“Method acting” was very exciting to actors and observers. It seemed mysterious but everyone felt it. Quite simply, it was the “touching off” (to use the phrase often used by Alvina Krause, acting coach) of empathy by using sense memories of your own to “make it real” to you and transmit that to an observer. We do it all the time, but not on purpose. It is an ability evidently supported by specialized cells in the prefrontal cerebral cortex in the area behind the forehead and is mostly sight-related, part of the phenomenon of “The Gaze.” If you have been close to someone with damage to these cells (most often because of trauma), you will have felt their coldness, their distance, their out-of-sync-ness. The lack of empathy and thus community can lead to criminal behavior.
II. VISUAL SENSE
Some people go through life seeing. Some are blind (like Tiresias) but see. In a class this size (20 people, say) 2 or 3 people see clearly. The rest see only generalities. Can you see color keenly? Can you go downtown and match a color from memory? Do you know how much yellow or blue is present in a given shade of red? Can you remember an exact color hours later? Ten years? Can you remember color, form, mass, background, perspective of a scene? Should not be a memory exercise, but an effort to experience color, to make a particular grey, say, a part of your total experience. Some people touch colors to make them more completely their own than before.
Store up color as a total organic response. “Now I’m in a play. I want to tell you about a man I know. Oh, yes! He wore very decorative sweaters . . . I looked into space and saw the sweater again before I spoke.” (This would be a visual image.) Watch a person today so that you really see him -- maybe start with just his hands. Store up your observations, because you can’t experience everything yourself. You must known how to look outside yourself for materials to use in acting.
Watch two people study a painting. What does each see, how does each sit, how does each study a picture? Find a dominant characteristic in each person, in each act, in each object you study to which you can later add others. You fix this dominant trait in your memory and recall it when you run across a character in a play who is like the person.
Side comment: Concentration on the right thing is a great secret of acting. Losing the sense of the great hole of the proscenium and the fact that the audience is looking at you results from concentration. With such awarenesses there are tensions which should not be there and which cause you to use muscles you don’t need, to overwork. When one of the people really looked at the picture, when the total body looking at it, we felt an ease. Hence, an attitude of “I’m going to make this scene go” can, in acting, lead to bad tensions.
Side comment: Always have a purpose for being onstage. audience should always be able to sense why you are there, should be able to believe that there is no audience of which you are too keenly aware, that what you do is inevitable, that what you are doing has a motivation.
Our organic, physical bodies follow our thoughts. Speaking the playwright’s lines is nothing if they don’t come from a whole chain of inner thoughts and responses. . . Try the device of turning an actual object onstage (a patch of light on the floor, say) into something in an imaginary situation you want to create; let it be a beginning stimulus:imagine other sights, sounds, smells and respond to them. Whatever is or is not onstage, actors have to see the things their characters would see and respond to them as their characters would; he may have to create the stimuli out of nothing. The stimuli and the responses can’t be faked -- otherwise the body will not respond to what the senses and the mind and the emotions do. Responses happen first inside us, then travel outward in various manifestations. Real drama occurs inside people. Onstage with another actor, play into his eyes, respond to what you see in his eyes. . . Make a first entrance of some character in some play: respond to those things in the environment that the particular character would -- and in that character’s manner; create the visual world around the character even though you are on a bare stage. Avoid “remembered responses” -- they must be fresh adjustments to current stimuli; you can act “only in the present” . . . Don’t skip the little initial moment of decision, of uncertainty, before doing something; the little moment of decision is always the dramatic thing, not the big crisis; the little things take you to the big moments. . .
Goal of early exercises: to create a stimulus with your imagination and then give us the response to it -- which, often, is what we call emotion. Always start with something specific: give a specific response to a specific stimulus, not generalized responses to generalized things like “night” and “desert’ and “aloneness”. . . The best actor is the one who asks the right questions to start with -- (of where he is supposed to be, of who he is, of why he is there, of what he wants, of what may happen, of what could happen, of what stimuli might be present, of what his conditioning would cause him to do by way of response, etc.) Say: IFIFIF I were running in sand, what would it feel like?” (To touch off imagination.) “Is it still warm from the sun, or cold? Gritty? Soft? Slippery? Wet? Dry? Am I barefoot?” (If senses are responding, the body picks up the responses and telegraphs them to observers. A spectator sees the decisions a mind in a body is making . . . When you begin right, it will be easy . . .
Another device: vocalize what you see; let someone ask you specific questions about colors, sizes, dimensions, textures, etc. of what you see to help you further crystallize, concretize images that are to be stimuli . . . One must be able to keep responses coming, flowing from one to another. . . Not everyone must feel the same, behave the same; our conditioning and the circumstances of the moment cause each of us to respond to stimuli in our own ways . . . everyone needs to find ways to “get themselves going” when responses to stimuli are needed. . . Do not try to create too much for people out front in first “scenes” (first class exercises) and take plenty of time.
To further test your ability to see, recall, observe, Observe smoking habits of people in general and then of one person in particular; not yourself. Observe someone else in the same situation who does not smoke to see what behavior they substitute for smoking. See if you can reproduce those actions without smoking actually. Let us hope you continue this type of observation and recreating of it forever.
In responding to imaginary stimuli, it isn’t necessary to stare and stare, or to stop and think. Just look at an object you imagine as being there and see it.
Side activity: Walk around edge of stage. First thing to be a walk: get your balance, so that you aren’t bent over; body should be erect with head up.
A smoking exercise: Performer and audience should be able to answer the question: why does this person smoke? AK notes that the smoker’s focus was really on a letter she was reading; much of cigarette was being allowed to burn away; cigarette and holder were just part of hand, accustomed to be there. Another question to ask: what character in drama might smoke this way? Women look for someone who smokes like Hedda Gabler; someone like Candida who doesn’t smoke but does other things in place of it. Men look for smokers like Stanley Kowalski or Biff from Salesman. This is the beginning of characterization, which must start with observation, or else you end up with something false which people won’t recognize as being true. When you observe people, always get at the why of behavior. They take refuge in objects -- use them to reveal or conceal.
Why does Hedda smoke? Sadie Thompson? They’re not types. Look for specific people. Kowalski’s no type, even if Brando tried to make him one. In Kowalski’s case you’re looking for someone with strong animal responses; stalking a prey, peacock-like, etc. Stanley erotic? What’s left for Blanche? Dramatists never put two similar people together in a play.