Acting (statement, training and experience)
It goes without saying that everything one experiences in life has at least an indirect affect on one’s creative output. However, my training as an actor profoundly influenced me as a writer and continues to inform a reader on how to interpret my plays.
These are the basic principles that I derived from my acting studies:
- A character’s point of view is not necessarily the author’s p.o.v.
- Acting is not emotion: acting is behavior. That’s what an audience sees. However, the act of thinking is also a kind of behavior, BUT emotion per se is a by product, a result of the behavior, not the goal in and of itself. Emotion is the cart; behavior is the horse.
- Environment (temperature, indoors or outdoors, public or private space, etc.) affects behavior.
- There is no one acting methodology that works for all plays in all situations, and likewise, no one training paradigm which works for all actors.
- Every character wants something.
- Every character needs something.
(These two can be different and not necessarily conscious to the character, but must be to the actor. This still applies to experimental theatre, though the immediate goal may be to move one’s arm over one’s head in exactly 14 seconds then back in 2.)
- The above propositions being said, however, if a play could substantially be labeled “Naturalistic” or “Realistic”, I am most moved by watching behavior that is recognizably human, and that which is occurring in time, or in the moment, with real thoughts, real interactions and real emotions.
- Characters change throughout. Structurally, that can be labeled as beats, events and arcs, or roughly minor, medium and large changes.
- Characters often don’t say what they mean or feel, but that hidden truth still affects behavior in some way, i.e. the spoken line, the seen behavior and the unseen thoughts often do not match.
- There are not an infinite number of actor choices. Plays have requirements that make them work when performed. In some, there are a multiple number of solutions, but NOT an infinite number to any particular moment or a role as whole. But sometimes there is ONLY one right way to approach a particular moment, or else the play doesn’t make sense in that section, or perhaps even as a whole.
Nonetheless, if the requirements are met, there are an infinite number of nuances within each choice.
- In some plays, the action occurs mostly between the lines (a.k.a. subtext), others on the line only (e.g. Shakespeare). Others, both.
- Most importantly, after reading a play, work backwards, i.e. the end of the play or any reveal should be contained within the behavior of the character at the beginning – or at least the seeds of a future behavior. Another way of saying this is that the ending informs the beginning, even if that ending is meant to be a surprise.
So as an example to the above, my play “All Things Chicken” could, when first reading it, seem to be an insubstantial comedy with lots of pointless yapping between the 2 male leads, i.e., until the first reveal when one of those characters admits he had been contemplating suicide. (The other main character also reveals the source of his own pain but near the end of the play.)
So, while the play is and must be a comedy, what’s underneath the inane back and forth between the two men has to be motivated by their respective pain, right from the first page. That hidden truth is the emotional engine that drives the play forward.
After all, quite literally, the characters are keeping themselves alive with their inane talk. They are entertaining each other as a shield from the unbearable. This is the reason why I’ve compared my play to Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot”.
However, Beckett immediately lets the audience know the bleakness within his tramps by the bleakness of their surroundings. My play’s environment is overt and more everyday as my characters habituate budget and fast food restaurants.
While at NYU’s Undergraduate Drama division, I was assigned to the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute for my acting, dance, voice and speech classes. So my initial exposure to what it meant to be a professional actor was the Method. (The Method is one variant of the Stanislavski System of acting; it is often highly misunderstood and an easily abused technique, but when done correctly, it leads to highly believable, interesting intense human behavior on stage or film. A full explanation than that would take too long in the context of this particular web page.)
UG Drama’s program was structured so that 50% of one’s credits were academic, heavily weighted toward theatre academics while the other half came from studying at one of the professional acting studios in New York City: Strasberg, Stella Adler, Circle in the Square, Actors and Directors Lab and NYU’s own ETW – Experimental Theatre Wing. (All in the Stanislavski orbit except the last. A & D would later go defunct and has since been replaced.)
But because of the academic side of the program, and the NYC downtown theatre scene where NYU was located admist, I was also exposed to quite a lot of experimental theatre – in particular Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines and academically these groups earlier work and their historical antecedents like Beckett, Artaud, the Dadaists, German Expressionists, Brecht and Piscator, Grotowski etc.
My above example of “All Things Chicken” more clearly shows how both the Stanislavski / Method and experimental theatre influences came together into one play. In other plays, I might instead veer a little or a lot more toward the non-naturalistic devices. (As for my screenplays, in America at least, the nature of the camera itself dictates a naturalistic approach.)
By my final undergraduate year at NYU, I was studying acting privately with a teacher, Clifford David, who had spun off from Strasberg with his own more imagination based version of the Method. Ditto, I studied voice and speech privately, and I had quickly replaced dance with the study of Tai Chi with the warmly brilliant Jean Kwok.
This was because I had already realized that I was constitutionally more inclined toward writing but still had much to learn in my body from the craft of acting. My NYU classes centered on the Dramatic Writing Program where I studied both playwriting and screenwriting with Len Jenkin. My visual imagination was further fed by a lighting design class with Arden Fingerhut.
I eventually ended all acting within a few years of graduating with a BFA at NYU, but continued with my own idiosyncratic writing program by getting an M.A. from NYU’s Gallatin School of Interdisciplinary Studies which involved not only an eclectic array of anthropology, religion, visual art and literature classes but culminated in the creation and performance of my first full length play, “The Inquisitor” as my thesis project. This was an adaptation of 4 chapters of Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov” that fiercely combined classic Realism / empathetic characters and epically surreal fantasy scenes where Jesus, the Devil, General Custer and a chorus dancing girls all shared the same stage. The rest as they say, was history.
Nonetheless I would occasionally return to acting over the years.
Notable productions that I appeared in:
“Shakespeare on Shakespeare” – directed by Brother Jonathan Ringkamp at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute / NYU
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream – directed by Brother Jonathan Ringkamp at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute / NYU (Alec Baldwin also was in the cast)
“Pullman Car Hiawatha” – directed by Clifford David at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute / NYU
“The Marriage of Bette and Boo” – directed by Yana Landowne at the Yale Cabaret, New Haven
“All Things Chicken” – Dramatists Guild Friday Night Footlights West reading at A.N.M.T., North Hollywood, CA
“All Things Chicken” (the movie, trailer only) directed by Jeff Teitler