“Just to fuckin’ write.”
As Lester Bangs (played by the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman) said in Almost Famous: “I used to do speed. You know, and sometimes a little cough syrup. I’d stay up all night, just writin’ and writin’. I mean, like 25 pages of dribble. You know, about The Faces or Coltrane. You know, just to fuckin’ write.”
I can relate. Not about the cough syrup. I’ve always been decidedly square and I'm at peace with that. But about the writing. When I write, it’s like dipping a ladle into a deep well. And the more I write the deeper I can reach, to bring up the good stuff that runs deep like Stillwater (see what I did there?).
I think that’s where the magic lies in art. In exploration.
I’ve spent many hours watching recordings of other actors. Breaking down their scenes and mimicking them. Their movements and expressions and cadences. My personal favorite was during the pandemic watching Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the creature in National Theatre’s 2011 production of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle. Which ALSO had a fantastic version where he and Jonny Lee Miller switch roles with Miller as the creature and Cumberbatch as the doctor . It's pretty cool, check it out!
It’s truly breathtaking to watch a master, which Cumberbatch is on the stage. There’s a wholeness to a masterful performance. A complete immersion. Like how children play. Most immersion is very good but is still missing something, some unnamable element that I think has to do with the ego and an unwillingness to release the self completely. To me, a truly excellent performance gives me tunnel vision: All I see is what’s happening in front of me. Like when I get sucked into a writing project. I resurface for air and dimly realize time has somehow passed.
On the flip side of that, a full embrace of technique can be magnificent. The documentary Sing, Dance, Act: Kabuki featuring Toma Ikuta is a gorgeous example of this. Kabuki (a classical Japanese style of theater originating in the early 17th century, for you non-history nerds) is highly stylized, with specific expressions and movements, where even just walking into a scene takes ages of practice to get it just right. It takes years to train at this specialized form of storytelling where every tiny movement must be perfectly executed to just the right order or it pulls the viewer right out. It’s a sort of mechanical immersion, a very different plan of attack from the raw, instinctive style I’m accustomed to. There' s something poetic about taking a thing and breaking it down to the smallest, most basic elements. Refining them. Crafting them together again in a pure form. Japanese culture does this a lot, with the language, the food. Everything lovely is a ceremony. Focused. Built upon experience and skills and technique to make it look seamless and simple when it’s anything but. Japan is full of artisans.
Many masters of art do this. It’s so very, beautifully human.
I think the way to really embrace this immersion in one’s own life and art is to find pleasure in the world around them. In the small things, the elements and atoms. In repetition and refinement. In movement and the poetry of time. To step out of oneself and focus so wholly on something else–whether in watching or in doing–that the rest of the world falls away. That’s why I started this blog. To get myself more into the habit of stepping back and viewing and cogitating. I’m reminded of a lovely French novel I’ve reread several times that does just that.
This is the (artist’s) way. Keep it real.
Reverse Engineering Sorrow
Being able to cry real tears on command is cool as fuck.
Even before I started acting in earnest I admired when actors were able to cry real tears. I tried for years to be able to do it too, but the best I could do was to aaaalmost reach tear-stage and then a yawn would force its way out of my face, ruining the moment. It was so frustrating. It happened every time, no matter how into the role I was, no matter how I was feeling in my real life up to that moment. Y a w n. And then the moment was gone and I had to start all over.
There are loads of ways to approach acting in a soul-stirring way. Raw immersion. Technique out the wazoo. But there is one popular technique that I do not believe in: The Method. Method acting, to the non-theater nerds amongst us, refers to two different schools of thought: the Stanislavski Method of Acting and the Strasberg Method of Acting.
Stanislavski (1863-1938) was a Russian actor who laid a foundation based on principles such as “The Magic If”, a technique I like where one thinks about how they would react in the character’s shoes. It’s a little limiting bc using it could potentially lead to expression based upon narrow lived experiences or strong personalities. In my experience, instructors sometimes like to say, while teaching this principle, “That’s not how the character should react.” Well, maybe not to you. Stanislavski also had the “Given Circumstances” principle, which is basically referring to any material you can mine from the script–the settings, the actions, the lines, the words between the lines, the things unsaid and choked back emotion (I love those best of all). Also brilliant and immensely helpful, especially in voice acting when there’s sometimes so little information given you practically have to chisel the script down to a nub to find something useful (or you just make it up instead!).
Strasberg (1901-1982) was a Ukrainian-born American director who made his own Method inspired by Stanislavski’s. The Strasberg Method is best known for being the version where an actor is told to associate the character’s emotions with their own lived experiences in order to draw a realistic performance from real-life personal history.
When I talk about the Method–when most people talk about the Method–this is the one they mean. I don’t like this version of Method acting. A lot of actors employ this version. Daniel Day-Lewis and Jared Leto spring to mind, and there are loads others. Whatever works for them, I say. Whatever gets them to the moment in a way they need.
But I still don’t like it.
My reasoning is because, more often than not, directors are all too willing and able to get an actor to a dark, emotionally precarious place but getting the actor back out of the pit safely? Nah. The actor is on their own. Granted, experienced actors may be able to do this just fine. Some of them seem to revel in staying in character over long stretches of time. But not everyone can. Or, frankly, should. Sometimes trauma is touched upon, all for the sake of one performance? There’s something gross about exploiting the inner sanctum of an actor’s sanity just for an enactment.
But how the hell is someone supposed to cry real tears if they aren’t actually hurting? A simple, not-so simple answer (and one I like best) is physiological acting. I learned how to do this from Stephane Cornicard, using what he calls the “Seesaw Method”, which is a way to explore emotions physically instead of, well, emotionally. I remember when I first learned it from him he said something like, “If you get really good at this I promise you’ll be able to cry real tears.”
A group of us began the exercise and even though I didn’t tear up that day, I remembered the lesson. It was so, so, so, SO much easier to bring forth an “emotional” response when I remembered what my body was doing at the times I felt those real emotions. I’ve worked at this technique ever since and it’s now very easy to elicit an apparently emotional response with just a little inward focus.
When interviewed for The Last of Us, Bella Ramsey mentioned using something called a “tear stick” to make the tears come. I had never heard of such a thing! I looked it up immediately: A tear stick is basically vaporub in tube form, swiped under the eyes to make them tear up. According to Ramsey, the tears brought on by the tear stick help her evoke true emotion by putting herself through the physicality of crying first. This is the same principle as what I have been working on, but with an external tool and working backwards–reverse engineering sorrow–instead of it coming strictly from the inside.
I wonder what other acting tools are out there that I don’t know about.
Recently I was in a play where my character broke down emotionally. The script didn’t call for it, but it felt right to do in the moment. I was able to dig deep into the physiology of the character. I silently wailed. I choked. And I cried real tears. I had people come up to me after every show, often with tears in their own eyes, telling me how moving I had been.
Talk about an ego boost!
Curiously (at least to me) despite having no actual emotion attached, crying tears and feeling the physical heaviness of deep sorrow was just as exhausting as if I had been wailing in earnest. When I remarked on this to others, the response was often “Yeah, you were crying, of course you’re tired” BUT I WASN’T ACTUALLY CRYING Y’ALL that’s the POINT.
It’s fascinating that so much of what we feel emotionally actually has to do with how our bodies feel. It makes sense. The brain is just a squishy lump of electrical pulses and precariously balanced chemicals. How often do we feel like shit because we’re hungry, when just having a snack and re-regulating the brain by taking care of the stomach first makes everything better? How brilliant is it that someone figured out how to harness what is already there, to work smarter and not harder, to do what is an intrinsically challenging task.
It’s so obvious, but only when it’s been pointed out.
How do you perceive time? Apparently, depending on your personality, you might perceive time in such a way as to be chronically early… or late.
For as long as I can recall, my perception of time has been wonky. I feel it pass significantly slower than it really does for the first hour or two after I wake up, regardless of how well I slept. The more tired I am the slower I perceive it–unless I rocket past general fatigue to being ultra tired, which makes it so there’s no time buffer at all for me. Annoyingly, that’s when I’m at my cleverest.
I should say that I’m very likely ADD as fuck, or possibly on the spectrum (undiagnosed, but I’ve all the symptoms and then some). Whatever I have, I’m definitely not neurotypical. I’ve had conversations with friends who are for sure neurodivergent about how I feel like I speak a different kind of English and the consensus is Me too. It’s an English that many people understand but, also, not really. A kind of Pidgin. I’ve had so many conversations with neurotypical people where even though I think I’m being very clear it occurs to me mid-conversation that the other person is hearing me say something else entirely. Their understanding of what I say is unintended. Or they perhaps stop listening part-way and extrapolate the rest (often incorrectly (oh, the importance of listening!)). They misinterpret what I say, think less of me or my intelligence as a result, and I stand there staring at them like, Are you kidding me? Again? I should also say that more often than not when that happens the other person is a dude, but I digress.
Earlier in the pandemic, a very good friend of mine and I were having a conversation with two other very good friends. She said something seemingly unrelated to the topic and our other two friends sort of sat back, clearly flummoxed, and said, “What are you talking about??” But I smiled at her. “I get it. A, therefore B, therefore C, therefore D, ergo E. Lightning quick,” I said, drawing a jagged line of lightning in the air as I went.
She smiled at me, like, Yes, exactly. “See?” she said. “She gets it!”
That friend has ADD.
This lightning thing is something that happens to me too. I was recently in a VO accountability meeting where someone else asked a question about a possible avenue we had considered as a group. I remember, at the time, thinking about it, seeing if someone was going to say something, but realizing no one was responding, so I piped up.
That meeting was recorded. I watched it the next day to review and it turns out there was maybe a second between the question being posited and my response. I was surprised. I could have sworn at least a couple of seconds had passed, but that wasn’t the case. I was reminded of another time when I was in a class for pcap (that’s “performance capture" for you non-VO nerds) taught by Tom Keegan as I played opposite Ian Russel. Tom asked Ian to think about his character’s motive and what would be the opposite of it and to play it that way as an exercise. I asked if Tom wanted to know mine too and he said “Why not” but I blanked because I hadn’t actually thought of what my opposite would be. The character, as I was playing her, wanted her father to come with her off of a sinking ship. “I’m approaching this as ‘Come with me, I don’t want you to die, I love you’,” I said. I thought about it for a long moment. “Well, I suppose the opposite of that would be ‘Fuck you, go ahead and die, I knew you never loved me.’” Tom stared at me, said that wasn’t the direction he was thinking but it was a profound one and to go that way instead. I joked at the end of class how it took me a long time to come up with that. “A long time?” he repeated with a smile. “It took you fifteen seconds to figure that out. I think your perception of time is wrong.”
This isn’t to brag, by the way, it’s merely an observation. How much more of my life is like that? Or for other neurodivergent folks? How many of us are walking around with wonky brain clocks, processing at super-speed to the point that we’re basically time-traveling without realizing? I think that makes it all the more important for actors to be comfortable with watching or listening to themselves. To get an idea of how they're really coming off, in real-time.
When I worked in the restaurant, I got very good at timing things by instinct. I haven’t been in an industrial kitchen in years but that’s still a quirk in my brain. If I set a timer I’ll almost always return to it seconds before it’s about to go off. A useful skill in VO! Except for that weird time stretch in my brain thing, which makes it challenging to slow down.
I think I am slowing down! But I’m not.
It’s not nerves, it’s not stage fright, or a lack of confidence. It’s the way my brain processes things. So it kills me a little inside when people tell me I just need to be more confident. It took me a long time to become confidence incarnate. If you know me in person, or even in passing, you know what I’m talking about. I don’t let my fear rule me. I don’t lack confidence. I take confidence in my morning coffee with about a gallon of milk. My brain is wired differently, is all.
Va the Vo
Actor, Vocal Pro, and Writer Extraordinaire!