"Professional Actor Training Programs" are just awful. Fresh-faced children enter them full of hope and ambition. The strong come through relatively unharmed but four years older and over a hundred thousand dollars poorer. The weak emerge as a damp bundle of neuroses speaking in a beautifully articulated baritone that cannot be found in nature. It makes me sad.
So I'm going to fix it.
The following is the first in a series of articles that will tell you everything you need to know to be an outstanding actor. The rest is just practice. Read these articles and save yourself four years of your life and $120,000.
You want to be an actor. Awesome. Two paths lie before you. We will call them the “Star Path” and the “Transformer Path.”
The Star Path has worked beautifully for centuries and really took off with the advent of film. Charlie Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickford were stars. Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn were stars. Today we have Angelina Jolie and, I don’t know, Zach Galifianakis?
A "star" cultivates a big, appealing persona – tough guy, femme fatale, lovable imbecile, etc. They play pretty much the same role in whatever production they do. Fame and fortune follow. If you can go down the Star Path you should definitely do it.
The Transformer Path is for the rest of us. We have to find a way to squeeze ourselves into a variety of roles in a variety of productions. The Transformer Path does not lead to riches as often as the star path, but there are other pleasures along the way. And Alec Guinness is our patron saint.
Ask Not What The Role Can Do For You...
As a bushy-tailed youngster I joined the actors of the Children’s Theatre Company thinking I was on the Star Path. Every role was a chance for me to show off and burnish my persona. I couldn't wait to act my guts out and share my creativity with my fellow actors. My fellow actors had other ideas. They were deeply uninterested in anything I did or said.
I felt tragically underappreciated. I admired the company members so much! And I had such good ideas! Why didn't they care?
Now I see that I had the wrong attitude. The actors I admired treated their roles very differently than I did. My attitude was “what can this role do for me?” Their attitude was "what does this role demand of me?"
During rehearsal breaks, I would squeeze my way through other cast members to stand next to Jerry Drake, Tom Dunn and Charity Jones and listen to them thrash through the play. What is this story? Why are we telling it? How does my character fit into this?
In performance, I watched these actors transform into the roles they were playing. They changed physically, vocally -- they changed their energy, somehow -- to suit the role. It was like magic. And I wanted THAT!
There are two steps to transformative acting. First, you need to answer the question "what are the demands?" Then, you need to do it.
To answer the question "what are the demands?" you start by figuring out how to live in the world of the play. It helps to know lots of plays and lots of stories. You should have a working knowledge of dramatic theory, from Aristotle to Stanislavsky, from Commedia dell'Arte to Viewpoints. You should know the difference between Classicism and Romanticism.
You should know what you mean when you use words like tragedy, comedy and drama. You should know your history -- political, religious, and artistic. How did people dress? Who served whom? What were the laws? Who enforced them? What did people eat? How did they get around? What's the education system? What were they dancing to? No one knows all this stuff, but the actors I admire are deeply curious about these things.
As you practice figuring out the demands of the play, you’ll find your job takes on a greater dynamic range. Often the demands are less than you might want them to be, i.e. no chance to show off. In school in New York (in a Professional Actor Training Program, by the way), I worked with a guy who was playing a tiny messenger role. He was very proud of the fact that he'd given his character a name, a family, a history, relationships to every character on stage and a slight digestive disorder. However, when his scene arrived, he was acting so hard that he was completely unintelligible. The demand was to deliver information and he didn't do that.
Distressingly for a young actor, the demand is often to "act" as little as possible. Just do the thing. But then there are moments when you have to put it all out there. The CTC actors call it the "pull your pants down" moment. (I should be clear that we called it that amongst ourselves and never in front of the children.)
Pull Your Pants Down
You've figured out the demands of the play. Congratulations. Time for the hard part. Unless the character you're playing is you, the play will have moments when it demands something that is not natural to you. But you have to make it natural. A prince of Denmark, Hedda Gabler, Blanche Dubois, a shy kitten going to her first Christmas dance (a role I played in Beatrix Potter's Christmas), the role is out there somewhere and you have get to it, then fill it up with something real and human.
This takes courage and determination. You've spent a lifetime struggling to become comfortable in the skin you're in. Now you have to throw all that away and start over. You will spend the rehearsal period making the long journey from who you are to who the character is. And because it's not natural for you yet, it will feel uncomfortable. You will be frustrated and full of self-doubt.
It's sort of awful.
If you're right-handed, try doing everything left-handed for a week. Now try doing it knowing you'll have an audience in two weeks.
And what's worse, if it's a good role in a good play, it demands more than you can give it. Sorry. That's why there's no such thing as a "definitive" Hamlet, or Mama Rose, or Willy Loman, or Mother Courage. Which is great for those of us itching to take a shot at those roles, but terrible for those who get the chance. Want to see me cry? Push me about my performance as Salieri, or the Fool in King Lear, or Don Quixote. I got as far as I could at the time, but, oh! the things I couldn't/wouldn't/didn't do!
When Good Actors Go Bad
This is the reason good actors give bad performances. They’ve tried to make the jump from the Transformer Path to the Star Path and landed in a No Path wayside without a working restroom.
Somewhere along the line, they've done everything I've described and been rewarded with applause, cheers, praise and free drinks from an admiring audience. (There's not enough of that, by the way.) Now they're faced with a new role. Do they start all over again? Risk going down the wrong road and looking foolish? Or do they repeat a good performance from another show? What if they were cast because everyone -- director, audience, fellow actors -- expects them to give that same performance?
And consider the actor system we use. Most of the time, you go from theater to theater, auditioning for specific roles in specific productions. You get cast (hooray!), and show up in a new place with a bunch of new people. You want to give them something good, right? Something that's worked for you before. (Of the many reasons to lament the demise of acting companies, this is one of the greatest. As a member of the company at CTC, any single performance was seen as part of a body of work. There was room to make mistakes. There was also the sometimes painful encouragement of your fellow actors: "Hey, John, I like what you're doing with that role. But I think I liked it better when you did the same thing back in Tom Sawyer." Ouch.)
How many of us have the courage to start from scratch every time? I certainly don't. I'm old and tired and scared. Tonight I'll go to rehearsal for a new play, never seen before, playing a role never played before. Yet I hear and feel myself galumphing through rehearsals doing the same crap I've done in a bunch of other shows. By the time this is published, the show will have opened and closed. Either I will have done something interesting and fresh or something stale and tired. I wonder which it will be?
When we, the actors, give into our fears in this way, you, the audience, might not notice right away. It will look and sound like a good performance. But it won't quite work. It will, most tellingly, bore you. What was once surprising, yet exactly right, is not so surprising anymore and not quite right.
But, to be honest, it's often good enough. Not many will notice what's wrong. And there are not a lot of people out there who will call us on it. It's up to us. We need to learn to get excited when we feel all uncomfortable and frustrated during rehearsals. And we need to get nervous when we're feeling nice and comfortable.
That's the demand we make on ourselves.
Next time: Conflict!