31 October 2011

Happy Halloween

Thinking about acting class -- improv and action analysis

First, by improvisation, I mean dramatic improvisation within a framework. For example, you are given a situation to play -- a doctor telling Character B she has cancer. You don't have a series of lines. Your job as an actor is to pursue an objective. In this case, it might mean to comfort her or it could be to scare her --  to shock her so she takes care of herself during treatment. Either way, you follow your objective as you would in life, by making stuff up that you hope will get you what you want.

These exercises are pretty common in acting classes here in the U.S.

But my teacher in the Russian version of the Stanislavski system said they used a similar approach when rehearsing plays. Generally, the practice here is that you're given a script. You read through it, seated. After discussions of motivations, actions, obstacles and given circumstances, you get the play up on its feet. That is, you start exploring movements that support the meanings of the text while you have the script in hand. In the meantime, you're memorizing the text by rote. The next step involves getting the actors off book and completely into the movement, or blocking on stage. The directors and other actors make adjustments and refinements. This is an oversimplified version of a complex process, but you get the picture.

How Some Russians Rehearse

In the System, though, the rehearsal process is radically different. First, the director reads through the play himself, out loud. Then the actors learn the beats or the actions of the play. Once they get those down, then they stand up and improvise their pursuit of those actions on stage, without the script. The actors are working to achieve their goals as set by the script, but without the lines in place, instead using their own words and physical actions. As the most juicy or most moving or most effective strategies are tried out and tested, the play develops. Then, the lines -- the playwright's text -- come into play. The actor, having worked with her guts and brain to pursue the objectives set in the text can now make use of it as an ally.

Again, this is a crude over simplification, and my apologies go out to the very sophisticated teacher who gave me this lesson.


I understand the rationale behind the first, more common method. It's fast, it's easier in many ways, and a set of professionals can get a whole play in shape in four weeks. Individual scenes can be done in hours, as in most television and movies, and made presentable. But I also wonder if that practice isn't responsible for a lot of the superficial work we see. Actors want to please and tend to rush to solutions. Reading text lends itself to "funny voices" -- to actorly readings that get ingrained.

This current acting class has reminded me of how difficult it is to act and deal with text at the same time. Training and practice can make that juggling act easier. But a fundamental split happens. The work isn't organic; it has less of a chance to come from the actor's own imagination and pursuit of her needs in the given circumstances.

I plan on using the latter method -- the method of action analysis  -- the next time I rehearse. It places much higher demands on the director and on the actors' creativity. It may not work with actors who haven't been trained in the Russian version of the system, but I am going to experiment with it.

(Then there's the Mike Leigh/Cassavetes method of development which I purposely am not getting into here. For now.)

26 October 2011

Old men

Little boys chase the fire trucks
The ambulances
As they scream by.
Emergency, they cry, emergency
Dizzied by the lights, the siren's wails.

Old men don't bother. 
They merely sigh,
a little deeper in the couch,
Turn up the volume on the TV.

- TR

Malick's advice

from the comments section:

While sitting down and eating lunch on break, I had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Malik about Filmmaking and other topics, along with his wife. His advice to me was to use Nature because it was free and always keep writing.  

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/movies/2011/08/sean-penn-vs-terrence-malick.html#ixzz1VibKP3Hn

Peckinpah: Passion and Poetry, Straw Dogs

So I guess there's some remake of Straw Dogs floating around out there, another installation from the Hollywood recycling factory.

Let's revisit the genius who made the first one.

Check it out, it builds. Especially around 7:48 plus . . .

Check out at 17:08, his shark grin as he says: "...Mister Williams as a penchant for his own work. I don't."

R.L. Burnside: Going Down South

Check out the cement brick walls. Just like home.

Susan Rothenberg

25 October 2011

Seasick Steve: fathers and the Dog House Boogie

"All the kids in America know where the guns is."

24 October 2011

I take an acting class, scene 3

To prep, I read my assigned play, Becky Shaw, by Gina Gionfreddo.The play is well crafted and a pleasure to study. I thought about my character, a tough and manipulative son of a bitch whom I liked. I spent time breaking the seats down into beats, feeling my way into his "actions" -- what he's trying get, and what's preventing him.

We started with some relaxation and warm ups. The relaxation was the standard, "relax your eyes, let go of your shoulders. . ." instruction. The teacher also lead us through physical and vocal exercises. Then we broke up to rehearse on our own. My partner and I had about 30 minutes or so. I figured it'd be best to read through it to get a feel for how the scene played with her, to get a feel for the flow of it, and then we could dive into it. We worked well, but superficially. The coordination between reading the text, listening to her, and feeling out different reactions was like a complicated game, as if I had to toss apples at a target while standing on one foot and whistling Dixie. Time flew by. Our teacher herded us back in the main studio.

My partner and I went first. No need to sit around and fidget as nervous tension builds up. Again, the point here was to simply sit across from each other, and read the text while listening to the other person as carefully and realistically as possible, within the context of the scene.

It went okay, that is, I didn't feel stupid or incompetent. My attention veered wildly from saying the text to my partner to what she was saying to reacting to what she was saying more or less genuinely to evaluating the sound of my line readings, to gauging the reactions of the audience. So, no, not a good performance. I was too much in my head to do anything worthwhile. Our teacher used the same tactics as before: asking us questions about what we wanted, how we could get it, where we were. These did help clarify things.

She suggested the "you know what I mean?/Yes, I know what you mean" exercise where you end your speech with the question and start your speech with the I know what you mean answer. It jammed the rhythm of the scene, but I could see where she was coming from with it.

It's a little strange. You have to contend with the essentially classroom atmosphere and your own eagerness (or lack thereof) to please. This is all entirely separate from living the text as written. It's not the fault of the teacher; it's the inevitable dynamic of a class.

The rest of the class followed the same pattern. People would read, she'd work the scene by posing questions, then seeing how the adjustments would play out. If the actors got stuck, she'd make a suggestion about an action or a motivation to them, through questions about the basics of the scene.


It makes me wonder about the whole idea that you can read a text and play it within a few minutes. If you're a pro, I guess you'd be able to, by dint of practice and training, cough up a scene, a performance, and let the watchers know what you can bring to the game.

And I understand the utility of it. Say, for example, you are casting a young thug. You want to find out in a minimum amount of time if David can be a convincing thug. Maybe David is a thug. Even better. You can pass him along. But the process is suspect. The ability to pick up and read a bit convincingly is different from living the part.

I remember reading about how Kazan cast his films. He'd see the person on stage. He'd make a point of seeing their actual, finished work. Then he'd hang out with them. Dinner, drinks, long walks, intimate conversations. Then he would cast them. This is the man who discovered Marlon Brando, James Dean and Warren Beatty. Others, no doubt, would've eventually seen and recognized their talents. But he found them first. Not through readings, which seem to me some rarified, fancy bullshit.  I think if you had a modicum of ability, you could polish it with practice. Fifteen minutes a day, I read, should  be devoted to this. That skill, I would submit, is far away from being able to convincingly inhabit another person and present that role compellingly before the camera or an audience.

Same with André Wajda. He'd haunt theaters. Then he'd note the great performances. Then he would cast, based on his direct observation of a finished performance.

Just to complicate the issue, I think monologues aren't very helpful either. You want an actor who can listen and work with other actors. A monologue is a fancy kind of masturbation. Yes, you can see someone cough up an emotion on the spur of the moment. But who does that in our real lives, or even in our dreams? Characters exist in relationships. Even at night, even without reason or pattern in our dreams, a persona does not step out to the foreground and deliver a speech. Yet, this is the basic tool. It's ridiculous. I understand the budget constraints. The time constraints.

And casting, as John Huston said, is 90 percent of the job. Get the right person in the role, and you're done.

I have cast parts successfully and less successfully. What worked best was trusting my instinct, and seeing actors work in a class over weeks. What didn't work was the traditional casting process -- inviting eager (and, let it be said, desperate) people in to a space and witnessing them tap-dancing  their way into a part.

Okay, so it's a bit superficial. I signed up for it. I'm getting parts of my neurons re-awakened, and I'm dealing with the situations real actors must confront. I'm not complaining. But I am thinking there are better ways to operate that what is the standard here at the moment in the U.S.

But these aren't the problems I need to solve. I'm going to work on the part, keeping what she suggested in mind. There's a lot of value in the specific. And simply learning to keep out of my head will be worth the price of admission.

Susan Rothenberg

22 October 2011

Milieu Hostile by Thierry Marignac

If you read French -- or even if you don't -- you should order this book immediately. He writes novels and reportage that are underground and elegant at the same time. 

You can get it here.

20 October 2011

Studies in Posture: Battle of the Russian Machos Edition

For a short, bald guy, Putin holds up pretty well against the biker. Note that he keeps his chin down and looks up with his eyes, maintaining the strength of his presence. Just as the biker chief looks down with his eyes, rather than leaning down or inclining his head towards the politician. That way, he, too, maintains his strong position.

Putin has quite consciously built an impeccably crafted persona of a macho, a man's man. This is harder than it looks. For example, take John Kerry. He tried, and failed miserably. Putin, the spy, has an actor's sense of self-presentation that few politicians ever master.

It would be interesting to see him as a young KGB officer, working with the need to display just the exact amount of submission to his bureaucratic bosses while subtly asserting his ambition.

18 October 2011

Antanas Sutkus

Goodbye Stockholm

(C) Goodbye Stockholm

Pink sky


I take an acting class, scene 2

I did my homework. I read Glengarry, Glen Ross a few times. I broke down my scene into beats and played around with different objectives. It's easy to understand why this is a popular play, and why actors like playing in it. The language carries you along. The stakes are high. You can identify negotiating tactics; the conflicts are clear and easy to locate. 

To go a few steps further, I thought about animal imagery: rats and mean, cowardly dogs.

Class started with the teacher talking a bit about the meaning of sacred, and how we're creating a sacred space -- something set apart. Then we broke up into groups and rehearsed some more. I felt like apologizing to my partner, because Williamson is such a savage little prick. A prick with his own reasons, but still, I'd have to be a nasty piece of work to embody the character, and it seemed like a rude thing to do to such a civilized and nice guy that I'd just met. 

He hadn't had a chance to read the play or to work on it, but we did a few read-throughs, and I could sense and edge hovering around or below what we were doing.

Time was up. We then read through scenes together, in front of the class. This time, though, we worked on building the world of the scene, that is, the physical circumstances of the show. So, we'd drag furniture from where it waited along the walls and make a crude set. 

Building blocks

Our teacher would stop us and ask us questions: Where are you? Where's the place your most comfortable? The least comfortable? But know the difference between what's comfortable for you versus whats comfortable for your character. Through the questions -- where does the couch go? Would you have a window there? -- she would build the imaginary settings.  

This invariably improved the quality of the acting. None of the scenes really took flight, but each rose up a few levels. Again, the simple questions -- who are you? What do you want? What's stopping you from getting it? How do you want that other character to feel? -- clarified and enlivened the players. 

"Do you know what I mean?"

People still struggled with the text. It also completely messed up the rhythm of the scene. So, she gave a few players this exercize: Add  "Do you know what I mean?" after the end of each speech. That way, they can get off book -- away from the script, and engage with the other actor. The other actor has to respond with, "Yes, I know what you mean," or "No, I don't know what you mean." Again, it moves the person off the page and into the other characters' sphere. With Mamet, it works well, because so much of his work is based on repetition. Some real behavior starts to happen.

We also did a variation of this: "Did you just say (x)?" With X being what the character just said. The second actor replies, "Yes, I said (x)." This helps train the actor to listen carefully to the other person.

Our turn came up. We set a table and some chairs. Because the scene takes place in a Chinese restaurant, I grabbed a couple of pencils to use as chopsticks. What are you eating? What are you drinking? Are you hungry? The scene went better for me this time. With a clearly defined action -- something to do -- it felt better. I could sense a groove happening, the direction the scene wanted to go to. I noticed that my concentration tended to be weak. I also tried some sense memories around kung pao chicken and beer and garlic broccoli and fried rice (the menu I'd decided on) and found that I have some serious work to do in both departments. But it reminded me of the utility of those exercises.

Still, it was rough and pretty ugly work. But the point the teacher was making was about the vital importance of building a physical world out of the tools outside of you and inside of you.

She assigned some new scenes with new partner. The plays included Angels in America, Awake and Sing, and, for me, Becky Shaw.

Lessons learned
  • The basic, Stanislavski questions are the best way to begin to work on a scene, to start to make it real and rescue it from stereotyped behavior. Who am I? What do I want? What's preventing me from getting it? Where am I? Why does it matter? What's my action?
  • Leading actors through a series of questions engages them, and makes them own their work. (If you're crafty, you can lead them through questions to the place where you want them to be -- or, at least, that's what my mentor says.)
  • The more actual stuff you have that fits the world of the story, the easier it is for the actor.
  • Furniture is your friend.
  • The first moment of the scene sets the tone and the vitality of the whole scene. Well begun is half done.

08 October 2011

Momento mori

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.
- Steve Jobs 

image:  Jacob  de Gheyn  Vanitas via

Well, who wouldn't be in love with her?

Pictures of naked broads

I don’t feel exploited by pictures of naked broads. I like that stuff. It’s a bad photograph or the girl’s ugly, then that pisses me off. Shit, I think bodies are great. 

06 October 2011

I take an acting class, scene 1

The local regional theater has an education wing. I cast the last play I directed from the students in the class, and that worked well. Essentially, they auditioned for me for the length of the class. They worked hard and well, and I learned a lot about directing a play. Later, I made a good friendship out of the experience. All in all, time and money well spent.

After weighing whether this class would be a diversion from more important work --like, y'know, making a short film -- or a good strategic way to learn and build skills, I decided in favor of the class. I can still work on short films, anyway.

So I found myself in a studio with high ceilings, a wood floor, chairs and a few stray pieces of stage furniture. A fake fireplace stood against one wall. My fellow students milled around, a little awkwardly. An older man with fantastic thick salt and pepper hair introduced himself to me. The Teacher came in. She's middle aged, looking, I have to say, older than her headshot and a little tired, hazel eyes shadowed. An impression of softness in her body, but sharpness in her eyes and face.

We drew our chairs into a circle and made. A Berliner who's earning a masters in geophysics, but who loves acting and is currently performing in a Williams play. A black girl who just graduated from high school. The older fellow's a retried psychiatrist who's a class junkie, he said. Another grad student in geophysics, and two guys in their twenties, one who's very much an Actor. The Actor is effeminate, but not extremely so.  S is taking the class for fun. 

I wondered what the hell I got myself into. I recalled that I need to challenge myself, to stretch, to get back in touch with acting by actually acting. To make myself uncomfortable. I want to loosen up and relearn what it is actors deal with -- from the inside, as an actor. Part of me ridiculed the whole scene and found it pathetic. Amateurs. Knitters. Hobbyists. This, I thought, was the price I must pay for not working harder, earlier. I recognized this chatter as mere static. I reminded myself I have a lot to learn, and that merely performing scenes would educate my nerves and sinews in a way I could deeply profit from. That it was up to me what I learned, and that I would learn.

Mamet . . . Mamet? . . . Mamet

Next we performed warm ups -- basic stretches and few vocal exercises.  The Teacher asked us if we'd heard of David Mamet, and I put in my two cents, ever the eager beaver, then shut myself up. She breaks us up into groups, and hands out scripts from different Mamet plays. She paired me with the psych.

She assinged us a scene from Glengarry, Glen Ross by David Mamet. In our scene Shelly, a real estate hustler past his prime, tries to cadge some good leads from Williamson the office manager. These leads, Shelly thinks, will help him get back in his game and save his ass from getting fired. I haven't read the play, but I saw the movie about eight years ago. I try to remember who the hell played Williamson in the movie? Ed Harris? Alec Baldwin? After a few run throughs, I remember. Kevin Spacey.

Once we've worked on the scene a bit, my partner and I have a basic question -- what do all those ellipses mean? What are you supposed to do with them? At the end of the speech, you know you're supposed to interrupt, but in the middle . . . what? I feel stupid for not knowing, but I've vowed to put the need to look smart aside. I still feel stupid. The Teacher explained that the ellipsis, the three dots, signals a shift. What kind of shift is up to us to figure out, but it doesn't mean a pause. Oh. That makes sense.

A million things happening all at once

The group reassembled in the main studio. Everyone was more comfortable with each other, conversations spilling over from the read-throughs. The teacher asked who wanted to go first, and my new partner and I nod at each other and hit the stage.

The old guy nailed it, or hit it as well as you can in a reading. His age, his slight hoarse voice, the way he leaned into me, hunched over and the text, of course, the text itself sold it.

I haven't read many good descriptions of what it feels like to act. Stanislavski, in his memoirs and his instructional books comes pretty close. When it's bad, or only half-baked, it feels like hundreds of things happening  at once. You have the unfamiliar sensation of being on stage, the bright lights, the sense of watchers, and a particularly intent person, the teacher. Added to this is the desire to do well,  the hope not to look stupid, and the wish to be better than the other guy. So I start clutching at things that will make it better. I listen, hard. That's supposed to help, right?

I listen. But then I'm aware of myself listening, which isn't right -- because then you're not hearing what the other person is saying, and nobody can be aware of listening, people don't do that in real life. My legs feel large and ungainly. I worry about missing my cue, so keep sneaking glances at my book.  This interferes with reacting to my partner, and I feel that, too, that lack. I imagine a Chinese restaurant, and notice that my imagination's a little thin and that I lost track of what my partner was saying. 

He got laughs. I figured out bits of supercilious business, little gestures, where to put my glances, and that helps. I kept going back to focus on him. A certain malice creeps in the corners of myself, and that groove feels right, the room falls away for a few seconds. I'm stuck with this whiny . . . loser. Then I'm out of it -- again, dammit! -- thinking I must be repeating stuff, and that would be boring.

I sucked. We finished. The Teacher complimented us, but especially the Psych, my partner. I felt a twinge of jealousy.

Then she asked me some simple questions: "Why are you eating lunch with him?" What does your character want?" "How does your character want the other person to feel?"  Lightbulbs went off. Oh. Oh. Yeah, I want to fuck with him, to bleed him, to toy with the fucker, to bring him down, to show him. I'm dining on him, not just on Kung Pao chicken.

Now, these are obvious questions -- questions I knew myself. Questions nearly anyone knows. But when I was acting, groping around for a solution, I didn't put it together. When the Teacher asked them, they focused everything.

Then I felt a sudden greed for the experience. I wanted to hop back up and do the scene again, right away.  My only comfort was that  I have generally sucked early on, and that I improved. But it was time for the other team to have their turns.

The other scenes followed, with bits from Oleanna and Speed the Plow. They read well, mostly. S was particularly fluid. The Teacher reminded the other students to let the words carry the meaning, and not to act the words. To play the objective, not the emotion. To pay attention to their partner. These adjustments always worked to improve the level of the scenes.

When we finished, it still seemed early. The three hours had passed unbelievably fast.

What I Learned (and relearned)

No revelations here -- you'll read about these in any good book. But experiencing them in action drives the lesson home. It's as different as reading about kissing is from kissing itself.
- Actors need simple, clear specific questions to ground their circumstances.

- Let the writer do his job. Speak the lines; don't put them on steroids or Act Them. Just say them.

- It helps to remind actors of who they are, why they're in the scene and what they're trying to do.

- Actors need strong, emotionally rooted objectives for the scene.  
 You cannot over emphasize this. It's the golden key, the magic carpet, the fundamental building block.

- Phrasing direction as questions is an effective way to help the actor to a solution.

03 October 2011

Sean Hood on what it feels like to write a flop

This is a moving piece in its candor, and surprisingly inspirational in a no-bullshit way. Here's a part of it:
Unfortunately, the work I do as a script doctor is hard to defend if the movie flops. I know that those who have read my Conan shooting script agree that much of the work I did on story and character never made it to screen. I myself know that given the difficulties of rewriting a script in the middle of production, I did work that I can be proud of. But its still much like doing great work on a losing campaign. All anyone in the general public knows, all anyone in the industry remembers, is the flop. A loss is a loss. 
But one thought this morning has lightened my mood:
My father is a retired trumpet player. I remember, when I was a boy, watching him spend months preparing for an audition with a famous philharmonic. Trumpet positions in major orchestras only become available once every few years. Hundreds of world class players will fly in to try out for these positions from all over the world. I remember my dad coming home from this competition, one that he desperately wanted to win, one that he desperately needed to win because work was so hard to come by. Out of hundreds of candidates and days of auditions and callbacks, my father came in....second.
It was devastating for him. He looked completely numb. To come that close and lose tore out his heart. But the next morning, at 6:00 AM, the same way he had done every morning since the age of 12, he did his mouthpiece drills. He did his warm ups. He practiced his usual routines, the same ones he tells his students they need to play every single day. He didn't take the morning off. He just went on. He was and is a trumpet player and that's what trumpet players do, come success or failure. 
Less than a year later, he went on to win a position with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he played for three decades. Good thing he kept practicing.
So with my father's example in mind, here I sit, coffee cup steaming in its mug and dog asleep at my feet, starting my work for the day, revising yet another script, working out yet another pitch, thinking of the future (the next project, the next election) because I'm a screenwriter, and that's just what screenwriters do.
In the words of Ed Wood, "My next one will be BETTER!"