20 January 2012

I take an acting class, last scene

My scene partner and I prepped some more. I put together props and a costume, deciding to ditch my glasses and slick my hair back which makes me look thuggish, fitting the role better. A kind of nervous anticipation settled in during the day of class, surprising me. After all, the stakes were pretty low, and even a total failure wouldn't have much consequence. Still, there they were: opening night jitters.

The class itself fell into the familiar pattern: run the scene, take some notes, make some improvements. All of the actors performed better -- their best so far. Still, that simple issue of variety dogged most of the work. Before the teacher got to work on them, the scenes tended to hit one note.

Part of the reason for this flatness was that the scenes were dead. That is, instead of living in the scene, creating moment by moment, the actors were trying to recreate the scene -- the one in their imagination, or the one that had worked so well in rehearsal.

Variety's the spice

In talking this over, one fellow student put it well: I hear the scene in my head, then I try to play that. That is, you have this ideal version, and you aim for that. This is a mistake. The instructor was diplomatic in addressing the issue. The direct version would be: You have to live in the circumstances of the scene, with whoever's on stage with you. You can't can a performance, you have to react and listen to what you're partner's doing. Just like real life. Even ignoring someone is a reaction.

The common prescription was to increase the stakes. Make what the character wants matter more, or make failing to get it hurt more. Obstacles create energy. 

She also had actors play the opposite -- take what you had thought was the action, and reverse it. From loud, go soft. From fast, try slow.

Our instructor pointed out that you have to be in a different place at the end of the scene than where you began. That is, if you start out happy, for example, you should end up sad -- that a scene involves a change.

If you want your partner to play something, jealousy for example, it's up to you to make her jealous. You have the responsibility of acting in a way that will provoke that in your partner.

Above all, you need to be flexible and crafty and original in pursuing your objective. Try out different tactics for getting what your character wants.  Don't always go with your first choice -- maybe another, better choice is waiting, ready for you to dig it out of your imagination.

I had an example of this during my own scene. To recap, my character is trying to blow off a woman he slept with and in creating trouble for his step sister. She has some information that turns the scene around and gives her the upper hand at the end of the scene. So, in the win/lose binary scenario, he loses.

But, my objective is to win. So, even though the scene has my character failing, I have to struggle in every way I know how to put him on top. Because, that's the guy as written. He's not taking things lying down. My physical action is to stand and leave the cafe. That's not helpful, either -- it seems as if he's leaving with his tail between his legs.

A week earlier, I tossed a couple of dollar bills on the table -- or rather, at the woman. I could tell from the reaction of the other students that it worked. The women, in particular, found it insulting.

We ran our scene, and it went well. the vibe from our audience of students was solid, the work flowed, and my partner and I were in the groove. But, that didn't mean it couldn't use some work. I'll spare you some of the tweaks, except for the final part.

I pulled my move of tossing a few bills on the table and at the woman. I even had them ready in my pocket to go, as part of my prep, something I'd just read about in Stella Adler's book. Boom, out come the bills, bam! on the table. Take that!

Only, the instructor didn't think it was strong enough when we got to that section. "Don't let her win!" she said. "She's winning!" So I'm stuck on stage, groping for inspriration and then I just pull out the rest of my bills and make it rain on the table, flipping them out faster than a Vegas poker dealer wings out cards.

It worked. The pressure plus a memory of some rap video gave me the clue, and -- (not to make a big deal out of my little moment of invention, because it's not, it's what any good actor would do for hours a day)

What I learned

Actors are deeply exposed. Now, you do hear this a lot. But until it's you, under the lights, little old you with your skin full of fear and emotions and yearnings with your face and your voice under scrutiny as you try to create something in real time -- well, you just don't know what exposed is. 

Actors need good feedback. When you're acting, it's hard to tell if what you're doing is working. That's why directors are useful. Or audiences. But in film, there isn't an audience to give you a reading. And if you're in front of an audience, you want to be sure that what you've chosen to do will have an effect.

This was something that confounded me through the whole course. I'd think or feel as if what I was doing was creating the desired effect. For example, I thought I was projecting dominance. But then, the teacher would say I wasn't. Frustrating. Then, I'd find another pose, bigger, more spread out -- and, yeah, that was more dominant. This is a basic example, of course, and maybe you should be so totally in the moment you're not aware of anything else. I don't know. But, it really helps to have someone give you a response, or a check, even if it's only on the "Is my fly zipped?" level.

Thoughtful repetition helps deepen the work. Yeah, I know. That's why they rehearse. Only, in a standard Hollywood film model, they don't rehearse much at all. Lumet used to have a two to four-week rehearsal period before shooting, and that boggles everyone's mind. I guess actors can be skilled enough to drill down and nail it right away, or they simply play a type and give that same type performance. But I don't know how you can really understand a piece without running through it several times, thinking about it, feeling your way around the actions and the text, experiencing how it goes with the other people in the scene. 

The play I worked on was good, but not necessarily a Profound Work. Yet, each time we rehearsed it, we'd notice something different.

I didn’t find any obvious candidates for casting in upcoming projects. In past classes, I have cast fellow students, with mostly good results. So, I didn’t meet that goal. But, the class had fewer students than other classes I’d taken, so perhaps it’s the law of averages at work. Fewer students mean less chance of a real talent showing up. Unusually, the bulk of the students didn't aspire to an acting career. They were hobbyists.

But, I did brush off some rust. I learned. And the simple act of working on a scene was valuable, not only for acting, but for writing as well. 

Other posts about this class:

Acting Class 1

Acting Class 2
Acting Class 3
Acting Class - Thinking
Acting Class - Rehearsal
Acting Class 4

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