Tuesday, November 11, 2008

On Imagination, and Boredom: a letter to my class

This was written after a long class one night.

I've been thinking about class last Wednesday, and what we've got ahead of us.... and, in truth, I'm worried that we won't be ready to shoot next week. Oh, sure, I can get it all on film; we pretty much know what we're doing, who's going where, all that.

That's not my point. My point is that I left last night feeling that a number of the scenes lacked the connection, commitment and forward motion essential to the material. So I wrote this little note.... that turned into something of a missive. I tend to do that.

I think most of these scenes need another week. Normally, we'd just have to chalk this up to a learning experience and move on, but since this is the last session of the year we've got some wiggle room. As for what follows: be warned that some of it is a little tough-love, and read on.

AFTER CLASS, a few of you commented that watching me "step in" and run a little of the scene with Paula really helped. So let's talk about what you saw.

Like so many people in this business, I started out as an actor. I still love the doing of it. More, I respect the doing of it. And while I am not even beginning to suggest that I'm God's gift to the craft, I do know one thing: I am constitutionally unable to allow myself to be bored while I'm acting. Honestly, that is unthinkable to me. I can't imagine faking emotion. I can't imagine writing those silly notes about "line delivery" in my script.

The INSTANT I'm bored when acting... I'll do something. I'll think weird thoughts. I'll push, I'll stretch, I'll invent.

Every time I act I do this. Every single time I work with a private client, every single time I read with one of you in my office, I personalize (in other words, believe in YOU), I commit; I push you with the deep-rooted hope that you will, God-help-me, PUSH BACK. When and if you do, I start having fun.

So what, exactly, did I do when I read with Paula? Simple. First, I began with reality:

1) I know Paula.
2) I have a birthday. (I do!)

Then, all I had to do was use the MIRACLE POWERS OF MY IMAGINATION to believe that:

1) my birthday is tomorrow.
2) Paula gave me a crappy gift last year -- one of those gifts that SHE likes but no one else really does. (here, I realize, I can reference a family member who has a talent for this)
3) Paula isn't as good a friend as she thinks she is. And I want her to notice, respect, and deal with what I'm feeling.

Finally... I up the stakes:

I'm FUCKING SICK of her not noticing what I'm feeling. I'm FUCKING sick of that attitude, and if she was a FRIEND she'd notice that something's going on with me and she'd STOP PLAYING THAT STUPID GAME.

And that's it. I'm off to the races. All my energy is on Paula. If she indulges herself, I won't be patient, I'll CUT HER OFF OR JUMP HER LINE because this is MY LUNCH too, dammit (please note I'm no longer even thinking "scene"), and I'm not here to mark time while she looks around. Or, maybe I'll use what she's doing as fuel for the fire I'm feeling. Either way, I ain't bored. I am in the moment, and human moments are always, always, compelling.

To stay committed - to move, and to be moved by another - this is the point of acting, the challenge of it, the fun of it.

It's the talent.

And developing that talent is why you're in my class. Right?

Guys: we know we can speak English. We know how scripts work, basically: you say all of these words, the other actor says all of those words. Before we even got started in class I knew you all could do that.

So if that's all I see you doing... I love ya, but I'm bored.

I'm bored because, honestly? You're bored. Worse, you're doing something that you can only get away with in class: you're asking the audience to work harder than you are. You're asking US to care more, to believe more; you're asking US to push, to feel, to commit.... precisely those things we need you to do for us. That's your job. And you can never, ever get away with phoning it in out in the world; you shouldn't ever do it in class. And whenever your work or someone else's work feels slow, or draggy, "speeding up" won't help. Caring more will.

And, yes, last week was meant to be about the practical, but still.

Story for you:

About fifteen years ago (ouch), I was the artistic director of a theatre company in Boston, and I directed the Boston premiere of Execution of Justice, a play about the Harvey Milk assassination and the subsequent trial of Dan White. It's an epic script. There are twenty four listed cast members in the play, and I didn't double up a single one of them. (Because that's the Peter Kelley way, dammit!) It was an all-consuming, draining, impossible project. In short, I loved every minute of it.

Until opening night. The house was full, all the major Boston papers were there, hopes and expectations were high-- and somehow ("why" is still very much a mystery to me) one of the very first actors to speak... took a nice... long... pause before doing so. What we used to call a truck-driver pause (as in: "you could back a truck through that pause"). And all I could do was stand, horrified, as pause-itis spread like friggin' Herpes through the TWENTY-FOUR PERSON cast.

They added almost twenty minutes to the run time of the play that night. A two-hour, fifty-minute play that asked a lot of the audience to begin with. I knew that the famous Boston press was not, to put it mildly, going to be kind to us. I wanted to kill the cast. The stage manager did, too, so we called the cast into the house for a meeting after the audience had left, before the cast party was to begin. (No lethargy about getting to THAT, I imagined).

Me: "So, uhm.... what happened tonight?"

One actor, a leader of the bunch, all morning-talk-show contemplative: "it felt a little... off. It was slow."

Then another, nodding thoughtfully in agreement: "it definitely felt slow."

I was stunned. All this nodding, this clinical, objective assessment, as if I was in front of a panel of scientists discussing a far-off phenomenon that had nothing to do with them. As if the long long LONG, self-indulgent, bad community-theatre, spirit-killing pace that a PAYING AUDIENCE had just been forced to sit through to had not been their doing.

Me: ".......hey, GUYS?..."

I was later told several cast members felt certain I was going to hit them.

"THERE IS NO 'IT.' YOU are 'IT.' 'It was slow,' 'it was off,' 'it dragged...


YOU were slow. YOU were off. YOU dragged. Because YOU didn't care. PERIOD."

We were, for the most part, slaughtered in the press. Even remembering it, I gotta take a few deep breaths.

"OK, I see your point," you're thinking, "but what if you don't like (or maybe don't get) the script?"

Ahhhh, yes. Blaming The Script. Second story:

THERE'S an old Pledge of Allegiance exercise we did (no, not the one I sometimes do in class) back when I was studying acting. The exercise is simply this: say the Pledge of Allegiance... but as a monologue.

So, naturally, like any monologue, you are saying it to someone (of your imaginative creation) for a reason (of your imaginative creation).

That's it. That's the exercise. It's a choice-making exercise, it's a commitment exercise, it's an exercise meant to illustrate a baseline truth about (good) acting: never let the words do the work. YOU do the work. You can decide that you're using the Pledge to seduce someone, to cajole someone, whatever.

So this one woman, well... as she started in, she was terrified. She was slow, halting, and...pleading? She fought back (real) tears; it seemed for a moment is if she wasn't going to make it through. Though we didn't know what was happening, everyone in the class was riveted.

What had she invented? This: someone was holding onto her cute, tiny, four-year-old daughter... and if she didn't say the Pledge perfectly, word for word, that person was going to snap her little girl's neck off.

Brilliant. Why?

1) The stakes could not have been higher. More, the stakes were specific. I have mentioned the essential importance of specificity to some of you so many times, but I will do it again: as a choice, "someone is going to hurt my daughter" is vague, and therefore boring, and therefore useless. "That huge man with the thick forearms is going to snap my daughter's neck right off" is evocative, it's specific, and it's kind of horrifying.

See the difference?

2) the unlikeliness of failure. The thought that suddenly, with the stakes that high, she might screw up this simplest of things, and how the thought of screwing up paralyzed her. This is quite similar to people with fear of heights -- if they approach a high ledge they are gripped with an irrational fear that the laws of gravity might suddenly be reversed, or that they themselves might fail at standing. Standing. That simplest of things that they do every day suddenly becomes a precarious act.

The actor's complete belief in those two truths, in combination, made drama out of the speaking a set of words we've all heard hundreds of times. And, remember: she didn't even have another actor to work off of. All she had - all she needed - was her imagination and her ability to care.

Now I'm not suggesting that you have to make crazy-assed choices in your scene. I AM suggesting that even a crazy-assed choice is better than not being connected, and if you're not connected, hey, give it a shot.

Do you guys understand how severely, how impossibly, how laughably the odds are against you in this business? Why make them even worse by not caring?

Last point.

People ask me sometimes if I can "tell" talent. Those same people also (and mainly) want to know whether I could have "told" that the stars I worked with were going to make it when I first began working with them. Here's the thing: the people who ask may think these two questions are one and the same, but in reality they are only marginally related. Unfair, yes. But true.

First thing I will tell you: yes, I can see talent. It is as immediately apparent to me as beauty. (no, you may not ask me about yours)

The second thing I will tell you: none of the "famous" actors I have worked with was initially the most talented person in their acting class or the standout at the audition. None. Not one. (Actually, that's not true: there was one. But only one. And no, I'm not telling.)

Think about that for a second before you obsess about your level of talent.

What they all had in common was drive. They were driven to the point of being boring (they mostly wanted to talk about their careers, which gets old for an acting teacher pretty quick), and they were competitive to a point that was almost unhealthy.

Translation: they wanted to be the best person in the class. Every time. Every scene. Sometimes they were, sometimes they weren't. No matter-- each time, they gave it their very best shot.

Do you?

So there you go. Hope it wasn't too harsh, but then, hey, I'm an acting teacher-- I gotta blow it out now and then. Part of the job.
Thanks for listening.


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