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Who Needs Stanislavsky?

Stephen in Uncle Vanya

Originally appeared in Backstage Jan. 23, 2014.

I always went to acting classes with a mixture of reverence and confusion. Everything sounded logical and simple—even holy. How can you argue with phrases like “24-hour emotional life” and “sense memory”? I felt confident I knew what I was doing until my next audition. I kept wondering when I was supposed to use my “magic if.”

I blame Stanislavsky. I’m sure he meant well. He was probably one of the greatest directors of the last century. But talking about his ideas can become like getting tequila drunk: eventually all you have is the headache.

I know that “playing the emotion” is disastrous. Emotions change rapidly. Every take, every performance is different. I go through 50 or 60 emotions waiting in line at Starbucks.

We live in an era when actors put a high value in finding the emotional truth of a part, unless they’re in a “Transformers” movie. Is there any other “method” that approaches the problem of finding truth in a simpler way?

Perhaps. The joy of this method is that it is Stanislavsky adjacent.

Michael Chekhov was one of the leading actors in Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater. He was the nephew of the great playwright Anton Chekhov. He had his own system of acting that is simplicity itself. Chekhov said there were only three types of characters. That’s it. Three. Head, heart, and groin characters.

Head characters walk on the balls of their feet. They sit forward in chairs. All gestures seem to come from the head, as does all of the emotional energy.

Heart characters walk flat on their feet. Balanced. They sit upright. All gestures come from the center of their being. Chekhov noted that the heroes and heroines in Shakespeare are heart characters.

Groin characters walk with a low center of energy. They slouch into a chair. They lean back. All gestures come from the hip. On HBO’s “Deadwood,” almost all of the characters had a groin-centered energy. I suspect this came from wearing gun belts. Costumes make a difference.

It sounds simplistic. I know. But try it out at a grocery store and see what happens. Note how your energy and rhythms shift. I have found this method of acting has enormous value.

Try it yourself. Rehearse an audition piece using the three different placements of energy. It always affects the scene and often in an interesting way. Use it as a tool to look beyond the conventional. If you are reading for the part of a scientist, conventional wisdom says “head character.” Flip it. Try it as a groin character. If you have a voiceover and the director gives you three takes, try switching from head to heart to a groin-centered energy. You will have three completely different reads at your fingertips.

The results are not as robotic as you might think. The physical can lead to the emotional. Ask any dancer. Just for fun, look into Michael Chekhov’s three types of characters. If nothing else, it’s easy to remember.


Stephen Tobolowsky is an actor, author of “The Dangerous Animals Club,” and teaches improvisation for Kalmenson and Kalmenson.

It’s a Brave New (Media) World

gringo planet solo

Originally appeared in Backstage Jan. 9, 2014.

I recently finished my first experiences acting in “new media.” “New media” means shooting a project that usually airs on a computer—like a show for Hulu or Netflix. I’m not sure of the wisdom of calling it “new.” Even cave paintings were new once.

The new media agreement is a contract in which you get a very small amount of money on the front end with the promise of getting something big on the back end later. Show business has a long history of giving performers something big on the back end.

The question is: Is new media the new paradigm for the actor?

The short version: We shot a lot, an awfully lot, in a very short time. One day we shot over 25 pages. I was hallucinating on the drive home. One of the actors was laughing and saying it was like summer stock for movies. I saw the comparison. When I did summer stock I slept in a barn; I had to pee in the woods; and we put up “The Importance of Being Earnest” in five days.

I found working in new media an interesting study in how the tail wags the dog. The “tail” in this metaphor is that there is no money for production. Consequently, new media is shot on very affordable, high-definition cameras.

In the days of film, the length of a shot was limited to the size of the camera magazine—about eight minutes. The high cost of film and processing limited the number of takes you could shoot.

Not anymore.

Media for high-def cameras is cheap. You can shoot endless takes. You can shoot long takes. You can shoot long takes and keep the cameras running while the director and producers get a cup of tea and talk over what scene to shoot next.

As an unintentional consequence, the age of new media is bringing back an old discipline: theater training. Ten years ago, it was possible to run into successful actors who had never been in a play. In the world of new media, training matters. Actors have to be able to pull off long dialogue scenes. They have to understand how to improvise. They have to contribute to the breadth and tone of the entire piece. As onstage, the actor has more control of his final performance.

During the two projects I worked on, it was not uncommon for directors to say, “We may keep the cameras running when the scene is over—so have fun. Come up with something.” Long-form improvisation is not a gift. It is a skill. New media has become the arena where the actor can develop those skills in a performance environment.

Actors have always had to adapt to new technical requirements. Aeschylus required masks. George Lucas made acting with green screens part of the landscape. From the looks of it, new media’s reliance on theater skills could be the beginning of the new good-old days.



Originally posted Dec. 19, 2013

I was in Richmond, Va., making a stop on my book tour for The Dangerous Animals Club. A sweet woman came up to the book table after my show. She pleasantly assured me she was not going to buy a book. She said she just wanted to ask me a question: How did I get into acting and how did I manage to stay in it?

How long do we have?

I was tired from the performance. She already warned me she was not going to buy a book so I didn’t want to burn up essential calories with a long response. I said, “Persistence,” without thinking. It seemed like a good answer. Not exactly original, but it still covered a lot of bases.

She laughed and shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, sure. That’s true with everything, right?”

A light went on in my brain. She was right. Righter than she knew. I said, “Yes, but not in the way you mean. Success is a product of persistence. So is failure. We become whatever we’re persistent at. I had friends who were always 20 minutes late—persistently late. You could set your watch by them. I know people who persistently sabotage themselves. They don’t prepare enough for auditions. They don’t learn their lines. They are rude to the crew. Persistently.”

Actors talk about methods. A lot of the time our “methods” of working are a series of habits, good and bad, we developed sometime in the past for odd reasons.

My first-born had colic when was he was a few weeks old. That meant nonstop crying every night. The only way to stop the crying was to drive him in the car from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Every evening I loaded him up and drove him to Santa Barbara and back. I took the scripts I was working on with me. To this day I work on my lines in the car. It has become part of my “method.”

Habits feel comfortable. I remember the words of my ex-acting teacher and dungeon master, Ed Kaye-Martin. He was a brilliant man. All who studied with him were lucky. Ed said, “Comfort is the enemy of the artist.”

I wasn’t crazy about Ed’s statement in grad school. I was uncomfortable all of the time and still wasn’t an artist. I see the wisdom of it now. People persistently take the easy path. It’s human nature to look for the answers at the back of the book. We often see the effort in finding better habits as a problem to be avoided. In doing so, we persistently shortchange ourselves.

As actors, we know we can become anything with enough rehearsal. Take the time to look at what you do persistently. If you don’t like how you are spending your time and your efforts, change the schedule. No matter what your passion is, the power to redraw the map of your life is the first tool of being an artist.

Harold Ramis

Photo-illustration by Slate. Photo by Matt Carmichael/Getty Images

Photo-illustration by Slate. Photo by Matt Carmichael/Getty Images

I was greatly saddened to hear of the passing of great director Harold Ramis this week.  I felt especially honored that Slate asked me to do an article remembering him, and that International Business Week ran a piece encapsulating comments I made on the Reddit AMA I did Monday (scheduled last week before the unexpected passing of Harold).

Article at Slate: here

International Business Times: here

If you are wanting more on Groundhog Day, here’s a direct link to The Tobolowsky Files podcast episode 29, The Classic.

Why Acting Is So Horrible

happy and dog

Originally posted Dec. 5, 2013

I had a revelation a couple of months ago. It wasn’t a big revelation. I had suspected it for some time: Something awful always happens when you act.

By chance, I happened to be working on three jobs at the same time. This is not because I was popular. I had gone several months at the beginning of the year without an audition. This was bad timing. I had to do a night shoot on a movie in Los Angeles, shoot a project in Virginia, then fly back and shoot a pilot. This was all supposed to happen over a seven-day period including travel.

It meant no sleep. Stealing food off of craft service trucks. It meant eight days of panic. I kept saying to myself, “If only I had time!”

Working on the first movie, “Men’s Group,” we had to shoot nine to 10 pages each day to make our schedule. It was relentless. Again, there was no time.

One evening we got into a long scene featuring Tim Bottoms. Tim gave an effortless and powerful performance. Cast and crew congratulated him afterward. The problem was, because of the schedule, we could only shoot the master that day. We had to pick up his close-ups starting at 6:30 a.m. the next day. It seemed like cruel and unusual punishment to force an actor to stay “in the zone” of a difficult scene overnight. Tim shrugged it off. He said, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

It made me think of all of the times I was upset having to do my close-up first thing after lunch. Or last up at the end of a day. Acting with a dog in “Garfield.” Acting with a C stand and a piece of green tape when certain stars preferred to stay in their trailers. On “Deadwood” they never washed your costumes. On “Heroes” you had no idea what you were doing. On “Glee” you had to dance. Horrible.

The revelation: You never have the right circumstances to do your job. The horrible isn’t the exception. It is the rule.

Crisis management is never part of the acting curriculum. That’s too bad. Rolling with the punches is key to success in this business. It’s not whether you can cry on cue. It’s whether you can cry on cue, in a windstorm, while drinking a fake beer out of a dirty glass.

How do you do that? I’m not really sure. Grab onto the story like it’s the mane of a runaway horse? That helps sometimes. The one thing I do know: It happens to everyone. It’s not just you. Recently, I have tried a mental adjustment that seems to work: Don’t look at calamities as a wall between you and your work. Think of them as little surprises life is giving you to keep it fresh.

The unexpected is like a jacket you buy at a garage sale. It never seems to fit when you first try it on, but somehow, it becomes what we love the most.

My Greatest Performance


Originally published Nov. 21, 2013.

Photo Source: Clay Rodery

It is always interesting to talk to actors to see why they pursued this strange career of legally pretending to be other people. Like any neurosis, it often centers on something from childhood.

It could have been a desire to be Dorothy in the “The Wizard of Oz.” Children often imagine it’s fun to do things like dancing with lions or flying in tornados.

It could have been a belief that what actors did in movies was real. When parents explain the facts of life to their children, they should be required to include a brief explanation of green screens.

It could have been fame. To win an Academy Award. I remember being 10 years old, practicing my best-actor speech in the shower. I won that year against Gary Cooper. I began by thanking all of the people who helped me get to this moment. Even as children we are aware that humility takes a lot of practice.

For me, it was all and none of these things.

In truth, my love for acting came from my greatest performance. I was five. I was in first grade in Sunday school. Our teacher asked all of the boys to get up and play David in his pre-Goliath days, back when he was a shepherd, tending his father’s flocks.

Most of the boys did something silly. They pretended they had machine guns and tried to shoot each other, the sheep, and anything else in the vicinity. Not me. I stood up. I held out my hand. I felt a staff in it. From out of nowhere I felt the desert wind. The sun was setting. I saw motion in the brush in front of me. I froze. I was certain it was a wolf. I clutched my staff tighter. I put myself between my sheep and the perceived danger. I moved closer. Slowly. I made a sudden move with my staff. A wolf ran away in fear. I pursued it for a few steps and then stopped. I watched it disappear over the ridge. I didn’t celebrate my victory. I knew he would be back.

The teacher stopped the exercise. She told us to sit down. She mildly scolded us boys for being silly. Then, she turned to me and said, “Except for you, Stephen. I saw you protecting your sheep. I saw the wolf. You were a wonderful King David.”

I was surprised she saw what I saw. I was proud. It was my greatest performance. My most complete. I have been chasing the high of my King David in the Wilderness ever since.

I have fallen short on most occasions. But I haven’t given up. I still look for the return of the wolf. With each audition, be it movie, sitcom, or voiceover, I look for the chance of reaching that moment of complete belief. A chance of once again becoming the unlikely king. A chance to write songs about the wars I have fought and the giants I have slain.


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