Friday, July 29, 2011


Can acting be taught? My mother, an eminent actress of European descent from an earlier era, thought not.  Unfortunately, I was never able to pick her brain because she died when I was very young.  During her formative years the Stanislavsky System was in its infancy, so beyond elocution and ballet there wasn’t much training anyway?  Perhaps she thumbed her very elegant nose at formal acting training, because she didn’t like Strasberg, who directed her in a disastrous play on Broadway. 

I like to think that Stanislavsky was like Einstein.  Exploding an atom equals exploding a personality; the violence in both processes is triggered by precisely organized steps.   In order to act, one tears oneself apart, and if successful, creates a nuclear fission that virtually transforms one’s own structure - and by extension those spectators who fully give themselves to a well-performed play or film.  This happens in varying degrees and can be either comic or dramatic, or both simultaneously.  It’s sleight of hand, magical, intuitive, artful, but also planned, cunning, scientific, dangerous.  It’s Jacques Tati, absurdly hilarious, skewering the French Bourgeoisie as M. Hulot or Jamie Foxx in The Kingdom out-sneaking the sneakiest of murderers in his attack on Saudi terrorists, whose weapon of choice is pipe bombs filled with nails and shards of glass.  A personal favorite are performances which cut both ways; Marcia Gay Harden, excruciatingly funny in God of Carnage, but closest of all the characters to the God who’s trying to figure himself out through the carnage of the play.

Watching excellent performances, even when other performers are the viewers – I’ve done it myself – the character can be mistaken for the actor.   There was the performance of someone with whom I had once been intimate, but had not seen for ten years, playing an eccentric, ninety-year old Rabbi.  After the show, I went backstage and watched him breaking down the set - it was closing night – there was something peculiar about the way he was joking and playing around with the other actors, some wackiness I’d never noticed in him before.  Unconsciously, I thought he might have actually aged and perhaps gone a little insane.  I found out later he was very fond of the character, a way he had of slyly angling his head, lip-smacking at a pretty girl, and pretending a deathly wheeze.  It took a while for the actor to dispossess the joyous old fart and re-inhabit his own supple frame and laid back, gently melancholic demeanor.   So often one falls in love with the actor not the person; much star power would lose its luster without this identity confusion.

But what about the actor himself, his or her identity, is it fixed or does it wiggle around with the character?  Ah, that’s a big question.  It depends on the actor, of course, and the material.  Chekov’s Sonyias and Vanyas in films directed by the incomparable Nikita Mikhalkov seem inseparable from the wild emotional landscape of Mother Russia, but Claude Miller’s actors in Las Petite Lili, loosely based on Chekov’s The Seagull, seem to spring directly from the rigorous formation of a French intellect. How is this possible?  General McChrystal, in speaking of how Americans must re-position themselves in Afghanistan in order to succeed in our fight against the Taliban, says [NY Times, October 19, 2009]: “What I want to do is get on the inside looking out – instead of being on the outside looking in.”  This is what actors do; they get on the inside.  And it is always a battle, against the other characters, against the outside world, but primarily against themselves.  Yes: the actor splits in two – I call it ‘doublethink.’ And it will be the subject of my next blog. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011


Since I am an acting teacher - teaching acting for the second half of my life and acting, myself, during the first half - I will be writing about acting.  Or maybe I should say, I’ll be acting as a writer writing about acting?  Another question. Will I be writing about you, if you’re an actor reading this? Or will I be writing about myself, since, objective as I try to be, ultimately isn’t one always subjective in one’s writing?  (These may seems like odd questions, but believe me, actors find this kind of interrogation essential to their growth– and script writers write about them all the time.)                
And so, my aim is to demonstrate that questions like these are gold mines for research on yourself and your relationship to the text and the characters you will play. They are at least partly subjective and can be answered in varying ways. As your personal understanding of what it means to be an ‘actor’ and engage in ‘acting’ deepens, you will begin to enjoy these puzzles and hopefully engage them as an ‘actor,’ as well as a ‘reader.’ I’m very interested in how you respond to what is said here, what you want to know, how you feel sure of yourself and where you are confused. I will read your comments, not only as a writer, but as an actor listens to another actor.       
OK, what do I mean when I say, as an actor? In my opinion  – and I did look this up in the dictionary and only got more confused – an ‘actor’ is one who ‘acts,’ and the most useful definition of the verb ‘to act’ is the simplest, ‘to do.’ To act is to do. At the moment of writing this ‘I am doing the act of writing about acting.’  Most of today I thought that this moment would come. I looked forward to it but managed to find some other things to do for a long time before I got around to it.  During those hours I was doing something else, not this.  If I had continued to not do this, you would not be able to read it.  If one doesn’t act upon something, it doesn’t happen.  Again, why am I going on and on about this?                                                                             
Well, in my long experience of acting or trying to act myself, first, and then teaching acting for almost as long as I’d stuck at the attempt, I’ve discovered that very few people who say they want to ‘act’ actually do any ‘acting’ at all – including myself for all those years when I was supposedly ‘acting.’  We read about it, attend classes, where we are often mislead or fundamentally misunderstand what we’re being told, and then ‘get up’ on stage or in front of a camera and continue to make the same mistakes. In this manner, we engage in the ‘idea of acting,’ but frequently cannot grasp the  ‘doing of acting.’

Why is this? Well… in order to get at this strange phenomenon of non-acting in which so many of us so-called actors have engaged, I would like to use the metaphor of an iceberg. Others have used it in this context, but since it describes precisely my personal experience of acting, I hope that will make up for my lack of originality.  Have you ever seen a picture of an ice-berg as it would appear if you could see below the surface of the water?  There is one photo of a huge iceberg on the Internet if you Google ‘Photographs of Icebergs’ that attempts to make the point.  It shows a tiny boat venturing onto an iceberg, but fails to make clear that the portion of the iceberg that is so treacherous, lies just beneath the surface where the boat is about to make contact. The iceberg fans way out far below, but what will sink the boat is the spikes of ice that lie directly in its path, and upon which it is about to founder. In order to connect this metaphor to acting you need to think of how it relates to the psycho/physical – and some would say spiritual - situation that an actor encounters when seriously attempting to act.       

What is ‘acting’? There is even a book with the title, No Acting, Please. How is acting  defined in the dictionary? There are several definitions in Webster’s, but the one that applies to what we are talking about here is: The act, art, or occupation of performing in plays, movies, etc.  Here we have that dangerous word, performing, which is probably what the book title just mentioned actually means: No Performing, Please. Yet, when we look up the word act, there’s no mention of performing. It’s a long entry but the first dictionary meaning for the word act is doing.

There was a Polish director and teacher of actors, who went so far as to change the word actors  to doers, when referring to performers. This gets really confusing, doesn’t it?  And why the hell does it matter, anyway, whether you call it perform, act,  or do as long as you can do it well? Oops! I mean act, or is it perform well enough to get hired for a job?  Maybe it doesn’t, but speaking personally – which is the only way, personally speaking, any of us can be really truthful – it wasn’t until I started working with this Polish director’s technique, here in America and also, all too briefly, in Poland, that I began to understand anything useful about acting. This director and teacher’s name was Jerzy Grotowski – and you’ll be hearing a lot more about him in this blog.

I think I’ve run on enough for the first time out. Please let me hear from you. What do you think about all this? For a little more clarification and background on myself, please visit my website: