Monday, September 27, 2010

Preface: Acting at the Speed of Life!

Bonjour my Friends!

Welcome to the "Acting at the Speed of Life" blog!

This is my opportunity to share with you some of my thoughts about acting, many of which will be appearing in my forthcoming book, "Acting at the Speed of Life!"

In fact, I expect that most of the work that I share in this space, at least to start, will be sample chapters from the book. I want to put some of these words out into the universe, and generate interest in the work! (Current plan is to put out a chapter -- they're mostly short -- each week!)

For now, let me get out of the way. If this work lights any fires for you, and you would like to get on the list for a copy of the entire book for yourself (currently 267 pages of fun!), drop me a note at, and I'll let you know THE DAY that it's ready, and how you can get your copy!


We all want to know just why the author has called us all here tonight. … And the modern actor runs interference between us and the playwright.
What are the actors’ two most fundamental responsibilities?
I like to kick-start each workshop with this question, if only to startle actors out of their passivity. The responses fly back at me:
“Being in character.”
“Memorizing your lines.”
As a playwright I like that answer.
“Feeling the emotion.”
“Understanding the play.”
“Communicating the meaning of the play.”
As answers go, this one is actually pretty close, but too elaborate for our needs.
I encourage them:
Think simpler. Much more basic.
“Pursuing the objective.”
All these are great answers!… None of them happen to be the specific ones that I am looking for, but they’re great answers …
They’re not done yet:
“Telling the story.”
Close but …
“Having fun.”
“Entertaining the audience.”
There is a moment of silence.
No more guesses? All right, here are my two, and as soon as I say the first one, you’re going to guess the second one: Are you ready? The first one is “BEING SEEN.” And the second…?
Now, if I was talking to a group of Med Students, and asking them about what the most fundamental responsibilities of a Doctor were, they would all, pretty much, come up with the same two things: Something to do with “First of all do no harm… and second, save the patient.
If I was talking to a group of Law Students about what the two most fundamental responsibilities of a Lawyer were, they would all pretty much agree with “Don’t incriminate your client,” and “Win the case.”
But when I talk with a group of artists, and especially actors, since the art-form is so subjective, the answers that I get are all over the map. I think it’s largely because acting study has fragmented into a number of “schools of thought,” and each teacher that comes along has their own school from which they have emerged, and they also have their own reaction to that school, to the extent that they are rebelling against it, or promoting it, and they also have a wide variety of practical applications of this material, as each individual student has their own very specific needs, which forces the teacher to impress the importance of different elements of the system to different degrees, so that multiple students of the same teacher will come away with a variety of impressions about the relative importance of fundamental responsibilities.
“Being Seen and Being Heard.” Everything else, yes, everything else needs to build on top of this.
You say you’ve got the most textured, detailed, nuanced, passionate inner life ever witnessed on stage? Great. Bring it on. Use it. But if you aren’t being seen or heard, nobody will be able to penetrate the wall of incomprehensibility enough to care.
Why isn’t this very simple statement the most important thesis of our acting textbooks? Maybe it’s just so damn obvious, and we feel like we’ve got to have something more subtle to write, or to teach about. Maybe there’s a prejudice against such “external” methods. Maybe we’re so accustomed to television or film acting that we think of this as the editor’s job. Somewhere along the line, we forgot, and the virus is spreading. Actors are infected with the disease of invisibility and inaudibility, and plays, especially classical works, are losing meaning, swallowed up in the incomprehensible garble that actors mumble.
Ask any theatre-goer, one who attends, but does not actually work in the theatre: “What is the biggest problem that you encounter when you see a show?” Without hesitation 90% of them will tell you:[1] “I can’t hear what the actors are saying.”
Ask whether they have ever missed the most important moment, or speech, or scene of a play, and they will all raise their hands. We all want to know just why the author has called us all here tonight. We may have come because our friends are in a show, but once we’re in the seat, our natural curiosity gets the best of us, and we want to know what the author has to say. And the modern actor runs interference between us and the playwright.
“Being seen and being heard” is even more fundamental than our character objectives. This is a responsibility that lies beneath any character discovery you may layer into your performance.
Think it’s too obvious? Too easy?
I spent two hours of an afternoon with actors, expressing the nature of this great responsibility. They nodded, laughing and agreeing throughout. I went to dinner, came back, and watched these same actors in rehearsal, continuing to mutter their lines looking down into the floor, being neither seen nor heard.
There are psychological factors in the way, as well as internal arguments to which the actor gives precedence, time and again. These things are both persuasive and pervasive, and it takes training and practice to counter them.
At the risk of sounding alarmist, I have adapted a rather famous poem for our use:
For the want of a consonant, the word was lost,
For the want of a word, the line was lost,
For the want of a line, the scene was lost,
For the want of a scene, the act was lost,
For the want of an act, the show was lost.
Acting happens “at the speed of life.” Once that one word has slipped by, there is no picking it up again. And subsequent lines will be lost in the cacophony of “What did he say?”
This has a domino effect. It is the simplest of responsibilities, and yet the responsibility least fulfilled. We think of ourselves as artists. We arm ourselves with “concepts” and “methods,” but we thumb our nose at the people for whom we are supposedly performing.

[1] This statistic, like all statistics in this book… are made up.

Like this chapter? Order a copy of the book by writing !

1 comment:

  1. In m first equity production I was sent a card (quoting Helen Hayes?), saying, "Speak loudly and don't bump into the furniture." I took it to heart.