Friday, December 31, 2010

Short Films, David Mamet and Katharine Hepburn

I am a recently graduated actor, and I'm excited to get experience acting in film by acting in student shorts. I have just been cast in two, both as the female lead, and I would like to make sure I do everything within my power as an actor to aid the quality and success of these two projects.

I once heard a writer say 'Good actors can make miracles out of bad writing.' 
On the other hand, in this brilliant letter from David Mamet to the writers of the The Unit, Mamet says:

If the scene is not dramatically written, it will not be dramatically acted. There is no magic fairy dust which will make a boring, useless, redundant, or merely informative scene dramatic after it leaves your typewriter.  You the writers, are in charge of making sure every scene is dramatic. ... if the scene bores you when you read it, rest assured it will bore the actors, and will, then, bore the audience, and we’re all going to be back in the breadline.  Someone has to make the scene dramatic. It is not the actor’s job (the actors job is to be truthful).  It is not the director’s job. His or her job is to film it straightforwardly and remind the actors to talk fast. It is your job.

So if Mamet is right, and if at first read I find the scripts of these short films untruthful, then this is not a sign of poor writing, it is only the sign of my work as an actor before it's begun?
It is my job as an actor to make these stories believable, no matter what the circumstances, correct?

Let's speak in extremes for the sake of example and say these stories could never ever ever happen. Does an actor have the power to still make them believable?

I might have more than one ultimate question hidden in all of this. I do not at all mean to say that these scripts are poorly written. I just want to better understand how I can best contribute as an actor to the story telling of these short films. I want to make sure my outlook is most helpful. Is the answer something like 'As long as you have a goal and a means to pursue that goal, you can do good work as an actor, in any production setting and with any script' ?

You have a lot of stuff roiling around in here, haven’t you?

Let me start by saying first--
The following two statements are not mutually exclusive:
  1. Good actors can make bad writing interesting.
  2. It is the writer’s not the actor’s job to make scenes dramatic.

A good actor can be interesting without being able to make an undramatic scene dramatic.
A bad actor can make a dramatic scene uninteresting.

Also note:
Mamet doesn’t mean that it isn’t the writer’s job to be truthful or the actor's to embody drama.
What he means is that the writer’s essential job is to write dramatically and the actor’s essential job is to act truthfully and the director’s is to film it all straightforwardly.
And probably it would be wise to investigate what each of those adverbs implies.

When Christopher Reeve was a young actor on stage in a show that starred Katharine Hepburn, he asked her for advice about acting.  She said, “Be fascinating”.
Hepburn always did her damnedest to be fascinating, but some of the stuff that she was being fascinating in was still pretty boring, undramatic, redundant and useless.

For a season on Dawson’s Creek I played the high school English teacher.  During a break in the shooting of one episode, the writer came over to me. "You've made the teacher a real character," he said. "I wasn’t even thinking of a character for him. I just gave him stuff to say”.
I learned something that day.
He made the scenes dramatic; I brought character to the drama.

Actors who have learned to act in the theatre by working with the world’s greatest plays--which I believe is a most magnificent way to learn to act--must know what they are responsible for when they act in film or television and what they not only have no responsibility for but no ability to affect/effect anyway.
You were cast in these films because of qualities the directors see in you. Your job is to respond with those qualities to the given circumstances of the scene; to be truthful, as Mamet understands it. If the writer has written drama, as Mamet understands it, you too will create drama. If the writer hasn't, you won't either.
And in that event, all you can do is be fascinating as Hepburn understood it. 

And there will always be Johnny Depp and Jack Sparrow.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Teaching Acting

I've been thinking a lot about your class as I'm working up my curriculum for Acting 1; these are undergrads just beginning their acting education; I'm pretty free to teach what I want, although they encourage non-text based work for this first semester. I remember 2 exercises we did the first year in your class that impacted me and that I was able to use and connect to scene work later on, I'm wondering if it would be possible for you to remind me how you lead those exercises and what you focused on? I remember the animal exercise pretty well, but if you have any insight on that I'm all ears (I think my animal became an encyclopedia salesman, funny). But, the 2 I'm really interested in exploring are: the song exercise and the character from a book exercise. I remember preparing for them and I remember some of the performances, but I don't remember them from a teacher's perspective.
If it's too much work, I totally understand and can figure it out on my own, but, my time in your class remains a seminal influence over my work, and now that I am in a position to inspire another generation of hungry 19 year-olds I thought I'd reach out to the teacher that hooked me 15 years ago (sigh-how am I that old)?
Any words of wisdom is much appreciated.

How nice to be needed!
There are lots of ideas about what teaching acting means. And someday I may write about that.
I believe that the actor is a creative being, and acting is a creative art. So I think it's more than the belief that all you have to be is "authentic", which means you must know yourself thoroughly so you can respond truthfully to given circumstances.
And, oh my, knowing yourself inside and out is difficult at any age (and takes keeping at it pretty much your whole life). With college age people, actually, I think learning to act helps with learning to know who you are as well as the other way round.

Your creative responsibility as an actor is to dramatize the people, the relationships, the situations, the story of the play, so that you can communicate what about being human the play deals with.
And as an actor you create with your whole self, with all the experiences you have ever had (and so, yes, the lifelong study of who you are is the foundational element).
Since you create with the self, with stored up experience and images and behavior, the elementary thing you have to learn is to perceive behavior deeply, authentically, meaningfully: To come to understand your own behavior and to experience and store up the behavior of other people with as deep an understanding.

So, teacher, you devise ways to get your students to learn to perceive, truly to perceive. That means the senses, through which we perceive the world.
The first quarter's work at NU was devoted to the senses: sight and eyes, the organs of sight; hearing, touch, smell and taste; and the kinesthetic muscle sense, etc.
You take up a copy of my book on acting and you open it: what of your responses reveal "teacher"? What do you do that says "student of David Downs"?
Then try: Sarah Palin picks up the book. What do her responses reveal? Be specific. (By the way, Palin is a great life study for Natasha from Three Sisters. Read the recent Vanity Fair article. Try: Natasha sees Masha's copy of Gogol's Diary of a Madman on a side table. She picks it up. Her responses reveal something about her.)
Then: Arkadina picks up my book. She responds.
Turn my book into the play she will star in next. Let her respond. Let her reveal.
She picks up the journal that has Treplev's latest story published in it.
Do similar exercises with sight, with hearing, etc.
(This is still "non-text" work, but I think you should always lead every illustrative exercise, everything you do, toward some character from a play, some action in a play, some relationship, etc. Make sure they know Sea Gull and Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hedda Gabler, and something contemporary like Adam Rapp and Rebecca Gilman.)

The animal exercise and the novel exercise came the second quarter with emphasis on Imagination. First, you learn to perceive behavior, which is what you create with. Then the fueling power of creativity is the Imagination.
Just as people have motivated spines, so do animals. Metaphor helps us to get to understand the unknown by way of something that we already know. Is there something about your big ole house cat that helps you to understand/embody something about Juliet's nurse? Demonstrate.
What motivates a sea gull? Become a sea gull and discover.  Ride the wind currents. Soar above the lake until you truly sense the freedom and the security of the lake. Now let your motivated sea gull behavior become human and let Nina glide around the lake with such freedom and security.

The novelist can help you to understand people you can't study and perceive directly. Tolstoy's description of the way Nineteenth Century Russians dressed and behaved, what their houses looked like, what kinds of furniture they sat in, what their gala balls were like, etc., can help your actor's imagination to say: If I were a Nineteenth Century Russian... before your imagination says: If I were Anna Karenina.
You're leading to: If I were an Elizabethan before you get to: If I were Macbeth.
Where do you go to help your imagination create the experiences that can turn you into a Nineteenth Century Norwegian before you become Judge Brack?

Novelists provide detailed descriptions of character and behavior; they suggest metaphors for understanding character.
Have you found a character in a novel that can help you to understand/imagine/create Tilden from Buried Child?
What contemporary writer is likely to have created such a character?

The novelist can tell you in much more detail than a playwright what a person is thinking and doing that reveals the unspoken even as they speak. Illustrate this with passages from Tolstoy, with Edith Wharton, Thomas Hardy.

Describe/write in words a particularly dramatic interaction you had with a friend, a parent, a lover. Then other acting students create the experience based on your description.
Become a novelist and write a description of Hedda's first entrance. Then become an actor and do it.
Become a novelist and describe what Kate and Deeley are thinking and doing as they speak in the first scene of Old Times.
This kind of work can help you get your actors to learn how to become novelists in behavior instead of in words.

The idea behind the song exercise was to get you to free something about yourself and to communicate it to the audience. Pick a song--usually from a musical--that expresses something deeply true about you. Don't worry if you can or cannot sing. It isn't about "singing"; it's about "selling" the song. In fact, often the students who were the musical comedy stars had a hard time with this exercise because it wasn't about cheap or fake selling and they often had learned to do just that and so found it difficult to access something simple and true and then simply and truly to communicate it to/with the audience.
This is a great way to help students learn to make a direct connection "across the footlights" that is essential to all acting, even drama of the most indirect relationship with an audience.
This also connects to Imagination work:  Songs from musicals (mostly from Oklahoma to Sondheim) that express character, motivation, attitude toward life, etc.  As with animal metaphors, see how the song as metaphor--the music, the rhythms, etc., as well as the words--manifests the character.  Pick songs such as I'm Just a Girl Who Cain't Say No, My Bill, As Long as He Needs Me, You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two, etc.  Explore implications for motivated behavior in the melody, in the musical accompaniment, etc.

Happy working!