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If you're a performer, and you care about being good at it, you crave inspiration - those moments when you are completely engaged in your performance; in a state of "flow" where everything proceeds to "just work" quite naturally, without apparent effort. This is your best and most effective self.
But inspiration is a funny thing - it's not something you can force. It's certainly not something you can rely on, because it may or may not be there at the right time, like when you're on stage! What we really need is a way to invoke our inspiration, so that we always take our best and most effective self on stage. Fortunately, this is not a new idea. In fact, it is the core of method acting. Stanislavski's "method" if you boil it down to its purpose, is a way of accomplishing exactly that. It's a way of invoking inspiration.
The question is, if you can't control inspiration, how can this method possiby work? The answer is, indirectly! By creating the right conditions, or "inner stimulus" as Stanislavski puts it, the inspiration is called up. By preparing correctly, you can harness your subconscious and create a truthful performance - one that will engage the audience at a level far below the surface, take them on the kind of emotional journey that they crave, get them into the standing ovation mood, and ultimately get them coming back for more!
This makes a lot of sense, neurologically. The brain is complicated, and composed of many parts that evolved at different times, and that talk to each other. Some parts of your brain can not tell the difference between a real memory and one you made up. Those same parts are unable to tell the difference between a real situation, and one you have created for yourself. Consequently you can fool your "subconscious" into responding in a very real way to an imaginary situation!
Here are some of the tools you can use, to go about fooling your subconscious mind. With these tools, you will create the conditions for inspiration:
1. Invent a scenario. What Stanislavski calls the "magic if", and "given conditions." For example, sitting where you are right now, say to yourself, "what would I do and how would I feel if there was a crazy person with a gun banging on my front door?" Really put yourself in that space - it's not difficult. This kind of imagination work is what playwrights do when they create a play. And you can do the same, no matter what sort of performer you are.
2. Break down the action in your scene (or song) into units that follow logically from the beginning to the end. For each logical unit, figure out what your objective is, and how it relates to your overall objective in the scene, play or song. Make each objective believable, clear, attractive to you, and active. These objectives will nudge your subconscious into helping you get what you want, in the imaginary scene.
3. Learn to control your attention. Focus it on something in your scene, whether you have a real set and props to work with, or you have to invent it all in your mind's eye. Focus on the reality of that scene, instead of where you actually are - on some stage, with some other players, in front of a bunch of people. Learn to keep your focus on the invented reality, so you're not distracted and pulled out of it. Your subconscious can't tell the difference, as long as you have the discipline to give it all the right input.
4. Execute true physical actions that fit with the scenario. If they are true in their detail, again they will provoke inspiration out of your subconscious. If you're supposed to be drinking, really swallow. If you're caressing the cheek of your lover, feel the softness, make it real and it can be a powerful stimulus to inspiration.
5. Study the text and the subtext of the piece you're performing. Dig deep into the lines or the lyrics, and try to understand what motivated the artist who wrote them. What were they feeling? What are they driving at? What is their philosophy? These things will get you below the surface and into the reality underneath.
Depending on your mode of performance, you may also be able to rely on external stimuli such as sets and props, to help transport you to the appropriate reality.
If you are hoping to create performances that have deep impact upon your audience, you will want to acquaint yourself with the ideas of Constantin Stanislavski. Stanislavski's book "An actor prepares" describes his system for acting, and apparently it is still the only complete system for acting that we have. Consequently it influences the vast majority of what you see in professional theater and in movies today. Method acting came from it, as explained nicely in this wikipedia page. But what does that mean? I mean, method acting is a method for what, exactly?
The purpose of Stanislavski's system is to access the performer's inspiration, and to use that inspiration to create truthful performances. "To Inspire" a performance literally means to "breathe life" into it. Stanislavski believed that the way to breathe life into a performance was to engage the performer's subconscious mind. Because the subconscious is responsible for the details of our actions in our real lives, the actions of the "inspired" performer would also be realistic and believable, resulting in the ultimate goal - a truthful performance, capable of touching an audience deeply. You can prove this to yourself quite easily - last time you had a conversation with someone, how many of your facial expressions and gestures were the product of your conscious mind? Almost none, I bet. The rest was done by your subconscious mind, which is masterfully capable of producing in you realistic and believable behaviors. Truthful behaviors. Authentic behaviors. Just the stuff you want on stage.
In writing his books, Stanislavski was fighting against various forms of the same lousy and untruthful acting we see so much of today in the theater and in the movies. I'm sure you will recognize all of the following:
- Forced Acting - you rely on inspiration but you don't know how to access it reliably. Consequently, as Stanislavski puts it, high moments alternate with over-acting.
- The Art of Representation - you create the part in a deeply felt and truthful way and and "get it right" in rehearsal, with a focus on external appearance, then strive to duplicate that correct performance each time, rather than living it afresh each time. Getting it right in rehearsal requires a lot of skill, and replicating it even more so. But he argues that the result is not truthful and therefore leaves much to be desired.
- Mechanical Acting - you learn the cliche gestures that represent your character and emotions, like putting the back of your hand to your brow to express tragedy, or spitting on the floor because you are playing a peasant. Stanislavski refers to this as "a dead mask of non-existent feeling."
- Over-Acting - takes the first general human conventions that come along and uses them without technique, and without refining them for stage. Like mechanical acting, but without the technique.
- Exploitation of Art - moments when you as the performer are merely using your place on the stage to showcase yourself personally, rather than to play the intended part.
Maybe you've recognized yourself in the list - I know I did! As usual, learning new things teaches one humility.
So The Method tries to get at something better, more truthful, and more effective than the approaches listed above by engaging the performer's subconscious mind. The trouble is, you can't get at the subconscious mind without making it conscious, and in doing so you kill it. The subconscious just can't be dragged into the light for examination without introducing a lot of what you might call "left-brained interference." So you need an indirect method of engaging the subconscious, and that is what "the method" is really for.
The book itself takes the form of a journal written by our hero Kostya (you might guess here that the original book was in Russian) who is taking a year-long acting class in the Moscow Theater. In the first chapter, the students are asked to come up with something and put it on stage for a live audience, so that the teacher can get to know their talents better. It's a pretty funny read, because it reminds me of what most amateur performers actually do when they're first hitting the stage, namely make up an approach more or less at random, and get unpredictable and usually horrible results! Kostya decides to play Shakespeare's "Othello", and without understanding the play itself, the character, or anything remotely accurate about how a "moor" might have behaved, he paints himself brown and struts about like a savage, flashing his teeth and rolling his eyes.
You have to admit, most amateur performance is pretty bad. Sometimes it's not much better than watching third-graders, except that the people on stage have lost their cute factor and with it, the audience sympathy. We could really change the world if we taught everyone just the basics of how to perform, so their first experiences on stage were more likely to be positive. They might just keep at it long enough to get quite good at it! And they might attract an audience outside their circle of friends.
In subsequent articles, I will explain all about how the method works, and how you can apply it to create truthful performances.
In the past two articles in this series we've talked about how to free the voice and the body to prepare yourself for the stage. The final step is to focus your mind.
First of all, because everything is connected, the process of freeing the voice and the body will already have decluttered your mind somewhat. Nagging thoughts of the stressful drive to the venue (or whatever else happened to you that day) must have faded away, or you wouldn't have been able to relax your tension spots. In fact, if your physical preparation was successful and you are relaxed, calm and free of tension, all that remains is to turn on your creative mind, and get into what Stanislavski calls the "inner creative mood."
One critical skill for the stage is the ability to control the focus of your attention. So pick an object, and focus on it to the exclusion of all other things in the room. Consider its characteristics and facets - what is its color, texture, size, shading. If you let yourself get distracted, notice that and start again until you can maintain the focus. Now pick a far away object, and repeat the exercise. Repeat it again with something very near. With the attention part of your brain engaged, you will be able to shift your focus on stage easily and fluidly between objects, real and imagined - this will keep you from wandering.
If you're an actor, many of the objects will be other actors in the scene, physical objects in the set, or imagined objects that arise from the scenario. On the other hand if you are a singer, most of the time you will be focusing on someone in the audience, or on an imagined object that forms part of your scenario for the piece. In this sense, the singer's job can be both harder and easier than the actor's - easier when you're simply singing to a real person and telling a story, and harder when you must imagine a sequence of vivid images from your scenario out of thin air. It certainly helps to have strong and practiced visualization muscles in this case!
Once you have flexed and stretched your organs of attention, the next step towards your inner creative mood is to rev up your imagination. Stanislavski suggests that you choose a simple physical objective, then build a motivation around it. I think of this as "theater sports" games. For example, you might choose the objective of taking off your shoe, and putting it back on. Why would you do this? Perhaps something in your shoe is irritating you and making you limp. You become frustrated, sit down, take off your shoe and look inside. What do you find? Perhaps it's a coin. Perhaps it's a rare and valuable coin, and you are shocked to see it! How did it get there? Are there others? And so on...
Spend a few minutes improvising a simple scene like that, and acting it out so that it's truthful. This will reacquaint you with that sense of creative play that energizes great performances, where everything is happening afresh (even if you've done it a thousand times before), and you are engaged and passionate about your part in the scene.
Now that you are attentive and your creative self is awake, you need to run through the major subdivisions of the real part you are about to play, and refresh all the important images and emotions. Don't just run through it like a static movie, but infuse each piece with something new, out of your creative sense of play. This kind of visualization is like an extra rehearsal in your brain, and over time if you do it right it will build more and more depth and reality into your scenario that otherwise would fade over time.
If you do this properly, one side benefit is that you won't have any attention left for worrying about stage fright or other anxiety issues. Your attention will be focused where it needs to be - on the objectives in your scene.
Congratulations! That's the end of our mini-series on preparing for the stage!
What can you add, for the benefit of the rest of the Owning The Stage community? What works for you? What's your backstage ritual? Head over to the forums, or comment below.
Recently I've been having a great email exchange with Tom Carter, author of a book that I am re-reading called "Choral Charisma." His book is aimed mostly at choral directors who want their choirs to sing with expression, but would be great for coaches and singers as well. If you haven't read it already, I highly recommend you buy it!
Tom often describes his philosophy as "method acting for singers" and we've been having this discussion about Mamet's statements on the topic, which I have quoted in a previous article. It's a bit of a mess, so let me try to sort it out for you.
The issue boils down to this - is it necessary for a performer to generate the emotions in himself in order to act them out believably. Simple enough question, with huge implications for performers.
Mamet suggests in his book, "True or False", that a performer needs to simply follow the script, and act each scene with an appropriate objective in order to be believable and convincing. The performer may feel emotions as a result of acting the scene (much like the audience), but it is a result of the acting, not a precondition to it. Therefore he suggests that Stanislavski's "method" (a.k.a. method acting) is completely backward, self-aggrandizing, causes insecurities and other issues, and simply does not work.
However, Stanislavski says this in his classic book "An Actor Prepares" (thanks, Tom Carter, for the quote):
You can understand a part, sympathize with the person portrayed, and put yourself in his place, so that you will act as he would. That will arouse feelings in the actor that are analogous to those required for the part. But those feelings will belong, not to the persona created by the author of the play, but to the actor himself.
It seem quite clear that Mamet and Stanislavski are saying the same thing! So why the conflict?
It turns out that Mamet's words are a backlash against the various Method Acting schools that misunderstood Stanislavski's intent, and produced a whole generation (or at least a lot) of actors who believe that you have to feel it first, in order to generate a believable performance. Indeed many actors in Hollywood have taken this idea to ridiculous extremes, at great risk to their own health and well being. Christian Slater decided he needed to take drugs in order to play a drug addict, and got himself famously addicted to drugs. Dustin Hoffman ran around New York City for hours in order to play someone who was exhausted, famously prompting Sir Lawrence Olivier to say, "Just act man!"
So where does this leave us? I'm inclined to agree with Mamet and Stanislavski. Use your personal history and humanity, your "emotional memory", in order to understand the situation in the scene (remember this can be a scene in a play, or it can be a musical piece, or any other sort of performance), and act that scene passionately with the objective of the character in mind. If you surrender to the scene, you will experience feelings that come out of that scene. Not the other way around.
This all makes sense, because suspension of disbelief works just as well for the actors as it does for the audience. Perhaps more so, because their immersion is more complete - they are in the scene, while the audience merely observes it.
This might all be a bit academic, but in a nutshell, don't worry about it. Figure out what the purpose and objectives are for your performance, and dive in! Emotions will come.