Oscar reaction, and why acting is like skiing

First of all, did you know who was shrieking with delight over the Oscar results? Kate Winslet? Danny Boyle? Sean Penn?

How about Rachel Hopkins. Rachel, a brand new student at Strasberg who commutes to LA from San Diego, is the winner of the Strasberg Oscar predictions competition. Don’t let her low-key SoCal vibe fool you, this is one driven young lady. She won with an amazing 83 out of 100, and she is still regretting missing out on that “Best Animated Short” category. For inquiring minds, your overly competitive blog-host is still smarting from an awfully mediocre 62. Congrats to Rachel.

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I just got back from a few days on vacation. There I was skiing down a beautiful mountain in Colorado, dark green pine trees lining either side of the steep, powdered-covered run when I thought about acting.

It was something the ski instructor said when he noticed me leaning back to keep my balance on the faster parts of the mountain. His name is Don Jones, a good-natured guy who retired from North Carolina to teach skiing in Colorado. What Don said was, “David, sometimes you just have to have Faith.”

Faith. Its a big word and charged with all kinds of meanings. Don meant Faith as in Courage. You lean downhill in order to better guide and control your skis and keep your balance. Problem is, when you point downhill you go faster which makes you FEEL out of control. That’s where Courage comes in. You need to keep leaning downhill even though it feels like you are going to fall. Channel your speed into your turn. Trust the skis, they will respond.

A good acting class is not about just doing a scene or performing. It is also not just about feeling good. It is about creating a process that works for you regardless of the material. A process you can rely on to get you through any terrain. It’s not always easy.

Acting should be fun and exhilarating, but it can also be hard work in the same way skiing is. It may feel awkward – scary even, just like leaning downhill. Many actors avoid the rush of a real moment just like some skiers fight gravity in order to feel safer.

Our work encourages you to build new habits. It is best used by actors willing to be brave. We teach you to use your most creative impulses. Don’t judge them, express them. Channel them into your scene. Trust your skis.

All it takes is a little Faith (in yourself).

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Blog note: Keep an eye out for the updated reading list. I will be adding some material to it in the next few days, so check back.

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Published in: on February 26, 2009 at 5:29 pm  Comments (4)  
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The Low-Down On The Emotional Memory Exercise

Funny stuff. But after I stop laughing, I wonder, really, John, you were working on your dog dying?!?! You’re Strasberg-trained and one of the edgiest and most interesting actors around. A personal favorite of mine, and the best you can come up with is your dog?

[Sigh] Well, I guess it’s as good a place as any to start with Emotional Memory (often interchangeably called ‘Affective Memory’ or ‘Emotional Recall’). First of all, what is it? It is a technique by which you experience the reality from some moment of your life. You live through the sensation of that moment and trigger an honest emotional response as if that something were happening right now.

Actors have tried this without training throughout history with mixed results (usually in a desperate attempt to cry on cue). People think of a dead relative or a sad moment. Most untrained folks don’t get very far – the body rebels, muscles contract, the voice changes and restricts expression. Tears? No. Usually dry as the desert. The great Stanislavsky is famously reported to have said that he could not make the Emotional Memory work consistently.

But if that’s so, then what the heck was Lee Strasberg going on about? How do trained actors get in touch with real and powerful emotions despite the well-conditioned human tendency to repress them?

Here’s how: You start by releasing physical tension in the body (Relaxation will be a topic for another entry). You place yourself at the time you wish to experience and you ask questions: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I taste? What do I feel on my skin? Is it hot? Cold? Where do you feel that temperature? What part of the body? What am I wearing? Can I feel the fabric? Is there anyone else there? Can I see them? Hear them? What do they look like? What does their voice sound like? And so on.

That is the exercise. Really. That’s it. There is the scary secret uncloaked. Like most great things, its genius is in its simplicity.

We keep an actor’s attention purely on the physical sensations they can experience. You may say a woman wears too much perfume, but we want you inhale the cloying, too-sweet assault on your nose and let the gag reflex kick in. We want you to actually smell, not narrate.

When you do this, you light the match that sparks your own latent emotion  – stuff that is already in you. Plus you build the intuitive skills necessary for all great acting. Even when you are not doing an exercise, you become more observant, more attuned to your surroundings, and more responsive to stimulus, whether imaginary or otherwise.

We don’t push actors to be emotional, or create emotions. My father said emotion is like a little child, if you chase after it, it will run away. So we don’t chase. We simply look, smell, listen, taste, and touch our world, and Emotion comes out to play.

I was going to discuss the Affective Memory exercise….

But the day is only so long. Today is February 17, the anniversary of my father’s death, and we are celebrating my father’s life this evening in NY and LA. Here in LA we are screening “The Last Tennant,” a remarkable film staring my dad as an elderly man living along. There is some great work in this movie that stars Tony Lo Bianco, Christine Lahti, Danny Aiello, and our own Anne De Salvo (who is introducing the film tonight) among others. It was nominated for a couple of Emmy Awards, and we managed to get a DVD from CBS which was exciting since it can be hard to find otherwise.

In addition, I am teaching a class this afternoon from 2-6. Somewhere along the way, those actors will probably get an in-person rendition of my thoughts on the proper use of affective memory since it has been on my mind in preparation for a write up in this blog. I will include some of their thoughts and responses in my post here tomorrow. Stay tuned….

Should I have opened my big mouth?

Well, I did.

I launched into an answer to the Ten Reasons I Hate Method Acting post. I couldn’t resist.

Nice to see that there is still so much passion for the topic. In fact, Method Acting has encountered these same critiques for more than 50 years. It seems many folks simply do not agree with what we do. I can live with that I guess. My father said that if it doesn’t work then we shouldn’t be doing it, and if it does work, then what is there to argue about?

As usual, he was right, of course. We choose techniques that show themselves to be successful and drop the ones that have, as Lee  would often say “no value for the actor.” It is not about being thought right. The battle has always been to train great actors.

On that site I addressed points #1 & #2 of why this Scotish acting coach – inspried by Mamet (of course) – hates Method Acting. You can look there in the comments for that answer, but I would like to take on his reason #3. he writes:

“THREE:  Unnecessary Focus on Emotion
Acting is not emotion.  Acting is action.  The incorrect focus on emotion comes through an embarrassingly arrogant view of Stanislavski’s work that was developed by Lee Strasberg and called The Method.   We do not have control over our emotions.  We have less control over them when we’re under the kind of stress that actors feel on stage.  If we could control them, we’d be robots and no longer need therapy, counseling or Prozac!  You can fake emotion (badly) and you can force out some tears, but that’s not much of a basis for acting.  Truly great acting moves the audience, not the actor.”

This is one of the most common misunderstanding about our work – that we focus entirely on emotion. So why do people believe this? Doesn’t Strasberg use Emotional Memory? We certainly do… sometimes. There are many actors who never need to do the affective memory. They don’t need it! But for those who do, it is a god send. But our approach to emotion is often overblown. It is not the goal of an actor.

I often see our newer actors try to push an emotional result into a scene. That is almost as bad as a superficial line read where the actors indicate their emotional state with melodramatic gestures. We don’t want that.

Yet to exclude the subtext of an action – the emotional content of the moment – is to deprive the story of its living, beating heart. So I do believe that we need more than action. In fact, action without emotion looks a lot like those robots our Scotish friend mentions. But we also don’t need anguish in every moment, and sometimes a stoic response is the best one.

My dad said that “work for the actor lies in two parts, the ability to create a reality and the ability to express that reality.” What that means is that I want an actor to generate a reality that he or she chooses, inspired by the story. From that simple truth, they must live out the natural consequences of the moment.

We ask our actors to create a reality that they can experience. When they do, the audience finds themselves sitting right there in the scene with you. They feel the pains, the joys, the failure the triumph, as much as or more so than the actor themselves. In fact, the beauty of The Method is that we do not decide what the audience should feel and then give it to them. We simply live out truthfully under imaginary circumstances and the audience is moved each according to their own sensitivities.

We do not dig for emotion. We do not dredge it up. We do not push it or pull it. We simply encourage an actor to relax their self-conscious habits for a moment as they focus on a simple physical truth. Then, gently, almost magically, emotion bubbles up freely and organically of its own accord. You don’t stuff it into a scene, you immerse yourself in a moment – any moment – and the emotion finds its own way out.

Published in: on February 12, 2009 at 5:02 pm  Comments (2)  
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Who else knows what Method Acting is?

A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled on an innocent forum question, “What are the significant differences between the techniques of Meisner, Strasberg and Adler, since they all stem from Group Theatre?”

three-muskateersOne responder, a teacher who wrote his thesis on this question, jetted over some general ideas about Strasberg “dredging” up emotion and then went on to attribute the core of my dad’s work to Sandy Meisner. [Sigh] I couldn’t let it stand, so I subscribed to the forum, and posted my own reply. (A special thanks to Serious Will for posting that question and giving me the shove I needed to start blogging!).

So this will be a space to get the straight talk about what we do – we train actors and directors to be better at their jobs. We show people how to inspire themselves, rather than just hoping they can get into a groove. I won’t give you the line-by line answer to those people who write the “10 Reasons I Hate Method Acting,” – there will always be ignorant people who would rather rant than learn – but I will answer questions from the comments section and share my thoughts about how you can get more out of your training or your professional work.

Acting lessons are all around us. You can learn while brushing your teeth, or noticing the homeless guy on the corner raving like a lunatic, or watching a six-year-old play soccer. I’ll tell you what I see, and you tell me what you think. I’ll also throw out questions to see what you think about the going’s on in the creative world – hey, the Oscars are coming, so you need to get out and see some of the movies up for awards this year. There are some great movies and some great actors up this year… but I’ll leave that for another post.

I started this blog because most people looking to learn about Lee Strasberg’s work run into a lot of false information and uninformed opinions, so they end up believing things about the Method that just aren’t true.

So let’s get the dialogue started. Tell me what YOU think Method Acting is all about….

– David Lee Strasberg

Published in: on February 10, 2009 at 5:46 pm  Comments (9)  
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