Writers must understand actors, and actors must understand writers. The two professions go hand-in-hand; and the more one knows about the other, the better.
As both a writer and an actor, I’ve established a list of “rules” to which an actor must adhere when performing, which I call, THE THESPIAN TEN COMMANDENTS, which I instructed my students to follow when I was teaching acting back in New York.
For sake of clarity and space, let’s narrow it down to ten, the first five of which we will explore in this post (and the second five in the next post).
So, here we go…
I. APPLY TO YOUR CRAFT WHAT YOU KNOW FROM REAL LIFE – AND CONSERVE/RESERVE YOUR ENERGY FOR PERFORMANCE IMPLEMENTATION:
We’ve all experienced good and bad times in our lives. Some, more bad. Some, more good. Yet, what better opportunity for the actor then to take these horrific and golden experiences, and apply them to our interpretation and/or performance of the character we have been chosen to play, or for the scene we choose to employ as an optimum audition piece.
Let’s say you’ve won the role of Blanche Dubois in a Broadway revival of A Street Car Named Desire. Blanche has several mental issues, and she is a very sad character. If you’ve suffered a major romantic breakup, either from the recent or distant past, this is the time to recall the strong emotional turmoil you experienced (especially if you were the one who did NOT initiate the break-up).
Conversely, if you’re an incredibly happy person (which we all ultimately should be), who has been fortunate enough to live a privileged life (free from the kings and queens of pain and misery), then you’ll be forced to contact one of your sad friends if you could dip into their treasury trove of trauma and remembrance, and ask them to share their saddest hours.
Which brings up to the second part of the first thespian Commandment: Conserve and reserve your energy for performance implementation. Essentially, we must not let the trauma (that today’s stress-ridden life almost encourages) to poison our systems to the point that we find ourselves taking drugs to relieve ourselves of the medicine that we initially were prescribed to coat the inaugural depression (from failed relationships, death of family members or friends, or financial challenges).
Save that screaming, kicking, hating, pouting, sobbing, anger, etc. for the stage, big screen and TV – and make it work for you there. Don’t let it destroy you off- camera. Just don’t tax yourself with reliving the negative emotions in real life, but rather channel them for your reel life, on the small or big screen. If you’re lucky (though I really don’t believe in luck, I believe in love), you’ll be cast as a manically loud character for a stage play, and be able to shout out those emotions loud and clear on stage for an-honest-to-goodness live theatrical performance every night for months on end (if the play’s a good run).
As to the happy emotions and life experiences? Shoot. You can never overuse those. In fact, they’re life-inducing. The joys and triumphs of everyday living may be applied to the present from any previous past turmoil, on stage – or off.
II. BE IT – DON’T ACT IT:
One of the surest signs of theatrical immaturity rears its ugly head when an actor makes it so painfully obvious that he is acting instead of being. I could point out about ten very successful actors who have done this (and continue to do so), but I won’t.
Instead, I’ll just explain to you what not to do.
For example, if your character is directed to cry (either by the script or the director), don’t show that you’re crying or that you’re sad. Just cry and be sad. Don’t raise your hand to your forehead as if you were acting in a silent movie. Don’t display emotions, feel emotions – and whatever you do, don’t be conscious of the camera or the audience.
The worst thing you could do when, say you are cast as the lead character in a stage comedy, is to react – and interact – with pride every time the audience laughs at one of yours or the character’s humorous antics.
Or, let’s say you are Rance Dedlow, the coolest new actor in town – and you’re cast in Hotties and Studs, the hottest new daytime soap. After a few days of rehearsal, the director calls you over for a few notes and says, “Rance – you’re too conscious of the camera.”
You’re like, “Uh?”
“I don’t see you playing your character Rance. I see you playing Rance Dedlow playing your character. We have to get Rance out of the way, and just show the character that you’re playing.”
That’s right, Rance – you’re mugging for the camera. You know the camera’s on you, and you’re fixing your hair ever so slightly, and using those jaw-bone moves in your cheeks (upper), because you know they look sexy (especially after you’ve just had your wisdom teeth removed). “Rance,” the director continues. “Your character is too happy a human being to employ his cheek bone muscles that way. You should laugh and smile as wide as you can. And if your dimples show, well, then that’s okay. But keep those cheek bone muscles in check.”
This type of immature performing just doesn’t happen on TV. I should know.
For a college production of Stagedoor, in which I played Keith Burgess – a very arrogant, self-absorbed character, my acting professor once chided me after one performance. I was looking too much into a teensy-weensy mirror that happened to be positioned on the stage – one at which he never directed me to gaze.
I was already aggravating him because I continued to debut as Keith under a different guise every night. “Herbie J,” he would tell me. “What are you doing? Last night you were Herbie J playing Marlon Brando playing Keith Burgess, and tonight you’re Herbie J playing Laurence Olivier playing Keith Burgess. Be consistent. And stop looking into that damned mirror.”
As arrogant as Keith Burgess was in this production, he no way near would have checked his hair as much as I did during those performances. I’m surprised my director didn’t check me out of the production, and inset an understudy.
III. SKIM MILK THAT PAUSE:
Pausing between lines is a very risky business. You have to know just when to do it, and when not to do it. Let’s reference Goldielocks and the three Bears shall we?
You know the scene about the porridge? One is cold, the other is hot, and the final one is just right. That’s how your pausing between lines should be: Just right. Not too long, and not too short. But just right.
Here’s the deal: In the 9th Season of Friends, Jennifer Aniston – in a temporary fit of insanity, decides not to continue her $1 million dollar an episode contract – just as her character, Rachel Greene, is about to tell her beloved Ross Gellar (David Schwimmer) that she’s pregnant. So you’re called in to replace her as the second Rachel (just like Dick Sargent replaced Dick York as the second Darrin on Bewitched. Well, kinda. Anyway, you’re now playing Rachel, and she has to tell Ross that she’s expecting their child. And the line is, “Ross, I’m pregnant.” Are you going to whip that out, speed-queenie, without any pause? Maybe, because – due to the pace of this particular show, that just may be the right thing to do. Or, will you take it a little slower, with some pause, say, in between “Ross” and “I’m pregnant?” Or will you place the pause between “Ross, I’m” and “pregnant”?
In this particular instance, each one of these choices may work. But the point is to measure very carefully that choice. Especially if your character is offering a major revelation in the way of storyline or character.
IV. REMAIN LIKABLE:
This is one of the most important of The Thespian Ten Commandments, and one of the least understood aspects of acting.
I don’t care how unlikable the character is that you’re playing, as long as your performance is likable, you will succeed in bringing your character to life, and ultimate acceptance by the audience.
The best example of an optimum likable performance by an actor playing an unlikable character is Larry Hagman’s iconic performance as JR Ewing on TV’s classic night-time soap, Dallas. JR cheated on his wife (Sue Ellen played to the hilt by Linda Gray) and swindled his dear brother Bobby (the affable Patrick Duffy), and went on to hurt and/or manipulate everyone who he ever loved or hated. Clearly, he was evil and highly unlikable character. But Hagman’s performance as JR is unstoppable. In rerun heaven forever, the viewers continue to enjoy disliking JR while equally embracing Hagman’s astounding interpretation. (While watching him play JR on Dallas, you don’t even think of him as Major Tony Nelson on I Dream of Jeannie.)
Quite simply, you love to hate JR Ewing, because you love Larry Hagman in the role.
Unfortunately, the gang at Seinfeld did not follow the same path. And listen, no one is a bigger Seinfeld fan than me. I watched it from the minute it hit the air as only a pilot in the Summer of 1989 (when it was called The Seinfeld Chronicles).
Originally, the characters of Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer were unlikable – and the performances by Jerry Seinfeld, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Michael Richards started out to be likable. Early on, all was well in the unlikable character/likable performance world of The Thespian Ten Commandments. That is, until around the 6th season, when something strange started happening to show.
The actor’s starting breaking many of the Commandments. Soon, they became overly conscious of the camera. The show itself was no longer a Woody-Allen-esque sophisticated half-hour film every week. It became loud, obnoxious, literally unbelievable, unwatchable and, at times – and unfortunately – unfunny. Clearly, the worst thing that could happen to a comedy.
The main reason? Well, besides the fact that the actors began to break Commandment Number 2, Be it Don’t Act, by becoming way too conscious of the camera, their performances became way more unlikable than the unlikable characters they were playing. As the show went on, everyone was always yelling all the time, screaming at the top of their lungs – a stint that was initiated by George’s parents, played by Jerry Stiller and Estelle Harris. It worked okay for them, as recurring characters. But to then have the entire cast always yelling, every week, all the time? Uh – no.
V. SPEAK CLEARLY WITHOUT A BIG SCHICKT:
Because this Commandment has to do with pacing and being heard, it’s kind of a tributary conversation to Commandment Number 3, Skim Milk That Pause.
Basically, what we’re talking about here is: taking your time: Nothing less, and nothing more. And I do mean nothing is more annoying than watching a film or TV show – and gosh forbid – a stageplay, and not being able to hear or understand what the heck the actors are saying.
For example, this happened an awful lot on a show like Sabrina, the Teenage-Witch. Listen – Melissa Joan Hart was adorable in the role. But she ran around that series, slurring her words, talking a mile a minute, and as much as I tried, I couldn’t understand one dang thing the chick was saying.
So, as that great Disco Song of the early ’80s commands so well, “Baby, you can do it, take your time, do it right. You can do it, Baby. Do it tonight!”
Well, you get the idea.