Mark's Newsletter Articles, Interviews and Blogs

This is an archive of all of Mark's articles and interviews from his very popular MarkWTravis.com Newsletter. The most recent is first. Enjoy.  

The Actor’s Brain

In the world of filmmaking there are many difficult jobs and some of them are dangerous. Yet, I believe that the most difficult and most dangerous job is acting. Many will scoff at this concept citing the roles of the director, cinematographer, stunt persons, etc. as being far more difficult or dangerous. And in some ways they are right. But the task of acting has its own unique challenges and risks.

To fully understand, we need to take a journey inside the actor – inside the actor’s brain. We have to go into the ‘control center’ or ‘mission control’ if you will, to fully understand the complex internal process actors go through every time they engage in the creation of a character.

An actor reads a script. Within one reading there will be an idea, an impulse, a sense of the character. Ideas of how to play that character from scene to scene will rumble or race through the actor’s mind. And as the actor begins to prepare, there will be ideas of what research is needed, what self-exploration might be required or helpful. Depending on training or experience the actor might work with substitutions, ‘as ifs’, effective memory, sense memory, improvisation, journaling, etc. And this work will go on until the actor has constructed and discovered sufficient material needed to become comfortably grounded in the character and the circumstances. And, quite possibly all of this work will take place before there is any rehearsal with the director and other actors – if there is any rehearsal at all.

When the time comes to embody the character (in rehearsal or performance) the actor will draw upon this preparation in order to embody the character.

Now let’s look at what is actually going on inside the actor’s brain during this process.

The actor is in a process of transformation – consciously attempting to become the persona of another character as fully and completely as possible. And, in order to accomplish this transformation, the actor’s brain must split itself into two parts – the Actor and the Character.

Most of you know the basic difference between the Left Brain and the Right Brain. Stated simply – the left brain is where all the organizing, controlled thinking, logical reasoning goes on. The right brain is where all the spontaneous impulses, illogical and even irrational thinking goes on. The left is control and logic. The right is spontaneous and impulsive. This is overly simplified, I know, but it suits our purposes for this discussion.

Unconsciously the actor’s brain will divide into these two parts. On the left side is the Actor and on the right side is the Character. Now, let’s take a closer look at each side.

The Left side – the Actor’s side. The actor is knowledgeable, omniscient and in control. The actor is knowledgeable simply because he read the script. Which means that he knows everything that is going to happen (in the story). Which of course makes him omniscient, all knowing. God-like.

Are you aware that one of the actor’s biggest obstacles in the pursuit of becoming the character is the script itself? That’s true. Of course the script is necessary for the actor to learn as much as he can about the character. But now he has a lot of information that the character doesn’t have. And this is a problem. How do you portray a character’s naïveté and innocence when you (the actor) have all this information about the future? This may seem like a small matter, but it isn’t. An essential aspect of becoming the character is the necessity of forgetting what you already know. And this is why the actor’s brain has to split and create the “character’s brain” – the part of the brain that knows only what the character knows.

And before we look at the character’s side of the brain we need to look at the actor’s objectives and obstacles. As we have discussed in earlier articles and books (Directing Feature Films and The Film Director’s Bag of Tricks), objectives and obstacles are instrumental in defining a character moment-to-moment. So, what are some of the actor’s objectives? I’ll list a few common ones.

–       To create a credible character.

–       To please the director – or writer – or producer

–       To work closely with the scene partner

–       To be well-prepared for the shoot

–       To be on time

–       Etc.

And there are other objectives that have to do with the personal life of the actor. Such as their life at home, their various relationships, obligations and commitments outside of the acting profession, etc.

Now let’s look at some of the obstacles that actors might face.

–       The script is weak or unclear

–       The director is difficult and/or disconnected

–       The scene partner is unprepared, unprofessional, unskilled, disconnected or problematic

–       The wardrobe feels inappropriate, restrictive or too revealing

–       The weather is contrary to the weather required in the scene

–       Etc.

And then we have to add the whole list of obstacles that are impacting the actor’s personal life.

Take a moment and look at these lists of objectives and obstacles above. Then ask yourself: “How many of these objectives and obstacles (both professional and personal) and conflicts that they create have anything to do with the Character?”

Truthfully? None.

Okay, you could argue that maybe one or two relate to the character and you could bring out that old acting maxim, “just use it”. But once you start using one of them the rest are just going to tag along. The truth is, you don’t need any of them. None of them. And the sad truth is that if you drag that bag of training, research and preparation into your character, you’re going to bring all of those other actor objectives and obstacles with you – whether you want them or not. And now ask yourself: “How much room is there for the character’s own personal and private objectives and obstacles?”

Now let’s look at the character’s side of the brain.

The Right side of the brain – the Character’s Side.  By definition, the character is innocent, naïve and out of control. Let me explain. One important fact that we must remember about every character in every film (play, television, etc.) is this:

 The character does not know that he is in a movie.

This observation is so obvious that many directors easily ignore it. Yet it defines the enormous challenge of the actor – ‘how do I become naïve, innocent and in-the-moment?’

The character has no awareness or concept of what is going to happen (the actor knows everything). There is no ‘script’ in the character’s life (the actors has lines). Every character is innocent and naïve and they are all ‘living on the cusp’, that fine line between the past and the future – in the present, in-the-moment. Which means he is out of control.

Look at the two sides of the actor’s brain; the Actor’s side and the Character’s side and we have seen how dramatically different they are, and now ask yourself one more question:

“Who do you want to see on the screen?”

Of course you want the character, so then, why are you talking to the actor during those critical moments when the actor is so intently trying to disappear and assume the persona of the character? Why not just talk to the character? Why not direct the character? Why not simply stimulate the character while he’s ‘on the cusp’ and send him into the scene naïve, innocent and out of control?

The Actor’s Brain. The more we begin to understand it and truly appreciate the complexity of this process the sooner we will be able to effectively harness the raw power of the actor.


What Is Acting? (It May Not Be What You Think It Is)

I’ve had many responses to my last article (The Acting Coach: Teacher or Director?) which have covered a wide range of opinions and attitudes about teaching, directing and acting. Consequently, I have been nudged into exploring one big, basic question that seems to come up in every response – whether explicit or implied – “What, exactly, is acting?”
This seems to be a simple question that should have a simple answer: Acting is pretending to be someone or something else.
That’s it, right?
Or, if you want to get a little more specific: Acting is when an individual takes on the role, behavior, attitudes, etc. of another person, perhaps in a scripted environment like a play or film.
Maybe.
But if acting is merely pretending to be someone else, then anyone can do it. As a matter of fact we all do it – every day. Seriously, can you actually get through a day without a moment of acting – of pretense? Perhaps you are not pretending to be someone else. But, how often in one day do you pretend? How often do you hide your truth? (The dictionary definition of pretend: “to act as if something were true”). For example, how often do you pretend to be pleased, or disappointed, or interested? How often do you hide your impatience, annoyance, anger or fear? We all do this. It’s a central part of the human condition. Sometimes it’s a matter of survival. Pretending is a technique we use to maneuver the rapids of daily existence. And this makes us all actors – to an extent. And then we could discuss those moments when we are accused of acting, of faking it, pretending or lying. And you know how often you can recognize when someone is not being authentic, honest, or truthful. Acting is a part of our lives, everyday.

But what I really want to discuss is the ‘profession’ of acting. There are professional actors, those who are trained, paid and praised for this activity. These are artists who have chosen to portray other characters in theater, film, television and other media. Still, it seems like a simple question with a simple answer: “What is acting?” A professional actor’s goal is to portray another individual as honestly and authentically as possible. That’s it. A portrayal. Pretense. Pretending.

Sanford Meisner eloquently stated: “Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” How wonderfully simple, direct and true. But, what does it really mean? What does ‘living truthfully’ really entail?

I know, for myself, how difficult it is to live truthfully (or honestly) day-to-day, or moment-to-moment. I know how often I hide, pretend, or manipulate or disguise my own truth (as we discussed above). Yet, I recognize that that modification of my deeper truth is, indeed, the truth of who I am in that moment. So, in a way I am living truthfully even if that truth is a pretense that is hiding a deeper truth.

Confused yet? Me, too. Let’s press on.

As I go through my day I run into challenges, conflicts, opportunities, surprises, disappointments, etc. and I admit that I am often not clear about how I feel about something that has just happened or something someone has said. And I often feel conflicted between how I ‘want’ to react and how I think I ‘should’ react and even how I do react. I know very clearly that this uncertainty or confusion in these moments is my truth. So, in a way, I am living truthfully. And I am aware that there is a big difference between ‘living truthfully’ and ‘telling the truth’. What I express in these moments may not be what I honestly feel, but the expression itself is true to who I am in that moment. It reflects me, honestly – even if the expression is a lie.

Now, back to acting. How do we explore and experience this level of truthfulness when we are portraying a character? And, how well do we need to know our characters in order to reveal them honestly and authentically?

An actor reads a script. Within one reading he will get an idea, an impulse, a sense of his character. Ideas of how to play that character from scene to scene rumble or race through the actor’s mind. And the actor begins to prepare. He has ideas of what research is needed, what self-exploration might be required or helpful. Depending on his training or experience he might work with substitutions, ‘as ifs’, effective memory, improvisation, journaling, etc. And this work will go on until the actor has constructed and discovered sufficient material to get him comfortably grounded in the character and the circumstances. And, quite possibly, all of this work has come before there is any significant rehearsal with the director and other actors – if there is any rehearsal at all.

And when the time comes to embody the character (in rehearsal or performance) the actor will draw upon this preparation in order to plunge himself into the character.

And now he is in the character. And now he is acting. But, what is he doing? What is really going on inside the actor? There is a very conscious activity going on that I call ‘acting awareness’. The actor is controlling, constructing, consciously and unconsciously manipulating the character to behave in certain ways based upon all of his research, training, preparation, etc. The actor is acting. He is pretending, controlling and manipulating.

“Acting is the ability to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances.”

What happened to ‘living truthfully’? The character (I assume) isn’t acting, pretending, controlling and manipulating in order to portray another character. The character isn’t deciding how to play a moment based on research, training and preparation.

No, the character is basically dealing with this moment in his life as best he can. This is all determined by his needs, goals, history, expectations, fears and desires – not the actor’s.

Our lives are out of control. By this I mean we, each and every one of us, live ‘on the cusp’. The cusp is the present moment where we balance ourselves between the known (the past) and the unknown (the future). We know we can’t change the past (no matter how much we would like to) and we know that we can’t predict the future. The only place where we can be effective is ‘in the moment’, in this moment that we are experiencing right now. And, it’s even questionable how much control we have of this moment. So, we are out of control – always.

And, since our goal as storytellers is to present authentic characters living truthfully, we want to portray individuals who are as much ‘out of control’ as you and I are. We want to see characters who are living ‘on the cusp’. And, in order for an actor to ‘live truthfully’ within a character ‘on the cusp’ he must abandon all of the pretending, controlling and manipulating tools of the actor.

“What?” you say. “Abandon acting? At the very moment when that is what is required?” Yes, that is what I am saying. The best ‘acting’ is when there is none. (There’s an oxymoron for you). The best performances are when the actor has reached a state of abandonment, release, totally letting go and truthfully living on the cusp as the character. And when the actor becomes unconscious of the ‘acting’ and conscious only of the physical, mental and emotional state of the character, this is when the actor is truly living in the moment – not as the actor – only as the character.

And that is acting – at its best.

 


The Acting Coach: Teacher or Director?

I’ve been directing for over 40 years. And I’ve been teaching directing for about 20 years. And now, really for the first time, I’m beginning to look at the differences and similarities between directing and teaching.
This shift all came about after I audited several acting classes in search of an acting teacher who I feel is compatible and complementary to my way of directing actors. Besides the wide range of teaching styles I have experienced, I have noticed something very consistent: Many of these teachers will ‘direct’ the scene that has been presented in order to ‘teach’ the actors something.
Let me explain.
A scene has been presented in an acting class, an acting workshop. The teacher will give very specific directions as to how the scene ‘should have’ been played. The actors, then, will perform the scene again with these new ‘directions’ and (almost) consistently, the scene will improve. And also (almost) consistently, the viewing members of the workshop will be notably impressed with the improvements. My question is this: What have the actors actually learned?

The difference between teaching an actor how to become a better actor and directing an actor to give a stronger performance is a very fine line. There is clearly a lot of overlap between teaching and directing and they work hand-in-hand. So, “what’s the problem?” you may ask.

It’s not a problem. It’s a question. Let’s look at the different roles. The director’s objective is to make the scene work as best as he/she can envision. The teacher’s objective is to make the actor work in a way wherein he/she can become a stronger and more confident actor. And the scene presented is the testing ground, the display of the work, the laboratory within which we will experiment and explore. And if the teacher simply ‘re-directs’ the scene so that it will work better what have the actors learned? The actors now know how to do that particular scene in a more effective way. But have they acquired tools and techniques that they can then apply to other scenes, other situations? That is the question.

Wouldn’t it be better to guide the actors through a process where they could ascertain how to solve whatever problems there may be in the scene? (By ‘problems’ I mean flaws, inconsistencies, lack of character depth or arc, etc.) True, it is the teacher’s job to identify and pinpoint the problems so that the actor can perceive the work from another perspective. But now the actor has to learn how to address the problem in a constructive way. And if the actor is simply told ‘how to play it’ then a part of the actor’s process has been circumvented.

And this also brings up another question or concern. Dependency. As much as actors are dependent on the director for guidance in character and scene work, don’t we want the actors to be extremely independent in their own process? If the teacher can lead the actor through a series of steps that would lead to problem recognition and then potential problem solutions I think there is a greater chance for increased independency on the actor’s part.

Several of the teachers that I have observed are, in fact, excellent directors. And because of their strength and confidence in their directing I can see them falling comfortably into direction as a means of addressing the ‘problems’ in the scene. It’s a natural reflex. I know that I have it every time that I teach. I can feel the overwhelming urge to just step in and re-direct the scene – to show how it ‘should’ be done. So I know that I am as guilty of this technique as the teachers I am observing. (Not only when I am teaching directing but especially when I am teaching acting.) I think, perhaps, this is why the question has come up for me. I am aware that I am questioning my own process, my own approach .. my own ‘failings’ if you will.

Which leads to one more question, or situation. When I am teaching and I observe a scene that is not working as well as I can imagine, I will address the director and actors with several questions about their work. I know I am helping to lead them to discover new ways of looking at the work. But often I can see that I am not getting through. So I will choose to show them what I am talking about, to show them a solution. And often I see that look on their faces, which may be wonder or amazement, clearly also contains a modicum of “how did you come up with that?” And this only means that I was not successful in leading them to a process wherein they could find the solution on their own. And I feel, to an extent, that I have failed as a teacher. I succeeded as a director but failed as a teacher. Or, perhaps not. Perhaps this “show and tell” is all an essential part of the teaching and that I need to learn how to find the proper balance.

One thing I do know, though. The more I teach – the more I am the student. And, the more I am willing to be open and learn, the better teacher I will become.


The Search for an Acting Teacher, Part II

Last month I talked about my search for an acting coach whose approach to teaching acting is compatible with my technique of directing actors. I’m still on this quest with the belief that if I find such an individual I’ll be able to expand and deepen my own understanding of this delicate and mysterious director/actor relationship.
In the last article, I discussed how various teachers address the actors right after a scene has been presented. And, what seemed clear to me in the first workshop I attended (Workshop #1, where the teacher’s question was “What were you working on?”) was that while the focus was on the actor, the acting process, the actor’s techniques and the assessment was on how successfully the actor was applying all of the above to the scene, there was rarely any discussion of the character’s objectives and challenges, or even of the scene itself. Workshop #2 was a little better in that when the teacher asked “What do you want in this scene?” it was clear s/he was talking about the character’s objectives. However, the focus quickly shifted to the “correct” interpretation of the scene as defined by the teacher. Again, the actor’s view of the character and the scene were relegated to a secondary or even tertiary position of focus.

Those of you who know my work and have experienced the Travis Technique know that my focus is primarily on the character – almost to the exclusion of both the director and the actor. My ultimate goal is character authenticity – and I don’t know how to achieve that without putting the character front and center.

Now let’s look at the other two responses that I have heard from teachers following the presentation of a scene.

“How do you think it went and what do you think is missing?”

“What worked? What didn’t? And why?”

I’m going to call this Workshop #3 (simply because these two responses are very similar even though I heard them in separate workshops).

Again I am watching the actors intently as the question is asked. In Workshop #3 I am not seeing the apprehension or anxiety that I witnessed in Workshop #2. Instead, I am seeing highly focused concentration. These actors know that the question is coming and I can see that they want to give an honest, informed and insightful answer. They want to please.

But, again, let’s stop for a moment and consider what these questions do to the actors. First, they require that the actors pay attention to their performance as it is happening, so that they can be prepared to give an informed response. I would like to acknowledge at this point that it is nearly impossible for an actor to not be aware of his/her performance. And, admittedly, that awareness is key to the development of the actor and the development of the character. But (and this is a big ‘but’) if the goal of the actor is to disappear and allow the character to emerge fully formed, then why are we (teachers, directors, coaches, etc.) asking the actors to give us an assessment of their work immediately after they finish a scene? Wouldn’t it be more interesting (and perhaps more to the point and more productive) if the actor were to ask the teacher, “What did you see? What did you experience?”

The ultimate goal of our work (as directors, writers and actors) is to impact the audience. Otherwise there is no sane reason to do all of this work. And the acting workshop is the perfect time and place for an actor to test the effectiveness of his/her work. It would be much more valuable for everyone in the room to hear how the scene impacted the viewers then to hear the actors’ self-critique.

I know that I am the last person you should ask about the effectiveness of my work. I have to listen to others, to the audience to know how I’m doing. I need them to tell me how it’s working. I have been proven wrong in my self-assessment so many times that I am now finally learning to give up the notion that I can predict anything. Talk to just about any artist, and they will tell you the same thing.

Okay, an important side note here. I was sharing this article and its contents with a dear colleague of mine. This individual knows me and my work and my teaching better than perhaps than anyone else. And for years I have been sharing all my new ideas, dreams, frustrations and discoveries with her. And when I told her about my response to these two questions …

“How do you think it went and what do you think is missing?”

“What worked? What didn’t? And why?”

… her response was:

“But Mark, that’s what you do. You ask questions like that all the time.”

And I sat there, floored. Not because I thought she was wrong, but because I could feel that she was most likely right. Then she gave me a few examples, which only made it clearer how right she was. It’s true, I often ask the actors for their assessment immediately following the scene. In the days since that conversation I have been thinking about this revelation, and I have vowed that I will become much more aware of my ‘first lines’ after a scene has been presented.  One thing I do know. Often I will ask an actor, “How did that feel?” or “How do you feel?” And I intend this question to be for the character, not the actor. This is in line with the Travis Technique where we direct the character, not the actor.

I love this process. The more I dig into the work of others attempting to discover tools and techniques that can make me a better director and teacher, the more I learn about myself. Some of it’s not pretty. Some realizations are hard to swallow. But I am convinced that each step takes me that much closer to my intended goal.

Okay, I have one more point about Workshop #3 and the self-analytical questions. Not only are these questions impeding the actor’s ability to lose him/herself into the character, but they are clearly (to me) a delaying tactic on the teacher’s part (maybe this is what I have been doing). Unlike the teachers in Workshop #2 who have a very clear idea of precisely how the scene should be played, the teachers in Workshop #3, it seems, are not quiet sure what to say to the actors. So they thrust the burden onto the actor which gives them time to form their thoughts. I know this technique. I’ve done it hundreds of times when I’m directing or teaching. We all do it. But that doesn’t make it valuable or effective.

The Future.

As I stated above, the quest goes on. I must admit I’m finding this journey to be fascinating, challenging, baffling and most often enlightening. The most enlightening part has been that in every moment, in every class my own preferences, desires and agendas have been tested, and become a bit clearer to me. I am seeing my techniques in sharp contrast to others. And, in every moment I learn something.

I’m not sure what will happen if and when I run into the teacher that I seek. But I look forward to that day … and I’ll let you know how it turns out.


The Search for an Acting Teacher, Part I

I’ve been directing actors for over 40 years in theater, film and television. And now, ironically, I teach directors

Constantin Stanislavski

all over the world how to direct actors. I teach them the Travis Technique, a revolutionary and cutting-edge technique that I slowly developed during those 40 years. And even though I have dedicated a majority of my professional career to the art and craft of directing I have spent very little time actually teaching acting. In fact, I don’t really consider myself an acting coach or teacher – I’m a director. But recently it has become clear to me that I need to learn a lot more about how actors are trained if I am going to be more effective both as a teacher and as a director.

The Pursuit.

I’m on a quest. I’m searching for that acting teacher who feels compatible with my style of directing. At first I thought this would be easy – that all I would have to do is identify the masters of the craft, audit one of their classes, sit back and be awed. And, of course, I can read their books.

SIDE NOTE: Most of the acting gurus have written books. It seems to be a prerequisite. In fact, the other night I was chastised for not having read this particular guru’s book! Hmmm.

But, not unlike the hero on the Hero’s Journey I’ve discovered that I’ve entered a dark forest full of obstacles, pretenders, fantasies and delusions. Shape-shifters flit from tree to tree. It’s a maze even Theseus would find challenging.

Admittedly I am at the beginning of the journey (6 down, several to go) and I know I shouldn’t despair. But there are a few practices I have consistently run into that have me more than a little concerned. And rather than sit in the confusion, I thought I’d write about it. It’s frequently the best way for me. If I share my thoughts with my friends (you), perhaps someone out there will shed some light on these dark moments. Or maybe one of you will point me in a direction that will send me down a path I haven’t yet noticed, an alternate choice, a path that could lead to the elixir.

All of the workshops I have audited so far have been scene study classes or master classes. The actors present a scene that they have ostensibly been rehearsing and preparing for some time. And now it is finally ready to be seen by the teacher – and, of course, the rest of the class. In the first few workshops I attended I was struck by the various ways these teachers handled a certain key moment in the process. As I sat there, the question on my mind was: “What do you say to the actors right after they have finished presenting their scene?” Now, I didn’t actually ask these teachers this question, I just watched and took notes.

Here are some of the ‘first lines’ that I heard from these teachers.

“What were you working on?”

“What do you want in this scene?”

“How do you think it went and what do you think is missing?”

“What worked? What didn’t? And why?”

For the most part these are good questions. Great questions, actually. Yet I think we need to step back for a moment and consider the impact and potential effectiveness of these questions.

“What were you working on?”

In one particular workshop (we’ll call it Workshop #1) where this question was asked consistently, the

responses from the actors were along these lines: “I was working on my character’s anger”, “I was working on creating the environment”, “I wanted to find my character’s fear of abandonment”, “I was trying to connect to the love” … things like that. It was clear to me that in Workshop #1 the focus (strongly supported by the teachers) was on the actor’s craft. Creating emotion, feelings, attitudes, etc, connecting with the truth of the character in some way. And it seemed like the assessment of the work was based on how successful the actor had been creating or generating these emotions or attitudes or behavior.

“What do you want in this scene?”

In another workshop (Workshop #2) this question was asked fairly consistently. And I heard responses like “I

Lee Strasberg

want to terrify him (scene partner)”, “I want to convince her that I can be trusted”, or “I want to make this night special for both of us.” So, clearly, this work seemed to be more about the character and what the character wanted to achieve – a major distinction from Workshop #1.

Workshop #1 worries me. And this brings up another question.

What is the goal/objective of the actor?

Is the actor’s objective to successfully accomplish all the ‘acting tasks and goals’ in order to deliver a ‘successful’ scene? Or, could actor’s goal be to allow the character to exist so profoundly and fully that the ‘acting’ techniques actually become invisible – disappear? And if they are invisible, then how can we comment on them?

Workshop #2 was more reassuring simply because I could feel the instructor’s focus was more on the characters and less on the actor.

But, we’re not out of the woods yet. Let’s stay with Workshop #2 where the focus was more on the characters’ wants and needs. As I was watching the actors listen to this simple and clear question I was struck by the slight ripples of tension or anxiety that I saw on their faces.

SIDE BAR: As auditors, in all of these workshops, we were asked to sit in the first two or three rows so that we could experience the work intimately.

At first I couldn’t understand this apparent apprehension or trepidation. And as the actors articulated their responses the tension and anxiety did not diminish, it became more present. It wasn’t until I heard the teacher’s response that I understood. Almost 100% of the time, throughout the three-hour evening of over six scenes the teacher’s response was, “No, that’s wrong”, which was immediately followed by a one or two-minute monologue about the character, the play, the themes of the play and why the actors’ choices were, sadly, wrong. The monologue always ended with a clear description of what the correct choice would have been and then, “Take a minute, prepare and start again.”

What concerns me here is not the notion that there is one ‘right’ answer (which we all know there isn’t). My concern is how this approach to teaching is affecting the actor. To have worked on a scene for hours, or days, or even weeks and then be told in one quick statement that the foundation upon which you based all your choices was “wrong” must be devastating. No wonder the actors were apprehensive about answering that question. It’s a test. And you are going to be either right or wrong. And what has happened to all the work that was just displayed by the actors? It’s been erased. Wouldn’t it be more effective (and valuable for the actor) to first address the work that was done regardless of the choice of objective? The choice of an objective is only one step in a long and complex process. Choosing an objective is easy (easy also if it is assigned to you), but activating the character within the scene in an attempt to fulfill the objective, that’s where the real challenges lie. That’s what all actors need to learn, that’s where most actors struggle, and that needs to be the focus of the work. Wouldn’t it have been more effective (and a moment of learning for the actor) if the teacher had simply said, “I have a different point of view regarding the objective of your character in this scene. But, let’s look at how effective your choice was and how well you were able to allow your choice to empower your character?”

By the way, Workshop #2 is not just one workshop. Not just one teacher. I have heard this approach repeatedly from established teachers and beginning teachers alike. If it was only one teacher I would be less concerned, but it’s prevalent. And one of the beginning teachers learned it from one of the established teachers. So, it’s viral.

Stella Adler

I think it’s interesting how, unconsciously, my search for a compatible acting teacher has led me to a laser-like focus on one simple moment in the process. But this moment is so crucial in our process … in any artistic endeavor. An artist creates, to the best of their ability and understanding, and then, in a trembling moment that creation is presented to the public. And in that moment the artist is the most vulnerable, the most open, raw and unprotected. A fetus that has just been birthed. Treat it gently and respectively, because whatever wounds are caused in this moment will cut deep and be everlasting.

 

 

In my article next month I will address the other two responses.

“How do you think it went and what do you think is missing?”

“What worked? What didn’t? And why?”

Yes, they are very similar. And yet they both deserve a closer look. Until then, I would love to hear your comments, thoughts, and insights. And I really want to hear not just from directors and actors. I want to hear from you writers, producers and especially from my readers who don’t fit into any of those categories.

Until next month ….


This Is How I Want You to Play It

Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand thus, but use all gently, for in the very torrent, tempest, and (as I may say) whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. …

William Shakespeare, Hamlet

 I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this famous speech from Hamlet … ‘Hamlet’s advice to the players’. But I can tell you; I’ve never really paid much attention to it. I don’t mean the language or the poetry, but to the content, the intent. This is Hamlet, in the role of director, giving specific directions to his actors. And what is he telling them? “Do the lines as I have done them.” Line readings. “Don’t exaggerate the words like other actors do.” “Don’t use too many hand gestures.” Etc. Wow. A lot of manipulation, control and pure result directing. And this is from Shakespeare, who was also an actor.

What he’s really saying is “Here is how I want you to play it. And here are the things I don’t want you to do.” Now, of course, he was trying to “catch the conscience of the King” so he had a pretty specific effect he wanted to have on his audience. But don’t we all want to “catch the conscience” of our audience?

So here’s the discussion: Most directors think it is their job to tell the actors ‘how to play the scene’. And I can understand this. I mean that pretty much defines a major aspect of the director’s function. But doesn’t that edict take us one step further away from the very authenticity we are seeking? When was the last time you entered a ‘scene’ or moment, or event, or confrontation in your everyday life with clear instructions on ‘how to play that scene’ running through your head? Oh, I know, we all have those wonderful conversations with our Committee (voices in our head) about how we are going to handle an upcoming situation. We even play it out beforehand just so we can ‘rehearse’ it. But, that’s us as real life characters in an unpredictable world doing the best we can to control or manage or manipulate events as they come our way. But in this discussion, we’re talking about actors – actors who know pretty much what is going to happen. Their world isn’t unpredictable at all. They know what their character is going to say and do. They even know what the other characters are going to say and do. So there’s not much mystery or uncertainty. So, consequently, there can’t be much surprise. And then, on top of that, the director is saying, “play it this way” which totally removes from the equation any spontaneous interaction between the character and the event. Now you have a scene with a bunch of characters following programmed instructions (either from the director or from the actor) and underneath it all they are attempting to create something that has a feeling of authenticity, reality, real moment-to-moment interaction and behavior.

So, what would happen if we reverse the process? What would happen if rather than saying to the actors “play it

Joseph Fiennes, Shakespeare in Love

this way” we started saying, “let the scene play you.” In other words, enter the scene focused only on what the character wants and needs and dismiss any thoughts about how to ‘play the scene’, thereby allowing each character to truly engage with the unpredictable and the unknown. Because isn’t that what we’re trying to create, a replication of reality? And isn’t that what happens to us in every moment of every day?

When we ask someone, “How was your day?” we often hear things like, “Let me tell you what happened to me”. And that’s our life. We move through each day getting bombarded by stimuli to all six senses (yes there are six, I’ve even heard there are more than that). We see things, hear things, taste things, smell things, touch things and think things. Stimuli. And we respond. As Virginia Woolf said, “I think our job in life is to manage the things that come our way.” Great thought. Great observation. So we ‘manage things that come our way’. We don’t create them and we certainly don’t control them. We manage them as best we can.

In our attempts to create a semblance of reality wouldn’t it be more authentic if removed from the actor the notion of controlling or manipulating a scene or his character in order to fit someone’s vision or concept of how it ‘should be played’? And wouldn’t we take one giant leap toward authenticity if we just allowed each character to enter each scene as naively as you and I do in every moment of every day? And what if we just allowed the elements and stimuli of the scene to just ‘play the character’? What would happen then?

When Shakespeare wrote,  “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players” he was observing that all of us are simply acting out a play that clearly has no script. And that each of us is just muddling through and doing the best we can to “manage the things that come our way.”

Authenticity, it is obtainable. But we won’t get there if we keep faking it.

 

March 22, 2013


Directing Children Part II: The Casting Process

Here are five basic things for every director to keep in mind when it comes to the casting process and

Haley Joel Osment
“The Sixth Sense”

child actors …

(1) Trained Child Actors. This is either a curse or a blessing and each depends on the training and on the child. Some children can be trained out of ‘being a child’ and their behavior, sadly, becomes more adult, adept, aware and controlled. And, sometimes these traits don’t appear in casting or even rehearsal, but rear their ugly heads in production when there is pressure. So, know what you want going in and play around with adjustments to see whether or not the child will deliver what you are looking for.
(2) Know The Age. The age of children makes an enormous difference. Up until about 5 years old or so, a child’s attention span is so short that you have to work with them totally in the moment and pray. In other words, they can comprehend the simplest direction and then, moments later when the cameras are rolling they may have completely forgotten it. A few years older and it’s a different child.

In the age categories 2-5 or 5-9 or 9-13, etc. they are developing as human beings and a part of this development is their ability to discern who they are as individuals. And in this individuation comes the ability to differentiate between themselves and the character they are playing. Some professional training (see above) actually forces this separation in the child before their normal growth process is ready. This results in the precocious and problematic child actor.

Jonathan Lipnicki
“Jerry Maguire”

3. The Parents. When you cast a child you cast the parents. The younger the child (generally) the more influence the parent is going to have over the work ethic, performance and characterization. Parents (usually) want the child to do well so frequently, with the best of intentions, they will ‘direct’ the child. Most of this direction is result direction or ‘do it like Mommy does it’. Although children usually respond well to result direction (not feeling the same conflict that adult actors feel with the approach) once they get a result in their head or a performance or a line reading, it’s hard to eradicate it and replace it with something else. So, it’s important to meet the parents first, before casting, and especially before rehearsals begin. Get to know them, take time to immerse yourself in their world so you know how the family system works. Get them to understand why it is so important that they not direct their child. Your job is to explain to the parents as well as you can how the rehearsal process works and how you will be developing the child’s character … and how their best intentions can be a deterrent to this process. You want them to be knowledgeable allies. Also explain the shooting process to them (where everyone is feeling the pressure) and how they can be supportive. It’s very important that the child is not using the parent as the barometer of success or failure.

4. Getting To the Character. This is the trickiest part of working with a child. And, besides the age factor I mentioned above, you need to discern for each child how well they can differentiate between themselves and the character.

5. It’s a game. Finally, the more you can make the world of acting a game they better the child actor will respond (especially the younger children). For more research and exploration of techniques read Viola Spolin’s “Improvisation for the Theatre”. Spolin uses theater games in order to access the characters and the world of the characters. For children, this is magical.


When Actors First Meet

One of the most critical moments in making a film (or in the directing of a play) is when the actors all come together for the first time. You’ve been through a long and often torturous casting process. And now, at least in your mind, you have the best casting possible. But most likely you have been casting a majority of these people as individuals.
Perhaps you have had that wonderful opportunity to mix and match couples, families, whatever.
But now they are all going to come together and it is guaranteed that some alchemic reaction is going

“When Harry Met Sally”

to happen. Your job? Create a safe, nurturing and creative environment in which all the actors can function at their most authentic, their most confident, even their most vulnerable – an environment that will allow them to do their best work.

I know that many of your are thinking, “There is no such first meeting. I just cast the movie and we start shooting.” This happens way too often. So for those of you jumping right from casting into production, consider the fact that if you took the time and energy to allow the actors to form more significant and meaningful relationships (both as the actors and as the characters) how much better your film would be.

For the moment, let’s put aside any notions of just jumping into production. And let’s even put aside the notions of a rehearsal process (which we’ll discuss in a future newsletter). And let’s just think about what a difference a day can make. And this day is just a day of meet and greet and a simple reading of the script. That’s it. No more that that. And right now I am going to guarantee you (don’t you love guarantees especially when they relate to the creative process?) …I’m going to guarantee you that the quality of your film will take a significant leap upward just because of this one low-key day. I can also guarantee that it is very likely (and there’s that disclaimer that comes with most guarantees) that you will save production time just because of this one low-key day.

So let’s look at how this day can work.

You announce it as the ‘first reading’ of the script. But you and I know that there is going to be a lot more accomplished than just a reading. You invite everyone. By everyone I mean everyone who is in some way connected to your production, all the way from producers and writers through cinematographer, editor, designers and even administrative staff, assistants, secretaries, etc. And, of course, the actors.

Select a location where there is lots of room, tons of room. Sound stages are good. Conference rooms in hotels work well. Something large and impersonal. Not someone’s home or office.

Create one space in the room where the reading will happen. This will usually be tables and chairs in some configuration so that everyone can see everyone else. A circle, a square, a community. You’ll also want to have a table of refreshments: water, coffee, tea and snacks. My suggestion on snacks: avoid the processed sugar. Go for the fresh fruit, vegetables and dip. And leave another part of the room, perhaps even half of the room, open and empty. Watch as people enter, see where they go, what they do. Most will gravitate to the tables and chairs. Some will select where they want to sit. Some will make little nests of papers and objects at their chosen location. Most will get to the refreshments quickly simply because it is an area of comfort and security. Everyone (usually) will avoid the empty part of the room. There’s no reason to go there.

“When Harry Met Sally”

As soon as everyone is gathered (most will be at their chosen places at the reading table with little plates of food and liquids) start your meeting. And this is how it starts:

“Okay, everyone, please stand, leave your food and papers at the table and come join me.” And you walk to the empty part of the room. Now, one thing you might want to do at this point is simply watch the behavior of the participants. First, you may see that the actors will clump together, or stay close to someone they know. Some department heads will resist and maybe not even leave the table. Producers and executives will take a few steps and then opt to observe from a distance. Of course, none of them know what’s going to happen (which is all part of the plan) so what you have done by one simple request “follow me to the empty part of the room” is you have tapped into and triggered those insecurities that exist within all of us.

“Now, I need everyone to form a circle.” And with this simple request the insecurities will get triggered again. There is no place to hide in a circle. Some will refuse or just hold back. One simple rule: ‘You either join us or leave the room’. That’s right. There are no observers to this process, only participants. Your goal is to get everyone in the circle. They’ll do it, be patient.

Then you produce the ball. This is a smallish ball, somewhere between a softball and a volleyball in size. It’s soft so it doesn’t bounce. Again you will feel the energy in the room shift because it is suddenly clear that there is going to be some kind of game. More insecurities are triggered.

A side story: Many years ago when I was directing a PBS Special all about “Blind Tom” and the Civil War, there was an actress who had been cast (cast before I was hired as director so I had never met her) who was a major television star on a hit series. And she arrived at this ‘first reading’ of a Civil War script in perfectly-coiffed hair, high heels and a three-piece suit. When I asked everyone to come to the empty part of the room, she held back with the executives. When I said, “form a circle” I could see that she was not happy and was most likely wondering why she had even agreed to do this project. I knew we were off to a bad start. But when I produced the ball and held it in front of me, she suddenly kicked off her high heels, ripped off her suit jacket, threw it on the floor, rumpled her hair and screamed in delight, “Theater Games!” And she was right. That is what this is: theater games. And from that moment on she and I were the best of friends and she helped set an amazing collaborative tone amongst the actors for the entire production.

Now, for the rest of the game. This is how it goes. Simply say, “This is a ball. The object of this game

“When Harry Met Sally”

is to throw the ball to another person. Please throw it so that it can be caught. And when you throw the ball simply say the first name of the person you are throwing it to. If you get stuck, my name is (your name). You can always throw it to me. And, if you want to throw it to someone and you don’t remember or have never heard their name, simply say, ‘I am sorry, I have forgotten your name’ and that person will give you their name and you can throw the ball. It’s simple.”

And then throw the ball to a person saying their name and the game has begun. Your point of concentration during this game in not on the game, but on the people. Watch them. Watch their body language change. Watch their attitudes change. Watch self-consciousness disappear – sometimes slowly and sometimes rapidly. Just listen and you’ll hear the relaxation and humor enter the room. Within a few minutes, seriously, the ball will be whipping around the room. When everyone has had a chance or several chances to receive and throw the ball and you can feel the confidence rising, stop the game and say, “I need one volunteer”. Sometimes someone will volunteer immediately because they get where you’re going. Sometimes some courageous person will volunteer having no idea what the task will be. When you have your volunteer, just say, “Go around the circle and face to face with each person just say their first name.” Big groan from the group. Insecurities triggered again. “And remember, all you have to say if you can’t remember is, ‘I’m sorry, I have forgotten your name’ and you’ll be fine.” And within a minute that person will have gone around the room, naming every single person. And then, most likely, you will get other volunteers who want to try it.

“When Harry Met Sally”

After a few volunteer circles you can take the game one level deeper. “Okay, this time when you throw the ball to someone else, say their name and the role they are playing in this movie. By ‘role’ I mean either the position as in producer, writer, designer, craft service or for the actors the actual character they are playing. And, again, if you don’t know, just say, ‘I am sorry …’ “. And the game starts again. And, again, within a few minutes the ball will be whipping around and you’ll be hearing names and roles spouted out with such pride and confidence.

And here is what you have accomplished in just a few minutes:

–       Everyone feels seen and heard.

–       You have leveled the playing field. No one is more or less important than anyone else.

–       Every person has been recognized for who they are as a person and their role in this venture.

–       And there is now a ‘community of players’ that has proudly gathered for the sole purpose of creating something new.

This article began by addressing the challenge of bringing actors together for the first time and how you can create a safe, nurturing and creative environment in which all of the actors can function at their most authentic, most confident levels. Well, you’ve already done it. And you haven’t even talked to one actor yet. You’ve asked nothing of them other than they play the game. And as you watch them return to the tables you will witness entirely different body language, behavior and attitude. It will feel like a family about to sit down for an evening meal, warm, safe, comfortable and confident.

 

 


Directing Children, Part I: Through the Eyes of a Child

Quvenzhane Wallis; Beasts of the Southern Wild

W.C. Fields is reported to have said, “Never work with children or animals.” Good     advice. But we all know that children can give some of the most riveting performances and they can possibly elevate a movie from good to great. Just look at the performances last year in Beasts of the Southern Wild and Looper. What would these films be without the performances of Quvenzhané Wallis and Pierce Gagnon?

Before we can really discuss the down and dirty of directing children, we must first look at three essential steps: The Character, Pre-Casting, and Casting.

The Character

You have a script and there’s a child (or children) character in it. As you review the script, begin by asking yourself these three important questions:

(1)  How well conceived and delineated is the character?

(2)  Are the behaviors, attitudes and sensibilities of the character age appropriate?

(3)  And, perhaps most importantly, do you have enough information and experience with a child this age to really know?

Let’s assume, for the sake of discussion, that one of the characters in your film is a rather extraordinary seven-year-old boy. Do you, the director, really understand what it is like to be a seven-year-old boy? When is the last time you spent any time with seven-year-olds? And, remember something else: seven-year-olds are not the same today as they were 10, 25 or 50 years ago.

Likewise, seven-year-olds who are raised in New York are not the same as those raised in Nebraska. Then there are ethnic and cultural environments to consider. To make things more complicated, you must also think about the family environment, whether it is functional or dysfunctional, supportive or abusive, stable or fractured.

The point is this: all these elements help form the child.

Of course, you’re thinking, “I know that already.” But also remember, a child actor, as opposed to the trained and experienced adult actor, will have a hard time shedding his own life experience and then taking on the one as defined in the script. It is you, the director, who has taken on the responsibility of guiding the selected seven-year-old into and through this very specific world. Good luck!

Pre-Casting

Before you even begin to consider the casting process, you need to take one major and crucial step: immerse

Pierce Gagnon; Looper

yourself in the world of children. Or, more specifically, into the world of the child in your script. For those of you who’ve worked with me in the past, you know one of my favorite pieces of advice to give directors about working with actors is “get into the sandbox with them”. Don’t assume you know everything and certainly don’t assume that the script, no matter how brilliant, is giving you all the information you need. Remember, the script is merely the “result”. It will only reflect what the child character says and does and where he says and does it. It will not reveal the inner workings of that child character and that’s what you need to know and understand more than anything else. Here is where we as directors need to open ourselves to receive. Just like children, we must be naïve, innocent, open and available.

As you find or create as many opportunities as you can to be around children, especially children of the same age, background, ethnicity, etc. as the character in your script, remember you are not yet looking for the child in your film. These experiences are not casting sessions. They are not intended to be the search for the perfect child. Your goal is to let the children teach you about the child in your story. Don’t assume you know yet what you are looking for – you don’t. Allow yourself the rare and wonderful opportunity of discovering what is possible and what is real in the world of children. Open yourself up to the world of the unexpected.

Casting

Once you have immersed yourself in the world of children for a sufficient amount of time (you will know when that time is), you are ready to take the next step: Casting.

As you begin your search, ask yourself this question: Are you looking for a child who can play the part or are you looking for a child who is the part?

The child who can play the part is an actor who takes on a personality that is different from himself. There is a level of disconnection between the actor and the character.

But, a child who is the part will embody the character immediately. He will always be “in character” because he is the character. There will be little disconnection between the actor and the character. This can either be a plus or a minus. A plus because the child is always the character; a minus because the child is most likely unable to distinguish between himself and the character, and this lack of disconnection could cause problems in many unexpected ways.

I suggest you go for the child actor who can play the part. You want to be able to separate the child actor from the character so you have more control over choices and performances.

One other thing to remember about casting: this is where you begin to explore how each child actor will respond to you and your style of directing. This is where the relationship with that child actor will begin.

In order to keep the separation between child and actor clear and clean, be very specific about when you are addressing the child and when you are addressing the character. Using the name of the child or the name of the character is the quickest way to establish a clear delineation between actor and character, especially for the child. And, as you shift from actor to character and back again, you will quickly perceive each actor’s ability (and willingness) to make clear distinctions between actor and character.

This is where you have to start when directing children. Not only with the child himself, but also with the character that the child’s imagination can create so brilliantly. And, if the child embraces the character totally, then 80% of your work is done. Congratulations.

In next month’s newsletter, you will receive Directing Children, Part II: 5 Critical Tips and Guidelines to Directing the Child Actor.


Argo: Giving Thanks

Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’sthe only thing that ever has.” Argo is the perfect example, both as story and in its storytelling, of just how true Ms. Mead’s statement is.

Argo is the dramatization of the 1980 joint CIA-Canadian secret operation to extract six fugitive diplomatic personnel out of revolutionary Iran. And while the story itself is compelling, showcasing a broad range of human ingenuity, imagination, creativity and courage, it is the construction of the story that really allows the audience to do what it does best: disappear into the movie. From the opening scene of the film, we are whisked away into this breakneck tale that moves us, white-knuckled, through the thrilling and often mysterious worlds of espionage, insider Hollywood, and an international hostage crisis. Not a single second is given over to narrative fluff and moments of life-or-death tension are brilliantly tempered by moments of dark comedy. The dialogue is clever and strong and not a word is wasted. The pacing is pitch-perfect as the plot relentlessly advances to that final moment when … well, I don’t want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, the script is a masterpiece. If you are a screenwriter, find a way to get your hands on this script and study it until the pages disintegrate in your hands.

The script, of course, is only part of what makes a movie like Argo work. So much of a film’s success sits in the hands of the director. Ben Affleck is rapidly becoming one of our most promising directors. When you get a chance, take a look at The Town, also directed by Mr. Affleck. You will see within its frames a stunning instinct for storytelling. In Argo, Mr. Affleck not only generates and captures authentic, subtle performances from his entire cast, but also (and this is a great tribute to him) from himself as the protagonist in the story. With the presence of the protagonist reined in, the other characters (the hostages, dignitaries, CIA operatives, ambassadors, and even the Iranian rebels) are allowed their due. This is no easy feat – dangerous even – because you run the risk of weakening the story and diminishing the ‘hero’ experience for the audience. But Mr. Affleck’s subtle execution of this balance between characters and events is one of the great strengths of the film, primarily because the Argo operation was not about one man. It was about a complicated and delicate team effort that hung on the twin threads of trust and hope. Mr. Affleck’s brilliant directorial choices allow that tension to ring true.

During Bill Clinton’s run for the White House, the motto of his campaign became, “It’s the Economy, Stupid.” Many a filmmaker (and many a politician) have enjoyed success when they have recognized and embraced the central and primary goal of their efforts. For every filmmaker, the motto should be, “It’s the Story, Stupid.” This is what Mr. Affleck seems to understand so well.

So, in this month of giving thanks, I offer up gratitude for the blessings in my life (which include all of you) and also offer up a message of thanks to Mr. Ben Affleck for reminding us that powerful storytelling isn’t found in over-the-top Hollywood heroes, but in the subtle ways we call upon the best of ourselves in the most trying situations.