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.


we can work it out2018-02-26T21:48:48-08:00

“Film acting is small.” Oh really?

Just a couple of counter-examples. Feel free to suggest more in the comments.

The notion that “film acting is small and theater acting is big” is a cliche. Great acting is bold and truthful, regardless of the medium. An underwhelming, trivial performance will vanish down the memory hole faster than you can say Amy Adams or Anne Hathaway. An overly “large performance” may live on in infamy, but if you regard “film acting is small” as a deep and powerful insight about acting, you may have a long career of cautious, eminently forgettable performances ahead of you. Sadly, many young people aspiring to be actors regard this kind of soundbyte-y, easily-graspable, facile pseudo-insight as exactly the kind of thing that will help them feel more comfortable walking into an audition.

Deep vs. shallow is a much more useful distinction than big vs. small. Have you studied a script carefully, thought long and hard about the situations of the characters and the worlds in which their stories play out? Their dreams for the future, and their fears? Their past setbacks and triumphs, particularly in the realm of forming and sustaining relationships? Have you considered corresponding relationships in your own life? Have you found a way to look at the scene as an opportunity to form or repair a significant connection, rather than a situation in which annoyance or injustice much be squelched? Have you found a way to light yourself on fire? If so, you will likely shine, in front of the camera or on stage, especially with the help of a discerning outside eye. If not, well, at least you won’t be too big. Never mind that in order to make sure you’re not too big, you’ll be watching yourself, monitoring yourself, measuring the “size” of your acting, cutting yourself down to size, where necessary. That might make you, I don’t know, a little self-conscious, but down’t worry about that. Whatever you do, don’t take a risk, don’t dare greatly, don’t expose anything raw. Because you know, if you do, they’re all gonna laugh at you. Just keep it small. Safe and small.

“There are no small parts. Only small actors.”

“Film acting is small.” Oh really?2018-02-26T21:48:49-08:00

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.


on physical characterization2018-02-26T21:48:50-08:00

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.

Bryan Cranston schools Terry Gross about acting2018-02-26T21:48:51-08:00

“But where does the emotion come from?”

I was giving an overview of my approach to a group of students at a local acting school. Near the end of my talk, a student who had had a bit of a Strasberg background raised her hand and posed the question that gives this post its title.

As a student of the Strasberg approach, she had been taught that she needed to use emotional memory to infuse a scene with vitality and interest. Without the actor’s own experience, the scene would be devoid of feeling and therefore of interest, she apparently thought.

At that moment, since all I was doing was giving an overview of my approach, there was little I could do to respond beyond reiterate some of the points that I had already made: namely, that we all have a hunger for connection and meaningful relationship, and that what we would attempt to do was to bring that need to bear on the imaginary circumstances of the character. But I knew that, especially given her beliefs about what it took for a scene to come to life, this wasn’t going to mean much to her. All I could do was assure her that over the course of the class I was beginning to teach with them, she would come to understand what I was talking about. Trust me, in other words.

With this group of students, I was beginning with a so-called “neutral scene”. This is a familiar enough acting class assignment: students have to play a scene with no help from the text or dialogue, which was comprised of utterances such as “Okay–Please—” and “Come on!”. I have a particular way of working with the neutral scene that requires students to invent a fully developed scenario, with characters that have rich pasts and dreams for the future, and also have activities in the present situation that they can pursue independently of the scene partner. It’s a challenging exercise that takes students a few weeks to complete, from scenario generation to approval of the final presentation.


“But where does the emotion come from?”2018-02-26T21:48:52-08:00

on looking at text

My sense is that much of what goes by the name of “script analysis” today is actually not very helpful. Actors often sense that “not-helpfulness” and end up ignoring their analysis of the text, or skipping over it altogether. This has some dangers, most notably, what my teacher at Yale, Earle Gister, called “playing the language”, which seems to me to be what Howard Fine is talking about in The Common Mistakes section of Fine on Acting when he talks about “acting on the lines”. The actor believes she can just look at a line of text and know what to do with it, how to deliver it. So a line like “How dare you!” should be said indignantly, and “You’re so sweet!” should be said affectionately, and so on. This leads to banal delivery and ignores everything else that might be going on, apart from what is being said.

Then actors will notice that often, the most interesting deliveries are those that cut against the explicit meaning of the line. So they will conclude that they should always speak the lines in a way that cuts against the explicit meaning of the line. But in the end this amounts to the same thing. The actor is being responsive to the line and only to the line, and not to relationship, circumstance, need, or anything else. The difference between this and the first approach is only superficial, at best.

So what’s an actor to do? Knowing what to do with text emerges from examining that text, those lines, in the context of circumstances and need. I have discussed this at length in other posts, but I want to say a bit more about the text itself right now. What the character says is not unimportant, it just has to be viewed in relation to those other elements. But if it is important, how is it important? If the explicit meaning itself does not determine what to do with a line of text, but is nevertheless somehow important, in what way is it important? How does it matter?


on looking at text2018-02-26T21:48:53-08:00

Joan Didion: writing = acting

“I wrote stories from the time I was a little girl, but I didn’t want to be a writer. I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t realize then that it’s the same impulse. It’s make-believe. It’s performance. The only difference being that a writer can do it all alone. I was struck a few years ago when a friend of ours—an actress—was having dinner here with us and a couple of other writers. It suddenly occurred to me that she was the only person in the room who couldn’t plan what she was going to do. She had to wait for someone to ask her, which is a strange way to live.” –Joan Didion/The Paris Review/1978

In the class, on the notion that acting is about entering into the necessities facing a character: if the actor can touch the need to do and say what the writer has given her to do and say, she succeeds. And why did the writer give her those particular things to do and say? He needed to. He had, as Didion says, an inner prompting, a need, an impulse. The idea is that the actor is attempting to find and work from the same impulse that prompted the writer to give birth to the text in the first place.

It’s not every day you find out that you and Joan Didion think the same thing. Today is now a great day.

Joan Didion: writing = acting2018-02-26T21:49:04-08:00

the secret sauce

In my last blog post, I offered a quote from the actor Kim Stanley, in which she talked about how terribly difficult acting is. In fact, “impossible” was one of the words she used.

Well, the effort to describe acting, to characterize it, to point at where it comes from and to offer people a technique of some kind that will help them to actually do it, is just as exceedingly difficult to achieve as Ms. Stanley made acting out to be. As a teacher, sometimes I can’t help but feel a bit like Annie Sullivan despairingly signing the word “water” into the hand of an uncomprehending Helen Keller when I teach. And that’s not because my students are thick-headed or obtuse, or because they fail to apply themselves to the work. On the contrary, I marvel at the dedication and perceptiveness of many of my students. I know that I am doing something right in my messaging about what I do, that such students find their way to me.

It’s that acting is that difficult, and teaching it is also that difficult.


the secret sauce2018-02-26T21:49:05-08:00

“the muscle of the soul”

One of the things that distinguishes the approach that I teach to acting, which I encountered as a directing graduate student at the Yale School of Drama, is the notion of visceral activation. The word “visceral”, I explain to students at their first night of class, comes from the Latin word viscera, meaning “”gut” or “intestines”. The idea is that the lower abdomen is the seat of our very primitve need to thrive and flourish, that is, for well-being. Thriving and flourishing, it turns out, are intimately linked to a sense of belonging, of connection to others. By attempting to bring the need that is housed in that area to bear on every moment of a performance, we strive for maximum vulnerability, authority, and presence as an actor.

I have written about this quite a bit, including here and here and here and here. So when I came across this piece, by Yoga teacher Danielle Prohom Olson , on a muscle in the abdominal core called the Psoas, I got very excited. Olson had recently discovered the work of a teacher named Liz Koch, who teaches what she calls Core Awareness.

According to Koch, the Psoas is far more than a core stabilizing muscle; it is an organ of perception composed of bio-intelligent tissue and “literally embodies our deepest urge for survival, and more profoundly, our elemental desire to flourish.”

Yes! Our elemental desire to flourish! That is exactly what the work that we do at Mother of Invention, which centers on getting in touch with an underlying objective, our need to flourish, is all about. And it means that all discussions of motivation come down to a basic, visceral, positive need to flourish! Everyone is trying to grow, expand, and thrive, by living connected, dynamic, full lives. To be able to do this, everyone has to enter relationship with others, to be connected. So everyone is vulnerable, viscerally vulnerable, because of this need for connection.

Also, the Psoas is “bio-intelligent tissue!” The Psoas is not just a muscle, it receives and processes information as well. This is consistent with this earlier blog post I wrote about brain research indicating the the gut processes information in a way that is similar to the brain, that in fact the gut can be thought of as a “second brain.” This is hugely important, because as actors, we have to learn to “receive with the gut” or “receive with the need”; that the measuring of what we are receiving from our world and our scene partners happens not in the head but in the gut!

And what is the Psoas?

The Psoas muscle (pronounced so-as) is the deepest muscle of the human body affecting our structural balance, muscular integrity, flexibility, strength, range of motion, joint mobility, and organ functioning.

Growing out of both sides of the spine, the psoas spans laterally from the 12th thoracic vertebrae (T12) to each of the 5 lumbar vertebrae. From there it flows down through the abdominal core, the pelvis, to attach to the top of the femur (thigh) bone.

But wait! There’s more!

A tight psoas not only creates structural problems, it constricts the organs, puts pressure on nerves, interferes with the movement of fluids, and impairs diaphragmatic breathing.

Koch believes the first step in cultivating a healthy psoas is to release unnecessary tension. But “to work with the psoas is not to try to control the muscle, but to cultivate the awareness necessary for sensing its messages. This involves making a conscious choice to become somatically aware.”

A relaxed psoas is the mark of play and creative expression. Instead of the contracted psoas, ready to run or fight, the relaxed and released psoas is ready instead to lengthen and open, to dance. In many yoga poses (like tree) the thighs can’t fully rotate outward unless the psoas releases. A released psoas allows the front of the thighs to lengthen and the leg to move independently from the pelvis, enhancing and deepening the lift of the entire torso and heart.

Koch believes that by cultivating a healthy psoas, we can rekindle our body’s vital energies by learning to reconnect with the life force of the universe. Within the Taoist tradition the psoas is spoken of as the seat or muscle of the soul, and surrounds the lower “Dan tien” a major energy center of body. A flexible and strong psoas grounds us and allows subtle energies to flow through the bones, muscles and joints.

The relaxed Psoas is ready to lengthen and open, to thrive, to experience meaningful connection that is the basis of our contentment. In class, we always look for a name for the visceral need, the underlying objective, that is positive. The actor must always understand herself to be reaching out in a scene for something worth having, even when she the scene requires that she hurl a thunderbolt at someone. We may use the core strength of the Psoas to hurl the thunderbolt, but we need to always return to the condition of openness to what our world has to offer.

Koch believes that by cultivating a healthy psoas, we can rekindle our body’s vital energies by learning to reconnect with the life force of the universe. Within the Taoist tradition the psoas is spoken of as the seat or muscle of the soul, and surrounds the lower “Dan tien” a major energy center of body. A flexible and strong psoas grounds us and allows subtle energies to flow through the bones, muscles and joints.

Koch writes “The psoas, by conducting energy, grounds us to the earth, just as a grounding wire prevents shocks and eliminates static on a radio. Freed and grounded, the spine can awaken”…“ As gravitational flows transfer weight through bones, tissue, and muscle, into the earth, the earth rebounds, flowing back up the legs and spine, energizing, coordinating and animating posture, movement and expression. It is an uninterrupted conversation between self, earth, and cosmos.”

The Psoas is the muscle of the soul. What did Stanislavsky say? Acting is “the life of the human soul receiving its birth through technique.” See how it all comes together?

I am really excited to learn through Olson about Koch’s work. Seems like I am going to have learn something about grantwriting in the near future, so I can go on one of these Core Awareness retreats. And Koch is based in Santa Cruz. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to convince her co-teach with me at Mother of Invention one day. As Rachel Maddow likes to say, watch this space!

“the muscle of the soul”2018-02-26T21:49:06-08:00

advice from the incomparable Maggie Smith

At the end of this clip, Maggie Smith talks about the most important advice she ever got about acting. May I say? I wholeheartedly agree about what she calls the “usefulness” of the insight she shares.

(Since the video seems no longer to be available, here is the transcript of the passage in question:

Interviewer: What’s your advice for your actors?
Maggie Smith: I think it’s… so tough now. I think it’s really tough. Advice? I wouldn’t know where to begin to give advice now.
Interviewer: What’s the best you ever got?
Maggie Smith: A director once said to me… It’s now ‘how’ you do it, it’s ‘why.’ …(smiles.) That’s been useful.

CBS interview


H/T Lorraine S

advice from the incomparable Maggie Smith2017-01-18T22:29:15-08:00
Go to Top