Welcome to my Blog!

Welcome to my Blog!
I created it so that I could share acting tips with you; things I've learned over the years, working on set, teaching classes, coaching actors, auditioning actors, etc.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Transitions & Moments of Realization

Here's a problem I've noticed and - if you can fix it - it will make a HUGE difference in your acting (and in booking jobs!).  It's a very common problem and actors that understand and deal with it, are the working actors you see all the time on TV and in movies.  If you read my last post, you know what "Invisibles" are.  Well, there are two more invisibles (things that happen in the text but are not necessarily WRITTEN in the text) that I didn't mention last time.

They are "Transitions" & "Moments of Realization".  And because they are rarely written into the script, they are completely missed by many, if not most, actors.  I am not exaggerating when I say that these are where the opportunities for great acting happen.

Let's take a look at the following portion of a scene from (an early draft of) the movie "Kate & Leopold" by Steven Rogers.  First, read the scene.  "Leo" is from the late 1800's and he's been transported into the present.  He's giving Charles advice about women:

LEO: Everything plays a farce to you, women respond to sincerity, This requires pulling ones tongue from ones cheek. No one wants to be romanced by a buffoon! Now this number rings her.
 LEO: So, ring her tomorrow.
 CHARLES  I can't, she gave the number to YOU.
 LEO: Only because I told her of your affections.
 CHARLES:  Wh, wh, what did you say???!!!!
 LEO:  Merely that you admired her but were hesitant to make an overture since you'd been told she was courting another.
 CHARLES:  Shit!! That’s good!!! Wh, Wh, what did she say?
 LEO:  She gave me the napkin.   (Charles goes to call her on his cell)  Charles, its quite late.
 CHARLES:  She won't be home yet, see, I get her machine, I leave her a message, balls in her court.
 LEO:  You're laddeling calculations upon comedy.  The point is to keep the ball in your court!
 CHARLES:  Your right, your right...OK
 LEO: Nothing need be done until tomorrow.
 CHARLES: Tomorrow!!! Then I make my move!
 LEO:  An overture, Charles, make your intentions known. Think of pleasing her, not vexing her.
 CHARLES: No vexing!
 LEO: Your intoxicated, we should retire, I'm sure Kate will be home.
 CHARLES: I doubt it
: It's nearly midnight.
CHARLES: You like her don't you ??
 LEO: Who?
 CHARLES:  Kate. You do (surprised, teasing)
 LEO:  Stop, oh stop
:  You like my sister. You made your intentions known, right?
 LEO: You've been drinking

Now here's what I mean by "invisibles"  Read my version of the end of this scene, below:

LEO: You're intoxicated, we should retire, I'm sure Kate will be home.
 CHARLES: I doubt it
: It's nearly midnight.
CHARLES: You like her don't you ??
 LEO: Who?
 CHARLES:  Kate. [TRANSITION] You do (surprised, teasing)
 LEO:  Stop, oh stop
CHARLES:  You like my sister. You made your intentions known, right?

LEO: You've been drinking

Notice that I added the bold red text, NOT the screenwriter.  In fact, writers rarely write these kinds of "acting moments" and, believe it or not, actors rarely act them!  Be it in class, at auditions, or on set, actors tend to skip over these moments or, if they do see them, they give a cursory pause and that's it.

Take the first one, I marked: [MOMENT OF REALIZATION] 
This "invisible" is an opportunity for a fantastic "moment" of acting.  Imagine for example, a long pause, during which the actor playing Charles slowly realizes that Leo likes Charles' sister, Kate.  A (very) slow smile starts to creep across Charles' face.  The slower the better.  What a great moment this could be!  And yet, most actors will skip right over it, completely missing a moment that could completely set them apart from anyone else trying to play this role.  An actor's dream!

Now take a look at the second one, I marked: [TRANSITION]

Again, this wouldn't normally be seen in the text but it is at this point that the scene begins a major shift in perspective and balance.  Up to this point Leo was the "driver" of the scene.  He has all the power and is leading Charles by the nose.  But, from this point on Charles takes over and begins to lead Leo.  Now Charles has the power.  It's a pivotal point in the scene and again, the vast majority of actors pay it no mind!  A good director will stage this scene so that the shift in power is palpable but not obvious.  For example since, generally speaking, people sitting still can denote power while people moving about them can denote weakness, a director might have Charles moving about during the moments before [TRANSITION] while Leo sits still.  As the transition occurs he might have Charles sit down and Leo rise and begin to pace.  It helps for an actor to understand these things.

Remember, the writer (often) won't put these invisibles in the script.  It's up to you to find them!  But they are the actor's treasures in the text.  They give you the opportunities to ACT!

As always, as I share these tips with you free of charge, please SHARE/RT widely, if you think them good tips.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The huge opportunity most actors miss

Coaching actors on TV shows and teaching 3 or more acting classes every week, allows me to see certain commonalities that others may miss.  One of these commonalities is that the vast majority of actors pay way too much attention to the words and not nearly enough to what I call "the invisibles".

These invisibles are, in reality, where the REAL acting can happen.  But, as I said, most actors rush through these moments and many miss them entirely.  Even though these are the moments that not only win actors roles in auditions but also win them great reviews and yes, Oscars, Tonys, and Emmys…

So, exactly what are these "invisibles" that can win actors great roles and even greater acclaim?  They are the "Beat", and "Moment" and "Pause", and "" (ellipses) that are marked in the text but are not DEFINED in the text.

Am I exaggerating?  Can these things really make that much of a difference?  HELL YES!  In fact, these things make ALL the difference.  Consider the following text from a generic medical TV series:


  • "Her airway was compromised, she was actively hemorrhaging, and she had third degree burns on her chest.  I did what I needed to do to save that girl’s life.  (a beat)  No offense, Doctor, but we don’t always have the luxury to go by-the‐book in ER".

Now I've got to tell you, most actors (not you of course), would read these lines at an audition and  would take a brief pause where it says "(a beat)".  Many wouldn't even slow down.  Out of 50 to 70 actors auditioning for this role, perhaps one to three would actually fill that beat.  Seriously, one to three! Sure makes it easy to decide who to call back…

So exactly how do you go about "filling a beat"?  SPECIFICALLY, how would YOU deal with it when you see (beat) or (pause) or (a moment) in the text of your audition scene?  What steps would you take?  My guess is that you'd either pause for a second or just skip over it, right?  Come on, I'm right aren't I?  

If you answered "yes"then Kudos for being truthful and you're going to LOVE this tip!  EVERY time you see (beat) or (pause) or (a moment) in the text, say something SPECIFIC without speaking.  Now actually write in what you would say, in words, where it says (beat) or (pause) or (a moment) in the text.  So, in the dialogue above, where it says "(a beat)" you might write in something like "Please don't fire me" or "I am NOT going to hit you" or "you dumbass!".  Then, you simply say one of those exact phrases in your head when you reach the part of the dialogue that says "(a beat)".  You must use the exact words that you wrote, but don't speak them out loud.  Only in your head.  It's that simple.

In fact, try it!  Right now, with the dialogue above.  Choose one of the examples I just gave you and read the lines.  As you get to where it says "(a beat)", say the phrase to yourself. Even better, try all of the examples I just gave you, one at a time and then make up some of your own.  Note how the (beat) changes according to which silent phrase you use!  You're taking what most actors throw away and making it potentially become a stand-out moment in the scene.

Now, every time you see, (beat) or (pause) or (a moment), in the text, you can make a real moment out of it!

As always, since I post these tips for free, IF you enjoyed this post, please SHARE and/or Retweet!

Friday, June 27, 2014

The Forgotten Acting Technique

I discovered this new acting technique that is gaining popularity among A-list actors.  It's called the "Psychological Gesture"!

Ok, it isn't actually new.  In fact, it's just about a century old!  And I actually "discovered" it back in the '80s.  Although I quickly dismissed it at the time, because I felt it caused an actor to "Indicate" and it seemed outdated to me.  I didn't think it worked well for acting-on-camera.  But Michael Chekhov's "Psychological Gesture" (or PG) is a basic part of his acting technique and it really is making a comeback - even for me!
Michael Chekhov in 1929

First, a clarification.  Michael Chekhov (not to be confused with his uncle, famed writer Anton Chekhov) was considered by most (including Stanislavski himself) to be Stanislavski's greatest student.  He created an acting technique based around the premise that physical movement/gesture/poses can actually cause you to feel emotion.  Interestingly enough, this has only recently been proven to be true by scientific means, that were not available in Mr. Chekhov's day.  

In fact, there's an excellent Ted Talks lecture by Amy Cuddy, that deals with the newly found scientific evidence that essentially backs the thinking that Chekhov's theories are based on.  Through measuring people's Testosterone and Cortisol levels in the brain, it's now been proven that physical poses can actually make us feel different emotions!  This can affect your acting but it can also affect how you go in to an audition or job interview!  When you finish reading this post you MUST click the link above and watch the Ted Talks video!  It's 20 minutes that can change your life!

Now to be clear, the Ted Talks lecture is NOT about Chekhov or his Psychological Gesture.  In fact, they're not even mentioned.  But it does provide some compelling evidence for the thinking behind Chekhov's claims.  Namely that body movement/poses can cause us to feel different emotions.  If you have any doubts that this is true, try this…

Thrust both your arms so that they are fully extended above your head and make your hands into fists and hold them there a moment.  Now take note of how it makes you feel.  Do you feel happy?  Even just a little?  Victorious?  Did you want to smile?  What Amy Cuddy proves in her lecture is that, in as little as two minutes of holding that pose, your body increases it's testosterone level by about 20% (which give you a felling of power) AND lowers your cortisol level by about 15% (which lowers your stress level).  What a cool thing to do just before you go in to audition or any stressful situation!

Soooo, moving on to Chekhov's technique, you may be wondering; What exactly IS this "Psychological Gesture" and practically speaking, how does one use it in their acting?

Lisa Dalton, President of the National Michael Chekhov Association, sums it up nicely:
"If we define gesture to mean a movement that has intention, we could say that the Psychological Gesture (PG) is a movement that expresses the psychology of the character. Chekhov defines the psychology to consist of the thoughts, feelings and will of a human being. Hence, the PG is a physical expression of the thoughts, feelings and desires of the character, incorporated into one movement…"
"...So, in one movement, the PG awakens the essence of the character in you thus aligning your thoughts, feelings and will (objective) with that of the character. When this happens, your walk, your expressive mannerisms, your voice and line delivery are all inspired by one moving image. You perform the gesture prior to your scene to trigger your artistic nature. While in the scene, if your inspiration weakens, you simply envision the gesture in your imagination as you are acting and it will revitalize you."

Simply put, the PG is one definite movement that awakens in you, the essence of the character.  Once perfected, it can be done internally (in your imagination) instead of physically, to make you feel like you are your character.  In my classes, I advocate using PG in what I call "the moment before", that is, in the moments before the director says "Action".  It makes you feel as though you are the character instead of yourself.  It's like a shoe-horn to help you slip into your character.

The PG doesn't replace the way I teach creating "the moment before" in my technique, rather it 's an additional step that can be taken BEFORE creating a moment before.

Chekhov's own students included Marilyn MonroeAnthony QuinnClint Eastwood, Yul Brynner, Jack PalanceElia KazanPaula Strasberg, and Lloyd Bridges.  Moreover, noted actors such as Johnny Depp and Anthony Hopkins and Jack Nicholson have cited Chekhov's book as highly influential on their acting. Beatrice Straight also thanked Chekhov in her acceptance speech after winning her Oscar for her performance in Network (1976).

As always I share this information with you for free so if you got something out of it, please SHARE, RETWEET, or whatever it is you do.  Also, comments are welcome.  

And if you want to keep seeing new posts as they come out then "Like" our page on Facebook!
Thank you!  

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Actor Training

Because I get hired to coach actors, by studios, production companies, directors, and celebrities, I have to (get to) work with actors from very different backgrounds. Sanford Meisner trained some; LeeStrasberg trained others. Some are followers of Stella Adler and some are UtaHagen devotees. What I’ve found though, is that although the approaches vary greatly, all are capable of giving honest, inspired performances. They are all TRAINED.
Uta Hagen

Lee Strasberg
There are various schools of thought on what constitutes good training. In my opinion (and probably due in part to my background), which style or discipline you ultimately choose is not important - as long as you find what works for you. Different actors respond to different methods of teaching. Some actors need to work more on their imaginations in order to recall strong emotions on demand (important when shooting close-ups or auditioning). When teaching, I might give them sense-memory exercises eventually leading into an Affective Memory or Object exercise—clearly Strasberg’s “Method”. 
But another actor might need help on connecting with other actors (which keeps your acting real and anchored in the imaginary circumstances). For him I might be inclined to use some repetition exercises perhaps leading into the “Three-Moments Game”, which some will recognize as Sanford Meisner’s technique. Different strokes for different folks . . . Remember, if something doesn’t work for you, you may need to give it more time or, you may want to find a different approach; one that fits you better. One thing I have found though, is that first impressions may be misleading.  I've seen actors hate the exercises in a given technique only to find that the reason they hate it is because they really need to work on the specific skills that the exercises are focused on.  Sometimes the technique you hate is the technique you need to work on…
Konstantin Stanislavski
Funny thing is, for all the differences in their approaches—and the differences are considerable—virtually all the major methodologies of modern acting are based on one man’s teachings: Konstantin Stanislavski. That’s right, for all their differences in approach, Strasberg, Meisner,  Adler, Hagen, Harold Clurman, Michael Chekhov, Elia Kazan—all taught variations of the same man’s teachings. The more you read about them and their techniques, the more complete your “toolkit” will be.  So without pushing you toward any specific school of acting, I would like to at least get you going in a productive direction.

Sanford Meisner
Harold Clurman
Stella Adler
Michael Chekhov

Elia Kazan
No matter what technique(s) you use, I believe all would agree that there are two key areas of focus that are very important to every actor:

Research is learning everything you can about the character. An actor needs to know their character’s background, influences, religion, economic, physical pathology, yes their dialogue, and much, much more. Once you’ve learned all about your character, you learn about everyone your character speaks to and speaks about. To that same extent.
The same goes for all the places your character has been to, and refers to. Think about it, when you talk to your friends, you already know all this information – and more! You need the same safety net of knowledge in order to give an honest performance and feel confident enough to cut loose and "swing with abandon".  I use a checklist called "Treasure Hunt" to help actors ask the necessary, pertinent questions (once they ask them, the actor usually has no problem answering, or making  up answers, on their own!)

Research however, is just the first part. When you have all the research in place, then (and only then) are you ready to begin to live the life of your character. Research is the brainwork, but imagination is where the real creativity comes in. This is where a class can really help you develop and grow as an actor. Where you can work on your craft and develop skills that will serve you your entire life. Where instead of just reading about believing in the given circumstances, you can look in the other actor’s eyes, listen to their words and actually believe they are leaving you for someone else. The tears come because your imagination convinced your tear ducts that the circumstances were real. Through intense imagination work like emotional preparation exercises, improvisations, and other exercises designed to trigger real emotions in the actor, you learn to control the triggers that allow you to simply feel honest, real emotions, on demand - take after take. NOT to show or “indicate” emotions, but simply to feel them. And in film, that’s all they want. As soon as you try to show the feelings, it's "too big for the camera".
The research work is time consuming but not terribly difficult. Imagination work, on the other hand, can happen lightning fast but is often the hardest, most draining (although also the most rewarding) work an actor does.

So, Why class…?

If you are already a trained, working actor, do you still need to be in class?  For an answer, I point to an actor you may not know by name but I'm pretty sure you'll recognize his face.  William Schallert, former president of the Screen Actors Guild, has worked on an incredible 366 movies and TV shows, according to his IMDB page, dating back to 1947.  He is 92 years young and as recently as three years ago (the last time I checked), he was playing a recurring character on, not one, but TWO TV series' and one mini-series, taking class twice a week and still putting up scenes in class regularly!

Class is how you create and maintain a consummate professional actor.  

But, for the actor living and working outside Hollywood, constant work in class is also the great equalizer between himself and the actors in Hollywood.  When an actor living outside of L.A. auditions for a TV show or movie shooting in their area, they are competing with actors in L.A. who are auditioning, working, and doing scenes in class, daily. How often do YOU audition? If you aren’t working in class, you won’t be ready when they are casting the role that you would be perfect for. 
To paraphrase an excellent description of what class is, (once given by the Meisner based Neighborhood Playhouse in NYC):

 Actors are in class to experiment—to grow.
We create an atmosphere of trust, in the classroom--a place where trial and error is not only acceptable but we believe that, if you aren't making mistakes you simply aren't trying hard enough. You see, when you're performing for a camera or an audience, it's got to work
You make choices that are going to allow you, as an actor, to deliver the goods when the director says "Action". However, if you do nothing but perform, then you are stuck with what you already know works. You can't take a chance and push your limits in the workplace, because you're not sure you'll be able to deliver the goods when the cameras are rolling.
This is where class comes in. Class gives you something you never get in performance - the opportunity to fail. To go out on a tightrope saying, "I don't know if this is going to work, but I'd like to try it". Perhaps it's a disaster, but no worries. There's no audience in the classroom - just a sympathetic teacher and fellow students who are falling off tightropes as often as you are. You get the opportunity to expand your comfort zone, and thereby expand your artistry.

I teach ongoing classes in Portland, OR. and in Honolulu, HI.  and I do Skype coaching for auditions.
For more info, click on the links above, or visit my website.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Buck and Believing...

Warning: This is a very different kind of a blog post for me. It's not my usual "Actor Tip" post.  But that's okay, it contains a profound acting truth and it's a very special post to me.  Curious what you think. Feel free to comment and, if you enjoy it, please share it

Buck's acting head shot
George "Buck" Ashford came to train with me in about 2002. My guess is that he was around 65 years old – but that’s just a guess. He had no acting experience and he never had an acting class in his life. He was a very successful attorney with his own firm, in Honolulu. I couldn't help smiling at him. Perhaps it was because he was smiling at me or perhaps it was because he looked kind of like an impish little leprechaun with a flash of mischief behind his eyes.  He said he wanted to act in a movie.
I asked him why he was starting this acting business so late in life. He said “you want the truth?” I said “always”. So he told me that he had a form of lung cancer and his doctor had given him "no more than four or five years" to live.
He looked perfectly healthy and in fact seemed to have a real joy of life. I think if my doctor had given me that kind of news I would have wasted three years feeling sorry for myself. 
But that’s not Buck.
I asked how he had come to call on me. He said when his doctor gave him the news the first thing he did was to sit down and make a list of all the things he had always wanted to do, but hadn’t. Then he started doing them. One of them was to act in a film. That’s why he tracked me down. Incidentally, this was several years before the movie “The Bucket List”.
In the nearly eight years that Buck was my student I never once heard him mention his 'death sentence' to anyone. Nor did I ever hear any complaints from him. 

He’s now done two or three plays and a short film or two. 
L. to R.  Blade Rogers, Buck Ashford, Shane Thomas, Tabitha Jade in "The Lt. of Inishmore"
He argued with me in class constantly– but never about HIS work, always about others and always saying that I was being too negative and that he really liked their work. His hearing sucked and he would bleed very easily but when we did physical exercises he was often the first to volunteer and always one of the most committed and physical participants. He told long, sloooow stories that – if you’re patient enough – always payed off with a great big laugh. He threw a hell of a wrap party and although I learn from my students on a daily basis, he taught me more about life than any student I’ve ever had.
So, what’s the point? Why am I sharing all this? What does this have to do with acting? 
Admittedly, not much. 
But I honestly believe that if Buck had gone into acting instead of law he would have made it. Big. I honed his skills and taught him the craft of acting but he already possessed that rare child-like ability of being able to immerse himself in a role; To believe, to some extent, in the imaginary circumstances. Or as Sanford Meisner summed up the art of acting, "To live truthfully under the given imaginary circumstances."  He also, at let’s say 65+ years old, never gave a damn what people thought about him (a great trait for an actor) and he could learn lines better than my twenty or thirty year old students. 
It's been my experience that most actors attach less importance to using their imagination than they should and instead, pay more attention to memorizing lines (than they should).  To illustrate the value of imagination in your work, I'll share part of a critique of Buck's work in one of his early classes with me.
One word of caution. Buck sometimes used rather “colorful" language so if you are easily offended by what I have to call his 'Straight Talk', stop reading. I just wouldn’t feel right changing his words.
BUCK - Monologue

SCOTT: Good job. I only have one note but I think it will affect a number of things. First, what was your objective - and I want you to say it in 5 words or less.
BUCK: (Thinks for a minute) They’re assholes. I’m not.
SCOTT: Okaaaay…, that may be true, but that’s just 2 facts, not an objective. I want to know what you want. And preferably what you want from the person you’re talking to.
BUCK: I want to be treated with respect if our children get married. I’m not such a burn out after all.
SCOTT: OK, So three words – “I want respect”.
SCOTT: Ok, so what’s the obstacle to that? What's getting in the way?
BUCK: They’re assholes.
SCOTT: Okay, and how did it make you feel when they disrespected you?
BUCK: Like shit.
SCOTT: I’m looking for an emotion…

SCOTT: Good. Exactly right...except you didn’t actually feel mad in the scene, did you? (He thinks about it, smiles and shakes his head, sheepishly, like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.) I think that would have helped you. If you are really trying to get respect and the people disrespect you – THAT causes you to actually feel an emotion, in this case mad. You see if you can’t state your objective clearly and concisely, it's more difficult to actually go after it and that is what drives your scene. That drive was the only thing missing from your work tonight. But I’ll bet it won’t be missing next time.
(To the class) Did you notice, just past the middle of his monologue, he messed up his lines? I would almost call it severe. He kept talking so it wasn’t easy to spot. I always look at the eyes because often, when something unexpected happens- that’s where the actor comes out. But I didn’t see that in Buck's eyes. I simply saw his character deciding what to say next. Some actors have to work years to be able to do that seamlessly; Buck just does it naturally. But that’s exactly what you want to do—react as the character and stay in the scene. Good work, Buck.

In 2007 Buck bought a boat in Portugal. He began to sail it home to Hawaii (another item on his 'bucket list'). He was injured in a fall in the Canary Islands (I mentioned earlier, he's a bleeder). He continued sailing to Antigua where he was airlifted to a Florida hospital. But that didn’t deter Buck. He met the boat on the Island of Hawai´i and sailed it back to Honolulu. 

Buck, as I'll always remember him
In 2010 Buck passed away. He lived almost twice as long as they had said he would. He went to work every day and took me to lunch every couple of weeks. Speaking to me from the hospital, two days before he died, he told me he was planning his next voyage—to Tahiti…
Everybody dies. But not everybody lives. 

Buck Ashford Lived.