|Topic: On acting, or, “Why should I study Shakespeare to do magic?”|
Well, 2008 is over, and I don't have a clue where the year went. I hit the ground running on January 1 (I mean that), and continued right through to the end of December and into January 1, 2009, when I was completing the design drawings for my next show. But now they're done and I have a bit of a breather... so I'm back here.
Talk about being a glutton for punishment... :)
Anyway, I started another column this morning, but then saw this one, which dates back to April '08 and I never uploaded. So I figured I would finish this one first and then do the next one.
On acting, or, “Why should I study Shakespeare to do magic?”
Well, the good news is that you [i]don't[/i] need to study Shakespeare to do magic. :)
The other good news is that the study of acting [i]isn't[/i] about learning to memorize long soliloquies or how to cross from upstage left to downstage right in fourteen steps without tripping over the murder weapon which the killer hid under the rug. One of the most important things you learn in a good acting class is how to understand and express motivation, and that's what I'm going to cover here.
Okay, fine, so Maskelyne and Devant, Nelms, and Fitzkee (among others) have covered or alluded to motivation in various ways, but I'm going to attempt to bring it home and get right down to the basics. As I said in a recent post, motivation in acting isn't a cosmic, esoteric, metaphysical concept that only an actor with years of training can comprehend, and then only after long group therapy sessions and a high colonic. It's actually a very simple concept: it's understanding—and knowing how to relay to the audience—[i]why[/i] a character is doing something. That's all there is to it.
This is very important because, any time an audience member perceives something that doesn't fit into the overall picture, it jars them just long enough to break the spell of the show.
Let's do a simple experiment.
For this experiment you will need a room with a sofa and another person who lives with you, or who comes over to visit. Sit on the sofa and watch this other person coming over to sit on it. And I mean [i]really observe[/i] how this person comes over and sits down, and what he or she does afterwards. Right off the top, I can think of several reasons why he or she would come over and sit on the sofa:
a) He or she just needs to sit down for a few minutes after a long day at work.
b) To pick up a book or magazine and continue reading it.
c) To watch a sports event when a favorite team is playing.
d) To play with the cat.
e) To tell you that your stocks just went up.
f) To tell you that your stocks just went down.
g) Just to come over and chat with you.
If you were to really, [i]really[/i], watch how this person comes over to the sofa in each of these cases, you would see totally different pictures: the speed, body language, facial expression, what he or she is looking at, and what he or she is saying, would all be different. We do this—we change the way we move—without even thinking about it, and we're so used to seeing others do it that we often don't even consciously notice it.
But there's a catch here, and I'll come back to it shortly.
How often have you seen a high school or community theater production where the characters appear to be cardboard cutouts? They move and say things, but you don't believe them because they don't appear to believe it themselves. They have no dimension. They do something but we don't know why they're doing it... except maybe because the director told them to do it.
We see this in current movies and TV shows all the time. The bad guy is doing all these horrible things, but we don't have a clue why. Sometimes we'll get a little snippet about how unhappy he was as a kid, or how someone was cruel to him (or his dog), but is it enough to make us really believe that it caused him to become this monster we're seeing? Unfortunately, in the world of TV and the movies, there are some very real issues associated with the length of the production, which means that often these back stories are condensed to the point that they don't tell us anything. So we see the bad guy being bad, but we don't have a clue who he is.
And the good guy's motivation for catching the bad guy? Same thing. He's the good guy.
Yet watch a top-notch actor doing a good role and you will see, over and over again, where the character is coming from, and why he or she is doing whatever it is. One of my favorite movies, from this standpoint, is [i]Patton[/i], with George C. Scott. No matter what Patton is doing, you get a sense of why he's doing it. His primary motivation is consistent even as his character shows its ups and downs—its human side. [i]The Godfather[/i] is another of my favorites. Vito, Michael, Sonny, Tom, Fredo, Clemenza, Solozzo, even Luca Brazzi, all have something driving them. And we see it in their actions. They're not just black-and-white comic-strip gangsters.
How does this fit into a performance of magic?
Here's where I take issue with many of the long-winded discourses on motivating movements, and motivating patter, and so forth. A lot of these discourses focus on the movements themselves, but not on the character doing them or why he's doing them... and yet continue to argue that this will make the moves look natural. Natural to whom?
If the movement, or the action, doesn't look natural to the audience, it doesn't work.
I said above (in the experiment with the sofa) that very often we don't [i]consciously[/i] notice people's body language, but that there's a catch. And here's the catch:
We very often notice it [i]sub[/i]consciously.
I don't know if this is just something left over from our “caveman days,” when we were conditioned to the idea that everything out there could be a danger and therefore we did notice body language, but I see it all the time – on and off the stage. Heck, even our two cats notice body language, and they're far better at it than Donna and I are. So if a move (whether it be in a close-up routine or a full-stage illusion) looks like it's just... there... but there's no real reason for it, [i]in the context of the persona doing the routine[/i], then it could very well be distracting enough to break the spell.
And if there's one thing we don't want to do in a magic act, it's to break the spell.
There is a wonderfully short and to-the-point lesson on this in Stanislavski's [i]An Actor Prepares[/i], in the chapter on Action. The quotes are from the 1936 Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood translation:
The students are at the theater, and the Director is working with them on an exercise on how to sit in the middle of the stage. No words, just sitting there for a few minutes. After a couple of students try it, the others said that the sitters “looked in turn stupid, funny, embarrassed, guilty, apologetic. The Director merely waited.”
Then the Director demonstrated. He “rose quickly, walked up to the stage in a business-like way, and sat down heavily in an arm-chair to rest, as if he were at home. He neither did nor tried to do anything, yet his simple sitting posture was striking. We watched him, and wanted to know what was going on inside of him. He smiled. So did we. He looked thoughtful and we were eager to know what was passing through his mind. He looked at something, and we felt we must see it what it was that had attracted his attention.
“In ordinary life one would not be especially interested in his manner of taking a seat, or remaining in it. But for some reason, when he is on stage, one watches him closely, and perhaps has an actual pleasure in seeing him merely sit.
“This did not happen when the others sat on the stage. We neither wanted to look at them nor to know what was going on inside them. Their helplessness and desire to please were ridiculous. Yet though the Director paid not the slightest attention to us, we were strongly drawn to him.
“What is the secret? He told us himself.
“Whatever happens on the stage must be for a purpose. Even keeping your seat must be for a purpose, a specific purpose, not merely the general purpose of being in sight of the audience. One must earn one's right to be sitting there. And it is not easy.”
Okay, so that passage sounds academic and deep and artistic and over the top (with maybe a little bit of hero-worship on the part of the students), but there's so much truth in it. Why am I watching you sit there? If I'm going to spend my time watching you sit there, I'd like to know what you're doing or what's going on. If you come across like you're just sitting there so I can watch you, or if you look awkward, or embarrassed, or like you're trying to be something but not cluing me in on what it is, I'm going to lose interest.
Acting is not rocket science. Heck, it's not even paper-airplane science. But it is an art form which can be taught and learned, and includes specific skills which can also be taught and learned. And understanding how it works can be invaluable to anyone involved in a performing art. Back when I was in college, even design majors were expected to take a couple of acting classes, a directing class, and a mime class. And it was for a reason.
We were also encouraged to try out for a play or musical, and I did so I could understand how directors and actors work with a set. I ended up playing the tax agent in [i]You Can't Take it With You[/i] – at the same time as I was Lighting Designer on a deaf-theater production in the same building. So, for the run of both shows, I was going back and forth, in costume and makeup, between the two theaters. It got to the point where I would walk into the light booth and start talking to the crew, most of whom were deaf, and then I'd walk back into the main theater and start signing at people who didn't know sign language.
I've never had the slightest interest in acting, but these classes, and going thru the rehearsals, were invaluable for me as a set designer and will be even more so if I ever decide to get back into performing magic. I won't pretend to tell you what to do, but, if you want to be a good performer, I would definitely suggest taking an acting class or two. Local community colleges often have evening classes, and they are worth it. If you do this, please be sure to take a “classroom and lab” class as opposed to a “class” that consists only of being cast in a show. Larger cities often also have acting schools or coaches.
Once you've taken the class, then you may want to try out for a local play or musical, just to see, from the inside, how it all goes together. But be warned: unfortunately, a fair number of community-theater directors just don't have the skills or the time to really spend time working on characterization and motivation. They seem to belong to the “you learn the lines and I'll tell you where to move, and then we'll rehearse until you memorize the whole thing” school. It's sad, but true. How can you tell? Ask around, or read the reviews from that director's shows.
Reading theory books is fine, but there's no substitute for working with someone who really knows what they're doing and who can teach it and make it real. It's not just time well spent: it's an investment.