Worthless Acting

Sometimes actors just get in their own God damned way…

Sometimes actors just get in their own God damned way…

I was working with a private student of mine on scene study. He’s a fun, talented fellow and we’ve known each other since I – as a director — cast him in my production of Rocky Horror. He was humorous during Rocky, with a sharp wit, and remains so to this day. But there’s a problem. He has one fatal flaw that is compromising his promising, unique talents. He will often be too aware of his performance. And sometimes when he performs he does just that; he ‘performs’. He’ll lack an organic approach to telling story. He’ll lose arc, objective and playing a verb. He’ll ‘present’. Liken to past productions at one particular playhouse in my backyard I tag as Plastic Mill Playhouse– he’ll be false and all flash.

He can get ensnared into early-actor traps which are; “I need to raise my pitch here on this word” or “I should be moving my hand now and pivoting on this line.” All of which is bullshit acting. Generally bad habits put upon young actors by high school dramatics’ teachers and summer stock schlocks who “direct” by giving their actors line readings and/or road-maps for navigating the stage. I asked him if this had been the case with his past and sadly he responded in the affirmative.

So time had come to break him free of the baggage saddled upon him. I engaged him in exercises similar to the one to break ‘Manufactured-By-Rote” of which I wrote of in ACTING: Make It Your Business. Among our exercises:

  • Having him sit in a chair opposite of me with the instruction to forget acting and just tell me the story as if he and I were not in a theatrical setting but at a Starbucks (or as the case happened to be) my home-office.
  • Once I ordered him to follow me out of our work space and down onto the street. I didn’t tell him where we were going. I sensed his growing nervousness in response to my silence which is exactly what I wanted. I wanted to throw him. We crossed the street and onto a playground at a neighboring elementary school. I told him to utilize the environment; the ladders, zip line, slides and other fun hazards of youthful play and play his Queen Mabe speech to me but make me follow him through the playground.

When he tossed out all pretense during these and other exercises the change was astounding. He was no longer “acting”. He was communicating. He was just him telling a story. Which is the simplistic – but very hard for many to obtain and understand — essence of acting. All the bells and whistles of gesticulations he had had prior were gone. Pitched forked away like the cumbersome manure it was that had only provided an unwelcomed stench to his labors.

When I got him back up on his feet in ‘audition mode’ to do whatever scene or monologue we were working on he would blossom. But sometimes half-way through he reverted to presenting. (Damn.) On one occasion when I witnessed such in his eyes I abruptly asked him to stop.

“What the fuck was that?” I shot at him. “You were going along nicely but then I saw you become aware of yourself. Why?”

He frowned and berated himself for he too realized even prior to my stopping him what he’d done.

“You were watching yourself weren’t you?” I asked.

“Yes,” he demurely admitted.

“Why?” I prodded.

He looked down for a second and then up at the ceiling and said, “Because I heard a word come out of my mouth a few lines back and then I thought about that. It didn’t sound right.” He then focused his attention on me and continued, “And then I started thinking about the next line and how that didn’t sound right either and then the next-“

“Stop it!” I interrupted. “It’s like you’re going along and every once in awhile pick up pennies for each mistake you make. And with each penny snatched you pocket them until they weigh you down.” I stopped and uttered something about that sounding like a potential blog but then I dismissed it as silly and he shot back.

“No you’re right. Because pennies are worthless and what I’m doing, watching these moments within my acting and harping on them as I go along is worthless.”

Yes. Very good grasshopper. Very good.

So to those who find themselves, like my student, watching and observing themselves as they act. Stop it! Refrain from picking up the pennies that represent doubt and admonishment. Individually they’re worthless. Accumulated they weigh you down. Best not to reach for the pennies at all.

Tell the story. Don’t look back as you go along. Review after you’re done once you’ve made the journey; at the end of the scene, song or monologue.

If you were driving from point A to point B and were continuously looking down at the speedometer and not up towards your destination eventually you’d crash. Same thing happens with actors who become too-too aware of themselves as they act. Often that translates as worthless acting; i.e. the actor is “acting”. They are producing moments instead of being in the entirety of an arc.

The actor who can communicate in a concise, clear manner and does not reek of a prostituted performance is the actor that is valuable to his/her audience.

Now; some big news. You may have heard via the actor grapevine some juice about something I’m doing but it’s not industry gossip. Emmy nominated casting director Jonathan Strauss (Head of Casting Law & Order S.V.U.), Emmy nominated TV & film casting director (and director) Todd Thaler, and FOX TV casting associate Clint Alexander will be my guests for a one-time only Advanced TV & Film Scene Study Intensive conveniently called Casting Connections. You and I will work together for three weeks on actual audition scenes then on the fourth week my guests come in and give feedback on your work. Again, this is a once and done class. I don’t foresee it happening again. And if I do this again; it won’t be for awhile.

For full details visit: http://paulrussell.net/CastingConnections.html

My Best,

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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author ofACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.

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