Welcome to Acting Project

Click to continue reading the fun-filled intro post (with videos too)...

“Not another freakin’ blog!” 
“But wait, it’s about acting.”
“Oh, that’s cool then.”

This blog is for all people who are curious about the art and craft of acting. Mainly tailored for students of acting, it is also for professional actors who want to stay inspired. Directors, writers and producers will find it valuable as well because of the nature of this collaborative art form.

I’ll go as far as to say that everyone who has access to a computer needs to read this blog. 

Okay, maybe I won’t.

I love everything about the art of acting.  This site is just an extension of my daily conversations about it.  (Some poor fool has to actually listen to me, because my wife won’t anymore.) 

Don’t be shy and subscribe to Acting Project so you can get all the up-to-the-minute updates. 

 

Here are a few wise words from Orson Welles on acting: 



I highly recommend this excellent documentary focusing on his latter years called, “Orson Welles: One-man Band”.   You can view it on-line.  A great treat.  It’s about 86 minutes long.  Enjoy:  Orson Welles: One-man Band

I love Welles.  Ornery yet passionate about his craft even while doing a frozen food commercial voiceover:    





Hope you enjoy the blog.

How to Find Inspiration in 5 Easy Steps (Part 1)

Let me first define what I mean by inspiration or more specifically, inspired acting.  Let's look at the origin of the word 'inspiration' which comes from the Latin, inspirare. Literally it means 'to breath life into'.

Konstantin Stanislavsky, who is considered the father of modern acting, said the reason an audience goes to the theater is for two minutes of inspired acting and not the other two hours.  After being astonished by an actor's performance, Shakepeare's Hamlet said: "Is it not monstrous that this player here, but in a fiction, in a dream of passion, could force his soul so to his own conceit...Tears in his eyes!"  

These moments they are talking about are when the actor is swept up in the moment of the scene.  Actors know this experience of being 'in the zone.' It's an exhilarating experience.  Completely engaged and believing in the story, the actor becomes electrifying to watch.  Life has been breathed into the performance and it creates unforgettable moments.  When the actor is having a genuine experience the audience in turn has an experience as well.

On the other side of the coin is a performance with falseness, artificiality and empty gestures.  Not just plain old bad acting but 'slick' acting as well.  What I mean by 'slick' acting is a performance that seems real but if you scratch the surface a little it's nothing more than really good faking. (No names will be mentioned here.)

The problem for the actor is that they cannot wait for inspiration.  The 2nd A.D. is knocking on your trailer door or that theater audience expects you to deliver the goods at precisely 8:15pm when the curtain goes up.  In those situations, what if you are not 'feeling it'?  In short, the actor is going to have to fake it.  Ugh.  That's the worst.

Let's look at the first step on the way to inspired acting: RELAXATION.  Tension is the actor's number one enemy.  Nothing creative can happen to an actor if he or she has physical or mental tension.  When you watch a great actor, they have a sense of ease and authority that is so appealing. Their secret is that even under the most stressful situations they can achieve a complete freedom of muscles and mind.

There are many methods of relaxation.  A simple one is Lee Strasberg's Chair Relaxation.  Take a seat in any chair.  A hard back chair is fine.  Focus on the special areas that hold a lot of tension.  1)The muscles in the forehead andtemples.  Massage your forehead and temples with your fingers.  2) The bridge of the nose and into the eyes.  Let your eyelids droop.  3) The mouth and jaw.  Stretch your mouth open.  Give a huge grin.  Massage your jaw muscles. 4) Theneck and down the upper-back.  Roll your neck in circles.

Now, assume a position where you could fall asleep in the chair.  Move around and try to find the perfect position, then let all the muscles go limp.  Feel the tension ooze out your muscles.  Remain there for at least 5 minutes. 

At the start, the actor has to make a conscious effort to stay relaxed at all times.  Eventually it will become an unconscious process and the actor will always be relaxing. Because in those monster close-ups when it becomes a matter of inches with the precision of acting required, it is all-important to have an unburdened thought process.

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Theater's Best Kept Secret

Here is an excellent doc on Sanford Meisner and his famed acting technique. He was one of the great masters that I had the privilege to study with.  This is aMUST see for all actors. (Thanks to Dave Harris for passing this on to me.)

One Less Bitter Actor

n 1993, I saw a play called Down the Road by Lee Blessing at the Tiffany Theater on Sunset Blvd.  I’ve seen a good number of plays in my day but this one sticks out in my mind.  Not because of the play itself.  I liked it though.  I’ve given a scene from the play to some students in my class recently.  I remember it because of one moment an actor named Markus Flanagan had.  Not really an ‘acting’ moment per se... 

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About 10 minutes after the play had started, an elderly couple arrived late.  Flanagan stopped, walked to the edge of the stage and glared at the embarrassed couple as they took their seats.  It was actually perfectly in character because his part in Down the Road is a less than likable character.  

I agree tardiness in theater is a big no-no especially when it's yourself strutting your stuff on stage. But at the time, I thought it was kind of a questionable move to make this poor couple uncomfortable.  On the other hand, it was a very exciting moment.  I wouldn't be writing about it all these years later if it wasn't.  

The thing is...it was an honest moment.  He was pissed and expressed it.  The actor's job is to express their impulses.  Watching real moments can send shivers down your spine. 

So, when I recently came across a book called "One Less Bitter Actor" and saw it was written by Flanagan I had to check it out.   

It's a good book and I wanted to share some thoughts from it with you.  He writes in the preface that it is more of a "mental primer" than a technique book. "Almost all of this process is mental." 

I have found myself saying to actors on many occasions how acting is such a mental game. Why can an actor be so great doing a scene during rehearsal and then be so bad when it's the real deal?  What's different?  Your state of mind. 

He talks about an an actor's charisma or star quality: "I'm going to tell what the magic is.  It is that the person is being himself or herself better than anyone else does.  It is the actor being very good at allowing her authentic self to emerge, indulging her weaknesses and strengths.  Genuineness is always interpreted as magic because so few people have confidence to be really authentic in life let alone on screen." 

And this bit of advice is for all those actors on the audition grind: "Adopt a new philosophy: I act for free. Make everything surrounding an audition (and the biz) that is anything but acting, 'the work'. Treat the waiting as the work. The terrible traffic, the crowded subway, the overflow parking is the work. When you arrive at the audition or job the hard part is over.  The free, easy part, the part you know how to do, the fun part, is all that's left.  Anything you do (in the audition an on the set when you get the job), you do for free."  

That reminds me of a Michelle Pfeiffer quote, "I act for free but I demand a huge salary as compensation for all the annoyance of being a public personality." 

 

Here's a couple of insightful videos of him talking...


Summer Theater

Back from vacation on the east coast.  Spent some time in Bethany Beach, Delaware.  Yeah, the DE.  I love seeing local theater.  In this case, I took my son to see Alice in Wonderland at the Bethany City Town Hall presented by The Rehoboth Summer Children's Theatre.  

 

This theater company has been performing two-actor story theater for 20 years.With a simple portable set and minimum of props they can put on a performance virtually anywhere.  We saw it in the room where they hold the city council meetings. 

 

 

This summer, the company performed four plays in repertory.  Playing local venues ranging from libraries, churches, even the Holiday Inn Express.  

It reminded me of medieval theater where the guilds staged performances of religious plays in streets, open fields, inn yards and the halls of knights.  Since, they had to move from location to location, they developed a portable stage: the pageant wagon.  The wagon was relatively small (8x12ft) in order to be pulled through narrow streets but had elaborate special effects built in, trap doors to drop actors into the smoke-filled hell fire pits and a rope-and-pulley system for ascending into heaven. 

 

 

 

A recent article in the New York Times, Presenting New York Theater Where It's Least Expected, it talks about shows staged in unusual places - a Central Park restroom, a downtown restaurant, a ferry terminal and on a street in Soho.


For the play 'Night Lights' in Soho, the audience sat in parked cars and eavesdropped with headphones on the performers as they acted in and around a car.  (You can see the actress on the hood of the car in the picture.)

This show and others like Alice in Wonderland, reminds me that with a little bit of imagination theater can happen anywhere.  Stanislavsky considered imagination one of the most important parts of the actor's work:

"The creative process starts with the imaginative invention of a writer, a director, the actors, the scenic designer and others, so the first in order should be imagination.  Every movement you make, every word you speak, is the result of your imagination. Every invention of the actor's imagination must be thoroughly worked out... It must me able to answer all the questions (when, where, why, how) that he asks himself when he is driving his inventive faculties on to make a more and more definite picture of a make-believe existence. Not a step should be taken on the stage without the cooperation of your imagination." 

In other words, it all starts with the writer's imagination. Then, the fiction the writer creates is passed on and supported by the actor's imagination.  The fuel for an actor's imagination are in asking questions like: when? where? when? how? why?  When actors care about the details and work with specificity they can achieve inspired performances.

As the saying goes, "God is in the details."  Or the devil is - whichever you prefer. 


Hurt So Good

One thing I wanted to do on the blog was pass along articles I come across on the interwebs.  So, the following post will have a few on a favorite: William Hurt

 

Nice turtle and glasses, dude.

Nice turtle and glasses, dude.

 

In a 1986 Esquire interview, they dub him the "Thinking man's leading actor." He was a nice alternative at the time to the Stallone and Schwarzenegger testosterone show.  Don't get me wrong, I love s***t to blow up in movies too.  

He referred to himself in the New York Times as "a character actor trapped in a leading man's body."

He's such an interesting actor.  His choices and thought processes intrigued me in films like, Altered States, Kiss of a Spider Woman, Body Heat and the often overlooked, The Doctor.

Back in the day, I had a VHS compilation tape where I collected interesting acting moments I saw in movies I rented or taped off TV.

One moment that I had on the tape was of William Hurt in The Doctor.  It was specifically one look he gives his son as he exits the room that fascinated me.  It seemed so spontaneous, odd and enigmatic.  I put together the scene for you and looped it the way I watched it, rewinding it over and over.

To set the scene up a little bit...
 



It's basically about an arrogant doctor who gets a taste of his own medicine when he develops throat cancer.  It's important to know that right before this short scene, he received his first radiation treatment.  A radiology technician tattooed a tiny dot on his neck to make sure they hit the same spot for subsequent treatments. 

In the beginning of the scene, he comes home exhausted and as you'll notice he has conflicted feelings about being in the role of the vulnerable patient. 

 

 

Recently, Hurt appeared on TV in the FX show Damages with Glenn Close.  In a fantastic interview with the New York Times he talks about the difference between working in TV vs. Film.  What he doesn't like about working in televistion is that the schedule doesn't allow for rehearsals.  I like what he says:

"Every single second of extra time to work with other actors has definitely always paid off for the film.   For the project.  Every single extra heartbeat you could get, mutually considering the scene, was of benefit.  Some people think that preparation-especially actors- there's a hoax that's been perpetrated that if you rehearse and consider your work, that lets spontaneity out.  And that's just completely fallacious.  It's wrong.  It's wrong.  You are better the more you consider.  I think art is an act of consideration, and if you're not considering, I don't think you're really doing mankind a favor."

He also talks about two often left-out elements of acting, theme and metaphor.

"And I wish I was allowed to basically be the actor that I am, which is a repetory ensemble guy. That notion that you're developing the understandings of the work that you do, that you task yourself with a physical demand of moving into a metaphor, so that your character is a creation.  To me, that's my skill, is I basically try to make my body as much a matter of Silly Putty as I can, and in some sense sculpt that to be perfectly appropriate to themes and the metaphores that are in the play at hand."

The actor atttaches himself to the theme by asking questions like: What is the whole piece about? What is the scene about? How does this scene fit into the entire thematic structure?  The actor digs up the subtext and personalizes their motivations in the context of the theme and metaphor.  

The actor's job is to be of service to the text.  Not the other way around.

Now that I think about it, I have to look for that tape in storage.  I can't remember all the scenes but I vaguely recall one with early Woody Allen.  Yup.  The Woody.

 

Breaking News--An Audience Attends a Play in Los Angeles

This past Saturday, I was lucky enough to participate in the ancient ritual of watching live humans perform.  I and a surprisingly large number of gray-hairs saw 'The Little Foxes' at The Pasadena Playhouse.

In fact, people have been doing this same thing as far back as 2500 B.C.  Evidence suggests that Egyptians put on a passion play, of sorts, every year at the burial spot for Osiris on the anniversary of her death.  It was real show-stopping big budget stuff.



Speaking of old, 'The Little Foxes' made it's debut on Broadway in 1939.  Back then, the lead role of Regina was played by the passionate Tallulah Bankhead and continuing on in her footsteps was Kelly McGillis, of Top Gun fame, who gave her own terrific spin.




What's great about classic plays is the chance for actors spanning generations to interpret the same great roles.  Think about the almost royal lineage for a part like Hamlet--

The originator Richard Burbage, David Garrick, Sarah Siddons (first woman), The Booths: Junius, Edwin and John Wilkes (yes, that one), Edmund Kean, Sarah Bernhardt, Henry Irving, Lionel Barrymore, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Sam Waterson, Kevin Klein, Stephen Lang, Ralph Fiennes, David Warner, Val Kilmer, Liev Schreiber, Daniel Day-Lewis and many more I have not mentioned.

When you play Hamlet, you become a part of living history.

Acting is an honorable profession.  Don't let them tell you otherwise.  It has an historical precedence which proves its incredible value to civilization.

I mean, someone had tell the stories to our ancestors around the campfire, right?

I Discovered the Secret Formula to Acting

I had a teacher who, whenever someone came in late to class, would stop what he was saying and pretend like he was finishing a lecture, "...and that's the secret of acting."  He would then turn to the latecomer, "Oh, I'm sorry you missed the secret.  Too bad you were late."

Unfortunately, there is no secret to acting.  But there is a secret formula...

Jerry Lewis in the original The Nutty Professor circa 1963

Jerry Lewis in the original The Nutty Professor circa 1963

Find out the secret...


There are three formulas, actually.  When approaching a scene you can apply Stanislavski's first:


 
 
Sometimes your instincts are on the money.  You and the character are in tandem. You relate to him or her.  Come to an understanding.  If it's working, you don't have to mess around with it too much.  Your imagination is being engaged successfully.

Let's say, you have a problem relating to the character or situation.  Or you have 'moments of difficulty' as Strasberg called them.  You can personalize it with the second formula from the mustachioed Armenian Eugene Vakhtangov. 

 

To illustrate his formula, here's a choice I often suggest to an actor when trying to personalize their work in a scene.  Very often the character's wants are different from your own wants.  You might not care that your character has dreamed of going to Harvard Law forever.  However, you understand through script analysis the importance it has to the character.

In these cases, a substitution is enough to get a feeling similar enough to your character.  This is where I suggest to the actor to think about his or her own dreams about acting.  Most actors' aspirations and feelings toward their career are emotionally charged.  It makes it easily used as a choice.  Suddenly, the actor can now relate to the passion their character has for the law.  The Vakhtangov formula helps the actor find very personal substitutions. 

What if you are still feeling flat after using those two formulas?  Try Lee Stasberg's secret formula:


Great advice.  When all else fails just 'start from where you are.'  You don't have to do anything.  I tell actors, "Do no more and no less than what you feel when performing the scene."  The actor stops denying what is really going on, accepts it and allows it to express.  When you are acting from a simple and personal place like that, it grounds you in  a reality.  i.e. What is happening in the here and now.  

That is the basis of all acting.  And the secret.  Don't give it away to anyone who was late for this blog.

Quote From Lee Strasberg

"Once the actor begins to think, life starts, and then there cannot be imitation."

To read more of his quote:

 

"Stanislavski was the first to realize that the cliche, the conventional idea idea of what is to be accomplished in a scene, satisfies a a very strong need both in the human being and in the actor; that the cliche functions as an habitual response; that it is at best a caricature of what really happens in life; and that once the habitual response is interrupted by something the actor does not expect, the cliche vanishes because the actor really has tothink on stage."

 

Lee Strasberg in 'Strasberg at the Actor's Studio: Tape-Recorded Sessions'.

Quote From Stanislavski

"In order to express a most delicate and largely subconscious life it is necessary to have control of an unusually responsive, excellently prepared vocal and physical apparatus."   Stanislavski

Notes On Comedy

You can open a door funny.

(Think the Marx Brothers)

You can open a funny door.

(Open a door and it falls off its hinges.)

But you can’t open a funny door funny.

 

Thanks Dave Harris for passing on this comedy koan he had heard in a class. I like it. Sounds perfectly reasonable. The point being something like: You don’t have to exaggerate the comedy.  Trust it.  Don’t push.  Let it play for itself. Don't gild the lilly, comedy wise.

 

However upon further reflection, why couldn’t an actor open a funny door funny? Why couldn’t the character being doing something funny as they open a trick door?  I don't want to over-think it...  But I get the point. 

 

The 17th century Russian comic playwright Nicolai Gogol, who is considered the father of modern realism, wrote some great advice for actors playing comedy:

 “Above all beware of falling into caricature.  Nothing ought to be exaggerated or hackneyed, not even the minor roles… The less an actor thinks about being funny or making the audience laugh, the more the comic elements of his part will come through.  The ridiculous will emerge spontaneously through he very seriousness with which each character is occupied with his own affairs.  They are all caught up in their own interests, bustling and fussing, even fervent, as if faced with the most important tasks of their lives. Only the audience, from its detached position, can perceive the vanity of their concerns.  But they themselves do not joke at all, and have no inkling that anybody is laughing at them.  The intelligent actor, before seizing upon the petty oddities and superficial peculiarities of his part, must strive to capture those aspects that are common to all mankind.  He ought to consider each character, what it is that consumes his life and constitutes the perpetual object of his thoughts, his idée fixe. Having grasped this major concern, the actor must assimilate it so thoroughly that the thoughts and yearnings of his character seem to be his own and remain constantly in his mind over the course of the performance….  So, one should first grasp the soul of a part and not its dress.”

Ben Books Brand New Melrose Place

So a big congrats to Ben Milliken on his new gig. So happy for you.

"Can't thank you enough for your help on this one - your approach to the work is so refreshing.  Stripping it down to the complete truth of what is happening in each moment of a scene, no matter what the material is.  Your constant belief and guidance enables me to completely trust myself so that the work comes from a truthful and personal place within me."  
-Ben  

Thanks Benny. 

It's really all thanks to your hard work. 

There's a great documentary called, "Theater of War."  It's a behind-the-scenes look at the Public Theatre's staging of Berthold Brecht's "Mother Courage and Her Children" in Central Park starring Meryl Streep; as well as a look into the life of Berthold Brecht.

  



Both Brecht and Streep share the same unromantic, nuts and bolts philosophy toward art: It's not mysterious; just hard work.

Rehearsals are the work.  That's where you toil in the mine to discover that one nugget of gold that helps you manifest a great performance.

Dear Actors in Class...

Dear Actors in Class,

So, my current re-read is the acting classic ‘Advice to the Players’ by the legendary theater director Robert Lewis .  Original member of the Group Theatre.  Co-founder of the Actor's Studio .  Chairman of the Yale Acting and Directing departments during the 70’s.  Meryl Streep studied there during his tenure.  

 
Lewis acting in Charlie Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux 

His book, published in 1980, serves as my inspiration for my advice to all actors taking an acting class or classes.

Here’s what Robert Lewis writes in his Preface:

“…when you get in trouble with a role you can then turn to your technical knowledge for help.”

I will be exploring rehearsal techniques in future posts.

He then quotes, Martha Graham:
“The aim of techniques is to free the spirit.”

Robert Lewis then says, “Anyone caught on stage playing his technique instead of the scene gives a bad name to any serious investigation of the problems of the acting craft!”

I added the exclamation point.  I feel like I can hear him emphasizing it at Yale back in the day.

Lewis continues, “To help bridge the gap from the classroom to the stage, it’s a good idea to perform…with all the devotion you’d give to a moment in performance. You cannot…expect that by some miracle when you get on stage as Othello the greatness of the part will infuse you with a power and conviction you failed to cultivate in your preparatory work.  (Singing) a high ‘A’ is a high ‘A’ whether in the vocal studio or on the operatic stage.”

I think it’s good to be a little nervous before performing a scene in class.  Because, let’s just say you do land the dream role on Broadway.  Maybe it’s Tom from The Glass Menagerie.  Or Laura.  Whatever it may be, <insert here> and think about sitting in your dressing room backstage and getting the 5-minutes-to-curtain knock on your opening night.