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.

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