Thursday, February 11, 2010

Any Thing Can Happen—So Be Prepared

I was on the crew of an elaborate “stage show” held in Hawaii by a major corporation. It brought five thousand of the company’s most loyal customers together to receive awards, get a glimpse at new products, and grab lots of give-aways.
It was held in Hawaii. And so, it was only fitting that we would have a fake volcano and surround the stage with a fake lagoon. Hola dancers, singers—the works. The night before the event was scheduled to take place our lagoon broke and water starting pouring into the seats through out the theatre. So part of the crew were dispatched to purchase as much equipment as possible in order to quickly vacuum up all the water. Near the end of that effort I volunteered to crawl under the stage and try to vacuum out the remaining water. I was the one most suited for the job because I happen to be only 5 feet tall and it would be easier for me than for my buddies who were at least of normal stature.
Funny. My mother used to brag to her friends about how I was a big shot producer with my own entourage. I thought it was fitting that I was only the “assistant stage manager”--out of a crew of one hundred--and my job was not in fact glamorous. To complete my assignment, I spend most of my time crawling on my hands and knees in the dark.
Now back to the story. We did not put new water into our so-called “lagoon” because we were afraid it might leak again overnight. We just used staple guns to tack up the extra plastic and cover it with real palm leaves.
The next morning when the curtains rose promptly at 9 AM all went well. The announcements and awards went off with out a hitch. Then it was time for the finale. And a finale of fake fire is what it was.
While the real Hawaiian Don Ho was out in the audience crooning to the spectators, the volcano on stage was spewing lava. However, the lava caught the volcano—made out of Styrofoam--on fire. Very realistic indeed. Fortunately the stunt men each had fire extinguishers in hand and as the assistant stage manager I had tucked extra fire extinguishers under the left and right stage steps. So we had a very spectacular ending to the show and all was finished to satisfaction. The moral of the story: Be prepared and safety first.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

An Imaginary Circumstance

Meisner came up with an idea that creates a reality for an actor. It is referred to as an imaginary circumstance. When a director explains what is going to happen in a scene, the director asks the actor to image something similar that might have happened to the actor.

For instance, the person in the play has committed a transgression of some sort--such as cheating on a test. The actor is asked to think of something similar that happened to them. If it were me, I would think about how I used to cheat at monopoly. It was kind of fun moving all those hotels around the board on every move so I always won! Actually, you should think of something that has bad consequences.

Back to the main idea. Every time the actor in the play has to deliver her line, she remembers that very private and personal event. And, then she will respond with authenticity—because that is how she would surely act when she thinks about the supposed guilt associated with that so-called transgression.

Now about “raising the bar”.

Once in an acting class, the director told me that I should use the following imaginary circumstance: Concentrate on the idea that my father was in prison in Russia and that the authorities told me he would be dead in 24 hours if I did not write my father’s biography in 23 hours. In that scene I was at a typewriter (old-fashion type—pre computers). And I typed my fool head off. Another actor came up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder and believe it or not—I actually hit him in the face!

Now valence is about the consequences that will occur in the imaginary circumstance if you do not perform as needed. If the director had said to me, “Your dad will die in that jail in one year if you do not write his biography in 364 days” I would have messed around and continued to change the phrasing and corrected my spelling errors—with white out. (Pity the poor fools that do not remember doing that. Look it up in Wikipedia.)

Anyhow, this is what the imaginary circumstance is about. It has to be real to you as an actor. And the valence (the level of the bar) has to be exactly right to get the most authentic and “honest” response from any actor.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

It Takes Talent to Make a Video

First of all, it depends what kind of talent you need. “Talent” is a word used in the video biz to refer to actors. They are definitely needed if you need people to memorize dialogue and get it right the first time, and for three continuous takes. You also need actors if you need a particular accent, or there is some very dramatic scene that needs emotion.
About emotion. I prefer actors that were trained in the Meisner school. That is later than the method approach. It provides the director with a performance that is what is referred to as “honest” versus “manneristic” where someone “acts out” what they think they should look like on the screen or stage.
Here is an example. I took an acting class from someone who was trained in the Meisner technique. I was part of a skit where a guy was distressed and sad because someone in his family had died. I walked up to him and gently put my hand on his shoulder. I did not go up and throw my arms around him, or say, “poor you.” After the skit we had the normal critique and boy was I blasted by the other students of the class. They said, no one acts like that when someone dies. The teacher said, “I know Trudy, and that is exactly what she would have done in that circumstance.” If you would start licking their face like a dog and that is what you usually would do, that would be honest on your part. Essentially, there is no right way to respond to the other person in a scene —as long as you respond like you would if that were you. Now there is a lot more to Meisner, such as creating an imaginary circumstance and as a director you set the bar at a certain level to create the right valence, but basically, watch out for people that over act. More about the subtleties in another blog.

Now, here is when you do not need “talent”. If you are shooting a research facility with scientists doing experiments or you are shooting a grocery store with every day customers, you can get by with much cheaper “talent”. I have now probably alienated most of my acting friends that will not get jobs because of what I tell, but they are needed for the word that implies “talent”. If you just need people to walk through a scene or do something they would normally do, you can just hire your friends or neighbors, or better yet—go to a temp agency and hire anyone that you think fits the demographics you need. Hire a few extra people in case somebody walks in that looks so weird they are distracting.
So, to sum up, there are two kinds of talent. Use each kind wisely and you will get a great looking production at a reasonable fee.