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Posts Tagged ‘acting technique’

Okay, so I’ve spent months writing and re-writing a script.  I’ve been listening to characters speaking in my head, jotting down their rhythms of speech, noticing their quirks of phrasing. I’ve paid attention to how scenes evolve, what words particularly piss off other characters, what words act as “keys” to character and plot.  I’ve set up jokes that evolve on the third repetition of a particular phrase — each time by a different character in a different context.  I’ve cut away every inch of useless verbiage to make way for actors to respond non-verbally and to add plot twists while keeping the page total under 108. I’ve taken the script through two or three in-house readings.  Now I’m in casting.

I “get” that actors usually only get sides.  I “get” that the film industry values immediacy over training.  I “get” that actors want to stand out.  But I never understand why actors feel compelled to improvise new lines the first time they are seen.  This is even more disturbing when they do it during a comic sequence.  Nothing ruins a joke faster than adding unnecessary verbiage.  So in an effort to assist the actor, I’m going to highlight a few things that every writer hopes for while sitting at the casting table (truth — they have little power, if they are there at all, they are mostly there because the director has much less experience with the script at this point than the writer).

Character Rhythm — if a writer has any skill at all, each character has a rhythm of speech.  Some people cut other people off (you’ll notice the ritual dash — on the line before, where someone is cut off), some characters stumble through their speeches, (“The thing is, I mean, the thing, what the hell am I saying, Trisha is, you know.  Round.  About to.” He makes a motion over his stomach. “Getting bigger.”). Not all patterns are written in stone, and we’re usually excited when someone brings truth to the words being spoken, but usually the pattern is there for a character reason — i.e. the alpha male who cuts everyone off, doesn’t find them worth listening to, and then needs to learn to listen by the end of the story; or the battered character who cannot say anything directly and must learn to stand up and confront.  Yes, writers think about it that much — there is character in speech.

Scene Rhythm — almost every scene is written with an arc, it begins at a particular point A (in a plot, in a relationship, in self-awareness), it moves through a transforming moment and ends at  point B.  Along the way, characters speak and things happen with a particular rhythm.  If I watch my son play with his best friend, they bump each other constantly as they walk from point A to B.  There’s a sort of friendly contention.  When Evan spends time with a young girl in his class, they move together like two fish swimming side by side.  The motion is less linear, and yet they are always in sync.  Scenes are like this. This does not mean there are no pauses; the question is where the actor chooses to pause.  For example, suppose these are two lines to close out a scene

Character 1 : Badda bing

Character 2: Badda boom.  [They clink beer bottles together and drink, the deal is on]

The dialogue expresses a certain amount of rapport, history and understanding between the two characters.

I can’t tell you how many times, if this were an actual audition piece (or even after the actor is cast and “keeping it fresh”) you’ll see:

Character 1: Badda……………………………………………………………………………

…b…iiiiiiii…..ng

[Now character 2 feels put on the spot, needs to one-up]

Character 2: (looks at his friend) You’re such an ass. Badda f*%kin’ boom.

What has happened to the rhythm of that scene?  Gone.  What has happened to the relationship?  Gone.  There is no sense of history, understanding or rapport. By ignoring the rhythm of the scene, the actors have now destroyed any legitimacy a joint action by these two characters would have in the future.  It would look like a manufactured plot point rather than a natural development of their mutual understanding. Weirdly, I might hire the actor reading Character 2 — he /she would have played the emotional truth of that moment.  More likely, I’d skip both of them because of the bad taste left in my mouth. Yet with different words, different scripts, I see this pattern repeated constantly — each time an actor wants to make an impression rather than play the truth of the scene.

Say the Words.  Everyone has a unique manner of speaking — even without improvising.  Some voices are high, some lower, some squeak, some lisp.  There are unique pronunciations simply because one was born in the Bronx or in Weehawken.  When someone is cast, it is in large part due to this unique quality.  The first courtesy to a writer is to say the words, as they are, at the audition.  Through the first several rehearsals.  If there is a problem, ask — what is this line supposed to mean?  Why can’t I seem to make sense of this?  In the theatre, this almost goes without saying.  But when I’ve been around film, there’s this attitude among actors (having read too many Actors Studio bios) that the words are just suggestions.  I can’t describe how many times I’ve been called back to rewrite a later scene because an actor glossed a really important piece of information while ad-libbing their lines.  I write character jokes, not punchline jokes (although I do write those on occasion) — how many times have I seen a joke killed because the actor missed the point and the necessary word to make it funny?  Then the director comes to me — “I thought this was funny — it got laughs in the reading — how come it isn’t funny?”  (because you allowed the actors to run rough-shod over the text).

Line fluffing — If I’m at an audition for a film, I can almost guarantee that half of the actors will add one of the seven words you can’t say on television to add some element of emotional emphasis they feel they cannot achieve in any other way.  It’s as if we can’t express ourselves as a culture, emotionally, without going to the septic tank. Some sprinkle the f-bomb through the lines so liberally that it seems the only thing that comes through.  One of the more embarrassing moments for me, was bringing my son — eight at the time — to a rehearsal.  These actors were cast!  They went through the scene several times.  Finally I took my son out to get some pizza.  “Daddy — did you write all those bad words?”  While I have written some F-bombs myself, when the situation and the character demanded that it be put on paper, that rehearsal was an old world family playing canasta.  Yeah.  F*%kin’ canasta.  “No, I did not write all those bad words.”  “Then how come they’re saying them?”  “Good question, boss.”

There was worse than the F*%kin’ card players, however.  We had a big reading of a script for backers back in 08′ (yes, just before the mortgage crisis, when funds could be got).  Film set in 1979.  Suddenly one of the actors, who’s playing an FBI agent (with a hippie girlfriend), starts adding “Dude” to every line.  Dude. I cringed.  I lived through 1979.  No one I knew called anyone dude.  Not in NYC.  People called each other “Man,” at times, but not “Dude.” And his use of “dude” was constant.  It made me look bad, as a writer — i.e. that I hadn’t done my research, didn’t know the slang of the era.  So, if you’re going to add a word, a line, a phrase, make sure — forget about it.  Don’t add it.

I read back over this, and while my intention was to provide some advice for actors — about how scripted dialogue is put together, and maybe how to best approach it, I feel I may have slipped  overmuch into the realm of rant.  I think that while providing examples, I slipped into ranting about those examples.  A bit.  I hope there is still enough useful information to make it worth the read.

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I became a playwright as the result of an odd night sleeping (that’s a blog for another day).  I became an actor, at first, to learn the mechanics of how a play works: I went on stage to become a better writer.  It turned out I became pretty adept at acting as well. I believe everyone who attempts to write for stage or screen should spend some time on stage or in front of the camera.  There are things one learns about dialogue that I’ve rarely seen learned any other way.  I’ll try to catalog a few of them here.

Shortly after the turn of the millennia, I was cast in the NY premiere of a work by Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin.  The translation was a collaboration: the producer rendered the words in English and a Columbia University graduate playwright crafted them into a verse play (the original was in verse).  The story follows the journey of a woman and her child as they seek shelter in the world as refugees. I played the captain of a refugee ship (one who charged high prices and drank extensively). The woman could only pay for one passage on my ship, so I let her work off the other passage as my mistress. When we arrive at the next port, it is morning some weeks later.  As she goes to depart, as an actor, I chose to give her a lingering look, as if in the time she was on board, she had awoken some passion or compassion within me and I was going to miss her.  There were no words.  This was rehearsal.

When I arrived at the next rehearsal, the playwright/translator — who had the liberty to do so — had added two pages of dialogue (mostly monologue) to express in words, what I’d been exploring in a glance.  I’d worked with Kelly before and had loved her original work.  Now, I didn’t know how to respond. On the one hand, it was beautiful that my glance meant so much to her that she wanted to add two pages to solidify it; secondly and sadly, the words added nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  Everything had been said in the glance. I tried the words, but it truly belabored the point and if anything now made a spontaneous moment of recognition seem overworked and trite.  Now — how do you tell that to someone who’s just written the pages for you?

I’m convinced that underwriting dialogue is the first lesson any playwright/screenwriter learns when they go on stage.  Actors do so much more with a short phrase than any writer can add in a paragraph — if the situation is spot on, if the intention behind the phrase is subtle and correct. This is the relationship to subtext — the characters are rarely talking about what they mean anyway — the meaning is underneath.

Breaking up long passages is usually not necessary: writing “What?” “When?” “How?” “Yes?” simply because one character has been talking a long time and the writer wants to break it up kills the momentum and the actors.  There is no more difficult stage situation for an actor than trying to decipher where that one word comes from: am I really curious?  Is there some special information there that I want to confirm? It is usually very obvious when those words are inserted simply to break up a long passage. I love that Yasmina Reza will write a characters name (as if for dialogue) and then insert (silence) as the dialogue line.  It shows that the attention has gone to that character and the character chooses not to reply.

Stage directions on how to speak a line (line readings given by the writer instead of the director): Actors know their craft.  A great deal of it comes from a place that is not scientific (even if it is sometimes called Method). Most directors with whom I’ve worked insist on cutting stage directions before we begin. (This is less true of film).  Assume the writer adds the direction: TED (sarcastically) “Yeah, I’m racist.” What happens?  The possibilities of the actor can become limited.  They may start thinking of ways to make that line sarcastic.  In rehearsal, the actor is free to explore — try it as truth, try it as a questioning moment.  But the reality is the subtext — to whom is Ted speaking?  what do they want from them?  Why would they use a line like that?  Is Ted joking?  Actors need to discover what the action of a phrase is — not what the manner of speaking it is.  Therefore, to an actor, the phrase (sarcastically) shouldn’t mean anything.  It’s not an action.  Ted can be tweaking his listener to get x result.  That’s an action. Unfortunately, too many actors get screwed up by paying attention to the manner of speaking and forgoing actually focusing on taking an action.

More on subtext: In a film I wrote, a very Goth fringe theatre director — a Korean woman who is perceived to be lesbian — happens upon her lead actor standing near the piers along the Hudson River.  Out on the pier, gay couples are twined about one another.  She asks him, “Do you come here often?” I like to use this as an example when discussing subtext: what is she really asking him?  Does she actually want to know if he spends a lot of time at the river? No.  In my mind (the actor can make other choices), she’s asking him if he’s gay.  It is also the first revelation in the script that she may actually not be lesbian (why else would she ask him? Would it matter to her in any other way?).

Actors constantly look for subtext.  They break scenes apart and try to determine what is going on in the relationship?  What’s at stake? What am I trying to achieve?  This information should rarely be on the surface.

Not everything is subtext.  There will be times when a character will ask “which way is the train station” and really want to know.  But there are layers of other information there as well — why don’t they know?  Are they in a foreign city?  Are they confused? Lost? Delayed?  At no time in a film should precious seconds be wasted simply ascertaining the direction to the train station.  The situation has to have further significance.  This is subtext as well.

Knowing the Whole: A good actor takes a script apart, creates timelines, biographies, backstories.  The actor will likely curse any writer who does not consider the whole story.  I remember working on two plays, almost back to back.  The first was Beth Henley’s Crimes of the Heart, where I played Doc.  In the opening scene, Doc tells Lenny that he’s dropped off his child at the dentist.  Naturally, as the actor playing Doc, I need to know how old the child is.  So I do the math.  Meggie left 5 years ago.  I was injured for a year.  I went up North, met my wife.  Even if we conceived a child on the first day we met, given the 9 month pregnancy, the kid can only be 3 years old and change.  Now I have to make a decision — did I just drop off my three year old at the dentist?  By himself?  What the hell kind of father am I?  What kind of three year old needs a dentist? Does it mean that Meggie is so much more important to me than my own family?  Am I really a rogue? Possibly.  But Doc in the rest of the play does not jibe with a man who leaves a three-year old at the dentist.  It was infuriating trying to resolve my character to the text. How do you feel telling someone that you just left your three year old at the dentist? Does it mean anything?

In the next month or so, I was playing George Deever in “All My Sons.”  There is a bit of dialogue between Joe Keller, his wife and George, where George catches the family in a lie — the wife says “he’s never been sick a day in his life” — but Joe called in sick the day there were flaws in the manufacturing, giving George’s father the instructions to “ship them out.”  George is a lawyer, so naturally he’s used to listening to stories for the flaws.  Naturally he picks up on the lie and pursues it.  Additionally, in a brilliant bit of writing form, Miller has Joe cross-examine George in the sequence just before the information comes out (as George is about to accept their insistence that Joe is innocent). Having worked on both pieces back to back, I found a distinct comfort in making choices based on the text with the Miller play that I did not have with Crimes of the Heart.

While there are a few things I can try to pass on, nothing replaces the experience of actually being in front of people or a camera speaking words.  I recall being in the theatre a few days after Heat was released.  There were places where the dialogue was so bad that the audience was laughing  at the writing, not the situation or because the line was finny.  Despite the fact that credit belongs to Michael Mann, as a writer I cringed.  I don’t want to copy any of the dialogue for fear of copyright infringement, but you can read some of the sequences here.  Say the lines out loud — try it.  See how they feel in your mouth.  I cannot believe that lines such as those could have come from anyone who’d possibly spent a few minutes acting (even if he did write for TV).  In all fairness, Michael Mann wrote The Insider, an amazing film whose dialogue is three miles from this work.  So it’s possible that the writer was trying a stylized language.  But when the audience laughs at the language  — when it sticks out so badly that Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro cannot make it sound any better than dinner theatre fare — the words did not succeed.

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A few years back, there was a huge uproar over the Connecticut casting of The Motherf*er in the Hat. The director, a relatively recent graduate of an NYU directing program, cast two actors who were part of this graduate thesis project. The problem was — they were white.

A dramaturg who graduated from Columbia Univ. with whom I’m familiar posted “that’s not the point of colorblind casting: to give more jobs to white actors.”  I simply replied — “I’m glad someone is hiring the actors who worked for them, for free, when the director was getting his/her degree.”  But I was being disingenuous — I never expected working for student productions to lead to anything further.

The truth is there are countless opportunities in NYC for actors to work, to learn the craft, to stay sharp and to keep themselves focused.  Both NYU and Columbia have graduate directing programs in Theatre and Film.  These programs have carte blanche from the acting unions to use professional actors — dues-paying union actors — without pay (it gets a little bit dicy when you’re working with a student who will drop thousands of buck on their film production, but considers it okay not to pay the actor even transportation).  Additionally, there are film programs at NY Film Academy, Brooklyn College, SVA, Digital Film Academy, et al.  All require actors.

I had something of a conflict with my then acting teacher in 1996.  I had left my steady job and was working free-lance, so funds were a bit tight as well.  Instead of searching out and paying for a new acting class, I decided I would spend a year learning how different directors work.  I sent in my picture and resume for the Columbia Graduate Directors program and auditioned.

The space was a large black box in the basement of a dorm building.  I chose to do a Shakespearean monologue as they’d asked for “classical.”  In the dimly lit space, there were seven directors huddled together in the middle of two hard white plastic fold-out tables.  I was working with the Richard of Gloucester monologue from the end of Henry VI, seconds after he’s laid poor old Harry to rest at the end of a sword.  As I spoke the words, I envisioned poor Henry lying on the floor at my feet, in a pool of blood, cursing me.  None of the directors seemed to be noticing him, so I continued speaking — “Had I not reason, think ye, to make haste and seek their ruin who usurp’d our right?” — as I walked behind them.  Yep, I walked out into their space and stood behind them, encouraging them to behold the spectacle lying on the floor.  After all — I was talking to them now — Harry was dead.

I didn’t hear anything for a couple of week, but then a Korean woman in her late 20s called.  We worked on an abstraction of Death of a Salesmen — she had me in a trench coat and my underwear.  Payback is a b__ch, as they say.  She told me that the other directors said, “you’re going to work with him?  He’s so scary!” Within weeks, however, I was called by one after the other.  During that semester, each director put up 21 projects between Anne Bogart’s  first year Death of a Salesmen class and Robert Woodruff’s Euripedes class.  I appeared in 17 projects.  During the Spring, I was working on Moliere at the McCarter Playhouse (Princeton), so I did not work with the directors again until the end of the term.

I’m am often asked two sets of questions about working for such programs:  “Does anyone see you.”  And “Is it worth it?”

Over the course of 10 years, I did countless projects at Columbia’s graduate directors program.  I did projects with the film program as well — readings, scene study, even some really bad films.  During the very first session with the Korean director, I had to make a decision:  do I only work this way (my way) or am I flexible enough to try other things?  I’d been trained in Uta Hagen’s technique — a technique that grounds itself in the objects of reality.  At its best, the Hagen technique is a life-rope that supports the actor in their made-up world while giving them some leeway to be alive and respond.  At its worst it is a cage for actors who only trust the objects, often picking up needless item after needless item simply to give them the reference for saying a particular line.  Now, I was being asked to do something that felt more like dance — move here, count to three, make this gesture.

Since we were doing an abstraction of the Miller, I simply did what I was asked.  I did not channel Willy Loman or even consider what I was doing a part of Death of a Salesman.  I was simply working like an extra — going where the director told me to go, doing what I was told to do.  Next, the same director asked me to perform in Medea.  The director had a very clear vision of what she wanted to see.  She wanted to cast a black actress who had put on white face.  The denouement of the encounter with Jason would have the actress then taking the white face off.  Problem: none of the actresses agreed.  They had ideas of what they needed to do to be seen as valid actors. I was given directions such as “Sit at the table.  Count to three. Pick up the knife.  Count to two.”  It is very difficult to be in the moment, to have any inner life at all, when you are counting.  That scene was about as close as I came to rebellion — yet I saw the actresses raging and what happened was we were wasting every rehearsal with hours of discussions on why the actress could not perform in the director’s requested manner. I decided to simply do my best.

It turned out that this problem did not just pertain to this particular scene.  Almost every director with whom I worked had a process that was particular to their background — whether they were from Korea, Maine or the Lower East Side — and they encountered actors who were generally trained in one method.  I decided pretty quickly that my job was to be there for the director — they were the ones paying for the course, they were the ones getting graded — if they wanted me to count to five and hold a knife in the air, that’s what I would do.  I get the counter argument: you are performing in front of Anne Bogart or Robert Woodruff, later Brian Kulick or Karin Coonrood, you don’t want to do something that makes you look lame.  But I made that decision — do what you are asked; find a way to make it work for you.

I learned as much in the years I worked at Columbia as the years I took class (frequently I was doing both at the same time — I did go back to class after I came back from my time at the McCarter).  I continued to work with Columbia students after my son was born simply to keep myself in practice — several of the directors were willing to rehearse on my schedule (having kids gives you only x windows of space for your art), so I was grateful to keep working.  In this time I worked on Moliere’s Don Juan, Ibsen’s Ghosts, Inge’s Bus Stop, Goethe’s Faust — works I probably would not have tackled otherwise.  And other than Faust, I did them in their entirety.

Additionally, over the past 15 years, Columbia’s film program has grown from NYU’s starving younger sister to a perennial Oscar producer.  I can do very little with the footage of those films I made in the late 90s — I was asked to cry without a reason, to be “evil” instead of psychologically complex and there are camera shots that are so bad that they look as if a six year old got ahold of the camera and was bobbing it up and down (although none of them are as bad as Norman Mailer’s direction of Tough Guys Don’t Dance)Now, I’m more than willing to do student films from both NYU and Columbia — as is Len Cariou and some other “name” character actors.

Have I met anyone?  Yes.  Anne Bogart and I know each other, she’s familiar with my work.  Robert Woodruff knows who I am too.  I stay in touch, at least on Facebook with many of the directors I’ve worked with there.  Are any names?  Not at the moment.  But if you ask me, that’s not the reason to do the work.  If you go to Columbia or NYU so that your work will be seen by Anne Bogart and you might be hired by her company, you’ll most likely be disappointed.

The main reason to go do work at Columbia or NYU (or any of the other institutes that require actors) is that you get better by working.  You cannot become a better actor by reading about it.  You cannot get skilled doing monologues in your living room — there’s no reception.  It’s like being angry when no one is there — if no one receives the anger, it goes back in — it doesn’t get processed.  You don’t grow.

I know an actress — one of the best I’ve ever seen — who refused to do any more student films when she was only one or two years removed from being in school herself.  She refused to do a lot of things — get new head shots when a potential agent asked.  She spent a lot of time in class — paying to develop.  And she kept up her skill.  But she wasn’t in front of the camera.  She was rarely on stage.  These things take their toll. She also never had an acting career — despite being enormously talented.  As I said, probably the best actress I’d ever seen in person.

So my advice to anyone who moves to NYC to become an actor?  Get familiar with the schools.  Start to work — yes, it demands your time.  And it doesn’t pay.  And the people may be demanding.  But you pay for class, don’t you?  What if you could get a class for free?  One that teaches you everything you need to know about being on stage, being on film? And dealing with people.  Wouldn’t you take it?  The only caveat is that it demands for you to be flexible, with your time, your attitude and your technique.

I’m pretty certain the schools in L.A. offer the same deal.

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