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

Matt Damon’s slam-dunk defense of teachers (watch it to the end!)

This video is hilarious and teachers everywhere will be walking a little taller today.

But there’s an important lesson for actors here as well. Do you see what it is? Here’s a hint: the reporter has a simplistic understanding of motivation. Damon has, you know, an actor’s understanding of it. Any questions?

Matt Damon’s slam-dunk defense of teachers (watch it to the end!)2018-02-26T21:49:47-08:00

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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filling negative space, or, the Tao of acting2011-07-14T23:09:31-07:00

Howard Fine’s book

Superstar acting teacher and Uta Hagen protege Howard Fine has a book out, called, Fine on Acting A Vision of the Craft. I have to say, there’s a lot to like about it. He writes with real sensitivity and thoughtfulness about many of the challenges that actors face and the sandtraps they can fall into. I am going to pay it the highest of compliments and start assigning sections of it in my course curriculum. I am going to list off some of the money quotes below, but I will say first (with some relief, I confess, because that gives me at least one thing that differentiates me from him) that there is one important place where Fine’s book falls short. That is in his discussion of objective, or what he calls the “why” question. Let’s look at what he says:

…I use the term super objective as smaller and confined within the boundaries of the scene, so that the immediate objectives correspond to the super objective. Think of the overall objective as the spine, throughline or mainline of intent in the scene. Here’s an example: You’re an actor reading for a producer who is casting a part. But before that, you have to give a great reading, you want to handle the interview well and make a personal connection. Those are smaller objectives that lead you to the overall objective. The overall objective is the thing that really drives us. It can change within the course of the scene, depending on the information you learn, For example, that same producer calls you back and says “By the way, this project is non-union, there is no pay, and there is nudity.” Your overall objective may have changed very quickly. So, depending on what happens in the script, your objective can change.

This is a primitive way of looking at objective. My teachers at the Drama School found a way of looking at objective that is much more supple and penetrating than this. In fact it was the problems with the view that Fine describes that motivated the creation of this new way of looking at objective (they say necessity is the mother of the invention ;)) I have written about it previously, and it is a bit involved. You really need a classroom context to make the power of it clear, but I will say a bit about it here.

Look at what Fine says above: when the producer tells you about the conditions attached to the project, he says your objective may change. What he neglects to discuss is WHY it might change. He creates a situation in which the reasons for the change are fairly intuitive, but there are many script situations where the change may not be that obvious. Moreover, when the objective changes, its power as a unifying principle, something that the actor can grab onto and RIDE, is vastly diminished. Consider Strindberg’s Miss Julie. The two principal characters play long scenes in which they change frequently from being powerfully drawn to each other to being repulsed by each other. Simply marking these changes is not enough. The actor needs to get in touch with that which REQUIRES her to change what she is pursuing.

So my teachers created a distinction between plot objectives and the underlying objective. Plot objectives are outcomes that you might pursue in the world, like getting the role or extricating yourself from the encounter with the sleazy producer. The underlying objective is the the thing that you will GET FROM achieving either of these outcomes. It must be articulated compellingly and concisely, and is an expression of our universal deep-seated need to situate ourselves in relationships to others of various kinds. Another LA acting teacher, Ivana Chubbuck, attempts to write about this in her book, although her treatment of it is mostly facile and superficial.

What is also immensely important and valuable about this way of working is that the underlying objective is something that the character gets through realizing plot objectives but also at each moment INDEPENDENTLY of the long term plot objectives.

I don’t doubt that Fine understands this distinction intuitively; there is much in his book that says he understands that acting has everything to do with getting in touch with the ways in which we CARE for others. But the approach to objective in his technique that he articulates is dated and limited.

Here are some thing he says that I really like:

  • “Your central responsibility as actors is to affect and to be affected by, that is your job. You must affect someone else, and you must be affected by them. Any choices you make that disallow that exchange have taken you down a dead-end.”
  • “You must have a body that is responsive to you, that is flexible, and you must start to develop yourself physically to be a great actor. All forms of dance training, martial arts, yoga and especially the Alexander Teachnique are excellent.”
  • “The first common mistake that will lead you down a very bad path is judging the character.”
  • “Writers are not writing about someone’s mundane life. They’re writing about the important moments. When you look at a scene and you don’t see the crisis that character is in, you have taken out what is actable in the scene.”
  • “So much is made of the differences between stage acting and television and film acting. I like to say to my students, “Would you study the violin for film? Would you learn how to play football for television?” Of course not, that would be ludicrous. You learn how to play the violin. You learn how to play football. You learn how to act. You learn the craft itself.
  • “The goal of preparation is spontaneous life.
  • “A developed mind is part of what will become your range as an actor, which means you have to develop your intellect formally through education, or you have to find a way to do it on your own. How will you understand what’s going on in a scene, if you have not developed your ability to think?”
Andrew Wood Acting Studio
Howard Fine’s book2018-02-26T21:51:10-08:00
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