Very occasionally throughout my career I have taken small roles to attempt to stay in touch with the task of acting, and found it utterly confounding and deeply, deeply difficult to relax into.
As a man with scoliosis, I know body tension. If I even mention a certain stressful teacher I had in high school and then reach for a high shelf, blam, there’s an icepick in my back. When I teach or direct actors, I can often see with the naked eye that there are imbalances in tension all over their bodies. It’s as if the transverse muscle, in the pit of the gut, is where all the emotion comes from and it’s got to get past three check points on its way out: the stomach, the shoulders and the jaw. And if an actor is clenching one of those (like I do) for reasons beyond his control or awareness, perhaps in a very understandable attempt to remain civilized and control the emotions trying to blast their way out of him, you can bet he’s got an energy leak somewhere else, like blinking too much, or shifting his weight, or over-endowing props. Which then leads to unwanted, undirected energy belying his performance.
On the witnessing side, as human beings, and as audience members, there are a million languages of the face we don’t realize we already speak. When an actor blinks too much, or blinks not in a way that the character would blink given his dialogue, something bugs us, and we decide we don’t believe them. When an actor acts like he’s listening, rather than truly picturing the imagery of what is being said to him, we see his face tense into handsome listening face, and we stop rooting for him. And finally, given that (I believe) we think in images, not words, if an actor has not connected deeply with the images within his own dialogue, and is not using his tongue as a paintbrush to paint these images onto the mind-canvas of the listener, we hydroplane along with him, over his moments, unaffected.
To combat this, I have devised, over the years, the above handy-dandy diagram of the human body while acting. A treacherous landscape of tension-moguls forming and releasing. Blocking the path of the emotional truth as it emerges from its home in the pit of the gut, where our weakest muscles are, that are only deployed when we cry. Beginning with the imagination, and working counter-clockwise, I will attempt to double-click on the human body, that it might be deployed in its entirety to our artistic ends.
Okay, if you’re playing the Prince of Denmark, and your uncle killed your father and married your mother, how in the hell are you supposed to play that believably. You aren’t a prince. You live in a country where there’s never been such a thing as a royal family (apart from the Kennedy’s) so culturally you’re at a loss, you’re not Danish, and even if you were, Hamlet was written from the British perspective of the Danish, i.e. that they are barbarians, 400 years ago. (Not the black-sock-with-running-shoes-good-taste-in-furniture-scooter-riding image we know and love of our exchange student Gregers today.)
So an actor has three choices… (a) substitution, a la Lee Strassberg Method-y stuff, (well, I did witness my dog get run over so I’ll flash on that when I’m really mad at Gertrude for marrying Claudius); (b) just focus on making your scene partner feel something, a la Atlantic Theater, Uta Hagen, emotions are by-products, how are you trying to make them feel?, or (c) use your imagination to invent memories for Hamlet, endow the loss of your father with ad hoc imagery of the good times (if there are indeed such things for royal families). This is the Warner Loughlin, Michael Chekhov-style of igniting the imagination to create vivid raw material with which to break your own heart, as necessary. Or, some combination of all three may work.
It is my personal, perhaps controversial opinion that there is no way in hell you’d be able to come up with a substitution effective enough to equal the magnitude of what poor Hamlet is going through. And even if you’ve led a charmed life and the most traumatic thing ever to happen on your suburban cul-de-sac was Fido’s flattening, which, proportionally, should theoretically be enough, it ultimately limits the emotional scope of the performance to the trials you, as a comfortable American, have endured. So the imagination for the actors is blocked by autobiography. On the other hand, you have a human heart, capable of infinite feeling of loss, sorrow and rage, and if you deploy it into the gauntlet of imagined loss, i.e. vivid imagery that can pluck your heart strings when faced with the task of letting your mother know you know, then the possibilities for your performance are endless…
Your eyes can see a candle at 14 miles away. There are 2 million working parts in each one. They are the only part of the body that work at 100% of their capacity, 100% of the time. The muscles around your eyes are 100 times stronger than necessary for their intended purpose of tugging the iris around. Why all that extra braun? To convey meaning.
And oddly, the part of the eye we focus on, when we make eye contact with another person, is the only part that isn’t there: the pupil. The hole. And as we look at that hole, we subconsciously take in endless amounts of delicate data from the musculature around the eyes, that inform us of the inner life of the other.
Science has shown that when we look at another person, we look in their right eye when we need information about what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling. Dogs do this too. But only when they look at humans, not when they look at other dogs. There’s just tons of data streaming off of this area of our heads, even dogs pick up on it. 70% of our brain connections are devoted to facial recognition and a lot of that processing happens subconsciously. There are, I think, therefore, several languages of the face, and of interaction we don’t realize we already speak.
Walter Murch was editing The Conversation with Gene Hackman on a Moviola machine and was using his typical technique of playing the shots in real time and seeing if he instinctively wanted to cut them on the same frame through multiple attempts. Doing this on Hackman’s coverage, he found he would often hit the stop button exactly when Gene Hackman blinked. This lead him to study the science behind blinking wherein he realized that we don’t blink merely to moisten our eyeballs (or topballs as we called them in Wellfleet). We blink to edit our thoughts.
So if you’re an actor trying to seem authentic, you have to concentrate really hard on the thoughts the character thinks. Because if you are thinking: “Christ what’s the next line;” “I’m blanking;” “the director’s a tool;” or “I’m a tool,” then chances are, you’re blinking a lot. Chances are you’re blinking after each of these little thoughts. And chances are, you look frantic. And unpresent.
The problem is, as I mentioned above, we all speak the language of blinking and don’t know it. They count blinks during presidential debates, and generally the person who blinked less is considered the winner, because they are widely perceived to be more trustworthy.
If there is a discrepancy between the speed at which a character must be thinking, and the frequency of their blinks, the audience, without knowing why, will not buy your performance.
As an actor, you must blink in sync with your thinking. If you watch tremendous performances closely, you begin to realize how rarely anyone blinks, particularly in feature films where you eye might be ten feet wide on the screen. And if, in life, you begin listening to people without blinking during conversations, they will suddenly feel deeply understood.
Shakespeare wrote at a time when two languages, two versions of English, Latinate and Anglo-Saxon, were smashing together. Latinate words were a vestige of Roman occupation: polysyllabic, fancy, multiple meanings, centuries old. And then there was Anglo-Saxon, the pidgin words of the serfs: shoe, bucket, fish, fuck, shit. Onomatopoeia. Words that sounded like what they were, and were invented daily, ad hoc.
Although fuck may have been an acronym for “For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge” (a criminal charge) and shit may also have been an acronym, for “Store High in Transit” (because sewage had a tendency to explode below decks, sinking ships). But the point is, there was a low language and a high language. The nobility had only recently stopped speaking French as it was, and Shakespeare cherry picked from both. Sometimes embedding low jokes in high speeches, so the balcony fops would have no idea what the groundlings were laughing at.
A modern example of this smashing together would be if you described something as “fucking exquisite.”
The tongue is the strongest muscle in the human body. And it’s the only one attached at only one end. Back then at the turn of the 17th century, as we were making the switch to secular humanism from the divine right of kings (thank God (so to speak)), your English speaking tongue would have been like a paint brush, and its very position in your mouth would hold meaning. We have lost, for instance, thee and thou. But they were our familiar form of you, like tú in Spanish. And our tongues would come all the way out toward the listener. So familiar. Lost.
When we listen, we listen for the nouns. When we speak, we leap from image to image in our sentences, as we form them, and our tongues leap from noun to noun. We do this naturally. We paint an image on the canvas of the listener’s brain. But when we speaking words written for us, and attempting to make them sound extemporaneous, it rarely happens naturally, because we are suddenly trying to remember our lines, and thus thinking in words, rather than images.
The following is the most beautiful sentence in the English language (in my opinion). From a short story by George Saunders.
“Soon I’m daubing her eyes with tissue while she weeps at the beauty of the fishermen bowing from their little boats, as they realize it’s the prince himself trying to retrieve her corsage from the river.” — from Offloading for Mrs. Schwarz by George Saunders.
The images are gorgeous.
“Soon I’m daubing her eyes with tissue while she weeps at the beauty of the fishermen bowing from their little boats, as they realize it’s the prince himself trying to retrieve her corsage from the river.”
And we who speak English are at a disadvantage. We put the adjectives before the noun, unlike Spanish and French. Little boats. You know how the speaker feels about the noun before you know what the noun is. You are at the mercy of the opinion of the speaker about the images he is igniting in your head. It’s not fair.
So it’s our job to, as Peter Francis James says, make the chicken kiev. Make the chicken kiev. Endow the noun with the quality of the adjective. Make the boats sound little. Make the bowing fishermen sound beautiful.
Watch your nouns splat on the inner slideshow of the listener. Watch as they tend only to blink (see above) after the image in their mind is complete.
Lick the nouns like lollypop heads. Paint images with the paintbrush that is your tongue. Endow the image words as they come out of your mouth.
And the world will hang on every word that comes out of your mouth.
Part two coming soon. PDF of the above chart here.