First Published backstage.com Oct. 30, 2014
I was a student in graduate school at the University of Illinois. It was the first year of its master’s program in acting and, consequently, they didn’t have a handle on who would teach what. They lassoed in a woman in her late 70s or early 80s to teach acting.
Mary Arbenz was an actor from a long-gone era. She arrived in New York in 1927 and was almost immediately cast in the world premiere of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra. As students in 1976, acting meant Marlon Brando and the Actors Studio, not Mary Arbenz and her performance tips from the Pleistocene Epoch. Unfortunately, as a group we didn’t take her class very seriously.
That was almost 40 years ago. Mary would be happy to know that some of her advice landed in fertile soil. Mary said one of the best exercises for the actor can be done when you are not working: reading plays. Read the great plays. Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw, and of course O’Neill.
Mary said she used to invite her actor friends over to her apartment for a “reading party.” She would open a bottle of wine, people would bring over a copy of the play for the evening, and they would read.
But there was a catch.
No one played a part. You went around the circle, in order, reading whatever speech was next. That way everyone had a turn playing Othello, Iago, or Lodovico. Men read Desdemona. Women played Cassio.
We learn in many ways. Speaking and listening use different parts of the brain. Using Mary’s method, you absorb a play in a completely new and comprehensive way.
We tried it with Henry IV, Part 1. Everyone had the best time taking a crack at Falstaff and Hotspur. Everyone played extras. Actors who never got a chance to play leads got to read Hal. The play flew by. (The wine may have helped.) Tuesday night became play-reading night. We took on new plays by Pinter. We read Sophocles and Euripides.
Our readings uncovered larger patterns. We began to understand the elements of storytelling, a critical skill for all directors and writers. By moving through plays of different eras, we got a historical perspective on structure and we saw the transforming views on morality. On man’s desire for freedom. What changed. What stayed the same. It became a tutorial on civilization.
We learned different approaches to comedy and drama. We saw how great writers created suspense and delivered exposition, which became a critical skill in improvisation. We learned all of this in ways you cannot learn in an acting class or even doing eight shows a week on Broadway.
And you do it all while drinking wine!
One of the hardest parts of being an actor is how to manage your time when you are not working. Mary Arbenz would say never turn your back on your creative self. Always be a student. Keep learning. Keep taking steps forward. Revelation may come in a moment, but it doesn’t come overnight.
The first challenge involved with Big Time in Hollywood, FL was that the creators, Dan Schimpf and Alex Anfanger, conceived the show as ten episodes telling one story. In other words, it is a serial. That seems like a simple choice of exposition. It is not. It means Big Time is like one very long movie. Perfect for binge watching, difficult to shoot. The writers have to understand the whole. The actors have to know their entire arc.
Even though Aristotle wrote over two thousand years ago, his ideas from the Poetics are still very much with us today – even in television. Stories are unified by time, place, and action.
Most comedies manage this by having a cast of “regulars.” In the lingo of an actor, this means you get paid – a lot. After you are a regular on a series for a few years you can spend the rest of your life participating in Pro-Am golf tournaments. Having regulars on a sit-com creates the illusion you are telling the same story. Episodes on regular comedy shows don’t have to truly be unified by action. Cause does not have to have an effect. Whatever you do in Episode One does not have to change what happens in Episode Six.
That is not the case when you tell one story. The motivating factor in Big Time becomes the same as we have in life: consequences. Consequences drive us through our day, enroll us in exercise classes, make us decide if we are going to eat that donut, make us decide to lie or tell the truth.
The advantage this gives Big Time in Hollywood, FL is that even though the plot may seem to be a giant construct always on the verge of spinning out of control, the motivation is simplicity itself. It is one lie. One lie told in the first episode that creates the horrific and hilarious twists and turns throughout the entire series.
The delightful side effect of this is that no matter how chaotic the show gets, on some level we sense it is true. Our lives spin out of control the same way: one trip to the store to get a mango, one dog we discover in our back yard, one conversation with a friend about tomatoes—and everything changes.
The second challenge Big Time in Hollywood, FL presented was a practical one. How do you shoot it? Television shows never have the time or money to do what they need to do. When they do get the money they need, like on Deadwood, they’re usually cancelled.
To accommodate the physical limits of the series we had to cross-board the show. “Cross-boarding” means you don’t shoot the episodes in order. You shoot everything that takes place in the living room today. Everything in the bedroom tomorrow regardless as to what episode it is.
Dan directed almost the whole series so he took on the job of keeping the narrative straight for us. Before each scene he would remind us – this is after a car wreck, this before the knife fight, this is after you get the phone call…and on and on.
As actors our job was different than usual. We didn’t just have to be aware of what we were about to shoot, but we looked ahead to future episodes to see if there were any lasting effects of this scene that would pop up. We also were constantly reviewing what we did weeks before to make sure what we were doing made sense.
In the end Dan and Alex had a giant jigsaw puzzle to assemble. It took months. From what I have seen the results are remarkably seamless. It is almost impossible to see that the beginning and end of a scene may have been shot weeks apart.
Despite living in a state of constant low-level confusion for almost four months, this was an actor’s dream. Many acting teachers speak of the necessity of “knowing your subtext.” That means know what various events in a scene mean to you in all ways: conscious and unconscious. Know their history. Know the fears and hopes you have surrounding an event. In Big Time, the odds were we just had a scene about the conscious and the unconscious before lunch.
You never know in any acting venture if you will achieve success, either artistically or commercially. So what do you hope for? You hope to learn something new. You hope to end up with a good story. And as actors you hope to have a chance to tell the truth. Whether you do it for one moment, or you do it for seven years, depends on luck. If you do it with people you care for and respect, that’s all the luck you need.
Photo from The Hollywood Reporter.
Alex Anfanger and Dan Schimpf asked me to be a part of Big Time in Hollywood, FL, a new program on Comedy Central. I had no idea what the show was. I asked around, no one knew. The one tangible clue I got was that Alex and Dan were the guys who created Next Time on Lonny – which I also never heard of.
It was easy to find Lonny. It’s called Google. I watched a couple of episodes. Very funny. I watched a couple more. Hilarious. And more.
There was something remarkable in watching Lonny over the two seasons. It evolved. Rapidly. Like a science fiction movie where the one guy in the lab coat says, “I think you need to see this!” Lonny went from being a very funny web series to Lawrence of Arabia, complete with special effects, wide screen, and panoramic dolly shots. The comedy remained intact.
The show caught the attention of the NY Times.
As the show went into a second season, it was clear that Alex and Dan were developing a comedic language able to hold up over time.
The AV Club is superb at defining social trends. They took a look at Lonny and put it into perspective.
I began to sense there was something special about Dan and Alex. Call it talent. Call it vision. Probably both. I am never first to the party, but I began to sense a paradigm shift. This was a “from-the-ground-up” comedic creation.
Since I have been in Los Angeles (almost 40 years – gulp), comedy came from above. And by above, I mean the studios. There was a period where successful stand-ups were plucked from the clubs and put on television in their own series – like Roseanne. But even then, the comedy came from above. The comic was the lead. The writers’ room and studio shaped the rest.
Lonny was a couple of guys, with no money (at least until Ben Stiller took over as producer), who turned their vision into something real.
There is a theory in Political Science that the periods of greatest human freedom and expansion have come when the common man possessed the most powerful weapon of that era. Robin Hood ruled when everyone had a bow and arrow. The Wild West became America when everyone had a six-shooter.
For years the most powerful weapon was considered the nuclear bomb. Only governments had those and human freedom became more and more restricted.
I would argue, that now, the most powerful weapon of the age is the computer. Look at the cyber warfare that is already waging, criminal hacking affecting millions of lives, identity theft, and INTERNET COMEDY!
Lonny is the success story that so many are trying to achieve. The brain-blood barrier for comedy is usually money. It can kill you. The comedic vision of Dan and Alex survived the test in Big Time in Hollywood, FL.
It wasn’t until I got on the set that I began to understand what these guys do. Alex and Dan mix incredible comic technique, scripted and visual, with absolutely random improvisation. It creates an electric environment where anything can happen. As Ben Stiller said when he saw the show come together – “…people are going to look at this and say ‘What the hell are they doing?’ ”
Sounds like comedy to me.
Originally published backstage.com Oct. 2, 2014.
I was working on Big Time in Hollywood, FL, a very funny new show for Comedy Central (premieres March 25). We were on break and I asked director-sometimes-writer-always-executive-producer Dan Schimpf, “How many times do you get to the set and find that you have to change your game plan?”
Dan laughed and said, “Seriously?”
I said, “Very seriously.”
Dan said, “Well, speaking very seriously, I would say 100 percent of the time.”
“It never goes according to plan?”
“Never. But think about it. How could it? Each scene will have unexpected technical problems. The actors will have different levels of comfort. We could be running out of time. All sorts of things. A big part of directing is adaptation.”
In 60 seconds, Dan unraveled one of the great chasms in actor training. And it’s not working on the part; we study that all of the time. It’s the curve balls you have to deal with before you start to work.
In school, actors learn various methods with which to bring a character to life. This usually involves sense memory, hours of rehearsal, and selecting the right shoes. In the real world, this doesn’t happen.
I just got a part 48 hours before I had to shoot it. In the “real world,” this is code that the producer’s first and probably second choices were unavailable. It also means there was no time to prepare.
My scenes were shot on a yacht. Some may hear those words and think, He’s livin’ the dream. I hear them and think, Dramamine.
I was right. But even then, I didn’t comprehend the difficulty of acting on the high seas. When you shoot on the water, it is hard to walk. It is difficult to hit your marks. A lot of your focus is on not falling overboard. You have to adapt your approach to the character. I always kept a drink in my hand. Any swaying would look like I was just enjoying the party. A lot.
On Big Time, the entire series was cross-boarded. This is when you don’t shoot an individual episode and move on to the next. You shoot bits and pieces of the whole series based on location. As an actor, you have to reset your focus and imagine you are shooting a 300-page motion picture. This takes a completely different type of preparation. You have to read and reread all of the episodes to keep your character’s arc in your head.
In 1967, Marshall McLuhan wrote the cult classic The Medium Is the Massage. The thesis of the book was that the way an idea is presented affects the way we understand the idea. The book’s premise could not have found a more perfect application than in acting today.
Most actor training evolved as if our sole destination was the proscenium stage of the Moscow Art Theatre. Those days are gone. Your only security is in knowing your part as well as time allows, keeping an open mind, and preparing to roll with the punches. You might as well enjoy it. The unexpected happens, as they say, 100 percent of the time.
(P.S. For more about Big Time in Hollywood, FL, check here.)
Originally published backstage.com Sept. 4, 2014.
Photo from Kayatana Stamps.
When one thinks of comedy, one rarely thinks of Henri Bergson—quite possibly because one has never heard of Henri Bergson. I was surprised to learn not too many years ago that Bergson was considered the greatest thinker on the planet…at least according to another great thinker, Bertrand Russell.
At the end of the 19th century, Bergson lectured in sold-out venues around the world. He probed the nature of man and the human soul. He examined life from the viewpoint of a poet and a scientist and then, quite surprisingly, turned his attention to comedy.
His lectures on comedy have been collected in an essay called “Laughter.” To summarize very briefly: Man is torn between two forces. The desire to organize, prioritize, mechanize, and create rules to handle the obstacles of life—and an equally powerful, opposing desire to throw caution to the winds and be flexible to deal with situations that aren’t easily handled by sticking to the rules.
There you have it.
Bergson observed that comedy is created when a character is stuck in one of these two positions. The closer man resembles a machine the funnier he becomes. This rigidity can be physical, like Charlie Chaplin’s walk or Peter Sellers’ uncontrollable Nazi salute in “Dr. Strangelove.” The mechanization can also be emotional, like Rainn Wilson’s hilariously inflexible Dwight Schrute on “The Office.”
The opposite is true as well. Bergson notes that characters with no ability to organize or act appropriately are also funny. This is a comedic motif used by Woody Allen in many of his comedies. “Bananas” and “Sleeper” come to mind.
In one of television’s classic comedy sketches, the brilliant Lucille Ball demonstrated the entirety of Bergson’s comedic theory with the candy assembly line. Need I say more? Lucy and Ethel begin as “part of the machine” wrapping candies; they end in a disorganized mess as the assembly line speeds up. Both ends of the spectrum create tension, which is released in our laughter.
Bergson took on Shakespeare. His insights were thought-provoking. He said the monologues in the tragedies should always be performed standing. He said if Hamlet sits onstage when he delivers “To be or not to be…” the energy becomes comedic. Sitting is an indication that a character is affected by gravity. They are weary in some way and need to rest. This turns their noble and even desperate sentiments into something more trivial, and in danger of looking like kvetching.
Bergson saw the modern comic spirit as the individual who has substituted the jargon of his profession for his humanity—like when someone at a bank explains why you were charged fees on your “no fees” checking plan. The classic comedy “No Time for Sergeants” has several examples of this type of Bergson comedy. The one-size-fits-all structure of the military is a perfect setting for showing the human desire to strictly follow and/or break rules.
We laugh because, as in the best comedies, it points to a larger truth: We are close to the angels, but we’re not there yet.
Originally published August 7, 2014 backstage.com
Photo source: Backstage, Clay Rodery.
I was teaching my comedy class at Kalmenson & Kalmenson when I discovered one of my students was very adept at improvisation. I asked what her background was. She said she was a writer and an acrobat.
Yes. She was studying aerial acrobatics, à la Cirque du Soleil. I asked what that was like. She said it was a rush to perform 40 feet off the ground. (I let that comment pass as part of the foolishness of youth.) I asked her how you learn something like that. She said her teacher told her that the critical moments in any acrobatic move were the transitions from various planes, from the horizontal (on the ground) to the vertical (going into the air) and to the horizontal once again when you reach your final position above the arena. She said the essence of acrobatics is the transition between horizontal to vertical. Doing it in a seamless way. Doing it in a beautiful way.
Her remarkable passion explained one of the primary tools of script analysis: Find the transitions.
There is a tendency to get lost in a script, in a role, in a single speech. The words become the forest that keeps us from seeing the trees.
On a macro scale, look for the moments that change the direction of your character. On a micro scale, look for the moments in each line where there is a transition. Where is the place you learned something you didn’t know before? What is the one piece of information in a line that makes that line necessary?
There is something else I found curious in my student’s acrobatic dramaturgy: It was laid out in three acts. It started on the ground. There was literal “rising action,” followed by a conclusion. This is the same dramatic formula offered by Aristotle in “Poetics.” Although it is about 2,500 years old, it is still a good tool to use.
Finding the “acts” in a script, in a part, even in a single line, will usually lead you to the important, playable transitions. These transitions are not set in stone. They can move around. That is exciting, too. By playing with where the “act breaks” are in a line, you may find alternate readings and new ideas. For example, we all know:
To be, or not to be—that is the question:
Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.
By changing where you want to break this small part of Hamlet’s monologue into “acts,” you can find very playable specifics. For example, you could start Act 3 of this section on the word “or” in the next-to-last line. Alternately, you could start it on the word “and” in the final line. Either way will create an interesting performance choice.
The transitions in acting are the ways we discuss physics. They are the changes of direction, the energy of a new idea that can lead us to the truth we long to uncover.
Originally published July 10, 2014
One of my favorite classes in college was art history. Our teacher introduced us to a concept that sounded like something from a science fiction movie: “horror vacui.” She explained it meant fear of open space. The Egyptians were afflicted with it. In their art, they had the need to fill every blank surface. Their massive sculptures were covered with hieroglyphics. When that didn’t seem to do the trick, they painted them as well. Horror vacui was one of the dominant influences in some of the more famous illustrated manuscripts from the Middle Ages. There seemed to be the literal need to fill in all the 0s.
Not all horror vacui is bad. As parents, we have come to rely on “Where’s Waldo?” books for a few minutes of peace and quiet.
However, horror vacui is a force that hurts our acting. There is a tangible urge to fill any silence. I have seen clean, dramatic moments muddied by randomly adding words, gestures, or ever-evolving facial expressions. I have seen great comedic lines not “land” because of what my acting teachers used to call “nervous energy.”
Is that what it is? My teachers always pointed to the great insights of Stanislavsky. Actors need relaxation onstage. We did endless relaxation exercises in college. Some were so effective I fell asleep, but for some reason I still twitched onstage.
I think Stanislavsky has a good explanation for horror vacui, but it was in a different part of his book. In “An Actor Prepares,” he notes, “The very worst fact is that clichés will fill up every empty spot in a role, which is not already solid with living feeling.”
My takeaway from this is not to add more feeling but to investigate the “empty spots” of a role.
I look to another discipline for guidance—chemistry. Electrons will always seek the lowest level of energy. It is the same with acting. We feel most comfortable at the lowest level of energy. This doesn’t lead to too little feeling, it leads to too many unexplored questions. That leads to holes in our characterizations, which leads to horror vacui and the desire to fill in the gaps with randomness.
I have a series of questions I ask when I start working on a scene. They help me get grounded in the truth.
Is the situation I am in new or old?
Am I telling the truth? All of the time? If not, why am I lying?
What was I doing before the scene started?
Where am I going afterward?
Did the events of this scene change the course of my day? Why?
These are just a few. They always jump-start the search for specific truths. As Stanislavsky wrote, “You may play well or you may play badly; the important thing is that you should play truly.”
Silence and relaxation happen when we are confident we are telling the truth. Our horror vacui becomes a wonderful barometer that tells us we still have questions that need answers.