Friday, November 27, 2015

"What I Learned About Writing In Acting School"

“My mind alights on the memory of Robert O’Neill, who taught at and ran the “Actors’ Workshop” which I attended when I lived in London during the 60’s, the
“Actors’ Workshop” specializing in teaching the “Stanislavski Method” acting technique. 

England is not the natural terrain for “Method Acting.”  That’s growing watermelons in Kansas.  In contrast to the “Method’s” introspective methodology, the English acting approach is traditionally of the “outside-inside” variety.  Slap on a mustache and you’re Hitler.

“Method” actors are indoctrinated in the “inside-outside” approach.   For example, actors are instructed to write extensive biographies so they can better understand their characters’ innermost motivations.  (English actors simply put on the costume.  “Oh, look!  I’m a general!”  And they immediately straighten up.)

Many writing professionals also recommend preparing character biographies.  I never did that myself.  Partly because I am congenitally lazy.  But also because the process seems to me to be precariously arbitrary.

‘He attended a good college.”  “He attended to a bad college.”  “He attended a good college but dropped out.”  “He attended a bad college, later transferring to a good college.”  “He never attended college.”  “He attended college, but it had nothing to do with his future success as a professional bowler.”  “He attended a great college but he set it on fire.”   

And that’s just about college.

My summarial conclusion on writing character biographies recalls the elderly hotel porter, who, when my mother refused to share a queen-sized bed with her two young sons replied,

“Well, some does and some doesn’t.”

The same goes for “Sense Memory”, requiring actors to remember seminal events from their personal lives, to help invigorate their performances.  The character’s loved one succumbs, you remember the day your dog died, and you cry.

Alternatively, you can surreptitiously yank a single hair follicle out of your nose.  Hardly Stanislavskian, but I’ve been told the strategies are equally successful.

There is, however, one part of “Method Acting” training with which I wholehearted agree, because I have experienced its positive consequences, both in acting and in writing.

It involves the issue of “articulated intention.”

When Robert O’Neill directed me and my assigned acting partner Belinda Rokeby–Johnson for a scene we would ultimately present in front of the class, what he stressed most emphatically was the necessity for the actor, in a simple declarative sentence, to express precisely what their character is trying to achieve. 

“I want to get you to love me.”

“I want to ‘lowball’ you on buying your pony.”

“I want to persuade you to trust me.”  (So I can murder you when you guard is down).

And any other motivation – good or evil – the role fundamentally requires.

Knowing the character’s “deep down” desire serves as an essential and highly effective “homing device.”  With one unwavering objective in mind… you know how they say, “How do you sculpt a pony?” – “You take a hammer and a chisel and you chip away everything that isn’t a pony”?

“I want to sculpt a pony.”

That’s the unwavering objective. 

An actor needs to retain in their consciousness a laser-like focus on what they are trying to accomplish.  Harboring that decided-upon objective – which you remind yourself of before entering the scene – will lead your acting choices – movement, gesture, intensity and “touch” – to be pared down from a globalized “anything” to “the right thing”, necessary to eventuate that objective.    

I could literally feel the difference.  With the appropriate anticipatory intention, I found myself bursting into the scene with a pinpoint focus and an energized “attack”, providing a knife-edged clarity, unavailable if I had merely stepped into the scene and started verbalizing my lines.

“Hello, darling.”

Suddenly came luminously alive!

It is exactly the same with writing.  If you are specific in your pre-determined intention, extraneous words, thoughts, ideas and imagery readily fall by the wayside.  What then remains is the pristine “pony” you intended to create. 

An articulated intention.  It works in acting.  It works in writing.  It probably also works in life.  The approach works in this venue as well.

“I want to make you a believer in Method Acting’s ‘articulated intention’ technique.”

Did I think of that ahead of time?

Well, my intention is always to write the best blog post I can possibly deliver.  But specifically, in this case?

I had a vague notion of where I was going, but tell the truth, I kind of just jumped right in.

Imagine how much better this would have been if I hadn’t.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"A Thanksgiving Thought"

At the end of the 3-D western Hondo – better than today’s 3-D; the lances flew right out at you, and they literally made you duck – perennial movie Indian fighter John Wayne responded to the marauding Indians being thoroughly vanquished, by saying,

“It’s the end of a way of life.  Too bad.  It was a good one.”

Every year, at our Thanksgiving gathering, each dinner guest is issued a cardboard headband to wear – half of them, with a painted buckle on the front, the other half with a stapled feather on the back.

The dinner’s host wears a full out, though hardly authentic, Indian headdress.

I commit to this annual ritual not just to commemorate the “taught them how to grown corn” story, but to pay tribute to a way of life that was decimated so that another way of life could ultimately prevail.

Thanksgiving is a wonderful holiday, and I take great joy in its celebration. 

But it seems to me that, somewhere between “Firsts” and “Seconds”, it’s worth taking a moment to remember that, to be what we ultimately became, somebody was paying the price.

I don’t know what more to do about that.  Beyond keeping it in mind.

And saying,

Happy Thanksgiving.

To everyone.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

"Three Short Movies I Wrote (And I Really Mean Short) III"

This third and final mini-movie got me started in Hollywood.  Lorne Michaels howed the version I had written for The Hart and Lorne Terrific Hour to Lily Tomlin, Lily liked it, and said, “If he can adapt this movie for me, invite him to join the writing staff of my special.”

I could.  And Lorne did.

And off I went.  (And ultimately remained.)

And now, a brief, unfortunate preface.

The original notion for this filmette was conceived by fellow Terrific Hour writer Sheldon Rosen, an expatriate American who had emigrated to Canada after deserting from the United States army during the Viet Nam war.  After he pitched the idea, we paired up and wrote the script for the movie together.

The thing is, although I got to go to the States because of it, my collaborator, required to steer clear of America for fear of immediate arrest, had to remain in Canada.   (By no means a terrible place, but he missed out on the career opportunity.)

I have tried to locate Sheldon Rosen on numerous occasions to personally thank him for his indispensible contribution to my advancement, but I have to date been frustratingly unsuccessful.  Still, I am aware I am beholden to somebody.  And I have never forgotten that.


Here’s the idea.

FADE IN on a room in the “Pediatric Ward” of a hospital in the municipality of Dull City.  (Note:  Any allusion to Canada is purely coincidental.) 

A beaming nurse steps into the room, carrying a newborn, wrapped head-to-toe in a soft, gender specific blanket.  The nurse moves to the hospital bed, passing the baby to their eagerly anticipating mother, the father standing glowingly nearby.

Slowly and carefully, the mother draws back the blanket, so she can, for the first time, set her adoring eyes on her just-born offspring.

The new arrival is ultimately revealed.

And they’re different. 


A bulbous red nose.  Humongously oversized feet.  A white powdery complexion.  And a frizzy mane of fire engine red hair.

That’s right.

The startled woman has given birth…

To a natural-born clown.

(Note:  The “clown-baby”, who was a male in the original version, was converted to female in the Lily Tomlin adaptation.) 

What follows is the quintessential “fish-out-of-water” scenario – a congenital cut-up raised by a disapproving family, the situation compounded by living in “difference”-intolerant Dull City. 

Putting it delicately,

The kid doesn’t fit in.

She scoops up peas with their fork and playfully flings them across the table at her siblings.

She squirts “fizzy-water” at her schoolmates.  And interceding teachers and Hall Monitors.

And consistent with her genetic constitution, she is incapable of passing a pie without picking it up and throwing it at the nearest available target.  Or, if they are standing nearby, “mooshing” it into somebody’s face.

She simply cannot help herself.

Inevitably, there are “well meaning” interventions, such as sessions of professionally prescribed “Aversion Therapy”, to break the prankster of her anti-social behaviors, rendering her a “functionally normal” citizen in Dull City society.

Nothing works. 

No matter how many jolting shocks are administered, when the patient is handed a pie, she cannot stop herself from throwing it.  Leading to…

Throw – “Ow!”  Throw – “Ow!”

The irrepressible “clown-alien” is inevitably ostracized, her lack of friends and familial encouragement breeding feelings of loneliness and displacement.

And then…

Walking idly down a backstreet, the clown-child – now a youthful adult – drawn to the sounds of uninhibited merrymaking, discovers, gathered secretly in a basement, people who look and behave exactly like her.

(Note:  In the Lily Tomlin Special version, I collaborated on a “Clown Anthem” which was inserted at this juncture, co-written with fellow writing staff member Christopher Guest.) 

What an invigorating revelation!  The Dull City “outsider” has found a like-minded subculture.  For the first time in her life, the unique “clown-girl” feels accepted, connected, and genuinely happy.


The clown clubhouse is raided by the cops. 

Ordered to root out the “Undesirables.”

The climactic scene involves a frantic, silent-movie-style melee between the “authorities” and the”troublemakers”, the clowns fighting their adversaries with everything they’ve got – slap sticks, seltzer bottles, “Whoopie Cushions” and pies.

I do not, forty-five years later, remember how the film ends.

But I am certain it was happily.

My career ultimately took me in a different direction, writing half-hour comedies showcasing character and dialogue, rather than short “concept” films, featuring commentary and silliness.

I had fun doing those little movies.

And I hope you enjoyed hearing about them.

Postscript:  I am remembering the chorus of the “Clown Anthem”:

“Oh, we are clowns, and proud to be
Big feet and red noses, white faces and free.”

Lily didn’t like “white faces”, thinking it was racially discriminatory, so we changed it to “bright faces.”

And they say I am not flexible.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"Three Short Movies I Wrote (And I Really Men Short) II"

Following the positive reception of “The Puck Crisis”, I was assigned to write another short film for The Terrific Hour.  That’s the problem with success – they always want you to do it again.  Failure is easy.  You mess up and it’s over.  No one ever says,

“That was terrible, but we believe you can do even worse.  Back to work!”

On the other hand, you do something good and it’s like,

“Splitting the atom was commendable, Professor Einstein.  Now what else have you got?”

My advice:  Do yourself a favor – fail quickly and be done with it.  You’re going to fail eventually.  Why not get it out of the way early and move on?

“Sometimes I read your stuff in the morning and I go straight back to bed.”

What can I tell you?  You’re welcome.


My follow-up Hart and Lorne filmette was the “Baffin Island” movie.

Baffin Island is a remote and, at the risk of insulting its inhabitants, bleak and desolate, lobster-shaped island, lying just north of Canada’s Hudson’s Bay.  Baffin Island is surprisingly (to me at least) the fifth largest island in the world.  Which is something for its (as of 2008) eleven thousand inhabitants to crow about. 

“We’re bigger than England!”  (Although they have sixty-four million less people.  Which is great, if you like “elbow room.”)


For the writer, a geographical and socio-cultural ignoramus…

Baffin Island is the quintessential metaphor for…


So how does that feel? … Was the premise of my mini mock documentary.

Okay, so here’s the backstory.  Which prefaced the filmette.

The Baffin Island postal service had written to Ottawa (Note to Americans:  That’s Canada’s capital city) requisitioning new hats for its postal workers.  Ottawa subsequently responded by shipping the requested hats, but they were egregiously oversized. 

(INSERT:  Snapshot of chagrined Baffin Island postal worker wearing a plastic-visored postal worker cap falling down over his eyes.  It would have fallen even further had its downward progress not be impeded by his nose.)

Urgent follow-up requests to ameliorate the situation were entirely ignored.  This made the snubbed Baffin Islanders felt like nobody was paying attention.  So the island’s inhabitants held a meeting and they decided upon a drastic resolution:

Baffin Island would secede immediately from Canada.

Their representatives sent an official letter announcing their departure to Ottawa.

But nobody paid any attention.

So they proceeded with their plan:  They would establish the independent nation of Baffin Island.

The real work was now about to begin.  It was a new country.  And they needed just about everything.

First – Their own language.

It is hard to come up with an entirely new language.  Ask Israel.  Israel, of course, had the advantage of Old Testament Hebrew to draw on.  But a lot of new things had been invented since Moses and harried Israeli philologists were responsible for filling in the gaps.

“I studied the entire Pentateuch.  There is no word for ‘soap dish.’”

To mitigate this mammoth linguistic undertaking, Baffin Islanders decided to make things a little easier for themselves.  Rather than devising an entirely new language, Baffin Islanders decided instead to take words they already knew – English words – and simply anoint them with alternate meanings.

CUT TO:  A university lecture hall (actually at the University of Toronto)

An accredited Baffin Island linguistics professor stands before a gathering of
of “Baffin Island adults” (one of whom was myself, acting colder and further north), drilling them in the new national patois, “Baff-Lang”:

“All right class, repeat after me:  For “The man put it pen on the table”, we will now say, “The chair put the shoe on the banana.”

The class dutifully repeated:

“The chair put the shoe on the banana.”

Next:  A Baffin Island National Anthem.

For this, they held an island-wide contest, candidates coming in and auditioning their proposed anthems.  Again, so as not to require its citizens to learn an entirely new melody, familiar tunes were appropriated and provided original, new lyrics.

To the tune of Rogers and Hammerstein’s classic “Oklahoma”:

“Ba-a-a-fin Island
Where the snow comes blowing in your face…”

To the tune of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land”

“This land is your land
This land is my land
It isn’t Thailand
No, it’s Baffin Island…”

To the tune of “The Birthday Song:

“Baffin Island to you
Baffin Island to you
Baffin i-i-i-island
Baffin Island to you.”

And those were the good ones.

The flag was easier to select.  Unanimously, the approved representative banner would be a totally uncolored, flag-sized sheet of fabric, its decoration representing “Snow, on a white background.”

Everything was now ready.  On the appointed “Independence Day”, every inhabitant of the island (and their huskies) gathered inside the meeting hall, and, with their hearts pounding with excitement, the national “colors” (so to speak) were hoisted up the flagpole for the very first time, as the venue reverberated with the singing of the contest’s winner – and the world’s newest “National Anthem”…

To the tune of “God Save The Queen”:

“Ba-a-ffin I-island, Ba-a-ffin I-island
Baffin Is-land.
Ba-a-ffin I-island, Ba-a-ffin I-island, Ba-a-a-afin I-island
Ba-a-ffin Is-land.”

The commemorative fireworks were cancelled, as it was a blisteringly cold day and nobody wanted to stand outside and watch them.

The final order of business:  The Economy.

How would the new country support itself? 

To face economic survival, Baffin Islanders needed to seriously ask themselves:  What does Baffin Island have in greater abundance than almost any place else in the world?


An unheated warehouse where you could see your breath when you worked.  (We filmed in a meat packer’s “Ice House.”  Once again, I was an “extra”.  We shot this in the summer.  During breaks, when we went outside, it was a hundred.  When we went back in, it was thirty-two.  I’m surprised I didn’t get Legionnaires’ Disease then.)

Baffin Island exported prefabricated “Snowman Kits” – “Coal Eyes and Carrot Nose Included.”)  They sent (suitably insulated) sheets of ice for rich kids’ birthday parties in Florida.  Working at conveyor belts, they packed cases of snowballs, ordered by the desperate suitors of the daughters of South American dictators, who’d commanded,

‘Bring me a snowball and you may marry my daughter.”

And that’s all I remember. 

“Baffin Island” may have had less of an impact than “The Puck Crisis”, but it worked well enough for me to be asked to write yet another mini-movette, which I shall tell you about tomorrow.

Do you see what happens when you do something right?

The demands never end.

Until you fall on your ass.

Which means, unless you are savvy enough to retire or fortunate enough to die,

The last thing you do is inevitably a failure.