The first acting tip I ever got was “get the thought right, and it will come out right”. This was from a director in my first job. Which actually wasn’t half bad for a raw kid of eleven on BBC radio.
Years later, I had the good fortune to be working with the legendary actor Luther Adler, in a production of A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE. He modestly said that on Wednesdays between the matinee and the evening performance he would teach us some of his acting tricks. The first occasion we were busy removing our make-up, when we heard a roar from the stage of “WHERE ARE YOU?”. And so we all rushed headlong to the stage to hear his words.
It quickly became apparent that a Method Actor he was not. He spoke of his years of practicing stage-craft, and how to apply it. A couple of things has always stuck in my memory.
He said that the actor was not like others, whom he called “Private People”. “As you stand in the wings waiting to make your entrance, just remember that a private person has too great a leap between being off-stage and on, and so it is important to live your own lives in a very big way.”
He spoke of learning lines, something with which I always had great difficulty. To me, being used to reading off a radio script, I pictorialized everything as print on a page, a kind of photographic memory, with an ASA of about 6.
He said, when you get a script and know you are hired, first thing you do is re-type all of your words, leaving out all your cues and all punctuation. Then learn the lot like meaningless symbols on a computer tape, and rattle it off until there are no mistakes. Only then will your brain be entirely free of line readings, the dictates of the author, and the demands of the director. You will be a CREATOR, and not simply an INTERPRETER, or second-guesser, and can hold your head up high.
The Empty Suitcase test
Harold Clurman was a friend and neighbor of mine at “The Osborne” (one of Manhattan’s most venerable of historic buildings that stands across from Carnegie Hall) and he wrote a book he named “Lies Like Truth”, which described its contents exactly.
But what are lies and what are truths?
If I see a play or a movie, and I see an actor picking up a suitcase which is obviously empty when it is established that it is packed, then I know that I should not trust anything else I see take place. I think it was a production of a Neil Simon play I saw, perhaps “Chapter Two”.
Of course, the truth can be a matter of opinion. But a suitcase is a good place to start.
The Fourth Wall
I get upset about this.
It’s about the wall that separates the audience from the actors, whether in a theatre or in a movie house, or at home watching TV.
I believe it is sacred, a sacred trust that should be upheld by the actor, always, no exceptions.
I’m a member of the Magic Castle in Hollywood, and when I see the magic that is performed there, whether close-up, or in their main hall, I am always enthralled, and I NEVER want to see how it is done (unless, of course, I have an interest in becoming a magician, which I don’t.)
In the same vein, actors are trying to bring an audience into their magic world of imagination, and the audience does not want see the process that brings this about, no matter what they say.
It was W. Somerset Maugham who said “It is dangerous to let the public behind the scenes. They are easily disillusioned and then they are angry with you, for it was the illusion they loved.”
Oh sure, there are exceptions, done purely for effect, like a painting where the image spills out beyond the frame. A.R. Gurney, the writer of Love Letters, wrote a wonderful play which explored the territory of the Fourth Wall with that same title. The actors playing in a drawing room would turn to the audience and speak to them.
I was in a play once, where at the end of the final act the villain was supposed to produce a gun and fire it and he, simply, forgot to get it off the prop table before his entrance. On stage, he put his hand menacingly in his pocket and found it was empty. So what did he do? He turned to the audience, and blurted helplessly, as himself now, “I’ve forgot my fucking gun.”
Of course the audience roared, and I’m quite sure went home with only that memory of the play. The lesson here is that he stepped out of character and became himself, so the audience was allowed to understand and share what had happened, and it became part of the entertainment.
But I cannot forgive the actors who consent to being interviewed IN COSTUME on camera, acceding to the demands of the movie marketing people. Have they no self respect?
Today’s audiences are being brought closer and closer to the realization that acting is all malarkey anyway, and hey, anybody could do it if you aren’t shy and enjoy showing off.
Witness the reality shows that are so popular today. It won’t be long before the public refuses to enter the fantasy world of the actor, it will just be impossible for them to suspend their disbelief.
Which brings me to another aspect of audience sensibilities.
Does the audience have boundaries?
Did you know that in Shakespeare’s day, a stagehand or actor would cross the stage with a sign saying something like “Forest of Arden”. The audience had no problem with this, and happily saw the forest, because they were asked to, and joined in the pretense. Even if a costume was not quite right, it would be forgiven.
But a ham actor, asking for similar forgiveness for his lack of talent, will be jeered off the stage. Actually he will probably not even know he is that bad. There’s a story of the actor doing Hamlet very poorly, and of the audience starting to throw vegetables at him, and he goes down to the footlights, and shouts back “I didn’t write this garbage!!”
So, always stay in character, and refuse to participate in any activity which breaches that trust. Do it if only for your own personal integrity.
And by all means do interviews in your street clothes.
Do Something Else
No, I don’t mean with your career choice. I mean that when playing a scene, especially an emotional scene, its very intensity can turn the players and the audience off if you do it directly and that’s all you’re doing.
Giving a class one time, and auditing a scene, I was presented with a situational plot where a husband’s outburst at his wife, leading to a divorce, was taking place, and it just wasn’t working because it was “over the top”. I tried to have the actor playing the husband do the dishes at the sink while his outburst took place, and still he wanted to yell and it didn’t work.
He needed to concentrate on something else, not on his speech to his wife. Spotting somebody’s bicycle in a corner, I had him ride it as slowly as he could around the little stage while speaking, which took all of his attention. And the low key result was the most moving scene of the evening, and my student was delighted.
The Unity of Opposites
This is a concept that actors understand. When something’s not working, do the exact opposite and you will often find it works with the same force and the effect that you intended in the first place.
And it’s centered in common sense, when you think about it.
An example is playing a drunk. One gets awfully bored seeing the “drunk” flopping about the set, trying to make us believe how drunk he is. But check real life. Is a drunk trying to do that? Or is he trying to be sober? Of course he is. So using one’s training to achieve that state of drunkenness (sense memory, emotion memory?), then try hard to play sober.
Another example is playing a death scene. One cannot forget Olivier as Richard III meeting his end. Is he playing death? No, he is playing life, thrashing around on the ground, trying up until his last second on earth to kill his enemies with his sword.
Actors should first learn this piece with the familiarity most of us have for the Lord’s Prayer or our National Anthem, that is, without thinking of the meaning. And learn it with and without punctuation. Print it out. And never forget it, and often exercise alone with it.
In our classes, we would have the students then perform the piece using other situations quite remote from Shakespeare’s intention for Hamlet.
I remember one student, dressed in army uniform, imagining he was in the midst of a battlefield in France during the first world war, surveying the ruins. Another imagined herself on the telephone explaining to her mother how it felt after her abortion. Another became a lounge singer, costumed in a tux, singing and dancing to the whole piece while holding a tape player blaring thirty’s piano music.
Shakespeare’s Version (iambic pentameter). Be Hamlet, and scan correctly:
To be, or not to be,–that is the question:–
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?–To die,–to sleep,–
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to,–’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die,–to sleep;–
To sleep! perchance to dream:–ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,–
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,–puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought;
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.
One can practice and practice and wind up sounding like Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree in this 1906 recording and history of the play from the British Library.
Your Version.
To access your feelings, ignore the requirements of the verse structure, let the punctuation lay wherever it may, and see what happens:
To be or not to be that is the question whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them to die to sleep no more and by a sleep to say we end the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to ’tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d to die to sleep to sleep perchance to dream aye there’s the rub for in that sleep of death what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause there’s the respect that makes calamity of such long life for who would bear the whips and scorns of time the oppressor’s wrong the proud man’s contumely the pang’s of depised love the law’s delay the insolence of office and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin who would fardels bear to grunt and sweat under a weary life but that the dread of something after death the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of thus conscience does make cowards of us all and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought and enterprises of great pitch and moment with this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.
[An aside to myself: I’m in a courtroom. Play with this.
“The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despis’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin?]

Advice to the Actors
Speaking of Shakespeare, we’re all familiar with Hamlet’s advice to the traveling players. But look at what Karol Wojtyla (aka Pope John Paul II) had to say about the actor’s craft in his poem (translated by and copyright to Jerzy Peterkiewicz). Any serious actor will identify with this problem.
So many grew round me, through me,
from my self, as it were.
I became a channel, unleashing a force
called man.
Did not the others crowding in, distort
the man that I am?
Being each of them, always imperfect,
myself to myself too near,
he who survives in me, can he ever
look at himself without fear?
So what’s stopping you?
So much in acting, as in life, is conceptual. If you get the right concept going, it can boost you into a new orbit.
We usually think about acting training as a means to “learn something new”. But try thinking the opposite. Did you know that all of us, when we are born, can act? We can sing too. How’s that again? Well it’s obvious, there’s no one around to tell us that we can’t.
The trick, then, is to discover what is preventing this natural talent coming to the fore.
Lee Strasberg knew this when he built a series of exercises designed to find relaxation, to find where the blockages are, and to enable feelings and emotion to get out.
If you get there, and we all want that, then acting will be as easy as, well, falling off a bicycle.
Child Actors
Barbara Walters had just finished with “Not For Women Only”, a daily show on NBC, and Lynn was asked to take over, along with co-host Dr. Frank Field. The time came when Frank took a week off, and I was asked to fill in. What an opportunity! We decided to do a whole week on Shakespeare’s “Ages Of Man”, slanted towards the acting profession.
One of the shows was devoted to an exploration of the child actor, familiar territory to me, for I had been one myself.
We invited Lee Strasberg as our guest (I had been his student), surrounded ourselves with the foremost child actors of the day, dressed them in schoolboy clothes along with their satchels (Benjy looked very sweet then), and Lee talked on the subject at great length.
The one statement he made that resonated for me was that a child actor has the misfortune to arrive at adulthood at the point of his success, and tends to stop his development right there. (For “he” read also “her”). Adulthood here means, after all, that he is made to feel that a great responsibility rests upon his shoulders, that adults are depending on him, that people take advantage of him, that he earns lots of money, that his talent is working well, and that some people annoy him, especially his parents or guardians. Here, he thinks, I will stop, there is nothing else.
He pointed out that a similar thing happens to soldiers, we were in the midst of the Viet Nam war then. The soldier is ready to die, and if he doesn’t, he is unprepared for a future.
(And after all these years, I am prepared to admit another. Once you enter into a lawsuit, either as protagonist or defendant, you will find your life will stop right there, until a satisfactory form of “closure” takes place. People will say get on with your life, and if you are true to yourself and aware of the realities, and are not a sociopath, you will be unable to do so.)
The answer, Strasberg was afraid to admit, was probably psychoanalysis.
When I first married Lynn Redgrave, I had no intention of becoming her agent or manager. Actually, a person cannot be an agent unless franchised by the union and getting a license from the state. But, a manager is a different kettle of fish.
I noticed that her agent just wasn’t doing his job. In those days it was London Management, and Lynn had just finished the film SMASHING TIME which included her singing on a soundtrack, and there was a record deal to be made. In England, they didn’t seem to have heard of such a thing, and so I brought in an entertainment lawyer in New York, and he made a deal, a very complicated legal document. And so I found myself dickering with the management of my wife, and learning some ropes.
What helped that along was the fact that I’d decided to cease trying to make money as a photographer, and my last acting job was playing “Fifth Cadet” in a BBC film of Cyrano De Bergerac. In black and white, it aired once, and the story goes a BBC technician pressed the wrong button, and erased the one and only tape! My acting career was for the birds.
It was sometime later, 1972 to be exact, that found Lynn shooting a movie in a very economically depressed Hollywood, called Every Little Crook and Nanny, (she was the Nanny, and Victor Mature was making one of his farewell appearances as the Crook.)
Lynn’s agent then was the very respected Ben Benjamin at what is now ICM, who represented the biggest stars around at that time, such as Burt Lancaster.
At the end of filming, and preparing to return to London, I received a call from Woody Allen’s producer, who lived right behind our hotel. He said he was so disappointed that Lynn was not interested in appearing in Woody’s new film “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask”. I said what on earth are you talking about? He told me that he had a letter from Ben Benjamin where he had turned it down on behalf of Lynn.
I immediately walked over to his place, and looked at the letter, and indeed, that’s what it did say.
I have a policy about people in situations like this. Whenever I see evidence of bad faith, I do not call them to ask questions, because I hate to listen to b/s. Instead I go after the result I want, so I signed a contract there and then for Lynn, because it started shooting in just a few days, and we’d have to cancel our airplane tickets home.
And a few days later I got a letter from Ben. To apologize? No. It was to ask if we’d sign for another 3 years with the agency, as the contract was nearly up. And it was then and there that we figured we’d go forward without one.
And so I switched to directing Lynn in her own work, acting with Lynn, coaching Lynn, doctoring Lynn’s writing, and to managing her and no one else. I tried to bring out the best in her and in what I knew she was capable of.
As her manager, it is worth noting here that spouses can do wonders for a star or a celebrity of any kind. They have the ability to act in the shoes of the spouse, because theirs is not an “arm’s length” relationship. That puts him or her a cut above an outsider. The thing is, you have to know what you are doing. Which means learn, learn, learn, in many cases, as you go.
The downside is, as I found out, you can get dumped for any reason whatsoever, fired not just as the manager, but also as the spouse, and you may become despised by your friends, your family, and your children in addition to the fans, the public and the media, in other words all of your loved ones. And you will be left with these words that will go round and round in your head and come to haunt you.
Download file
And to add salt to the wound, you can almost hear the breath being let out from the hordes of handlers-to-be, waiting in the wings to take over.
And so, what I like to call our “mom and pop” business came to a sudden end. But 32 years isn’t bad.
And to those celebrities who take a leap into a marriage with a tried and true manager with a history, well, hi there, Liza, tends to not last too long, doesn’t it.
Hint hint. An actress looking for real help in her career would do well to look at the ranks of established producers and directors with reputations at least equal to their own. Might even be a sexual turn-on for them.
This doesn’t seem to work the other way around though, that is, a male actor, this being the real world, won’t get that kind of opportunity.