Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How to Act Like a Good Actor in a Kajillion (Sixteen) Easy Steps

Hi reader.

This is not acting 101. That's down the hall. This is acting 001. This is the class you should take before you approach the stage.

You probably know me in real life. Let's pretend you don't for a minute and I'll give you my qualifications.

I began my serious theatrical training as a kid at First Stage Milwaukee. It was also there that I began my professional career, working with directors and actors who were often the same actors that belonged to the Milwaukee Rep, the Spring Green Players, and other regional theaters. It must be understood that my early training came in the professional theatre, from those at the top of the game, and that I never knew that this wasn't the norm. The lessons I learned there should be the norm, and they're what you'll be learning today.

I have since gotten my B.A. at the University of Washington and been a professional actor in Los Angeles for the past 3 years. I also spent several years as a stage manager.

The following rules are so important that I would rather work with a pile of gloop who follows these rules than Meryl Streep if she didn't (though I'm sure she does). These rules are not made to be broken, they're made to create a safe space. Some call them etiquette, but that's not a strong enough word. These rules are fundamental to the trust necessary to make art.

In your professional life:

1. No touching (without permission)
We learn this in grade school. I know, your 101 teacher says, "Touch is communication." or something. Great! Grand! They aren't inherently wrong. Touch is powerful. BUT ASK PERMISSION.

Improv, for better or worse, is a huge part of the audition process now. I don't know how many times I see actors who have never met smack, kiss, push... LIFT... their scene partner.

First of all, if you don't ask permission, you don't know what's going on. MAYBE (and this isn't remotely unlikely) they have an ailment: recent surgery, chronic back pain, a compromised immune system. Maybe you even know them- know them well, even, but it just happened this morning that they twisted their ankle.

Listen. If you haven't asked permission of your fellow actor to touch them, and you feel compelled to, transform that frustration into something good for the scene without touching them.

DON'T TOUCH. Not gently, not harshly, not at all. Accidents happen, but they needn't happen as often as they do. Be spatially aware if you're flailing. Losing yourself in the scene is not a sign that you're really acting well... it's a sign that you're dangerous. It's why rehearsals exist. So you can lose yourself in a way that signals to your fellow actors that you're not truly lost and dangerous.

2. Is just a reiteration of 1. Listen, we're not soldiers or fire-fighters. Ability to overcome fear of physical danger should not be a part of our interview process. I should not walk into an audition and know that I'm going to have to list off my specific ailments because my scene partner might want to lift me, smack me, kiss me. If we're going in together, we should talk about whether or not any of those things might happen, and our level of comfort with them... and we still probably shouldn't because stage combat is choreographed by professionals to be exceptionally safe, and is not just a matter of "well, I like roughhousing with my buddies". Is two full rules dedicated to the NO TOUCHING rule enough? Probably not, but I can see there's a point of diminishing returns, so let's move on.

3. Take the note.
Listen to the note and try to incorporate the note into your performance. Take the note.

Don't argue with the note. Maybe later, if you're not feeling good, talk to the ASM, SM, AD, or Director about what's not working for you (but probably not), but don't ever waste everybody's time by arguing with the note while they're standing around listening and before you've even tried it.

MAYBE you have a clarifying question. Probably not. If you think you do, ask yourself, "Do I really?" and while you're taking the time to do that, they will have moved past you, and we will all be thankful that you didn't get to ask your question. Of course, if something feels unsafe, take it to an AD. If the note you got was "Slam your head into that wall made of glass shards harder."... talk to the ASM before you get to that scene. And call the police. All well and good. Though ideally, you can figure it out, and they can give you a new note if it's still not what they want.

Let's back up. What? This is 001. What's a note? There are many circumstances in which you get notes. The most obvious is when there's a notes session after a run-through. Then there's getting some sideline coaching: the director is talking to you as the scene goes along, pushing you towards some choices... or maybe it's some blocking direction. I DON'T KNOW; I'M NOT THERE IN THE ROOM WITH YOU. Or... I dunno, the writer has new lines. That's kind of like a note.

In the moment that you get the note, there is nothing to be gained by arguing. You haven't tried it yet. Plus, it's a waste of everybody's time. Take the damn note. And if you can at all avoid it, no questions. If you're unsure, make a strong choice with what the note might mean next time you do it. Now, if you're flabbergasted, and you've gotten the note a second time, find a time when it's just you and (preferably) the stage manager or (if necessary) the director, and ask your questions. But in the moment you get the note, the whole company is probably there. They don't all need the answer to your question. Only you do (probably). So leave it between you and the SM or note-giver.

BTW: notes are anything that would influence your performance, including suggestions, commands, hints, questions, leading questions, and gestures. Also other things. I hope you know a note when you see one, but only experience will teach you truly how to identify the wild and pernicious note in its natural habitat. I'm not entirely certain what pernicious means.

4. Keep your notes to yourself.
You have your own notes for another actor? Shut up. You want them to do X so you can do Y? Shut up. If you really really really really have a good idea... well, maybe you do. Let the SM, ASM or AD know. They'll take it to the director, and they'll decide if it's good and pass it on to whomever needs it.


Under which circumstances? NONE. Nada. Nil. Not your f-ing job.

Why am I so angry? Because it's the internet. Shut up. I think it's funny when I tell imaginary people to shut up. I would never tell you real people to shut up. This is a thing I'm doing because it's the internet and all my subjects are imaginary. Shut up.

5. No one gives notes but the director (or Stage Manager, ASM or AD... you know).
Similar to 4, but don't take notes from someone whose job it isn't to give them. And by notes, I mean any suggestions or anything.  See BTW of 3. I would even be wary of designers giving notes. Basically, any note you get, take it to your ASM as a question.

5.1 is "respect the chain of command", I guess. Director>Stage Manager (AD)>ASM>You

6. Be efficient.
I mean, seriously, don't follow my example in this blog. I haven't been remotely efficient. But you. You should be an efficient actor. I don't mean that as an acting note. I mean, that's often good advice, but it's not one of these etiquette rules. What I mean is: fine, you're late. That sucks. You shouldn't have been late. I should add that to the rules. But now that you're late, apologizing is just going to take up time. A quick, quiet, "I'm sorry" during a 5 minute break is considerate. Any more is a waste of time. Interrupting the work to apologize is inconsiderate. If you broke rules 1 and 2, stop breaking those rules, but leave it to the Stage Manager or Director to stop the scene. If you're working on your own, without an SM or D, I dunno. Stop? Hopefully you didn't break those rules. Hopefully your scene partner is confident enough to stop you and make sure they aren't more injured than they might be. But hope is for kids on Christmas Eve. So do stop, if you have touched someone in an unrehearsed way. Take it on yourself. You done f-ed up.

But otherwise: Be efficient.

7. Don't break.
Jimmy Fallon has made a career out of breaking. Wonderful. The outtakes on DVDs? Wonderful. Don't emulate them. It's part of 6, but also its own thing. Belief is... something we'll get to. But wait for "cut" to break. Even if you think the take is ruined because your scene partner broke, if they didn't say "cut", stay in it. This goes for stage work with sideline coaching in rehearsal, too. Or Whatever. I'm not saying "Method" or "Daniel Day-Lewis". I'm not not saying that, either, but that's not what I'm talking about. I'm saying: Stay in the reality of the imaginary circumstances, even when that's difficult. That's kind of the point. Your director is yelling, "Pinker, pinker... I said PLAY IT PINKER!" because your director is kind of bad at directing, and your scene partner is cracking up, because they think this'll be a great DVD extra, even though it's just a read-through for a stage show... No Exit and the Beast (a Disney/Sartre mash-up), in fact- YOU STAY IN YOUR MOMENT. Screw them and their inability to make art. You are Gaston, and there is nothing funny about hell to you.

8. Be on time.

9. Always be willing to run lines.
This is less a rule than a personal preference. I, Brendan, get too few opportunities to be in the same room as my scene partners. So I like to use those opportunities to run lines. I get it. Everybody needs a break. So it's not a rule. But I certainly like running lines.

10. Know your lines.

11. Rehearsal is always good.
WTF is with people who are like "I don't want to over-rehearse"? That's not a thing. If you feel over-rehearsed, you haven't rehearsed enough. Get to a point where you can find new, exciting choices because you're so comfortable with the material, it's not holding you back. When you have rehearsed enough, you are always excited to do it again. If that isn't the case, consider a career in not-acting. There's no reason to be in this game if you don't love it. Even if you're making money at it, get out of the way of the people who love it. Rehearsing is acting (and auditioning is acting). Love it. Love it or leave it.

12. Leave it all outside (or inside).
Leave your magnificent morning or awful afternoon at the "there is a world outside of this" coat check. Or in your magical imaginary treasure box. Or whatever. This space you enter: the one where you make art? It is purely for that art. You have been shaped by your life. Your training prepared you to be here. But now that you're here? Trust that it's all there, and leave it all outside, including preconceived notions about your training. Beginner's mind is a thing. Look it up.

Also leave it inside. When you leave that pure art space, leave it. If you take it with you, you'll muddy it. Still, you know, do your work, but always exit the "other world" space... This has left the etiquette rules bit and moved into esoteric theory territory. Let's leave it as: to make sure everybody is comfortable and safe, don't talk about what happened in rehearsal outside of rehearsal, and don't talk about what happened outside in life in rehearsal.

Like, they're two separate thoughts, really. To clarify:

Getting there and complaining (or celebrating) about your life violates rule 6.

Talking about what happened in rehearsal outside of rehearsal violates rule 16. (What? I haven't written that yet? Untrue. You just haven't read it yet.)

13. Go to the stage manager first (or ASM ... or AD).
Just... their job is to be the go-between between actors and production. They know best when to bring up things with the director so it doesn't slow anything down. Respect that.

14. Take your problems to someone who can do something about them.
If you have a problem with your paycheck, talk to payroll. If you have a safety issue, go to the SM. If you have a problem with... anything else I can think of, go to the SM. But don't complain to your fellow actors about something they can't do anything about.

15. Speak up.
In an appropriate fashion, if something makes you uncomfortable, tell the ASM or AD... unless they're the ones making you uncomfortable. Really. For all my ranting and yelling at imaginary internet people, your safety is paramount. Your comfort. Your ability to trust. Without it, you can't make art. Seriously. I mean, I guess there are legends of those incredibly awful sets that made good art... Like Kubrick or whatever... you know, there's this idea out there that suffering produces greatness, and if people weren't suffering before, they should be suffering because then they'll act better. I throw my hands up. I think people are capable of tremendous things. I think people perform better on all tasks when they have an environment they can trust. So if people are doing things that make you uncomfortable, tell someone in charge (or if it's the in charge people, call your union... if you don't have one, weigh the pros and cons of being a part of this production. You might still want to do it, but know that you won't be as happy with the outcome as you would like. Seriously. If it doesn't get better on set, you're not going to be pleased later).

You know what makes you uncomfortable better than me, so I won't give examples. But know that your small discomfort is worth letting someone who can do something about it know about it.

16. Be trustworthy.
And respect boundaries. I mean for reals. Keep secrets. Scoff at no one and nothing. If you have an idea that someone doesn't like something you're doing, stop doing it. And people share deep down moments and beauty with you when they're in the safe space. Don't violate that safe space by assuming (even in praise) that they want that shared elsewhere.