Carv's Thinky Blog I'm an author with a focus on satirical sci-fi and agnostic commentary.


If William Shatner Can, He Can, Too

Note: I recently had the opportunity to interview actor/playwright/singer/songwriter Jeff Daniels. My wife and I caught his live show last night and greatly enjoyed it. Because of that, I wanted to publish my full interview transcript, which was cut down to less than 500 words for print. The edited version appeared online here and in last week's print edition of the Weekly Volcano. Enjoy.

If William Shatner can, he can too
The multi-talented Jeff Daniels
Christian Carvajal

If you’ve seen a movie this week, there’s a good chance you’ve enjoyed the work of reliable talent Jeff Daniels. He plays a NASA chief in The Martian and Apple CEO John Sculley in Steve Jobs, written by multiple-award winner Aaron Sorkin. We spoke to Daniels in advance of his Broadway Center appearance as singer, songwriter, guitarist and raconteur. He was amiable but groggy, understandable given his movie career plus concert tour plus Emmy-winning lead performance on HBO’s The Newsroom.

Weekly Volcano: A lot of your music is very frisky and jokey, but is there a song in particular that moves you when you perform it?

JEFF DANIELS: Yeah, we do a song in the show called “California.” I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the place. I couldn’t imagine living there. The problem was all mine. That’s where I’ve done most of my work over the career. It turned from a necessary evil to a place that I needed and grew to love a little bit, doing Newsroom. It was written in the early ’90s, when I’d fly out there and do meetings and take the redeye home that night. It’s kind of, “I’m out here, and yet I don’t feel at home here, and yet I need to be here,” kind of looking around at all those things it is. "All’s fair in love and war, and everything means so much more in California." It’s a young actor observing that this is where his life took him. The other one is “Back When You Were Into Me.” Amanda [Daniels, daughter-in-law] sings it in the middle of the show, and it stops the show. This is the fourth tour we’ve done together with [the] Ben [Daniels] Band, and the first one was last year, August. It did what it did: it stopped the show. So we were putting Days Like These together. We were almost mastering, and we stopped, and I said put it on the end of the CD. I don’t care, It’s a good song. It’s well-written, and she sings it great. They’re going, “Well, you aren’t singing it.” I don’t care. I tell the story in the show, which is true with a lot of these songs. It was a crew member sitting in McAvoy’s office with me, and they’re lighting something somewhere else. You spend seven months with people, sixteen hours a day, you get to know ’em. It’s kind of forced friendships and you tell each other things that you wouldn’t ordinarily, because you’re spending so much time together. And she started talking about her marriage. I was more just a listener, and she’s talking to me about talking to me, talking to herself. And she said, “Y’know, he used to do this for me, he used to do that, but that was back when he was into me.” And she said it so plainly, it just hung in the air. I just grabbed it. Those are the ones that you grab, and they usually come pretty quickly. “Mile 416” is a song that we aren’t doing in the show right now, but I might, ’cause I wrote it driving down Route 2 at the top of the country. I went via eastern Montana, which is flat, as you know, and you go by and there’s one of those wooden crosses with flowers at mile 416. And I just grabbed a legal pad and had a conversation with this person that had gone away.

WV: Did the woman whose husband wasn’t into her anymore give you any feedback on the song? Have you heard from her?

JD: No. Never told her! She would never know. She would never remember. That’s what you do as a writer. Playwrights do it. Lanford Wilson taught me that. Just grab things. People say things. Grab ’em, and they’ll turn into something: a play, a book, a song, a poem, whatever. But you have to be listening. You have to be aware of what people are doing. It’s all fair game. I mean, you put her name in there? Sure. Absolutely. But I don’t. It could be anyone, and that’s the universal truth of the song, is that there are a lot of people out there going, “Y’know, back when he was into me.” You’re damn right. I probably have a couple of wives out there looking at their husbands after the song.

WV: Speaking of your playwriting, tell me a little about your new play Casting Session.

JD: Casting Session is a love letter to the off-Broadway actors. And I used to be that, and I still occasionally go to New York and do a reading for an off-Broadway company or a theater like that that’s considering doing a play. You’ll come in and you’ll read it, and they’ll make a decision as to whether to go forward with the play or not. But I’ve been in that casting director’s office. It’s the fifth floor of some midtown casting office, and you go in, and it’s for a play that’s not good, but you need the job. And it’s gonna be off-off-Broadway, and you’ll play to 14 people a night.

WV: For 14 bucks.

JD: Yeah, and I would do those plays. I mean, my God, that’s how you start. It was seven years before I got Terms of Endearment, kicking around off-Broadway, just trying to stay in the business. And you worked where you could. And a friend of mine who’s in his 60s, and you know, he’s doing some television and audiobooks and stuff like that, so he’s out of that room. But sometimes he’ll go into that room, because he wants to do a play and wants to stay in the city and all that. But he said he was sitting in that room, and he started telling me--I mean, you just wonder why you’re doing this. And the young director for this play is not back from lunch yet. He’s late and unprofessional, and the receptionist doesn’t care whether you’re there or not, and you hear these footsteps coming up to the fourth floor ’cause the elevator’s out. And you see another 63-year-old guy that this actor recognizes, ’cause they go up on the same auditions quite a bit and have for decades. And the guy just leans into the doorway breathing heavily, and just says, “I’m too f***in’ old for this.” And I said, there’s the play. I blew it up, I put two 60-something actors in there who have auditioned against each other for decades, and their careers have never progressed. They’ve never gone beyond that kind of play at that level. And they hate each other. They compete, they’re rivals, they’re Michigan/Michigan State, and they’re just saying, “Here’s that guy again.” And they’re stuck in that room together, auditioning for what they think is a play.

WV: Boy, I’ve been in that room so many times. If you could have your manager email me that script, I’d love to read it.

JD: I imagine it’ll be available soon. Here’s what we do with my scripts. We premiere ’em at the Purple Rose, and it’ll go till Christmas. I don’t know when they’ll make the script available, but we license them out of the Purple Rose. I’ve done a couple Samuel Frenches and Dramatists Play Services. Four of them are with Dramatists, and the other twelve including Casting are Purple Rose. And I just split the cut, heavy on the side of the Purple Rose whenever someone does the play. So the point is that they’ll have a printed copy of the script, I would think, by the end of the year.

WV: Back in those early days, Jack Lemmon once told you to “be a little strange” in auditions. How did you put that advice into effect?

JD: You gotta stand out. That’s [the name of a song] I do in the show. He went on. He said, “You can’t be normal. You gotta be strange. You gotta be a little bit different, kid. Go in with a corncob pipe.” I said, what? You mean an actual--? He goes, “No, it’s a metaphor. I’m kidding. You gotta stand out. Don’t be like the five guys in front of you and the ten guys after you. And whatever that means to you, and to crazy actors who need work--some guys can get know. I know one actor who during an audition punched a hole through the wall to show them. ’Cause the guy gets angry in the scene, so he punched a hole through the drywall.

WV: Did it work?

JD: He ended up getting the part, yeah.

WV: It’s interesting, because both you and Lemmon are known for being in that “everyman” mold, so I guess you probably are sitting in a room with twenty-four Jack Lemmons, or wannabe Jack Lemmons anyway.

JD: Oh my God, yeah, I mean, you get to New York and L.A., and trust me, there are a hundred guys behind you who can’t wait for you to get done with your audition. And they all look just like you. They’re all variations on you or whatever that “everyman” thing is, yeah.

WV: I’ve seen both The Martian and Steve Jobs. I quite enjoyed both. Sorkin wrote you a terrific argument scene in Steve Jobs, and I don’t know your method in particular, but how close were you to punching Michael Fassbender?

JD: Oh, not at all. Not at all, and that’s the fun of it for us. It becomes a dance, because once you get on top of the words--which is a lot of work, because Sorkin writes so many--a lot of work and a lot of repetition so that they become second nature. Y’know, you may have read this somewhere, but you try to get them so ingrained in you that it feels like the one-hundredth performance of a Sorkin play. I mean, you aren’t even thinking about it. The curtain goes up and you just--it’s like dominoes. It just falls, one at a time. And that’s different from the opening night, where every line, every moment, you’re all, "God, I’ve gotta remember this, remember that." Once you get on top of it, then it becomes this, you know, “it takes two to tango” kinda thing. And we’d come out of a take, and cut; and I’d go, Michael, I was late on that. He goes, “No, no, I was early. We’ll fix it.” Okay, good. And then you go: take two. It becomes this choreographed thing that, when we work together and we use each other—that’s what’s so great about working with the people at this level, in Jobs and other movies. We use and abuse each other, and then help each other up when they say cut. That’s the fun of it. That’s the joy of it, you know, in taking your emotions and twisting ’em like a pretzel in front of the camera. And also making it happen for the first time in front of the camera. I mean, a lot of what Michael and I did was--the camera just had to catch it. We never had gone that hard at it, purposefully, in rehearsals. We kinda walked up to it and kind of did the speech maybe at 25 percent steam. But when they say action, it’s like the start of the Kentucky Derby.

WV: Well, it’s just an amazing scene, and I think people will be talking about it for a long time. What is the key to performing a Sorkin “walk and talk?” And I ask because I just came off a Sorkin play myself. I’m an actor as well, and I find the speed of it is very challenging.

JD: Yeah, back to that--it’s the repetition of the lines, the preparation. Because it’s one thing to sit in your chair at home and do the scene. It’s--in a way, because you’re moving now, you’re doing two things. It’s the walking and chewing your gum at the same time, that joke. But you’re doing an independent activity, other than what you’re saying. You’re going somewhere. You’re going from point A to point B. So part of you has to be focused on where you’re going, and I’ve got to get to the newsroom, and what is it you want? Y’know, but you’re going somewhere. And you just have to be talking as you’re going from point A to point B. A helpful thing for me was always--I mean, it’s silly, but you memorize the lines and you walk from the living room to the kitchen, and you pour a glass of water, and then you walk back and set it on the table in the living room. You’re doing something else while you’re saying this other thing. And that’s confusing and difficult, and your body and your mind want to do one thing, not two. It’s getting your mind right, and that’s just forcing your mind to multitask when it’s trying to remember lines, if that makes any sense at all.

WV: No, it absolutely does.

JD: You gotta do the mechanics of what you’re gonna do as well as remember all those words. Yeah, and the two are not really related. You’re going to the newsroom to do the broadcast, and Mac’s talking to you about the weather. They don’t relate, but...

WV: But it adds urgency to the scene.

JD: It allows you to do two things at once.

WV: Right.

JD: Which is what we do in life, y’know? We’re constantly walking and talking and going somewhere and saying something and probably having a conversation that has nothing to do with where we’re going.

WV: Is there a movie of yours that, if you pass it on cable, you have to watch it to the end?

JD: No.

WV: No?

JD: No, they um, no. There are movies of other people. I mean, I’ll--no, I tend not to even look at my stuff, to be honest. I mean, I’ll see Purple Rose of Cairo or I’ll see The House on Carroll Street. I rarely go to it, rarely if ever. I can’t remember the last time I stopped and said I’ll watch--let’s watch Dumb and Dumber, y’know?

WV: If I pass Pleasantville, especially if it’s before the scene where you see paintings for the first time, I’m done. I’m stuck till the end. That scene is one of my favorites ever. It’s a stunner.

JD: Gary Ross wrote a great, great script. I loved what he did with that. I wish that film had gotten more attention.

WV: My wife would slaughter me if I didn’t ask you: is there any chance of a Dumb and Dumberest in our future?

JD: Y’know, I think the second one did pretty good. Y’know, there were a few studios that just said, it’s gonna die, it’s just a horrible idea, and so it did fine. It comes down to Jim and the Farrellys, and I have a feeling it’d be like Lemmon and Matthau, y’know? Maybe when we’re almost 70, Jim’ll go, “Hey! One more time!” And you go, okay, here we go! They’re always fun to do. It’s so inappropriate, so outlandish, and the second one--to be middle-aged and still that stupid was uh--it’s very refreshing, I must say. It’s like a cleanse.

WV: Well, I really enjoyed your SNL appearance in support of it. That seemed like a fun day in New York.

JD: Oh, it was. It was great of them to include me, yeah.

WV: All right, Mr. Daniels, I know you’re super busy, and I will let you get back to it, but I appreciate your time.

JD: All right, thanks, Christian. Take care.

Print This Post Print This Post

Ten Things I Know About Acting

Today is my 47th birthday: no big deal, except it marks the start of my fifth decade in theatre. It also marks opening night for Theater Artists Olympia's production of Tartuffe, in which I play Orgon and my wife is Dorine. Next month, I'll help guide actors through the grinder of Olympia Audition League generals, a summer event that recruits actors for productions all over the South Sound. Ergo, this seems an appropriate time to offer a list of ten guidelines for less experienced actors. Feel free to disagree; actors are good at that. But this is how I feel about our craft at this moment, informed by my particular series of influences, mentors and experiences.

1. Focus. If you want to get better at acting, you have to take it seriously. I know it's called "play," but it's work, too. Actors who believe differently tend to cause problems for castmates. As you prepare for an audition or read-through, look up difficult words, including proper nouns. Treat rehearsals as if your reputation depends upon your behavior there, because it does. Learn your lines as quickly as possible. Use the hour before a performance to get control of your body and mind. Leave the grab-ass and hijinks to dilettantes who will never get better. Avoid "theatre games" before a performance. I know they're fun, but rare is the show that benefits from tossing an imaginary ball around when you should be spending time concentrating on your lines and performance. In an audition, taking a moment to center yourself, breathe, and focus on your monologue will prevent the dreaded "Oops, can I start again?" (Don't start again, by the way. The damage is already done. Just take another breath, correct the problem, and move forward. Directors are impressed by calm recoveries.)

2. Imagine. Explore your range. Get to know all kinds of people, then ask yourself how you might go about portraying them. True, actors get shoved into types, but types are at least preferable to ruts. Why contribute to your own typecasting by playing the same performance note every time? A cold-reading audition or callback is a wonderful opportunity to show off your range, as it's an open invitation to play almost any character in the script. Use that!

3. Know thy instrument. You don't have to be in perfect shape. You don't have to be gorgeous. You don't have to sing like an opera star. You do have to be realistic about your body, voice and features, and keep track of the range of things they can actually do. If you're an alto, the soprano piece "No One Is Alone" from Into the Woods is a poor choice for an audition no matter how much you enjoy it or even love singing it. In other words, don't audition with a song unless you're 100% confident you can hit all its notes on your worst day. Keep track of what your face is doing; a surprising number of actors smile as they're performing tragic monologues, and that's just creepy.

4. Stand normally. Find a full-body mirror and watch yourself standing silently. See how your hands hang at your sides? Notice how you're standing perpendicular to the ground? Yeah. That's a good place to start. I can't tell you how many times I've watched auditioners sway from side to side like a metronome or flail their arms about like they were miming semaphore signals. I also roll my eyes when auditioners choose monologues that require them to act like they're talking on phones--which they usually represent by holding empty fists up to their ears. Don't they realize how silly that looks? Avoid monologues with phones. I mean that, okay? Just be present. Take a breath. It's all good. There isn't a person in that audition room who wants you to fail. They need you to be great just as much as, or perhaps even more than, you need them to admire your work. This is your house. Enjoy it.

5. Gobble life. Travel. Read a lot. Skinny dip. See great movies. Fall in love. Have an enviable sex life. Imbibe the world. Pay attention to people's accents, gestures, and expressions. Explore the many ways people signal they're in love or about to throw a punch. Generally speaking, it's easier to recall what you've experienced and reproduce it than invent a life experience on the spot.

6. Listen. The best actors are reactors. They pay attention to fellow actors and respond as seems fitting. It seldom matters what technique you use, so long as dialogue becomes conversation, but that can't happen if you're listening for a single cue word or contemplating the hottie in the front row. Often when an actor goes up on his or her lines, the previous dialogue included a question that demanded the very line that's gone missing as its answer.

7. Show respect. Sometimes that means showing respect for yourself. You do yourself no favors by performing loaded, letting yourself get treated like a worthless commodity, or snapping at directors or fellow actors. I'm not saying one should always be a doormat. I'm also not claiming a perfect track record myself when it comes to treating people fairly or politely. But by showing respect for everyone in the building, from the greenest cast or crew member all the way up to the artistic director, an actor establishes his or her professional identity. When I direct, I'd much rather cast a green actor who plays by the rules than a superstar who amps up a scene by attacking his fellow actors or takes physical liberties backstage. We're all in this together, folks. Let's play by the rules. They exist because they work.

8. Laugh. Pretending to be someone else is inherently ridiculous. We're grown adults, yet we put on bizarre costumes and recite rhyming couplets and fall in and out of love as drama dictates. That's what kids do. It's a craft, yes, and an art form as worthy as any. It's also what children do without breaking a sweat, so enjoy it as they do. Watch a kid playing army or Star Wars. Kids know how to play and take things seriously at the same time. Let that kid be your role model.

9. Learn. There's not an actor on earth who can't add to his or her tool chest. Every critic is right, from a certain point of view at least, whether he or she is panning you or praising you. A critic's (or audience member's) experience of your work is partly subjective, partly influenced by your mastery of craft, partly in the hands of other cast and crew members--not to mention the whims of fate. Your director is right about your work, too, even if/when he or she is being an absolute moron, because that's the way a moronic person perceived your performance. That, in theatre parlance, is how your work "read." Take it in, let it simmer a while, and extract whatever value you can from people's responses to what you do. A bad review's not the end of the world, no matter how much a thumbs-down might sting. But assuming you have nothing left to learn is the end of your progression as an actor. So why stop now when you've come so far?

10. Keep theatre holy. Look, I get that this sounds totally woo-woo, but the stage is my church. A grad professor described it as a "liminal space," a defined area in which the rules of surrounding culture are permitted (or encouraged) to change. I love my wife, but if a play calls for me to love another character while I'm in that liminal space, then I have, grab, and fully enjoy the obligation to do that. If my character's in conflict with another, I give myself the liberty to scream and cry and demand the very gods strike my enemy down on the spot. That, my friends, is why theatre is cathartic for actors even as it is for an audience. But remember: when you go back across the edge of that liminal space on your way to the dressing room, those rules have to change back. You have to let that love, anger, libido, power, you name it, slip away. In short, you have to go back to being you. It's the only way to keep sane in this business of show; and besides, it'll soon be time to reboot for your next grand theatrical adventure.

Break a leg!

Print This Post Print This Post

Kitchen Confidential

My sister Monica and her husband run a barbecue restaurant in Shelton, Washington, a very good one called Smoking Mo's, and she and I recently got to talking about TV cooking programs. She enjoys Restaurant Impossible and other shows that delve into hardcore restaurant management--skills that don't always have much to do with cooking, but which many avid home cooks overlook when considering an eatery of their own. My wife and I prefer the competition shows: Top Chef and, to a lesser degree, Chopped. None of us like Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and you shouldn't, either.

My sister repeated something I've heard before, which is that one of the keys to operating a successful restaurant is consistency. Customers often respond to a plate of food by saying, "Have you tried adding this" or "I wonder if this salad might be better with that," but most customers order a dish with the expectation it'll taste exactly like the one they ordered before and remember fondly. There's no percentage in mut(il)ating a dish once you've hit on a winning formula. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

So when Ted Allen instructs a quartet of competitors to open their Chopped baskets ("You get...channeled whelks! Chickpeas! Galangal! And...Liquid Paper!"), their approach to cooking becomes all too clear. Some competitors whip up the same grub they serve everyday. "I know I can make a great risotto," one chef will say, "so I'm thinking I can put a little twist on it by adding Liquid Paper." In this context, however, the only twist is the new ingredient. The chef may not even have a clear idea what the addition of this unfamiliar ingredient will do to her dish, but she knows by God, at least that risotto will be good. Until it's not, which always seems to blow the losing chef's mind. "I wish the judges had had a fair chance of seeing what I can do." Well...they did. In fact, they saw exactly what you do, plus one contradictory ingredient.

Then there are chefs who can look at a basket of ingredients and think, "Okay, the galangal suggests northern Thai. I don't normally cook Isaan, but I bet if I steam some veggies I can turn this into a halfway decent nam phrik. The Liquid Paper's a curve ball, but its adhesive qualities might make it perfect for sticky rice. I should also throw in a bit of curry to counter that poisonous titanium dioxide aroma." The chef can "pre-taste" combinations of flavors in her head, and she understands the physics of food: the way heat affects meat and vegetables, for example, and the history and logic behind a number of regional cuisines. Such chefs tend to win high-end cooking competitions on TV. It doesn't mean they're better chefs, at least not in the context of a working, professional restaurant kitchen, because the modus operandi of a restaurant isn't the same as that of a TV cooking competition. It just means they're approaching food itself from a different and (I hesitate to say this, for reasons that'll be clearer soon) deeper point of view.

Side note: somebody recently told me she enjoys barbecue but prefers Mexican food. Um, I said, barbecue is Mexican food. Barbacoa's a Mexican word. "What's 'barbacoa?'" the person replied testily. "Who said anything about that? I just want carnitas." You mean pulled pork? "No," the person insisted. "Carnitas. Aren't you Mexican?"

So anyway, I thought of this difference in approaches last night as we struggled through a long rehearsal of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. My wife and I are both in the show, which runs September 12 - October 12 at Lakewood Playhouse. (Did you just hear a weird noise? It sounded sort of like..."Plug.") It's a locked-room mystery in which guests on a secluded isle meet their Maker one by one, even as they attempt to forestall their untimely demises by determining which of them is the killer. It's...silly. It's the closest thing one can get to Neil Simon's Murder By Death without actually getting that. Because it's ridiculous, I feel justified in going for broke with some of my character choices. Now there's a painful period of modulating that to fit the world of the show, a directorial issue which, by necessity, laps over onto me.

Anyway, we're all about 98% off-book, meaning we know our lines but can't rely on our cerebral cortices to release the right word every time. We know our blocking, we understand the play (as well as Christie's labyrinth of evidence can be understood), and we're starting to get used to 1940s props and actor-unfriendly furniture. This is the week or two during which a show grows up. If all goes as it should, it'll reach voting age around the time we hit tech week, at which time the director and crew must turn their nearly-full attention to matters of lighting, costume, sound, and set dressing. It's an awkward week, when adolescence induces growing pains.

This hump arises in every cycle of rehearsals, but I'm struck by a particular complication in this production. When I was in high school and undergraduate college, I developed the idea that an actor spends the first week or two creating a character, then the remainder of the rehearsal process perfecting the ability to repeat a judiciously composed set of line readings (i.e., specific inflections of dialogue) night after night. I believe I was encouraged to do so by most of my instructors and directors. I was like that line cook who makes delicious spaghetti bolognese or salmon en croûte a dozen times a night, six nights a week, fifty weeks a year. I made pretty good spaghetti at ECU, if I do say so myself, and what opening-night audiences saw was the spitting image of the performance I gave on the night we closed. I got cast pretty consistently, won acting awards, and generally felt good about the skills I was able to bring to the table.

Now, I don't want to belabor this, because one of my grad-school theatre professors told me acting was pretty much the most boring thing one could talk about. I think James Lipton and his producers might disagree, but yes, the subject can start to feel too inside-baseball. I do, however, want to explain that most of my grad-school actor training was in the Meisner method, as developed and taught by director and coach Sanford Meisner in the 20th century. Like the Stanislavski method, it relies on given circumstances and empathetic identification to craft a character, but then it's much looser within each moment as the story progresses. Line readings can diverge considerably from performance to performance, informed by differing line readings from other Meisner-trained actors on stage. This was the approach used by most of the cast of the last show I was in, Lakewood Playhouse's 12 Angry Men, and if used properly it can invigorate a production like no other technique I know. The audience feels it's seeing intense conversation, not the pristine delivery of mentally prerecorded dialogue. In my critical opinion, it makes for a more dynamic, involving show, but of course I would say that because I paid thousands of dollars to learn that technique.

The Meisner method creates chefs who, metaphorically speaking, know the physics of food. They can think in the moment and respond to subtle inflections, nuances--perhaps even the mood of the audience. That bizarro mystery ingredient in their Chopped baskets might throw them, but only for a moment. The method I learned in high school, consistent reproduction of memorized inflections, is like that reliable Amazon of a line cook. Both the innovator and the replicator have great knife skills. They make wonderful food. After a great deal of bitching and moaning and refusing to change, I was finally won over to the position, however, that Meisner acting is better, meaning real-er, or at least that I preferred it enough to switch over. I take my acting seriously, perhaps indefensibly so, and I want to make the finals of Top Chef against competitors who are really, really good.

What's happening on this show is that most of the cast is taking the consistency approach. The director approved of this for weeks, and rightly so because his cast was on task. We were doing our homework, bringing accent or back story improvements to every rehearsal, and moving off-book weeks earlier than usual. Now it's clear, however, that we're hearing the same performances night after night after night. "I SHOULD like you to know I have seen through your TREACHery, Doctor ARMstrong," an actor will emote. "Okay, good," the director responds, clearly stifling a wince, "but I think maybe this time, it's important to remember that your character is making a direct accusation of Armstrong in particular. Also, he's boasting about being the one who may have solved this big mystery. So, you know, play with that." The actor will nod appreciatively: yes, yes, very good. I see exactly what you mean. I can work with that. Thank you. Then, next rehearsal: "I SHOULD like you to know I have seen through your TREACHery, Doctor ARMstong," only two decibels louder.

Now, if I'm being honest (and not merely biased toward my own approach), I cannot say for sure either technique is truly "better acting" than the other, because both produce terrific spaghetti. The problem occurs when actors of both types try to work together in rehearsal. The techniques are at cross purposes, because we Meisner actors can't respond as urgently to pristine line readings that sound like they came out of an MP3 player, and consistency actors turn into robots when their line readings don't apply to new dynamics. The result is a bunch of histrionic Meisner actors intensely beseeching confused Audio-Animatronic figures. It's a mess, one you'd never confuse for an actual conversation.

At this stage of the game, I'm unsure our director will be able to nudge one group of actors into embracing or even reluctantly adopting the methodology of the other. But speaking as a director myself, blending styles and approaches into a self-consistent whole is one of the more difficult, esoteric, and ultimately rewarding aspects of the job, so I remain optimistic. Things can shape up tout suite in the week before an audience sees a production. And don't get me wrong, a play can include both styles and work well enough. A restaurant can usually handle one kitchen Edison without crashing and burning. But the next time you go to a play (or, for that matter, watch a narrative show on TV), try the shoes of a critic on for at least a few minutes. See if you can figure out which type of kitchen technique its actors prefer. You may be surprised to learn how easy it can be to tell the difference.

Print This Post Print This Post