Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"What I Learned From Acting That Helped My Writing"

I studied acting two times in my life.  The first time was an eight-week stint at the Bertolt Brecht Summer Theater Workshop at UCLA, where I don’t remember learning anything, but I do remember a pretty girl named Melody putting on my make-up for me on “show night”, because I didn’t know how.  (Or so I said.)  (No, I really couldn’t do it.  Take off my thick bifocals, which I wore in those days, and I could no longer see my face.)  (But even if I could put on make-up, would I still have told Melody I couldn’t?  I would certainly not put it past me.)

(I have just set a personal record for “Most parentheses in a single paragraph.”  And now, this one.)

My second foray in thespian training occurred when I was living in London, a few months later.  (In the intervening period, I attended and quit law school in Toronto, and then moved to England.)  I am not exactly sure why I signed up.  At UCLA, my teacher had told me, “You have this ‘natural ability’, but I wouldn’t exactly call it acting.”  Maybe I wanted to see if he was right.  (He was.  I never really progressed beyond “natural ability.” This one’s in brackets, on the chance that, if you don’t read what’s in the brackets, you might still think I had something.) 

There are many hugely reputable drama schools in London.  The one I went to wasn’t one of them.  I’m not sure where I heard about it; I’m thinking there was an ad in some “trade” paper, British Variety, or something.  I had very little money at the time, and by then, I was substitute teaching.  So I needed an acting school offering classes at night, and on weekends.  The Actors Workshop perfectly fit the bill, our classes convening two nights a week, and Saturday mornings.

The Actors Workshop was run by an American expatriate named Robert O’Neill, whose most notable acting credit involved delivering one line in Dr. Strangelove.   The school specialized in the “Method Acting” technique, an approach popularized in the States, Marlon Brando, its perennial Poster Boy.  

Studying “The Method” in England is like studying French cooking in Scotland.  It’s not the best place to learn that.  England specializes in classical training for actors.  But that way sent me down the road towards “Elocution”, fencing and tights.

Besides, I couldn’t afford any of those schools.  

Our first assignment was to read Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares.  By the time I finished the Foreward, I was already pissed off.   

Stanislavski insisted that what he had set down in his book was not just a theory of acting, but, in fact, the Natural Laws of acting.  Natural laws are natural.  They are not made up by some obscure Russian acting coach.

Or so I thought.

Here’s the primary “take-away” from my “Method” training at the Actors Workshop: 

Before entering a scene, the actor must determine their precise and specific intention. 

“What exactly is it that I want to accomplish in this scene?”  

That’s the most important question an actor needs to ask themselves before stepping onstage.  More important than “What’s my first line?”  Or “Am I zipped up?”

I recall my first effort in this regard.  We were asked to pick a monologue from a play to present to the class.  Automatically, I reached for A Thousand Clowns, my favorite play of all time.

Early in the play, Murray, in order to maintain custody of twelve year-old Nick, needs to demonstrate his responsibility with a steady job, which Murray currently does not have.

It is late afternoon, and Murray returns home.  It turns out that, rather than looking for a job, Murray had instead gone to the movies.  In his speech, Murray regales the concerned Nick with a mesmerizing description of what he encountered inside that movie theater.


There are men there with neat mustaches who have shaved, and shined their shoes and put on a tie even to come and sit alone in the movies.  And there are nearsighted cute pink ladies who eat secret caramels; and very old men who sleep; and the ushers; buddy you are not kidding these boys.  They know you are not there because you are waiting for a train, or you are on vacation, or you work a night job.  They know you are there to see the movie.  It is the business and purpose of your day, and these boys give you their sneaky smile to show you that they know.  (Depressed by his own words, quietly, almost to himself.)  Now the moral question for me here, is this:  When one is faced with life in the bare-assed, job-hunting raw on the one hand, and eleven fifty-cent double-features on the other, what is the mature, sensible, and mentally healthy step to take?   

The point of the assignment was for each of us to determine the specific intention behind the speech we had chosen, articulated in the form of an “I-statement”, indicating an active desire. 

My answer, concerning the Thousand Clowns going-to-the-movies-rather-than-looking-for-a-job monologue, was this:

“I want to get Nick to forgive me.”

If an actor enters a scene with the proper intention, they will be primed and ready to attack that scene with energy, directness and simplicity, excluding all elements extraneous to the intention, and delivering only those that advance them towards their objective.

You want sharpness and crystal clarity in your scene?  Go in knowing precisely what the character wants. 

It works in acting. 

It works in writing. 

And it works when you’re trying to get a pretty girl named Melody to help you with your make-up.

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