Friday, April 20, 2012

Learning Lines and Drawing the Line

(Above: Actor Mark Shea realizes while putting on make-up, "I forgot to learn my lines!")

My actress Maria Romine tells me she's really only learned about Acting since working with me, that the four years she spent at a small private liberal arts college majoring in Acting were a "complete waste of time".

One of the bad bits of learning Maria has had to unlearn since her college days has been the False Dichotomy of "Acting from the Inside" versus "Acting from the Outside".  This came up when Maria and I were doing a "Line Speed" today for one of our shows.  For those of you not in the business, a Speed is when you and your fellow cast members go through your lines as fast as you can, without Acting them, like a robot on 78-RPM.  This makes sure that you not only know the dialogue, but that you know it well, automatically, at speed, under pressure.

But Maria has never been able to do a Speed without Acting her way through it.

I pointed out to Maria that she must not be learning her lines the way I was taught to learn them - neutrally; which is to say, learning the words only without any emphasis or interpretation attached.  When you learn your lines neutrally and when you "over-learn" them, so that they become automatic and can be recited at Speed without thinking, as most of us know the Pledge of Allegiance or our favorite daily prayers, then and only then are you free as an actor to be spontaneous in rehearsal and performance without your Acting becoming contrived or forced.

And if you do this with blocking as well as dialogue, then you have the Form set and can provide the Matter that fills the Form more easily.  Paradoxically, the constraint of strictly adhering to the Form (lines and blocking) allows greater creative freedom and leeway in the Matter (the per-form-ance) that fills it. 

But, oddly, Maria's college instructors seem to have felt that honoring the Form by overlearning it so as to internalize it was working from the "Outside In", which is not as preferable as the Sensitive Actor's way of working, which is from the "Inside Out".  Learning lines neutrally without struggling to Act even in your room while memorizing was, apparently, "technique".  It seems anything that was not emotional was "technique", and was frowned upon as Acting from the Outside-In.

And yet all Acting - even sensitive emotional Inside-Out "Method" Acting - is largely technique. 

I am reminded of a young man I once tutored.  He loved music and wanted to learn to play piano.  But he riled when I introduced the metronome.  Way too much structure for his taste (but so was getting to class on time, for that matter). 

Imagine music without meter - it would not be music.  Acting without scripted dialogue (improv excepted) is not Acting.  A drawing without lines is likewise not a drawing.  It's more like nothing in particular.

There is no "Outside-In" or "Inside-Out", there is no art that is not dependent on technique, or Form.  Now, if art is only technique, only formal, it is lifeless and contrived and leaves us cold.  The Form and the Matter go together; there is no complete reality if one is without the other. 

Seen in this way, all art is Incarnational.

As Chesterton said, "Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere."


Ted Janiszewski said...

Reminds me of something I saw about the 1996 film "The Crucible". Daniel Day-Lewis was getting into his part, which for him meant studying the history of New England and spending time in farmland. One day he happened to come upon his fellow actor Paul Scofield practicing – much to Lewis' shock and surprise – by sounding out the syllables for euphony.

Kevin O'Brien said...

And there's the story of Dustin Hoffman staying awake for two or three days in a row so he could play a scene in "Marathon Man" where he had to be exausted, and Laurence Olivier said to him, "My boy, why don't you try acting??"