Thursday, February 07, 2008

Joy and Pain

A tangent: teaching acting. If I were setting up an acting curriculum, I would have students spend the first semester watching the following video and trying to reproduce it themselves. Watch:

I'd have students pay particular attention to the older brother -- how he clearly went from laughing to surprise at how much it hurt to the realization that it was hurting A LOT - and then back to neutral again when his attention is drawn to the TV! It seems to me that this is the foundation of all great acting: portraying clearly on one's face and in one's body the changing thoughts and emotions of a character. Then I would have students spend time paying attention to the baby -- the pure joy that goes across his face.

Sounds easy, right? I mean, how much time would this take for students to accomplish? Well, watch some attempts, and compare them to the original:

And this:

It's not easy. But it is crucial to acting. If you watch one of the first scenes of The Godfather, you will see what I mean. When a petitioner whispers a request into Marlon Brando's ear, you can watch every word he says appear on Brando's face. Just like the kid in the YouTube video. To me, this is the essence of acting, whether tragedy or comedy. Work on this first, before you start getting scenes from plays to work on -- just focus on thinking thoughts and expressing them clearly and with commitment. Once you have experienced that, then you might start doing scenes.


Walter said...

Wonderful exercise. I'm going to share this with my acting teacher.

Dice said...

It's a silly exercise.

Acting isn't about repeating what other people do in any strict sense.

It's about finding the truth of a scene.

And then the examples you offer simply show bad, unengaged acting. No amount of training will ever help these copy cats "replicate" the moments of the brothers.

And Marlon Brando couldn't do it either.

It's silly what you're proposing.

Scott Walters said...

Yes, Dice, that is what acting is about. But acting is different than LEARNING ABOUT acting. When Tiger Woods plays in a tournament, he is focused on where he wants to place the ball. But when he was learning to golf, he was focused on mechanics: the grip, how the elbow is tucked, the way the body turns, the way the feet are positioned, etc. The problem with a lot of acting classes is that they ask students to do things instinctually that they haven't learned consciously. It is very important to learn how to think the thoughts of a character, and I guarantee you that the only way for an actor to reproduce this little scene is to do so. Once you experience the difference between showing us the character and using your imagination to think like the character, you will be on your way to being an actor. Then you have taken a step to focusing on "finding the truth of a scene." Learn the skills to the point where you can do it instinctually (which is what Brando could do), and then focus on the truth.

Dice said...

I appreciate what you're saying. Sort of.

I say sort of because I believe you're overthinking it.

People are either good actors. Or they aren't.

All teaching can give them are some techniques that may or may not help them.

Often, those techniques don't help at all, but it depends on the individual.

Schools, conservatories, etc, are places to practice acting and get notes. And again, it may or may not be helpful - depending on what kind of person and actor you are.

At best, all you can really say is, to paraphrase Spolin, nobody teaches anybody anything. But everybody is always learning from everybody else.

Scott Walters said...

I disagree with you completely. I think acting is a skill that is learned -- nobody is born a good actor. There is nothing about acting that separates it from any other activity. Sure, you can't teach somebody who doesn't want to learn, and you can learn things without being taught. But that is a haphazard way of doing things. And I think it is about time somebody "overthink" something in the theatre, because right now the thinking being done is pretty minimal.

Anonymous said...

Obviously I disagree with you.

But since you teach theatre, my guess is that there is more than a little self-preservation in your POV.

Finally, minimal thinking? No. Bad thinking? Yes - but not minimal.

Scott Walters said...

One problem with your conjecture: I don't teach acting. I teach theatre history and play analysis and occasionally directing. So my position goes on regardless. But nice try!

Anonymous said...

Well, I'm glad to know you actually believe that people who can't act can be taught to act.

I don't.

And I haven't seen a teacher ever do anything other than uncover what is already there.

I do find you're advocacy of teaching here at odds with your POV on MFAs... what am I misunderstanding?

Scott Walters said...

Good question. I consider an MFA to be a so-called "advanced degree," but my impression is that the training isn't really any different than the undergraduate training. It seems to me that so many people are using it as a way to "focus on theatre" for three years -- and they rack up a huge debt load that prevents them from focusing on theatre for the next ten!

As far as undergraduates being taught to act, here is a recent email I've received: "Shakespeare on Wednesday was amazing. We were working on voice stuff, because Shakespeare needs a big ol' voice. First, after 27 years of being on this planet, I finally found out how to control my diaphragm. I don't know why it took so long to find a teacher who was just like, "Okay, here is the transverse abdominal, it's what you want to work, here are three different ways to find it, this is what it should feel like," and then makes sure you can find it. I went into a practice room after class and immediately noticed that singing was easier and not as hard on my throat. Then we did a thing where we got up in front of the class and he did hands-on stuff while we spoke some lines to get us breathing properly and using the breath. For me he just had me use falsetto and a very light voice, I assume so that I would not sit on my cords so much and so that I wouldn't try to 'fake' emotion by locking up in the throat. We just did repetitions of those lines over and over until finally I was in-tune with my breath and my emotions and then this huge sound just came pouring out. I can't even really describe it, all I know is that I was covered in sweat and that when I finished the class starting spontaneously applauding."

To me, that's persuasive.

Anonymous said...

Always thought there was a huge difference between grad and undergrad - since most undergrad arts majors also spend a large amount of time doing other things in their 4, 5, and 6 years of college. You know, history, english, art history, sociology, psychology, etc.

Most of the MFA theatre programs I've seen don't have any of that.

Or the accompanying "learning to be away from Mom and Dad" lessons that come automatically with BAs.

Debt of course, is par for the course for undegrads, however. (The median debt for matriculating undergrads is 20 grand. MEDIAN.)

Until all higher education is free - which is unlikely and possibly not even a good idea considering the way the govt screws everything up when it gets more involved than it should - that will be the case.

However, it still seems odd that if you really believe that someone can be trained to act as well and impactfully as Marlon Brando, why investing in an MFA would be a bad idea.

(Obviously, I'm making a straw dog here since I don't believe it's possible to train anyone to act - as I said before, the best you can do is help someone uncover a talent or depth of talent they didn't know they had.

Scott Walters said...

I'm curious: is there a difference between "teaching" and "helping someone uncover a talent or depth of talent they didn't know they had"? I think of Socrates with the slave boy, where he teaches him to do geometry through asking him questions. Socrates claims he isn't teaching the boy, but helping him to remember.

Undergraduate debt is nothing compared to graduate debt, which ranges anywhere from $40,000 to over $100,000. This is especially true if you feel compelled to attend one of the so-called "name" programs, who often offer no assistantships or scholarships. People often say they are buying "contacts," hoping that by working with "name" people they will get a foot in the door. To me, that is a waste of time -- you could take that $100,000 and team with several others to create your own theatre and do play after play.

I approve of undergrad for precisely the reason you mention: all the other classes. It is necessary to become educated and well-rounded.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, there's a difference. You can't uncover something that's not there. Which means you either have it when you walk in - or you don't.

That's my opinion, anyway.

A MEDIAN number means half are above and half are below. Which makes your 40k-100k number not very meaningful, since, there are many people who get free rides or breaks. And most "name" programs DO offer some help at some point (you are misinformed if you don't think so) - not to say it's enough.

As to contacts - you are and you aren't buying contacts ALWAYS. But anybody who goes to one of those programs just for that is making a mistake and deserve the onus of the debt they have created.

There is no money to be made in theatre. The sooner theatre people realize this, the sooner everyone can actually concentrate on the work.