Thursday, 24 November 2011

Models, Singers, Writers: all of us are Actors

Some actors look down on models, particularly models that get acting parts. The assumption is that they just have the luck to be born beautiful and are simply a pretty face attached to a fit body. But models have to project emotion, a style and a persona. That's acting.

Some people assert that a singer is just a voice, someone blest with the ability to make beautiful sounds. But what do songs tell us? Some - ballads - tell us a story. Others are more direct and the singer presents as someone we might know, or be, in real life. But larger than in real life and communicating profound feeling and deep emotion. That's acting.

The writer Andrea Newman once said that writing is acting for shy people. Writers create character and story which they don't present themselves, though other people may, but their characters perform in our minds. That's acting.

All of us are actors: look how differently we behave in different circumstances: at a business meeting, falling in love, attending a funeral, or on a night out. Same person playing different parts. That's acting.

As Shakespeare puts it 'All the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players.' And the Words of Wisdom are 'Models, Singers, Writers: all of us are Actors.'

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Aim at a star

'Aim at a star and you'll hit a tree.' That was advice given to me as a boy, jokimgly, by a countryman friend of my late father when I told him that I was interested in astronomy. That memory has stayed with me ever since and, as with many country sayings, you can take it two different ways. And that makes it a kind of test.

You could take it to mean that ambition always ends in failure, or you could take it to mean that you should try to do as well as you can, because then you'll at least get somewhere.

I prefer the second interpretation. Aim high; try to be the best you possibly can be; work hard; practice. Don't be content with being just about good enough. Aim at a star and you'll hit a tree.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Acting is easier than you might think

The Words of Wisdom this week are Acting is easier than you might think - but you can go on learning about it all your life.

How so? Well, acting is the most accessible of the arts. It's a development of play, which is how we learn from a very early age, imitating the behaviour of others. It comes into our lives automatically, before we even know it. It's for that reason that improvisation, drama based on life rather than literature, is the best grounding for a would be actor's training..

Other arts, painting or playing a musical instrument, require more development and do not come so easily. Writing, in particular, demands plenty of life experience.

So what is acting? It means going into character, pretending to be someone you're not, feeling and speaking like someone else. And that's it.

Well, it's not quite as simple as that. Acting may be easy but that doesn't mean that everyone does it well. When people act badly it's generally for one of two reasons. Either there's a lack of confidence, so that they stiffen up and become wooden, or else they may be trying to impose a theory on what should be a natural process. They're acting in their head but not in their heart.

And you can go on learning about it all your life. You can develop your technique and knowledge of how human beings express themselves in speech and body language. You can explore and experiment and this can go on for ever.

But if you're an actor you still have to learn the script and turn up on time.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Why is the trial so fascinating?

Once again the cameras have been allowed into the courtroom to observe a murder trial involving figures from the world of show business. The Words of Wisdom this week answer the question 'Why is the trial so fascinating?'

Many of us still feel sadness and a sense of loss over the death of Michael Jackson, a supremely talented but deeply troubled figure. But there are additional reasons why so many of us are rivetted by the trial footage.

We are inquisitive creatures and the televised courtroom licenses us to observe and stare and watch people under pressure. They are not pretending: it's real. The are not particularly aware of the cameras, being entirely focussed on the questions they are asking or answering. In acting terms they are underplaying and often trying to hide their feelings: that draws us in. The slow tempo of the court procedure doesn't bore us: it enhances the suspense, even when the line of questioning appears trivial.

For actors this is a rare opportunity to study people's communication under pressure, both conscious and unconscious. Study tone of voice as an indicator of personality and mood. Watch gesture, restricted in the circumstances but always indicative. Observe eye movement and gaze; direction and duration. Note how blink rate goes up when a person is under emotional pressure. Particularly interesting is head movement, because it is not possible to talk or listen without moving your head and head movement is very revealing (though it does vary in different cultures.) Notice in the trial the way a witness will nearly always start nodding before they utter the word 'yes.'

A particularly interesting example of revealing body language was in the trial of O J Simpson in 1995. One of the lawyers was describing most graphically the way that it was alleged that O J had killed his wife. The camera cut to O J and we saw that he was slowly nodding as the events were described. Now body language is not evidence or testimony but, if it were, O JSimpson could have been found guilty on the spot. In fact he was acquitted but a civil suit a couple of years later found against him for some millions of dollars and he is currently serving a life sentence for unrelated serious charges,

All fascinating stuff.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Your first day on a film set

Are there any more annoying words than 'Please may I borrow your pen?' There you are, writing down something important and someone, who can't be bothered to carry a pen or pencil, wants you to interrupt your chain of thought and wait while they use your property. They'll probably need reminding to hand it back to you, as well. This is just one example of things you should always have with you when rehearsing or shooting a film. The Words of Wisdom are Always run a checklist before you leave home. That way you make sure that you don't forget anything, The items on your checklist will include your script, the schedule if one has been issued, some water, something to read while you're waiting, some cash (you might want to buy someone a drink at the end of the day.) You will of course have checked the journey so that you get there is good time. And you'll be bringing a pen or pencil - and maybe a spare, in case you find yourself sitting next to an idiot.

The next Words are Maintain Continuity. Once you have been cast in a part don't change your hairstyle or any other feature of your appearance without permission. If you are using any of your own clothes and accessories don't make any changes. It's not a good idea to drink alcohol at a lunch break. Even just one drink changes the way you speak. Similarly, the location catering may be delicious, but eat sparingly.

Get to Know Who Does What. If it's a big production the number of people involved is quite staggering and may be baffling to a beginner. It's worth studying the Wikipedia article on Film Crew, which gives you a rundown of who does what. On arrival you will probably report to the '2nd AD' (second assistant director) or possibly a 'PA' (production assistant.) whose job it is to shepherd you through costume (sometimes known as 'wardrobe'), hair and make-up and deliver you on set when required. Remember that everyone is there to help you and if you keep your eyes and ears open you will learn a lot. You may find you are working with a big star. If so, don't stare, don't behave like a fan and, above all, don't ask for an autograph. That would not be appreciated. It is more likely, of course, that your first job will be on a much smaller scale production. In which case there may be a lot of overlapping between cast and crew and you may be asked to muck in and help out in all kinds of ways. You will, of course, show willing - within reason.

The next Words of Wisdom: Trust the Director. The story is told of Marilyn Monroe shooting the film Bus Stop, with her acting coach, Paula Strasberg, standing next to the camera. Before and after each take the two of them would ignore the director and go into a huddle and have a whispered conversation. What this did to the cast and crew can only be imagined, but sometimes as many as thirty takes would be required for each shot. Coupled with Marilyn's notorious unpunctuality the result was that filming fell more and more behind. That's an example of not trusting the director. You must trust the director. Even experienced actors find it hard to visualise the composition of a shot while they're performing. You don't get to see through the lens. You don't know how the scene is going to be edited. You don't know how music is going to be used in it, let alone CGI (Computer-generated imagery.) The director is carrying all these in his or her mind so Trust the Director.

If you're a stand-in you're there to help. You may be asked to be a stand-in for an actor who is temporarily unavailable. You are of similar stature and you are there to give another actor an eyeline and someone to play off. So don't just stand there like a plank! Match your facials and body language to the person you are substituting for. That will help your fellow actor.

And finally: Learn to Hit Your Mark Without Looking at it. Sometimes you have to move into shot and, because it's a close-up or an intricately composed shot, you have to stop at a precise position, usually marked on the floor by a piece of 'gaffer tape.' (The 'gaffer' in a film crew is the chief electrician, incidentally.) But you mustn't look down while you're doing it. The audience don't want to see an actor looking for where his feet should be. So how do you do this? Practise! At home, put a piece of tape on the floor and go and stand over it, so that you became aware of where your surroundings are when you're on your mark. Then go to your starting position. Look at your mark and visualise, as footprints, the steps you are going to make to hit your mark. Then, without looking down, walk those steps. See how close you can get. Then keep on practicing, trying different distances and angles. After a while you'll hit your mark every time and you won't be the one who gets it wrong.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

The Eyes Have It

The Words of Wisdom this week are The Eyes Have It. It's about body language, which means communication without words, or sounds, through posture, movement, particularly head movement, and gaze, where we look and for how long and the character of our looking, revealed by tiny changes in our eyes and the tissues around them. This non-verbal communication is very powerful and originates much further back in our evolution than spoken language. The language of our eyes is close to that of the gorilla or the orangutan. Even if you make a pet of a much more distant cousin, a cat or a dog, you will find that when you greet it you look at its eyes and it will look at yours.

Most of the time we are unconscious of what we are signalling with our eyes, but we can become aware of it and of the way it arises from our inner feelings. Hence, when acting, we can raise the emotional temperature by intensifying what we are doing with our eyes.

Just studying how long people look at each other tells us a lot about their emotional state. People who find it difficult to meet other people's gaze will appear shifty, while two people gazing long at each other presages either aggression or sexual attraction - the mouth will tell you which.

Here's an interesting exercise to try when you're walking along a busy street. Clock the eyes of everyone walking towards you, for just one second. Then tell yourself what their eyes tell you about their personality and emotional state. You will find that you can always find something, sometimes difficult to put into words, but always something about the way they are feeling and the kind of person they are.

The Eyes Have It.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Stregths and Weaknesses

This week's Words of Wisdom are 'People have the strengths of their weaknesses and the weaknesses of their strengths.' This is a general truth and something for an actor to remember when developong a character. People are rarely all good or all bad or all strong or all weak and therefore, if a character shows something of both extremes, that is believable, because it's true to life, and interesting, because it's complicated.

Here are some examples of what I mean. A person who's determined may be stubborn and is very likely a mix of the two. Someone who's kind may also be weak; someone who's honest may also be blunt; someone who's analytical may also be nit-picking; someone who's attractive may also be vain. See if you can think of some more examples.

People have the strengths of their weaknesses and the weaknesses of their strengths. On related subjects, here is some more wisdom. From 18th century poet William Cowper: 'Variety's the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavour' and from the ancient Greek Oracle at Delphi: 'Nothing to excess' and 'Know thyself.'

Good wisdom for acting and for life.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

It's what the audience believes that counts

Words of Wisdom: It's what the audience believes that counts. Here's an example of how an audience's belief can be broken. At one time I was co-director of Anna Scher Theatre, a theatre for young people in London. The members used to put on short plays and there were various stage properties that they could use in their performances. Among these was a large, thick, silver coloured plastic dagger, not an object that anyone could be hurt by, but, as teenagers' plays often feature a good deal of violence, one that was used quite a lot.

Then one day a group was down in the coffee bar, preparing for a play. Someone went behind the bar, where they shouldn't have been, opened a drawer and found a large, pointed knife that was used for cutting up food. They decided to use it in the play.

Well. the moment came in the play when the knife was produced and immediately a murmur ran through the audience. Some were thinking "Wow! That really is a big knife." Others were thinking "They shouldn't be using that" or "If someone gets stabbed they'll be hurt." The point is that if they had used the old dagger, the audience would happily have believed it was the real thing, but when they used the real thing, reality intruded and the audience became focused on the knife and stopped believing in the play.

The stage is a medium that works by using words and actions to make the audience feel as if they are watching something real. If the actors do something that reminds the audience that it isn't really real, then the performance fails. This is particularly true of things that are spectacular or 'scene-stealing' which may create a big effect but may also damage the production as a whole. It's what the audience believes that counts.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

The audience is not stupid

It's hard to define what good acting is but we sll know what overacting is and recognise it when we see it. It's excessive emoting that isn't true to life. It doesn't allow for the audience's intelligence and this week's Words of Wisdom are The audience is not stupid.

In particular there is one aspect of intelligence in which an audience is more sensitive than an individual person and that is emotional intelligence, based on the ability to share and understand other people's emotions. As we are social creatures we are naturally equipped to feel the pain and joy of others. Someone feels a particular feeling, smeone else receives that feeling, shares it and transmits it again. It is obvious that in a large group of people the feeling will be that much more magnified. That is why a crowd will often behave much worse than any of its individual members would. That's why the larger a demonstration is the more likely it is to turn into a riot. If we are sitting at home watching a football match we can see the game perfectly, it's as if we are sitting in the best seat in the ground, but it's much more exciting to be at the match and experiencing the atmosphere, the shared emotion.

So the audience at a play also feel the shared emotion and are particularly sensitive to falsity. Often their unconscious mind will be telling them that something is not quite right. If the actors are overactiing and not believable the performance will not communicate true emotion. It may be superficially impressive but will lack honesty.

The audience is not stupid.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The fox and the hedgehpg

The Words of Wisdom this week are Consider whether you're a fox or a hedgehog. Foxes? Hedgehogs? What am I on about? Well, it started with an ancient Greek poet, Archilochus, who wrote 'The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.' This mysterious aphorism seems to belong to the age of myth, when we better appreciated the wisdom of the animals. So what does it tell us? Well, for one thing, it tells us about the animals concerned. Threaten a hedgehog and it always has the same response: roll in a ball and stick its prickles out. Threaten a fox and it will do any one of a thousand things, run in any direction, fight, jump, show its teeth, hide ... But what the Greek was really writing about was people and the way some of us focus on one thing in our lives, while others pursue variety; how some people base all their thoughts and actions on a single belief or principle, while others like to see all sides of every question. Hedgehogs need decisiveness and finality, whilst foxes may change their minds if the circumstances change. Politicians tend to be hedgehogs, sticking to principles even when their application has demonstrably failed, and the media love hedgehogs - they know what they're going to get. Foxes will always be in line for the latest gadgetry, they appreciate newness for its own sake, but it's difficult to get a definite opinion out of them. For actors, consideration of fox or hedgehog traits is a useful extra dimension in character study. But there is another way in which it applies. Some actors can take a great variety of roles, often bearing no resemblance to themselves. They are character actors: foxes. Others play parts very similar to their real life persona. Thay are hedgehogs. In our lives we can think about what type we are and hope to avoid the associated weaknesses. Hedgehogs may lack enterprise: foxes may lack solidity. We can try and absorb some of the strengths of the opposing animal and, hopefully, become a more rounded person as a result. And, by the way, if you have a garden, a hedgehog will keep down the insect pests. To encourage them, put down a saucer of pet food in the evening. When it is dark they will come out and eat it up - unless the foxes get there first.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Emotional Memory Is Useful, But Only Up To A Point

If you have studied those two great theorists of modern theatre, Konstantin Stanislavski and Lee Strasberg, you will know that both of them set great store in actors using their own emotional memories to help them express their emotions in parts they are playing. Many actors find this helpful, but some drama training treats it as if it were holy writ and my contention is that it is only useful up to a point.

In fact, appreciating the extent to which it is useful requires little insight. It's blindingly obvious that, if you think about something sad, you will feel sad and you will probably look sad too. The same with happiness, fear, anger and all the rest of the emotions. And that's as far as it goes.

You see, when you're playing a part in a play, you want to concentrate and focus on the part itself and you don't want to be distracted by the memory of something that's not in the play, particularly if it's something you find personally distressing. Also, the play is not about you, the actor, it's about an imaginary character (and others) that may resemble you to a greater or lesser extent. Everyone is different: thank about the mix of emotions you have when you are frustrated in reaching some goal: you are angry, depressed, resolute, we laugh it off, we blame someone else. Everyone is different, so why should the actor be the same as the character?

You can learn a lot by looking inside yourself, but a great deal more by looking at the world around you and also by using your imagination and drawing from the text you are working with. To be fair to Stanislavski and Strasberg they both favour an all round approach like this, involving the actor's imagination. It is some of their followers who have promoted a lopsided view.

Some drama teachers have treated acting training as if it were some intrusive form of psychoanalysis and subjected their unfortunate students to a process of 'breaking down' before building them up again in a form the teacher prefers. (That is if the student, having paid their fees has stayed around to be so mistreated.) Why such institutionalised sadism could be considered either ethical or useful is a mystery to me.

So: emotional memory is useful, but only up to a point.