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

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

living through reading

From an enlightening piece in the New York Times:

Brain scans are revealing what happens in our heads when we read a detailed description, an evocative metaphor or an emotional exchange between characters. Stories, this research is showing, stimulate the brain and even change how we act in life.

Researchers have long known that the “classical” language regions, like Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, are involved in how the brain interprets written words. What scientists have come to realize in the last few years is that narratives activate many other parts of our brains as well, suggesting why the experience of reading can feel so alive. Words like “lavender,” “cinnamon” and “soap,” for example, elicit a response not only from the language-processing areas of our brains, but also those devoted to dealing with smells.

Stanislavsky famously defined acting as “the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique.” More basically, acting is bringing a kind of life into a being, it is coming alive. The above excerpt from the Times article is highly suggestive of the profound importance for acting. The actor wants to come fully alive, and reading provides a way of coming alive not only to actualities, but to fictional things as well, to a land of make-believe. We tend to think of acting as a physical activity, as something that we “do”: speak, move, gesture, grimace, etc. But all of those things are of interest largely because they illuminate inner movements: movements of thought and feeling.

In some sense, the actor works to allow these mental activities to manifest themselves physically, in movement, in speech, in expressiveness. However, if there are no mental activities to manifest, nothing much is going to happen in the physiognomy of the actor. Receptiveness and sensitivity to the power of words (scripts are written in words, after all) is an absolutely critical skill for any actor, and there is no better way to develop this receptiveness and sensitivity than reading.

We are prone to think of acting as a fundamentally extroverted activity: actors express things, we are told. And there is truth to this: acting is nothing if not manifesting some inner life. But much depends on the richness of that inner life, and that points to the “introverted” side of acting. Actors must possess a kind of practical psychological insight, in order to get at what “makes someone tick”, they must possess richly the sensitivity to language that I previously described, and they must be comfortable in trafficing with the unreal, with the imaginary. In that it depends on both extroversion and introversion, acting is a very special, if not totally unique practice.

living through reading2018-02-26T21:49:20-08:00

the poet’s advice for the actor

Unless the eye catch fire

The God Will not be seen

Unless the ear catch fire

The God will not be heard

Unless the tongue catch fire

The God will not be named

Unless the heart catch fire

The God will not be loved

Unless the mind catch fire

The God will not be known

– William Blake

Think about that, especially in connection with Stanislavsky’s statement that acting is “the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique.”

the poet’s advice for the actor2011-11-15T11:50:08-08:00

end-of-the-cycle thoughts

My class cycles in both cities ended last week. Since then, some thoughts have been rattling around in my head that I thought were worth getting out.

I had been teaching for three or four years before I figured out that it was a good idea to have students “warm up” their scenes on Friends and Family Night, that is, do them once for me alone, before the guests arrived. I found that it made a huge difference for people to be able to walk through the scene once, say their lines, and remember where the furniture was. I would give some encouragement and a tiny piece of feedback, to give them a little challenge for the final presentation and keep them on their toes.

This past cycle, doing the warm-up round in both cities, I noticed that the note that I seemed to need to give time and again was “remember to connect to the need”. It’s a little ironic, since the whole course is about the need and how everything emanates from that, that THAT was the thing that students would forget to bring on stage with them, but there it is. In most cases, once I reminded them, they brought it the next time. But I found myself thinking about the fact that so often that was what they initially left behind.

I suppose nerves is part of it. And then there is the damned complexity of the scene. The practical complexity, such as costumes, setup, props, etc. And also the complexity of the unfolding give-and-take with the partner. The actor can get fixated on all of this complexity, and forget to see the proverbial forest for the trees. The irony is that if the need has been uncovered and rehearsal has been used well, then the need acts as an organizer of all of this complexity, if the actor just remembers to focus on it and to allow it to guide them. This is what Stanislavsky refers to as the “channel” of the scene. If the actor can allow herself to be guided by the channel, the rest will mostly take care of itself.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
end-of-the-cycle thoughts2010-09-08T21:01:00-07:00

What do Don DeLillo and Stanislavksy have in common?

The blogosphere is lit up with the news that the intensely “private” (but not reclusive!) Don DeLillo has descended from Olympus to give an interview.

You may or may not be familiar with DeLillo, considered to be “a giant of the contemporary American literary landscape”, as the intro to the interview states. I was an enthusiast in college. Some of his books I have liked (a lot) more than others, and I have not kept up with him over the years. I was introduced to him by the Duke professor Frank Lentricchia as a student at Duke.

Some of the books are just too damned difficult, and this is coming from someone who gets into difficult stuff. But if you want some to start with, you can’t go wrong with White Noise, and Mao II is pretty good as well. Mao II is particularly celebrated for its prophetic vision of the ascent and influence of Islamic extremism.

Anyway, towards the end of the aforementioned interview, when the interviewer goes with DeLillo and Paul Auster to a traditional, boisterous New York deli, Auster and DeLillo get to lamenting the disappearance of the typewriter ribbon (neither writes on a computer) (yeah, I know, how quaint, especially in the deli and all). And this reminded me of the time I met Don DeLillo in person. Lentricchia and his then-wife Melissa were chaperoning a gaggle of young Duke students on a semester-long field trip to New York, and they would invite artists and critics of various kinds to come and talk to us. DeLillo was the headliner. Lentricchia introduced DeLillo to the academy, and so they knew each other. DeLillo described his writing habits, including the typewriter (yes, we had word processors in 1991), and he spoke about how he would write each paragraph on an individual sheet of paper, no matter how much of the rest of the paper remained unused. Presumably, this helped him to insure the integrity of each individual paragraph, and resist the temptation to see it only as a means of getting to the next one. And it shows in the writing, for sure: each paragraph, like it or not, is a carefully crafted microcosm of the larger work.

So this is where Stanislavsky comes in. The whole business of “breaking a scene down into beats” originates with Stanislavsky. In the “Units and Objectives” chapter of An Actor Prepares, Stanislavsky famously uses the example of a turkey cooked for dinner. He observes that it is impossible to eat the whole turkey at once, that it must be dismantled into smaller and smaller pieces until manageable, bite-sized portions have been arrived at. So it is with a role, and even with an individual scene: it cannot be effectively handled all at once. To give each phrase of it (to borrow a term from music) its due, it has to be worked at one piece at a time.

“Worked at” being the operative words. As Travis notes here, anyone who spends any amount of time in an acting class is taught to “break a script down into beats”. Because the actor is learning to draw lines through her script, she feels like she is actually learning something. However, the process is usually fraught with problems. First of all, where to draw the lines? When the “action” or “intention” changes, students are told. Sounds good, but usually, the terms “acting” or “intention” are not given very rigorous definition, and so trying to draw these lines in a meaningful way becomes a pretty meaningless exercise pretty quickly.

The second problem is that usually, this “breaking things down into beats” is presented as an analytical process that precedes the rehearsal process, but whatever breakdown is arrived at is typically abandoned once the rehearsing starts. The lines drawn in the script have little or no practical consequence. Students run through the scene, confer about how it felt, rinse and repeat, and believe that they have rehearsed. They have rehearsed everything and nothing, nothing being the operative word.

What is important about the process of breaking a scene down, as far as I am concerned, is not where to draw the lines, but that whatever lines are drawn are respected in the rehearsal process. I encourage students to draw lines where it seems like the scene turns a corner, or that something new is starting. Someone changes the subject, or reverses direction. The writer writes “Pause”. I tell them not to have debates with their partners about where to draw the lines, that they should just follow their noses. The important thing is that lines are drawn, and then the scene is rehearsed ONE UNIT OR BEAT AT A TIME. This challenges the actor to give each segment or phrase of the writing the focused attention it deserves BEFORE integrating it into the larger movement or trajectory of the scene. Then, AFTER the students have rehearsed the first two units individually, they can try combining them, and make sure how they understand how the first necessitates the second. I know that this is rare, because people who come to my class having taken other classes are usually familiar with the concept of breaking a scene down, but pretty much never have experience in using that breakdown as the organizational principle for their rehearsals. Yeah, I know, seems like it should be a no-brainer. But it most assuredly isn’t.

No matter how talented you are, you can’t put a whole turkey in your mouth at once. Break it down, my friends, break it down. And then live by your breakdown. The rewards will be considerable.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
What do Don DeLillo and Stanislavksy have in common?2018-02-26T21:50:42-08:00
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