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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Why don't you just act, dear boy?

This is the phrase that Laurence Olivier supposedly uttered to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man after the latter ran around the block to appear appropriately out of breath for an upcoming scene. Whether this is a true story or not, it depicts the difference between two major schools of acting thought.
One is that what appears before an audience must appear real, and the other is that it must, for all intents and purposes, be real.
A recent performance in Germany in which a group of actors decided to use real vodka in place of water for a play about a drunken binge ended in disaster.
You may recall the recent story of the actor in Aspen who accidentally stabbed himself on stage with a real knife.
My friend and fellow blogger, Jennifer Zukowski (who is also an author, professor, and ninja) has an entire section in her book, Stage Combat (linked below; You're welcome, Jenn), about the many dangers inherent in performing a real slap on stage.
When I see an actor perform a drunk scene very well on stage, I am thoroughly impressed. If I were to find out later that said actor had actually been drunk, I would definitely feel a bit cheated.
That's how I felt when I found out that Jamie Foxx had worn contacts in Ray that actually made him blind for up to fourteen hours a day on set. I'm not saying it wasn't still a great performance. It just wasn't a great performance of a sighted performer acting blind. (See John Malkovich in Places in the Heart or Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman.)
Generally, I'm not a big fan of having able-bodied actors perform disabled roles if there are plenty of equally capable disabled performers available. (I'm talking to you, "Glee.")
However, if it must be done then I'd rather see the employment of acting chops over cheap tricks.
Most importantly, what if Mr. Foxx, who had only a few days' or weeks' experience getting used to being blind (and he got to see again at the end of the day, remember) had taken a dangerous spill on set? What if he suffered an injury that kept him from working for weeks, or worse. All in the name of "keeping it real?"
That's not acting, that's exhibitionism or "stunt acting" in my opinion. and don't get me started on actors who insist upon doing even the most dangerous of their own stunts. That's a blog for another day. I will say this: if whether or not someone else's having a job the next day depends upon your ability to jump from a helicopter onto the back of a moving truck, use the stunt man - i.e. someone whose potential injury isn't going to shut down production for six weeks. Enough about that for now.
The article about the German actors/ "rocket scientists" who thought getting drunk for real was a good idea reminded me of the time that I was in a show with a couple of fencing scenes, and one night my fencing partner showed up with liquor on his breath lamenting that his girlfriend had dumped him for someone else. Later in the show, I apparently began to resemble this "someone else" and I found myself actually fending off an unchoreographed attack. I won, but let's just say that the "disarming" of my opponent wasn't pleasant for him.
The "magic" of theatre is that we present a seemingly uncontrolled sequence of events in a highly-controlled way. That bears repeating:
The "magic" of theatre is that we present a seemingly uncontrolled sequence of events in a highly-controlled way.
I am known for being meticulous in controlling any physical contact between actors onstage, whether it's staged combat or a romantic kiss. I'm not opposed to some physical improvisation within certain parameters, but I have found that about seven times out of ten, when an actor says during rehearsal that he or she was "okay with" an unrehearsed bit of contact from another actor onstage, the director (often me) gets a call at home later that night from the same actor with "a few concerns."
I've been accidentally punched, purposely slapped, thrown into furniture, kicked, stepped on, and more in shows where directors did not take an active interest in creating a safe, controlled environment on stage or where actors decided to play fast and loose with choreography or were overcome with zeal during a staged fight.
I've covered quite the gamut of circumstances in this blog entry, but I think it can be distilled down to one key idea:
When in doubt, just act.

Oh, almost forgot. Jenn's book. It's part of my library. I recommend making it part of yours.


Jenn said...

I've had folks in class even, that get so spooked by what they're doing b/c they've forgotten they're acting.

Thanks for the plug! :)

Anonymous said...

And don't get me started on using real knives and guns onstage. It's call acting...ACT like it's a real weapon! Oy!

Anonymous said...

Yea, I'm sure Lord of the Rings would've been great if they had "acted" like they had real weapons, but instead used plastic....

Brady Darnell said...

Anonymous #2: They didn't use real weapons in Lord of the Rings. If they had, 80% of the cast would have been unable to lift them, for one, and, for another, body parts would have been lopped of "for real" left and right just trying to get to places before each shot.
LOTR, like most movie sets, utilized very realistic-looking (no, not plastic) but safe (i.e. lighter and blunter or, in some cases, softer) replicas of real weapons.
They simply ACTED like they were heavier and sharper and harder than they truly were. And it apparently worked.
You certainly thought they were real.

Jenn said...

What is a "real" weapon? When I first began studying stage combat, we practiced outside on campus. Bozos would come by and ask if the swords were "real." Of course they're real, they're not imaginary. What they are not is sharpened, pointed. But they're made like a real sword. They're just a good deal less deadly. The thin is, we *wield* them differently too, which is the real difference.

And the LOTR folks had stunt doubles, which doesn't happen onstage.

Brady Darnell said...

True, Jenn. I guess I use the "zombie rule" when classifying a weapon as real or not. If it will help you fend off a zombie attack, it's real. If it's just going to make them angry, it's not. ;)

Ekwoman said...

I posted the "Anonymous #1" comment about real knives and guns (didn't have my login info handy)...

I have seen many plays where they use real guns, not modified for onstage use. As a gun owner, it's drilled into my head that the first rule of gun safety is to treat every gun as if it's loaded. I think that's about as stupid as you can get in theater. And real (or shall I say functional) knives being wielded and put to other actors' throats is just asking for trouble. As an actor, I think I would have to protest having another actor lunging at me with a knife, if not modified for my safety and theirs.

As to Anon #2, in the movies you have many more options available to create the illusion of "real." Camera angles, cuts, and movement easily allow swapping of more deadly weapons for ones that are less so.

Jenn-I like your analysis: real weapons, less deadly. And holding them to give the appearance of weight, heft, etc. I hear from theaters that use unmodified guns that stage guns don't weigh the same and would appear "fake"...but I say many people in the audience wouldn't notice or know what a gun weighs...and as an actor, you should make me believe it's a real functioning weapon.

Maybe it's a macho thing? Or look how cool I am? I'll never understand.

Jenn said...

@Brady: on stage, you can't have the stuntperson do it, so that's also a different story. That Aspen actor (as idiotic as the situation was) erred more in ignorance than ego. Any film actor who does her own stunts (or blindness) either should be trained, or should drop the ego and have the stunt professional do it. The issue is with live theatre, when people dont' know the options, or think they can't afford them.
I'm fight coordinator for Twelfth Night at Metro, and you bet I'm not charging anyone a dime. There are ways.

@Ekwoman: exactly. Act it! I had an actor ina show I was in reject a slap technique I had taught them (under direction of the director) because he claimed it didn't "feel authentic." He decided to have a real slap administered. I was like, "try acting the slap, and maybe practicing it until it looks real." I still feel as though if you can't act it, then maybe you need more training, and you defnitely need more rehearsal. It should never be real. It's called "art" = "artifice" after all.