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!

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.