Sunday, June 5, 2011

Building 'Respect for Acting'

"Overcome the notion that you must be regular.  It robs you of a chance to be extraordinary."  -Uta Hagen

It seems at the most serendipitous times, the universe gives you what you ask for ... even when you haven't asked for it yet.  When it came to my acting skill, I have to admit that it's all a God-given gift with high-school training and work experience.  My first mentor in the theatre arts, Harry Wilson, was my high school drama arts teacher who saw potential in my untamed energy.  (Seriously - I needed a helmet in freshman year, I was bouncing off walls!)  I have fond memories of late nights with cast and crew of students and 'Mr. Wilson' performing a labour of love for Sears Drama Festival plays or Remembrance Day assemblies.  He taught me about Stanislavski and how his 'actor's suit' had to be tailored for each actor, because each one requires a different fit.  Each actor has his or her own rituals and mental processes of connecting with a character, but may not suit another actor's technique or opinion.  Each actor has a personal technique tied with something that has been learned and refined, which is a constant process.  Any artist who's told you he's learned all he needs to know is lying!

I still need refinement in my skill.  I am a gifted actress and singer through natural talent, practice, application, education and training, and there is always more to learn on how to better myself.  What I needed was a respect for the craft, an understanding that theatre arts is a skilled trade requiring careful consideration in technique.  I was so glad I had picked up this book long ago, standing in a Value Village used book section when this title popped out at me.  It jumped out at me again when I first had this thought for my "journey of artistic refinement" a few months ago.

Uta Hagen's book, Respect for Acting, has been used as a textbook for many acting classes in post-secondary institutions.  She, too, believes that those who believe that acting is merely a 'natural talent' have a lack of respect for the discipline of the craft.  Much like musicians, painters or even athletes require rehearsal and practice time, an actor requires time to build technique through practice.  I myself fell under a preconceived notion that my only 'practice' came from the actual performance before an audience, but let's keep something in mind - ask a classical pianist to sit down and play Chopin's Nocturnes in E-flat minor from sheet music, and it will be played perfectly.  Ask that same pianist to sit down and improvise with a jazz quartet in a small bar, and the gig'll be a mess.  The classical pianist needs some time to become comfortable with the material before being able to play.  A hip-hop dancer could pull some incredible acrobatic feats, but ask to dance ballet en pointe in Swan Lake, and they'll seriously injure themselves without proper training in movement.  They would require training to understand how they could translate their current movement skills to fit another form.

Here's a great example - you don't think Natalie Portman just got in front of the camera and started dancing in Black Swan, did you?  Natalie couldn't perform this role without understanding the language of ballet and what it meant to the character, Nina.  Some of the scenes used in the movie of Nina in practice are of Natalie's training sessions in preparation for the movie itself, portraying a rigorous schedule of physical exertion without apology from her trainer, only demanding 'perfection'.  Her hard work had paid off in a number of awards and accolades that both the film and her performance received.

The 'lack of respect' can be displayed in another way by becoming a 'layman critic', consisting of those untrained in the trade giving acting advice.  When your friends see you in a performance and suggest that you might want to bat your eyelashes a bit more when the love interest comes on the stage, or curl your lip with disgust whenever the character's best friend turns her back, it may set in an impression that training, skill and mental and physical effort aren't necessarily needed or focused in acting.  Those who have had this experience know that as actors, we mostly feed off of human experience and instinct, and are only trying to help with best intentions.  Whether suggestions are taken into consideration is really up to the actor, but hopefully with consideration to the technique, director and production first before the source of critique.

Really, the whole idea of an acting technique was born out of trial and error methods from actors of the past.  Some work with the character's background for a "humanistic" approach in portrayal, some have lived in similar neighbourhoods for months at a time where the character might have lived or been born, some have even gone as far as to suffer from the same demons when it came to identification with the character.  Although we try to use our own experiences as actors and human beings to bring truth to the roles we play, we have to remember to be aware and in control of our own emotions that are used for the human approach.  We can rely on 'forms' of protagonists, antagonists and supporting roles to understand the need for elements of intensity, technique and 'tradition', but we can also rely on the human element and connection the actor brings to the role when he brings himself to the role.  We act through "reaction and control"; the human element of a genuine reaction, whilst the actor keeping control of the emotional element to keep the play on track.  An actor is never through with his work, because he is learning something new about himself and the world around him every day, and it is something that can be applied to the execution of the craft. It's always important, however, to be careful not to bring what's considered to be 'personal tragedy' to the role, as it can be hard to emotionally separate.  Instead, it's more of a relational identification, such as a personal loss or betrayal that has the same emotional result as supposed to mirroring the event in the actor's life.  For an actor who believes they are mentally strong enough, a role in this direction could be a therapeutic process. It's as likely as a Hollywood ending, but it's happened.

Uta Hagen was not an A-list actress in her day (by different standards in that era), but had a prolific career as a stage actress and teacher to some of today's acting greats.  She urges her students to show that "a love of work is not dependent on outward success," that although the praise and attention are main attractions to the career choice, it shouldn't be the main motivation.  "Theatre should contribute to the spiritual life of a nation," Uta says in the introduction of her book.  It's a place where actors have bared their souls in order to connect with a larger audience, to make them feel connected as a whole emotional unit, reacting to the same injustice or victory, first kiss or last breath, opening number to closing montage.  (Think of the communal euphoria you've felt after leaving your favourite band's concert, or after a packed movie when strangers are talking to each other about how much they liked what they saw!)  The actor's glue for all of this to bind, for all of this to work is his unshakable faith of "make believe", being able to pull from an array of sensations, emotions, experiences and observations a world around him where nothing existed before, when it only existed on paper.  The actor continually builds these unique pieces, even throughout the rehearsal process, to better and better his process, and ultimately, the performance itself.  "A form will result in the work we're doing," Uta has told her students time and time again.  We add something new to the form we've used at the end of each experience; a new tool in the box, if I may.  It makes us all the better actors for it.

So, maybe "refinement" is more of a wish to be a "journeyman" in the craft, knowing that there is always new wisdom to attain.  I'm going through the book with a fine-tooth comb, speculating certain aspects of my own technique when questioned, how I apply it, how effective it is and when, what kind of results they produce.  All sorts of stuff.  You should see the margins, all covered in pencil notes.  As part of this self-study, I'm sharing this fun stuff with all of you, and I would love your feedback and input on what I'm posting.  I may be using some of this and upcoming material in my own classes at Synergy Performing Arts Academy, and your opinions and considerations would mean the world to me.

In the meantime, I have a summer camp to plan!  Stay tuned!

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