“Mendacity, Big Daddy”

January 4, 2017

“Mendacity, Big Daddy”, is how Brick answers Big Daddy’s question, “why do you drink”? He can’t tolerate the dishonesty of the world in which he lives. While not a teetotaler, Lee Strasberg never resorted to drinking to deal with the many slings and arrows that were directed at him. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, even though many other teachers took endless swings at him, he never responded in kind. Usually, he had good, and supportive things to say about the very people who attacked him.

We live in an age of unaccountability. People can say and do anything, and even when confronted with the truth that refutes their distortions, they continue to maintain their dishonest positions until they are accepted as truths. In this regard, I disagree with Lee Strasberg’s having remained silent in the face of the barrage of purposefully misleading descriptions about his work.

At the University where I teach the Sophomore Acting Company, Purchase College, SUNY, I assign “Stella Adler On Chekhov” as a reading to accompany the students first forays into this great modern dramatist. Stella is brilliant in leading us toward understanding the intricacies, differences, and joys of Chekhov’s characters, plays, and scenarios. Every time I assign this, my students marvel at the incredible number of times Stella takes pot-shots at Lee Strasberg. In my opinion, because he didn’t respond during his lifetime, these barbs have been passed forward as facts.

Once, while working in Lee’s study, I ran across something that, if published, might have ended Stella’s attacks once and for all. When I brought this to Lee’s attention he said, “no! That would hurt Stella and she’s too valuable”. Instead, because of his chosen silence, the misrepresentations continue.

The truth is behind all of our best acting. A great film star, James Cagney, (1899 – 1986)  once said, “acting is easy. Just look them in the eye and tell them the truth”. It really is as simple as that. The difficulty is in learning how. That part of training, learning the truth-telling, depends on close cooperation between the teacher and the student. I often remind my students that it is important to keep certain information private. This actually aids in achieving open, honest expression.  For example, as long as the observer(s) don’t know the identity of who you are creating, you have unlimited freedom to do or say anything without concern of being judged. And yet we often see an actor maintain a deceptive position out of habit or avoidance. If an actor doesn’t want to admit to him/herself the underlying true feelings about a person, or any other creatively imagined reality, it will be nearly impossible to be truthful in that part of a scene. Read the rest of this entry »


It’s Doesn’t Help To Create The Result

December 28, 2016

It is not unusual for actors to try to create the physical, sensory experience of a situation’s response. This is as true for well-trained and experienced actors as it is for neophytes to The Method. Just last week one of my students told me that he was trying to create the feelings of renewed hope and accomplishment by sensorially exploring how he felt physically when this has happened to him. By the way, this actor is talented, imaginative, trained, and joyful in his work. He trained with me many years ago and is back in class now. He also trained with Lee Strasberg himself, and although Lee was long gone, he actually taught at The Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in Los Angeles. So you see, the trap of trying to “create a result” befalls even the best and most sincere of actors.

It works like this. Suppose something makes you very nervous, and while nervous you have the presence of mind to pay attention to all of your physical responses. You become aware that your palms are sweating, and so is the rest of you to varying degrees. Your mouth is dry and leaves a bad taste.Your breathing is shallow and rapid. Your field of vision becomes narrowed and you can’t hear clearly or process what others are saying to you. You notice that your coordination and motor skills are impaired and your sensitivity to touch and being touched is simultaneously heightened and diminished. On top of all of this, you can feel that your heart is racing and feels as if it will burst right out of your chest. You can even smell your own fear. Even if you are successful in using your sense memory abilities to recreate and explore all of this, you will not be nervous or fearful. Quite to the contrary. You probably will discover that you remain very calm during this exercise due to the impersonal nature of your effort as well as the heightened concentration that it takes to coordinate all of this. Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Chanukah & Merry Christmas

December 25, 2016

I wish all of you a joyous day of reflection, peace, love, and the opportunity to flourish. It isn’t often that these holiday observances (Christmas and Chanukah) fall on the same exact day. Let’s take this happy coincidence as a sign leading us towards renewed and strengthened cooperation and ties among all people.

Revisiting The Past and Past Thoughts

December 19, 2016

In a recent class, one of my students responded to the question, “what do you want to tell me?” with “I created an event in order to bring the scene to life”. She went on to tell me that she knew how her character felt in the scene because she had gone through something similar in her own life and wanted to bring that to her work. Of course, when I asked her how she had accomplished that, she was stuck for an answer. Hoping that she related her effort to what she had been practicing in the training part of the class, I asked her leading questions about the sensory life of the event to which she referred. Questions such as, “what were you wearing, were you indoors or out, was it day or night, etc.?” She had not given these types of questions any thought until I asked them, and even then she was hard pressed to remember. Not that it truly mattered. She is not sufficiently advanced in her training to be able to sustain so many sensory elements simultaneously in order to bring the event to life. What she had done, like so many others was to concentrate on remembering the event rather than re-experiencing it.

Why do so many people continue to do this in the face of all the information about Lee Strasberg’s work that teaches us otherwise? Why do so many actors go to an event rather than discovering the simple element that makes them feel similarly now? Certainly, there are too many unqualified teachers who still pass along this misinformation. But there is another, more important reason. It comes naturally to us to want to do this. As sensitive, creative actors we relate the events that we read about in our scripts to our own lives. This empathy for our characters and what they are living through is a strong component of our interpretation. It allows us to bring our unique perspective to every part we play. It is what makes audiences want to see each actor’s portrayal of well-known characters.

How then should an actor go about avoiding this trap and finding what will serve them instead? How can an actor go about making the events in her life an aid rather than an impediment in her acting? Although I don’t intend to make these articles teaching guides, the following paragraphs will shed light on a process that takes advantage of each actor’s life events and lead them to discover how to become similarly alive onstage. It will also free up the actor’s creative time, leaving more time for that all important part of acting – play. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s Natural To Want To Be Real

September 12, 2016

For as long as I can recall, actors have been praised for being “natural”. Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that this comes from critics who are writing for a general audience more than for actors and theatre professionals. Even among many friends, mine and probably yours, this label of “natural” is seen as an accolade and something to strive to achieve.

When starting out on the path toward a life in acting, it is almost a given that this is the goal that most people set for themselves. In an effort to be believable most young actors say, “but that is what I really do. That is what comes naturally to me”. They rarely realize that all the great characters, the ones that are worthy of being written, live lives far greater and more complicated than most of us. For this, actors must get in touch with both their character’s reality as well as their own ability to be real.

What is the difference between these two destinations? When does it matter whether an actor is “real” or “natural”?  According to Lee Strasberg, “natural” is the behavior that we ordinarily bring with us, while “real” is what lies underneath. “Real” is what we want to do, while “natural” is what we have been taught to do. The life-lessons leading toward natural behavior are important ones. Without learning them our interactions could be very uncivil and destructive. Even in the simplest terms, we have to learn to control ourselves and our expressions. We can allow ourselves to be startled and express the pain of a stubbed toe, but we have to learn to contain the greatest part of that expression so as not to alarm anyone around us.

Both natural and real expression can be believable. But whereas natural behavior remains in the realm of everyday experience, real is usually larger, fuller and more intense. It is this real expression that will live up to the demands of the great characters. I like to describe it the following way in class. Imagine that you are very hungry and go into a restaurant for a meal. While waiting to order, the server brings a delicious looking plate of food to the next table, and the wonderful aroma wafts directly towards you. It is natural to begin to salivate, and when the waiter comes to take your order it is natural to ask for the same dish as quickly as possible. But if we get beneath the learned civility to what we really want, we would grab that dish from the nearby table and begin to wolf down the food. Of course, this example of behavior is an exaggeration, but I believe it illustrates the point.

This also holds true with expressions of emotion. We have learned to control how we feel and to divert many of our feelings into other forms of expression. It is common, even currently, for men to avoid crying and express their sadness in angry ways. Similarly, women are encouraged to express their anger in tearful, sad ways. While learning to get to the underlying reality of these expressions, many actors get confused and frustrated, but the final product is truly worth it.

The fullness of real expression isn’t always called for. Most of the time our characters behave and express in normal ways and within the structures of normal discourse. But for those moments when larger realities are called for, we have to be prepared. If we wait until they are needed it will be too late.

At the end of the movie “The Graduate”, Dustin Hoffman’s character runs into a church and steals his true love away as she is about to marry another man. As people chase them, he picks up a cross and uses it to barricade a door to block their way. This is real as opposed to the natural behavior of sitting in a bar bemoaning your fate as she marries someone else.

Of course, there are roles that have no moments of natural behavior and expression. Everything requires fullness and absolute reality. Lady Macbeth is such a character, as is The Thane himself. So are most of the other great characters. All of the Tyrone family in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” require a commitment to real and truthful performances. Just remember to have fun along the way, and save your truth-telling for the stage.

To go one step further, it becomes important to recognize what Yevgeny Vakhtangov, Stanislavski’s disciple, called “Fantastical Reality”. Once, during the question and answer portion of a seminar that he was giving, Lee was asked who, in his opinion, was the true interpreter of Stanislavski: he, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Herbert Berghof, Uta Hagen?Who? He said,”you will have to ask the others. I don’t teach Stanislavski. I teach Strasberg”. He went on to describe how his work was based on and was an extension of, Vakhtangov’s reality that was larger and fuller and more complete than reality itself. Only by achieving this greater “fantastical reality” can the important characters be approached.

As described in accounts of Vachtangov’s directing operas and plays such as Puccini’s “Turandot”, and Ansky’s “The Dybbuk”, this often combined Stanislavski’s inner life work with the archetypical work of Mask and Comedia Del Arte.

Truly, the work of the actor/artist is never finished. The more we learn the more we come to realize that there is no such thing as the one true way. This was true for Vakhtangov and Strasberg, and it is true for us today. Acting goes so much further than popular entertainment in its pursuit of shining the light on life, and this demands that we never stop exploring, learning, and stretching ourselves to discover new ways of expression.

There’s No PLace for PC In The Method

August 2, 2016

It’s okay to think anything at all, it’s just not okay to say it. That’s a pretty good rule to live by if you want your phone to keep ringing. It’s an old cliché, but if you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything. Then we run into both Method Acting and the training of Method Actors. In both circumstances, being courteous and polite is restrictive and leads to a closed actor’s instrument. It’s not that we are asking ourselves to be purposefully rude, but we are asking ourselves to be completely open and honest, even if we limit this to our “spoken out” subtext.

It has often struck me that in the best performances, actors are asked to remove their masks so that audiences can see themselves. They can see and hear real behavior and thought. In accomplishing this, audiences are given the chance to see themselves in the characters and situations rather than just observing larger than life behavior onstage. Given this opportunity, audiences can relate to what is going on. It is often a “work in progress” to acclimate actors to this openness. Most of us try not to offend the other actors with whom we are working even when our  characters are offensive and behave terribly. After all, we tend to like our cast mates.

In the Method Acting rehearsal process known as “speaking out”, actors are asked to say whatever is actually on their minds and then extend that thought into the written line. This will color the line with the inner truth. We ask the same thing with behavior. First free the impulse and speak it out, then extend that into the action. As you can see, to play it safely or to be PC at this point will only serve to restrict rather than to free the expression.

In the classroom actors are not immediately given observations about scene work. Instead, Lee Strasberg taught us to begin by asking “what do you want to tell me?”. In this way actors can focus on specific elements of their craft and comments should be directed toward these. If an actor says that s/he was trying to connect to the love her  character has for the other character, and nothing else, then comments relating to accomplishment should be limited to that alone. Even here it is often difficult to get beginners to speak their minds clearly. The concern about offending gets in the way. I don’t mean to guide anyone to  be crude or blunt, but rather to be open and straightforward. We can’t afford to speak in euphemisms for if we do that is what we will extend into our characters.

Imagine a classroom exchange in which an actor is asked what his/her objective is. If the actor responds with anything other than the clearly spoken and laid out objective, the tendency will also be obscured. If the actor is asked what s/he really wants to say (not the writer’s line, but the actor’s thought) there can be no room for politeness or concern for the other actor’s feelings. This is based on what actually happens in everyday life. We often think something quite different from what we say. The difference is that in everyday life no one can hear our thoughts, but during rehearsal these thoughts are clearly stated. It often gets comical (and sometimes frustrating) to go around and around with someone who is overly polite.

This sometimes leads to actors extending this to their out-of-rehearsal existence. When I started on this journey,  I remember classmates saying, “I am learning how to really speak my mind. I am learning how to get past the social conventions that have been imposed on me. Don’t stop me or get in my way. I am an actor and I can say and do what I want”. No you can’t. Save it for the rehearsal room and the performance. Offstage, be a wonderfully social person who can build friendships and trust. An actor who can build a career.

One last thought on the subject. Make sure that the rest of the cast is on the same page with you, or willing to accept your rehearsal process. For actors who aren’t trained in this approach it can be very off-putting to hear what you’re truly thinking and feeling. Respect this. It won’t be quite as effective, but speak and behave openly as you rehearse at home, alone.

Trust Who? To Do What? Why?

July 12, 2016

A new film is being promoted. In the advance publicity there is much talk about how committed one of the lead actors is in creating his/her role. This actor already has a proven performance history (and 1 Academy Award), and I have liked much of his/her work. But now the publicity is how s/he has taken “Method Acting to a whole new level”. S/he is playing an evil person; a true “bad guy”, and has been terrorizing the rest of the cast by staying in character even when not filming or even being on the set.

Other cast members report receiving anonymous threats in their dressing rooms and even at home. Sometimes these threats have been silent phone calls, and at other times there have been scary tokens delivered. I don’t think this has gone as far as waking up to finding a severed horse’s head in your bed, but there have been reports of a box of bullets being delivered. Some of these even had the recipient’s name written on them. The list of tactics goes on and gets more disgusting. Some of these are so terrible that I don’t see the need to report the details here. All of this in the name of “creating reality “; not only for him/herself, but also for the other cast members.

I am willing to accept the reports of this approach to film acting if an actor wants to 1. try to seem believable and “real”, 2. doesn’t know of any other way to achieve this, and 3. has no understanding (and little, if any, substantive training) of true Method Acting. In other words, little in the way of craft. What I am not willing to accept is his/her foisting this lack of craft on other actors. This is particularly true in this case in which actual threats in substantive forms are delivered. Aside from anything else it shows a complete disrespect for the other actors’ craft and abilities. It is not up to any of us to try to get responses from other actors except while playing the scene.

If the actor in question were not already an established star, I can’t imagine that this behavior would be tolerated by anyone. Even when an actor’s training leaves him/her falling short of the demands of a role, it is usually between that actor and his/her director to find a way to capture the moment. It is what Elia Kazan referred to as “‘I will kill your dog’ directing”.

I remember a time between takes on a film in which I was playing a senior partner in a law firm. The actor playing opposite me recognized my name as that of a teacher in New York City and wanted to prove to me that he had a “better way” of going about things than I did. He told me that he “would be sending black darts to my heart chakra” once the director called “action”. Although I thought it was unnecessary for him to tell me what he was going to do, it didn’t affect me because he wasn’t doing anything outside of the scene (come to think of it, he didn’t do much in the scene either).

Read the rest of this entry »