You need to know more than you know but less than you think
You cannot improve on real life. Real life trumps any concocted acting effort every time. I’m going to give you an example of a scene unfolding in real life and compare it to an actor preparing to play the same scene. I’m going to pick a very sad and brutal scene that occurs in life all too often and I’m picking this powerful moment because I want to use a real life scene that should never be trivialized. It is a scene concerning ethnic cleansing.
Here is the scene: An opposing faction has entered a small village and is preparing to lay it to waste. The leader of this opposing tribe has the 10-year-old son of one of the village elders and is threatening to castrate him on the spot. The boy will bleed out and die within minutes. The father of this boy enters the fray, and in the midst of this madness, has to plead for his son’s life. The father recognizes the leader. When they were kids they used to be friends and neighbors but now, in one of life’s cruel twists, find themselves in this impossible situation. Think of being the father in this scene. Use your empathy to imagine what this poor man is facing and the impossible task at hand. Don’t imagine acting the scene. Just imagine yourself as the father and imagine the situation you’re facing. Horrific, isn’t it? It conveys a tragic sadness beyond words.
Now let’s imagine the actor who has been given the role of playing the father in this tragic tale. This actor is mature and sensitive enough to understand the importance of honorably and properly playing this scene. He will do everything in his acting power to respect this unfortunate and all too common situation by bringing forth one of his most compassionate and convincing performances to date. The actor begins his work; he secludes himself in a room and turns off his phone. He puts on his favorite calfskin slippers and drapes his lucky acting sweater on his shoulders. He sets down on his desk a cup of his favorite oolong tea with just the right amount of honey in it. He roles up his sleeves and gets down to work.
He first highlights his lines and begins reading them aloud. He takes note of where the screenwriter has used all caps and yells those lines, playing with various intensities and emotional shadings. He takes out a red pen and marks in the script the various emotional beats as he sees them so he will be sure to know when to switch emotional gears at the exact right moment. He dutifully underlines all the “action verbs” to further clarify and crystallize his performance. He makes a list of actions for each line. This actor is pulling out all the stops because he is a professional and he knows this part affords him the performance of a lifetime.
Now he gets comfortable in his favorite chair and drops into a relaxation exercise so he may begin some emotional recall work. He does this because there is a place in the script where it says, “Through tears of rage!” And while this actor has never had a son, he had a dog once. He allows himself to drift back to a time when he confronted his parents with the truth about a lie he had been told. His dog Sparky hadn’t run off to live on a farm, he had been run over by a tractor trailer on highway 14 on the other side of the park! He feels a tearful rage course through his veins. He’s actually crying. This guy is getting down to some serious business. He stops to sip his tea. The oolong has gotten cold but he doesn’t care, he’s a professional.
Now that he’s emotionally tuned up and has a handle on his scene, he decides to get on his feet with the script. He arranges some pillows and couch cushions. The larger pile represents the opposing warlord and the smaller pile represents his son. With script in hand he goes after the cushions, he pleads with the big cushions to let the little cushions go. He modulates his performance in accordance with the red lines and notes in his script. He gets confused for a moment and yells at the small cushions. He starts again, this time yelling at the large cushions and tries for; “through tears of rage!” but no tears, the memory of Sparky is gone. He decides to take a break and make a fresh pot of tea.
I’ve given you a not too uncommon example of how most actors approach their work. I’ve done it to underscore my belief that most busywork and over thought techniques are disrespectful to real human experience and reduce noble storytelling to cheap parlor tricks. If you want to take on the responsibility of telling this father’s story, then tell it with the same dignity and honesty he tells it with. The father didn’t need a red pen to figure out how he felt. If you don’t have the empathy to understand the sadness of a father who is about to lose his son without having to first underline your “action verbs” or do emotional recall work, maybe acting isn’t for you.
Imagine watching a film of that actual scene occurring in real life. Imagine how gut wrenching it would be to see. I’m sure it would be something you’d never forget. The truth is, this story of the father and his son is real. The father was forced to watch his son die.
Do actors actually believe they could give a more riveting performance than the actual father? Would an actor be that arrogant? Let’s hope not. So then, here’s a thought; how about we respect this father’s story by telling it the same way he would? How about we only concern ourselves with the thoughts, desires, and tools he would have? How about we become brave enough to walk into the arena armed only with what a father would have and fight with all the compassion we could muster? If we agree that we couldn’t improve on the father’s sincerity and desire to save his son, doesn’t it stand to reason that if we could keep our work as pure as possible, thinking more like people and less like actors, the better off we’d be?
Since actors never play themselves in their own lives, there will always be additional information you will need to acquire. How much information? You will always need to know more than you know but much less than you think. Before I share with you an approach I’ve developed in my over thirty years of teaching, I think I should give you a little background first.
I’m a teacher, not because it gives me something to do in between acting jobs, but because it is something I was born to do. My father was a brilliant teacher. He began teaching the year after he graduated high school and continued till he was ninety three. It’s no wonder that all of his sons became teachers. My brothers became successful sport coaches, and at twenty three I began to teach acting. Because of my father, every experience I have in life is always framed as a lesson and I’m a better teacher for it.
I think it’s also important I share a particular moment in my life that was to shape how I would confront future challenges. I’ve always had a fascination with vintage cars, especially British cars from the 50’s and 60’s. When I was seventeen I was lucky enough to spend a summer apprenticing with a brilliant British mechanic named Bill Crook. One day I noticed an old toolbox in the corner with an assortment of odd handmade tools sticking out of the box. I picked out one of the tools. It was a very long screwdriver with an odd bent wrench welded to the end. I asked Bill, “What’s this?” He explained, “Oh, that’s for a clutch job on a ’69 Alfa Romeo. The book allows mechanics to charge 12 hours labor to replace the clutch because you have to pull the engine out to do it. You have to pull the engine out because there is one bolt you can’t get to. I made that tool to reach that bolt and as a result I can drop the transmission without removing the engine. So I can do the job in 3 hours instead of 12.”
Here is what the man that I idolized taught me that day: Just because something is in a book and just because everyone does what the book says doesn’t mean you can’t come up with a better way. It should also be noted that these special tools in this special box were so odd and large, they literally stuck “outside the box.”
When I was twenty five I designed and built a theater in Los Angeles. For the next ten years I directed and produced every show put on at the theater. The income I made came from my classes and our box office receipts. For me to live comfortably the shows had to be hits and my classes had to be full.
Since the shows were live and since we never knew what night the big reviewers would be there, I had to use the best approach I could to motivate and direct my actors to be consistently great. Whatever method I used had to work night after night. Whatever approach I taught in my classes had to get results or actors would stop showing up. I had to succeed and in all honesty it didn’t matter what approach I used as long as what I used worked. What would it matter to me if I used an existing method? If it worked, it worked. It’s not like I’d have to pay royalties for using someone else’s ideas. For ten years that theater was my personal laboratory. I lived next door to it so I was at every performance. I not only learned from all of the reviews we received but most importantly, I learned from my audiences.
After ten years and thirty shows I closed the theater. I then wrote, directed, and starred in a feature film. It was shown in 14 film festivals and won best comedy feature in the three festivals it competed in. After that I traveled across the United States as well as to Sidney, Australia, and across Canada teaching weekend seminars on Acting and the Business. I spent 8 years in Toronto as a lead actor in various television shows including one I co-created and starred in. I co-wrote all 26 episodes.
I have, through my theater, TV series, and various film projects auditioned over ten thousand actors. I’m listing all these accomplishments not to brag but to make a point. As far as teachers go, you would be hard pressed to find one living today who has been teaching as long, who has the diversified accomplishments I do, and who has put his ideas and methods to the test as much as I have. I am not a teacher who has spent his career in a room teaching. I’ve been a working professional the entire time I’ve been teaching. I know exactly what is expected in an audition and on set.
I train actors with an approach that works in practical application. I train actors to be working professionals. I don’t train them to be classroom actors. What does that mean? I’ll give you an example. Unlike almost every school I know of, I do not allow actors to rehearse together outside of class. I don’t allow it because in the real world, actors do not get together and rehearse their scenes. If you’re lucky enough to get a TV or film job, you will barely meet your co-star before you are blocking the scene for the cameras in front of the crew. I don’t allow actors to practice something they will never get a chance to do because the only chance they’ll have to do it is in someone else’s acting class and that’s not what I train actors for.
The approach I’m going to share with you is the sum total of all my experiences in this business. It is the most effective way I’ve found to get actors to do their best work. It is clear. It instills confidence. It empowers the actor by showing you how to use your common sense to access the same intuitive creativity that has instinctively powered your communication your entire life.
And unlike most approaches to acting, you’re not going to have to pull the engine to get it done. I’m going to ask you to set aside what’s in all those books out there and think outside the box with me.