June 17, 2013
I studied Shakespeare in college. I don’t regret it. I did scenes from Julius Caesar. I played Brutus. I was terrible. I am sure it made me a better person in some way. I studied Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. About the only thing I remember from this period of theater study was the joke, “Euripides pants—you pay for them.” I loved Ibsen and Strindberg and Chekhov. I couldn’t wait until I had a chance to play Oswald in Ghosts.
Then I came to Hollywood. Why didn’t anyone warn me? Professional acting is about comedy. Not all of it—but most of it. And it’s not just the sitcoms. How about the dry wit of Lenny on Law and Order? Or The Sopranos, where two of the leading characters are dismembering a body in a bathtub and having a serious conversation about the challenges of fatherhood? Funny stuff.
Actors are always in search of a simple key to playing comedy. The best I have come across is from that laugh machine, Sigmund Freud. In 1905, he delivered a series of lectures in Munich that became the book Jokes, and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Freud states that the essence of comedy “…is making the meaningful, meaningless,” or, correspondingly, making the meaningless, meaningful.
Making the meaningful meaningless is slipping on the banana peel. Walking becomes falling. Purpose becomes non-purpose. Conversely, making the meaningless meaningful is Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
The beauty of Sigmund Freud’s formula is that he underscores the central element needed in any comedy: meaning. This is why comedy centers around things we value as a society—from money to manners. There is no reason to laugh unless there is something at stake.
Freud felt that when we play with meaning, we create tension. When the tension is released, we laugh. Freud wrote that this is why a crisp, quick delivery seems to help comedy—the faster the pace, the more tension is built up.
Freud talked about dirty jokes. He said the danger of telling jokes that involve sex, race, politics, or profanity is that the listener becomes an accomplice to a point of view they may not embrace. This creates tension. You may get laughs. You can also lose your audience.
Actors are often faced with the challenge to “make something funny.” The tendency is to jump to “crazy.” The better tactic is to find the meaning in the scene. Determine if you are responsible for carrying the meaning or if you are the guy or girl who turns it on its head and makes it meaningless. Remember, just because you carry the meaning doesn’t mean you don’t get laughs. The audience always identifies with the straight man. That’s half the battle.
The next thing I look for in a script is what is the comedic form. I have come up with three basic types of comedic writing. This is generalized and oversimplified, but it works for the sake of discussion. The three types of comedy I come across the most are farce, satire, and slapstick.
I identify farce as “comedy of priorities.” Just about every sitcom is written in this form. Things that should be important aren’t. Things that are important shouldn’t be. You can hear the echo of meaningful and meaningless throughout one of these scripts. Meaning in farce has to be carried by truthful playing by the actors. It doesn’t have to be overplayed. Simple is better.
Satire is comedy of form. Weekend Update on SNL is a good example. It is the form of the newscast that provides the meaning. The content of the newscast provides the meaninglessness. The newscasters must play it straight. The goofier they try to be, the less chance the scene has of working. Making the meaningless more meaningless isn’t funny. It’s like having to watch a video of the last time you went to traffic school.
I identify slapstick as a central figure caught in the middle of a whirlwind. The storm can be physical, like in a Buster Keaton comedy. It can also be emotional, like the men surrounding our heroines in Sex in the City. The central character carries the meaning. Slapstick works best when the central character plays it straight. Look at Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau. No matter how much chaos surrounds him, he maintains the appearance of being in control.
Freud felt comedy was the vehicle we use to express the truths we are afraid to talk about. Perhaps. It’s hard to believe we are afraid of talking about anything anymore. If you are looking for the comedy in a scene, don’t worry about hidden fears, look for the meaning, and go from there. Sometimes the best way to find the funny is when your Freudian slip is showing.
May 9, 2013
The world of science has come up with some pretty remarkable findings in the last couple of years. A few experiments caught my eye that dealt with the power of placebos.
We all know what placebos are. They are sugar pills that have absolutely no active ingredients – sort of like when a producer promises you a share of the net profits.
The first study dealt with asthma inhalers. The placebo group had useless inhalers. Despite the absence of any kind of medicine, the fake-inhaler group experienced a seven percent real relief of symptoms. More importantly for this discussion, the fake group had the same level of perceivedbenefit as the patients with the real inhalers.
The second experiment takes it a step further. They took a group of patients with IBS, which could be any actor during pilot season. They gave half of them placebos for their condition and told them straight out, “These are just sugar pills. Take them anyway.” The bottles even said PLACEBO on them. It didn’t matter. The placebo group reported more positive relief from symptoms than the group taking real medicine by a ratio of almost two to one (59 percent versus 35 percent).
The doctors who ran the study were perplexed. They couldn’t even chalk this up to the power of positive thinking. The only theory that seemed to make sense was that the ritual of taking medicine carried its own invisible power.
I believe somewhere between the results of these two studies are keys for success for the actor.
In acting, any character in any play or film is nothing more than a placebo. It doesn’t really exist, except on paper. To make an audience accept the placebo as real, we need to see our endeavor as real. In acting, what you see is what you get. If you can visualize the specifics of your character, if you imagine the world you are living in, if you can “see” what you want in the scene – it will happen, and we will see it as an audience.
On the business side, if you can imagine a successful audition, you will be far more confident walking into the room. You will believe in the life of your character more than any judgment of your character by a producer or casting director.
The second placebo experiment teaches that there is real value in honoring the ritual we use to work on a part. It carries an invisible power that extends beyond us. How do you do that? With time.
Simply put, an actor’s ritual equals the time you spend thinking about your part. It is the respect you give to the discoveries that arise. The invisible aura this creates is the source of confidence and relaxation. It creates focus and enhances imagination.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, there was third study we have to take to heart as well. It involved the “nocebo effect.” They took a group of patients and told them that half of them were getting real medicine, and half of them were getting sugar pills. They were further told that for some, the medicine might have unpleasant side effects: nausea, headaches, and diarrhea.***
You guessed it. Some of the patients improved, some showed no improvement, and some got sick. In truth, none of them were getting medicine. All of them were getting sugar pills.
The scientists seem to be trying to prove what Shakespeare knew four hundred years ago. As Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” As actors the most important part of our training may not be acting exercises or scene work but the creation of an optimistic spirit.
How does someone do that? First, you have to have a good memory. Not for your lines but for remembering why you wanted to become an actor in the first place. Optimism never comes from ambition. It comes from remembering dreams in their infancy.
As for maintaining our belief in the possible? We already believe we are actors. That’s the hardest part.
March 19, 2013
I read a script the other day that had another one of those absolutely mystifying character descriptions: Wendell – 40′s, Cautious. I didn’t have a clue what either of those descriptions meant. I am assuming “40′s” means you are old enough to not be living with your parents anymore. This is an important line of demarcation in television scripts. There are usually only two kinds of characters on television: those with a past and those with homework. “40′s” may mean you are in the first group.
Then there was that second description: “Cautious.” What do you do with that? The first task was to clear away any memories of famous jittery characters created by Woody Allen, Don Knotts, Dudley Moore, Peter Sellers, and Lou Costello, to name a few. Then I had to start asking questions: Cautious about what? Love? Money? Rental agreements? Everything?
The answer was surprising. From his behavior in the script, our man, Wendell, was cautious about almost nothing. To be fair, he was an accountant. That might imply he was cautious about his addition. But he was reckless about his safety. He wore his heart on his sleeve for the woman he loved. He was a pretty effective con man when he had to be. In my experience, lying is never a safe haven for the cautious.
It begs the deeper question: What did the writer mean? What is “caution”? The answer is something that is at the heart of every portrayal. It is also something most actors overlook in their preparation: What is the spiritual nature of their character? I would argue that the most powerful difference between Hamlet, Archie Bunker, June Cleaver, and Larry David is not the setting, the costumes, or the social-economic group – but spiritual view that character has of the world.
Take “caution.” Caution is one of a hundred synonyms for something we are all familiar with – fear. What does your character fear? Fear and courage are two sides of the same coin. That coin is called, “What do you have faith in?” If you have faith in your fellow man, you will see the best in people. If you have faith that the animal side of man will always prevail, you will trust self-interest. Eddie Haskell on “Leave It To Beaver” is a brilliant comedic expression of both. If you have faith in your physical prowess, you will not be afraid of jumping into a fight. If you have faith in your driving ability or your stunt double’s driving ability, you will be Vin Diesel. If you have faith in God, you can be Joan of Arc, who fears nothing – even death.
Richard Boleslavsky in his book, “Acting: The First Six Lessons,” mentions the importance of playing “the mind of the playwright.” While there are a few avowed atheists among the great writers such as Shaw and Brecht, most of dramatic literature from Aeschylus to Shakespeare, from Eugene O’Neil to Neil Simon, was written through the prism of a universe that recognized the divine.
Here is a simple exercise. Like most simple exercises, it is terribly difficult, but the results are always interesting. Draw a diagram of the world in which your character exists. Is there a God or some higher spiritual authority than man? Where on the food chain is man? Is there morality? Who creates it? Is there fate? Who creates it? Then draw the same simple diagram of the world from your character’s point of view. Are they the same? If they are, your character is a metaphor for society. If they are different, your character is a rebel and is probably the focus of whatever scene he or she is in.
Whether or not you have time at rehearsal or before an audition to draw a diagram, it is worth giving a thought or two to your character’s spiritual make-up. Faith can fill in some of the holes left by the writer. That can set you free. And that’s good. Acting is always more fun when you can throw caution to the wind.
Originally published backstage.com.
February 19, 2013
My former acting teacher, guru, and dungeon master Ed Kaye-Martin gave a piece of advice that revolved around finding the place we call “Zero” when you act. He said that it was essential for an actor to remember to go to Zero when you rehearse or perform. We asked for a translation into English. Ed said, “Actors have to understand the first moment of a scene – where you start – that place is called Zero. When you rehearse a scene over and over again, it’s easy to get stuck in the emotional place at the end of the scene instead of rewinding to where you were at the beginning.”
I understood what Ed was saying in a theoretical way. Now, thirty years and two hundred television shows later, I have seen the practical wisdom of his advice. In television, one of the greatest challenges you have is working quickly while shooting multiple takes. The great television actors have the ability to snap back to the first beat of the scene instantly, ready for the director’s call of “One more time from the top.”
Conversely, I have seen several actors play a scene beautifully only to get lost on his or her way back to Zero. They’ll start take two in tears before they hear the bad news that their son was kidnapped. They’ll be angry at their boss before they’re fired. It can be a mess. Finding and returning to Zero is a skill that cannot be underestimated. It’s central to almost every project I’ve worked on.
Many actors use something physical – a prop or a simple activity that is repeatable – to ground themselves to the opening beat. But even doing that is unreliable. I would add my two cents to Ed Kaye’s rule. The only way to be consistent in getting back to Zero, is finding the moment before Zero.
The moment before Zero is the key that unlocks every scene. It is the imaginary world that informs you where your character was before a scene started and where he’s going after the scene ends. It instructs you as to what your character is thinking when you’re silent. It grounds all improvisation in truth.
Last summer, I was invited to be a guest teacher at a master class with fifty young acting students from all over the world. Before we got into any of the exercises I had planned to do, I opened with the standard, “Before we start, does anyone have any questions?” (In my teaching experience, I have found this ploy invaluable in killing time.)
A young Australian actor eagerly raised his hand. I pointed to him. He asked, “How do you play drunk?” I was stunned into a moment of silence by three things: That this was the first question, the urgency of the question, and that it was asked by a young Australian. In truth, I thought I should be asking him.
I was about to answer when a little voice inside my head said, “Stephen, think before you speak.” So I pulled out my second favorite time-killing tactic used by teachers, I turned the question back onto the class and said, “What would YOU do if you had to be drunk in a scene?” The students looked around to one another for inspiration. Hands sprung up in the air.
The first answer I got was – “You don’t play drunk. When people are drunk they always try to appear sober.” That was a nice answer. It sounded like the voice of experience.
Someone who was an obvious devotee of the great director and acting teacher, Stanislavski, said they would think back to other times when they were drunk, observe drunk people around them, develop a sense-memory of it, and then, bring that memory to life in the scene. Sounded like a lot of work, but it was a reasonable answer.
One fellow was more into the physical and said he would simulate drunkenness by slowing down his speech and making his movements slightly uncoordinated. Without invitation he got up and demonstrated. Rather than appearing drunk, he looked like a character in a Claymation movie.
The real answer resides in the moment before Zero. How do you play drunk? The answer? It depends on why you got drunk in the first place.
In my experience people get drunk for four main reasons: To celebrate, to mourn the loss of someone or something, by accident, and by habit.
As an actor you can decide which one it is. By focusing on why you got drunk, the behavior will take care of itself. You will always be able to find your starting place, handle multiple takes, and to improvise if need be. The moment before Zero informs it all. This process applies to all character work.
In a few days I’m off to San Francisco for a couple of public appearances. Sunday, January 27th, 8pm, I’ll be at Yoshi’s San Francisco. Here’s the SF Sketchfest website (The San Francisco Comedy Festival) with more details and how to get tickets.
Monday, January 28th at 6 pm I’ll be at Book Passage San Francisco, 1 Ferry Building, San Francisco, CA 94111 for a story and book signing. For more information, here’s the Book Passage website.
If you are in the area, I hope you’ll come by one or both!
And finally, below is another article just published for Backstage.com and I have gotten a lot of positive feedback, so I am re-posting here as well. It’s also here at their website.
How to Read a Script As an Actor
I have spent my life reading scripts. Some of them have been good. Most weren’t. But it didn’t matter because I wanted to be in all of them – even the one with the bionic dog. For years, I have taken acting classes and read advice on how to do well in auditions.
I would like to share with you some of the things I’ve learned along the way – tips for auditioning and performing. I hope they help. If not, I hope, at least, they’re not annoying.
The first problem I always have is reading the script. It’s never easy. It’s not that the language is difficult. Good or bad, scripts are always filled with things that are incomprehensible.
For example, I have read many television dramas where the writer has described a character as LAWYER, 40. That’s if the part was written for a man. If the same part was written for a woman, the script will say LAWYER, 34, ATTRACTIVE.
As actors, we read that and move on, not even aware that we are already lost. Personally, I have no idea what any of those descriptions mean in terms of auditioning or playing a part. I don’t know what “LAWYER” means. I don’t know what “40” means. I certainly don’t know what “ATTRACTIVE” means. I’m not joking. This is a first real challenge in working with a script.
Take “LAWYER.” Am I a good lawyer or a bad lawyer? Do I come from a long line of lawyers, or am I the first person in my family that got a college education? The answer may not be in the script. It not only makes a difference, it makes all the difference in the world.
Often the writers and directors aren’t aware of the pockets of nothing that are in their projects. It is the actor’s job to find them and fill that nothing with something – hopefully something truthful. I have found that true always trumps clever.
To do that, we have to be aware of what questions to ask. Then, we have to ask them. None of that is easy. I had an experience that opened my eyes to the power of positive questioning.
I was working on a television movie where I was playing LAWYER. Because it was one of those scripts that was “based on true events,” I was able to do research by calling the real lawyer I was playing. Lucky.
I didn’t think it was appropriate to ask him if he was a good lawyer or a bad lawyer. Instead, I asked him if he always wanted to be a lawyer. He laughed and said, “God, no. Never. I always wanted to be a country-western singer. I always had my guitar in my office. Everybody made fun of me for plucking a tune when I was interviewing my clients.” Talk about a goldmine.
I showed up on the set with my guitar the next day. I talked to the producer and director about my new plan for LAWYER. They were happy to fill in the blank with something that was real.
That was a fluke. Actors almost never get that lucky in creating a character.
So what questions can you ask to try to find your inner “country-western singer”?
When I read a script, I find a good starting place is. What is my profession? Simple. I know. It is not so simple to get at answers that are specific enough to help you create a character. Start with the obvious. What do I do? Then move to the less obvious. Do I do it well? Where do I excel? Where do I fall short? What did I think this job would be? What did it turn out to be? (The honest answers to these questions can also be a good source for comedy.)
If you prefer a more emotionally-based way into a character, there is one I use that never fails. What is my greatest hope? What is my greatest fear? If you can read a script and answer these two questions, you can play anything from Romeo to Juliet. You will be able to improvise, adjust to a director’s notes, and have a good time whether you are attractive or not.
January 12, 2013
The end of one year and the beginning of the next means holidays, Academy screeners, Christmas movies on TCM, and above all, varying levels of discomfort. There are many reasons for this—everything from too many people going exactly where you want to go to getting Christmas cards from realtors.
There are hours of programming already devoted to the pressures of the holiday season. I will keep my comments directed at the uncomfortableness for actors in particular:
1. This is the time of year when auditions dry up.
2. This is the time of year when you look back and wonder what might have been.
3. It is the time of year we look ahead and wonder what pilot season will look like.
4. It is the time when parents and loved ones ask if you are making a mistake with your life.
5. It is hard to enjoy time off when you are already unemployed.
All of this creates doubt. Doubt is a close cousin to fear. It tends to diminish us. When the days grow dark and cold, when the future seems as uncertain as it did last year at this time, I recall the words of an old teacher of mine, Ed Kaye-Martin: “Comfort is the enemy of the artist.”
One thing I tell my students: In improvisation, you have to be your own writer, director, producer, technician, composer, and support staff. However you are not allowed to be your own critic. Being your own critic attacks your will. Stanislavsky said the primary element involved in the creative process is not talent but will.
My New Year’s wish for you all is the gift of will.
December 1, 2012
(Photo here by David Chen.)
September was the Jewish High Holy Days. This is the period of time you are supposed to search your soul and take stock of your life. I was concerned that The Mindy Project was going to have me working on Yom Kippur. I wasn’t sure how to navigate it. The show was so new. I didn’t want to seem like Elton John making demands. As it turned out, all of that worry was for nothing. Before Yom Kippur, I was written out of the show. Yes. The dream job. The moment of “actor heaven.” Now gone. It was devastating—but perfect for Yom Kippur.
Being fired always is embarrassing, financially debilitating, and did I mention embarrassing? The one good thing about it is all of the free liquor you get from friends when you tell them the news.
Fortunately, I still had something to do. I called my publishers in New York and told them I had more time to promote my book, The Dangerous Animals Club. I went back out on the road. I performed in Seattle at the beautiful Moore Theatre for 1,100 people. I performed at an old movie house in Gloucester, Mass., for a couple of dozen hearty souls. I was on my way to the International Storytelling Festival in Ottawa and then off to perform in San Francisco. I recognize this sounds romantic. It is if you like laundromats.
While my wife, Ann, and I were in Gloucester, we wandered into the only place that seemed open early in the morning. It was a Sicilian coffee shop. We ordered cappuccinos and a slice of ricotta pie, for which it was famous. One bite and I was transported. After a sip of the perfect cappuccino, I realized I hadn’t felt heartsick over “Mindy” for at least two weeks. In fact, the show seemed like ancient history. Time can be a great ally. It can make the end of a dream of plenty in the future pale before the joy of really good pie in the present.