Monday, February 27, 2012

Why You Can't Read Plays

I was going to title this post: "Shakespeare Should Never be Taught as Literature." Then I thought some people wouldn't read it thinking it might only be about Shakespeare. Then I thought I'd be sneaky and call it "Never Read a Play Again!" in hopes that high school and college students would read it trying to get out of yet another assignment where they would have to analyze a boring drama by some dead guy who always wore a suit and tie.

Then a miracle occurred.

My wife found the following excerpt in a old theatre program. So instead of coming up with thoughts of my own this week, I'm just going to cheat and let you read what the legendary William Gillette had to say about reading plays. It's from his book, The Illusion of the First Time in Acting (New York, 1915, printed for the Dramatic Museum of Columbia University). You can get the ebook on Google Books for free. It's an excellent read for any student of acting, actual actor or theatre historian. on:

"Incredible as it may seem there are people in existence who imagine that they can read a Play. It would not surprise me a great deal to hear that there are some present with us this very morning who are in this pitiable condition. Let me relieve it without delay. The feat is impossible. No one on earth can read a Play. You may read the Directions for a Play and from these Directions imagine as best you can what the Play would be like; but you could no more read the Play than you could read a Fire or an Automobile Accident or a Base-Ball Game. The Play -- if it is Drama -- does not even exist until it appears in the form of Simulated Life."

I have always railed against the teaching of Shakespeare (all plays, actually) in an English class. It is ultimately pointless. Plays are not meant to be read as literature, they are meant to be performed and seen by an audience at that moment. Each performance has the potential to be different from the night before. For the audience, and the actors, a play in performance is visceral. They are meant to be experienced then dissected. Didacticism must follow that intimacy of sitting in the dark.

Imagine trying to teach a class in cinema without watching some movies? A cooking class without food? Can't be done. Same with plays.

Monday, February 13, 2012

War Horse. See It.

Movies are manipulative. They are intended to be. That's why we go to them. We accept the fact that a good filmmaker, and even occasionally a bad one, will help us escape into our imaginations for a couple hours. We'll get to go to Pandora and have an adventure with sexy blue aliens, we'll fall in love with Sandra Bullock or Ewan MacGregor, we'll rob a casino with George Clooney, we'll even team up with Samuel L. Jackson and try to retrieve a suitcase stolen from our mob boss. We go to the movies to be swept away. Don't we?

My wife and I went to see War Horse this weekend. This film is based both on a 1982 children's book by Michael Morpurgo and a 2007 stage adaptation of the book (originally mounted at the Royal National theatre in London and now on tour in the U.S.). The movie was directed by Steven Spielberg, music by John Williams, produced by Dreamworks & Disney, blah, blah, blah. You probably know all this is you follow movies at all.

We left the theatre in a shambles. In fact, everyone in the theatre was a wreck. It is a beautiful, old-fashioned, sentimental story. A fabulous story that, yes, manipulates you -- at times to tears. If there is one thing Spielberg knows, it's timing. He has a masterful way of letting you breath in a movie between emotional high points. He knows when to soften a powerful scene with a bit of humor and how to make the character of a horse move you to tears and cheers and gasps.

But as we were walking out of our little neighborhood cineplex, we overheard another couple ask, "Why hasn't this movie done better? Everyone would love this picture." Why, indeed? When we got home, I flung open the iPad and Liz sat at the computer. We both started looking up reviews to find out what the problem was. Very quickly, we found the answer. Thanks to Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic and a few other movie buff sites we frequent, we saw that this film was favorably reviewed by only 75% of people, we'll call them critics, who were writing about it. A full 25% did not like the film or found big flaws in it. How is that? How could this old-fashioned, sentimental beauty of a movie not score higher by everyone who loves movies?

Then it hit us. Like a ton of bricks. It's old-fashioned and sentimental. More John Ford than Christopher Nolan. The "user" reviews were occasionally shocking in their assessment of this movie. Boring, bland, awful, tedious, saccharine, poorly acted, trite, laughably bad. Wow. Granted, we don't know who most of these online "critics" are. No one uses their real name on the internet. But they certainly didn't see the same movie I saw.

Of course, art is subjective. I get it. Some things just may not be your cup of tea. But reading these 25% reviews, I found myself getting rather sad. My fear that we humans (at least a fourth of us, anyway) are denying ourselves the very things that make us human. The ability to empathize, to feel, to imagine. To view art, or life, openly and without filters. Letting it smack us right in the face and permitting our reaction to surprise us then taking it all in and allowing it to wash over us. Certainly, there are some of us who feel the need to cower in our shell and deny our feelings. Some who won't cut loose and risk the chance of their emotions rendering them silly or uncool. Some who don't rage or scream or recoil in fear or sob uncontrollably in the dark. Some of us are above that. Too cool, too considerate, too cynical of any thing that might smack of sentiment.

War Horse began life as a children's book. A successful one. So, I only can assume that kid's get it. But where does that innocence go? When do we pound out of our children the very thing that makes them, and us, human. Do we actively deny ourselves the ability to experience catharsis or are we programmed by others to stop it up. Sentimentality is not a bad thing. If you haven't already, go see War Horse. It's not a "war" movie. It's a story about a boy and his horse and how that horse touches others during a frightening time. I suggest you do with this movie what I advise all my acting students do with art in general: Don't judge too quickly. Let it wash over you in the dark. Allow it to manipulate you. That's why we go to the movies.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Class is Only the Beginning

My acting students piss me off. I know, I know, they are probably going to read this. That's okay. They know I'm pissed off. No other artists have the utter lack of discipline as actors. Somehow, many young actors have bought into the old adage, "Learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture." Thank you, Spencer Tracy. Well, unless you ARE Spencer Tracy, you gotta do more than that. Learning your lines would be a pleasant start. But just a start.

Actually, if learning to act is just about adhering to someone's else quotes about it, then John Gielgud may have better advice for young actors, "Before you can do something you must first be something."

So many actors just starting out seem to believe that taking a class and auditioning is all it takes to call yourself an actor. (I say this having had the same misplaced attitude, lo these many years ago.) But it's what you do between classes and before auditions that make you a true actor. Does a musician just pick up an instrument a play a concert? No. There are hours upon hours of rehearsal, playing scales, practicing a particular piece of music. There's is the care and tuning of the instrument. Oh, yeah, and the rehearsal. I'm wondering if Yo-Yo Ma or B.B. King only played their instruments when a teacher was around? And when they were done playing, I wonder if they just tossed their instrument on the sofa until they needed it again. Doubtful.

Taking an class does not make you an actor any more than owning a fiddle makes you a concert violinist. But acting class is a place where you go to learn to play your instrument. Where you learn to tune it and care for it. It's a place where you pick up tips on how to get the right sound out of it; when to play fast or slow; when to play loud or soft. When to contort the strings violently to your will or when to gently stroke them. An acting class is a place where you learn how to play with other musicians in concert. How to form chords. When to let someone else take the lead and when to pull back and settle into the rhythm. It's also a place where you get to try out different styles of music in the form of scene work or monologues. Maybe for a very few, a little improvisation if it makes sense for your particular instrument or style of music.

AFTER class is over, go act. Find a play. Audition. Do something. Do another scene in class, hell, another class for all I care. Learn a new monologue on your own, memorize a whole play, whatever. There is no excuse not to pursue roles wherever you can find them. Sure, I know, you are holding out for the big pay day that a series or blockbuster film role will give you. But don't just wait around  for it to magically happen. Just like Yo-Yo and B.B., you gotta play the bars and piddly little stages. You have to work for a couple of beers or, maybe if you're lucky, a couple bucks to buy some Ramen. That's just the way it is. Those are the rules. No matter what city you are in those are the rules. Keep your trumpet polished. (Uhm, okay, maybe that one means the opposite of what I meant for it to mean.)

When actors comes to my class, there is an unspoken contract. They are agreeing that they are going to actor. All in. That means they are going to do more than just show up to class. It means they are going to take everything they learned in class and put it into practice somewhere else. The class isn't the end, it's the means to an end. One of them, at least. It means they are going to learn their lines and maybe bump into the furniture until their shins bleed. Finally, it means they are going to stop listening to those that think because they are the class clown or funny at parties, that they would make a great actor. 

Let's face it, not everyone is cut out to be an actor. It takes work. Talent helps, but work separates the wheat from the chaff. (And no, I am not going to switch from music metaphors to agricultural ones. That would be too much even for me.)

Many years ago, Les Paul gave me an autographed guitar. Now, I'm not a guitar player, but I have a beautiful, un-played guitar signed by the man himself. I cherish it.  But, If I took that guitar and charged people to hear me play, it would cheat them and dishonor Lester. 

Before you go "do" acting -- "be" an actor. All in. Tune your instrument, maintain it religiously and play it whenever you get the chance. Oh, yeah, and learn your f**king lines.