Originally published backstage.com Nov. 28, 2014, advice for actors series.
I was working on a production of “The Glass Menagerie” many years ago in upstate New York. We were rehearsing Tom’s “drunk scene.” The director called up to the stage, “What are you two doing up there?”
I shouted back, “Acting!”
He said, “I know that. But I can’t understand anything.”
The actor playing Laura yelled, “Do you need us to be louder?”
He laughed and said, “No. Just better. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Laura yelled back in fury, “What do you want? A spotlight on my tears?”
The director started walking down the aisle. “No. But just so you know, I couldn’t tell you were crying. From back there it just looked like a mess.”
Rude? Yes. Super rude? For sure. Right? Hmmm.
The problem with harsh criticism is that you often never hear what is being said. It took years for me to unravel that moment and learn for myself what our director was telling us in a very nonproductive way: Feelings are not your friend. They are too unpredictable. That is their virtue. The foundation of acting is clarity of thought.
Throughout my career I have had directors ask, “So what emotion are you going to play in this scene?”
I have directed actors who explained, “I know what I am doing now is wrong. This is just the base level of emotion. I will add layers of other emotions on top of this one.”
Maybe this works for some actors. I don’t see how. It seems to be a sure-fire way to be inward-focused on your work rather than actively being in the scene.
The truth is, I don’t think the audience is interested in emotions. How many times have you watched an actor tearing the daylights out of a scene and you are curiously unmoved?
I would argue what we look for in a performance is not feelings but behavior. I don’t want to play at words here. What is the difference?
The foundation of any story, any scene, is logic. The first job of an actor is to understand that logic. That requires a different type of work than throwing a plate of angst against the wall and seeing what sticks. It requires asking specific questions to define the boundaries of a situation.
Some of the simple questions I start with are:
Is this a new situation or an old situation?
Did I expect this to happen?
Is the character in the scene telling me the truth?
What will my life look like tomorrow because of what is happening now?
Will I be able to look this person in the eye again?
I work toward specific answers.
If you start with thought and not feelings, you will know who you are and what you want. Then you don’t have to worry about emotions. They will happen as they happen. They may surprise you. They may surprise the audience. You may not know what will happen next. Then we have behavior. That’s when the fun begins.