the camera and the gut

The idea of acting being “physical” is a popular one.  Actors live in fear of being “in their heads”, and hope that their acting is physical and not intellectual.

Well and good.  But riddle me this: if acting is or should be physical, in what physical part of the body does it happen?  In the face?  In the chest, in close proximity to the heart?

If you like the idea of acting being not only physical but “visceral”, then you want acting to take place in the actor’s gut, in the pit of his stomach.  That’s what visceral means: gut-level.

But so much of acting and film and television happens in close-up.  So what of the gut, in that case?  The face, the neck, perhaps the chest: that’s where the action is.  Acting has to happen there, or not at all, if it is to show up on camera, right?

No.  Not right.

What is happening viscerally, at the gut level, shows up in the face and in the eyes. And if nothing is happening viscerally, that shows up too.

Sometimes actors fall into thinking they have to “act” only with what is visible in the camera frame, and while they know better than to mug and indicate, they still end up with overactive faces, because they feel like the face has to do all the work.

When the acting is good, we see through your face.  We see into you. Acting is an exercise in laying yourself bare.  This means that generally speaking, the face should not be too active.  This allows whatever is happening viscerally, at the gut level, to be visible.  But if the face is too active, then what is happening viscerally is masked.  Again, this is a rule of thumb, not a recommendation to keep a blank facial expression at all times.  There are times when an active face is appropriate and called for.

The gut is where it’s at.

“You must realize that the center of the universe is in the pit of your stomach.”–Zen Master Harada-roshi



the camera and the gut2018-02-26T21:48:20-08:00

cyberball and acting

Now that the Uranium Madhouse show is over, I have had time to do a little reading. I have picked back up a fantastic book I wrote a little about previously, called Social Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.

The book explains how contemporary neuroscience is bearing out the perception that is at the heart of the approach to acting that I teach: that our most fundamental drive aims at belonging and social connection.

In one section of the book, Lieberman talks about discovering that another researcher had developed a way of being able to study the effects of social distress and rejection on subjects while their brains were being scanned in a MRI machine. The approach to doing so had been developed in meatspace first, that is, in a context that did not involve computers.

…a subject would show up and be told to wait for a few minutes. In the waiting room, two other people were already sitting, waiting for the same study. In reality, the other two people were what psychologists call confederates, which means they were pretending to be subjects and were actually working for the experimenter. One of the confederates would appear to “spontaneously” discover a tennis ball and would throw it to the other confederate, who would then toss it to the actual participant. Over the next minute or two, the three of them would toss the ball around in a triangle. However, at a prearranged time, the two confederates would stop throwing the ball to the real participant, and instead they would throw it back and forth to each other.

A digital version of the scenario was created, so that participants being scanned could “throw” a ball, using a computer, to other players (really computer-generated avatars) of the game. Again, once the game had started, and after some previously-decided amount of time had passed, the other participants in the virtual game would stop throwing the ball to real participant. In spite of the fact that the subject could not see or hear the other participants, the reactions of the subjects, who had been told their brain activity while engaging in cooperative activity with others (i.e. throwing a virtual ball) was being studied, were substantial:

After participants were rejected, they got out of the scanner, and they were taken to a room to answer questions about their experience. Frequently, these individuals would spontaneously start talking to us about what had just happened to them. They were genuinely angry or sad about what they had gone through. This was unusual for an fMRI study back then because most tasks didn’t generate personal emotional reactions. We had to pretend that we hadn’t been paying attention to what had happened in the scanner because we did not want their answers to the questions they were about to be asked to be contaminated by anything we might say.


cyberball and acting2018-02-26T21:48:59-08:00

the power of grievance (for the actor)

There is a saying attributed to the Buddha about resentment. Sometimes it is stated that harboring resentment is like taking poison and hoping someone else dies, or that it is like holding onto a hot coal with the intent to throw it another at the right time: the one holding the coal burns herself.

Knowing what we know about human beings, these are wise words, but very challenging ones. Our sense of grievance is very powerful, in some cases overwhelming. It doesn’t even really matter, in the end, whether we perceive the grievance to be righteous or not: nursing it, holding onto it, harboring it: these are bound to have a corrosive action on our souls, our psyches, our being. We may take action and get a wrong righted, a grievance redressed, but that doesn’t necessarily make up for the time spent being gnawed at by the resentment involved.

So learning to forgive, which is what letting go of resentments entails, is difficult, but necessary if we are to move through life with any measure of openness and ease. For most of us, that’s a pretty daunting piece of insight.

But this is not a blog about living well, it’s a blog about acting well. And while acting and life have something to do with each other, it would be a mistake to assume they mirror each other perfectly.

So while in life, we might need to strive to let go of grievances, for the sake of our well-being, in acting, we need to work to uncover them, when they are not obvious, and embrace them as skeleton keys that will allow us to unlock many scenes that we encounter.


the power of grievance (for the actor)2018-02-26T21:48:59-08:00
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