Leaf

Leaf

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Stardust


Back home, when I looked up at the sky last night, all my old friends were there.

Betelgeuse and Rigel, as bright as ever, holding up the entire group of Orion. Then, Aldebaran, or Alpha Tauri. It was taking me a while to distinguish Taurus' horns, so, remembering what my old biology professor suggested ages ago, I looked at them with the white of my eyes and finally made them out. Moving East, there they were, Castor and Pollux, from which Gemini hung like a flag when it's windy. Sirius showed up too, South of Orion, but I couldn't spot the rest of Canis Major; it was too early, and I should've stayed up too late to see all of it. My eyes shifted a few degrees and I wondered, "where’s Canis Minor?”. I could only see Procyon and Gomeisa and I wasn’t even sure Canis Minor was made of only two stars. The Pleiades too floated there, slightly North-West of Orion, in the constellation of Taurus, a small patch of several luminous dots immersed in a weak and scarcely visible nebula. Only when I observed them with my binocular did they disclose all their charm. 

Somersaulting so to have my face turned North, I saw the North Star. She wasn’t majestic, and I had to squint my eyes to see it, but she had the wonderful charm of a refined and experienced young lady. Cassiopeia kissed me right on the mouth with her "m" shape for "muah" and I – shame on me – didn’t even remember the names of her stars because they're all letters of the Greek alphabet and I never know which one is which. I couldn't see Triangulum, but frankly I never liked him and he never liked me. 
I couldn’t leave without greeting Ursa Major though, but I couldn't find her. So, I went inside and got my stars book. I checked the maps and still couldn't locate her. Ursa Minor was there and said "shhh"; she must have been up to something. 

I looked West, and a bright red dot was low on the horizon and just about to disappear. "What?", I thought, "It can't be Venus, it's too late and Venus's not so red". So, I tried to convince myself it was Jupiter, but Jupiter had to be somewehere South. "Mars, maybe? No, it isn’t the period and the position is wrong too". My mom came out to see if my blood was still warm, and she solved the riddle by saying, "It's a satellite". I laughed her back inside in an amicable way and looked the star up in my book: she had the strangest name, Formalhaut. I didn’t remember whether she was part of a constellation; naturally, this is something you wouldn’t say to a lady, so I tipped my hat, placed my voice, and gallantly said, “How do you do?”.
As I did, also wondering how old she might be – but never asked! – a falling star crossed that portion of the sky.
I made a wish and realized it was time to go back inside.

Some of you might wonder, “What does this have to do with acting, or even writing”?
Well, do you know the story of the writer whose wife constantly complained at his spending hours every day looking out the window?

A special complimentary note will go to all those of you who know – or can guess – how the writer always replied.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas inspiration

Thomas Kinkade - Christmas Chapel
The countdown to Christmas is coming to an end.
A new year is soon going to begin with new facts, new stories, new events, including, to some, the end of the world – and I’m particularly curious about this one. The year 2011 isn’t over just yet though,and the next three days are the most anticipated of the whole year. 

There are not as many decorations as in the past years, the Christmas trees do not exceed in number and, although the people still fill up the big malls, buying till their wallets get sore, the magic Thomas Kinkade atmospheres only remain in our childhood memories while everything assumes lackadaisical and uninspired tints. Unless – unless we are able to recreate it genuinely in our small nutshell, not focusing on expensive gifts but rather on the people we spend our holidays with, the chats around a table wealthy of Christmas food and, why not, a nice, old, classic Christmas movie. After all, during a time when acting and writing are suspended for most actors and writers, a good movie or a good book - someone else's work - is the best way to recharge our inner Muse with new bits of inspiration. 
So, I made a list – my list – of the ten Christmas films that to me best depict how the Christmas atmosphere should be like, basing my choices on nostalgia and childhood memories:

Here they are:

Trading Places – Christmas in New York! A comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, directed by John Landis.
Home Alone and Home Alone 2 – Macaulay Culkin.
Scrooge – Universally acknowledged as the best film adaptation of Dicken’s story, with Alastair Sim, made in 1941.
The Grinch - Jim Carrey makes the best Grinch ever!
The Nightmare Before Christmas and Batman Returns – Tim Burton’s dark atmospheres have something magically Christmas-like.
It’s a Wonderful Life – Frank Capra’s old time classic.
Toy Tinkers – Could I leave Donald Duck and Chip'n'Dale out?  
Mickey’s Christmas Carol – The cartoon’s hand-made drawings make one of the best Christmas atmospheres ever!

What movie best portrays Christmas to you? Is it one in my list?
Are there, instead, any books you'd suggest for Christmas?


Merry Christmas to you all, dear followers and fellow bloggers!!!

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Time to reset our comfort zone!

Christmas 2010 - Home
How many times have we heard the sentence, "You must leave your comfort zone!"?

Throughout the year, we put ourselves out there trying to stand out as actors, writers, students, taking the challenges upon ourselves, doing all-nighters, and getting caffeinated, often sacrificing our homely comfort for the well-deserved prizes to come.
Christmas is the period of the year when our career duties are put on hold. Our comfort zone becomes a place we can resort to without feeling guilty about it.

TV commercials show squirrels gathering inside their warm, dim, and cozily furnished tree-holes; wine flows in rivulets, Christmas stockings hang from the mantelpiece while sparks harmlessly pop and crack in the air. Larders are horns-of-plenty where the quantity and quality of food mark the special event.
The warmly set table with cheese and honey, a bottle of wine, pickles and bread, glasses filled to the rim, and lasagna being served while friends laugh together is one of the dearest spots within my comfort zone.

Where is your comfort zone? What element is absolutely essential to it?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Name of the Rose

Reading The Name of the Rose, exactly a year ago, was the icing on my Christmas cake!
It all happened quite randomly, and the result was as pleasing as it was totally unexpected.

As you probably know, a major motion picture was made after Umberto Eco's novel, starring Sean Connery and directed by Jean Jacques Annaud.
For years I regretted seeing the movie when I hadn't read Eco's novel yet. Then, last year, I decided that the book would be my Christmas present. And what a present it turned out to be!

Watching the movie before did not spoil the read at all. It rather made the experience more complete. The movie only contained the bare plot. While this had to be sacrificed, it did not present all the philosophical, metaphysical, moral, alchemical, and religious depth contained in the novel, which I could then enjoy anew.
William of Baskerville inevitably assumed the charming looks of 56-year old Sean Connery. Jean Jacques Annaud provided the amazing landscapes, the thick Northern Italian fogs shrouding a monastery built in stone, the Alpine mountain peaks cupped with snow, and the grave, dimly lit devotional mood of the story.
Besides, in that period last year, I discovered Loreena McKennit's music.
Incredible: her at times Celtic, at times folk sounds were the perfect soundtrack for the novel.
Then, it snowed.

For two weeks I read ever so eagerly in the warmth of my mother's kitchen, savoring each and every sentence at the light of an old abat-jour. A cup of hot, usually black, tea on the table, and Loreena McKennit's music played low in the background accompanied me through the journey.
The snow made it all the more real and magical at the same time.

Yet, the image of the wise and learned Franciscan friar William of Baskerville, musing through Sean Connery's reassuringly lifted eyebrow, was the dearest picture of all. One that made me wish - oh so much - that I could find a mentor, a guide, and a father like William of Baskerville, to take me, one day, under his wing.

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Saturday, December 3, 2011

Emotional Memory - Intro

Roy Lichtenstein - Happy Tears
Each and every human being possesses what has been termed "emotional memory".
Emotional memory is the ability we all have to remember a past event - usually an emotion-filled one - and be emotionally affected by it, just as if the event were happening in the exact moment we are remembering it.

One of the challenges all serious actors face is portraying true feelings either on stage or camera, that is during a fictitious event. As a matter of fact, the real problem is not the mere creation of an emotion; that is a relatively easy goal to accomplish. What's more complex is the recreation of that same emotion over and over again, eight times a week, or take after take.
According to Strasberg's experience, only 15% of the people are able to consciously recreate an emotion.

The term consciously introduces us by antithesis to the psychological concept of unconscious: the ability to recreate the conditions for a specific emotional reaction can only be achieved through intense work in deep connection with the unconscious side of our psyche, according to Lee Strasberg himself.
Strasberg conceived a specific set of training techniques aimed at preparing the actors' 'memory' to the most difficult and delicate one: the emotional memory exercise.

This post is a mere introduction to a serious problem not only actors have to face; this is a task we are all brought to deal with. We, as individuals who stand upon and are still affected by the remembrance of the most meaningful events of our life, must take responsibility over their effects on us. Not just as actors, but as human beings, as individual members of society, we must learn to deal with all that we go through. Not only our success on the stage and in film is at stake, but our individual psychic balance too - and, consequently, that of the entire society.

For now, I hope this post can contribute in stirring questions like, "Why are we still affected by long gone events?", "What makes us turn to past events and past emotions?", "What makes us repress many events into our unconscious, absurdly believing we managed to finally get rid of them?", "What happens when they come back afloat?", all the way to the final and most important question of all: "How can we control them?".



* I will deal in the next months with some more technical aspects of the emotional memory exercise as conceived by Lee Strasberg. 
My posts will be specifically based on my own personal experience, both as a performer and witness. 
Although the discourse will obviously refer to the acting sphere, it will inevitably present numerous connections to general principles and aspects of psychology. For example, I find Jung's exercises on active imagination particularly relevant. It is well known, moreover, that several Christian saints, yogis, philosophers, etc., dealt with similar problems and conceived similar exercises. 
Either in separate or in the same posts, I will talk about all these topics. 

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Midnight in Paris

Vincent Van Gogh - Café Terrace at Night
Once in my whole life only have I been to the movie theater a second time for the same movie.
Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris was a revelation from its very first shots.
The film opens up with amazing views of Paris during sunny and rainy days. A jazzy soundtrack makes the atmosphere chatty, casual, and intimately mundane.
I won't go into plot details, this is not a movie review. Here, I want to express my gratitude to Woody Allen for giving me the most beautifully magical moments ever watching a movie.

With Midnight in Paris, one has the impression of being projected into the charming world of an Impressionistic tale: ballrooms and trumpets, old-style cafés and Rococo merry-go-rounds, old writers, painters, and nostalgia shops.
You will be charmed by the naive sensitivity of Gil Penders (Owen Wilson); you will feel safe in the rocky strong aura of Ernest Hemingway; amused by that eccentric couple of minutes in the company of Salvador Dalì; you will fall in love with splendid Adriana (Marion Cotillard).

The film's melancholically warm and romantic dims will have you and your beloved trapped in each other's arms.

And, yes, just as New York is a "town that still exists in black and white", Woody Allen will convince you that "Paris looks better in the rain".


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Monday, November 21, 2011

"Stanislavski Is Pathetic!"

William Blake - "Mysterious Dream"
I would like to share a dream I had a few years ago.
Before I do, a brief background note is necessary.

When I approached Stanislavski at 18, I was alone on the task. I was taking acting classes at the time and, although the exercises we did involved some kind of a technical training, a practical insight over Stanislavski's theories was never offered, although everybody loved to mention him. So, I resolved I would do it myself.
I bought Stanislavski's three books - An Actor Prepares, Building a Character, and Creating a Role - and started studying. I tried to apply as much as I could, but my young age and inexperience brought me to misunderstand a lot of what he wrote. As a result, my acting started relying on method and outer technique, becoming totally devoid of an inner emotional pulse. My acting was external, robotic, lifeless, and this led me to be very, very frustrated.
My reaction was to put Stanislavski's books back in the shelf. I decided I would not waste more time with him. I dismissed him as the founder of an acting technique that was merely external, empty, and old-fashioned. Where was the novelty? I didn't need it. Acting has always been to me a way to express feelings that, in real life, were too difficult to express. What use could an external technique have for me? I didn't want to wear masks anymore.

Months later, I have this very short but intense dream:
An old actor is standing in front of me, and with a scolding attitude he says: "Stanislavski is pathetic!".
I can't remember who the actor was, except that he was one I strongly admired.

As soon as I woke up, I tried to interpret it.
My unconscious was giving me a message through the words and the image of an actor who was much wiser and more experienced than I was - not to mention more talented!
But why was he telling me that? Why was Stanislavski pathetic? He was empty, void, bleak, old, external, fake, but I couldn't say he was pathetic. If pathetic meant 'ridiculous' and 'inadequate', well, then I agreed. But then, why should my unconscious try to tell me something I was already aware of?

So, I focused on the word pathetic.
Pathetic stems from the Greek word "pathos", which means "sorrow", "pity" or, more in general, "feeling".
My unconscious was warning me that Stanislavski and his acting methods were not robotic, empty, and external. Stanislavski's techniques had, instead, feeling and emotion as their main core and, specifically, the recreation of the latter on stage.
My unconscious was trying to tell me that I had completely misinterpreted what Stanislavski wrote, and then blamed him for everything. 

That is when I became fully aware of my stupid mistake.
I took Stanislavski's books back in my hands, looking at his picture on the front covers with the meeker attitude of the one who's re-emptying his 1/10 full glass, and got back down to studying. This time, though, I was aided by people who knew more than I did and with whom I could discuss and compare my experiences and understanding of his theories.

I'd like this post to be a small introduction to a long series of links I'll make between acting and psychology.
I believe dreams are one of the most direct messages our Self sends up to balance our attitude and correct our path.
This is not the only dream experience I had, but with regard to acting, it is definitely a very significant one.

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Leading Eye

There's nothing as difficult as a close-up. 
In his book Acting in Film, Michael Caine describes a technique for the use of the eyes on camera and, specifically, on close-ups.

I'll try to re-explain it in my own words since in the book I didn't find it very clear. I only fully understood what Michael Caine meant when I watched a documentary about a series of classes he held to a group of extremely priviledged acting students.

Michael Caine suggests that, when on a close-up and addressing your lines at an off-camera actor, the leading eye should be the one closer to the off-camera actor. In other words, if the off-camera actor stands to the right of the camera, the on-camera actor's leading eye will be the left one; if the off-camera actor stands to the left of the camera, the on-camera actor's leading eye will be the right one.
Now, why such a fuss?
First, choosing a leading eye prevents you from shifting involuntarily from one eye to another. Such movement wouldn't be noticed in real life, but a close-up will emphasize it to a point where the micromovement of the eye will then become evident and distracting.
Secondly, choosing as a leading eye the one closer to the off-camera actor will put your face in a very advantageous position with respect to the camera: as much as possible of your face will be shown.

Now, a word on the off-camera actor.
In my experience, especially when taking on-film acting classes, the off-camera actors never give as much energy as they gave during their own close-up. They often read the lines even though they're off-book; they only half react - when they react at all - to the on-camera actor's performance, often never keeping eye-contact.
Personally, I find this very selfish and disturbing.
A movie is a collective project. As it is true that an actor should give the best of himself and just as it is true that he should do so for the sake of his own performance, he should first and foremost do so for the sake of the whole movie. This means that actors are not hired to score; they're hired to cooperate with their fellow actors in the movie for it to become a product of high artistic quality.

Lastly, if you're the off-camera actor, stand (or sit) as close as possible to the camera. I don't want to have to give the camera my profile to speak to you and, thus, have my close-up ruined.


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Saturday, November 5, 2011

A Warm Welcome to the Fall

I would like to take a small break from my discourses on acting and dedicate this week's post to the Fall.

The Fall: I associate the Fall with Sinatra for some reasons I can't explain. Maybe because there's something romantic about the Fall. The warm colours of a burning candle glittering through a glass of red wine: this is the image I have in mind in this precise moment, as I write.

In contrast, the realization that everything is ending adds a melancholic backtaste to that red wine.
I find this best expressed in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "A Rainy Day", although the poem is not specifically about the Autumn.



The Rainy Day  

2010 - Autumn Rain


The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the moldering wall, 
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the moldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! And cease ripening;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all, 
Into each life some rain must fall, 
Some days must be dark and dreary. 

    H. W. Longfellow                                                       




..                                                  

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Auditions - Cold Reading

First, what is a cold reading?
Not all auditions are about being interviewed. After all, the casting director is there to have an idea of your acting skills too. You have to be cast in a movie, remember?
When the casting director hands out the sides* to you and asks you to read for him, that's what we call a cold reading.
Following are 10 points to follow when doing a cold reading, but before that, an essential introductory point is always to be borne in mind:

Don't go for the part. Go for the performance.

1) Go there at least a half-hour before the audition, so you'll have the time to study the sides.

2) On a notebook you always carry with you - as any good actor should do - write down the event of the scene (is it a confrontation, a power struggle, an introduction, an information exchange between the two characters?).

3) On the same notebook, write down your objective**
for that scene (to test/to support/to help/to seek help/to seduce/to impress/to connect/to reassure/etc.).
It is important for the objective not to be a physical one ("to smack him on the noggin". A physical objective is easy to achieve: just go and smack your reader on the noggin).
You have to be very clear about your objective, moreover it has to be simple and straightforward (one word, or a very short phrase at most) for it not to be confusing.

4) Think in terms of what your character wants, don't think in terms of state (cold, angry, disappointed, etc.); it won't lead you anywhere.

5) Choose an objective that showcases your qualities. 

6) The audition has to be true. It has to be a dynamic performance, and the performance has to be good, even if you do it wrong: after all, at this stage you cannot know what is wrong and what is right. You have no idea what the casting director wants from you.

7) It doesn't matter if your reader is not good. Take what you get: if they do something wrong and that creates an emotional reaction in you - no matter if a good or a bad one - use that reaction because it represents the truth of the moment.

8) Remember to have an arc*** to the scene.
This means that there must be a beginning, a middle, and an end. In other words, the character must have come to a conclusion at the end of the scene.

9) Connect with your scene partner. They want to see your eyes, so don't keep your face down on the paper.
A good method is:  
a- Look at your scene partner while he's saying his lines and react to what he says.
b- Then take your time, quickly steal a look at your lines, and again reconnect with your partner while saying your lines. It's okay to slow down the pace a bit.  Besides, your head down doesn't look good on camera.

10) Don't tell the casting director or anybody else your objective, unless you are specifically asked, that is.
Would Houdini reveal the tricks behind his magic? No!

Good!
As I said, don't try to do things right. You still don't know what is right and what is wrong: you know nothing about the script, about your character, or about the context. After the first cold reading, the director or the casting director will give you specific instructions. They will tell you what to change or what to leave. But they need something to hang on to in order to do so.

A last piece of advice: have fun and never, ever play safe!****



* The sides is a scene from the script specifically used for cold readings.
** The point of having an objective is also to be conscious of what you are doing. If you are called back, they expect you to do exactly what you did in the first audition.
*** An arc to the scene also means more give and take with the reader. 
**** Most of these tips come from my Lee Strasberg Institute audition class notes. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Great Director - Herbert Von Karajan

As actors, we all have to work in close cooperation with directors. Just as for directors, working with certain actors can be a blessing whereas it's a curse to work with certain other actors, a director can also be either a blessing or a curse. I'm sure we all - actors and directors - have had the chance to meet both kinds.
Without too long a prologue, in this documentary Herbert Von Karajan, non arguably one of the greatest orchestra directors of all times, is rehearsing Schumann's 4th Symphony with the Wiener Symphoniker. It is the day before the recording, which means they have already been rehearsing for weeks, day after day, hours per day. Yet, as they begin, the number and frequency of the interruptions make you think this is the first day of rehearsals.
The precision, the philosophical beauty of his explanations and his eloquent passion can only inspire his musicians to participate in his search for perfection. He is literally spellbinding.
Karajan embodies - and this documentary shows that perfectly - the holy union of knowledge, mastery, skills, professionalism, patience, and leadership, all meeting in one man.
The documentary draws the potrait of a man who's firm and resolute in the quest for perfection; yet, he always maintains the necessary concentration, composure, and respect. He not only has skills, but class and style in the way he directs the orchestra.

If ever I direct one day, Karajan is the model I'll take from. Being the director of myself - as all actors should be - Karajan inspires me. Watching him, I can only acknowledge the fact that skills are not enough: personality, professionalism, and patience are paramount. Watching Karajan, I understand that persistence, constance, and discipline are the way to achieving perfection.


Friday, October 21, 2011

Reflections on Acting - Part III

Caravaggio - The Taking of Christ, or Kiss of Judas (1602)



Let us take something we are probably all familiar with: Othello.
Jealousy, vengeance, rage. How would I feel IF I was told that my wife has been betraying me? Shock, first. Confusion. Disbelief. I would need to find evidence. Then I find it. This is when I would lose balance, even physically. Cardiac dysrhythmia would ensue. Knowing myself, i.e. aware of the way I usually react to a situation of emotional confusion, something would probably happen to my stomach. Doubt, after a while, vanishes and a mere suspicion becomes tragic and painful reality (I cannot help recalling here a quotation by philosopher Jean Guitton, whose words seem to strike a
delicate point through a self-evident truth: "He that loves a person too intensely, sorrounding her with limitless admiration, if he then grows suspicions over her, he will quickly pass from love to hate, from admiration to contempt"). Wrath. Disillusionment, sorrow, jealousy; all of these feelings slip into a new and inevitable phase: a blind, uncontrolled, and uncontrollable crave for vendetta.
Theoretically I have it. I more or less have an idea how I should feel. Now, all I need is to feel.
I just have to dig into myself because, in a form or another, it is there. Ask yourself, "Have you ever been betrayed", not necessarily by your wife? Betrayed by a friend will do, too. Never? Plan B: "Have you ever felt betrayed, have you ever considered yourself betrayed?" It does not matter whether it happened or not (After all, Othello was never betrayed by Desdemona). Have you ever, in the past, felt that way? Either for a serious or less serious reason, we have all felt betrayed at least once in our life. I just have to go back to the moment it happened. I have to rummage into my memory of the events and, most importantly, my emotional memory; as Stanislavski put it, I have to recreate the context that produced that feeling.

Granted, such a process is not devoid of dangers when it involves what has been a rough patch in one's past life. Fortunately, time heals wounds, at least a bit. But that is not enough. The risks are still enormous. A man's psyche is a most fragile apparatus. Reliving certain experiences without the proper psychic preparation might bring about strong and unexpected effects. It is not uncommon for many notable and skilled actors to suffer - or have suffered - from depressive disorders. Neuroses and psychoses are right there, waiting for the perfect impulse causing them to break out uncontrolled and implacable. Depression, obsession, mal d'etre, anxiety, how can one play a tragic character and then claim to have no trace of that emotional experience left in himself?
But I digressed.
The point I was here trying to make is that a character is a fictional entity. One cannot squeeze anything out of it. A human being, instead, is a universe of hypotheses, possibilities which never concretized because they always lacked the right context, the proper human disposition, and the necessary psychic attitude of the person involved. Each possibility represents the potential consequence given by the simultaneous action of many psychic factors.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Reflections on Acting - Part II

At this point, the next question might be: "Where does that emotional flow you need in order to give life to a character come from"?
By now, I think it is clear we are not referring to an emotion coming from the thrill of being performing. We are referring to Othello's jealousy, Hamlet's chagrin, Henry Higgins's chauvinism, Blanche Du Bois's destructive impulses and disordered mind. How can I produce such states without being Othello, Hamlet, Henry Higgins, or Blanche Du Bois? Not being Hamlet means that I have no idea what it feels like to have my father killed by my uncle, who has then married my mother, thus creating a   perverted and almost incestous bondage.
Someone might ask, "Why not simply act?".
Acting, like, pretending I am someone I am not and deceive people who pay a ticket into believing that what I am displaying are true feelings even though they are not? No, I am not going to do it. The world and real life are full of deception already. By no means will I convert to it. "Acting" would mean using a whole series of stereotypical actions and ways to express the human condition which, in fact, have little to do with the latter. It would all result in a sterile and bleak representation of life, or rather an act of mockery agaisnt life itself that does not fall into my purpose and interest.

Back to our question: where does the emotional flow come from? How can I reproduce it in a given moment? This is where Stanislavsky comes into play. I just have to dig into myself, like rummaging into an old trunk that for thousands of years has been passed down from generation to generation and, as it crossed the centuries, has gathered within itself - and has become the container of - all the psychic and emotional states of humankind. I said Stanislavsky, but I meant to say Jung. Let me not talk about Jung here, though*. The importance of Stanislavsky, however, was in proposing a method to bring all this seemingly abstract and conceptual hubbub to the practical context of the performance.

To finally complete the answer, an emotion cannot stem from a fictitional character; I will look in vain when I try to feel the way someone feels if I have never been through the same or similar experiences. What I can do, instead, is ask myself: "How would I feel IF I were put into that specific context**" which, in this case, is a merely fictional one? Here is a good start. A hypothesis always implies a real possibility. It does not matter how absurd the hypothesis might be; there is always a minimal possibility that it might happen, and this is good in terms of our purpose. If we have a bit of sensitivity, it will not be too hard to come to a rational as well as a theoretical answer.

* I will deal with Jung and his theories, Freud, psychoanalysis, psychology, and their role in the art of acting in a few months, upon completing and revising some written material I am working on and some research I have been conducting.

**As Lee Strasberg pointed out in A Dream of Passion, Stanislavski was highly unsatisfied with his theory of the "magic if", as he called it. The theory was incomplete and could be applied successfully to many but not all contexts. Strasberg suggested a completion to the "magic if" theory, which will be dealt with in some future articles.  

Friday, October 7, 2011

Reflections On Acting - Part I

Despite what I do, can I consider myself "an actor"? Should I call what I do "acting"? If acting means creating fiction or something artificial, it is not the way I would really define what I do. Acting is to me a search, a mechanism, a function.
Many actors perform in ways that are not only absolutely irrealistic, but are devoid of sense, meaning, heart. Many actors - even famous ones - are totally unprepared for what they are doing, to the point where I have doubts they actually do anything else besides learning their lines. They are actors in the sense that they are merely telling a lie; they are trying to make someone else believe that they are who they are not. They act.
Performing is instead an extension of the real me, it is transporting myself into a parallel dimension where I am still myself but in a different context and wearing different garments, both literally and metaphorically. It is me, not Hamlet, it is my own body, not Hamlet's, sweating from the heat of the spotlights; it is my own emotionality, not Hamlet's, my own psyche, not Hamlet's, reacting to the emotional feedback received from another performer, or from a given context.
I believe that any preparatory work, either for performing in general or for building a character, should be done primarily on the performer. Relaxation, memory training, vocal training, the development of an emotional memory, improvisation training; this kind of work-out is done by the performer, who then uses it for his own purposes, which are not necessarily strictly related to stage or camera life, but to real life as well. This is why I cannot in the world call myself an actor. There is something more to acting, something that goes beyond a mere representation of an emotional state. That state is instead recreated, lived through in full participation and thorough personal involvement.
At this point, you might be wondering, "What is then the difference between life and fiction"? Here is my answer: the emotional flow I need when I'm performing can be controlled. This is the difference. It is happening inside of myself and I am fully involved in it; yet, at the same time, I am able to remain at an objective level. I am watching myself from outside of myself, from above; through a complex system of wires and threads I move and direct the non-physical dimension of myself, the one relating to my emotions and feelings. Imagine hearing a voice telling you "Live this emotion, breathe it, it is real; feel the pain, feel the tears slowly welling up, the rage twisting your intestines and mounting, mounting, BUT: it is just an experiment, do not forget". As such, I can, I must control it.

I am the puppet and the puppetteer.
I am the mover, the moved, and the motion.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Film Auditions - Interview


Some actors are amazing performers. Yet, either they are the most unself-confident people during auditions, or they simply approach it the wrong way, following a logic that is not so obvious.
Although 80% of the time auditioning means doing a cold reading, interviews are also very common. Interviews are usually camera recorded. The interviewer will ask you to stand on your mark, look directly in the camera, and slate (i.e. say your name and the name of your agent, if you have one); after that, there is not a single rule to know what the casting director is going to ask you. Logic seems to tell us: "You're there because you're an actor, so they'll ask you about acting". Maybe, but most probably it's not what they want to know. Or, maybe, it's not all that they want to know. Most probably they will ask you about yourself, about your life, about your hobbies and interests, about your likes and dislikes; they might ask you to tell an anecdote, or a story about yourself. We cannot predict what the casting director will ask during the interview. Yet, there are some simple rules we can follow to give the best of ourselves in a situation that might seem discouraging at first sight.

1) Whenever you're asked to talk about yourself, don't talk about being an actor. Everybody knows you're an actor, or you wouldn't be there. What the casting director wants is to know you. So, the best thing you can do is talk about yourself and link your personal experiences with your acting career. The casting director, in that moment, is extremely interested in your qualities, and you must be able to showcase them as best and as genuinely as you can. A casting director thinks it is compelling to hear about the person, not just about the actor.

2) Always have something to talk about.
Have at least three talking points that best describe yourself as a person. The casting director needs to understand who you are. To help him through, you need to be able to describe yourself. Choose three things about yourself. You like photography? Talk about that. You love Tango? Talk about that too. Why do you enjoy these activities? What do they give you? What do they mean to you?
Have a number of topics and exercise yourself in becoming fluent when describing yourself through these points.

3) Maintain eye contact with the person you're interacting with. Even if your interview is being recorded, look at the interviewer, not into the camera. After all, acting means interacting with other characters and you never look into the camera (unless specifically required to do so, that is).
Keeping eye contact with the interviewers also helps you better understand their reactions. Do they look bored? Then switch to a different point. Try to understand what they are most interested in.

4) The questions you are asked can be interpreted. There is not a wrong or right answer. The answer you give tells something important about yourself. You don't want to give the casting director "too much", though. Casting directors don't like to be confused just as they don't want choice. If it happens, they might end up saying: "You have so many qualities. I don't know where to put you."
Bottom line: know how to filter. Give the best of yourself without being "too much".

5) Show your passion when describing yourself, your interests, and your goals. Show how committed you are. Reluctance is never a good choice; you need instead to convey self-confidence - not arrogance - when you speak, even when it comes to something you have never done before.

6) Don't talk about things you wouldn't do. You might be unfortunate enough and find out later on - or you'll most probably never find out; you simply won't get the part - that one of the things you said you would never do is actually one of the things you were supposed to do in the movie.

7) If you're asked to tell a story, be smart and know what you can venture into and what you cannot. In other words, be careful: steer away from politics and shun religion! Don't be critical over categories; the casting director or the people beside him/her might belong to that category, and they might take in what you say with a different filter. And, needless to say - mind the praeteritio - if it's not wise to be critical, it's even less to be derogatory against certain categories of people.

A brief summary:
Your qualities are what you get cast on and what you base the rest of your future career as an actor on. The casting director - or whoever it is interviewing you - wants to know about yourself, about your qualities. They want to know the person before they know the actor.
Whatever they ask you, you must have something to say; what you say must reveal something about yourself.
When you are yourself, when you wear your own qualities, then it will be easier for the casting director to give you directions, or to cast you for the role that best suits you.

*Most of these tips come from my audition classes notes in New York.
**A truly enlightening read on the matter is Michael Shurtleff 's Auditions.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Eyes Have It

Take a look at actors such as Marlon Brando or Michael Caine. These are masters in the use of the eyes on camera. Actors like Jim Carrey, Hugh Grant, Mel Gibson, Henry Fonda, Robert De Niro, only to name a few, use their eyes as a powerful technical tool to deliver their characters' emotionality in subtle but powerful ways. Think of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Throughout the movie he is totally unable to maintain eye contact with the other characters. Or maybe it's an actual ability we're talking about? As he speaks, he will look anywhere but at the other character. His eyesight will shift from left to right in a restless way (just as restless as his character is, a restless bum trying to prove he is not a bum); he will look down as he speaks, then up, then blink, then look left; he will look down again and, suddenly and for the first time in the whole take, his eyes fix to the other character's eyes spellbinding the audience. This little trick comes from the assumption that people never look continually into each other's eyes as they talk. This is what some amateurish actors do, and the result (unless this is purposefully planned, of course) becomes a totally unrealistic way of delivering the conversation. Marlon Brando's genial skills did not simply stick to being truthful, but to adding that little thing that charmed millions of people and established him as one of the finest actors of the 20th Century and, definitely, a master in the use of the eyes on camera.
The importance of the eyes is highlighted especially in close-ups. Michael Caine created a very specific eye technique. Michael Caine never blinks (unless specifically required by the character). Blinking makes your character weaker, takes you off the pedestal and people won't listen to you. This is not, of course, a universal rule (no rules are universal); Hugh Grant made of blinking his trademark. You will never see Hugh Grant in a shot where he doesn't blink to exaggeration. Smart move for a number of reasons: he was the first to do it and, as such, everybody noticed it (and I believe that the only way to "make it" is to find an original way to be noticed); secondly, he is able to convey contradictions and idiosyncrasies by means of his blinking. Michael Caine warns actors never to shift eye focus from one eye to the other when shooting a close up. When looking at something, one eye always leads. Change leading eye and the camera will notice it. Another trick he discovered to make close-ups more effective: in close-ups, he will focus on the eye of the off-camera actor that's closer to the camera, using as his own leading eye the one that's furthest from the camera. This little gimmick enables the actor to have as much of his full face as possible in the shot.
Henry Fonda was well known for involving his characters' personas in a melancholic aura. It all starts from his eyes, which in close-ups always reflect a dim, sad gleam obtained with what he used to call "inky-dink", a tiny light the lighting guy was instructed to always keep up before his eyes in close-ups.

One crucial exercise for aspiring actors is to observe the way other actors use their eyes. It is all about acquiring awareness over this powerful tool and learn to use it in the proper way. But most important, observe people in real life situations. Observe them on the subway; observe the way a man's eyes shift from the newspaper to a beautiful woman sitting or standing right beside him. Observe the stealthy way he tries to look at her trying not to be noticed. Observe how, after a quick glance, probably at her attributes, he subtly looks around himself to see if someone noticed him looking at her, before he goes back to his newspaper. Look at how people look at themselves as they talk to each other at a restaurant. Look at how people stare in the void on the bus and how they get up ready to get off still staring in the void, until they are really forced to focus on the direction they are headed to.
As an aspiring actor myself, this is all I can do. Observe, remember, try it myself at home, and bring it to application when I'm shooting.
If actors use their eyes in the proper way, they don't need to pull faces. Pulling faces is a cheap way to let someone else know that we are feeling something. Pulling faces lacks spontaneity and it amounts to wasted energy, when everything can be obtained with simple and proper eye work. But like I said, no rule is universal: Jim Carrey is the king of pulling faces. He made it into a technique, a trademark of his own acting system, of his own persona, his brand. And, honestly, is Jim Carrey's pulling faces out of place in his movies? Arguably enough, not at all!!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Truthfulness

Acting is an art that is constructed upon different details. One by one they are studied, developed, and made up. Sometimes they are the result of pure improvisation. These are usually the best ones because they spring directly from our unconscious. Then, they have to be put together, like shrunk. They are no more isolated, they must not be repeated mechanically. They must be applied to the acting, to the character. They must have originated from a feeling, and that feeling from an identification of the actor with the character. Before all this can take place, before details are applied or even thought out, they must be observed somewhere. Nature, daily life, the human psyche, these are the greatest sources an actor should take from. Observing the human nature, the human behaviours, even the simplest and less significant ones, can render our acting true. It is in fact in the simplest and less significant details that it is possible to distinguish the good actor from the approximative one. The good actor will take care of the minutest details regarding the personality of his or her character.
More generally, independently of the role and its characteristics, a character has to speak. A character has lines, and these lines make up dialogues, monologues, soliloqui. Acting includes moving as well as staying still, staying silent as well as speaking. One of the general patterns I usually notice, especially in non-talented actors, is the trend to stop moving and to interrupt an action they have been carrying on for a while when it is their turn to speak.
Let us suppose a scene requires an actress to cook. It is all happening in the kitchen; wife and husband are normally talking to each other. Often, so often the actor will break the action, he will suddenly interrupt it when the character has to speak his lines. So, the wife, who is cooking some yummy besciamelle, will stop stirring when it is her turn to speak. She will tilt up her head, look her husband in the eyes and talk with him. She will be emotional, sure, maybe she will cry, or maybe laugh, her emotions will even be genuine, maybe. But not true! This is not what happens in real life. How many times we replied to our wife, or mom, only to be told "Can you stop doing what you're doing for a second and answer properly?". Actions and words must be performed at the same time. Isolating what we are saying in such abrupt a way makes no sense. If we decide to break the action and retake it only when the line is over, there must be a reason, and a convincing one too. If there is not a reason, our portrayal of the action taking place in that kitchen will not be true. Breaking the action to add emphasis to the words seems to happen ever so often on the stage: the action is broken and the movement frozen because the character has to speak. What he/she has to say is too important to be ruined with action.
Different reasons can lead an actor to do this. Even involuntarily. One of them is that it is very difficult to perform two planned things at the same time. Moving our body, or a part of it (the hand and the arm to stir the besciamelle) following precise patterns of movement, while at the same time speaking out lines we have memorized requires an intense concentration and great coordinative abilities. Many actors are unable to achieve this because they believe that a line is much more important than a movement. So, they feel entitled to substitute the one with the other without apparent or convincing reasons. This can be done with classic dramatic characters like Hamlet, or Othello. Their words, their thoughts are sometimes of such an abstract nature - or, they are just so beautiful - that it would be just a shame not to isolate them. But it would not be possible to do the same with characters such as Stella DuBois, or Linda Loman. Do you fancy Algernon Moncrieff in Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest speaking without chewing and tasting with delight those cucumber sandwiches?
It is instead necessary to understand that performing certain small, minutely precise actions that belong to the character's daily life can be indeed a way to emphasize a word or a line. But in order to look true, blending actions and words must happen effortlessly. This can only be achieved through hours and hours of memorization (this is why memorizing one's own lines is the first, first thing to do before anything else. Memorizing the lines is the first nuisance we must get rid of). Once this is done, a good way to gain spontaneity and to learn to blend actions and words is by saying the lines (aloud) while actually doing some pieces of housework. Only once the lines flow out in the middle of the action without the need to think or to concentrate, only then can we say: "I'm ready to start taking care of the details, of the emotions, and of everything else".
Certainly, the action can be broken to isolate a line in certain cases. In the craft of acting, rules do not exist. Performers do take possession of certain conventions ruling daily life. As cinema and theatre portray aspects of daily life, then those conventions can also be applied there. Nonetheless, it is also necessary to consider that certain situations are not very conventional, and so are not certain characters, certain behaviours, and certain human reactions. So, the wife will be stirring patiently the besciamelle; in the middle of it all, her husband comes in the kitchen and says, out of the blue, "I don't love you". In this case, it would be pretty unconventional for the wife to ask, "Then why did we make love last night?" with a whining voice, and at the same time keep stirring the besciamelle without a wink. This would be the typical case where words would cut an action off for a valid reason. This is in fact a case where the performer should find a good and convincing reason to actually keep stirring the besciamelle! This is the case where who cares about the besciamelle! Who cares if it gets burned and the fire alarm goes off.
Anything and everything is possible. Unfortunately, though, without a most true and convincing reason the besciamelle, which needs to be continually stirred until it is ready, would brown and burn to no avail. And that would really be a shame.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Overacting

If we look at experienced actors, we'll see how one of the secrets of camera acting is to low-key everything. If you don't, you'll most probably overact. Mind, physically low-keyed does not mean emotionally low-keyed.
Acting in a number of shorts movies, I often came to realize during filmed rehearsals how I often tended to give a single emotion (a moment of surprise, fear, or happiness) its own body or face movement. Result: I was overacting all of the time! When I say overacting, I mean either doing something unnecessary, or being "too much". So I learned to reduce, reduce, reduce, get rid of what is superfluous (sure, I decide what's necessary once I have more or less completed the work on my character), cut and make it lean, rather than fat and bombastic.
Overacting on long shots may still be acceptable, as it might still pass unnoticed. Close-ups, on the other hand, won't be that pitiful. In a close-up, the faintest movement will appear wider than it actually is; the slightest rocking of your head, which will not be seen in a long shot, will get your face partly out of frame for a fraction of a second in a close-up. Here is where I always try to clean myself of anything that might create disturbance. It happened at times I was into a scene with lines and one take was filmed in a long shot. Right after, for the following take, the setting, lighting and everything was changed to make it a close-up of me saying my lines. That's where I stop doing what I was doing in the long shot, if I realize that what I was doing might be disturbing here, or calling the attention off what I consider important in that close-up. Close-up also means: be mindful of your voice, volume and all. I learned to work in close co-operation with the sound guy (the one working with the boom).
Michael Caine has been a major source of understanding and inspiration in my gradual grasping the mechanisms of camera acting.