Read an Excerpt
How to Stop Acting
TAKING IT OFF THE PAGE
"I'm basically a shy person, and I can get as shy in front of a character that I have been hired to inhabit as I can in front of an actual breathing human being. A lot of what we worked on when we first got together was getting through my shyness in relationship to the character whose words had to come out of my mouth."
Actors come to me for all sorts of reasons, at every stage of their careers. Matt Dillon came to me for the first time with a stack of research he'd done for his role in Drugstore Cowboy. Christopher Reeve came at a low point, showing the courage to rediscover himself in his work. James Gandolfini continued to examine Tony Soprano with me in The Sopranos' second and third seasons, after a hugely successful first year. Glenn Close came because of a problem with auditioning. Glenn says:
You have to force yourself to get through that barrier of shyness--to force the words out, to speak them--so you can slowly start getting beyond that and into the character. That kind of training has stood me in great stead. You find yourself on a movie set doing a scene and you know you're not there. At that moment,I have learned to say, "Don't lose courage. Just keep leaping out there. Be able to make a fool of yourself." And because you've not gotten frightened, and you haven't retreated from the moment, if you persevere, you'll find it. I think those early days of me sitting in your living room and forcing myself to say words that I had no idea how to say--getting them out, flinging them out, throwing them out--was like breaking some sort of sound barrier, giving me freedom on the other side.
In the conventional view, the actor's work on the character begins with his reading the script for himself and then talking about the character and text with the director. The problem with this approach is that from the beginning of the process it places the actor outside the script, and outside the character. And being outside the script and the character means that the actor is fundamentally outside himself--outside of the instinct, feelings, imagination, and fantasy life necessary to conceive the character creatively. He may arrive at an extremely sophisticated understanding of the character that nevertheless leaves him utterly confused about how to put his analysis into action.
That is because reading the script is an intellectual process that inevitably leads the actor to approach both character and script as we have been taught in school--in an analytical way. Whether it's Stanislavskian analysis or some sort of literary analysis, it leads the actor to think about the character rather than instinctively to try out different possibilities for the character. In fact, analysis tends to make the actor afraid of trusting his instinct. It leads to doubts about whether his mind is crisp enough to grasp quickly enough the character's central needs in life or his desires in a particular scene, as Stanislavski instructs. Analysis weakens the actor.
Glenn Close, one of the most intelligent actors I know, told me, "I don't pride myself on being able to read a script really well.There are some people who can sit down and really analyze it and get its full value immediately, but it takes me a while." Analysis is not really what actors are good at, although most really good actors are quite smart. It should be left to literary scholars and critics. Actors are about feelings, imagination, and improvisation. They are good at becoming other people. Their instinct is their talent. The more they trust their instinct, the more inspired and inspiring their performances become. That is when they surprise us, even startle us. That is what the audience goes to see.
It's not that intellect is unimportant. It's just not where the actor's work starts. I believe that it's not until the actor is actually verbalizing the words of the character that his real work in acting begins. No matter how experienced or inexperienced he is, the most important thing for him to do is to connect himself to the text--to the dialogue, to the words. At that moment, he has connected himself to the character in a real way--even a physical way, as the words come out of his mouth. If he is able truly to speak the character's dialogue, rather than to read or recite it, he is in fact inside the character's head. He will feel free with the dialogue and the choices it provokes. His fear of finding the character will diminish. If he can be in the moment, in the script, and in himself at the same time--floating with the line--his instincts and the script will take him where he needs to go. If the actor can connect in a personal and instinctive way to the words his character speaks, moment by moment, at the very outset of his work, then he will begin his exploration from within the character.
The actor has to start from his visceral response to the material. This is why he must reject intellectual choices at the beginning of his work. He must allow himself to be in an exploratory state, unsure of what he is going to do; this forces him to trust his initial responses to the dialogue, regardless of how absurd or contrary they may seem. If he is analytical, his intellect will stifle these reactions.
But the moment when the words must come out of the actor's mouth is always the most fearful, as Glenn Close so vividly describes. It's the ultimate showdown. And because it is so daunting, the actor does what he can to avoid or postpone it, even when he says the words aloud. Each time he picks up a new script and starts to read it out loud, he is tempted to "make it real." By real, he inevitably means conversational or natural or casual. If the actor is a quick study and what is considered in the business a "good reader," he will make the dialogue sound as if it's real even while he has his nose buried in the text. That seems like the smart thing to do.
The problem is, it's a useless thing to do because the actor is approximating, no matter how deftly, a realistic line reading--that is, how the dialogue might go. And in the process, he is establishing rhythms and choices he doesn't even know he wants. He's imitating the way he thinks it should go, and before long he may find himself stuck in those line readings and those choices without being aware of it. At best, he'll have to break the pattern in order to feel free and to find fresh responses, real responses.
When an actor comes to work with me, I want real, fresh responses from the beginning. So whether he's a seasoned actor taking on his umpteenth major role, or a young actor just starting out, we begin the same way. We go back to the barre, like a ballet dancer, starting from zero with a simple but effective exercise that allows the actor to discover or rediscover the foundation of acting through the text, with no preconceptions of how to play the role. I call this process taking it off the page.
Here's how it works: The actor looks down at the phrase and breathes in and out while he reads the words to himself, giving himself time to let the phrase into his head. Then he looks up from the page and says the line, no longer reading but speaking.
Taking your time to breathe in and out while you look down atthe page to read the phrase for yourself allows you to access whatever unconscious thoughts or images it evokes. It doesn't matter what comes up--however trivial, simple, deep, or apparently unrelated it is--as long as it is your actual response at the time, and not what you think is appropriate.
The point is to let the dialogue bounce around in your unconscious, a bit like in the Freudian concept of word association in which the psychoanalyst says a word and the patient responds with whatever word comes to mind, before he can censor it. The actor is accessing his unconscious self, surprising himself with his unconscious response, in much the same way.
As soon as you exhale, say the phrase before you have a chance to censor whatever thought or feeling surfaces. Don't deaden the line by trying to be sincere. Just say what you mean, no matter how startling, stupid, frightening, funny, touching, irreverent, or boring. Exhaling before you speak ensures that it is your own voice that you are using, not a phony, artificially projected actor's voice. It is the way we all speak when we are not acting.
Once the feeling has surfaced and been expressed, feel free to drop it so that the next line can take you to a new place. Actors often hold on to a feeling or thought that's working, out of fear that they'll have nothing else to replace it that will be as good. But the truth is, holding on to the thought or feeling evoked by one line limits the possible range of responses the next line can elicit; letting go leaves room for something new to arise. That's what exploration is all about.
Often actors are afraid they won't have a feeling for the writer's line. And sometimes the honest response to a line is, I don't feel or think anything. If so, that's what you must say--with the writer's words. Surprisingly, that response is as good and useful as any other. That's because it is a truthful response. In real life, we often don't know what we feel or think, or whether we have a responseat all. It takes courage to admit to yourself that you don't really have any feelings about something. Even more courage is needed to avoid manufacturing a false feeling to please those around you.
This admission is not only important, it's essential! Nothing is powerful when admitted in front of an audience or a camera. Doing nothing puts the audience on notice that the person in front of us is real. I am not manufacturing feelings and thoughts because it's expected of me, he is saying. His no-response makes him more dangerous, unsocialized, surprising. We don't know what he may do next. This makes the actor interesting.
One of the reasons people love James Gandolfini's portrayal of Tony Soprano is that it's filled with a lot of unusual responses and unexpected choices. People often assume this comes from a process of breaking down the script and selecting from among his responses in advance. But in fact, when I work with Jim, often the most important thing he does is to admit that he doesn't know what he feels about a scene or a moment. By accepting this and allowing himself to do nothing, he is making himself available to the surprising and unpredictable responses that follow.
The beginning actor will also discover that if he has no feeling one moment, he will find himself angry or frustrated or saddened or amused the next moment. And it will probably be a big feeling.
An actor doing nothing is doing a great deal. Think of the end of The Grapes of Wrath. Ma Joad asks Tom, "But Tommy--how will I know where you are?" And Henry Fonda (as Tom) answers, "Wherever there are cops beating on fellas, I'll be there, Ma ..."
Recalling this classic moment, Peter Fonda told me, "My father stayed with his Nebraska cadence. He hardly blinked and he just read the words as simple and flat and straight as it could be. Thinking back on it, had he put any dramatic spin on it, facial or verbal or tonal, those words would have been the corniest words in the world."
Doing this--doing nothing--allowed the truth of that moment to emerge powerfully.
Don't get too exacting about how much text to take off the page at a time. You may pick up a phrase or a whole line or even a couple of short lines at once. Do whatever your instinct tells you, or choose arbitrarily. In fact, breaking the normal rhythms of your speech can make you more open to characters with different, new, and unexpected rhythms. But what matters most is that you say what you mean, whatever that is.
Most important of all, don't be careful! These are your lines, your images, your thoughts. Don't think of taking it off the page as a technique so much as a commonsense way to start your work. The exploration you are beginning is going to become the character. Because you are within the script, anything you do could be or could become the character. You are in a state of discovery triggered by the only thing we know for sure about the character--what the character says. This leaves you free to try anything that comes to you.
Let me show you how taking it off the page works in practice. Suppose I am starting my work on Michael Weller's play Loose Ends, in the role of Paul. The play opens with the monologue on the following page.
The first line is, "It was great at the beginning." I look down at the page and read the line to myself while taking a breath in and out. At another time, or for another actor, it might conjure up, say, the beginning of a relationship that has since broken up, but right now it evokes in me the memory of directing my first play as a graduate student, with Kevin Kline and the Vest Pocket Players. We were so young and everything was ahead of us. I look up from the page and say the line, relishing the memory.
If I trust myself, I won't have to do anything but say the line, and my response will be visible. I won't have to add anything. Noone will know the specifics of what I'm thinking, because I say only the line Weller wrote. But if I trust myself to just say it, the line will be full. Most actors don't trust themselves to just say it, however. They don't trust that what they are thinking or feeling is enough. They want to do something with the line. They want to show us their thought or feeling.
From Loose Ends by Michael Weller (Five Plays. New York: New American Library, 1982.)
Slide: 1970. A beach. Night. Full moon. Waves. On bare stage, Paul and Susan, early to mid-20's, naked, clothes around. He sits facing ocean (us) and she lies curled up.
PAUL. It was great at the beginning. I could speak the language almost fluently after a month and the people were fantastic. They'd come out and help us. Teach us songs. Man, we thought it was all going so well. But we got all the outhouses dug in six months and we had to stay there two years, that was the deal. And that's when we began to realize that none of the Nglele were using the outhouses. We'd ask them why and they'd just shrug. So we started watching them very carefully and what we found out was the Nglele use their feces for fertilizer. It's like gold to them. They thought we were all fucking crazy expecting them to waste their precious turds in our spiffy new outhouses. Turns out they'd been helping us because they misunderstood why we were there. They thought it was some kind of punishment and we'd be allowed to go home after we finished digging the latrines, that's why they were helping us and then when we stayed on they figured we must be permanent outcasts or something and they just stopped talking to us altogether.
I want the actor to say what he means at that moment, with as little fuss as possible. He must let the line of the character become his own line, in a completely personal way, so he is not acting it.He must forget about the author's intention at first, because the actor doesn't know who the character is at this point, or what the author really wants. The actor is responsible only for what the line means to him right now, and what it creates in him. And so he must say only what he means, without embellishing it or fixing it up.
I look down and take another breath in and out while reading the next phrase: "I could speak the language almost fluently." I don't force myself to read the whole line. I let in whatever is comfortable, sometimes only a phrase or even a word. I think, It would be nice to be fluent in another language, especially since I love to travel. I look up and say what I mean, without fussing with it.
Looking down, I find the next part of the line--"after a month." As I breathe in and out I think, Wow--only a month! I look up, and that's what I say with the phrase.
The rest of the line is "and the people were fantastic." Looking down at the line, I have an image of friendly natives in a remote part of Africa or the Amazon. I haven't been to those places but it doesn't matter, because my imagination takes over. "They'd come out and help us. Teach us songs." As I read this to myself while breathing, this image becomes so vivid in my imagination that I have the desire to sing some sort of work song. So before I can censor this desire, I improvise a little song and dance. Then I say the line. It is silly and foolish, but it makes me happy, and strangely enough, it doesn't really feel wrong after I do it. What seemed like it might be inappropriate didn't feel that way when I did it. It was my response to the line--to the image. And the line is the character's. So maybe this is the character.
When I'm taking the lines off the page, I trust myself to respond to whatever comes to me. An hour later, or even a few minutes later, I might have the opposite response. But I can't let myself be judgmental. Letting the line become mine means I don't needto justify what I do. I let the words, thoughts, and images stimulate me so that I lose myself in the lines. My imagination takes over, and I am connected to the words of the writer viscerally, not intellectually.
I look down, laughing, and continue: "Man, we thought it was all going so well." As I let the line into myself while breathing in and out, I feel a disappointment in the line come over me. I let the change take me, and I say it.
The twists and turns in the feelings that the lines generate are interesting and energizing. Looking down at the page, I read, "But we got all the outhouses dug in six months." Outhouses?! This is incredible, I think. "And we had to stay there two years, that was the deal." I see this on the page. I breathe in and out, thinking, We're screwed. No one in his right mind could have expected to be digging outhouses when we signed on. I feel stupid. I am reminded of many choices I made in my career without really knowing the deal or the consequences. But instead of feeding my anger, the next line--"And that's when we began to realize that none of the Nglele were using these outhouses"--confuses me. Breathing in and out, I let this confusion take me to "We asked them why and they'd just shrug." The next line--"So we started watching them very carefully"--gets me interested. As I breathe in and out, I see myself in a remote area, hiding behind latrines, sneaking around trees to spy on the Nglele. I look down and pick up the next line while breathing in and out--"What we found was the Nglele use their feces for fertilizer." This sets me to imagining what it would be like to cherish one's feces. I read, "It's like gold to them," and as I breathe out, I am prompted to sniff the imagined gold feces that I now have in my hands, as if sniffing a delicate flower. It's idiotic, I know. But I'm feeling idiotic. And because I'm free, I do it. I know that if it's no good, I won't do it again next time, because I will have gotten that response out of my system.But I need to express my feelings as they arise, to get each one out before I censor it. I have to trust my outrageous responses as much as the subtle ones.
That's what taking it off the page is about--being free to let the phrase or line take me wherever it goes at that moment. I do this before I know anything much. I have read the play. But this is my first real reading of the play out loud, the beginning of my work on the character. So making mistakes, doing stupid, outrageous things, and simply exploring my responses to the text are not only acceptable but also necessary steps. The more I get out at the beginning, the less careful I am, the bigger my palette, the more possibilities for the character later on. I would rather find myself throwing away choices because I have too many than have to struggle to find enough colors for the character.
When I recently asked Jennifer Jason Leigh about our work together on Miami Blues, she said, "I like the way you explore things. There's something very gentle about it that allowed me to be myself within the part and create a character at the same time. The way you would have me breathe into a line, just stay inside the breath, and let the thoughts come. Not forcing yourself to think anything. Not forcing yourself to figure out what your objective was or anything else. But just stay[ing] inside the moment and see[ing] what that brings."
What the process revealed to her "was a tremendous amount of life and things that I wouldn't necessarily have thought. Because it wasn't about a thought process." By just living inside the character, "just breathing and allowing your mind and your body to free associate--within the confines of the material--you'll surprise yourself in a way that's really lovely and feels organic."
It's easy for an actor to think he is past this initial step, but he never is. Even highly experienced actors struggle with the beginning of their work. I have to remind them to be patient, to let theline come to them before they say it, to make sure it is theirs. Glenn Close says that after all these years, she still begins her work on new characters by taking it off the page. "I tend to go too fast," she says. "What that does is force me to go slower. You can find moments. You have to give yourself time."
Christopher Reeve is an actor for whom establishing an immediate connection to the text became the key to a radically different way of approaching acting. Chris had become a big star very early. He came to me when his career had begun to fizzle a bit. He recalls, "I was always employable but never really, really nailed it, probably because I had so much success so early--first Broadway with Katharine Hepburn, then Superman, and then on to big roles in movies. Unfortunately, what happens if you're the star and they're paying you a ton of money is they stop directing. They think, Well, he knows what he's doing--he's a big star. And that's really, really dangerous. I was good enough to get away with it and get the next job. But I still had that problem of not really being in the moment."
When we began to work together, Chris remembers, "The first job was to get rid of a kind of analytical sense, intellectualization--my habit of approaching a scene as though I was doing a paper for college. I had to make room for something that might be more interesting."
We'd sit there and read back and forth, simply listening and then looking down to see what the line is, and then, without thinking, responding. We got rid of any idea of how it ought to go. We worked on being inappropriate sometimes, just to bend things out of shape, because I'd come in with all my ducks lined up in a row--everything organized and a lot of ideas about how it should be.
I'd read, and you'd stop me every time I was doing somethingthat had a plan to it, that was "appropriate," that didn't just happen immediately and spontaneously, that didn't just come in the moment. The best piece of advice--the mantra for me--became "I don't care." It is an oddly backwards approach that I learned you need to take. If they would give out Oscars for being on time, knowing the words cold, and never missing a mark, I'd clean up. And what you always said was, "Look, you have got to do what you are going to do and they have to find you." So in other words, what might seem in me like carelessness--"I don't care"--really was the beginning of freedom. "I don't care, I don't know what's going to happen, and I don't know what's going to come out of me--I'm just not going to worry about it." This was a major breakthrough from being sort of a good boy into being more reckless, more in the moment, and more daring in my acting. Not caring how it comes out creates moments that actually work. It's like when you step on a garden hose and then you release it and the water flows again. That's really what needed to happen to me. Because I had plenty of stuff to bring, but there was a kind of blockage because of this sense of responsibility, and my work wasn't flowing.
I believe the actor's relationship to what he says--his dialogue, his words--is the most important connection he makes. The text unearths previously hidden places within the actor, giving him a broader range of choices and characters, stimulated by the texts of many different and brilliant writers. It teaches the actor to see acting as exploration of the character rather than definition of the character.
Here's how the process might begin with a less experienced actor. Ellen Wolf has been studying with me for a couple of years, followinga good deal of acting training. She is very talented, full of emotion and energy. She has a very good mind but sometimes uses it to cover herself. Her instincts and imagination are readily available to her, but she sometimes rushes because she's afraid to trust her responses. Her problem has always been a desire to act too much.
I hand Ellen a copy of Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and point out a monologue in Act III. "You're too young for this part," I say, "but let's try it." I know she doesn't know anything about the character, Ranevskaya, or the monologue. She hasn't even read the play. This is a deliberate choice on my part. For the moment, I want her to have nothing to hold on to but the dialogue, no preconceived ideas about the character or the situation. I want her not to act, but simply to respond to what she sees, thinks, and says. I want her palette clean so that this response is her own, and immediate. I want to throw her into a confrontation with herself--to get her to trust herself. And I want her to get used to beginning this way.
From The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov. (Chekhov: The Major Plays. Translation by Ann Dunnigan, New York: Signet Classics, 1964.)
RANEVSKAYA. Oh, my sins ... I've always squandered money recklessly, like a madwoman, and I married a man who did nothing but amass debts. My husband died from champagne--he drank terribly--then, to my sorrow, I fell in love with another man, lived with him, and just at that time--that was my first punishment, a blow on the head--my little boy was drowned ... here in the river. And I went abroad, went away for good, never to return, never to see this river ... I closed my eyes and ran, beside myself, and he after me ... callously, without pity.
Ellen looks down at the page, takes a breath, looks up, and says simply, "Oh, my sins." Then she quickly looks down, takes a breath, looks up, and says, "I've always squandered money recklessly." She repeats the process with a couple more lines, each time too quickly.
I stop her. "Wait a minute. What's the first phrase?"
"Oh, my sins," she answers flatly.
"What?" I ask.
"My sins," she says.
"What do you mean?"
"My transgressions, the bad things I've done."
"Transgressions?" I repeat, disbelieving, as if the word were from a foreign language. What could such a word really mean to Ellen? She's in her head.
"My sins," she yells, as if talking to a deaf person. "What I've done badly."
"Anything come to mind?" I ask.
"Yes," she replies, laughing.
"So is that what you mean?"
"My sins, yeah," she answers simply, no longer laughing. She is getting closer to the word but she isn't there yet.
"So if I said, 'Why don't you tell me some of your sins? Would you be pleased to do that?'"
"No," she says, uncomfortably, "I doubt it."
"Right," I say pointedly.
And as if a light has turned on, she exclaims, "Oh!" And mumbles quietly, as if to herself, "Oh, my sins." A long pause follows. Then she looks down, breathes in and out, looks up slowly and says, almost as a confession, "I've always squandered money"--pause--"recklessly ..."
She looks down, breathes in and out, looks up and says, "Like a madwoman."
"What do you mean?" I ask.
"Well," she says, "Just like overdoing things, buying things that I don't really need."
"Like what?" I ask.
"Large exercise equipment ... Like a madwoman," she says, disgusted with herself.
"Stuff you don't need?" I ask.
"Yeah, insane stuff," she says angrily.
"Breathe," I remind her.
"No, breathe before you talk."
She breathes out. "And I married a man," she says, "who did nothing--" She stops.
"Release," I prompt.
"--but amass debts," she goes on, still disgusted with herself
"Just breathe and let it out."
"My husband died from champagne."
"Wait a second, what?" I ask.
"My husband died from champagne. He drank."
"What did he drink?" I ask.
"Champagne," she says, laughing--a whole new feeling has popped up in her. It makes me laugh.
"He drank, terribly," she goes on. "Then, to my sorrow."
"Breathe," I coach.
She looks down at the page. She seems confused as she breathes. "I fell in love with another man. Lived with him." She looks down, breathing in and out, then looks up and says, "And just at that time--[louder] that was my first punishment."
I stop her because she seems to be rushing again. "What is that line?"
"That was my first punishment."
"What are you saying?"
She takes a moment, then says, "That was the first time I got caught."
"That's what it means to you?" I ask.
"So that's what you say."
"That was my first punishment," she says, now meaning it.
"Wait until it means whatever it means to you," I say. "That doesn't mean I want it soaked with emotion. You want to get inside the material so that you take responsibility for the line. For whatever it means to you. It's okay if it's not what Chekhov means. You'll figure it out at some point. The two of us know you haven't read this. You don't know anything about it. It's all a big surprise to you. Okay? So, no cover ... no cover ... no cover."
"The whole thing is just to take your chances," I go on. "You breathe, you look down, you let it in, and you say whatever it really means to you at the moment, including nothing. But also including--"
"Right," I say, grinning. "Champagne? If what it means to you is, 'Hey, he died from champagne. He died good,' then great!" I sniff an imaginary glass. "Mmmmm, champagne. I think I'll go that way. If it means that, that's what it means, no matter how stupid or trivial. Maybe it is deep, like when you said, 'Like a madwoman.' You knew exactly what you meant--buying that stuff you don't want, but you've got to have it."
"Got it," Ellen says.
"Breathe. Next line, piece by piece."
There is a long pause, as Ellen breathes in and out. "A blow on the head," she says, and all of a sudden she starts to cry. "My little boy was drowned ... here in the river." She tries to stop crying but can't, as she says the next lines. "Then I went abroad, wentaway for good. Never to return, never to see this river. I closed my eyes."
"What did you do?"
"I closed my eyes ... I just closed my eyes ... and ran." This line comes out with real power. When she says "and ran," I can feel her desperately wanting to run away.
We continue through the monologue together. Once Ellen stops rushing and lets the phrases and lines into herself, her emotions come leaping out. She goes all over the place while exploring Ranevskaya's lines, because she is totally in tune with herself. There are moments when she loses herself and weeps. At times she is angry. At other times she laughs at herself, at her foolishness. Occasionally she disagrees with a line and is angry at having to say it. So she speaks the line with her annoyance. The next time she says the line, or after she reads the play, she may no longer have that feeling, but for the time being she must accept it and express it, twisting and turning with whatever the text provokes in her.
Let's look at the process of taking it off the page with a scene. How does it work?
Suppose an actress, we'll call her Sophie, comes to me for help with the role of Masha in Chekhov's The Seagull. She has read the script. We begin our exploration together with the first scene of the play, which is between Masha and Medvedenko, the schoolteacher. (See box on opposite page.)
Typically, when actors are preparing for a first reading of a scene in a play or screenplay, they read the script for themselves many times. During this period on their own they make lots of decisions about the character. When they read out loud together for the first time, they invariably keep their noses in the text while they say their lines back and forth, each of them approximating"expressive" line readings. It is impossible for them to have actual responses because they are reading and are not available to one another, themselves, or the script.
I want the actor to come to a first reading with no decisions about the character. I want the first reading to be an open, no-holds-barred exploration that will allow the actor to start the process of discovering his character and himself within the script. I want him to simply take the lines off the page, connecting personally with his lines and listening to the other characters' lines without reading them as the other actors speak. In order to listen, the actor must not be looking at another actor's lines. His head cannot be in the page.
From The Seagull by Anton Chekhov. (Chekhov: The Major Plays. Translation by Ann Dunnigan. New York: Signet Classics, 1964.)
MEDVEDENKO. Why do you always wear black?
MASHA. I am in mourning for my life. I am unhappy.
MEDVEDENKO. Why? I don't understand ... You are in good health, and your father, though not rich, is well off. My life is much harder than yours. I get only twenty-three rubles a month, and out of that they take something for the pension fund, but I don't wear mourning.
MASHA. It isn't a question of money. Even a beggar can be happy.
MEDVEDENKO. Yes, in theory, but in practice it's like this. There's me, my mother, my two sisters, and a little brother--on a salary of only twenty-three rubles. People have to eat and drink, don't they? And they need tea and sugar? And tobacco? It's not easy to make ends meet.
Since I'm reading Medvedenko, I have the first line. "Why do you always wear black?" Breathing in and out, I look up and ask the question simply.
Sophie can look at me or not, but she should not be readingmy line as I say it or as I read it for myself. Nor should she be reading ahead to see what her own next line is. If Sophie is reading, she can't really be listening, and if she isn't listening, she can't really respond. Without her response, her line will mean nothing. Listening is crucial to having a real response.
Maybe as Sophie listens, she's thinking, It's none of his business, or Who knows why I always wear black? Then, looking down at Masha's first line, "I'm in mourning for my life," she breathes in and out, thinking, I know the feeling, especially at auditions when I feel there's not a prayer of getting the job. Looking up, she says the line. Then she looks down for her next line--"I'm unhappy"--and thinks, This is me today because I hate what I'm doing. Or maybe she's not unhappy. That is also usable, as long as she says the line of the script. After all, Masha may be reluctant to say this. She may be irritated by the question. Who knows? The important thing is to see where the line and her feelings at the moment take Sophie. They are all that she has.
I listen to what she says. I think it's kind of theatrical, using words like "mourning," "wearing black." Then, breathing in and out, I look down at my line, "Why?" I'm curious. I've forgotten where I'm going even though I know this play very well. So I look down at my next line. "I don't understand ..." Making sure I don't rush, I take a breath and look for the rest of the line, "You are in good health." I breathe out, look up, and say the line. It feels foolish to me. I look down, breathe in and out--letting the next line into myself--look up and say, "And your father, though not rich, is well off." I know this may seem absurd, but I feel like one of my uncles when I say this--like an old man. The next line is "My life is much harder than yours." Breathing, feeling like a complete fool, I look up and say it. I'm embarrassed by my line. But I say what I feel. I have no idea how it's coming out of my mouth. I only know what's playing on me. I don't care if it makessense. This is just an exploration. There will be many more. I'm only concerned with this moment.
"I get only twenty-three rubles a month." I find myself getting angry with the self-pity in the line. "And out of that they take something for the pension fund." I want to shout this, I feel so stupid and angry. I look up and let it out, almost shouting. I look down. "But I don't wear mourning." I spit this out!
The actress is shocked. Looking down, she reads, "It's not a question of money." Breathing out, she says this to me as if I'm an idiot. "Even a beggar can be happy," she says dismissively.
As she is talking, I'm thinking, Beggar?! I get my line: "Yes, in theory." She is ridiculous, not me, I think. "But in practice it's like this." I get the line out quickly, brutally. "There's my mother, my two sisters, and a little brother." My eye picks this up all at once, because my mind is moving very fast. It's hard to slow down. "On a salary of only twenty-three rubles." It comes popping out of me, full of frustration and anger. "People have to eat and drink, don't they?" Getting louder. "And they need tea and sugar? And tobacco?" Finally I let the anger leave me. I make sure to breathe in and out so I can take my time and let the next line in simply. "It's not easy to make ends meet." I feel humiliated, apologetic.
And so on.
It may seem to beginning actors that I and other experienced actors must have unrestricted access to our feelings and fantasies. But sometimes even seasoned performers have difficulty exploring the lines freely because their physical self-consciousness is keeping them from feeling connected to what they are saying.
Actors are physical creatures, and it is necessary for them to feel physically free in order for their instinct and imagination to surface on a given line. Yet most physical training in acting hasto do with the nonverbal--mime, clown technique, dance. A great deal of actor training in avant-garde theater, games theater, and methods of study like that of the French teacher LeCoq emphasizes physical improvisation. All of this is valuable. But for most actors, the simple relationship between physical ease and ease in speaking lines is more immediately important. If the actor feels a separation between his physical and verbal expression, he will be blocked emotionally as well as creatively. All he will feel is self-conscious and awkward about moving and talking on stage or before the camera. The lack of connection will make everything he says or every move he makes feel unnatural to him.
Film actors in particular tend to suffer from this disconnect. As Ally Sheedy told me, "I had this fear of using my body. Most of the time you don't use it in film. Nobody said to move your body. They usually said, 'Stand on your mark' or 'Just walk from there to there and say the line.' I would disconnect from my body and just use my head."
You may recall that in Paul's monologue from Loose Ends, when I read the line "Teach us songs," I had an impulse to physicalize the image: I danced and sang, and felt that I could touch the words and image. As I physicalized the image, it became easier to say the phrase, because I already felt connected to it, and my body felt comfortable. In fact, I was not aware of any tension in my body because I was consumed by the image itself. I did this not with the intention of physicalizing the image or line in performance, but in order to explore the text and character without being self-conscious. I often have to physicalize an image for myself before I can freely say it while taking the lines off the page. I'm very tactile and need to touch the image to make it real for me.
I ask an actor who is having difficulty taking it off the page because he is physically self-conscious to do the same thing. First helooks down and lets the line into himself while breathing in and out. Then I have him physicalize the image for himself in such a way that he feels he can almost touch it. Then, after he has physicalized the image, he says the line. As with the actor's reactions when speaking, it doesn't matter how foolish or stupid the physicalizing is. It's not for performance. And after the actor has done it once, he may not need to do it again. As a matter of fact, in performance the actor may not move at all. This physicalizing is for the actor, so that he can feel the image in his body and then say the line or phrase with the writer's words. Once he's gotten it out of his body, he is free to repeat it or not, whatever interests him.
Ally remembers it this way: "Before I said a word, I had to physicalize it through my body. I had to say it physically before I could verbalize the word, the image." She adds, "It was the hardest thing for me to do at that point. It was just so foreign to use my body while acting. I was at loose ends. I had been a dancer, and it was like stretching this muscle I hadn't used for so long. But it all came back."
Remember earlier in the chapter when I described to Ellen my response to her line, "He died from champagne"? I mimed for myself sniffing the bubbles in a champagne glass that I imagined holding. This kind of physicalization can help us to respond and feel what we say.
Once the actor connects the physical to the specific image and thought in a way that is freeing, his imagination and instinct will take over. His body will again feel natural to him. He will be fully expressive. It is not necessary to do this with every phrase or line, only those that cause him trouble.
If the actor is having particular difficulty freeing himself physically while he is taking it off the page, I may ask him to move after each phrase--walk to another chair or across the room, lean against the wall or sit on the floor or lie down. Once he comes torest, he can breathe in and out, let the next line in, physicalize the image (or not), and then say the phrase. After he says it, I ask him to change his position again before he goes to the next line, and so on. The choice of where and how to move each time is arbitrary--the actor must move without thinking. Then he must settle into a quiet place before he picks up the next line. In this way, the stillness becomes physical as well.
Even Kevin Kline, who is now considered a physical acting genius, had to learn to trust his immediate physical responses, because at first they seemed so outrageous. He thought he would seem foolish if he acted on them. But he gave a memorable demonstration of how physical and verbal impulses interact when he was preparing his first Hamlet at the Public Theater in New York. Sitting on my couch, Kevin was taking "To be or not to be" off the page. He looked down at the page for a long time, took a breath in and out, looked up, and said quietly, "To be," as if he was trying to figure out what he was saying. Instead of continuing with the rest of the line, which of course he knew, he looked at the line as if he had never seen it before. He took a breath in and out and looked up. He didn't say anything. He got up, walked toward me, and pointed to a foot-long conductor's baton sitting on the bookshelf over my desk.
"May I?" he asked.
"Sure," I said.
He took the baton and sat on the edge of the sofa. Then, with his index finger, he touched the vulnerable flesh on the right side of his neck just under the jawbone. He placed the point of the baton there and balanced the other end precariously on the middle finger of his right hand, pushing the baton's sharp point gently into the soft skin of his neck. His head tilted back, his neck totally exposed to the point, he breathed in and out and said, "or not to be." The phrase came out so simply, yet with full consciousness ofhow easy it would be to push the point through his neck if it were a razor-sharp dagger rather than a plastic baton.
He continued taking phrase after phrase off the page with the baton against his throat. It was thrilling and terrifying for me and for him.
Kevin needed something to spark or free his imagination so he could say the lines of this famous soliloquy and take responsibility for them. While taking it off the page, he had given himself the time to let his mind, his instincts--and his eyes--wander. He felt instinctively that he needed a physical component to these thoughts. That's why and how he spotted the conductor's baton. In being available to his thoughts, his feelings, his imagination, and his physicality, an actor also becomes available to serendipitous discovery.
As Prince Hal says in Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part I, "And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents."
Suggestions for Practice
Practice taking it off the page with a monologue, not a scene, at first. If you get used to trusting yourself and your responses to your own lines, you will find that scenes are much easier. That is because in a scene the stimulus for the response comes from outside--from the other actor. So you are pushed to respond. But immersing yourself in a monologue, relying only on yourself and the text, will make you much stronger and independent in scenes with other actors. You won't be at the mercy of the other actor. Although you have no choice over what you hear, see, feel, and think when the other actor is saying his line, you are free after responding to drop that response and go wherever your own line takes you. So, the stronger you are and the more available to yourself, the better for your development in the long run.
I suggest young men start with Tuzenbach's Act I monologue in Chekhov's The Three Sisters. It begins: "The longing for work, oh, my God, how well I understand it!"
I suggest young women start with Irina's Act I monologue in The Three Sisters. It begins: "Tell me, why am I so happy today?" Cut Ivan Romanych's line "My little white bird ..." and end with the line: "And if I don't get up early and work, you can give me up as a friend, Ivan Romanych."
Both these monologues will be helpful in beginning your work because they are full of interesting language and images for physicalization, and very emotional. Both monologues can also be naive, foolish, idiotic, and fun as well as passionate. If you trust yourself to let the phrases, lines, and images into yourself without acting you will find yourself, step-by-step, slipping into the character's shoes. Don't try to speak better than you do. Use your own voice--this will keep you in touch with yourself as you explore the text.
Work on your first monologue every day for at least a week or until the lines come to you without looking down at the page. Don't try to memorize. Don't try to run the lines. Just take it off the page from beginning to end until you feel used up, frustrated, or unable to concentrate. Then stop working on the monologue for the moment. Don't force it. Do something else for a while--take a walk, have a cup of tea or a snack. Do something that will refresh you, not tire you out. Then, when you're clear, go back to the monologue. Do this several times a day, even if you can only work for twenty minutes or half an hour without a break. You will find that each time you work you will have real concentration, even if it's just for a short time. And going back again and again will extend your concentration, until you can work for longer and longer periods. Training your concentration is one of the most important things you can do as an actor.
After the first day, read the whole play. It's a long play and you may not be used to reading this kind of writing, so go slowly. Never read for speed; it may be valuable in academic work, but it is useless for actors. While reading, keep going back to the monologue, taking the lines off the page several times each day.
Obsess over your work--it's good for you. For instance, Ellen Wolf told me that she leaves her script on the kitchen table. She often works in there, cooking, cleaning, opening the mail, and a lot of varied emotions pop up there--she cuts her finger, reads an annoying letter, receives a rotten or wonderful phone call, creates a fantastic dinner (or blows it). Whatever is happening, she picks up the script and starts on the monologue or the scene. In this way, she starts not from a set place, ready to Act, but from within her life, her everyday experiences. She allows them to inform the text. This is a very good way to work.
Remember, don't make taking it off the page a Technique. Stay loose! Most important, take the time to breathe in and out before you say the line. Then say it before thinking about it. The breathing will give you plenty of time to register the thought or image. Let the line take you as it comes out of your mouth. At first, take the line off the page in pieces. When in doubt, stop and take a breath in and out. Then go on to the next piece.
Don't make decisions. Don't hold on to something just because it worked once. Keep exploring each time you go back to the monologue. Keep letting go--and keep going. Trust that things that are good will come back and things that don't work will fall away.
It's more important to know what feels free than to know what is right. The sense of being arbitrary is what we are after--not caring what works or where we are going but rather feeling free to test our wings and do whatever comes to us from the line.
If you are feeling "stuck" or if you are thinking too much beforesaying the line, first try physicalizing the line while taking it off the page. Then, try moving arbitrarily to another place in the room before saying the line. Without reading, move (to another chair, down on the floor, against the wall), come to rest, then look down at the phrase--not the whole line--while breathing, physicalize (or not) and say it. Keep doing this until you are no longer stuck or thinking too much.
If you are boring yourself with your work on the monologue, try this: do the whole monologue from beginning to end five different ways--first do it for laughs, then for interior values, then for anger, then for tenderness, and then for petty (bratty) values. Finally, after exploring the monologue in each of these ways, do it however it comes out. You may surprise yourself with entirely new responses.
After spending a week or more on your first monologue, move on to a second one. Men should work on Chekhov's The Seagull, Treplev's monologue in Act I, starting with the line "She loves me--she loves me not," and going all the way to "I could guess their thoughts and I suffered from humiliation." (Cut Sorin's line, "We can't do without the theater.")
Women should work on Elena's soliloquy in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya, Act III, starting with the line, "There is nothing worse than knowing someone's secret and not being able to help."
These monologues are more difficult and more complicated, but work on them the same way, taking the lines off the page in pieces, allowing yourself to breathe and say what you mean and feel without caring where you are going or whether you are right or wrong. Let each moment take you rather than you taking it.
After working a day or two on your monologue, start to read the entire play, slowly. Keep working on the monologue severaltimes a day for a week or two until the lines are coming to you without reading. Do not memorize!
You may notice that I begin with plays by Chekhov that many think too difficult for young actors. I disagree. I believe this material is excellent for young actors because Chekhov's characters go all over the place. They are full of emotion and passion. They can be trivial, silly, and foolish one moment and poetic or profound the next. And his characters are always verbal. This is a good introduction to the real art of acting, I believe. I find that actors work better and faster with truly thought-provoking material--it gives them a stimulating environment. The actor will absorb whatever he can take in. No matter how little it may be, it will still be more useful to his development than working on lesser material. And once the actor is free with complex material, everything else is easy.
After a week or two, go on to a third monologue: for the men, in Sam Shepard's The Tooth of Crime, Hoss's monologue in Act I, starting with the line, "Once I knew this cat in High School who was a Creole"; for the women, in John Guare's play Marco Polo Sings a Solo. Diane's monologue beginning with the line. "I really started cookin' when I was eight."
These are very different kinds of characters and monologues. They are quite fun and complicated, and rich in images to stimulate the actor's imagination. You will find them invaluable for opening yourself to physicalizing, exploring the outrageous, and connecting you to your instinct, imagination, and emotions. After a day or so, read the play.
While working in depth on the monologues I have suggested, add a new monologue each day for practice. Repeat the new monologue twice. The next day, go on to another monologue. Add a new monologue each day for six weeks, but continue workingin depth on the original monologues, reading the plays, and allowing yourself to grow with the character.
You will find that the process gets easier and faster each day, leaving you feeling more natural and free each time you begin your work on a new text or prepare for an audition.
Following is a list of monologues that have been valuable for many of the young actors I have taught. The order I have put them in suggests a rough path, but feel free to vary the order or add different monologues that interest you.
Other Recommended Monologues
After a few weeks, you may want to start working on a scene with a partner. You will also find in chapter 3 a way to prepare scenes on your own.
When working with a partner, do your own work--taking the lines off the page and looking up while listening to the other actor. It is best not to impose your way of working on the other actor. Simply do your work, and let the other actor do his. Don't talk too much about the scene and how it should go. It's not necessary to discuss it if you have felt it. Just keep reading the scene back and forth, exploring freely. Let the scene take you to lots of places. Get up from the table when you feel ready. Be free with your movement--be arbitrary. Don't memorize. If you let the lines come to you, it will happen on its own.
Following is a list of scenes that you might find useful in starting your work with a partner.
Copyright © 2003 by Harold Guskin and David Finkle Introduction copyright © 2003 by Kevin Kline