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The Birth of Comedy

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Originally posted November 7, 2013 at backstage.com.

Photo Source: Clay Rodery

I’m not sure who invented comedy, but it is safe to say someone slipped on a banana peel at least 3,000 years ago. The earliest plays we value come from the Greeks. The Greeks loved tragedy. Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus were wrestling with ideas that normally dwell in the realm of religion. What is a man? What is sin? What is redemption?

Aristophanes was sitting on the other side of the aisle saying, “So what? Who wants to get laid?” Comedy was born.

The ancient Greeks were very good at asking questions and coming up with answers. They were so good at it, we call their brief moment in the sun the golden age.

One of the architects of the golden age was the prize pupil of Plato, Aristotle. Aristotle wrote brilliantly on almost every subject, from physics to metaphysics. He wrote about the art of comedy. What makes Aristotle’s observations so important is that they still are true. That’s saying something.

Aristotle combined his vision of drama and comedy with his observations about human nature, which makes them doubly exciting. He said that every emotion experienced by man is on a sliding scale: passion, appetite, anger.

The superior man is in the center of the balance for each emotion. He doesn’t get too angry, yet he isn’t a wimp. He isn’t too lecherous, yet he isn’t a prude. To live in the center of the scale is difficult. Balance is man’s goal.

The man who stands at the center of the scale is the subject of tragedy. Oedipus, Orestes, and Electra are no different from Hamlet, Macbeth, and King Lear. They all are fighting to recover balance while their worlds shift and crumble. They are the subjects of tragedy.

The characters who live on the edge of the scale are the subjects of comedy: the fellow who thirsts for money, and the fellow who won’t spend a dime. The fellow who cries at the drop of a hat, and the fellow who shows no emotion at all. The fellow who lusts—and the cold fish. All funny.

Whether you are writing or doing improvisation, a lot of mileage is to be gained by riding the edge. Find the themes that depict balance in a piece. See if your character is emotionally limited in a certain area. If so, that can be a source of comedy, according to Aristotle.

One of the most brilliant ideas of Aristotle is the notion of something he called “techne.” We derive the word “technique” from this idea. It describes the skills and tools we use to move an audience. There are many facets to this concept. The one that relates to comedy is startling. Aristotle said that when the brain understands that something it has just heard is true, “techne” occurs. A circuit closes. The connection creates a small burst of pleasure.

This underscores one of the Ten Commandments of comedy: If there is no truth—we don’t laugh.

Golfing Tips for Actors

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Originally posted October 24, 2013 at backstage.com.

I was watching the British Open on television. It is notable in that it is the only six-hour television show I know that starts at 3 a.m. They don’t care about ratings. They are only competing against the weed whacker infomercial and the guy selling nickels.

I got up at dawn to watch. There is something hypnotic about watching people doing something that is incredibly difficult and incredibly pointless at the same time. I was listening to the analysts discussing play. In my semi–dream state I could swear they were talking about acting.

Their first suggestion was to visualize. It is important to see the shot. To do that, you have to practice. Practice creates confidence. Confidence creates ease. Ease creates beauty.

For an actor, the driving range could be a class, a production, even a reading. The more you feel success in your efforts, the more you will see it in the future.

Later in the round, the golf expert commented on a player who was losing his lead. He said the golfer appeared to be “overthinking.” He said people played better when they remembered golf was still a game.

Actors often forget that to act is to play, even if you are in a tragedy. Only moment-to-moment playing can breathe and come to life. To do that, Stanislavsky named the identical skills the golf analyst said the best players possessed: concentration and relaxation. Those two come together naturally when we play.

One of the players finished his round. It was clear he was proud of his score. He was asked to what he attributed his success? He said, “I didn’t have my best stuff today, but I was thinking well.”

It is natural for actors to embrace the notion that “acting is emotion.” I don’t think it is. Humans are emotional all the time, but to act requires clarity of thought. If you understand who you are in a scene and what the stakes are, your emotions will be appropriate. Clarity of thought will save you even if you don’t have your “best stuff.”

On the 18th hole, a golfer was looking at a putt from all angles. The commentator said the main thing “the folks at home” needed to remember is that “Your putt is your putt. It may be seven feet long. You wish it were one. It’s not. Be happy it’s not 12.”

Things can always be easier in an audition or on the set. Make the best of it. Embrace the challenge. It creates a positive attitude that leads to more success.

As the telecast was coming to a close, the broadcasters were trying to hype the next day’s round. They said it was a crowded leader board. Anyone could win. “Momentum isn’t a string of victories; it is one shot.”

It’s always good to remember that a losing streak ends with a single, successful swing. It gives one hope. That’s why golf is such a fascinating game.

Story Show for Auckland, New Zealand

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Live at The Classic / One Night Only
8:30 pm, Friday 27 December
Tickets: $30

Click here for more info!

I will be doing old and NEW stories.

I am planning to do the same show in San Francisco this year at the Sketchfest! So if you can’t make it across the International Date Line this time and are in the Bay area…be watching for further announcements!

The Why Of Acting

happy and dog

Originally posted October 10 , 2013 at backstage.com.

I was asked to be in a SAG Low Budget movie. I think that is what it’s called. SAG-AFTRA has developed so many new subbasements in its contract hierarchy , I wasn’t sure how it defined the official agreement I signed. It could have just as easily been a “SAG Ultra Low Budget” or a “SAG Extremely Ultra Ultra Low Budget” or a “SAG So Incredibly Low Budget God Knows Why There Is Even a Contract” contract. I don’t know. The reason I did the film was not money. The script moved me. The part was very different from anything I usually get to do. That was the reason why I agreed to do it. I think.

As we began to shoot the film, the entire ensemble of wonderful actors had to endure many hardships: dawn call times, no stand-ins, no dressing rooms, no toilets. To be truthful, there were toilets on the premises. We could use them. However, by the end of production, they gave up. Not only did they cease to be functional, but on the final day of shooting, they began to fire human waste at us.

I had to re-examine the question “Why?” We have already established it wasn’t for money or being treated like royalty. It wasn’t for the craft services. By noon the only things left on the snack tables were a jar of peppermints and a bowl of salt from eaten taco-flavored Doritos. It didn’t matter. I was still there grazing. Licking my finger and pressing into the crumbs to get what I could.

One of the actors joked that he hoped the movie would be recognized for awards. He said the script and the roles were so unusual. He wasn’t kidding about the script, just the awards. I knew, in that instant, I wasn’t doing the film for recognition.

There were times during the shooting when I doubted whether the film would ever see the light of day. Not because of the quality of the film but because of the complexity of the film business. The expense of marketing and postproduction is so prohibitive. But that didn’t matter either. I realized I wasn’t doing the film to be seen.

What? Impossible. Now we are beginning to defy the very idea of what acting is.

Why was I doing this project? Why was it important to me? If it wasn’t for money or career or even to be seen—why?

The answer came to me after the last day of the shoot.

It was not to be seen or heard but to speak. It was to stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and yell into nothing to see if there was an echo. Whether or not there is an echo is unimportant. What is important is the search for something that returns: a sound, a friendship, a memory, an insight. A reason why.

It could be that art and prayer have a lot in common. The act itself creates its own echo, even if we never hear it.

The Two Kinds of Nothing

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Originally posted Sept. 26, 2013 at backstage.com

Photo by David Chen.

When you study acting you are likely to do scene work. You may do improvisations. Monologues. Animal exercises. All useful. However, none of these tools can help you handle the most difficult things you have to face as a professional actor: the two kinds of nothing.

It is a mistake to think that all nothings are alike. They’re not. In acting there is the nothing you have to deal with when you are working. On the set they call this “waiting.” This is different from the nothing you have to deal with when you are not working. This nothing is called “despair.”

Despair

Life is difficult when you are waiting for something to break. Every profession has its ratio of anticipation versus doing. Take washing the car or mowing the lawn. These tasks are all doing/no anticipation. Unless you count the anticipation of not doing them anymore.

The opposite profile is all anticipation/no doing, like betting on the lottery or playing right field on a grade school softball team. Acting is more like the lottery. Lots of anticipation. You must know how to wait. Wait for auditions. Wait to see if you get the part.

This kind of nothing requires creativity on the actor’s part. My college professor, Dr. Burnet Hobgood, called this “the actor’s passive creative state.” He said that because he had a Ph.D. I call it the time for opportunity. I look for ways to be inspired. Inspiration turns the hardest of times into a blessing. In no particular order I spend my downtime reading books and plays I don’t have time to read when I am working. I listen to new music. I write notes about what I have experienced. I watch old movies to study the great film actors of the past. I pray for an end to the passive creative state.

Waiting

The second type of nothing happens after you get the job. The focus of this nothing is on how to prepare. Film and television are exercises in time management. There are vast open spaces of nothing to fill. I have been on sets where young performers are more energetic than YMCA campers on an overnight. When the time comes to shoot, they’ve lost their focus. Guard your energy on the set. On the set of “Swing Shift,” the great director Jonathan Demme told me the best advice he could give was, Sit down. It’s a long day.

I need 10 minutes to focus before doing a scene. I know this. I ask the A.D.s for a warning. From then on, no distractions, no music, no phones or Internet. That’s me. Other performers like to use the camera rehearsals to focus. The one thing to avoid is giving your best take during rehearsal. Wait for them to say “Action.” The worst kind of nothing is when your performance doesn’t make it to the film.

The Things We Saved From the Fire

Three Sisters Ann and Stephen

Originally posted Sept. 12, 2013 backstage.com

(Photo from Los Angeles Theatre Center production of The Three Sisters, 1985.)

The synagogue asked if I could step in as an usher for the Saturday morning service. I said yes. It feels good to help out. You get to wear your nice clothes. And it becomes an act of courage if you do it without Purell.

I was talking to the woman who was “greeting” with me. She told me a story from her childhood. It’s a story I haven’t been able to shake. It applies to all aspects of life. I think it has a special meaning for actors.

When she was little, her family lived in the North Hills of the San Fernando Valley. They have a microclimate there. Instead of summer, winter, spring, and fall, they have fire season and flood season. Her home was constantly threatened. The fire department used to make regular visits to order them to evacuate. Her family had to be out of the area within the hour.

At first she was terrified. They had a family meeting as to what they would save from the fire. Four people. One car. They began the mathematical calculation of loss—and salvation. As fire season turned into flood season and back to fire season again, the process became simpler. With each evacuation she took less and less. In the end, she only took a change of clothes and the Sears sewing machine she bought with her bat mitzvah money when she was 13. She said she took the sewing machine because “it was the only thing that was really mine.”

As actors we regularly work with props. On the sets of television shows we are shown briefcases, watches, and rings for our characters to wear. I confess I never gave my choices much thought. Now I have to wonder, What is my past with this object? Is this something I would save from the fire?
It’s easy when it is written into the script. In “Three Sisters,” Doctor Chebutykin breaks a clock. As he looks at the pieces he mourns his broken existence. In “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock learns that his daughter Jessica has run away from home. For money, she has taken a ring that was given to him by his now-departed wife. He hears she used the money to buy—a monkey. He is devastated and says, “It was my turquoise; I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor: I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.”

Our relationship to things can be as powerful as our relationship to people. Usually our personal history with our props is not written into the script. We have to do the work ourselves. As actors we should always imagine: Where did I get this? Did I buy it on impulse, or was it a gift from my father? Is it one of the things I would leave behind, or is it the sewing machine I saved from the fire.

Important Update for St. Paul, Minnesota – Oct. 10, 7:30 pm

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I just learned today that our Tobolowsky Files Live event is Sold Out/Re-located to UBS Forum around the corner at Minnesota Public Radio.
The address is:
The UBS Forum at Minnesota Public Radio
480 Cedar Street, 5th Floor
St Paul, Minnesota 55101
For information call the Minnesota Public Radio Box Office (651) 290-1200.  (Staff seems to answer box office number at noon CT.)  Not sure yet if they will be able to add more seats or if you can get a spot due no-shows or cancellations.  I hope you already got your tickets if you were planning to come!
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