Should I Stay or Should I Go?, or, acting an inner conflict

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 focusing 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?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?, or, acting an inner conflict2018-02-26T21:48:18-08:00

more on the trouble with meisner

By far the most popular post on this blog is from nearly a decade ago: the trouble with meisner. In that post, I acknowledge that Meisner training can be very valuable and effective, and is a good way to learn certain things.

However, it has some limitations, as I outlined in my previous post on the subject. In the interceding years, I’ve had a few more thoughts on the subject, which I thought I’d outline here.

The centerpiece of Meisner technique is the repetition exercise. This involves the repetition of a pair of phrases between two actors:

A: Your shirt is blue.
B: My shirt is blue?
A: Your shirt is blue.
B: My shirt is blue?

The phrase is allowed to change occasionally, and only occasionally. The exercise is intended to teach actors to tune into the behavioral cues from the partner, and to allow those cues to shape the delivery of the next phrase. It also helps to strip away affectation, which gets tiring to maintain over time, so that the actor is merely responding to the prompts from the partner, and not “adding” anything from an idea about how the lines should be spoken. All of this is what is meant by listening, a word that is given a talismanic significance in Meisner technique training.

And listening is important for acting, no two ways about it. It’s one of the most important elements of any performance. An actor who is not responsive to what her partners or offering her is dead in the water. So learning to be attuned to the partner is very valuable.

However, there’s only so much that can be taught about listening without entering into the question of who is listening and what they are listening for. In other words, to character. And character arises from circumstances: among other things, it arises from what has happened to someone (like how they were treated by their parents or their peers, but not limited to this, at all), and from the choices they have made (about where to live, who to marry, how to earn a living, and how those choices have panned out, but again, not at all limited to do these things). You cannot begin to listen deeply as someone in particular without taking account of these things.

Now, in a two-year Meisner program, such elements are generally taught in the second year. In reality, not everyone ends up doing a two year program. Not everyone even undertakes to do two years of Meisner training, and even when people set out to do so, not everyone crosses the finish line. So not everyone gets exposed to these important matters. And my sense is that even for those are who are, a prejudice against thinking too long on these things gets acquired, as is attested to by the email I received that I quoted in my previous post on Mesiner:

I’m a Meisner-trained actor looking for
a scene study class with a minimal focus on technique. Coming
from a Meisner background, I want the class to be more about the
interaction between the actors, and staying truthful
moment-to-moment and less about script analysis.

As important as the moment-to-moment responsiveness is, without serious consideration of the circumstances and the priorities of the character that emerge from these circumstances, this moment-to-moment responsiveness risks remaining in the shallow end. Without a significant effort to enter into the circumstances and priorities of the character, the listening risks remaining superficial, and even glib. To achieve deep listening, listening that happens in the visceral core of the actor, the circumstances and priorities have to be studied and embraced fully and painstakingly.

Part of the appeal of Meisner, I think, is that the course of the typical training regimen postpones this focus on circumstances and priorities, which involves a deep engagement with the text and the actor exercising her analytical faculties, among other things, so that for the first six to twelve months of training, the actor doesn’t need to be bothered with all that studying and thinking and puzzling over objectives, and she can just focus on repetition work, which may ask to be practiced but doesn’t require the effort of thought. (“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”–Joshua Reynolds) The focus is heavily on execution, and preparation is put off for later. This appeals to many aspiring actors, who are used to seeing actors executing in their favorite films and prestige television shows, but haven’t seen all the blood, sweat and tears that went into making that execution possible. In other words, intentional or not, structuring the training in this way amounts to a kind of pandering to the aspiring actor’s notions of what an actor’s day-to-day work is like.

That’s one issue. Another is this: on the execution side, the heavy emphasis on listening in Meisner, on receptiveness, as valuable as it is, may mean that the importance of assertiveness, of tenacity in going after the priorities of the characters, of what in my tradition is called playing to win, may get short shrift. Receptivity to the partner is very important, but there is an active principle to acting as well: the actor needs to fight for the character’s priority, to move the ball down the field, to claim territory, physical and psychic. When the focus is so heavily on how the partner’s volleys are being received, and allowing those volleys to condition the actor’s response, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the character that the actor is playing is heavily invested in proactively seeking to transform her circumstances. She is not merely answering to prompts of the partner, but is looking to impact her world in significant ways, to bring it into accord with her own vision. She is asserting herself. The opposing-yet-complementary principles of assertiveness and responsiveness are important for any actor.

The approach I teach shares the emphasis on imaginary circumstances and focusing on the partner with Meisner, and to the extent that it teaches these things, Meisner is a valuable course of study. The approach I teach begins with the leap into the character’s world through an immersion in the text, rather than with the basic fact of a partner who is to be responded to, which is Meisner’s starting point. The approach I teach also emphasizes the simultaneity of the assertive and the receptive principles: the actor needs to be fighting for what she needs at the most visceral level possible, and be responsive to her world from that visceral place moment-to-moment. It’s bringing these values into harmony that makes for the most compelling and memorable work.

more on the trouble with meisner2018-02-26T21:48:26-08:00

not you as the character, but the character as you

The other night, I was saying goodnight to a student who was leaving class. This was her first acting class, and she hadn’t yet put her scene up. She mentioned that she and her scene partner had done their scene for someone else, a third person, and she had asked that third person whether or not it had seemed like she was a different person when shte was acting, whether she had “become the character”.

I didn’t want to detain her from getting home, so I didn’t take the matter any further at that point. But I subsequently sent her an email in which I gently explained that thinking about “becoming the character” was not really the thing that she should be worrying about in the moment.

I once heard the following piece of advice: Don’t try to see yourself as the character. Try to see the character as you.

I remember the first day of acting class at Yale. Someone was doing a scene from Three Sisters, playing Masha. Earle, the teacher, said to the student: Masha lives in you. He was trying to tell her that she didn’t need to “become someone else” to play the role; he needed to bring herself to the role.

The lay person believes that “becoming the character” is what actors do, and in a sense, of course, that’s true. But only in a sense.

I don’t teach Meisner technique, but I know enough about it to know that the regimen of repetition exercises is about getting people to simplify what they are doing, to strip away the affect, to get out of their heads, and to respond as simply and authentically as they can to the partner.

In other words, it’s not helping them to become someone else. It’s helping them to allow themselves to show up.

My approach goes about achieving that in a very different way, but the goal is the same: you, the actor, are bringing your own passions and vulnerabilities to the character, channeling them appropriately, so that the words of the writer arise from “an authentic place”.

This is a really challenging point for a lot of new actors: they want to think about the character and what “he (or she) would do”. But you don’t have to think about what he or she would do; the writer has already provided that! You need to find the need in yourself to do those things.

Of course, people sometimes do play characters who are very far from who they are as people, and a transformation is required for them to do that. But that transformation cannot eclipse the actor’s own self or humanity or vulnerability: that is always going to be a part of any successful performance. That’s kind of an advanced challenge, to be able to change voice and body dramatically, without compromising the actor’s investment in the character’s needs and priorities.

not you as the character, but the character as you2018-02-26T21:48:30-08:00

the Islamic State and acting

Like many people, I have been poring over reportage about the Islamic State, and I came across a discussion of what makes people vulnerable to ISIS recruiters, and ultimately prompts them to join ISIS:

The appeal of Islamic State rests on individuals’ quest for what psychologists call “personal significance,” which the militant group’s extremist propaganda cleverly exploits. The quest for significance is the desire to matter, to be respected, to be somebody in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others.

This quest for what these psychologists call personal significance is what we call underlying objective in the approach taught by me and by Evan Yionoulis at the Yale School of Drama. In this approach, every scene, and in fact every moment of every scenes, has to be understood as a bid for this personal significance, in a manner that it is independent of the medium- and long-term goals that the character has for changes in his circumstances. These medium- and long- term goals, which we call plot objectives in the approach, are easier to spot, and tempting to fixate on as a way of articulating something to pursue as a character, but they are insufficient, generally, for the purpose of helping the actor to activate her own visceral need for personal significance, her need to matter, to be meaningfully connected to others.

It’s striking to see that even in the case of people who join such an alien and horrific organization, we can understand something about what motivates these people with this notion of underlying objective.

It’s a revolution in the way in which scenes from dramatic texts, and indeed human encounters more broadly, are understood. Sign up for a class at Andrew Wood and plug yourself into this amazing source of acting power.

the Islamic State and acting2018-02-26T21:48:33-08:00

resting bitch face and the badge of appeasement

Was reading this article on “Resting Bitch Face”, about the phenomenon where women whose faces seem to express hardness or harshness when the women in question are in fact merely pensive or spaced out. It’s an interesting phenomenon, and one I think I may suffer from, although it’s supposedly only a female phenomenon. I am often told that I look “serious”. I guess the point is that women are expected to appear friendly and reassuring, and when they don’t, well, they get accused of having Resting Bitch Face.

I have some thoughts about Resting Bitch Face and acting, but they are still crystallizing, so I think I’ll hold off on going into them at the moment. But something else in the first article, above, caught my eye. It was part of a discussion of how women tend to smile more than men, that they are expected to smile, so they then get unfairly taken to task for RBF. :

Nancy Henley, a cognitive psychologist, has theorized that women’s frequent smiling stems from their lower social status (she called the smile a “badge of appeasement”). Still others have pointed out that women are more likely to work in the service sector, where smiling is an asset.

Now, this is a sociological observation about the place of women in society, and how smiling is a response to that. But here’s the thing: I see a lot of unhelpful smiling during scene work in class. Of course, people smile in real life, so there is no reason they shouldn’t in acting as well, but the problem arises when the smiling is part of the actor’s response to the situation of acting a scene, rather than the character’s response to the evolving circumstances in the scene.


resting bitch face and the badge of appeasement2018-02-26T21:48:38-08:00

the truth is not what you think it is

The word “truth” is something actors hear a lot about. Meisner’s famous formulation that acting is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” is invoked again and again, by me and many other acting teachers, whether they teach Meisner or not. Actors come to understand that truth is synonymous with good acting. But is that really saying anything?

What is truth, anyway?

I think a lot of people equate truth with believability. But this is begging the question. What makes an audience believe something?

The answer that I think most people walk around with in their heads is that a performance has to have the appearance of real life. It has to look like real life. It has to be life-like. It has to be natural. It has to appear real.

But let’s think about that for a minute.


the truth is not what you think it is2018-02-26T21:48:41-08:00

the trouble with “method” and emotional memory

Most people, actors or not, I’d venture to guess, are familiar with the basic idea of emotional memory: an actor tries to relive an episode from his or her own life in order to conjure the emotional state called for in a scene or even a moment.

It’s an idea that’s fairly simple to grasp, and seems intuitively appealing: why shouldn’t the actor be able to make use of her own experiences in realizing the emotional life of the role? And in fact it became the basis of the Method, as evangelized by Lee Strasberg.

One reason, articulated by Stanislavsky and by Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, is that the emotional memory takes the actor out of the present moment of the scene he is attempting to play. If he is focused on something that happened years ago, he is not relating to the actors he is in the scene with. Actors everywhere understand that it’s important to be in the moment, and so this explanation of why emotional memory is problematic carries some weight.

I think there is another, very important reason that emotional memory is problematic. And that is its superficiality. Let me explain.

We’ve all had the experience of having a fight with someone close to us. When we’re in the throes of the fight, we can feel righteous anger coursing through us: this person has failed us in some absolutely egregious way, and the anger we feel is vigorous, often overwhelming.

Then, time passes. Some hours. A day. A few days. A week. A month. We begin to feel something else towards this person: a mixture of regret at having fought, sadness at feeling disconnected, and some measure of tenderness towards the person in question.

Now, if that that moment, someone said to us, “Well, what about the anger? What happened to that?”, we would likely just shrug our shoulders and say “I was just mad. It passed.” And then if we’re asked, “So which is the truer, deeper reflection of how you really feel about this person, the anger or the emotions you’re feeling now?”, we would almost certainly say the feelings we are feeling now are truer and deeper. And I think we can recognize that the emotions we are feeling now, some distance from the fight, don’t just feel truer and deeper because we happen to be feeling them now: they are our deepest, truest feelings about the person in question.


the trouble with “method” and emotional memory2018-02-26T21:48:42-08:00

do you really want to know?

I write often on my blog about how getting better as an actor is generally not a matter of tips and tricks, but rather a matter of learning a craft, something that takes time, persistence, dedication, and patience.
However, here is a simple thing that can make a difference: whenever you have a line in a scene that is phrased as a question, in other words, a sentence that ends in a question mark, TREAT IT AS A REAL QUESTION! All the time, I see actors treat lines written as questions as merely rhetorical questions. This is almost never a good idea.

Why not? Because a rhetorical question is by definition, a question that is not intended to elicit an answer.

And why is that a problem? Because the poser of a rhetorical question is assuming that she knows how the person on the receiving end of the question will answer.
And why is that a problem? Because it’s making a decision about the UNIMPORTANCE of input from the partner at some point in the scene. And that is never a good thing to do. Usually, when actors unconsciously decide to make a question rhetorical, it’s so that they can get on to the next line without having to do anything like look for an answer from the other person, that is, to receive off of them, as we say in my classes.

But that receiving is what exactly has to be happening at each moment.
“Treat it as a real question. Wait for an answer.” is a simple directive that often achieves powerful results very quickly.
Just treating a line written as a question as a real question is already a good thing to do, but a further next step is to ask yourself: if this question that my lines include is in fact a real question, how might that prompt me to reconsider how I have understood the scene? This can be a powerful nutcracker for getting at what is really going on in the scene. Usually the choice to make a question rhetorical gives aid and comfort to some (unhelpful) assumptions an actor has made about the scene. The question of how the scene would be viewed differently if what were taken to be rhetorical questions were actually treated as real questions has revolutionary potential in the mind of the actor, but she has to be open to seeing things differently.

I can hear you thinking: can you give me an example?

Consider this speech of Stanley’s from Streetcar:

“When we first met, me and you, you thought I was common. How right you was, baby. I was common as dirt. You showed me the snapshot of the place with the columns. I pulled you down off them columns and how you loved it, having them colored lights going! And wasn’t we happy together, wasn’t it all okay till she showed here?”
The speech ends with a question: “wasn’t it all okay till she showed here?”
Now do the thought experiment. How would you speak the above paraphrase as a rhetorical question, which is the way we are all likely to be tempted to say it? In other words, if you know that it was all ok until Blanch showed up?

Now — what would it be like to really ask that question as a real question, to which the answer was important?

Do you see how it changes the scene?

Do you?

By speaking the speech as a real question, Stella’s answer — to the all-important question of whether the relationship was sound or not — matters. Which is a much more high-stakes, much “hotter” way of treating that moment then treating her answer as a foregone conclusion. That would make the speech veer perilously close to being a lecture, something that has no place in a scene like this.

PS While in real life people do ask rhetorical questions, it’s better to err on the side of caution as an actor and assume a question is a real one, and then let a director tell you otherwise if she wants the line delivered as a rhetorical question. We as actors are tempted to treat questions as rhetorical, and not for good reasons, so the best rule of thumb is to always treat questions as real rather than rhetorical.

do you really want to know?2018-02-26T21:48:43-08:00

contested space, or, getting out of your head (and into the room)

Drama is about what happens between people (not about what happens inside them).

Actors are made to worry a lot about being “in their heads”. However, anyone who has worked closely with actors for any length of time, and has some understanding of what good acting is, knows that actors themselves aren’t very good judges, most of the time, of whether or not they are in their heads. That’s why the “outside eye”, whether it’s a director, a teacher, a coach, or a friend with a discerning eye, is so crucial for the actor’s work.

One thing actors can do to increase the odds of not being in their head is to have a *vision* for how the character wants the scene to unfold. A vision is something like an objective, only a having a vision means that the actor can actually picture what it would look like to get their objective. What would have to happen, in real time, for the objective to be met. What would be said, what would be done. And the what would be done part *includes* what would happen *spatially*: does it mean someone would give ground? Vacate the space entirely? offer a chair? Get down on bended knee before you? What would the accomplishing of said objective look like in the space in real time?

Knowing what that would look like, *having* said vision is one thing. It’s equally important that you *play to win*, which means actively wishing for that vision to become a reality, and then engaging with the scene partner(s) to make it so, in a take-no-prisoners kind of way. In other words, like you mean it.

Another important piece of this is what Uta Hagen calls *destination*. What she is talking about with destination is the way that certain movements become *necessary*: for me to get what I want, it becomes *necessary* that I go sit next to you on the couch. For me to get what I want, it becomes *necessary* that I go and look at the bookshelf, so as not to appear too needy, or too confrontational. Destination means the way in which physical positions in a space seem to call out to us, to demand that we move to occupy them. But it’s also true that physical positions *outside* of a space can demand movement as well: as it becomes clear that you are not going to join me on my mission, I may start to feel a tremendous urge to go to my friend’s place across town, who may be a more persuadable candidate. The first step of which is making my way out of your apartment and out onto the street, where I can get an uber. So if the scene is in your apartment, then the door to your apartment starts to *call to me*, it beckons, it extends a kind of tractor beam that pulls me toward it. This tractor beam may switch on, even at a low intensity, long before the point in the scene when I actually go through the door. At the first flicker of a suggestion of a hint that you might not be the one who is going to join in my crusade, I may start to feel that tractor beam, but at a very low intensity. Still, that keeps the door to the apartment within my “circle of concentration”, as Stanislavsky called it, within the contours of my awareness. Then, as more signals emerge, as it starts to seem less and less likely that you are going to become Robin to my Batman, that destination of the door “heats up”, the tractor beam becomes stronger, and harder to resist. It’s only at the moment when you break out into a rousing a capella rendition of “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, that I surrender to the tractor beam and walk out the door– (and this is important:) on my way (hopefully!) to something better.


contested space, or, getting out of your head (and into the room)2017-09-14T23:23:05-07:00

lies, damn lies and hollywood acting teachers

You may have noticed the redesign of the homepage, not to mention the new business name. In the course of effecting this transformation, I looked around at the way some of my competitors are marketing themselves. And some are doing a terrific job. But I did see one thing that gave me pause.

I saw studios that make such promises as that their approach to training will make acting “easy” and “fun”. In some cases, they went on to glibly ridicule the great approaches to acting that evolved in the last century or so, as if they were talking about some dated hairstyle that now seems both disastrously misguided and quaint at the same time. I found the level of disrespect and outright mendacity here nothing short of breathtaking.

What makes it so awful is that there is a part of all of us that wants things to be easy, but this part is not the part that acquires stamina, builds careers, and finds the faith it takes to confront adversity. Assertions that acting can be easy fosters the wrong part of those who are drawn to it.


lies, damn lies and hollywood acting teachers2018-02-26T21:48:58-08:00
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