Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Learning is in the Doing

A friend of mine raised an interesting debate point the other day. The premise of it was something like this:

The more we know about something, or the more skilled we become at it, the more inhibited we are by this knowledge.

It was likened to that of a musician. Her partner was a Royal Academy of Music trained instrumentalist. One can only dream of being such a gifted musician. However, he had been asked to play for a particular piece and declined, certain of the knowledge that he would not be the best person for the job. Whereas a lesser trained musician would simply throw themselves in there. The expert knowledge that he has was sabotaging a career opportunity based on his awareness of his skills and knowledge of the material.

Is knowledge power?

As children, we are adventurers, discoverers, pioneers. There's a big tree, let's climb the shit out of it. That hill's really steep, let's sprint down it. The older we get, the more afraid we become because we are aware of risk, failure, social politics. I could go on forever, but overall, society and the external factors we come across inhibit us more and more. Especially in this day and age. My parents generation were simply told to go out, play and be back when it's dark. Now in the days of information, fear rules all. Parents are aware of every possible danger their child is in and in this age of instant communication, instant messaging, instant information they need to stay aware and connected consistently because they are afraid of what could happen. Knowledge creates fear, fear is the path to the dark side as Yoda says. 

So, let's bring this back to Acting. That is what I do after all. I recently posted a blog asking how clever do you have to be as an actor. I guess this is a variation on a theme. Can over training be a problem for a young actor?

My fantastic year 13 BRIT School students put on a huge revue show last week. It went very well indeed, was well received by the audience and some great learning experiences occurred. The show involved a mixture of musical theatre segments including scene, song and dance.  Naturally, there was some strong scene work going on. They had a solid previous year of actor training to draw on and were applying their skills well. Some scenes were developing nicely however pace and energy was becoming an issue at times, notably in the earlier 1920's, 30's and 40's musicals. And then the note to give them hit me, they were looking for deep subtext where there was none. Especially in Cole-Porter esque works where scenes were fun ways to string a plot together linking Porter's witty songs. That's not to belittle their importance, without a plot there's little reason to care. But needless to say, people flocked to see a Cole Porter musical for Cole Porter's music. With that in mind they were free to be energised and work with the text they were given. The energy and pace picked up and the piece remained consistent. Happy days.

Thinking on that one note for the actors I've began to ponder the benefit of Actor training at young ages. Several young actors have been caught with the affliction of being too intelligent, too analytical and having amassed so much knowledge of acting theory that it has hindered them in practice. They have inner critics that can't switch off, even when they are supposed to be in the moment. They have been hyper-trained to monitor 'what's my objective?' 'What's my action?' 'Have I achieved that?' 'Is it landing?' 'How well am I doing?' All these circulating questions are so damaging.  

I was the exact same as the above paragraph AND the case of the musician in question. The more trained I was, especially by the time I finished my MA at the (now Royal) Central School of Speech and Drama I was all too aware of my limitations as an actor in musical theatre. I had the fear. But also I had the curse of an overly active brain. Consistently self monitoring within classes. Originally I was the actor who would say 'I just do it'. We all know those actors right? The ones who learn their lines, turn up, do the work and somehow it's good (Just to clarify, I don't think that is good practice, the right technique is crucial) but the more I was aware of text based techniques, of the craft of acting, the shape of the industry etc I was becoming trapped by own awareness and subsequent fear. I had become one of the over trained hundreds being released in to the wild every year by drama schools. 

Ian Mckellen argues that the UK will not produce the highest calibre of actors in this day and age because of the distinct drop in repertory theatre companies:


Here, actors learnt their trade attempting various roles frequently. The learning was in the doing, they discovered their limitations and discovered new things to play in the safety and company of other actors. Where now, actor training is predominantly happening in classrooms. Graduates consider themselves lucky to have left with a decent agent and some regular auditions.

My method of acting (Meisner, if you hadn't guessed) was the first technique which brought me back to trusting my instincts. However with the focus primarily placed on the other person. It is a beautifully simple technique but a technique nonetheless. You can clearly see when it is being applied correctly or not. However it got me out of my head, and allowed me to be truthfully responsive. Not constantly questioning. Now that I teach it, I see the benefits daily in those that I have taught it to. It lets actors discover, let's them climb trees and take risks in the safety of the technique. 

Knowledge is power. Absolutely. But being in your head is exhausting. Take a break and climb a tree. Meisner's book concludes by telling actors to keep acting, take roles which don't suit you just yet, one of these days your age and emotional experience may match what is on the page. Trust me, over time you will learn by doing. Apparently it takes over 14 years to be an actor. Not just three years in a lecture room. 

Monday, 2 December 2013

Why I'd never be a Method Actor

So, this week I'm going a little out of my knowledge area to talk a bit about Method Acting.

By Method Acting I'm referring specifically to acting that takes on Stanislavski's principles of Acting as developed by Lee Strasberg at the Actor's Studio. Not necessarily the practice of specific Method Actors.

Famed Method Acting names get banded around quite a lot: Al Pacino, Daniel Day-Lewis, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman etc. All fine actors (though my acting teacher would ferociously disagree with the latter) but you can't argue the fact they have all had fantastic careers, with the occasional stumble here, there and everywhere, who hasn't.

Day-Lewis is perhaps the most chronicled Actor by the ways in which he prepares for roles. For the film My Left Foot he lived in a self imposed state if paralysis for the duration of the filming, to gain an insight in to the character. After The Boxer, his trainer insisted he could turn pro if he wanted and during Lincoln, he insisted in being addressed as Mr President throughout filming, never breaking character. You'd hate to be married to the guy right? I don't believe THIS level of preparation is wholly subscribed to by practitioners of Method but the urban myths prevail. 

Now, were I to take on the role of a homeless person, should I go and live on the streets myself? In order to gain an insight in to the characters world? For one simple matter, I wouldn't want to. But suppose I did. Am I not simply generalising that all homeless people have a similar experience?  In all honesty, whatever best helps you is fine by me, each actor creates their own method eventually, and who am I to criticise, it's just not for me.  But regardless, this isn't my biggest issue with Method Acting.

Emotion Memory/Affective Memory

Perhaps one of the most debated topics within actor training; the practice of recalling your past experiences to stir your emotions within your work on a role.

If you have time, here is a wonderful article on Stanislavki's system with a large sector given over to the emotion memory debate (but I'll give you some abbreviated highlights):


The fact of the matter is that Stanislavski chucked emotion memory from his system in his later years in favour of the Method of Physical Actions, which would later go in to the current trend of Actioning.  Stella Adler had the sense to go back and work with Stanislavski after the Group Theatre disbanded and brought back his new principles.  Strasberg instead ran with Emotion Memory, developing it in to the newer, radical Affective Memory, defined by a Starbergian student as

'the conscious creation of remembered emotions which have occurred in the

actor’s own past life and then their application to the character being portrayed on stage'
The 'conscious creation'....whereby you're not truly living within the moment, but being forced to vanish within yourself to attempt to bring up past emotions.  Here, you're introverting the already introverted, because that's what we are.  As extroverted as one might appear, the fact of the matter is actors are working with ourselves consistently, our body, our instincts and our feelings are our tools and a permanent process of self awareness is in effect.  By asking you to put your attention in to your past, how can you be engaging with the present moment, and the actor opposite?  Also, we run the risk of squeezing for every last drop of emotion within ourselves, tensing and searching deep to try to feel something, it's ugly to watch someone squeeze emotion out, and you know when you're watching it. 
I titled this article 'Why I'd never be a Method Actor' because, emotion/affective memory is not for me.  Quite simply, I've had an alright life.  I certainly didn't get in to acting because I wasn't loved enough as a child, or to deal with some life-issue.  Granted I have memories, I've gone through the usual relationships, break ups, arguments, my childhood dog dying, a whole array of stuff.  But ask me to liken the death of my dog to say, a character who loses the love of their life and I'll laugh in your face.  Plus, as time moves on those memories have different meanings to me.  Were I to have had major trauma growing up that would be a different story, why would it be even remotely helpful for me to bring up horrific past memories in front of my peers?  Eventually, you'll end up with such an unstable, internalised, collective of actors requiring consistent therapy.  Surely it's not healthy for anyone's craft.  And let's not forget, an audience don't come to the theatre to watch you have feelings, they come to have feelings of their own.
Within my work, I've seen an actor in truthful tears based on an exercise in which she was no longer able to have children, based on a past abortion.  For this actor, there was no such memory to grab on to and yet the moment was served and the emotion truthful, it was gorgeous work and the other actor responded beautifully.  The imagination can be more fruitful than the memory when we stop squeezing for results.  The process is much more beneficial than the result, and that's where the real work happens.

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