At one time or another, all people think they can act. After all, there's really nothing to it. Just stand up on stage and say your lines with "attitude." Then enjoy the applause. Well, if there really is nothing to it, why is acting so difficult to do well? Because acting is hard work. And teaching actors is even harder, especially at the high-school and middle-school level.
Regardless of how eager and willing young students might be, they still must be motivated, guided and trained, much as talented athletes need the trained eye of a coach committed to bringing out their full potential.
At a recent convention of the Texas Educational Theatre Association, Daniel Inouye gave a presentation on how to energize young actors. Daniel teaches acting in the Baylor University Theatre Arts department and is currently working towards an MFA in directing. He has acted and directed in Chicago as a member of Spindrift theatre and was the artistic director for Youth Association of the Creative Arts, which performed theatre with at-risk youth. Some of his recent production credits include: On the Verge, Much Ado About Nothing, The Knights, Proof, Twelfth Night and The Dumb Waiter. Dramatic Publishing asked Daniel to share his experience in putting action back into acting.
Thanks, Daniel, for meeting with us.
Interview conducted by Kent R. Brown.
So, if acting is more than memorizing lines, then what is it really?
I know Aristotle is a little out of fashion today with some critics, but I find his analysis of the components of drama very instructive. In the simplest terms, Aristotle sees acting as a reproduction of and presentation of the action driving the character through the play. An actor's focus, then, shouldn't be on the results or effects of that pursuit but on the engine that propels the character during the pursuit.
And most young actors tend to focus on—
The effect. They want "to be"—they get caught up in trying to portray the results of their characters' actions. To be happy or be sad or be hurt. To create a mood so the audience will know how their character is feeling. When the effect is pursued, most young actors tend to overact, to indicate. One thing I love to tell my students is that "mood" spelled backwards equals "doom." It's like putting up a red flag saying, "This is how my character is feeling; do you get it?"
They end up beating the audience over the head.
Exactly. Most young actors want to perform well. So they try to perform the role as clearly as possible. The problem lies in the fact that typically they don't trust their audience. We have to remember that people watching a show want to go on a journey with the character, not be "told" by the character how to feel about the journey. I really believe that audiences are quicker than we often give them credit for.
How do teacher-directors help actors focus on the action, on the "to do"?
A colleague of mine at Baylor, Steven Pounders, is also a professional actor. He is excellent at enabling students to understand the concept of action and how it relates to the craft of acting. He requires his students to analyze their characters' actions, as well as the core actions of each scene. He asks them to put the play and their characters under a microscope. I've used his approach in my classes and in my productions. And it works. We try to get the actors to discover what makes their characters tick, what do the characters want in the play and what do they do to achieve that objective.
And an objective is …?
It's difficult to come up with a short answer to that, but basically an objective is what the character wants to happen to him/her before the end of the play. I have found that an objective that is really effective is comprised of three parts: it is singular—focusing on one thing; it is in the immediate moment—something the character wants right now; and it must be personally important to the character. For example, an objective may be as simple as A wants to kiss B, or as complicated as Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman who wants to be respected and loved by his son, Biff.
Can opening a door constitute an action?
Yes it can, depending on the emotional action that goes into opening the door. But generally, the opening of a door falls more under the general category of activity, such as emptying the trash, vacuuming the rug, setting the kitchen table. This is an area that many young actors struggle with, so I always push them towards finding action instead of an activity. But back to the closing of the door. How the actor actually closes the door should help the audience understand the character's state of mental and/or psychological health. The actor can open a door in a way that signifies his character's desire to break the psychological restrictions he may be under. The underlying action may be to escape suffocation, emotionally speaking.
To escape suffocation. That's very specific.
The more specific the better. In most instances, an action taken is one that directly affects another character: to prod, to goad, to praise, to attract, to soothe, and so on. In these examples, the actions are directed toward another character, toward an object. It is stronger to play an action in reaction to someone else's action against you. So, if you have me tied to a chair, I can play "I want to be free," which is passive and not active. Or I can play "I must escape," which is stronger. Or I could play "I refuse to die here!" There are several options, but passivity should be avoided.
So the action should not be passive.
Right. Actions such as to surrender or to fall in love are passive—they relinquish energy. I've been saying, casually, that an actor can "play" an action. I mean of course that the actor, who is actually a character in the play, activates an action. Takes action. Moves forward. As an actor, it is more fun to play forward energy/action than to take a victim's stance. Audiences do not come to the theatre to watch victims. They come to watch characters struggle to achieve their objectives.
Do young actors sometimes feel the entire responsibility for a successful production rests on their shoulders?
Yes of course. I always remind my students to trust the text. The playwright has designed a roadmap, a psychological roadmap, and it's the actors' and director's job to navigate that road, finding their own way into the story. If an actor is struggling with a character, I always suggest going back to the script to try to find the clues left by the playwright to help uncover the reasons and motivations that drive the actions of the character.
Back to actions for a moment. Any other examples?
There is a major difference between saying, "I wish Mary would like me" and "I will make Mary like me." The second statement is far more forceful, energetic. Better yet would be, "I will make Mary believe she can't live without me." Now I'm even more intrigued. But the energy is diffused a bit. Too many words, perhaps. So, maybe we try "I want to dazzle Mary!" Now we have an active action. The director and actor can work together to make interesting decisions regarding physical and vocal choices to help the character achieve his objective.
So, if we have a villain in the play, it's not good enough to just play bad.
Right. The villain or antagonist is an active barrier between the main character, the protagonist, and what the protagonist wants to achieve. The villain can play to dominate, to disturb, to disdain, to crush, to demoralize, to beguile, to bewilder, to lambaste, to scold, to chastise, to assail, to astonish, to revile…and on and on. There are so many ways to express action in our language and we should explore that inexhaustible supply to enrich our characterizations. Another important thing to remember is that actions will change as the situations are altered in the play. An actor may have to titillate in one scene, taunt in another, extol in the third scene, mollify in the fourth and, finally, stupefy in the fifth. This provides the actor with so much more to play, to explore within the character, than just looking mean and speaking in a deep voice.
OK. Now the next step. The actors are playing stronger actions, they are beginning to feel they are active ingredients in the shaping of the production. How does the director keep in touch with their development? Is saying, "Good job" or "Be better tomorrow night" enough guidance?
Not at all. Giving good notes is not as easy as it might appear. As directors, we are responsible not only for helping actors improve a specific performance but also for aiding actors in sharpening their acting skills and strengthening their confidence. Notes are how directors can refine and sculpt the performance while at the same time providing their actors with opportunities to make their own discoveries. Too many directors rush through notes, giving notes that focus on showing, such as "I want you to be happier during this speech" or "Cry more at this moment" or "Try acting it like so and so did it" as well as notes that are too vague, such as "That moment isn't working—fix it." Also, new directors tend to overwhelm their actors with way too many notes.
You can't just pour out a dozen notes to each actor after every rehearsal.
Absolutely. As directors, we need to prioritize which notes are most important and work our way down the list. Provide actors with a few specific things or problems to work on. Then allow them to solve these before you give them more notes, suggestions. If you always provide actors with solutions to their acting problems, then they begin to use you as a crutch. They stop making choices in their discovery and look to the director to make all the decisions.
Any tips on how to phrase a note so the actor will get the idea? A note such as "Cross to the sofa on that line" is easy enough to get ahold of. But something more subtle that might help enrich an actor's awareness may be quite difficult to phrase.
Notes should be designed to help the actors, to give them something to chew on, to solve a problem, to discover a solution. So I tend to either present my notes as questions for them or as suggestions they might want to try. If it seems an actor is not motivating his movements onstage, I will ask the actor, "Why did you cross to that sofa on that line?" Most of time, the response sounds something along the lines of, "Because that is what I am supposed to do." I will tell him he needs to find a reason for the cross. He needs to decide what motivates it. Why does he do it?
But you hold off giving them the answer.
Yes. At this point I am not going to give them the answer, because I want actors to come up with something on their own. I encourage them to experiment with the moment and keep working on understanding why they are moving. This can be applied to all aspects of acting, notes like, "Why did you make this choice?" or "What does your character want?" are all designed to get them thinking and making choices on their own. If I prevent actors from making character discoveries on their own, I am denying them the sense of ownership that comes from shaping three-dimensional characters.
Can you give some examples of a "good" note vs. a "bad" note?
Sure. Say we have an actor who is relying too much on understanding the role intellectually and is not connecting to it emotionally. Many times these actors are always trying to justify or explain their choices to you. A bad note would be to tell the actor, "I want you to be emotional at this moment." A good note would be to tell the actor, "You are thinking too much, I want you to get out of your head and give in to what is happening in the moment." Or another example is an actor who is "playing the end of the scene." By that I mean he is letting his knowledge of what is going to happen alter how he plays the beginning part of the role. A bad note would be to tell the actor, "In this scene you should not act as happy as when you were in the last." A good note would be to tell the actor, "You're getting ahead of yourself, focus on what is happening in the moment."
Some actors may be more accomplished than others. What then?
It is the director's job to adjust the notes and meet each actor where they are in the process of developing an effective character. I try to let actors achieve some level of security with their roles before I push them on to the next issue. At the same time, I also have had actors who were ready earlier than others in the cast. And they may want and need to be challenged sooner, pushed harder. In that case I might suggest, for example, that they focus on using lots of variety in their choices and that they commit to what they, as the characters they are playing, are trying to accomplish onstage.
Any final suggestions on the art of note giving?
Directors tend to get really stressed out the closer they get to opening as they have to think of all the hundreds of tasks that still need to be completed before the curtain goes up. Directors seldom have the luxury of time. In which case many of our notes start to fall into the category of, "Bob, don't do that and don't mess that up and don't forget to"…and so on. Don't fall into that trap; always be aware of your notes and how your actors are responding to them. It's important to remember that often actors tend to associate the type and number of notes they receive with how well a show is going overall. If directors only highlight the negative, or the moments which are not working, they create a negative feeling in the rehearsal space. This can dishearten your actors. So, make sure you take the time to address the moments that are working well and how you feel the show is progressing. Directors need to be positive and reassure our actors that their work is effective and appreciated, especially when they have fixed a problem we have pointed out.
Note giving should be a time of communication between the director and actors. Note sessions should be used to inspire, help and coach actors through moments they may be struggling with. And to provide them with specific challenges they can work on accomplishing.
Daniel, our thanks to you for sharing your energy and enthusiasm. It has been most informative.
Thanks for having me.
Break a leg!
©2005 by Daniel Inouye.