How to act better: a survey of five manuals exposes the deeper mysteries of acting--and those who preach its precepts

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Author: John Istel
Date: Jan. 2008
From: American Theatre(Vol. 25, Issue 1)
Publisher: Theatre Communications Group
Document Type: Book review
Length: 2,231 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1160L

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By Anne Johnston-Brown, Smith and Kraus, Lyme, N.H. 144 pp, $14.95 paper.


By Ron Marasco, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago. 224 pp, $24.95 cloth.


By Ronald Rand and Luigi Scorcia, with a foreword by J. Michael Miller. Allworth Press, New York. 288 pp, $19.95 paper.


By Konstantin Stanislavsky, a new translation by Jean Benedetti.

Routledge, New York and London. 736 pp, $35 cloth.


By John Wright, with a foreword by Toby Jones. Limelight Editions, New York. 334 pp, $19.95 paper.

Really bad, bad acting seems to be all the rage. You could say it's the fault of experimentalists like Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson who, 40-odd years ago, eschewed the Stanislavsky-based and Strasberg-trained actors striving to be real, and produced work featuring untrained, everyday civilians as performers. Other avant-garde troupes joined the anti-acting camp. In the 1980s, Squat Theater's downtown Manhattan storefront stage with its infamous plate glass window as a back wall turned sidewalk strollers into gawking participants.

Although playwright and director Richard Maxwell continues the downtown tradition, casting amateurs in his emotionally real dramas, "non-actors" have hit the mainstream. Now, reality TV shows from "The Real World" to "I Love New York" and "Laguna Beach" feature nice people behaving badly--or is it vice versa? Security cameras, video-snapping cell phones and MySpace have turned us all into amateur actors at the click of a button.

At least performers like Flavor Flav don't need to spend any money on any acting books.

Baaaad acting has always been easy to spot. Back in the day, those were the actors with tomato-stained costumes. The more challenging contemporary question is this: What is great acting? Is there any? Is there even a definition that more than a cast of two can agree on? Or is great acting like pornography according to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: We know it when we see it?

That question has haunted me for years. I wondered about it in my twenties as a struggling, somewhat awestruck actor in Uta Hagen's class, trying to discern the significance of her epigrammatic responses to scene work. She'd offer mini-monologues of advice and pointers and admonitions between puffs of incessant cigarettes. Why was that scene so great, I wondered, that those actors don't have to work on it anymore while she gruffly skewers another tandem, making them enter and re-enter and start the scene again and again? What was she looking for? It seemed so subjective to me.

Such questions weren't often raised at H.B. Studio, where starry-eyed sycophants signed up hours early to present scenes. I also couldn't fathom how some actor friends got constant work while others who seemed so much more talented struggled. After a year or so at this revered house of worship, I dropped out of the weird religion of acting altogether. Although I knew for a flat fact I wasn't a great actor, I still couldn't tell you how to discern one.

Nevertheless, I was bewitched by the question. It haunted me as I began to write about the theatre as an arts journalist and critic. One day I would read reviews in which colleagues tripped over themselves in print to coin new encomiums to some grand diva-dusted performance that I found brittle, artificial, utterly devoid of any greatness. At other times, the roles would be reversed, and I'd be searching the thesaurus to illustrate the luminosity of a performance by, say, Ellen Lauren for Anne Bogart's SITI Company and I'd see colleagues look at me with a concern usually saved for those in need of emergency room care.

I remember being stunned by the physicality and raw emotion of a John Malkovich performance in the mid-1980s and TCG's longtime executive director Peter Zeisler looked at me with utter disgust. "He was awful," he mumbled. "All tricks. All show."

UNLIKE BALLET DANCERS OR OPERA singers, actors don't have a lot of technical criteria to judge even an adequate performance. Unless the role calls for an accent, a limp, playing the opposite sex or some other visible sign of virtuosity, good acting technique is hard to put your finger on. No wonder non-theatre people wander backstage and invariably ask their actor-relatives about the one obvious, visible skill acting almost always requires: "How did you remember all those lines?"

None of the acting books under consideration here deal with that simple chore. In fact, none address the new media today, where the question of great acting grows more complex. What plays well on a You Tube clip viewed on an iPhone is very different from what will read from the back of the Dorothy Chandler or the Vivian Beaumont. How do actors make art out of this situation? Can they just "speak the speech ... trippingly on the tongue"?

Acting books invariably fall into two categories: how-to books for beginners with easy-to-digest dictums and practical pointers that aim for the simplicity of Hamlet's advice to the players. Then there are diaries or journals filled with a lifetime of jottings and observations of rehearsals, workshops and performances, tempered by musings about how a budding actor can put these notes to practical use. In the former category fall those books that have proved invaluable for their practical advice to the players: Uta Hagen's Respect for Acting must be in its 98th printing; another is Michael Shurtleff's Audition.

Now there's perhaps a new member of this small circle: John Wright's Why Is That So Funny? As its subtitle suggests, it's a "practical exploration of physical comedy" with dozens of games and exercises to help actors develop comic chops. The British director, who founded Trestle Theatre Company and Told by an Idiot and who has worked with such ensembles as Complicite, offers an intelligent and serious examination of what it takes to be funny. I'd predict it will be pulled from any actor's shelf more often than Viola Spolin's classic Improvisation for the Theater.

Any book that has a subheading "The Mistaken Fart" can't help but rewrite the acting lexicon. In this case, Wright relates an anecdote about a play he directed in which a character is dying in a hospital bed when the nurse pulls a rubber sheet from under her naked butt, creating a perfect farting sound. His point is that laughter engenders empathy. Comedy, in all its guises, is too often poo-poohed (pun intended) in "serious" theatre. Another section, "The Gentle Art of Idiocy," shows Wright at his most astute as he offers observations and games to elicit three different forms of clowning: the simple clown, the pathetic clown and the tragic clown.

At the very least, it's a dose of cold water in the face of the usual acting-book piety. Wright's form is not unlike that utilized in the twin bibles of acting books, Stanislavsky's An Actor Prepares and Building a Character, which have been recently re-translated into a single tome (under the title An Actor's Work) by Jean Benedetti, the eminent British professor for whom resuscitating the Russian director's theories and writings has become a lifelong project. Certainly, no one has penned anything as comprehensive as the system that Stanislavsky set forth at the end of his life. Benedetti doesn't change many of the essential terms. "Given circumstances," "emotion memory" and "subtext" remain the same. The "through line of action" becomes the somewhat awkward "throughaction," and superobjective is rendered as "supertask." In some ways, Benedetti's "supertask" is a thankless one. Even if his translations are more accurate, many of the original locutions have become as engrained as the King James version of the Lord's Prayer.

But do American actors actually read this bible? It might elevate the art tremendously if they did. My suspicion is that acting teachers read it more than actors, and then like storefront preachers they set up shop offering competing interpretations, some more fundamental than others. As the current director of the Studio-School of the Moscow Art Theatre, Anatoly Smeliansky, in an after word to Benedetti's translation, quotes Stanislavsky: "What does it mean, writing a book about the system? It does not mean writing down something that is already cut and dried. The system lives in me, but it has no form." By putting the primacy of the teaching in the personhood of the pedagogue, not the text--and, of course, by being brilliantly comprehensive and serious about the art of acting--Stanislavsky gave birth to an industry of acting coaching.

FIFTY OF THESE ACTING-TEACHER off spring--Michael Howard calls himself and his colleagues Stanislavsky's great-great grandchildren--are interviewed in Acting Teachers of America, a book of rather formulaic interviews with acting pedagogues. Author Ronald Rand's concept initially seems sound. (Luigi Scorcia's photos, unfortunately, attempt to catch the teachers in action and, not being an actor himself, he focused on their hands. Oops! The result is that every acting teacher is captured "sawing the air" and "indicating"--bad acting that would have appalled poor Hamlet.) In the tradition of oral histories like Actors on Acting or The Playwright's Voice, Rand wanted to take aim at the ineffable transaction between acting guru and student by letting the participants--both teacher and pupil--talk about their craft and their debt of influence.

Unfortunately, there's no rationale or clear point of view for the project. Rand, inexplicitly, suggests he was inspired by his own studies with two scions of 20th-century theatre, Stella Adler and Harold Clurman, and wanted to record what he feels is a "vital tradition." The problem is the cookie-cutter questions. All participants are asked, "Who has been most influential in how you teach?" for example. That doesn't allow for depth: John Strasberg's answer? "My father (Lee Strasberg) and myself."

Asking Anne Bogart or Zelda Fichandler or Marian Seldes the same questions as William Esper or Terry Schreiber denies their individuality, to a degree. Nevertheless, there are plenty of interesting tidbits to keep one paging through. Who would have thought Karen Allen decided to become an actor after an epiphany during a performance of Grotowski's Acropolis? She was so moved she began studying with leading man Ryszard Cieslak. That Allen's conversion experience took place in a church symbolizes the often-reverent tone in which these acting teachers talk about forebears or influences. The inability to actually define great acting invites a sort of weary mysticism.

Few books make the connection between religion and the Rialto as clear as Anne Johnston-Brown's The Ten Commandments of Theater: The Gospel According to Stanislavski for Young Actors. It's the equivalent of a missal or prayer book for youngsters, boiling down K.S.'s decades of work and theory into a slim volume of commandments such as "Thou Shalt Really Listen Onstage" and "Thou Shalt Concentrate within Thy Circle of Attention." The Christian overtones are not accidental; the author spends much of her time directing church choirs. For the budding teen revivalist in your extended family, it's the perfect Easter present.

Come to think of it, Johnston-Brown may be dismayed to find that Benedetti changed the Hapgood translation of one important Stanislavsky term: "Communion"--the act of being in touch with another person or object on stage--is now the secular "communication." Nevertheless, Stanislavsky would probably agree with actor and director Ron Marasco's caveat, early in his book Notes to an Actor: "Acting is such a mysterious art. It can't be learned in a nice, neat, logical, step-by-step way--like computer programming or chess or fencing or even singing. You learn to act as you learn to live or love: through experience, by trial and error, by succeeding and failing."

MARASCO, MORE THAN MOST, UNDERstands the limits of putting advice to the players in the pages of a textbook. The title Notes to an Actor refers to the process by which a director offers feedback after a rehearsal or performance. Marasco passes along his notes in the form of numbered lists in such chapters as "Talent," "Rehearsal," "Performance," "Comedy" and "Shakespeare." The most intriguing chapter is "Greatness," in which Marasco attempts to define what elevates a good actor to the next level.

Aha! I've found my answer, I thought, as I eagerly skipped ahead for these notes. But (no surprise) there weren't a lot of specific criteria: Half the 14 dictums Marasco compiles for this chapter are opaque, enigmatic negatives that make Jesus Christ's parables seem as crystalline as the Ten Commandments: "Don't sentimentalize" or "Don't shy away from the beauty of the carvings" are two examples--not quite a set of criteria to offer voters for the best-acting Oscars or Tonys.

In Acting Teachers of America, Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., and former head of Juilliard's acting program, chooses Laura Linney as his pupil to be interviewed. She says, "I wanted to learn ... how to demystify it all, I guess. I have this fantastic diary that I kept while I was at Juilliard, which is filled with notes and observations and comments. I lug it around with me everywhere and still refer to it. Great teaching is timeless." My advice to Linney might be to keep that notebook handy--it could be a best-seller in a few years.

John Istel teaches English at New Design in New York City and writes frequently about the arts.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A174071555