¡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.

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….