv group near you, and join in the fun.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

free things you can do for your acting2021-02-19T21:02:48-08:00

on acting in comedy, according to Michael McKean

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.

By gdcgraphics, CC BY 2.0, Link


on acting in comedy, according to Michael McKean2023-05-19T14:03:07-07:00

the scene partner experience


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?


the scene partner experience2023-05-19T14:07:31-07:00
Go to Top