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Horror Vacui

jarry  Deadwood

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.

The Words That Hurt

Portrait 3

originally appeared
June 12, 2014.

In improvisation, you have to be your own writer, director, performer, and editor. I have one rule: You are not allowed to be your own critic.

All actors want constructive criticism. That is the only way we can get better. However, there is a line. I have always doubted the effectiveness of acting teachers who beat their students like a piñata at a 5-year-old’s birthday party. Hurtful intentions travel faster than words. Abusive teachers are feared, but never heard.

Stanislavsky mentioned the No. 1 thing you needed to be an actor. Surprisingly, it was not truth or emotional depth. It was will—the strength to stand up and do it. When you have been hurt, when you hurt yourself, it becomes harder and harder to stand up.

As a business, acting has always accepted hurtful words as part of the territory. Like it or not, actors must come up with effective ways of dealing with misery.

All hurtful situations can generally be summed up as one: rejection. From bad auditions to getting fired, there is one terrible message: You are not good enough. The reason why this hurts so much is that it is true. None of us are good enough—especially by our own standards.

We have all had bad days. We have had moments when our focus is off, where our vision is not clear. Our own disappointments in ourselves are more potent than anything a director or producer could say.

The first line of defense is to be your own best friend, your advocate. Do everything you can do to be at your best. Know your lines. Understand the story you are telling, and your role in the story. Protect yourself. Don’t do self-destructive things like play golf without sunscreen before you have to work.

When we still come to the well of self-doubt, what do we do?

I think we have to embrace the idea that our lack of faith in ourselves can be a good thing. It is self-doubt that pushes us. It is self-doubt that makes us want to become one with the material. Self-doubt becomes the blood in our performances.

Self-doubt only becomes dangerous when we turn it into a lifestyle. Second-guessing yourself is a sign that your will is being affected. The cure? Pick one choice. Who knows? Maybe your instinct is right. Often our talent is more aware of what to do than our brains.

The action of doing that one choice becomes the permission we need to find new choices we may like better. “Doing” creates the flow that allows your talent to speak.

I have worked with actors who tie themselves in knots feeling their choice is not perfect, or the expression of their choice is faulty. There is no need. Remember, you are never alone. In film, you have other actors, a director, and editors who will shape your final performance. In theater, you have tomorrow.

Talent is a delicate creature. It needs kindness to come out into the light.

New show in Santa Barbara!!!

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Take A Hike


Originally published
May 15, 2014.

Photo source: Backstage, Clay Rodery.

A joint study by the University of Kansas and the University of Utah finally confirmed something that people knew 3,000 years ago. Researchers took 56 people, a fairly even mix of men and women, sent them into the wilderness on organized camping trips, and when they returned they had which of the following?

a. Farmer’s tans

b. Camper’s constipation

c. More creativity

They probably had all three, but the point of this column is “c.” They scored higher overall on a series of creativity tests. More nature equals more creativity. Maybe.

The problem with the study is that the participants were immersed in nature for four days without any electronics. So there is a possibility that the higher creativity could be related to disconnecting from computers and iPhones for a while.

This is something the Amish have been saying for years. The Jewish Sabbath is built around disconnecting for one day a week. In Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic book, “The Sabbath,” there is an observation made by his daughter that on Starudays, the disconnection from the business of the world enabled you to be affected by nature. You became more aware of the changing path of the sun throughout the year. The varying amounts of sunlight and shadow had a profound effect on personality.

“Social media” is on the verge of becoming an oxymoron. If Renoir were to paint an afternoon at any restaurant in Los Angeles or New York, he would have to be good at depicting the light reflecting off of an iPhone; couples in love, texting; whole groups of people, checking emails.

When I was in college, I had an acting teacher who was my mortal enemy. Despite our history, I recall something she said in class. (She would be happy to know she had a positive influence on me.) She came into class in tears one day. She asked how we expected to be actors if we didn’t participate in life? How could we be engaged in art if we weren’t engaged in the world around us? She was right.

Earlier studies on nature and creativity cite the decline in nature-based recreation over the last 30 years. The psychologists said our lives are filled with events like television, computers, cellphones, and sirens that “ambush” our attention. Nature allows “the executive attentional system to replenish.” We become more human, more observant, more self-possessed.

Could this be a cause for the increase in creativity?

You can say art is about many things: passion, point of view, technique. The one thing that unifies all art is choice. The ability to choose is based on our ability to see priorities.

It is hard to make choices when we are surrounded by noise. We can take back some of our creative lives by controlling the amount of noise around us. Electronic and otherwise.

Maybe Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman were on to something. Clearing our heads is the first step to finding our souls.

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.