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

the fun part

Have you seen Casy Affleck’s incredible work in Manchester-by-the Sea?  If not, GO!

And how does he do such great work?  It might have a little to do with this:

“The fun part for me is endlessly talking about why does he do this, or why does he do that, or why doesn’t he? I really get into that.” – Casey Affleck on Rehearsing

People who tell you that understanding motivation and objectives isn’t worth it are, quite  simply, full of it.

 

 

circumstances, underlying objective, and Donald Trump

In reading about this crazy primary season circus, I came across a profile of Al Sharpton on Politico. The subject was Sharpton’s take, as a fixture of New York politics for decades, on the Donald Trump phenomenon. And what he said about what motivates Trump is instructive in terms of the concept of underlying objective, which is central to the approach to acting that I teach:

And that’s when he gets to his keenest observation — the best assessment of Trump’s deepest motivations I’ve yet heard, and one that Beltway pundits who don’t understand the tangled psychological geography of the five boroughs miss: Trump may have been born with millions and erected huge buildings that bear his name, but he still feels the resentment of a gaudy, new-money outsider who has decided to burn down a Yankee establishment that always viewed him as a garish, grasping joke.
“Donald Trump was a Queens guy,” says Sharpton, who hails from Brooklyn’s Brownsville, the city’s toughest neighborhood, a collection of housing projects jammed hard between Queens and the Jamaica Bay swamps — and the scene of an all-out crack war in the 1980s and ’90s.

“His father was a successful real estate guy, but they were Queens guys. They were outer borough

[and] had to break into the big Manhattan aristocracy. He was an outsider — rich, but an outsider. He was not part of the Manhattan elite. So, he always had this outsider feeling — us against them. So, in many ways, when I read people talk about, ‘Well, do you have a billionaire as a populist?’ He does feel like he’s one of the guys who was shut out.

So, in terms of underlying objective, which is a way of thinking about objective that unites the character’s long-term plot goals with his moment-to-moment needs, we can see that Trump needs respect as an elite American , as a man among men. And we can also see how this need arises from the defining circumstance of his youth: that his father and himself were shut out of the winner’s circle in Manhattan social life. So then it becomes incumbent on the actor to do the imaginative work of exploring what that condition of being shut out actually looked like, how it was directly experienced in that past of the character, so that it becomes particularized and lives in the body of the actor.

See also the Islamic State and acting and rethinking “motivation” with Sebastian Junger and Rachel Maddow.

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.

the great gena rowlands on acting and reading

Gena Rowlands is an one of the greatest actors of modern times, and with her husband John Cassavetes, she created a body of work that established independent filmmaking in this country. If you’re not familiar with her, you can read a terrific profile of her here.

She starts off of the above interview talking about how her interest in acting grew out of her love of reading books. In our relentlessly visual age, I think it’s easy for people to forget that language is the basis of acting. It’s the actors job to become the person for whom speaking the lines of the script is truly necessary. I think it’s important for all serious actors to read constantly, and develope their sensitivity to language and the way people use it to navigate their relationships. I was impressed by this profile of Ethan Hawke that I read today in the New York Times. Hawke displays a commanding knowledge of literature, mentioning Tolstoy, Steinbeck, Flannery O’Connor, as well as a number of contemporary writers. Being this kind of reader is vital for anyone serious about acting. There is a lot more to acting than reading, but without the ability to read sensitively, the actor is dead in the water. The deepest things about any character are embedded in what she says and how she responds to others, and an actor who can’t tune in to these things is never going to achieve lift-off. Reading is the single most important thing an actor can do on an ongoing basis to keep herself in trim and develop her craft. So be inspired by Gena Rowlands, and grab a book or your e-reader, and get reading!

we can work it out

Everyone, in every relationship in which they engage, is trying to make it work. Everyone is trying to make every significant relationship they have work. Until the moment when they leave that relationship for good, they are trying to make it work.

This is an incredibly important insight for actors. Actors work on situations involving conflict, almost all of the time. And it’s often easy to look at a scene and think that from the point of view of her character, everything would be fine if the other person would just STOP DOING

[THAT THING THAT THEY DO]. So the actor looks at the scene as the struggle to stop the other person from doing something, to mute them, in some sense. To shut the other person down.

The problem with looking at a scene in this way, any scene, even a scene in which you are trying to get someone to STFU or holding a gun to someone’s head, is that the actor is looking only at what the other character does that is wrong or offensive, and ignoring what they offer, what they bring to the table. And what the other character offers or brings to the table is the basis of the vulnerability in the scene. And vulnerability is what makes acting great, first and foremost.

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on physical characterization

 

Day-Lewis quote

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“When are we going to work on creating characters?”

This refrain arises from time to time in the course of my teaching. I might be tempted to reply “What do you think we’re doing?”, as we strive to come to terms with circumstances, need, plot objective, action, and the path. We look at the decisions that a character makes, and the actions that follow from these decisions, as revealing character. So by studying the circumstances in which a character finds herself, some of which are a consequence of her own decisions, we can learn a lot about her character.

But that isn’t what the student is asking. The student who asks about when we are going to work on character is asking about physical characterization, the taking up of various physical and vocal idiosyncrasies that define character in the popular imagination. Darth Vader’s character impresses itself on us in large part through his voice. The temptation, then, is to assume that the main work of the actor is the finding of the right voice, and the consistent application of it across the role. This ability to change one’s vocal and physical demeanor is a kind of miracle to the lay person, and also to the aspiring actor, and indeed, there can be something miraculous about it. But it is not the deepest essence of the actor’s work, to my mind. And that deepest essence should be the basis for such physical and vocal mutations.

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Bryan Cranston schools Terry Gross about acting

Today, in honor of the Emmys, Terry Gross interviews Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston about acting, life, and Van Dyke mustaches. While I don’t regard Cranston as the ne plus ultra of actors, based on what I’ve seen, which is admittedly not that much, there are some nice moments in this interview. For example, near the beginning of the interview, Terry wants to play the scene that I guess has come to be known, among the Breakingbaderati, as the “one who knocks” scene, and she is talking about how Walter White’s wife doesn’t know all of the things he has done, things that Terry characterizes as horrible. Cranston takes issue, a little bit, with Terry’s assessment. At about the 2 minute mark, in response to Terry’s use of the word ‘horrible’ to describe Walter’s deeds:

“Well…you know, horrible to one man is…necessary, to another.”

Acting is about entering into the necessities facing a character, one of the progenitors of the approach I teach said. The actor has to become the person who needs to do and say what it is that the character is given to do and say.

It’s a good interview. I like the story about Cranston’s parents, and helped him to develop the stamina necessary (!) for life as an actor. Give it a listen.

filling negative space, or, the Tao of acting

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.
We turn clay to make a vessel;
But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the vessel depends.
We pierce doors and windows to make a house;
And it is on these spaces where there is nothing that the usefulness of the house depends.
Therefore just as we take advantage of what is, we should recognize the usefulness of what is not.
–Tao Te Ching

I have written on several occastions about Josh Waitzkin’s remarkable book The Art of Learning, in which he chronicles his journeys to becoming an international chess player as a child and to winning a world championship in a martial art. I include the book in the reading list for my class, and my students have found it extremely inspiring and instructive.

One phrase that he uses several times in the book, but doesn’t expand upon, is what he calls “filling negative space”. We know this principle in the pronouncement of Western science that “nature abhors a vacuum”: matter tends to move into space that is not already occupied. I have studied T’ai-Chi, and though no teacher of mine ever used the phrase “filling negative space”, I immediately knew what he meant. T’ai-Chi involves following a series of slow, choreographed movements. In part because of the slowness, as you do the movements, you begin to be aware of how what you have just done conditions what you can do next. For example, if you have shifted your weight onto the right foot, then the next shift of weight will be to the left. Perhaps it won’t come right away, perhaps the form requires that you stay perched on your right foot for a while as you wave hands like clouds or return to mountain camp, but eventually, there will be a shift in your weight, and it will be from the right foot to the left foot. Similarly, if some movement requires you to fully extend your arm out towards your right side, then the next time you move that arm, there will be some movement away from the right, towards the left. You may bend your elbow and bring your forearm back towards you, but in that case, the forearm is moving leftward. You may simultaneously sweep the forearm down towards your groin, but you are still moving part of that rightwardly extended arm partly to the left. This is not a rule of T’ai-Chi, it is a fact of our being. As you do T’ai-Chi and move through the form, you begin to “feel” the possible movements before you make them. They have a reality, even though the movements have not happened yet. They exist, but in the realm of the possible.

In acting class, we work with objectives. In my acting class, we work with two kinds of objectives. To keep this discussion as jargon-free as possible, let’s call them needs and outcomes. A need is something that lives inside of us, an appetite, a hunger, a fire. An outcome is something that we try to bring about in order to get that need met. When we act, and we “look with the need”, that is, allow the need to direct our receiving of the world around us, we are confronted with a gap between How It Is and How It Could Be. How It Could Be is the outcome that will give us what we need, that will satisfy us. Once the vision of How It Could Be comes to us, then, after an instant, arising out our intuition and our need is What We Must Do Next. What We Must Do Next is an attempt to close the gap between How It Is and How It Could Be.

I realize I am waxing a little mystical, which isn’t my my usual style. I like to keep things very practical and concrete, as much as possible. But we are, after all, talking about art, and art is not going to yield its secrets up in a Power Point presentation. So I am inventing some terms here to try to express something about what acting can be, at its most pleasurable, something that we aren’t very well equipped to put into words.

There is something enormously pleasurable about filling negative space. In the moment that we do, we experience the possible and the actual coming together in ourselves. We experience a kind of harmoniousness, a fit with our world that is by no means a constant in human existence. We are answering How It Is. Add to that that the How It Is in question is a set of imaginary circumstances, an unreal situation, that is becoming momentarily real by virtue of our answering those imaginary circumstances, and the whole thing becomes pretty psychedelic. As Stanislavsky wrote, acting is using technique to give birth to the human soul. Bringing forth something, where there is nothing. The best trip I know.

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RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us

This is a really interesting piece, and helps make it clear why we have to constantly strive to think beyond “plot objectives” in thinking about what motivates characters.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio

playing the bad guy


It’s not every day that I recommend the work of a competitor, but I have included parts of Howard Fine’s book into my class syllabus. The piece I like the most is the section that comprises the first of what Fine calls “The Common Mistakes”: it’s called “Judging the Character”. It’s a great discussion of how one of the biggest stumbling blocks for the actor is the tendency to look at the character as from the point of view of an external, evaluative observer, rather than the attempting to get. under the skin of the character and finding out why it is NECESSARY to do and say the things that the character does and says.

When we talk about this point in class, a question that frequently arises is: “what if you are playing a serial killer or other predator?” And the answer is to try to discover how the character sees his actions as totally justified: usually as a result of some past way in which they were violated. (Remember: in acting class, we are in the business of learning to act roles compellingly, not in the business of making ethical judgments).

Last night I was enjoying the latest episode of This American Life. In this episode, as in virtually all the others, the infallible instinct of Ira Glass and friends for unearthing rich, surprising material was once again on display. This episode was called Petty Tyrant. It tells the story of Steve Raucci, a school maintenance man who rose through the ranks to become the tin pot dictator of the school system maintenance department. He bullied and intimidated, and exacted bitter retribution against those who crossed him. He sexually harassed men and women, he slashed tires and set cars on fire. He was eventually brought down, but the reign of terror he prosecuted is astounding.

At one point in the podcast, the narrator, Sarah Koenig, reports that Raucci thought of himself as a good guy, someone who hated bullies, and who was put in the position of having to mete out justice because if he didn’t, then who would? He believed in “street justice”.

It’s a great piece, for a lot of reasons. Hearing the emotional testimony of some of his victims at his sentencing hearing reveals how harrowing an ordeal this was for everyone involved. But I thought it was particularly interesting to hear about how this man who is clearly sadistic sees himself as persecuted and therefore justified in tormenting others. Actors who have to play bad guys, take note.

Andrew Wood Acting Studio
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