Originally published backstage.com Nov. 28, 2014, advice for actors series.
I was working on a production of “The Glass Menagerie” many years ago in upstate New York. We were rehearsing Tom’s “drunk scene.” The director called up to the stage, “What are you two doing up there?”
I shouted back, “Acting!”
He said, “I know that. But I can’t understand anything.”
The actor playing Laura yelled, “Do you need us to be louder?”
He laughed and said, “No. Just better. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Laura yelled back in fury, “What do you want? A spotlight on my tears?”
The director started walking down the aisle. “No. But just so you know, I couldn’t tell you were crying. From back there it just looked like a mess.”
Rude? Yes. Super rude? For sure. Right? Hmmm.
The problem with harsh criticism is that you often never hear what is being said. It took years for me to unravel that moment and learn for myself what our director was telling us in a very nonproductive way: Feelings are not your friend. They are too unpredictable. That is their virtue. The foundation of acting is clarity of thought.
Throughout my career I have had directors ask, “So what emotion are you going to play in this scene?”
I have directed actors who explained, “I know what I am doing now is wrong. This is just the base level of emotion. I will add layers of other emotions on top of this one.”
Maybe this works for some actors. I don’t see how. It seems to be a sure-fire way to be inward-focused on your work rather than actively being in the scene.
The truth is, I don’t think the audience is interested in emotions. How many times have you watched an actor tearing the daylights out of a scene and you are curiously unmoved?
I would argue what we look for in a performance is not feelings but behavior. I don’t want to play at words here. What is the difference?
The foundation of any story, any scene, is logic. The first job of an actor is to understand that logic. That requires a different type of work than throwing a plate of angst against the wall and seeing what sticks. It requires asking specific questions to define the boundaries of a situation.
Some of the simple questions I start with are:
Is this a new situation or an old situation?
Did I expect this to happen?
Is the character in the scene telling me the truth?
What will my life look like tomorrow because of what is happening now?
Will I be able to look this person in the eye again?
I work toward specific answers.
If you start with thought and not feelings, you will know who you are and what you want. Then you don’t have to worry about emotions. They will happen as they happen. They may surprise you. They may surprise the audience. You may not know what will happen next. Then we have behavior. That’s when the fun begins.
Two glorious weeks in the never-ending rain. As they say in Iceland, “There is no such thing as bad weather—only bad clothing.” I am doing seven different shows, including some of my favorite stories from the past and some new ones that I love.
I think we have everything taken care of…the new podcast is out, thanks to David Chen! You can find it here:
The Primary Instinct, the film of me telling stories at a concert in Seattle, has a distributor! Thank you Filmbuff. It will be available near the end of September.
Ann has posted the music for the new podcast (under the Tobolowsky Files tab above, Playlist)…thank you dear one. New stories are on the way!
This October I am conducting a writing workshop in the mountains of upstate New York. Beautiful. I am thrilled about the change of scenery. I am excited about the workshop. I am going to be teaching improvisational techniques for writers.
I have 10 years experience teaching improv for actors and comics. It has been fun. I get a lot of good feed back. Several of my students have gotten jobs. Not necessarily in acting. I ran into one of my students about five years ago. I asked the standard teacher question, “So how are things going?”
“Great. I got out of show business.”
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes. It was your class that made me quit.”
“No. It was a good thing. I’m a writer now. I’ve had two books published. Working on my third. I owe it all to your class.”
I was confused. We talked a little more. Quite by accident, the ideas I had developed for one disciple were very suited for another: The writer.
I focused on creating a program that was writer specific. Since then I have taught several writer groups. I was brought up to Seattle to work with the writers of their NPR station, KUOW. The stories that came out of the sessions were wonderful.
The writers not only appreciated doing something different, the exercises we did inspired them to approach their work in new ways. I ran into Jeff Hansen, the program director of KUOW, last week in Seattle. Jeff said the staff was still talking about the workshop and wondered if I could do another one.
Improvisation for writers not only directly attacks the so-called writer’s block, but informs new ways to look at structure, character, and the tone of a piece.
If you are thinking of a creative getaway in October, put writing in the Adirondacks on your list.
Here’s the link for more pictures and complete information for Dartbrook Writers Retreat.
Photo: Alex Anfanger, Lenny Jacobson as Jack and Ben Dolfe in Comedy Central’s Big Time in Hollywood, FL
Photo credit: Jesse Grant
I had a great acting teacher, Ed Kaye-Martin, who said, “Comfort is the enemy of the artist.” I found this encouraging. I was in graduate school at the time and was almost always uncomfortable. The downside was I had no idea what he meant. It went against everything I learned in undergraduate school. At SMU we studied Stanislavsky who said actors must always be relaxed. Very relaxed. To that end, we practiced slow breathing. We shook our hands and feet to relieve ourselves of tension. In movement class we did deep relaxation exercises that usually resulted in me falling asleep on the floor of the theater lobby. I got an A, so I guess I was doing it right.
Now I know what Ed’s great truth means. I can’t recreate it, but I recognize when the groove of chaos is working. Shooting Groundhog Day was a study in being uncomfortable. Besides the bitter cold, we kept getting new script pages daily. The arc of the film was honed as we shot it. Harold Ramis hadn’t decided yet what the singular day in the film was going to look like, so we shot and reshot the street scenes in various weather conditions – meaning we never had a day off. We never had an hour off. When the snow or rains came, we got the call and Bill Murray and I ran back to the street and began shooting again.
Big Time in Hollywood, FL achieved a level of creative chaos I have rarely experienced on television. Underline “creative.” Chaos is nothing new in television. There is never time. There are always last second changes. When I did Designing Women (in its first season), I started a scene, we stopped unexpectedly. I asked our director what was happening. He explained it was 9 pm, and it was time for the studio audience to go back to prison. Deputies arrived and the entire audience was escorted out and put on buses. We continued our live audience comedy with no audience at all. That was chaos. But not good chaos.
Big Time in Hollywood, FL always reaches for higher and higher levels of madness while keeping its feet on the ground. That makes for a lot of discomfort. Our creators, Alex Anfanger and Dan Schimpf, took the uncomfortable choice of taking good writing and risked ruining it by throwing out new ideas for us to try in the moment. This was never an exercise in trying to find more excess. Often Dan and Alex would shout out an idea, laugh, stop, confer and then call out to us, “Never mind. It’s funny, but it doesn’t make any sense.”
What does that mean? What is “sense?” And why is “sense” the final arbiter of an idea getting shot?
The 19th century novelist, George Meredith, had a brilliant insight. He said comedy only exists when there is civilization. There must be rules before the rules are broken. There must be a norm for an audience to enjoy the norm collapsing. In this way even something as off the charts as Big Time becomes universal. Making cop movies in a garage, hoping to make show biz connections in drug rehab, and accidentally shooting a dead private eye in a motel room becomes our story. It shows us in an unapologetic and unrelenting way what happens when we lie, when we are ambitious, jealous, afraid, vicious, and courageous. Yes, even courageous.
Comedy isn’t just about everything falling apart. It is very funny to watch these dear lunatics possess the virtues we often lack.
David Chen approached me last January and said, “Why don’t we do a concert film. Can you tell stories for an hour or two?”
David does things like that all of the time. He makes suggestions that unleash a sea of work, fear, and hopefully triumph. The story of The Primary Instinct is the latter.
The idea was to raise money through something called Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a fundraising method that resembles a bad relationship. You ask for what you think you can get – not what you need. If you don’t reach your pre-set goal, you get nothing.
We asked for 40K. The K means thousand. That’s right. We were asking for five figures. This is how much I needed to live a year in Los Angeles when I first moved out here. The only thing that keeps this tale from being the ramblings of a mad man is we got it. We got 50K. But then some people didn’t pay their pledges. And then Kickstarter took their cut. It was like working with divorce lawyers—they are your friends until they bill you. We ended up with 40K. We hired a film crew. We were going to film me doing a one-man show in Seattle.
What one-man show? Oh right. We didn’t have one.
However we did have support. Adam Zacks, who runs several nice venues in Seattle, said he would let us rent one of his theaters for a couple of nights. Jeff Hansen, the program director at KUOW in Seattle, began playing The Tobolowsky Files again on the radio to gin up an audience.
We started to sell tickets. We sold 900. Now all we needed was a show.
I began writing a series of stories that seemed to take on a life of their own. What began as a story about my family in Dallas ended up being a story about stories…what a story is and why we tell them. I called it The Primary Instinct.
Our first screening is Sunday in Boston. April 26. It will be a thrill to come back to Boston. Boston is where The Tobolowsky Files began. This was back in the days when David Chen was a student at Harvard University and I offered to pay him in sandwiches if he would edit the podcasts. Harvard was where I did my first Tobolowsky Files live performance. I did “Conference Hour” in a small lecture hall with forty of David’s friends and a couple of people who got lost on campus. It was at the Brattle Theater in Cambridge where David and I did our first shows for the public.
Homecomings are a beautiful thing. If you are in the area, come by and see the movie. (You can get tickets here.) Stick around. Afterwards, we can celebrate with a beer and maybe even split a sandwich.
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.