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Do You Really Have to Memorize Lines?


Originally appeared backstage April 17, 2014.

Photo source: Backstage, Clay Rodery.

One of the eye openers about being a teacher isn’t the questions—it’s the answers. Over the years I have become more uncertain of everything, even the basics. Here is a frightening example: Two years ago, one of my students asked if it was important to learn your lines. (Pause for a bemused smile.) Of course you have to learn your lines! It is part of your job. It is what is referred to as “what you are paid to do.”

Or is it?

In the days when Marlon Brando was the ideal of every young actor, the stories of his refusal to learn lines were legendary. Brando felt the camera loved to look at the human face grasping for the next idea, and I believed it—especially when I had a lot of irritating exposition to learn.

I was playing “Computer Guy” on “Knots Landing,” a one-hour television drama from the 1980s. I had a scene where I had to deliver a half page of phony tech talk to William Devane, one of the show’s stars. When I showed up to rehearse the scene, William asked, “You didn’t learn that crap did you?” I said, “No, sir.” He patted me on the back and said, “Good man.” I cut the speech out of the script and pasted it on my computer screen and read it. I pointed at it and pretended I was showing William something on the monitor. Not my finest hour, but it worked.

On “Deadwood,” it was a foregone conclusion we wouldn’t be able to learn our lines. Ian McShane told me to keep looking at him, stay in character, and just call out “Line.” The script supervisor would feed us the next adverbial clause. In the end, the scene turned out to be a standoff of two actors saying “Line.” They cut it together and it looked great.

On sitcoms, writers occasionally hold out alternate jokes and spring them on the actors during the show. No rehearsal. The audience loves it. Especially if you forget what you’re supposed to say.

Arthur Rubinstein was one of the great pianists of the 20th century. He believed that if a pianist practiced too much, the piece sounded lifeless, like they kept it in their pocket. He felt there should always be a question as to what would happen in live performance. He said the audience could sense if there was blood in the work. He wanted to go out onstage with the uncertainty as to who would win that night—Beethoven or him. Of course, he was a genius. He could do those things and get away with it. Later in his life, after the birth of his children, he dedicated himself to more practice. He didn’t want to set a bad example.

The way I look at it, an actor only has two choices: You are either over- or underprepared. If you are overprepared it is easier to improvise than if you are underprepared and have to do the scene in one take.

So learn your lines.

Acting and Belief

Photo Source Backstage Clay Rodery

Originally appeared in backstage, February 20, 2014.

Photo source: Backstage, Clay Rodery.

I got into a mild dustup at our son’s preschool a few eons ago. One of the moms was working as a teacher’s helper and was explaining weather to the children. She was not a scientist, but she was a mom—which makes her close to being an expert on everything that matters. One of the little dears raised her hand and asked, “Where does thunder come from?” The mother looked her straight in the eye with a huge smile and said, “Don’t you know? It’s when two clouds bump into one another.”

I was not amused. I asked her afterward, “Why did you say that? They are kids. They were listening. Why not tell them the truth? Thunder happens when lightning heats up the air. The rapid expansion of the air creates sound, which we hear as thunder. Since sound travels slower than light, we hear thunder after we see lightning. That is why we have evolved the complex metric of counting ‘one chim-pan-zee, two chim-pan-zee’ after seeing lightning, to calculate how far away the storm is.”

The mom stared at me and said, “I thought that would be a bit much.”

I said, “Of course it is a bit much, but so is telling them something completely untrue that they now will have to unlearn someday.”

I often think about that conversation. Who was right? The lens of time has taught me that confrontation uncovered a deeper truth. It is a truth that applies to all human nature in general and acting in specific. Belief is easy.

People can believe in anything. We experience much of what we see in the world the same way those schoolchildren believed thunder was caused by clouds bumping into one another.

I taught drama to children when I was 19. One of my students got cast as Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker.” I was there opening night like a proud papa. She was very good, especially in the tantrum scene where she ruins the family’s dinner by throwing food. Opening night, the food props for the dinner were perfection. They had real ham, steaming vegetables, mashed potatoes, pickles, and lemonade. The audience was salivating.

I came back twice over the course of the run. Seems like the financial aspects of providing a real Sunday dinner became too much for the production to handle. They cut back. My next visit, the ham and the loaf of bread were made of papier-mâché. My last trip, all of the food was fake except for the pickles—and there was a sign backstage that said, “Please don’t eat the pickles.”

The amazing thing was, it didn’t matter. All of the audiences believed in the dinner. They believed because the actors believed.

Perhaps “real” is not necessary to find “true.” And in a belated apology to that dear mother, you showed me something profound, something Plato commented on in “The Republic”: that “real” is a matter of opinion.

Belief is the lens that can make anything true.

Navigating the Shoals of Director-Speak

keep my grave open copy

Originally appeared in Backstage Feb. 6, 2014.

I was watching classic movies the other night. There is almost no better laboratory for studying the evolution of film over the last century.

You can watch the changing standards for feminine beauty. In silent films, sex appeal was innocence. In the ’40s, it was worldliness and the ability to accept a man even if he lived in Casablanca. In the modern era, sexy means being ripped, even if a woman doesn’t have the money for a personal trainer.

The biggest change has been behind the scenes—the directors. Showmen like Mack Sennett gave way to narrative artists like John Ford, who gave way to revolutionary technicians like George Lucas.

Today, you never know who will be in the director’s chair. In the last couple of years I have worked with directors who got their training in film school, in improvisation, in animation, in standup comedy, and in doing bad sitcoms for years. Each director approaches a script differently. More importantly, each director has different expectations and limitations in working with actors.

In the old days, you could count on directors having a theater background. You could have discussions about “your motivation.” That is no longer a given. Sometimes a director will say something confusing like, “When are you going to be funny?” Or “Can you bend your knees and lean sideways when you walk? It looks better on camera.” What tools can you use to translate director-speak? I rely on four keys.

1. I ask myself, what is my character’s greatest hope and greatest fear? The answer provides real boundaries I can work within—even if I am walking sideways.

2. When I am rehearsing on my own, I never tie myself to a specific performance. I will imagine the scene on my feet, sitting down, in a car, making breakfast. You never know. I had a courtroom scene on “CSI: Miami.” I assumed it would be shot in a courtroom. They ran out of time. The director said, “We’re losing the light and our set. Let’s do this scene running out to the parking lot.”

3. High-definition cameras lend themselves to hand-held shots. The “swinging single” pops up all the time for getting lots of coverage quickly. I have a rule of thumb: The more the camera moves, the more naturalistic the performance should be. Even in comedy. The moving camera creates a faux-documentary style, with the director saying, “We just happened to have our film crew with us today. Talk about luck!” When the camera is stationary, the director is saying, “I am telling you a story. Sit and watch.” The size of the performance can rise to match the narrative.

4. The biggest key, the one you must never forget, even if your director can’t communicate what he or she is looking for: It is always about the story. When in doubt, discuss with the director how you see your role in the story. Find agreement. Then everyone should live happily ever after.

“The Primary Instinct” Kickstarted

Tobo Interview 4

Every endeavor is filled with risk. It doesn’t matter if you are in fourth grade and you want to ask a girl to be your partner on Square Dance Day, or you are starting a new job, or you want to try a new type of cat food that claims to reduce hairballs—there is risk.

David Chen and I are embarking on one of those heart-pounding, mind-numbing trips now: shooting a live show at the Moore Theater in Seattle in hopes of creating a feature length film on storytelling.

A journey like that can wake you up at 4 AM with many questions, like: are you out of your mind? Why put yourself through this? The way back to sleep is the recognition that we are not alone. Not by a long shot.

We are joined by the great technical people at Super Frog Saves Tokyo in Seattle, Michael Gaston and company, Joel Clare and some of his Chicago based team are running to our aid. We have been assisted by Jeff Hanson and KUOW, The Tobolowsky Files’ home away from home.

And about 1000 of you. Contributing time, money, and good wishes through Kickstarter.

That is enough to give me pleasant dreams.

David and I have played the Moore before. It is a wonderful venue. A beautiful theater. Historical.

I am doing two good stories. Conference Hour, one of my all-time favorites from The Dangerous Animals Club, and The Primary Instinct, a new-ish story that means a lot to me.

Meaning is the key. It is what I always come back to. When something means a lot there is more risk, but it is easier to bear. When I think about the stories, our supporters, and the distance David Chen and I have travelled together on this project, it becomes something bordering on an honor to make this happen.

Then work ceases to be work. It becomes a blessing.

If you are in Seattle the evening of May 3 come to the Moore. We will have a splendid time.
More info here.

Tobo Interview 3

Who Needs Stanislavsky?

Stephen in Uncle Vanya

Originally appeared in Backstage Jan. 23, 2014.

I always went to acting classes with a mixture of reverence and confusion. Everything sounded logical and simple—even holy. How can you argue with phrases like “24-hour emotional life” and “sense memory”? I felt confident I knew what I was doing until my next audition. I kept wondering when I was supposed to use my “magic if.”

I blame Stanislavsky. I’m sure he meant well. He was probably one of the greatest directors of the last century. But talking about his ideas can become like getting tequila drunk: eventually all you have is the headache.

I know that “playing the emotion” is disastrous. Emotions change rapidly. Every take, every performance is different. I go through 50 or 60 emotions waiting in line at Starbucks.

We live in an era when actors put a high value in finding the emotional truth of a part, unless they’re in a “Transformers” movie. Is there any other “method” that approaches the problem of finding truth in a simpler way?

Perhaps. The joy of this method is that it is Stanislavsky adjacent.

Michael Chekhov was one of the leading actors in Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater. He was the nephew of the great playwright Anton Chekhov. He had his own system of acting that is simplicity itself. Chekhov said there were only three types of characters. That’s it. Three. Head, heart, and groin characters.

Head characters walk on the balls of their feet. They sit forward in chairs. All gestures seem to come from the head, as does all of the emotional energy.

Heart characters walk flat on their feet. Balanced. They sit upright. All gestures come from the center of their being. Chekhov noted that the heroes and heroines in Shakespeare are heart characters.

Groin characters walk with a low center of energy. They slouch into a chair. They lean back. All gestures come from the hip. On HBO’s “Deadwood,” almost all of the characters had a groin-centered energy. I suspect this came from wearing gun belts. Costumes make a difference.

It sounds simplistic. I know. But try it out at a grocery store and see what happens. Note how your energy and rhythms shift. I have found this method of acting has enormous value.

Try it yourself. Rehearse an audition piece using the three different placements of energy. It always affects the scene and often in an interesting way. Use it as a tool to look beyond the conventional. If you are reading for the part of a scientist, conventional wisdom says “head character.” Flip it. Try it as a groin character. If you have a voiceover and the director gives you three takes, try switching from head to heart to a groin-centered energy. You will have three completely different reads at your fingertips.

The results are not as robotic as you might think. The physical can lead to the emotional. Ask any dancer. Just for fun, look into Michael Chekhov’s three types of characters. If nothing else, it’s easy to remember.


Stephen Tobolowsky is an actor, author of “The Dangerous Animals Club,” and teaches improvisation for Kalmenson and Kalmenson.

It’s a Brave New (Media) World

gringo planet solo

Originally appeared in Backstage Jan. 9, 2014.

I recently finished my first experiences acting in “new media.” “New media” means shooting a project that usually airs on a computer—like a show for Hulu or Netflix. I’m not sure of the wisdom of calling it “new.” Even cave paintings were new once.

The new media agreement is a contract in which you get a very small amount of money on the front end with the promise of getting something big on the back end later. Show business has a long history of giving performers something big on the back end.

The question is: Is new media the new paradigm for the actor?

The short version: We shot a lot, an awfully lot, in a very short time. One day we shot over 25 pages. I was hallucinating on the drive home. One of the actors was laughing and saying it was like summer stock for movies. I saw the comparison. When I did summer stock I slept in a barn; I had to pee in the woods; and we put up “The Importance of Being Earnest” in five days.

I found working in new media an interesting study in how the tail wags the dog. The “tail” in this metaphor is that there is no money for production. Consequently, new media is shot on very affordable, high-definition cameras.

In the days of film, the length of a shot was limited to the size of the camera magazine—about eight minutes. The high cost of film and processing limited the number of takes you could shoot.

Not anymore.

Media for high-def cameras is cheap. You can shoot endless takes. You can shoot long takes. You can shoot long takes and keep the cameras running while the director and producers get a cup of tea and talk over what scene to shoot next.

As an unintentional consequence, the age of new media is bringing back an old discipline: theater training. Ten years ago, it was possible to run into successful actors who had never been in a play. In the world of new media, training matters. Actors have to be able to pull off long dialogue scenes. They have to understand how to improvise. They have to contribute to the breadth and tone of the entire piece. As onstage, the actor has more control of his final performance.

During the two projects I worked on, it was not uncommon for directors to say, “We may keep the cameras running when the scene is over—so have fun. Come up with something.” Long-form improvisation is not a gift. It is a skill. New media has become the arena where the actor can develop those skills in a performance environment.

Actors have always had to adapt to new technical requirements. Aeschylus required masks. George Lucas made acting with green screens part of the landscape. From the looks of it, new media’s reliance on theater skills could be the beginning of the new good-old days.



Originally posted Dec. 19, 2013

I was in Richmond, Va., making a stop on my book tour for The Dangerous Animals Club. A sweet woman came up to the book table after my show. She pleasantly assured me she was not going to buy a book. She said she just wanted to ask me a question: How did I get into acting and how did I manage to stay in it?

How long do we have?

I was tired from the performance. She already warned me she was not going to buy a book so I didn’t want to burn up essential calories with a long response. I said, “Persistence,” without thinking. It seemed like a good answer. Not exactly original, but it still covered a lot of bases.

She laughed and shrugged her shoulders and said, “Well, sure. That’s true with everything, right?”

A light went on in my brain. She was right. Righter than she knew. I said, “Yes, but not in the way you mean. Success is a product of persistence. So is failure. We become whatever we’re persistent at. I had friends who were always 20 minutes late—persistently late. You could set your watch by them. I know people who persistently sabotage themselves. They don’t prepare enough for auditions. They don’t learn their lines. They are rude to the crew. Persistently.”

Actors talk about methods. A lot of the time our “methods” of working are a series of habits, good and bad, we developed sometime in the past for odd reasons.

My first-born had colic when was he was a few weeks old. That meant nonstop crying every night. The only way to stop the crying was to drive him in the car from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Every evening I loaded him up and drove him to Santa Barbara and back. I took the scripts I was working on with me. To this day I work on my lines in the car. It has become part of my “method.”

Habits feel comfortable. I remember the words of my ex-acting teacher and dungeon master, Ed Kaye-Martin. He was a brilliant man. All who studied with him were lucky. Ed said, “Comfort is the enemy of the artist.”

I wasn’t crazy about Ed’s statement in grad school. I was uncomfortable all of the time and still wasn’t an artist. I see the wisdom of it now. People persistently take the easy path. It’s human nature to look for the answers at the back of the book. We often see the effort in finding better habits as a problem to be avoided. In doing so, we persistently shortchange ourselves.

As actors, we know we can become anything with enough rehearsal. Take the time to look at what you do persistently. If you don’t like how you are spending your time and your efforts, change the schedule. No matter what your passion is, the power to redraw the map of your life is the first tool of being an artist.


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