Sunday, June 25, 2006

What Can Fiction Writers Learn from Acting Classes?

I aim to find out. I'm going into a research phase on my novel-in-progress, and since my protag is an aspiring actor, I have a lot to learn about how actors relate to each other.

Someone gave me a good tip: acting classes often allow cheap auditing or free trials, so actors can shop for a new teacher. Who says writers can't audit too? So I did my first audit Friday night, at HB Studio in NYC, known for its founders Uta Hagen and Herbert Berghof. I went hoping to take in a scene study class, but since enrollment was low, I ended up in an acting/directing class instead. Whatever, I went with the flow.

The class, taught by Alexey Burago, was focused on keeping the direction of a scene as close to the play itself as possible. The students were using short stories, all Chekhov, I believe, and turning them into acted scenes. Since I missed at least one class meeting, I'm interpolating a lot of info, but my guess is that their charge was to do all of their research/homework inside the text. In other words, not to project or imagine motives that are not explicitly evident in the text itself. Imagination can be good, but it can also lead one away from the literature.

This is harder to do than it sounds. A literal, surface read of any text is not enough to create an interesting dynamic between players. The actors and director must dissect the impulses of the characters from moment to moment, without following unrelated tangents.

One group did a scene where there was an unspoken sexual subtext between two characters. Burago had an interesting take on it: sure, they have sex. Maybe yesterday. Maybe tomorrow. But not in this scene. So what impulse right now is driving the actions of the people? Why is this moment different from other moments? Though it is a little formulaic, it's also a damn good question to ask of any scene in literature. Why now? Why not tomorrow? Why not yesterday?

Another of his comments made me chuckle to myself: writers always instruct each other to show, not tell. But Burago instructed a student: "Don't show it! Live through it." This must be a common theme in the craft of acting; I noticed the same idea came up in the film In America, which happened to be on TV last night. (Great film, by the way, but that's another topic.) I imagine "showing" in this context means a certain awareness of audience, the practice of assembling signs of an emotion or impulse, rather than feeling it and manifesting the involuntary signs of the impulse. So, the actor's version of "telling" is called "showing." It feels a little bit like derivative calculus: maybe living is alpha, showing is beta, telling is gamma? Let's hope I can keep the lexicon straight.

Anyway, I'll be back to acting school. I hope I can remain on the sidelines, observing and notetaking. I have no aspirations to participate, and my great fear is that I will be required to. I don't need the distraction of my own insecurity...



Blogger GeeNetZie said...

Cool exercise. I would recommend a teacher who teaches Misner technique at some point. It's an intriguing method. (that was the technique of the acting class I took last fall in LA that I enjoyed). It's not for everyone but definitely something to experience.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Virginia said...

I love this:

"the practice of assembling signs of an emotion or impulse, rather than feeling it and manifesting the involuntary signs of the impulse. So, the actor's version of "telling" is called "showing."

In poker, your betraying expression is called your "tell."

11:31 PM  
Blogger Anne said...

geenet: Yeah, I can't find an auditable class (yet) that does Meisner technique, but I did look at some videos of Sandy in action. He was good. Fascinating too, to watch how much patience the students had with his speech problem. They were clearly honored to be in the room with him.

Virginia: I hadn't thought of that kind of "tell." Which brings it full circle, no? If you "tell" at the poker table (while "living") you are closer to emotional "truth" (we'll dissect that later)...

9:33 AM  

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