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The Why Of Acting

happy and dog

Originally posted October 10 , 2013 at

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

stanislavski slouch

Originally posted Sept. 26, 2013 at

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.”


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.


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

(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

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!

St. Paul, Minnesota – October 10, 7:30 pm!

EVNT-0079-14 fitz fall season

David Chen and I are coming to the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota! We will be doing an edition of the Tobolowsky Files Live.  This is the historic theater where Prairie Home Companion was (and still IS) produced and recorded. If you are in the area come by for the show and stay afterwards and say “Hello.”

Earlier episodes of The Tobolowsky Files are Back!

EVNT-0079-14 fitz fall season

Thank you the amazing David Chen has made possible the 33 most recent original episodes of The Tobolowsky Files:

Subscribe here to download:

On itunes

As before, the first 24 episodes are at Audible (for purchase, audio book of The Dangerous Animals Club).

We’ll have new episodes soon!

Watch for a few live appearances upcoming, including Minneapolis, MN on October 10 at the Fitzgerald Theatre – tickets here.  And, David Chen will be there too.
<——Here’s a poster, this is going to be terrific, if you are anywhere NEAR, don’t miss it!

A real possibility too are: Dublin, Ireland for late October and Auckland, New Zealand in December.

And for early risers Los Angeles area, I’ll present “Light of the First Day” at the Los Angeles Jewish Home September 12.  Click here for details.

All of you who have been patient and supportive, thank you!

- Stephen

The Comic Stylings of Sigmund Freud


Originally published:
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.


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