Christopher Aruffo, MFA, MBA, MSc, PhD
Acting Instruction 6: Afterthoughts
Although the rehearsals and the performance are over, there are still a few topics to be addressed. Some of these are in reflection; others in hindsight; others as a summary of what has occurred, and still others as ideas I never got to explore in rehearsal.
Events tell the story, and the actors' objectives contribute directly to make those events happen. At the beginning of the semester, I had theorized that this was the case, and now I am sure of it. Once we had conquered the basic mechanics of conversation, an applied objective made the scene come to life. The effect of an objective is so obvious and potent as to seem magical; a scene that was bland and uninteresting suddenly becomes a moment of time in which something is happening. It would be more direct to say that "the actors' objectives tell the story", but this ignores the potential contributions of tech staff-- most obviously, if the lighting and sound people caused a lightning bolt to destroy a tree on stage, that could definitely serve as an event, but there are also more subtle things that could be done by all participants to support the director's chosen event.
I have also become more confident in my definition of "chemistry." The early shows, as I've mentioned, had abbreviated processes; for one of the shows, I had time to work with two actors on one and only one aspect of their performance. Because they were on a blind date, they were trapped at a dinner table for the entire twenty minutes, and therefore could not find much energy in their movements. Obviously they couldn't walk or run, but they also had to maintain relatively contained gestures appropriate for dinner conversation. I presumed that most of their energy would come from the conversation, and so the single thing I coached them to do was to open up to each other and respond to each other's energy. In other words, the only thing I actively asked them to do was to become more responsive to each other's impulses-- and even though I had never used the word "chemistry" in class nor attempted to define it, this is how other students described these two actors' final performance:
- I loved the chemistry between [actor 1] and [actor 2].
- I liked the chemistry at the Internet dating table.
- I felt the chemistry between the two people on the blind date.
This seems to confirm it: the more responsive actors are to each others' impulses, the better their "chemistry".
There's a quick demonstration which I often found myself returning to, but which I don't believe I ever mentioned here. The Inner Game of Tennis asserts that there are two "selves"-- an intellectual "Self 1" and a visceral "Self 2", each with its own way of behaving. The book uses this division to illustrate how, when playing tennis, you can't mentally direct yourself into playing a good game; you have to release your intellectual control (Self 1) and allow your body (Self 2) to play the game for you, using its own physical intelligence. You don't think a good game of tennis. Similarly, communicating naturally is a visceral process, not an intellectual one. Yes, yes, the thoughts may be intellectually generated, but the process of communication is one hundred percent physical. I say this with even greater confidence now that I've identified ordinary speech as a physical gesture. You don't think of how you're going to say a word-- you just say it.
Sometimes I detect that a student is trying to use Self 1 to direct their acting. Either I can recognize that they're trying to direct their bodies to grab an impulse-- so that they speak at the right time, but without responding naturally-- or they are trying to force their bodies to do what they intellectually imagine is an appropriate behavior. When I see this happening, I implement this demonstration.
I ask them to execute a simple action such as opening a door or picking up a book. Then I ask them (rhetorically) if, as they acted, they were thinking to themselves "Now I've got to reach my arm out... and now I have to close my fingers... and now I have to lift my arm in this direction...", et cetera. Of course you weren't; your body just did it. Same thing here. Just let your body do it, because that's what your body naturally does.
So far, this demonstration has been successful every time I've used it. There's another effective demonstration, too, which I discovered this semester; I don't think I've mentioned it, either, but it's been so effective that I believe I'll want to incorporate it as part of the actual curriculum.
I wanted to show how a stronger objective can provide higher energy. So I held out my phone and stood about fifteen feet away. I'm going to give you the impulse to answer it by making a ringing sound, I said, and use that impulse to bring you to the phone.
Step 1: Answer it for no reason other than it happens to be ringing.
Result: They amble over to the phone and gently pick it up. They may even look at me sheepishly because it feels silly to be answering the phone for no reason.
Step 2: It's your mother, and she gets really pissed when you let it go to voicemail.
Result: They walk directly to the phone, grab it with strong arms and open it with a strong grip, and purposefully draw it to their ear.
Step 3: You've been listening to the radio all day because they're giving away ten thousand dollars. They've just announced your name on the air, and said if you don't answer your phone then they're going to call the next person and give the money to them.
Result: They sprint to the phone, snap it open, and breathlessly yank it to their ear.
It's the same action in every case, I point out-- answering the phone-- and all that's changed is why. If your "why" is more important, you can get more energy out of it.
Throughout the process, I have been observing an apparent principle of comedic performance: the inappropriate effort. When a performer executes an action, but with an energy that doesn't match the action, an audience finds it funny. At the BFA dance showcase, for example, one of the dancers lifted another dancer off the floor. The second dancer, rather than adjust her body to the carrier's arms, remained entirely rigid; the first dancer carried her like a store mannequin, and the absurd sight roused us to laugh. An apple that weighs a hundred pounds is funny for the same reason as a 500-lb weight made out of styrofoam, because of the disconnect between the visual expectation of each object and the effort applied in moving it. All those "funniest home videos" of people falling down are always going to be funny-- not because people falling down is funny, but because people trying not to fall down is funny. If they allowed themselves to fall, adjusting their bodies to accommodate the new direction rather than desperately failing to remain upright, the humor would be gone.
I use the term "effort" as vocabulary introduced by Laban movement analysis, where physical effort may be evaluated along the four spectra of time (sudden to sustained), power (strong to light), space (direct to indirect), and finally constraint (free to bound). If an actor establishes their situation by a certain effort-- physical or emotional-- then they can quickly switch to the opposite which, being inappropriate to what has already been established, will generate laughs. In Hello Dolly, Dolly compliments another character's nose, and in our production that actor responded with false modesty, using a sustained, light, indirect, free motion to indicate his embarrassment-- but then he decided to show off that nose, and struck a statuesque pose by using a sudden, strong, direct, bound movement. All four dimensions of effort were totally reversed, and the audience was immediately provoked into laughter. The actor used the same gag twice in the performance, but the repetition always received less laughter, because the reversal was now no longer wholly inappropriate.
A dainty elephant is funny. A killer bunny rabbit is funny. A vicious rat monster that loves quiche is funny. Once the context has been established, an inappropriate effort is funny. I don't know why-- it must be some deep psychological process-- but I can see how, especially with a variety of definitions of "effort", the device of the "inappropriate effort" is consistently and infallibly funny.
Because this was an overwhelmingly positive experience for those involved, minor annoyances and difficulties went largely unheralded. With the exception of the two early-morning actors who became furiously vexed with each other, I learned only afterwards that there had, indeed, been personality conflicts and differences of opinion among the casts, and the only way I learned about each was by a student informing me of how they had already managed to deal with that problem for the sake of the show. I have to assume that any small problems and disagreements that the students had with me and my approach must have been pushed aside and dealt with as acceptable flaws; not desirable, but not worth making a stir about. Because of this strong bias against critical comment, I have to pay particular attention to the criticisms which do arise. In the evaluations there were only two, beginning with this one.
Wish we could have done more acting (different characters/situations than one-acts). Would have liked more critiquing. Would have liked to learn even more.
I'm not sure how to interpret this statement. It's either a direct criticism of the limitations of my "curriculum" or it is an indirect criticism of the lack of time we have in the classroom. Or possibly both. In either case, this student felt like they did not get enough attention and did not achieve as much as they imagined they might. It's entirely possible; as I commented to a student during the process, one of the ironies of the classroom environment is that the more effectively a student is working, the more I'm forced to ignore that student so I can attend to other people who need me more. Or... am I? Although my style is to facilitate discovery rather than "critique", it occurs to me that I am not forced to ignore students who are doing well. I chose to ignore competent students, telling myself that the others needed me more. But if the competent students really do "get it", then I owe it to them to give them additional ideas which they can play with as they develop their role. Although I found that it is possible to overburden a student with too much too soon, there's no reason I shouldn't make it a practice, at the beginning and the end of each rehearsal, to offer specific comments to every performer about how they may continue to explore. This will probably cover both "more critiquing" and "learn even more", because the quicker students won't be left on their own as I struggle to raise the lowest common denominator.
The only other negative comment struck me with the force of a dropped anvil:
My only complaint would be that it was enforced that there are "methods" or a fixed way to act. I don't agree with "impulses" and stuff like that. Instead of guidance, there was an acting system, so it went from directing to inventing processes.
The two words that glared at me were enforced and agree. I was amazed by this comment because clearly, I had completely failed to communicate either my goals or my intentions to this student. It's very difficult not to respond to this statement with a flood of self-justification ("you just didn't get it"), but it seems that I will gain the most from trying to understand how this misunderstanding could have happened.
It had to be a misunderstanding, I felt, because how can you not agree with impulses? They are what we use to communicate. I thought my explanations had merely made everyone's natural use of impulse self-evident, so they could use their natural skills to succeed on stage, but somehow this person had instead concluded that my discussion of impulses was a kind of acting method that I was stuffing down his throat. I ruefully had to acknowledge that, taking that perspective, someone could believe that I was "enforcing" the method; by using only my own language and style, I was drawing all the students into my world and my process rather than meeting them in theirs.
I'm glad to have been made aware that this misunderstanding can exist, because I want to be able to recognize it and deal with it before the final performance-- and because it's very probably the kind of resistance I will meet if I attempt to direct or teach actors who do have prior stage experience. The main thing is to recognize that it is indeed resistance; until reading this comment, I never imagined that I could meet resistance. In each case prior to now, I've been fearful that an actor might be too fond of their own habits to accept what I was showing them, but in every case before now the actor has agreed that ideas and impulses are self-evident. No one until now has actually rejected the technique, which is why I failed to see that this is exactly what he was doing. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense; during the process I was baffled at how he was able to demonstrate his understanding of the technique but was never able to use it, and now I know he was deliberately rejecting what I had presented him with because he wanted to use his own process instead.
My prejudice toward the self-evidence of impulse prevented me from meeting him in his own territory. Until now I have assumed-- because I've had no evidence to the contrary-- that having been exposed to the impulse concept, an actor of any experience will absorb it into their process. Because he wasn't performing naturally, I naively thought he didn't understand, and so I continued to explain how it worked. If I had known of the possibility that he (or anyone, in the future) could be rejecting impulse technique as an alternative way of acting, I would have been able to admit that all I really want, all I really will insist on, is natural behavior. Of course I believe that natural behavior can be best explained and exploited via the impulse, but if that isn't self-evident then I need to throw it away and let the actor tell me what they need. In this case, I'm sure that if I had given myself the chance to listen to him, and understand more carefully to how he understood his own process, I would have been able to work with him to augment his existing process with natural delivery rather than stagnate his progress and waste his time with redundant explanations. That's my lesson for the future.
Both of these criticisms speak to what I know is my greatest weakness as a teacher of acting: I'm incessantly pragmatic and mechanical. I have no tools, exercises, or patience for methods of delving the soul or heightening the senses; emotion is to me merely a reaction to impulse which can be manipulated as desired. This weakness stands most starkly in contrast to one of my colleagues; she and I work together well precisely because we have such different approaches that we may as well be living in different worlds. She and I will consult each other about working with students-- I, because I know she'll find a weird, indirect way to tap into some depth of the actor's personality that I wouldn't dare to touch, and she, because she knows I will find a way to concretely synthesize and explain whatever needs to be understood. It's a bizarre combination but a powerful one, and seeing the results of her work helps me see the limitations of mine. I understand what people do; she understands who people are.
Normally, from the undergraduates, I hear complaints about the university's acting program. Students may tell me that they did a good scene, or they liked a teacher's style, but students rarely boast that they have actually learned something. Which is why I was particularly intrigued when one of the freshmen (an acting major) told me that he loved his introductory acting class. Because I knew that this instructor was following the regular curriculum, I asked him what he felt he was learning, expecting to hear the usual spluttering search for ways to compliment the instructor. Instead, he explained to me how, in taking that class, he felt he understood himself better than he ever did before; the day-to-day acting games and exercises helped him to explore his senses and understanding of self, while the scenes and monologues he was performing-- whether or not he did them "well"-- showed him that he was capable of being far more than he ever thought.
Working with non-actors over the past three semesters have helped me clarify my understanding of my own basic technique. If not for our mutual effort, I would not have been able to write this on-line document, nor perhaps even articulated its premises and concepts despite my application of them to my own work. In the coming semester, I am sure that I will sharpen this understanding even further... which leaves me wondering the same thing I've wondered before: what would we do next? Once an actor understands basic technique and can consistently produce a natural and honest performance, where would we go from there? I'm not going to have the chance, here at the university, to teach actors who have existing technique, so I will not have the same laboratory to develop my understanding of my own process-- my complete process, as opposed to my fundamental technique.
However, as I enter my final term, I will be performing my "thesis role". In the coming semester, I will be returning to the music research, but I will also keep these pages alive to write about my own process in the thesis role. I may not have (or make) the opportunity to lead others through my process and understand myself through their attempts-- but I do have the opportunity to record my process and try to communicate it meaningfully. Actually, I have to, because the "thesis role" requires a written document of my process... so why keep it to myself?
As they say: Watch this space.