A SIMPLE SECRET

I mentioned earlier that I had wanted to understand how some actors could draw an audience into their performance while other actors couldn’t—no matter how well they knew their lines and stage blocking, or how much emotion they expressed. I not only went to movies and plays, but acted in productions, wrote one act plays, and even directed a series of training videos for a large corporation. 

To be honest, these experiences didn’t give me a clue with respect to what I was after. Then three seemingly unrelated incidents led me to an answer.  An answer, not only to what makes acting work, but also an answer to what makes writing work.    The first incident happened when I was producing a radio commercial in which a friend of mine had one of the three roles.  I was discussing the music “bed” with a sound engineer when Jacob, who was on the other side of the room, began talking.  I turned to respond to him, then stopped.  He was rehearsing his part, he wasn’t addressing me.  The surprising thing was that the script to which I was about to respond was one I had written.  It was then that I realized he had a power the other performers lacked (they too were reviewing their lines out loud) and that this power wasn’t dependent on the meaning of what was spoken. Jacob had studied acting here and in Europe, yet he was at a loss as to explain his secret.           

A second incident happened in a creative writing course.  It was the first evening of class and no one knew anyone else.  Usually I would have each person in the circle introduce himself or herself in turn.  People might say why they had taken the class or tell about their writing interests.  This night I had a mischievous impulse.  I thought: How often are we thrown into a group where no one knows anything at all about the other person?  Here’s an opportunity to try an experiment.               

What I want you to do,” I said to the group,” has three different elements.  Part A is to tell the class something about yourself.  Part B is for you to describe an interesting person.  And, Part C is to talk about an incident that happened to you.  Here’s the catch: two of these three elements should be factual, one should be made up.”      People felt like they do at a gathering when the host traps them into a party game.  But, no one thought they had a choice, so I continued.               

“After we’ve completed this, we’ll focus our attention on each person in-turn and ask the rest of the class to say what they remember from what that individual said…what was memorable.  Then, we’ll guess what was true and what was not true.”                 

It was wonderful.  People told fascinating stories and painted vivid portraits. I knew enough to go first and start with the made-up part, before I had revealed anything about myself or people had become familiar with my natural manner.  I talked about hitting a deer with a truck one dark night (which is not unusual here in Wisconsin).  It had happened to my fiancee who had described it to me and to neighbors in great detail.  I repeated the story exactly, except that I said it happened to me. Another man described his favorite camping spot.  A woman told about an enjoyable trip to Scotland, and another traveler described her unexpected meeting with a cousin while she and her husband were on a cruise.  We were all good storytellers.               

Then we discussed what we had heard, and an amazing thing happened.  The class members were involved in this exercise by now and didn’t want to bother with what might or might not be memorable. They wanted to judge the factual from the fictional.  And here is what was surprising.  To the person, we guessed what was untrue.  The man’s camping spot, for example, was not one location, but a synthesis of many different locations.  The woman had gone on a cruise with her husband and did have a cousin whom she met unexpectedly, but not on the cruise.  It was incredible.  It made an honest person of me on the spot!  The trouble was that this was a short story class, and it was clear no one wanted to talk about the details of presentations, no matter how “memorable,” unless they were factual.  Did that mean you could only write about what you had personally experienced?  I hoped not, but at the time I was at a loss as how else to interpret this.              

In the weeks that followed class discussion would return to the exercise to try and find its meaning.  It was a year later, from the third incident, that I came to understand that the lack of credibility came, not from what was said, but from something that was missing in each of these made-up accounts.              

 This third experience occurred in an acting class I was taking one summer with my daughter.  Let me describe the dynamics of the situation.  Two people were called to the front of the class and sat facing each other.  Both were to read from a printed sheet of dialogue the instructor gave them.  The subject of the script didn’t matter much.  It was reasons casting directors gave aspiring actors about why the actors didn’t get parts they were auditioning for and the types of answers actors gave casting directors in reply.                   

The instruction was for one person to portray the casting director and the other person the aspiring actor.  Each could only read the exact words on the paper; feelings had to be expressed through tone of voice, gestures, facial expressions and pauses.  We were all “up” for this; we knew how to project anger, pity, arrogance, sarcasm—after all this was an acting class. But, the challenge of the exercise was that each person playing the part of the actor had to first acknowledge the feelings the other person playing the casting director was expressing.  And, the way someone did this was to first listen and observe, then imitate that feeling in one’s own manner of verbal expression and body language.  If the casting director was abrupt in rejecting an actor in the first couple of sentences, the actor had to be abrupt and dismissive when reciting the lines in response. Once the person playing the actor had done this, then that person could change the tone by expressing some new feeling.   But first the man or woman playing the actor had to replicate the attitude being expressed by the person playing the casting director.   It was hard.  The normal inclination (especially in front of a group) is to be thinking of what you are going to say, not to be observing and interpreting the mood of the speaker.               

As observers we would wonder why our classmates were so bad–until we were called to take one or the other of the roles.  We were comfortable delivering lines; we were not practiced in receiving and responding to them.  For me in the audience—and for others in the class I talked with later–what got us involved as we watched this exercise were not actions of the principle character, but those of the person responding to that character.  The secondary character drew us into the scene through his or her reactions.  We were identifying with this “surrogate” because we were analyzing the situation along with him or her, trying to figure out for ourselves what was being expressed by the casting director, and how we (if we were the one in front of the group) might respond to it.                 

Let me go back to my friend in the recording studio.  Jacob came from a theater background.  I now think, he wanted to rehearse to an audience, not to a blank wall as the others were doing.  He chose me as that audience.  And how did he get my participation?  The same way a good salesperson gets a prospect’s attention–by mimicking the prospect’s body language, imitating the prospect’s tone of voice or mood…basically saying, through attitude, I want it.                 

The members of my creative writing class knew the facts of the stories they were telling.  No problem there.  What they didn’t know was their reaction to the incidents because the incidents had not happened to them this way. They were unable to fake it. They unconsciously communicated a lack of real emotional response, and that deficiency undermined their credibility with us, their audience.  The key was not in what was said or done, but in their lacking the appropriate reaction to it. What ties Jacob’s performance and the creative writing class introductions and this acting exercise together?  The simple secret of acting and writing success.

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