¡Concentrar!

I’m here in Mexico supporting a former Strasberg Student, Alberto Sosa, who has put on an arts festival, and “Concentrar” is a Spanish word I have used more in the past the past two days than in my entire life prior.

Our challenge has never been to find talented actors – there are lots of them – but rather to train, convince, cajole those actors to really focus.

In the comments section of the prior post I said that concentration is THE tool for the actor. OK, most people would agree. It is a good and necessary thing, but it begs the question, “what do I concentrate on?”

This is where my father, inspired by the work of Stanislavsky, made a great contribution. If you teach acting, you will notice that most actors think a lot about their scene and what is going on. The idea of given circumstances is fairly widespread at this point. But that is where most actors stop and settle for mediocre or uneven work.

You need to do more. To be more specific and more detailed (especifico y con mas detalles, for those scoring at home). I train actors to concentrate on one small aspect of their circumstances. Don’t worry about the argument that is about to happen – you only know it will happen because you read the script. That is not part of the circumstances. Don’t worry about what you think you should be feeling. That is territory for discovery rather than decision. What you DO need to do is to focus on the small details of LIFE. Pay great attention to the little things that make up the act of living.

Richard Boleslavsky [see the recommended books] described the way in which a human being struggles for everything. You wash your face – you struggle with the cloth, the water, the soap. These challenges are much smaller than, but essential to, the greater struggles and conflicts of a story. It is here that an actor must do his work. The writer may work with grand ideals and concepts, but the actor must supply the essential ingredient of life. And life is made up of all of these minor struggles.

So this is where you must concentrate. Don’t just go and randomly take action. Put your attention, your full focus on something as you work. Where are you? Where are you coming from? Where are you going? What are you doing there? If the other actor did not enter or never started the scene, what would you be doing? These are the small realities of life that unlock your humanity.

My father said, ‘you don’t need to give me the whole ocean, just a few grains of sand.” Take it to heart. Don’t give the whole story. Don’t give me the scene, and don’t show me what it all means. You just find those few grains of sand that you can experience and you are on the road to great acting. 90% of a movie is all about that. Only in very few moments do we need a heightened intensity (the waves crashing on he shore, to continue the metaphor).

As an added benefit, if you are directing yourself as most actors do for auditions and scene work, this concentration often leads to behavior and activity that will block much of the scene for you.

By the way, if you want proof, just go and watch the Godfather films (either of them). These are well-trained actors across the board, and you will notice the scenes are quite simple. My father greets Pacino while they are watching a game and eating lunch, or cutting a cake at a birthday party, or brothers eating around a table, or guys cooking or playing cards. The entire movie is made up of these small moments – each one of them a minute struggle for an actor – that all add up to some of the richest and most captivating stories ever put to film.

Method Acting Works

I was laid out with the Flu recently, and it gave me a little time to search the internet to see what is out there on Method Acting found this article written pre-Oscars, that suggests that Method Actors are more likely to win in Oscar season.

Specifically, the writer does a tally that concludes “more than 100 Oscars have been won by Method actors…..” Further, it offers the following statistic: “Since 2000, around 75 per cent of Oscar winners have been Method actors….”

I will admit to not having done the research on those numbers, but intuitively they sound about right. So does that mean that classical training (the preferred option in much of the UK and the rest of Europe) is no good? Of course not. A great actor can come from anywhere, and our work only ADDS to the technical skills that a classical training can build.

What it does suggest, though, is that the kind of connection to your work that Method Acting encourages makes for a strong bond with the audience. I mention this because some people mistakenly believe that an actor’s focus on their own reality somehow takes them away from the story and away from the audience.

In practice, we see the opposite. The more focused you are on what you are doing, the more the audience watches, understands, and connects to you and your character.

Have you ever watched a room of people with a baby crawling around? Eyes are immediately drawm to the small creature. We are fascinated. The baby couldn’t care less about us or what we are doing. It is completely immersed in its world, and we cannot pull our eyes away. That kind of focus is powerful, and it is a skill we actively build.

I once ran an audition where an actor brought her young golden retriever puppy into the theater with her. Big mistake…. The director and I could not stop watching the dog! Every time she would speak, the dog would move its head slightly or wag its tail and we were mesmerized. It led to the director suggesting that we cast the dog instead!

Concentration is the muscle that we begin to exercise in the very first class, and it leads directly to the kinds of results that move audiences.

Published in: on March 10, 2009 at 2:23 pm  Comments (5)  
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“If you cannot be on time, be early.” – Lee Strasberg

The Obama administration is considering lengthening the US public school year. Even if you are not a kid in public school (or the parent of that kid), this still matters to you.

One of the things we find over and over again is the nothing great happens without hard work. You want to improve your academic performance? More time in school helps. More studying helps. More attention to your homework helps. That Makes sense.

You want to be a better actor? Same rules apply.

“I used to think as I looked at the Hollywood night, ‘there must be thousands of girls sitting alone like me, dreaming of becoming a movie star. But I’m not going to worry about them. I’m dreaming the hardest.'”
– Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn had it right, and she didn’t just dream. She worked hard. Despite commercial success as a film star, she took a break and moved to NY to study with my dad and improve her acting. It worked. Her talent blossomed and she started to take control of her career. She had talent and beauty, but she also had the courage to commit herself to getting better at her craft.

As someone who was notorious for being late, she once famously told me dad that she was ‘incapable of being on time.’ My father’s response? “Darling, if you cannot be on time, be early.” And she was. For his class she would come early and wait.

But what if you are already in class? Then what?

1) Get there early. Prepare yourself while you wait. Look over your scene, begin to search for tension in your body that you can release to improve your concentration and expression. You can squeeze hours of extra time out of your training just by not wasting the first 20 minutes of time settling in. Come ready to work.

2) Don’t just wait for class. Find more to do. Many actors are in class only one or two times a week. Some lucky ones might have class 5 or 6 times a week. But even that is not enough. I recently finished a book, Outliers: The Story of Success, by my current favorite writer, Malcolm Gladwell. A central point of the book is how success comes out of moments when special opportunity meets a person who has put in a tremendous amount of work to become great at what they do.

It is not enough to get the mythical Lucky Break. Yes, you need a break along the way, but you also need to be really good at what you do so that when you get a chance you are ready to deliver. If you are an actor you need to be an actor more than 4, or 10, or even 20 hours a week. You are an actor every day. So rehearse, practice, and don’t stop.

3) Make yourself great. Find extra time to enhance your abilities. When you brush your teeth, pay attention to what you feel in your body (your gums, but also your lips, your hands, your feet – really look at yourself in the mirror). You can make yourself more aware and more observant.

Try out accents. When you can talk to your grocery clerk without him/her looking at you funny you are making progress.

When you watch a movie, don’t be a passive fan. Watch as an actor. Pay attention and note what you see and what you feel.

Read books in your spare time (there is more of that than you think). Learn to dance. Inspire yourself with art.

The bottom line is that if you want to be a great actor (or a great anything), you need to work at it. You need to live it and work at it for as long as you can. That is the edge that Marilyn Monroe, and so many others, had that no one talks about. That is what separates the “Lucky Ones” from the rest.

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 11:37 am  Comments (1)  
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