Sunday, May 11, 2014

Acting Lessons...On Actor Training and More


From Scott Rogers Studios


On Actor Training

Because I get hired to coach actors, by studios, production companies, directors, and celebrities, I have to (get to) work with actors from very different backgrounds. Sanford Meisner trained some; LeeStrasberg trained others. Some are followers of Stella Adler and some are UtaHagen devotees. What I’ve found though, is that although the approaches vary greatly, all are capable of giving honest, inspired performances. They are all TRAINED.
Uta Hagen
Lee Strasberg
There are various schools of thought on what constitutes good training. In my opinion (and probably due in part to my background), which style or discipline you ultimately choose is not important - as long as you find what works for you. Different actors respond to different methods of teaching. Some actors need to work more on their imaginations in order to recall strong emotions on demand (important when shooting close-ups or auditioning). When teaching, I might give them sense-memory exercises eventually leading into an Affective Memory or Object exercise—clearly Strasberg’s “Method”. 
But another actor might need help on connecting with other actors (which keeps your acting real and anchored in the imaginary circumstances). For him I might be inclined to use some repetition exercises perhaps leading into the “Three-Moments Game”, which some will recognize as Sanford Meisner’s technique. Different strokes for different folks . . . Remember, if something doesn’t work for you, you may need to give it more time or, you may want to find a different approach; one that fits you better. One thing I have found though, is that first impressions may be misleading.  I've seen actors hate the exercises in a given technique only to find that the reason they hate it is because they really need to work on the specific skills that the exercises are focused on.  Sometimes the technique you hate is the technique you need to work on…
Konstantin Stanislavski
Funny thing is, for all the differences in their approaches—and the differences are considerable—virtually all the major methodologies of modern acting are based on one man’s teachings: Konstantin Stanislavski. That’s right, for all their differences in approach, Strasberg, Meisner,  Adler, Hagen, Harold Clurman, Michael Chekhov, Elia Kazan—all taught variations of the same man’s teachings. The more you read about them and their techniques, the more complete your “toolkit” will be.  So without pushing you toward any specific school of acting, I would like to at least get you going in a productive direction.
Sanford Meisner
Harold Clurman
Stella Adler
Michael Chekhov
Elia Kazan
No matter what technique(s) you use, I believe all would agree that there are two key areas of focus that are very important to every actor:
Research is learning everything you can about the character. An actor needs to know their character’s background, influences, religion, economic, physical pathology, yes their dialogue, and much, much more. Once you’ve learned all about your character, you learn about everyone your character speaks to and speaks about. To that same extent.
The same goes for all the places your character has been to, and refers to. Think about it, when you talk to your friends, you already know all this information – and more! You need the same safety net of knowledge in order to give an honest performance and feel confident enough to cut loose and "swing with abandon".  I use a checklist called "Treasure Hunt" to help actors ask the necessary, pertinent questions (once they ask them, the actor usually has no problem answering, or making  up answers, on their own!)
Research however, is just the first part. When you have all the research in place, then (and only then) are you ready to begin to live the life of your character. Research is the brainwork, but imagination is where the real creativity comes in. This is where a class can really help you develop and grow as an actor. Where you can work on your craft and develop skills that will serve you your entire life. Where instead of just reading about believing in the given circumstances, you can look in the other actor’s eyes, listen to their words and actually believe they are leaving you for someone else. The tears come because your imagination convinced your tear ducts that the circumstances were real. Through intense imagination work like emotional preparation exercises, improvisations, and other exercises designed to trigger real emotions in the actor, you learn to control the triggers that allow you to simply feel honest, real emotions, on demand - take after take. NOT to show or “indicate” emotions, but simply to feel them. And in film, that’s all they want. As soon as you try to show the feelings, it's "too big for the camera".
The research work is time consuming but not terribly difficult. Imagination work, on the other hand, can happen lightning fast but is often the hardest, most draining (although also the most rewarding) work an actor does.
So, Why class…?

If you are already a trained, working actor, do you still need to be in class?  For an answer, I point to an actor you may not know by name but I'm pretty sure you'll recognize his face.  William Schallert, former president of the Screen Actors Guild, has worked on an incredible 366 movies and TV shows, according to his IMDB page, dating back to 1947.  He is 92 years young and as recently as three years ago (the last time I checked), he was playing a recurring character on, not one, but TWO TV series' and one mini-series, taking class twice a week and still putting up scenes in class regularly!
Class is how you create and maintain a consummate professional actor.  

But, for the actor living and working outside Hollywood, constant work in class is also the great equalizer between himself and the actors in Hollywood.  When an actor living outside of L.A. auditions for a TV show or movie shooting in their area, they are competing with actors in L.A. who are auditioning, working, and doing scenes in class, daily. How often do YOU audition? If you aren’t working in class, you won’t be ready when they are casting the role that you would be perfect for. 
To paraphrase an excellent description of what class is, (once given by the Meisner based Neighborhood Playhouse in NYC):
 Actors are in class to experiment—to grow.
We create an atmosphere of trust, in the classroom--a place where trial and error is not only acceptable but we believe that, if you aren't making mistakes you simply aren't trying hard enough. You see, when you're performing for a camera or an audience, it's got to work
You make choices that are going to allow you, as an actor, to deliver the goods when the director says "Action". However, if you do nothing but perform, then you are stuck with what you already know works. You can't take a chance and push your limits in the workplace, because you're not sure you'll be able to deliver the goods when the cameras are rolling.
This is where class comes in. Class gives you something you never get in performance - the opportunity to fail. To go out on a tightrope saying, "I don't know if this is going to work, but I'd like to try it". Perhaps it's a disaster, but no worries. There's no audience in the classroom - just a sympathetic teacher and fellow students who are falling off tightropes as often as you are. You get the opportunity to expand your comfort zone, and thereby expand your artistry.
I teach ongoing classes in Portland, OR. and in Honolulu, HI.  and I do Skype coaching for auditions.
For more info, click on the links above, or visit my website.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Buck and Believing...

Warning: This is a very different kind of a blog post for me. It's not my usual "Actor Tip" post.  But that's okay, it contains a profound acting truth and it's a very special post to me.  Curious what you think. Feel free to comment and, if you enjoy it, please share it

Buck's acting head shot
George "Buck" Ashford came to train with me in about 2002. My guess is that he was around 65 years old – but that’s just a guess. He had no acting experience and he never had an acting class in his life. He was a very successful attorney with his own firm, in Honolulu. I couldn't help smiling at him. Perhaps it was because he was smiling at me or perhaps it was because he looked kind of like an impish little leprechaun with a flash of mischief behind his eyes.  He said he wanted to act in a movie.
I asked him why he was starting this acting business so late in life. He said “you want the truth?” I said “always”. So he told me that he had a form of lung cancer and his doctor had given him "no more than four or five years" to live.
He looked perfectly healthy and in fact seemed to have a real joy of life. I think if my doctor had given me that kind of news I would have wasted three years feeling sorry for myself. 
But that’s not Buck.
I asked how he had come to call on me. He said when his doctor gave him the news the first thing he did was to sit down and make a list of all the things he had always wanted to do, but hadn’t. Then he started doing them. One of them was to act in a film. That’s why he tracked me down. Incidentally, this was several years before the movie “The Bucket List”.
In the nearly eight years that Buck was my student I never once heard him mention his 'death sentence' to anyone. Nor did I ever hear any complaints from him. 

He’s now done two or three plays and a short film or two. 
L. to R.  Blade Rogers, Buck Ashford, Shane Thomas, Tabitha Jade in "The Lt. of Inishmore"
He argued with me in class constantly– but never about HIS work, always about others and always saying that I was being too negative and that he really liked their work. His hearing sucked and he would bleed very easily but when we did physical exercises he was often the first to volunteer and always one of the most committed and physical participants. He told long, sloooow stories that – if you’re patient enough – always payed off with a great big laugh. He threw a hell of a wrap party and although I learn from my students on a daily basis, he taught me more about life than any student I’ve ever had.
So, what’s the point? Why am I sharing all this? What does this have to do with acting? 
Admittedly, not much. 
But I honestly believe that if Buck had gone into acting instead of law he would have made it. Big. I honed his skills and taught him the craft of acting but he already possessed that rare child-like ability of being able to immerse himself in a role; To believe, to some extent, in the imaginary circumstances. Or as Sanford Meisner summed up the art of acting, "To live truthfully under the given imaginary circumstances."  He also, at let’s say 65+ years old, never gave a damn what people thought about him (a great trait for an actor) and he could learn lines better than my twenty or thirty year old students. 
It's been my experience that most actors attach less importance to using their imagination than they should and instead, pay more attention to memorizing lines (than they should).  To illustrate the value of imagination in your work, I'll share part of a critique of Buck's work in one of his early classes with me.
One word of caution. Buck sometimes used rather “colorful" language so if you are easily offended by what I have to call his 'Straight Talk', stop reading. I just wouldn’t feel right changing his words.
BUCK - Monologue

SCOTT: Good job. I only have one note but I think it will affect a number of things. First, what was your objective - and I want you to say it in 5 words or less.
BUCK: (Thinks for a minute) They’re assholes. I’m not.
SCOTT: Okaaaay…, that may be true, but that’s just 2 facts, not an objective. I want to know what you want. And preferably what you want from the person you’re talking to.
BUCK: I want to be treated with respect if our children get married. I’m not such a burn out after all.
SCOTT: OK, So three words – “I want respect”.
SCOTT: Ok, so what’s the obstacle to that? What's getting in the way?
BUCK: They’re assholes.
SCOTT: Okay, and how did it make you feel when they disrespected you?
BUCK: Like shit.
SCOTT: I’m looking for an emotion…

SCOTT: Good. Exactly right...except you didn’t actually feel mad in the scene, did you? (He thinks about it, smiles and shakes his head, sheepishly, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.) I think that would have helped you. If you are really trying to get respect and the people disrespect you – THAT causes you to actually feel an emotion, in this case mad. You see if you can’t state your objective clearly and concisely, it's more difficult to actually go after it and that is what drives your scene. That drive was the only thing missing from your work tonight. But I’ll bet it won’t be missing next time.
(To the class) Did you notice, just past the middle of his monologue, he messed up his lines? I would almost call it severe. He kept talking so it wasn’t easy to spot. I always look at the eyes because often, when something unexpected happens- that’s where the actor comes out. But I didn’t see that in Buck's eyes. I simply saw his character deciding what to say next. Some actors have to work years to be able to do that seamlessly; Buck just does it naturally. But that’s exactly what you want to do—react as the character and stay in the scene. Good work, Buck.

In 2007 Buck bought a boat in Portugal. He began to sail it home to Hawaii (another item on his 'bucket list'). He was injured in a fall in the Canary Islands (I mentioned earlier, he's a bleeder). He continued sailing to Antigua where he was airlifted to a Florida hospital. But that didn’t deter Buck. He met the boat on the Island of Hawai´i and sailed it back to Honolulu. 

Buck, as I'll always remember him
In 2010 Buck passed away. He lived almost twice as long as they had said he would. He went to work every day and took me to lunch every couple of weeks. Speaking to me from the hospital, two days before he died, he told me he was planning his next voyage—to Tahiti…
Everybody dies. But not everybody lives. 

Buck Ashford Lived.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Actor Preparation vs Actor Planning

One theme that keeps coming up in my classes is the difference between Preparing and Planning. I always say, “Preparation is good but Planning is bad”. 

Simply put:
Preparation: is all the research and imagination work you do on your character and their relationships. Knowing your character inside out is important if you want to really feel what they would feel under the given circumstances.

Planning: is deciding what you should feel or express and when. For example, deciding to cry at a certain point in the script or deciding to get angry at a certain point or even deciding to drop your head, roll your eyes, sigh… These things should happen because they are triggered and not because you have decided they should happen.

This is very important when you work in TV. Unlike acting on stage, when you act on TV (and in many movies) there is effectively NO rehearsal. You see, as an actor, until you are on set and ready to shoot, you never know what the director is going to want, how the scene will be staged, what the set looks like, or how the other actor will be saying his lines. The more you plan, the more you will be thrown when things don’t go the way you planned – and they WON’T. The scene you rehearsed so diligently in your trailer, which takes place on a park bench, in the script, may be shot as a walk-and-talk (a scene shot while the characters are walking and talking). Or the scene you rehearsed as a confrontation in a bar could easily be shot as a scene at a horse race or at the beach.  You just don't know until you're there, "on the day".

This isn't to say there is absolutely no planning that takes place.  Naturally, there is.  You will have to hit your marks, violence must be staged,
the director may even want you to cry on a specific line.  Your job is to make these planned moments appear completely spontaneous and triggered. That's difficult enough without adding planned moments of your own into the mix! Also, all of your plans are made without taking the other actor into account.  The choices they make will (ideally) change your own choices and plans.  Or, more likely, they will throw you, since you weren't expecting their choice.  If this happens you will find that you will avoid listening to the other actor because it throws you!  Now you're acting in a vacuum and that is never a good thing.  You won't be REACTING to them at all.

Think of your preparation as building a foundation from which to soar. You are building a platform 50 feet high. The stronger you make it, the more it will support you when the time comes to push off from it and fly. At some point you will have to take a leap of faith and trust that you will fly.   

If however, you try to plan out every step you will take when you leave the platform, that’s akin to building a path to walk on, instead of flying. When you do this, you end up spending all your energy trying to stay on the path (you don’t want to FALL!). Well, when the director or the other actors do things that you don’t expect it’s like they’re throwing unexpected turns in your path. All your focus ends up on staying on the path and the more you try to stay on it, the harder it becomes. Instead of flying with abandon you are struggling to stay on a rickety track that is falling apart as you take each step.

That's no way to act! this forces you to actually avoid listening to the other actors because they are liable to throw you and instead causes you to focus on yourself so your performance will go as you planned no matter what the other actors say or do. I call this "acting in a vacuum" and it isn't a good thing!  So instead, Prepare like crazy: Do imagination work on your character and their relationships, do research, study the pathology of your character and, of course, learn your lines!!  Once you have done all that, you've built yourself a platform from which to soar.  It's time to let go of everything (your safety net is strong!) and take that giant leap of faith!  It's the only way to fly.

And would you want to act any other way?

As always, if you enjoyed this post, please SHARE...

Monday, January 13, 2014

Playing "Cover"

Here's a "trick" I use on set when coaching an actor who is playing cover. I call it a "trick" because it isn't really technique. But it's a way to get a great performance out of an actor in a specific situation, quickly.  And it works, so I want to teach it to you.

There are always scenes wherein your character must hide or "cover" their true feelings and show something else, to whoever they are talking to in the scene. For example, suppose your character is secretly in love with a guy who likes you as a sister. He starts telling you about this girl he really likes which makes you feel sad and hurt, desperately so. Now, you don’t want him to see that hurt so you must cover it with something, let’s say happiness. 

The common mistake is either to play too much of the surface emotion (happiness) or to play too much of the underlying emotion (sadness). Some actors will try to play both and we see neither because the two emotions have cancelled each other out. So, what to do? 

I’ve used this trick for actors playing cover many, many times, (especially when the actor’s work is a little obvious). I take them aside and do this exercise right before they shoot the close-ups. Literally a few moments before "action". They end up doing a much deeper and more multi-leveled performance, and everyone on set thinks I am a brilliant coach. Truth is, they only have to do this simple trick!

First the actor must trigger and really feel the underlying emotion – right before you shoot and then, really cover it, just as you would in real life. Here's what I tell the actor on set - and I try to do this right before they're ready to shoot the close-ups:

"Let's read this one time together.  I want you to focus only on the underlying emotion. Don’t cover it at all; just let it all out as you say the lines. Don’t worry, you aren’t going to perform it this way but it’s important that you truly feel that underlying emotion so really let it out as you speak."

So, in the example from above, the actress would play the hurt and possibly the anger of having to listen to him talk about this girl he likes while she's secretly in love with him.  She would focus completely on feeling that pain and anger as she says all of her lines for me, without trying to hide it at all.  

Then, right away, we shoot the scene, while she's still feeling the emotions from a moment ago. and I tell her:

"This time play only the cover.  Simply, truthfully try to hide the pain and anger from him. Don't let him see it!" 

What ends up happening is that the actress ends up feeling real pain and, actually covering it!  Just like she would in real life. It creates a layered, nuanced performance that is truthful and powerful at the same time. We see the pain behind her eyes but she looks like she's really hiding it from him. 

Damn that actress is good! ;)

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