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.

1 comment:

Brian Fies said...

This is helpful and wise, and I'll use it. Thanks!