Monday, May 27, 2013

Learn How to Laugh

When the winds are blowing.
That's the time to smile.
Learn how to laugh.
Learn how to love.
Learn how to live.
That's my style. *

Last weekend I saw a woman fall flat on her face as she entered the stage. It was clearly not on purpose (I know the play and the actors). Without skipping a beat, she picked herself up and carried on. Whatever was going on, it worked. She looked scared, flustered, frustrated but all as the character. One of the greatest pieces of advice I received from Austin Pendleton is to make your problem as an actor the character's problem. I have used that advice over and over again. And this actress did exactly that. On leaving the theatre, many people were discussing the fall and the consensus was that it was part of the play and that it was brilliant!

I believe in making mistakes. It seems trite to say that mistakes are how we learn. Of course we learn from mistakes, but there is more to it than that in acting. We know our lines and we know what is going to happen and what the other actors are going to say. But the trick is to keep that fresh. In real life we don't know what the other person is going to say or what we are going to say. And we want to be real in our acting. One of my favourite lines in “Friends” is when Phoebe acts as Joey's agent and gives him the honest feedback from his auditions: “They didn't believe you as a real human being”. We can critique acting with all sorts of fancy ideas and analysis, but the bottom line is that we want to see real people, real life. We want to feel something. And if the actors are not believable as real human beings, no matter how skilled they are, it will not work.

When the rent is owing,
What's the use of tears?
I'd rather laugh.
I'd rather love.
I'd rather live
In arrears. *

The whole special skill of being able to cry on cue is something I have never mastered. I do not wish to take away from the actors who can. Many directors ask for it. But I can't. And I would argue that it is not always what shows the truth. There is no right or wrong reaction. When my grandpa died, my mother came into the kitchen to tell us and my sister burst out laughing. As actors and as human beings, we should not be afraid of that. Of letting the natural reactions move in on us. Hearing the words and saying them for the first time. Otherwise, we are just robots saying lines. Anyone can learn lines. (Well, most people can.) We must be wary of saying “I always behave in this way when such and such happens.” There is no always. Every time is different and if we are not open to that, the acting becomes fake and stagnant. We cannot plan or predict our reactions in life so why should we on stage or on screen. Being able to cry on cue is a gift, but it does not magically mean good acting. Austin Pendleton (oh dear, I've mentioned him twice in this blog and I'm worried he'll get a big head!) often tells wonderful stories and one quotation that sticks with me he attributes to one of his acting teachers, Bobby Lewis:
If crying were acting, my Aunt Rivka would be Duse”

Click on photo above to play the outtake clip

I have recently been working more and more on film and learning so many new things. But the reality is that the training is essentially the same. Focus on an objective and on the other person. And be willing to make mistakes! So often I see it (and have been guilty of it myself): trying to cry. As if that will be an impressive place. The reality is that trying not to cry is much more effective and true. The wonderful Heidi Marshall, another favourite teacher of mine, worked with me on this. So many times I have been in her class or chatting to her and she'll say something wonderful and I say “Oh, Austin says that too.” And vice versa. They both teach about what is real. And they both make me laugh. They've been known to make me cry too. But whatever the reaction is, it is real. If we are not taking in what the other actor is giving us, what are we doing? And that can never be the same. Nor should it be. Working with Heidi, I embraced my mistakes. It gives one a sense of freedom and being open and ready for anything. I make mistakes all the time. Sometimes I cry, but more often than not I laugh. And I'm learning all the while.

* "Live, Laugh, Love" from "Follies". Stephen Sondheim.

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