Saturday, August 25, 2007

On acting

I thought of and then failed to post some thoughts on two lessons I recently had on Voice-Over. Having debated the merits of doing a Voice-Over demo for almost two years now, and having polled and gotten good advice from everyone I know in theater, I finally realized that unless I paid a stranger to help me, I was never going to pull together copy. So I grabbed a name from the various things that come into my mailbox, made a private apt., and went.
First of all I was late due to traffic for my first apt., but she was very friendly in an earthy, crunchy sort of way, by which I mean that she probably says terribly cheery, upbeat things to everyone. She then had me read copy and praised me and then said, "Try to sing the copy--no tune, just whatever feels good. Then go right into the copy." This was very hard for me. I have a lot of hang-ups about singing, but because I'd been late we'd jumped right in so I had no time to dig in and try to get out of it. She was terribly enthusiastic about how much better the second read was than the first and didn't I feel different, etc. And I said yes, but the truth is, I'm not sure. I felt it was a good exercise and that it made me physically looser, but I don't know that I found "more truth." The next week we tried some announcer type copy and this time she had me say "F*#!ing" wherever I felt it needed it and then go into the straight copy. Again, I felt free-er and more forceful, but "truer?" No.
She did point out that sometimes--only sometimes--my voice which can be powerful, seems to just stop a little ways out--as if I am not sure that what I have to say is worth hearing. I'd definitely agree with that, and I find myself doing that at work when I want to state my opinion quite strongly. Oddly enough, I can generally state my opinion to men better than to women.

Now, here's my terribly, deep, dark secret. I don't believe in truth in theater. Blasphemy, I know. I mentioned in my 36 things that I was not a Method Actor. I'm not a Meisner actor either. That's not to say that I'm a Brechtian actor focusing on the unreality of theater either. I'd call my acting style the close imitation of life. Find the right clothes, find the right posture, find the right voice and imitate. Very few of the actors I really admire consider themselves Method/Meisner, etc. Dame Judy Dench describes her process very much the same way I do. Looking for the costume, mimicking the imagined type. Ian McKellen calls himself a method actor, as does Paul Scofield. Those are the only ones I can think of of the Brits who have really aligned themselves with it. Gielgud, I think, practiced it along with the language of Shakespeare. My heroes, Olivier and Alec Guinness both claimed it was finding the clothes and the voice and a person to model it on. I'll go with them. Learn acting as a craft, not some subjective mumbo-jumbo. Learn to project, learn to read metre, hone your body like an athlete.

Now, for the non-actors, to say you don't believe in Method/Meisner or some combination thereof in America is tantamount to heresy. It sometimes feels like it's all that is taught. I know a young actress who probably (and I'm both speculating and projecting) doesn't respect me as an actress because I'm not successful and if she reads this, will probably respect me less. She probably thinks I didn't have the nerve or the talent or the belief needed and she does. I'd have thought it at her age.

I think I'm a good actress. I don't, in fact, think I've worked hard enough to be a great actress, and at this point, I don't know if I ever could have because it's tied in with so many other things about who I am and what I've been through. If I'd had a different life, I'd have been someone else. Mirror and Writing Life both recently discussed the problems with the fact that of a group of actors and directors, nearly every one thinks that they are a genius. I don't think that.

My problem with Method/Meisner and, in point of fact, with theater in America is this:
Leaving myself out of it entirely--not how I was graded, judged, hired or critiqued, but based on watching other actors in classes and auditions, the ones who were praised for the "truth" of their performance, were almost always the ones I thought the cheesiest, the hammiest, and the most fake. And I find almost all theater fake--partially because natural acting is invisible on any stage which is more than 5 feet from the audience, I do realize that--but also because I find the cheesy but popular being cast over friends I feel are really talented. (Mirror's wife is doing very well in Boston theater right now and I will happily point out that she is the exception to the rule--I think her a great actress not just because she reads this :)--and certainly not because she studied at The Actor's Studio).
What I would also observe--and this applied to myself as well--was sort of the exercise that I had in the voice-over class. You would do the piece and and then the teacher would advise you to feel it, or find the sense memory, or dig within your own experience, or find the truth of the moment, or the ever popular motivation, and then you would do it again, and I would again watch the performance become cheesier or bigger, or smaller, or stay exactly the same, and the student would say, (to paraphrase A Chorus Line), "Oh, I felt the snow, I felt the wind," and the teacher would dance with joy and say she could tell because it had been so truthful and the class would follow suit.

Except for me. I'd generally say nothing. And then when it was my turn, if I did as they said and dug deeper for my own truth, I'd generally get smaller and they'd tell me I wasn't being truthful. But if I went for big, showy and fake, I'd get all sorts of praise for my truthfulness and really using the exercise.

Blech. Is it any wonder I really believe that the Emperor Has No Clothes? (cliche alert).

I won't even go into popularity in theater communities. You never escape high school, but what makes people popular may change. There are a several actresses in Boston and a few actors who are cast in everything (Equity) whether it suits them or not. Roles they are 10 years too old for, or more, and several of them seem to get up and just be themselves every time (imho and the o of several people I know), whether the role is Lady M, Cordelia, or Shirley Valentine (I don't mean Tina Packer here). On the fringe side, there seems to be a new hot ingenue every few years and she is in everything for a bit and then she goes Equity and disappears.

Mirror and his wife go to a lot of theater in Boston, as does Writing Life. I go to almost none, and feel a little ashamed when I invite friends to come see me--if the production isn't spectacular in some way. I just don't like much of what passes for theater, and I don't like a lot of what passes for theater people. So why am I in it again? Oh, yeah, I'm not.

Back to my voice-over work. It ain't fine art, but it pays very well. Even the non-union stuff I've done up to now has been lucrative, fast, and pretty fun. And no one has asked me to be more truthful. I've been asked to be faster, slower, deeper, higher. To smile more, to enunciate well, to imitate famous people. Those are objective goals I can cope with, not the subjective--be more truthful. I don't know what that means. So, do I go back to this teacher (she went on vacation buying me a month of decision time)? She's expensive. She's given me a stack of copy I can use. If she makes the tape (disc actually) it's going to be very costly when I know there are places that do it for less. But I will get more of these useful exercise. I will also get more talk about truth, and I'm not sure if I'm up for it.

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