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Outer versus Inner
The Commonality of Experience
|Outer versus Inner
Actors are often led to believe (erroneously) that performance life on stage or on screen involves two separate human mechanisms: the external physical apparatus: body, voice, face, etc., or the internal physical apparatus, the sense of inner feeling. Pursuant to that dichotomy, actors pursue training in two distinct "either/or" categories: either physical classes such as speech, movement, stage combat, mime for the outer oriented, or emotional training through the emotional activating techniques of the Stanislavski Method, or System, or one of its several offshoots.
The proponents of the two seemingly separate acting/training methods are often at war with each other. Advocates line up on either side of the abyss: 'inner' versus 'outer', 'technical' versus 'emotional', the English system (of outer voice/body training) versus the American System (of inner emotional training). Positions are taken in each camp with such passionate certainty ("My way is the truth of acting") that acting theory/practice becomes a quasi-religious battleground, a form of bloody internecine warfare: you either believe in one system or the other; you either have 'the faith' or you're a heretical pagan. Acting jihad is often the result.
This fervent either-or dichotomy of inner versus outer acting/training is false. The last time I looked at my inner and my outer body they were interconnected. I cannot have outer expression without inner feeling; inner feeling does not occur without some outer dimension. Even when a person just decides to lift their arm or raise their eyebrow without emotion, some emotional inner life, albeit minimal, is going on: on some level, the actor must 'feel' like flattening their emotions in producing their outer reactions. ALL living is a symbiotic and simultaneous 'inner' and 'outer' experience.
"To feel like sitting", "to feel like singing", "to feel like punching someone" are not quaint idiomatic expressions; they are precise renderings of the interconnected relationship between feeling and the outer physical manifestations. To feel like doing something is a literally true. Ask any neurologist to diagram the total workings of the human body, even in such everyday occurrences as the lifting of an eyebrow of the uttering of a sentence, and you will find an unbroken interconnectedness between inner and outer activity, between the inner emotional flow and the more apparent outer result. Place your finger on a leaf of a tree; move that finger in any direction, and without ever lifting your finger off the tree. You will discover you can reach any other part of the tree in a continuous and unbroken line; the same occurs between inner and outer life and in any good acting performance. Dialogue, feelings, vocal tones, body tensions, etc. are interconnected limbs, the branches, trunk, flowing sap, and the chemical processes involved in the inner and outer of a tree; they are interdependent elements in a total operational/living gestalt of a human activity.
So if the actor is going to create a living character (or for that matter, define or organize a course of study to strengthen his/her performance capabilities) he/she must accept the fact that every aspect of performance related to another: emotion is tied to voice, feeling to body, sentiment to mind. We may 'hold one element constant' as a conceptual tactic; but in truth we must recognize that ultimately outer actions originate in inner feeling; and visa versa. Which requires the developing actor to take emotional classes as well as voice/body classes; and accept that outer expression without inner feeling is words without substance: random, nonsensical and dead; and as a corollary, inner feeling without outer expressiveness is substance without form, artless and wasteful. The excellent actor is a highly developed combination of both.
"An actor is born, not made." "You either have talent or you don't." "He's/She's a natural." How many times have we heard these, or similarly expressed sentiments, offered as truths of acting talent - even by professional casting directors, agents, producers and directors?
These statements seem to assume the ability to act is simply, unequivocally, a gift of God, or an extra-special chromosome attached to an actors genetic make-up. They also seem to assume that the rest of us, those without the gift or chromosome, should be tossed on the garbage heap of the untalented (naturally untalented?), beyond training, studying, practicing, or hope.
Nonsense. A natural talent is simply someone who enters the acting arena with an initial predisposition (i.e., less resistance or inhibiting fear) to the fundamental requirement of acting: creating life, on demand, in front of people, with uncommon emotion and grace, within narrowly proscribed words and deeds.
A few years ago, a seventeen year old man walked into my acting class in Los Angeles, having never trained professionally before; his experience consisting of one high school play and some coaching for that play by his high school teacher. He walked on the stage, began his first attempt at acting his given scene, and I, too, had that quickening of heart when one sees what others would call a natural talent. I told my assistant that soon that young man would be a commercially viable actor.
However, I didn't use the term natural talent. I said what the young man had was an absence of initial inhibiting fear. His lack of fear was apparent even before he started his scent; from the moment he had entered the room and began chatting with the other students. Everyone's eyes had fixed on him. He was alive and vibrant, unselfconscious and confident, graceful and powerful at the same time.
For some reason... perhaps the young man had an accepting, nonjudgmental early life at home, which left him emotionally open as he now approached his late teens; perhaps just the opposite: a harsh, constricting uncompromising youth had now brought him into open rebellion, and he was unwilling, and/or unable to contain his emotions even if logic (dangerous consequences) would seem to dictate. Or perhaps he had such a strong desire to be an actor that it overwhelmed any inhibiting fear he might otherwise have had. Whatever the reason, from the moment I met him, and during our continued work together, he remained a startling package of overt, intense and varied emotions, packaged with their concomitant physicalities.
Within a year and a half of strenuous, weekly training (there was still the matter of learning how to select and place those emotions, on demand, within the narrow confines of script and sound-stage - often called craft), he was able to land a costarring role as a series regular on a network television series.
Initial inhibiting fear -- or the relative lack thereof -- is what separates the so-called natural talent from the rest of us wannabes.
But since most inhibiting fears in life are learned (let's exclude the fear of physical pain, starvation, death and taxes), most human fears can be unlearned: or at least minimized to a level necessary to develop into an exciting actor.
This is why an actor trains, and this is what good acting theory, exercise and practice is designed to accomplish - the overcoming of inhibiting fear, initial or otherwise.
Natural talent may seem natural, but if by natural we mean blessed by certain qualities irrevocably denied to others, don't believe it. In acting, as in many, many other professions, natural blessings abound, and can be learned and earned (and always strengthened) by hard work.
|The Commonality of Experience|
-- Finding Universals in the Particular
"But I've never been raped," she protested. "How can I play a character who's been raped?"
The young actress was expressing a lament common among actors, especially among young, inexperienced actors: the absence of everyday life experiences similar to the 'character's' precludes the actor's performing a role with emotional reality, not to mention great depth and complexity.
"I've never been raped," she repeated. "Think of the audience," I said. "You expect them to identify with the character in the piece, don't you?" She nodded. " Well, most of them haven't been raped, either. Does that mean they cannot possibly understand or have any emotional simpatico with the character performance?"
She said nothing. I pressed my advantage.
"Or am I now to assume you are offering a new general rule of acting: only people (whether actor or audience member) who have shared a particular, specific and tangible everyday life experience with a character, can share and experience in the emotional essences of a character portrayal?"
A few years ago I had a student who expressed a similar concern about a role he had been assigned to play, that of a father. The young actor was only twenty-one years of age, and he immediately stated, loudly and clearly, that he had no children. "And," he added, "I haven't the slightest idea what it feels like to be a father." His tone of voice suggested that I was somewhat daffy to even suggest he play that role.
"Would you like to be a father one day?" I asked.
"Yes," he said.
"On that day do you think you will be able feel like a father?"
"Yea, I suppose so," he said. "Sure," he said. "But not now." He quickly looked at the two pretty girls sitting in front of him. "Not yet." The class laughed.
"So you assume on that distant day you become a father, God will suddenly put the appropriate father-feelings in you?" His silence was encouraging.
"On the day that day you become a father, that event will not suddenly create father feelings in you; it will merely activate the father-feelings already potential within you; in fact, those feelings have been within you for a long time". He stole a glance at the two pretty girls; other students wanted to giggle. They remained silent, however. "Feelings, all feelings, even the potential feelings of fatherhood, lay dormant within us, waiting to be activated by a powerful reality...in this case, the tangible birth of a child."
"Emotions preexist. They are like knowledge, hard-wired as universal potentialities into every human being at birth. Subsequent life experiences merely shape and pattern these hardwiring potentialities into unique patterns in response to the discernible and discrete events in a person's life.
"The root word of education means to 'draw forth'.
"Teachers teach nothing new; they merely draw forth from preexistent mental possibilities specific ideas, logical patterns. The multiplication table exists in potential at birth. So too with emotion: human feelings are universally present in the beginning of each person's life. They are subsequently specifically drawn forth into a particular emotional configuration by specific experience, be it a lecture, a book, or the birth of a child.
"Your job as an actor, therefore, in playing the role of a father, is threefold.
First, before performance, you must activate (in actor's terms, 'prepare'...there are techniques designed to do so) your inherent, preexistent universal feelings appropriate to the character (in this case, 'father feelings'...which, if I can judge by your reaction are somewhat locked away).
Secondly, during performance, you must be willing to have those preconditioned feelings tangibly and specifically activated by the events of the scene.
And thirdly, you must allow those stimulated, activated feelings to flow out of you in performance in an exciting, powerful and proper form, through your dialogue, movement and prop handling, i.e., through your overall character behavior. In that manner that you will create audience identification.
A number of years ago, I was in Lancaster, PA, acting in an Encyclopedia Britannica film. It was a biography about the great America poet, Walt Whitman. I had been hired to play Whitman, who, according to many historians, was homosexual, and I agreed to play him in just that fashion.
One evening, after work, after a particularly long day shooting, as was my wont, I made my way to a popular local nightclub, entered, and immediately located an isolated stool at a back bar. I ordered a long, cool drink and watched and listened while a lovely young lady sang a series of love songs from a brightly lit stage. I had not seen her performing before, and noticed she was looking at a young man in the first row of the audience, singing her heart out to him.
Now, personally, I have never been known as having the most accomplished musical ear in the world. The great film director, Billy Wilder, once said of me, after watching his musical director, Andre Previn, struggle with me to carry a tune during a pre-recording session for the film we were shooting, "Kiss Me, Stupid": "Cliff has the musical ear of Van Gogh." But that night in that bar, even my musically challenged ear could appreciate that young lady's voice. I knew I was listening to a highly skilled instrument, polished, full, rich, and uncommonly vibrant.
But, as the audience and I were listening to her sing her fourth or fifth love song, I found that they, like I, were slowly losing interest in her singing. Whereas initially we had all been entranced by her efforts, the strength and purity of her voice, the precision of her phrasing, now, as she continued, our collective attention had begun to lose focus, to wander around the room...mostly to our separate table conversations.
I forced myself to listen. Her voice seemed to be changing, constantly in a negative direction. At first I thought it might be her reaction to the fickleness of the audience's attention, but I soon decided the off-putting vocal sound had always been there, even from the early moments of her set. Pure of tone, it had almost immediately lost its lushness.
And as each song had blended into the next, her voice had became more and more harsh, biting, almost sardonic. Her face, so lovely at first glance, had grown quickly unappealing. Even the young man in the first row had lost interest.
She finished her set. The audience applauded, albeit unenthusiastically. She walked from the stage to the back of the room; few of the applauding customers even looked at her.
"Great, isn't she,' the man seated in the stool next to me said. He was the club owner. A few days before we had had a brief conversation when he had recognized me from some television shows I had acted in during the previous years. His smile, his body language, begged for acquiescence. "Phenomenal, huh?"
"Yes," I said, although halfheartedly. "Great voice." Then, without forethought, I said: "She's gay, isn't she?" A rhetorical question, seeking no affirmation.
The owner was stunned. He looked at me as if to say 'How did you know?' But he said nothing.
The young girl singer appeared at our side. "Hi," she said.
She was in her late twenties. And beautiful. Her open face was softer, much younger than it had appeared when she was singing. And the harsh tones that had accompanied her singing were gone; as she spoke to us, her voice had a lilt, a charm, a delicacy. She seemed a sweet, young, bright, upbeat person. "Hear you're in town for a film?"
The owner left us without saying a word.
She and I began talking.
"Where are you from?"... "How did you get to Lancaster?"... We engaged in small talk. Friendly. Guarded. Typical. But very warm.
I liked her immediately. A lot. "You have a beautiful singing voice, " I said. She smiled. "Thanks." Then...and to this day I can only ascribe my impetuosity and impertinence to the tactlessness of youth...I said: "You're gay, aren't you?" Her smile left. I plunged ahead. "I have no personal, ulterior motive. I'm not hitting on you in some 'off-the-wall' way. In fact, the odds are I'll never see you again. I just wanted to say one artist to another, one performer to another: sing your love songs to a woman. Keep aiming your body and face at the guy in the front row, but pick out some attractive woman over his shoulder, and focus your eyes and heart on her. I'll bet you the vocal and emotional flow will be much easier." (I said this decades ago, when an artist, seeking broad appeal, couldn't simply come out of the closet with his or her sexual orientation and sing love songs directly to members of their own gender. Subterfuge was the practiced and practical modality.) I then explained to her how I was using the female script supervisor as my "lover substitution" in enacting tender love scenes in "Walt Whitman".
The singer had to go onstage for her next set. She started to sing. I looked at my watch. I had to leave.
Watching me exit, she gave me a wink, gestured subtly toward a buxom blonde girl sitting in the second row, directly behind the young man. The blonde was a stunner. As the singer continued , her voice reflected the changed object de desire. I reached the door. She (and the young blonde) was making beautiful music.
I never saw the singer again. Her first song ended as I exited the building and the audience was applauding enthusiastically. By eight A.M. the next morning, I was on set, reciting some of the most erotic portions from Whitman's poem, "Leaves of Grass", to the female script supervisor, who had had a good night's sleep, thank God.
Human emotional experience, at its fundamental core, is cut from universal emotional fabric: desire is desire, anger is anger, happiness is happiness, sadness is sadness. Basic emotional experiences transcend differences in gender, age, race, socio-economics and sexual orientation. Apparent differences are only differences in modes of arranging and releasing emotion, not in basic attributes.
In approaching any role, therefore, the actor should work to find the common human emotion underlying the particular scripted experience, be the scripted experience rape (feelings of personal humiliation, violation, impotence, rejection of one's fundamental self-worth), fatherhood (tenderness, responsibility, pride, duty and honor), love (desire, belonging, mutual understanding and tenderness), or any other emotion.
I am often reminded of the designation Ph.D. accorded to academics that have pursued knowledge deeply. Now matter how varied the student, no matter how disparate the subject matter, all that study knowledge deeply attains the common degree. This seems to recognize that all knowledge is different only on the surface. Underneath lies the basic unifying philosophical truth about human nature. Perhaps Aristotle exemplified best in his philosophy: 'Through the particular you find the universal;' or, as the novelist, Pat Conroy expressed it when answering the question why we read books: "To find out we are not alone."