Features

noun

1.  Candid, funny, and informative articles written by NYU Grad Acting Alumni. Want to write one? Email info@gradactingalumni.org.

Sunday
Oct312010

Richard Brestoff: "Can an actor be too good?"

Richard Brestoff ('75) shares with us the forward to his new book Great Acting Teachers and Their Methods, Vol. 2. ¡Viva, Ted!

Actors study acting. They attend classes in colleges or private studios seeking to learn their craft. And as they do, they discover a dizzying array of approaches and techniques all designed to improve their acting. Some acting students become devoted to a particular approach or to a specific teacher while others expose themselves to a variety of techniques.

In either case, many of them wonder at one point or another in the process of studying where the ideas and procedures they are practicing come from. Particularly when they are frustrated. What, they ask, is the origin of this training? What is the rationale behind it? Why is this useful?

Most are unaware of the dramatic struggles that produced the exercise they did yesterday. Most are unaware of the false starts, the blind alleys and the discarded notions of the innovators whose work they study. Few understand the seething passions or the revolutionary spirit that resulted in the techniques they use.

The truth is, we are disconnected from the context of our own art.

And yet knowing the traditions in which we stand, appreciating the innovative ideas that underlie the various theories of acting is of paramount importance. Because knowing where we have come from allows us see more clearly where we are and where it is that we might go. It is often the case in fact, that the more deeply we examine the bedrock assumptions of our craft, the more deeply we question them. And this informed questioning is what pushes our art forward.

The teacher/practitioners in this book all begin by questioning the status quo. Whether they can be called revolutionary or evolutionary, the conflicting theories contained in the pages of this book result from outrage and disgust. Copeau reacts violently against Antoine’s followers; Kazan is disgusted with Broadway commercialism; Mamet and Bogart react violently against Strasberg’s method; Johnstone revolts against what he calls the Theatre of Taxidermy. All are passionate questioners.

The extraordinary figures in this book do more than rail against the status quo however; they do something about it, offering up alternatives that will almost certainly be challenged when they become the status quo. This is the nature of artistic ferment and all of them are willing and eager to enter the fray.

But because this book is about connections as well as differences we will take pains to point out the large areas of agreement between seemingly contradictory viewpoints. It would be a mistake of oversimplification for example to believe that Mamet or Bogart or Johnstone completely reject Stanislavsky or that Antoine or Kazan or Hagen reject styles other than realism. The truth is far more complex and nuanced than that.

Implicit in any concept of acting is a fundamental definition of the actor’s role. Is, for example, the actor basically a storyteller? Or, is the actor an instrument of the author’s or director’s vision? Is the actor fundamentally an experiencer of the character’s inner life or a simulator of it? Should the actor lose herself in the part, or remain in lucid control? Should the actor be an innovator, including herself in the act of creation, or simply execute other people’s choices?

These are some of the questions debated in the pages of this book. What do you think? What is your definition of the actor’s role?

If your definition is as yet unformed, then clarity may come to you by engaging with the teachers examined in this volume. If you are certain about the actor’s role, then engaging with the teachers in this book may either validate or challenge that certainty.

Either way, spending time with the extraordinary teacher/practitioners in this book, experiencing their struggles, witnessing their victories and defeats, arguing or agreeing with their ideas and methods will certainly invigorate you.

Now, there are some other questions I would like to ask. When you go to the theater do you enjoy what you see? Are you mostly elated or disappointed by the end of the evening? As an actor are you satisfied by what is asked of you by authors and directors? Did your training equip you to play demanding roles?

At the inaugural session of the National Congress of Actors and Acting Teachers convened by The Actor’s Center in New York City in 2006, speakers made the following comments in answer to these questions:

"I go to the theater and I see no revelatory moments."

"I was the great justifier of other people’s choices."

"I see tremendous fear and safety in the young actors…"

Master acting teacher Ron Van Lieu, Head of the Yale School of Drama graduate actor training program, offered the following observation:

"The conservatories have to question themselves. We're turning out a lot of useful actors, but are we turning out unique actors? We're turning out actors who are useful to the theatre in that they are trained and they can do the job in a professional manner, but where's the individuality, the uniqueness, the thing that makes them like nobody else?

"Something we all have to avoid is a condition of what I would call 'efficient neutrality' in acting. It gets done. The story gets told. They understand the plot, but nothing happened in the room. We have to help young actors resist settling for safety and               predictability."

The people quoted here are not experiencing revelatory moments in the theater, they are not satisfied by simply executing other people’s choices, they are not seeing unique and daring performances. Stanislavsky once asked, “Are we mere go-betweens, intermediaries between the author and the audience?”

Is this the kind of actor we are training, “intermediaries?” Is this why we are not seeing revelation on the stage?

No teacher deliberately sets out to train actors of “efficient neutrality.” Just as no director sets out to direct a bad production. But somehow it happens. In fact many directors, writers and producers value the professionally competent actor who gets the job done without much muss or fuss. There are parts that do not benefit from a passionate or overheated approach. We have all seen an actor so drench a part in his own personality that the character is bleached away and the story destroyed in the process. It is in fact the very fear of doing this that creates a reluctance to “impose” oneself on a part. It is the fear of giving such a performance that drives actors to take refuge in safe choices. Seeing others fail in this way makes cowards of us all.

But what of those other roles? Can you successfully play Othello or Hedda Gabler with “efficient neutrality?” Of course not, they require more of us. Such roles demand that we find a way to deeply engage with the friction that results when we rub our own uniqueness up against a challenging role. Not for self-aggrandizement but in order to shake the story to its roots. There are times when we must bring more to a role than it requires. Are we training actors to accomplish this task? Is it even a value? Is it part of your definition of the actor’s role?

Some years ago I was cast in a Hollywood film in an important, but not a leading role. The character I played had a partner and the immediate task was to cast the best actor to play this part. I was asked to read with potential candidates with both the director and casting director present. This is a so-called “chemistry” audition. We were ensconced in a small room at one of the studios for three days and actors came and went auditioning for the part.

At one point, far into the process, an actor came in, we will call him Ted, and was simply incredible. He was by far the best we had seen. Reading with him was a revelation. He was spontaneous, alive and deeply believable. After he left the room I let out a big breath, turned to the director and casting director and said, “Wow.”

“Yes,” the casting director replied, “too bad we can’t use him.” I just stared at her with a blank look on my face. Then the director spoke.

“Right,” he agreed. And they set about calling in the next auditioner. I had to stop them.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “but wasn’t that guy amazing? I mean he was easily the best actor we’ve seen, right, or am I crazy?”

“Oh no, you’re right,” chimed in the director, “and that’s just the problem. He’s too good. He skews my movie.”

I continued to stare.

“Look,” he explained, “he’s so interesting to the audience that they are going to want to know more about him and I can’t pay that off. I don’t have enough of his character’s story to tell. By having him in this part I am making the audience a promise that I can’t keep. He’s not the lead and I need to keep the audience focused on the lead. An actor like that unbalances my story.” I sat stunned and tried to process this way of thinking.

“He just lost this part,” I asked, “because he’s too good?”

“Essentially,” he replied, “that’s the case.”

As we proceeded to move on and see more actors it was not lost on me that I did not seem to have this problem. I guess he needed “efficient neutrality.”

As much as I understood this, I nevertheless yearned to be Ted and decided then and there to believe that whenever I lost a role it was because I was just “too good.”

In writing this book I learned and relearned more than I thought possible. As the saying goes, “Acting is enough for a lifetime, but a lifetime is not enough for acting.”

My own definition of the actor’s role was both challenged and validated over and over again and through this vigorous engagement I found my passion and excitement for this mysterious, wondrous and astonishing art renewed. It is my hope that in reading it, the same will happen for you and that if and when you lose a part it is because you are simply, “Too good.”