Actors and Performers

9781350107250

Introducing...Listening and Talking

Listening and Talking: A Pathway to Acting provides acting students with a clear, achievable, step-by-step way to approach the work of playing a role. The text is supplemented by exclusive video material to take the actor from their first encounter with the text through rehearsals with fellow actors and into performance.

Drawing from the author’s 20 years’ experience of teaching at the Yale School of Drama, this book which is influenced by the work of legendary teachers such as Konstantin Stanislavski and Uta Hagen presents a thorough examination of key aspects of the actor’s technique (for example, listening, playing an action and pursuing an objective). Throughout, it includes exercises and process points through which students can put into practice the key lessons from each chapter.

The practices laid out in this book form a holistic curriculum that not only ensures measurable results over a semester- or year-long course, but also sets in motion an internal process that will serve the student over their life as an artist.

The excerpt below offers a peek into the accessible, personal, and valuable approach to technique for an aspiring actor.

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The Case for Technique

Once I directed a musical play whose cast consisted primarily of amazing musicians—singers and guitar players—most of whom had never acted before. After an early performance, one of the youngest came up to me and said, “This acting thing isn’t so hard. All you have to do is learn the lines and be that guy.”

In the moment, I think I was a bit amused by his answer. But as I’ve pondered it over the years, I’ve come to think that his definition of acting is as good as any I’ve heard.

All you have to do is: Learn the lines. And be that guy.

Or, I might say: Learn the lines. And do what that guy does.

For now, in terms of learning the lines, I’ll simply say the goal in doing so is to discover the thoughts as they are expressed in the playwright’s words and make those thoughts and words your own. We’ll discuss how to do that, by personalizing what you’re saying and the need to say it, in future chapters.

As for being that guy: you may perhaps have experienced those moments onstage when everything clicked, when the character’s words came freely, and you traveled the character’s journey in a way that felt “real.” But you may have also had times when your lines seemed stilted and your every move just reinforced the sense that you were on a stage in front of people who must perceive your efforts as preplanned and phony.

So how do you say the lines and be that guy, truthfully, eight times a week (as a professional actor’s schedule might require)? How do you ensure that the audience member who comes on Tuesday is getting the same quality of experience as the person who comes Saturday afternoon or Friday night?

Some people might think that working in film or television is easier for the actor. After all, you only have to get it right once. The reality on set, however, is that there’s rarely time—because time is expensive!—to do a scene over and over until a particular actor—or every actor—manages to do their best work. When working on camera, you have to give a full, truthful, and seemingly effortless performance on demand. There’s no way to rewind a sunset or crash another car or two to accommodate blunders or an “off” performance. You have to get it “right” the “once” when it counts! And when several angles of a particular scene are filmed, you have to do so in a consistent way in every take so that the editor can fashion the various shots into a coherent whole.

To become an actor who brings a truthful performance every night and in every take requires technique: a process of working, a muscular memory of healthy and helpful, tension-free and active, habits that the actor can rely on from rehearsal through performance. Technique is not merely technical skill; it’s the means by which the artist employs their craft in the service of the art.

Some actors fear that technique will rob them of spontaneity and freedom and be a kind of straitjacket that will block them from their instincts and some sort of unexpected magic. On the contrary, technique is what allows an actor to be truly and consistently open and available. Think of technique as a trellis. (A trellis is one of those, often wooden, frameworks that support vines and other plants as they climb up the sides of buildings. The crisscrossing strips of wood usually form a pattern of open diamonds.) Technique provides a structure through which the intuition may freely move. If the intuition is flowing—if the vine is climbing—technique, like the trellis, doesn’t interfere. But if, at this rehearsal or in this performance or for this take, intuition seems to have abandoned you, you’ll have the structure of your technique for support until it returns.

In the following chapters, we’ll examine the building blocks of reliable technique. Because of their accessibility, we’ll begin by exploring characters who live in worlds that operate a lot like our own. However, that doesn’t mean that the principles we’ll discuss apply only to works of realism.

As we’ve said, acting is an exchange of energy, regardless of the author’s aesthetic mode. Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), a playwright whose work I admire, spends a lot of time in his theoretical writing decrying the actor’s identification with the role, something we’ll be discussing in this text. But he worked with the greatest actors of his day, including his wife, Helene Weigel, whose brilliant portrayal of the title character in Brecht’s play Mother Courage and Her Children was fortunately captured on film for us to see. She practiced the principles that Brecht as a writer advocated, but she did so as an artist who knew how to exist truthfully in the fictional circumstances of another human being.[1]

Many gifted contemporary writers (e.g., Suzan-Lori Parks and Luis Valdez) have explored techniques of storytelling in the tradition of Brecht—who himself was greatly influenced both by German folk traditions and by other theatrical practices from across the globe.4 There are plays written today whose language is as heightened and poetic in its own way as Shakespeare’s. Others are nonlinear or proceed through a largely physical vocabulary. In some, the actor engages primarily with the audience; others call for interaction with technology such as virtual or augmented reality. But whatever the mode of expression of the text or the avowed theory or approach of a writer or director, the work and processes outlined in this book will serve you well.

Once you’ve internalized the exchange of energy, the listening and talking, into your actor’s body, fully integrating it into your muscle memory, then you’ll be able to approach material of any kind. It’s merely a matter of paying attention to each play’s conventions and then foregrounding and backgrounding aspects of your technique. You might focus your initial work on the story, as Brecht did, or with the language as the primary agent of action, as in Shakespeare; you might begin, as we will do in the next chapter, by delving into the play’s given circumstances in search of the character’s need. But whatever the rules of the piece, if you’re a living, breathing actor, at some point you’ll be listening and talking through the timeline of that play in hopes of doing what that guy does.

The Actor’s Instrument

Just as the violinist has a violin, the actor, too, has an instrument, comprising body, voice, mind, imagination, and spirit. The cultivation and care of the actor’s instrument is a lifelong commitment. There are certain practices that ensure one’s physical instrument will be available for a lifetime of work, and others that lead to injury, or worse. As a favorite teacher of mine, Frank Torok, always said when admonishing actors not to smoke: “You wouldn’t put your Stradivarius [2] in the fireplace.” The same respect that ensures the fitness and longevity of your actor’s body must also be accorded your imagination and spirit.

As an actor, you’ll need to bring yourself to the work—your physical instrument, of course, but also your experiences, your point of view on the world, your capacity for empathy. You must seek to do so in a healthy way, never allowing yourself or a collaborator to exploit traumatic events in your life, discount the value of your perspective, or destructively blur the lines between you and the character. Each of us carries with us intersecting identities with respect to race, ethnic background, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, and religion. Some of these identities may figure more strongly in our sense of self than others. Some might be immediately legible to an audience; others may be imperceptible. Each of us should feel empowered to explore how components of our identity might serve the character and story at hand and know that there’s space in the work for a multitude of identities to be embraced and celebrated.

No matter how many aspects of a character’s identity you possess, the job of the actor will always entail some degree of transformation. Embodying a character requires us both to bring to the table our lived experience and also to imagine possibilities outside of it, to lend our vocal and physical instruments to the character and also to take on new placements and bearings. Developing your voice, working on your articulation and facility with dialects, practicing the Alexander Technique,6 and engaging in various kinds of movement training—from dance and contact improvisation to martial arts to physical comedy and work in masks—can expand the capacity of your instrument, its flexibility and strength, its receptivity and scale of expression, and do so without injury. Such work prepares you to find the physical truth of each character you play, exploring beyond your personal and habitual vocal, speech, and body postures to discover the way the character might sound and speak and move.

Work on the actor’s physicality shouldn’t presuppose a singular normative body type or complement of abilities. Just as humans have differing physical capacities, so too do actors. Some actors are blind or deaf; others may have limitations in mobility. Neither these nor other circumstances prevent an actor from proceeding and flourishing in their craft. Each actor uses the gifts and capabilities they have and works to enhance and develop them further. Trust that you possess all that you need to inhabit a variety of characters and to tell their stories in a way that honors the playwright’s intention and is also uniquely your own.

Embarking on the path set out by this book will give you a deeper understanding of how to approach a role, identify with the character’s circumstances and needs, and engage in the essential exchanges of energy that determine their progress through the play. Everything else in your actor’s journey will flow from that.

[1] Sanford Meisner, a well-respected acting teacher (1905–97), is usually credited with saying that the task of the actor is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” 4Brecht’s work was profoundly impacted by a demonstration by the renowned Chinese actor Mei Lanfang that he attended in Moscow in 1935.

[2] Stradivarius was a master maker of violins in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The instruments today are rare and considered priceless.

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Listening and Talking: A Pathway to Acting is now available at Bloomsbury.com