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10:38 am - Mon 3/15/04
Actor-ish Crap

Actor-ish Crap

Right now, I'm reading David Mamet's True & False (Subtitled "Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor").

I've read it once before, but I bought it for my "library", primarily on the strength of two excerpts:

The best advice one can give an aspiring artist is "Have something to fall back on." The merit of the instruction is this: those who adopt it spare themselves the rigor of the artistic life...Those with "something to fall back on" invariably fall back on it. They intended to all along. That is why they provided themselves with it.

In "real life", the mother begging for her child's life, the criminal begging for a pardon, the atoning lover pleading for one last chance--these people give no attention whatever to their own state, and all attention to the state of that person from whom they require their object. This outward-directedness brings the actor in "real life" to a state of magnificent responsiveness and makes his progress thrilling to watch...On the stage, similarly, it is the progress of the outward-directed actor, who behaves with no regard to his personal state, but with all regard to the responses of his antagonists, which thrills the viewers.

I realized, partway through my second reading of the book, that I was having much the same response to it that I had when I read John Shelby Spong's A New Christianity For A New World--the authors basically take a baseball bat to most of the accepted precepts of the subject they're writing about, to the extent where I'm left wondering if there's any "subject" actually left.

Sometimes I feel the book is basically Mamet-the-playwright saying "Hey, just do the lines the way I wrote them. Don't embellish them with all that actor-ish crap you like to do".

But I also think a lot of what he has to say makes sense. I'm particularly intrigued by all the "outward-directed" stuff, because I don't think I've ever operated that way as an actor. I can't recall, for example, ever going through a script and noting my "objectives" in each scene. And that's all Mamet seems to want actors to do--To Mamet, if I'm stating his ideas correctly, when you're onstage as an actor, you're trying to get something from the other actors, trying to accomplish an objective, and any emotion you might feel emerges from that, not from "sense memory" or any other "Method" technique, which only serves, in his mind, to protect the actor from the discomfort and uncertainty, the danger even, of something real happening on stage.

Anyway, I recommend the book to any actors out there. It might upset you at times--It certainly had that effect on me--it might even make you mad, but it's definitely thought-provoking, and at times, even inspiring.

Reading the book (And some other books before it), has made me realize I have a very bad habit I need to break; When I've had to memorize lines, I've memorized them with inflection, basically as if having a little "rehearsal for one", without benefit of director or other actors.

I've done it that way for so long that it's hard to imagine how to memorize lines without inflection (Or at least with minimal inflection). But I totally "get" why that's what you should be doing; If I, in effect, decide how I'm going to play the part "by rote" while I'm memorizing lines, what happens when the director then says "Jim, that's not really what I had in mind..."? Or when the other actors aren't giving me what I "need" in order for my line readings to make sense? It's hard to adjust when you've spent hour upon hour (Depending on how many lines you have) memorizing you lines "a certain way".

It's funny...I've been acting most of my life, but I can't really tell you how I do what I do. I can't explain my "technique", if I have one. I don't know exactly what's working when it works, and I'm not sure what's gone wrong when it doesn't quite work.

But I don't want to give the impression that I've suddenly become aware that I suck. I really don't. I think I have a lot of natural attributes that make me an effective actor--An expressive voice and face, I move well, I'm bright (But not overly-intellectual), I'm comfortable on stage, I think I'm open to other actors, and I want to share something of myself with the audience--but all that said, I could do better.

Probably the most interesting thing I take away from the Mamet book (And it's not the first time I've come across this idea) is that "great art" might be as much--or more--about simplicity as about how complex and elaborate you can make things.

Well, I could go on--And believe me, you haven't heard the last of this b.s.--but I'm plum out of life-giving diet soda, so I think I need to amble on down to the grocery store and buy me some.


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