Andrew Wood, MFA, Yale School of Drama • Call Today To Schedule a Free Informational Session With Andrew Wood! (323) 836-2176

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?

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.

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not everybody made the list this year, Michael Fassbender

You know, this list.

Mr. Fassbender has been getting raves for his performance in Shame. I saw it tonight fully expecting add him to my list. But, it turns out, his performance was…not great. There were certainly things to admire about it. He knows how to exploit his personal vulnerability to seduce people, and that’s not nothing. But there were a lot of holes. Consider the moment after (not a spoiler!) his boss gets off the video phone call with his son. This is a climactic moment in the film. Notice Fassbender’s physicality in this moment. It’s awkward and stiff, and not because the moment is awkward and stiff. He has no idea, as an actor, what to do with his body.

And that’s the thing about Fassbender: when he does act, it’s pretty much completely from the neck up. If he does become viscerally activated, it’s in a tight close-up when he knows no one is looking at his body, and he relaxes.

Consider the “big” moment near the end of the movie in the rain. He tries really hard, but that’s all we get. We are not there with him, experiencing what he is experiencing. We are on the outside looking in, because he isn’t really in it himself. He’s supposed to be convulsing, but he isn’t really convulsing, so it doesn’t work.

Also, he’s not that good at dialogue. There is a long scene in a restaurant, when he’s on a date, and his partner in that scene acts circles around him. She’s going on the list.

Mr. Fassbender deserves props for the difficult, painful situations he explores in the movie, and for the moments when he does pull it off. He’s talented. But he needs to read Uta Hagen’s chapter on Animation in A Challenge for the Actor. And fire his acting coach.

on stiffness, or, the only way out is through

“You’re stiff.”

It’s one sentence that no actor wants to hear. It’s not a sentence that I ever would use, as a director or a teacher. I would find a way to come at the problem by giving the actor something to pursue or attend to that might free them up. But how I would address a problem like that is not what I am setting out to discuss tonight. I want to talk about the problem itself, and how the actor can address it.

The obvious thing that an actor might do, upon being made aware of such a liability, that is, the stiffness and paralysis that performance anxiety can engender, is to try to relax. But this effort is probably futile. Even if the actor succeeds in letting go of the stiffness by willing herself to relax, and that’s a big if, since often we aren’t even aware of the muscular tension producing the stiffness, but even if the actor can activate her volition to remedy the tension in question, her attention is then on herself and her own neuromuscular condition, and her attention is not engaged with the imaginary world of the scene when that is the case. This can, paradoxically, mean that her self-consciousness is heightened. An actor who has been instructed to “relax” may succeed in relaxing, but the self-consciousness that the effort to relax provokes can interfere with her acting in a profoundly unsatisfying way.

If she succeeds in relaxing, but then turns her attention back to what is rightfully primary for her in her scene, that is, her partner and the world of the scene, chances are good that the achieved relaxation will evaporate and the tension will return. Acting requires engagement, and that means muscular engagement. Unfortunately, the untrained actor will not have the coordination to engage only the muscles he needs and no others to accomplish a given action. So when he goes to engage in the playing of the scene, he will most probably do a lot of unnecessary engaging as well, summoning the stiffness we have all seen so much of.

What is the solution? There is no magic bullet. There is no royal road to graceful, fluid, expressive movement. Stiffness, or lack of physical freedom, is a problem that needs to be attacked on a number of fronts at once. One extremely valuable modality for dealing with habitual physical tension is the Alexander technique. The Alexander technique is an approach to coaching ourselves physically, based on a set of commands that we can give ourselves, to help ourselves move through our lives, and that includes our acting, with greater ease, efficiency, awareness and freedom. Sounds good, right? It is. It’s great. But like any practice, it requires great investment to reap great benefit from it. That’s not a reason not to do it; I think every actor should study the Alexander technique. But it is by no means a quick fix.

In some sense, it also addresses only part of the issue at hand. A significant part, but a part, no less. The Alexander technique is really a meta-technique; it’s a technique to use to help you execute some other technique in an optimal way. When you study the Alexander technique, you typically use simple movements like sitting in a chair or walking across the room to practice. But what happens when you are trying to engage a technique for something more complicated, like ballroom dancing or karate, or, say, acting? The Alexander technique would be invaluable for all of these things, but we only have so much psychic bandwidth, and so attention we are giving to coaching ourselves through the Alexander commands is bandwidth we can’t devote to the activity in question. As actors, we want to be able to be fully engaged in our acting and move in a fluid and optimal way.

Practice goes a long way towards making this happen, but I believe that it is best for actors to take up some other physical practice, such as dance or martial arts, so that they can work at being physically engaged (which dance or martial arts certainly require) and practice making use of the cultivated physical relaxation of the Alexander technique at one and the same time. Acting could also be that physical practice, but ultimately, with your acting, you want to be able to become completely absorbed in the scene, in what you need, and in how you are trying to affect your partners. In performance, you really want the Alexander work to be a habit that your muscles have acquired, not something that requires much awareness while you are doing it. So having a physical practice to engage in simultaneously with the Alexander technique gives you a context in which you are engaging physically and fully, and in which you can do the conscious work of maintaining Alexander awareness and freedom while being physically engaged. That way, when you act, this optimal way of moving is effectively second nature, something that requires your awareness only occasionally.

The truth is that relaxation is only half the battle when it comes to fending off stiffness for the actor. The problem is resolved, or shall we say dissolved, when the actor can engage parts of herself that are needed, and maintain openness and ease everywhere else. As Hamlet puts it, in the Advice to the Players:

for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness…

Acting inevitably involves entering into extreme situations, situations where you may have to, in the world of the play, confront a lover who has betrayed you, or commit acts of violence. You cannot act these situations well if your body is wracked with tension, but neither can you act them well if you fail to enter into the extremity of the moment, if you, so to speak, “underplay it”. To act well, the actor must always engage the abdominal core, the Pilates core, among the most powerful constellation of muscles in the body, but maintain relaxation elsewhere. The Alexander technique is great, but for it to really serve you as an actor in such moments of sound and fury, of Sturm und Drang, you have to have the virtuosity, yes, the virtuosity, to be able to continuously re-engage the abdominal core and maintain the relaxation elsewhere. No mean feat, to say the least. If you lose either value, your acting will be significantly marred.

There is a saying: the only way out is through. It has different meanings in different contexts, but in this discussion, it means that stiffness can only be fully addressed in situations that provoke stiffness. That’s why activities like dance and martial arts are the best arena for developing this ability to be simultaneously engaged and relaxed: they require full physical exertion, which can promote excessive tension, so if you can find the ease and grace in doing that, then you will likely be able to bring that balance to your acting as well.

There is another way in which the problem of stiffness can be attacked that I alluded to near the beginning of this piece, which I have written about at length here. The premise of this proceeds from Uta Hagen’s essay “Animation” in her book A Challenge for the Actor. Her basic point is that what animates the actor’s body, what keeps it from being captured by stiffness, is intentionality, or, as we would say it in my acting tradition, need. At any given moment, the actor, as the Who-Am-I, has both desired outcomes and outcomes they wish to avoid, “nightmare” scenarios. In the process of receiving off of the world, we constantly measure which way the wind is blowing, what we are expecting to transpire, and what (physical) action we await or may need to prevent. Becoming clear about these contingencies is something we do instinctively as people, not so much as actors pretending to be other people. The more clear we are in a scene about what we may be expecting, promoting or preventing in the way of immediate physical outcomes, the more our body will automatically prepare for these developments, and will hence be animated and not stiff. Stiffness arises from the feeling that you ought be doing something, together with a lack of clarity about what is to be done. The more clear you are about what you might need to do, the more your body will instinctively arrange itself accordingly.

The actor needs to work to develop fluidity and expressiveness in her movements on both fronts at once, that is, to play both ends against the middle. He needs to study the Alexander technique and another physical discipline to develop the coordination to be engaged and relaxed simultaneously as needed, and in his acting work he needs to heighten his awareness of his physical environment and the outcomes that may unfold within that environment at each moment, so that the body knows what it is supposed to do. By working on both of these fronts at once, the marriage of mind and body in the actor comes ever closer to consummation.

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